For a long time, I had a great desire to visit Burma, above all because of the pagoda complex in Bagan, and the city of Mandalay. Bagan is rightly said to be one of the most amazing places in the whole world to visit. And Mandalay sounded more like a nice name to me, I felt some attraction to that city, without really knowing anything about it.
Burma or Myanmar? Name origin
Someone calls this country Burma, someone Myanmar. You decide for yourself which name you like better, and then keep calling it that. For the people of Burma / Myanmar, it makes no difference, they don’t care what you call their country, either one of those two names is just fine. Until 1989, the country was called Burma, and then the military junta renamed it Myanmar. Some will say that it is because it is moving away from the colonial past because Burma is a name from the colonial times of Burma.
Others will say, and that version seems more likely, is that Burma emphasizes the name of the largest nation in the country, the Bamar people and that’s not fair towards other nations and minorities. Indeed, Burma / Myanmar is a country of many ethnic groups, and the largest ethnic group is called Bamar. The population of Burma is just over 50 million, and the largest city, Yangon, is home to nearly 6 million people.
A mystical land of Burma
I felt about Burma, ie Myanmar, as a mystical, closed and little-known country. When I started reading a little bit about that country, I saw that it was neither so closed nor unknown. It certainly is an unobtrusive country. That country does not strive to present its potentials to the whole world, and it has excellent ones.
Burma does not tend to invite the whole world, as other Southeast Asian countries do. When I came to Burma, I was not a little surprised at how quiet the Burmese people are. Simply, quiet people. You could say that they are hiding, that they want to be “on the sidelines”.
Travel to Burma/Myanmar
Anyway, the decision has been made, I am traveling to Burma, Myanmar for two weeks. My intention is to visit all the most important places in that country for my first time. And these are Yangon, Bagan, Inle Lake, and Mandalay.
I got the ticket through Lufthansa, and it was a combination of Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines flights. Singapore Airlines has a strong position for flights to Yangon. If anyone missed the news, Yangon is no longer the capital of Burma. Yangon was the capital until a few years ago, and then the military junta government secretly built an entirely new capital, Naypitaj. The capital is located north of Yangon.
Always upon arrival in countries that I do not know, and which are not at the level of development of Europe or North America, I want 2 things: number 1 to know exactly and in detail how to get from the airport to my hotel and number 2, to book a very good high category hotel for the first destination in that new country.
Oasis of peace
It is very important for me to have my little oasis of peace in a chaotic city and an unknown country so that I can easily come to my senses, adapt, get acquainted with the new climate, customs. So I booked a great hotel in Yangon the Loft, which I highly recommend to everyone!
It is truly an oasis of peace for my first encounter with Burma. In addition to a large room with many beautiful details, this hotel also has an excellent restaurant. Most importantly, it has a real oasis behind: a garden with typical vegetation, lanterns, typical umbrella shapes.
You can instantly feel that you are on the other side of the world, in a completely different culture and environment. You can feel quite clearly the spirit of Burma in this garden.
After landing in Yangon, I passed the passport control without any problem. A visa must be obtained for Burma before arrival. It is not possible to obtain a visa at a border crossing as is the case in many other countries. Visa is very easy to get online. It is quite simple to apply, you get a confirmation very quickly. You have to scan your photo and pay $25 with one of the credit cards.
The only way to get to the city from Yangon Airport is by taxi. It is very easy to use a taxi because the prices are fixed, so there is no possibility to have a problem with the driver about the price upon arrival at the hotel.
As I said before, the Burmese people are so quiet that it sounds simply impossible to me that any discussion could even take place. The drive to my hotel takes a little less than an hour. Taking a taxi to my hotel, I absorb the first impressions of this, for me, until a few moments ago, a mystical country.
Roads are wide, paved, buildings everywhere, buses full of people, heavy traffic, pagodas, and lots of people. Nothing is particularly dilapidated, but nothing is modern either. So I already realized during the taxi ride that the country is completely civilized and that I will have no major problems traveling through Burma.
However, two things immediately, at the very beginning, surprised and delighted me – thanakha and longyi. Thanakha is a type of cream that women put on their face and forehead, and longyi are long pieces of clothes that look like skirts, worn by men. I like what the two were called in Myanmar guidebook I was reading. The two were called “Burmese chic”.
I really loved and enjoyed watching everywhere in Burma this “Burmese chic”, until the very end of my trip to Burma! Thanakha is a cream obtained from ground bark. It is a recognizable feature of Burmese culture, everywhere in Burma you will see thin on the faces and hands of women and girls, less so on men and boys. It protects from the sun, is healthy for the skin, and has an aesthetic flair.
