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Old Feb 20th 2016, 3:29 am   #1
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Default An eight day tour around Myanmar

Myanmar was until quite recently closed to most travellers and has only recently started to open up to the mass tourist market. The country has seen little development in several decades and still offers a view onto a rapidly vanishing way of life in addition to spectacular temples and pagodas in incomprehensible numbers. For these reasons a visit to Myanmar can be both extremely pleasurable and a frustration. This is a review of a recent tour around Myanmar which is split into a ‘how to do it’ report and separate reports on three areas that we visited.

Getting to Myanmar is relatively straightforward, many national carriers offer flights to Yangon and some also include Mandalay and Naypyitaw (the new capital). Travelling around Myanmar can be it bit trickier. The road conditions make travel by car or coach an unattractive option and the trains are extremely slow. The only real alternative is flying but internet travel search engines do not have access to the schedules of the domestic carriers. There are several domestic operators with fleets of between 2 and 10 aircraft to choose from. We used Golden Myanmar Airlines and Mann Yadanarpon Airlines but a full list can be found here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_o...nes_of_Myanmar. The airline websites can be used for planning your itinerary but they are very unreliable when trying to book a flight through them. I strongly suggest that you use a local Myanmar travel agent to book your flights. We used Proniti Travel Pro Niti Travel - see Myanmar like you've never seen before! who were very efficient and helpful. Local travel agents make little or no commission on booking flights and will try to make their profit by upselling hotels and tours to you. The flights operate a bit like buses and one of the most popular circuits is Yangon -> Nyaung-U (Bagan) -> Mandalay -> Yangon. It is common when landing at one of these destinations to hear the captain announce that passengers for the next stop should remain on the plane.

As far as hotel accommodation is concerned the laws of supply and demand operate in Myanmar and you will find that hotels of every rating charge more than you would expect to pay in other countries around S.E. Asia. Build quality is also an issue so prepare yourself for these little inconveniences and do not let them spoil your stay. As stated earlier, tour companies make their money by upselling hotels and you will be able to book your accommodation much cheaper by using a company such as Agoda. For each of the areas we visited I will include recommendations for the best areas to look for accommodation.

Food and drink is readily available from street stalls to upmarket restaurants and is generally much cheaper than elsewhere in Asia. The local beer is Myanmar Beer which has much more flavour than Tiger and ranges in price from 1800 kyats in a local bar to 4000 kyats in a hotel for a large bottle. Where 1000 kyats is equivalent to RM3.4 or 81 cents US.

Airport taxis and tours can be booked by your local travel agent but again this is where they make their money and you can do much better negotiating with local tour operators and taxis. This is because the travel agent charges per passenger where the locals only charge for the vehicle and driver. In a group of four we paid 3 to 4 times as much for a tour organised by Proniti compared to local hires that we negotiated.

So now you can get to Myanmar, travel around and eat. The only challenge remaining is paying for things and this is where a bit of upfront planning can save you money. I call the Myanmar practice ‘The Great Exchange Rate Robbery’. At the time of our visit the exchange rate was 1230 kyat to $US1. You will be advised that the tourist currency is the $US and this is the currency that your tour operator, hotels and airlines require payment in. But once you get your feet on the ground the situation varies from location to location and is a real scam. A hotel restaurant charged in $US and when asked how much it would cost if we paid in local currency the exchange rate had become 1600 kyat to the dollar. Elsewhere, when asking how much our coffees would cost if we paid in US dollars for the locally priced drinks the rate shrank to 900 kyat to the dollar. The most blatant example of this was a coffee shop in a Yangon shopping mall which displayed its prices in local currency but only allowed tourists to pay in dollars, again at a very unfavourable rate. Needless to say, when you pay for something in dollars, let’s say the cost is $12 and you only have a $20 bill the change will come back in local currency again at a poor rate of exchange.

The strategy here is to carry around a wad of money in each currency and to pay with whichever is the most favourable. Money changers throughout Myanmar offered an exchange rate of 1200 kyat to the dollar for $100 and $50 bills and 1000 kyats to the dollar for smaller bills. So take some large bills for changing into local currency and a range of smaller bills for payment in tourist locations. One warning about the money changers is that they are very fussy about the bills they will accept. They need to be in mint condition. The slightest crease, tear or pen mark and they will be refused. Needless to say these restrictions do not apply when paying for goods and services.