In addition, thanakha cools the skin and has a nice scent. As you can see, thanakha is something really useful in Burma. Strange how the use of thanakha has not spread further in the world. In addition to all this, the thanakha can be carefully shaped into beautiful shapes, but most often it is in the shape of a circle. Thanakha cannot be obtained from just any tree.
These are thanakha trees that grow only in central Burma. The wood, bark and / or root of the thanakha are ground and mixed with water in containers specially made for making thanakha. Thanakha has been used in Burma for over 2000 years.
Another “fashion detail” characteristic only in Burma is the already mentioned longy. It’s a piece of clothes that wraps around the waist, and looks like a skirt. Longy is an exclusively male piece of clothes, worn only by men, and actually comes in handy in hot Burma, Myanmar.
Humid climate in Myanmar
I have already mentioned that the climate in Burma is very humid, so when you are in longy, you can feel the “draft”, it is easier to breathe down there. So long, as well as thanakha are both very beneficial, and they truly serve a purpose. And, just like the thanaka, the longy also comes in a variety of designs and colors, and this is seriously taken by fashion-conscious Burmese.
Also, the color of the longy often indicates which part of society you belong to. For example, if you wear a green longy, it means you are a student. The unofficial rule is that the green color of longy belongs to the academic class of society. Longy is basically 2 meters long and goes 80 cm in height.
It always goes from the waist to the ankles. Yet, despite the fact that longy is so deeply rooted in Burmese culture, as is thanakha, unlike thanakha, longy has not been so long a part of Burmese culture. It began to be used more widely only during the British mandate.
After resting a bit and coming to my senses after a strenuous flight of over 30 hours from Europe via Munich via Singapore to Yangon, I’m going to see a bit of what the city looks like. Above all, I was interested in the famous Shwedagon Pagoda, which is supposedly something really extraordinary.
It really is very impressive, but to impress you even more, at least for the first time, come like me, in the evening. Learning about Burma, before the trip itself, I thought it was a single pagoda. In reality, this is an entire complex of pagodas.
The next day I visited also the Sule Pagoda, the Bokia market, as well as the French colonial district. I spent a lot of time in the Junction City mall. Namely, the heat and humidity are very heavy in Yangon, and Junction City, as the most modern shopping center in Burma, is very comfortably air-conditioned.
My means of transportation of choice in Burma was air. Tickets are really not expensive, and traveling by air saved me an enormous amount of time and effort. Namely, every guidebook warns you that it is quite difficult to travel through Burma because transportation is not well developed. There is no really train network, the roads are not in good shape, and the distances are extremely huge. And then when the advantages and disadvantages are added and subtracted, the decision easily falls on the planes.
Airports in Burma/Myanmar
Airports in Yangon and Mandalay are world-class and are great, with a lot of facilities, but in other cities, it’s hard to describe what the airport looks like. I’d say, like some dilapidated shop. There is little control, everything is manual, chaotic, extremely small, there are no cafes. And such is the airport in Heho (Inle Lake) and Bagan.
But air travel is also somehow routine, you sit down and take off, without some of the more detailed preparations we are used to when flying in Europe. Then I remembered that I read somewhere that air travel in Burma is really considered as something like a bus ride. Jump in, jump out, and that’s it.
The distances are great in Burma. Who would have thought that this country has in its geography both the peaks of the Himalayas and the tropical islands of the Indian Ocean. And all of this has to be connected by air. And while the airports are such as they are, the planes are really new, well maintained, and the service is really good. There are many airlines in Burma, and they are all good.
If, on the other hand, you decide to take a bus ride, think a little about it. The buses are great, and the service is great, but the roads are very bad and the distances are just too great. I don’t know if it’s worth traveling by bus in Burma.
However, I would like to mention a riverboat from Mandalay to Bagan. Take into consideration this idea. The boat runs daily, at dawn, around 5 am in both directions, on the Ayarwadi River. Sometimes the banks of the river are so far away that they cannot even be seen. But still, a riverboat ride is always a great experience.
The next destination after Yangon is Bagan. There are approximately 2000 pagodas in this area, and they are very well preserved. Especially considering that these are structures from the 10th and 11th centuries.
Bagan was the center of the Bagan Empire from the 9th to the 13th century, the city was a powerful city-state, which ruled over a large area. There were about 10,000 temples, pagodas, and monasteries, and today there are about 2200 left.