So all in all I would rate Myanmar as a great destination for scenery, history and architecture. You will be able to experience day to day living that has changed very little in decades. It is a very religious country where prayer and meditation are practiced to a greater extent than I have seen elsewhere. All the people we met and spoke to were friendly and helpful and crime is almost unheard of. You just need to be aware of the fact that Myanmar is still learning about tourism and has yet to provide the infrastructure to satisfy the large demand that has been created by being isolated for so long.
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Old Feb 20th 2016, 6:01 am   #2
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Default re: An eight day tour around Myanmar

YANGON

The first thing that hits you as you leave Yangon International Airport is the traffic jams. This is soon replaced by the second thing to hit you, which goes some way to explain the traffic jams, this is the vast amount of construction work that is taking place. Road repairs, new elevated road sections and high rise buildings are everywhere. Then it suddenly hits you. Unlike any other city in S.E. Asia there are no motorcycles. Our taxi driver explained that motorcycles were banned from the city around 7 seven years back. Officially the reason was to save lives from the all too frequent accidents but unofficially he thought it was because motorcycles were used by gangsters (sic) and the final straw was when a motorcycle hitman tried to assassinate a prominent politician by shooting at the politician’s car.

Yangon is actually the largest city in Myanmar and the former capital. The downtown area offers the best options for somewhere to stay as it is much easier to get to and find restaurants, bars and a very busy street market in addition to the large Bogyoke Aung San Market within easy walking distance. It is also an easy walk to the old colonial quarter and Chinatown. We choose to stay on Sule Pagoda Road at the East Hotel. This boutique hotel is ideally situated and has clean and comfortable beds but in rather small rooms. For those who need their luxuries the Sule Shangri-La Yangon is directly opposite the East Hotel with rooms starting from ~$200 per night.

Myanmar beer in the East Hotel cost 4000 kyats for a large bottle. Most restaurants and bars catering for tourists charged 3000 kyats but if you walk down from the East Hotel towards the Sule Pagoda about 100 metres there is a bar/restaurant exhibiting the Myanmar Beer sign where a large bottle can be purchased for 2000 kyats. Carry on down this road to the Sule Pagoda and just beyond is the heart of the colonial town with large buildings and a very pleasant Maha Bandoola Garden garden. Sadly many of the old colonial buildings are not being maintained and I wonder how long they will survive before being consumed by the ever present construction of modern buildings.

At the end of Sule Pagoda Road turn left and a short distance on is the Strand Hotel, possibly Yangon’s finest hotel offering a touch of the old colonial lifestyle.

Alternatively turn right out of the East Hotel and then left at the first junction. Here you will find the Bogyoke Aung San Market a short way down on the opposite side of the street. This is an ideal market for buying all those trinkets and souvenirs that you will want to thrust upon unwilling friends and relatives when you get back home.

The area really comes alive after dark when Anawratha Road turns into a long night market with stalls and restaurants battling for space with the traffic that is still trying to navigate along this wide boulevard. From the East Hotel if you turn right onto Anawratha Road you will eventually come to a small area known as Chinatown. Not much to look at during the day it is much better when lit up at night. Especially so during our visit as it was Chinese New Year. Turning left, after a modest 15 minute walk or short taxi ride you will come across Thai47, an excellent restaurant where a substantial meal for 4 persons with beer costs around 55000 kyats (190 RM). Beware that Burmese do not eat very spicy food and if you want more traditional Thai heat you will need to ask for more spice. They don’t seem to understand ‘chili’ in Yangon but if you ask for Beh-shee you will get raw chilies and raw garlic slices in a fish sauce.