Bagan is the main attraction of Burma / Myanmar, and I would say it is also one of the greatest attractions in the whole world.
Bagan is indeed one of the most impressive places in the world to visit. It was not on the UNESCO list of world heritage until 2019, but not because it is not worth that list, but because the Burmese authorities do not lead the protection of pagodas at a high enough level.
So when the pagodas are being renovated, they are being renovated unprofessionally. But in 2019, Bagan finally came on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
When I landed at Bagan Airport, I took a taxi to my hotel located on the banks of the Ayarwadi River. There was no end to my amazement, from the start of the taxi ride from the airport to my hotel. You could see literally pagodas everywhere!
When the taxi ride started, I saw one pagoda right away, and was delighted with the size and preservation. I didn’t even look at her well when I saw another pagoda on the other side. Then another, then another, then another.
More of impressive pagodas
The pagodas began to line up so I couldn’t even comprehend what was going on around me. I could not believe my eyes, what was going in front of me. I needed accelerated reflexes to look left, right, left, right as fast as possible. It should be noted that I was very slow, as I am always extremely relaxed when traveling.
Definitely, Bagan is a wow experience! And I haven’t even gone on a tour of this large area yet. I’m leaving that for tomorrow! Now the night is slowly falling, I will settle into my hotel. Then to dinner and then to bed.
In the morning I went to visit this large archeological area where about 2000 pagodas are scattered, among lush vegetation and dusty country roads. For these reasons, the best way to visit Bagan is with a so-called electronic moped. A hybrid between a motorcycle and a bicycle.
Namely, it would be impossible for the vast majority of tourists to visit this area with a bicycle, and it is forbidden for foreigners to ride motorcycles. So the Burmese came up with something in between: e-bike.
I have to admit that it’s a lot of fun to tour Bagan on an electronic bike on the one hand, and on the other hand it really feels like an adventure. And I’m going on a tour of Bagan. The pagodas are really impressive, of various sizes and shapes, and each has its own name.
As a diligent tourist, I tried to remember the names of the pagodas I visit. However after a very short time I gave up on it because the names of the pagodas began to mix up. I took a map with the pagodas drawn and rode my electronic moped from pagoda to pagoda. And so 3 days, because I stayed 3 days. Also, the pagodas are located in 3 areas, so three days fit me well.
It is interesting that these pagodas are still used today, although they are quite old. As I mentioned, the pagodas are mostly from the 10th and 11th centuries. And yet, in many of these pagodas there are statues of Buddha, so the believers come and bring flowers, light candles and pray.
Yes, Burmese are Buddhists. Buddhism is known as a very quiet religion. Maybe that’s why these people, the Burmese, are just as quiet, peaceful, really amazing.
In the evening, it is worth to go to a panoramic point from which the sunset is observed. Watching the sunset is one of the most important tourist attractions in Bagan. And it’s really impressive to come to this hill and watch the pagodas for as far as you can see!
From left to right, miles away, above the treetops, the tops of pagodas can be seen, among the trees and among the bushes of the pagoda, pagodas everywhere. Unforgettable!
I want to highlight my two evenings spent in the gardens of my hotel, on the banks of the Ayarwadi River. No matter how many times I repeated the name of that river, there was no way to remember it. It is a very striking experience to watch this huge mystical river that runs the entire length of Burma / Myanmar, in the evening with dinner, and after dinner with a beer.
The Ayarwadi river
I can’t say that nature around the river is particularly beautiful here, but there is some incredible mystique here, and the river itself is really big. Ayarwadi is the lifeblood of Myanmar. I spent the night at the great Bagan River View Hotel, where, you guessed it, the view of that Ayarwadi River is spectacular.
In addition, the gardens of this hotel are, let’s just say zen: it is perfect for meditation. The gardens of this hotel are so attractive that even one of the 2000+ pagodas of Bagan is located in the garden of this hotel. And only when night falls, and this mystical river is illuminated by the moon, you cannot stop to wonder at this beauty!
I toured Bagan in detail, I stayed for 3 days and for those 3 days I rode my electric moped around the backwaters of Bagan, to the most remote of pagodas. Now I’m going to Burma’s next highlight – the Inle lake.
The plane lands at Heho Airport. From there you take a taxi to get to Inle lake. More or less everyone who comes to visit Inle lake will be accommodated in the city of Nyaung Shwe. That’s why me too, I was located there. I came to my hotel late at night. I could only have dinner and sleep. Tomorrow I’m going for a ride on the Inle lake.