Travelling away from the heart of the city, the must see location in Yangon is the Swedagon Pagoda complex. You will need a taxi to get there from the hotel but they are very cheap and will cost 3-4000 kyats. I suggest you go early in the morning before it gets too hot and the tour buses arrive (temperatures are generally higher than Penang but at least there is very little humidity so it actually feels more comfortable). Your taxi will drop you off at the East entrance (all pagodas in Myanmar have four entrances) where you will need to pay an entrance fee and remove your shoes. A tip here is to put your shoes into a backpack or bag and carry them with you. After you have exhausted looking at the large and impressive buildings and grounds of the Swedagon Pagoda exit by the west gate (retaining your entrance ticket and sticker) as there is a small but very pleasant garden here to look around and relax. Return through the pagoda complex to the east entrance/exit. The complex boasts a Bhodi tree said to have been grown from a cutting of the actual tree where Buddha reached enlightenment. Cross the road where your taxi dropped you off and continue down through the small market to the next street. Turn left and a few hundred meters along on the RHS is a small bar. You will only recognise it by the Myanmar Beer sign. Enter through the curtained entrance into the dimly lit bar. Here a large beer only cost 1800 kyat and we were able to get a light lunch and a large beer for each of us (4) for a total cost of ~20000 kyat. Still hanging onto your entry ticket and sticker get a taxi to another attraction for a few hours and then return to Swedagon Pagoda about 1 hour before sunset for the obligatory photos of the setting sun. After sunset you can get a taxi to Padonmar Restaurant on Kha Yay Pin Street. This upmarket restaurant has seating inside but the best tables are in the delightful setting of their gardens. Inside the restaurant are photos of the many famous people who have eaten here. Despite its opulence this restaurant is still very reasonably priced.

Yangon is an interesting city with history, opulence and decay all to be found in a very small area. The biggest problem in Yangon is the dust that is everywhere thanks to all the construction work. One travel tip is to take some wet wipes with you so that you can clean your feet before putting your shoes back on after visiting any pagodas. Some locations will not allow men in with shorts on, a cool way to get around this is to buy a longyi (the skirt like garment worn by the local men) to slip on as and when required.
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Old Feb 21st 2016, 3:17 am   #3
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BAGAN

Leaving Yangon for the airport the taxi will pass many attractive colonial homes that are still well maintained and lived in. When you get to the airport you will probably get dropped off outside the international terminal unless you specifically ask for the domestic terminal. This is not a problem as geographically they are right next to each other but in all other respects they are poles apart. Whilst the international terminal looks like any other modern airport the domestic on is a large hall with several booths all in a row. Select the booth for the airline that you are booked with and hand them your luggage. There are no food or drink outlets here but there is a nice coffee bar just outside the international terminal. When ready to go through to departures you will find yourself in one large waiting area used by all the flights. You need to watch out for someone holding up a board to notify you that you flight is about to board. Get on the bus to be taken a few yards to your plane.

Coming in to land at Nyaung-U airport you will see that the landscape is divided into an irregular patchwork of ‘fields’ that are delineated by tall palm trees. The land is bare and scorched. Dotted throughout this landscape are the many pagodas and stupas for which Bagan is famous. To the East is a range of hills including Mount Popa and to the West is the Ayeyarwaddy River.

Bagan is divided into three separate areas. Farthest from the Airport is New Bagan. This town was created when the ruling military decided to remove the villagers living in Old Bagan to a new area ostensibly to preserve the historical buildings. New Bagan has many restaurants and hotels but we thought it was too densely populated and bustling so didn’t visit. I can say no more about New Bagan.

Old Bagan is the centre of the ancient capital and is the site of two large temples, the Gawdawpalin and the Thatbyinnu. Here you can also visit an upmarket lacquerware factory and learn about the process. Learning that top quality lacquerware can take months to complete it is easy to see why it is so expensive. Apart from temples and factories there a few upmarket hotels along the riverbank but as nobody lives in the area there are no other options for food and drink so you are a prisoner in your hotel at night.

Nyaung-U is an original old village with a bustling market. It also has a range of hotels and bars/restaurants. It has a very relaxed feel to it and was our choice for finding a hotel. We choose the Zfreeti Hotel which is situated just off the main road and within easy walking distance of bars and restaurants. The main mode of transport here for locals is the motorcycle or walking. None of the side roads are paved, just being dusty dirt tracks. Tourists can hire bicyles, electric bikes, horse and cart or taxis to get around. Beware Bagan only gets rain for about three months of the year and the rest of the time is a dust bowl. The only comfortable mode of transport is a taxi. Nyaung-U also has the very revered Swezigon Para which is said to hold hair and bone relics of the Buddha.

Things to do in Bagan centre around the many temples and Stupas. There used to be in excess of 4000 of these in a relatively small area although time and earthquakes have reduced this number to ~2200. A popular option is to take a hot air balloon ride at dawn to fully experience the scale of Bagan. These take off close by to the Zfreeti Hotel shortly after dawn. Although daytime temperatures in Bagan can be close to 40c, with no large water feature nearby the early morning temperature is pretty cold and you need to wrap up warm. These rides cost $300 per person with balloons holding 12 or 16 passengers. The ride lasts about 1 hour.

After the balloon ride I can recommend a visit to Mount Popa. This trip takes around ¾ of a day and includes stops at a couple of tourist traps selling local produce. Along the way we drove for several kilometres passing mainly elderly, but some young, locals standing by the roadside about 100m apart. They were holding out their hands as if begging but if I understood our guide correctly they want you to take their photograph for a small payment. Given the harsh sun here, the craggy old faces that we passed would be second heaven for any keen portrait photographers. Also along the way you will see people working the land either using hand tools or ox pulled carts. There is little sign of mechanised farming here. The temple at Mount Popa is set on top of a high hill. It is quite a climb up but from the top you get some fantastic views of the surrounding countryside. Watch out for the cheeky monkeys here that will steal anything that they think might contain food. If you hold one hand out and pull the other one back as if firing a catapult they will run away though. For this trip I can thoroughly recommend the services of a very friendly family who run a small shop just opposite the Zfreeti Hotel.

A full day spent admiring the temples will still only afford you a small glimpse of these ancient buildings. Nearly all tours end at Swesandaw Temple for a photo of the sunset over the river but we found this to be far too crowded and opted to follow our guides advice to go to a much lesser known temple at map co-ordinates N 21°9.785' E 94°51.729'.

Departing Bagan via the airport was a surprise. Again the check in area is just a row of stalls. There is not much in the departure hall but we didn’t get time for a look around as we were ushered into the departure ‘lounge’ almost immediately. The reason for this soon became apparent since as soon as the last passenger for our flight came in we were ushered into the bus and we took off 30 minutes ahead of schedule. Since the flight to Mandalay is only 30 minutes this meant that we were landing at Mandalay Airport at exactly the same time that we should have been rushing along the runway at Nyaung-U for take-off. So much for flight schedules!
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Old Feb 21st 2016, 8:14 am   #4
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Default re: An eight day tour around Myanmar

A great write-up, NH. It will be very useful to anyone planning a trip there. I'm not entirely sure, reading through your 3 articles, whether you really enjoyed it - sounds quite gruelling for a holiday?
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Old Feb 21st 2016, 8:21 am   #5
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Thanks IVV,
I will summarise when I get round to writing up Mandalay, but yes it was quite a full package with lots of walking and climbing. Glad to be back in Penang with my feet up but a fascinating destination and Mrs N and I have already decided that we will go back but for a more relaxing stay somewhere out of town.
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Old Feb 23rd 2016, 3:11 am   #6
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MANDALAY

Despite being Myanmar’s third largest city, bustling and frenetic, Mandalay is still manages to hold on to an olde worlde charm which displays a relaxed attitude to life. The airport is some way out of town and despite a new highway built by the Chinese it still takes over an hour to reach the town centre by taxi. More than twice as long as the flight from Bagan! This is in part due to the slow pace of life here. I don’t think our taxi driver exceeded 50 kph on the journey. This was probably a good thing with two herds of goats crossing the road and a group of horses being rounded up by the roadside. In town the traffic was heavy and disorganised with the only way to enter a road from a side junction or to cross the traffic to turn left (they drive on the right hand side of the road) being to push your way through. But as we never got above 40 kph there was little chance of a serious accident.

Most locals get around on motorcycles and these are by far the most common mode of transport. For public transport I did not see any buses. Taxis (as we know them) are probably only affordable by tourists so the locals have two options. The first looks a bit like a Thai songtiew at the back only a bit smaller. It is a covered wagon with two parallel seats running along the sides. This is attached to what can only be described as the front half of a motorcycle with a single cylinder engine of about 250cc. Although there are a few ‘real’ trucks carrying goods from afar, the local trucks consist of covered flatbed attached to what looked like a ride on lawnmower engine. It was not uncommon to see these loaded with several 25kg sacks of rice with passengers sitting on the sacks and even on the roof.

The city is laid out in a grid pattern with east/west running streets numbered 1 to 45 and those running north/south numbered 46 to 90 something. So it is quite hard to get lost. In the centre of Mandalay there is not much to see other than the Mandalay Palace. With that in mind we choose to stay at the Smart Hotel on 28th Street but this turned out not to be the advantage we anticipated. The Palace complex is surrounded by a moat and although there was once four entrances there is now only one in use, at the east gate. Wherever you stay you will need a taxi to get here. The taxi will take you to the gate, where you must get out and buy a ticket. You can buy a pass that gets you entry to all of the important archaeological sites and is valid for 5 days. Your driver will then drive you to the palace. I found this to be rather disappointing in that most of the grounds are occupied by the military and off limits to foreigners. The palace was actually destroyed by Japanese bombing in the war and the buildings are restorations with very little in them. There are far more interesting things to see and do in Mandalay. North of the Palace there is the temple complex on top of Mandalay Hill and also Kuthodaw Pagoda. It is a good idea to visit these on the afternoon of your arrival and then negotiate with a taxi to take you around for the day south of the Palace. Visit Kuthadaw Pagoda first, in addition to a large golden pagoda the grounds contain hundreds of small stupa arranged in rows. Each stupa contains a large marble slab. The slabs are engraved with the entire script from the teachings of Buddha. Visit the temple at the top of Mandalay Hill towards the end of the day for some fine views of the setting sun over Mandalay.

Although I would not recommend the Smart Hotel, try to find an alternative in this area as it is close to Chinatown and a range of other reasonably priced restaurants. I would certainly recommend MinGaLaBar Restaurant which is close by.

For 50000 kyats you can get a taxi to take you on a full day’s tour taking in the southern parts of Mandalay, including the Mahamuni Buddha Temple with its image covered in literally tons of gold leaf, the SoneOoPoneNyaShin Pagoda and OohminThoneSel Pagoda in the Sagaing Area, a buggy ride around the ancient capital of Inwa and ending up at the famous U Pain bridge. This bridge is over a kilometre in length and constructed from teak wood. It is possible to take some very evocative sunset pictures here but I suggest you might want to do this outside the main tourist season. When we were there, there were so many tourists on the bridge I was sure it would collapse under the weight. One other standard item on the itinerary is a visit to the Mahar Gandar Yone Monastery. Buddhist monks come from all over S.E. Asia to study here and at 10:15 they form into two lines to receive their meal for the day and to sit down in the refectory to eat the meal. This has been going on for centuries but I fear it has now become too famous with nearly as many spectators as monks. I felt this was a bit like feeding time at the zoo and a little uncomfortable. My opinion is that you should give this a miss; although if you can find an angle where you can photograph the monks without several hundred tourists also appearing in the shot it would make a fascinating picture.

Out and about in the countryside you will see agriculture taking place pretty much as it has for centuries, carts and agricultural implements are pulled by oxen and crops are gathered in and carried by hand .
Returning to Yangon for our flight back to Malaysia we touched down at HeHo, the airport for Inle Lake and sat in the plane for 15 minutes before continuing to Yangon.

To summarise, I really enjoyed Myanmar, although this trip was very packed with visits to ancient monuments and important religious temples and Buddha images. It was exhausting but very illuminating and thought provoking. That so many temples could be built in such a small area is awesome. The people exhibited a devotion to Buddha that surpasses many places I have visited in S.E. Asia and the country has still to get through its own agricultural revolution. Would I do the same thing again? Probably not, I would only use Yangon as a transit airport to other areas. Bagan is a must on anyone’s first time itinerary and Mandalay has just the right mix of tradition and archaeological history and photogenic scenery to warrant a visit and I would include Inle Lake rather than Yangon. Would I go back? Yes, in a heartbeat but our next trip would be more relaxed, would certainly include Inle Lake and probably a visit to Sittwe and some of the small towns only accessible from there by river boat. For anyone interested in Myanmar and the standard circuit there is an excellent series of short videos on YouTube. It was shot by a Vietnamese TV crew and the commentary is in Vietnamese with English Subtitles. There are 45 short videos in total starting here
. Enjoy!
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Old Feb 23rd 2016, 4:42 am   #7
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Wow, nice photos!
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Old Feb 24th 2016, 1:05 am   #8
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Default Re: An eight day tour around Myanmar

I was in Rangoon and Mandalay on business in 1996.

Suffice to say I wouldn't return.

Horses for courses.
Mine fell at the water jump.

The people were great.
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Old Feb 24th 2016, 1:19 am   #9
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Default Re: An eight day tour around Myanmar

Met my missus in Burma, a little over 20 years ago now, we were both backpacking, it led to me being here as an expat (but in America, where she is from) Always glad to read up on the place.
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Old Feb 24th 2016, 1:57 am   #10
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Wonderful photos NeonHippy.

Myanmar is one of the places that New Zealand takes refugees from. There are a few Kayan families in town.
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Old Feb 24th 2016, 4:04 am   #11
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Quote:
Originally Posted by ex reg View Post
I was in Rangoon and Mandalay on business in 1996.

Suffice to say I wouldn't return.

Horses for courses.
Mine fell at the water jump.

The people were great.
Yes definitely horses for courses. Depending on how much leisure time you allowed yourself I would think being there (or anywhere else for that matter) for business would be much less pleasurable than vacation. and of course the country will have a very different feel now that democracy is starting to develop.

They say that the best way to get over a fall is to jump back in the saddle. It would certainly be interesting to hear what changes you see from 20 years back.
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Old Feb 25th 2016, 10:13 pm   #12
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Default Re: An eight day tour around Myanmar

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Suffice to say I wouldn't return.

Horses for courses.
Mine fell at the water jump.

The people were great.
I'm being somewhat off topic, and have never been to Burma, so no opinion, but I can think of one or two places (eg HCMC) where I hear the whole world and his mother raving on about, and I really disliked the place. Even booked an early flight back home to Singapore at the time It really is Horses for Courses. We are all different.

From your report, Burma sounds.....mmmm.... difficult and not too many home comforts. Probably not for me.
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Old Feb 25th 2016, 10:32 pm   #13
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Default Re: An eight day tour around Myanmar

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From your report, Burma sounds.....mmmm.... difficult and not too many home comforts. Probably not for me.
It can be done in comfort I am sure. Certainly there are some very upmarket hotels on the main circuit if you don't mind paying upwards of $200 a night. The vehicle provided by our tour operator was fully air conditioned in the back and luxurious at $200 a day compared to $50 in a taxi.

Our days were tiring but I have never been one for laying by the pool drinking cocktails. I guess I never lost my backpacking student ideology and fascination with Buddhism and my country roots draw me to the agricultural practices that I can recall from my childhood. Watching my dad build dry stone walls or planting out a field of cabbages by hand. But then I am strange!
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Old Feb 26th 2016, 10:39 am   #14
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Default Re: An eight day tour around Myanmar

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I'm being somewhat off topic, and have never been to Burma, so no opinion, but I can think of one or two places (eg HCMC) where I hear the whole world and his mother raving on about, and I really disliked the place. Even booked an early flight back home to Singapore at the time It really is Horses for Courses. We are all different.

From your report, Burma sounds.....mmmm.... difficult and not too many home comforts. Probably not for me.
Ha Ha we're stopping off in HCMC on our way back to UK in March.

It's a bit of a toe dipper to see if we want to spend 2 or 3 weeks there , Dalat, Hanoi and maybe one more place later in the year.
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Old Feb 26th 2016, 12:29 pm   #15
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Default Re: An eight day tour around Myanmar

You'll most likely love it. Most folks do
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