Lake Inle is toured by private boats, and there are only a few places in each boat. These are typical boats used for sailing on the lake, as well as canals that go deeper into the hinterland from the lake and along which there are settlements.
The lake itself is really very picturesque, and only after you come to the lake from the canal, you can see fishermen who attract the attention of tourists with the old way of fishing, typical for this area, with leg movements.
However, the first fishermen you come across are there for tourists and posing for photos, who then of course expect a tip. But when you go a little deeper into the lake, you will see authentic fishermen who are not there for the sake of tourists. And they’re not asking for tip for a photo.
I have to mention that I just froze that morning, it was downright freezing outside. It looked like I wasn’t the only one making that mistake. It is extremely hot and humid in Yangon. It is also very hot in Bagan, but it is not humid, it is dry. That’s why no one pays attention to the climate here at Inle Lake.
Many tourists come unprepared for a boat ride on Inle Lake, and they feel cold. Many boats have blankets to cover, taking into account tourists not being aware of how cold it actually is on Inle Lake. You should wear thick jackets! And that’s how cold it is all morning.
So, advice to everyone who goes for a boat ride on Inle Lake, be sure to bring a jacket with you! I was in November, but it’s not a cold period. As I mentioned before, Yangon was regularly above 35 degrees celsius and very humid, I was breathing on my gills. Bagan was also quite hot, regularly above 30 degrees celsius, but dry, so it was very comfortable.
The lake is picturesque, and the hills surrounding the lake could be said to be almost mystical. The lake is very large, about 116 km2, but not deep, averaging about 2 meters. Floating plants cover a large part of the surface of the lake, and there are many floating gardens on the lake, where the locals grow fruits and vegetables for their private needs, but also to sell in rotating markets.
The lake is very rich in diverse flora and fauna, which is why UNESCO has declared this lake a biosphere important for humanity. There are settlements around the lake, and many of them are made on pillars above the lake.
These wooden houses on poles on the lake are definitely an attraction worth a photo, and it is even more vivid if you manage to take a photo with the locals in their daily activities as well. By the way, the main ethnicity who have been inhabiting the shores of the lake since ancient times are the Intha people. Hence the name of the lake.
In addition to fishermen, the attraction of this lake are the markets. These are rotating markets that are held each day in a different village on the Inle lake shores. It is very exciting to see the locals coming to the market in their boats.
Rotating markets on the Inle lake
Of course, it is very interesting to walk around the market and observe the local people. Burma is a country of many ethnic groups, and several ethnic groups meet here. They differ, among other things, in the scarves that women tie around their heads, they look like hats and are very colorful.
Certainly, these rotating markets are an attraction in themselves, and it is really hard to describe the colors, smells, sounds, scenes of the market. Fortunately, we can see a lot in the pictures.
So there are villages around Inle Lake and this rotating market rotates, each time in a different village, and there are five villages. Each of these villages has a market, with stalls, small restaurants, and the like.
When it is the turn of a village to have a market, everyone comes with their boats to that village. People bring their goods in boats, but in the boats come also interested buyers who are not necessarily from the village where the market is held that day.
Everything is sold, from fruits and vegetables to meat and other processed foods, but also clothes, shoes, electronics, and everything you can imagine. It is logical that the day when the market is in the villages, that it is a very intense day, lots of fuss, lots of activity.
Long neck women
To me, though, the biggest attraction was seeing the long-neck women. They belong to the ethnic group of Kayan. Their wives put brass coils around their necks from an early age, and over time there are over twenty coils around their necks.
In addition, the clothes of this tribe are in very bright colors and the overall image of these women is truly impressive. While driving on Inle Lake, you can visit one of the houses where these women are, and for a tip, you can take a photo with them.
These women, as well as members of the Kayan people, can also be found in Thailand. During the 1980s and 1990s, while the military junta was oppressing the people in Burma, many of the Kayan people fled north, to the border with Thailand. That is why we have the opportunity to see these women in Thailand as well.
There has also been controversy over whether women of the Kayan people were exploited in Thailand as white slaves in tourism, that is, as an attraction to photograph. In fact, no abuses have ever been proven, and tourism revenue is significant.
Even today, the question of the cultural aspect of this unusual custom arises. Some of the Kayan people will say that such elongated necks make women more attractive.
Others will say that they make them less attractive and that they put rings around their necks so that the enemies would not cast an eye on their wives, and take them into slavery. The question of health for women remains because when the rings are removed, the neck is too weak to stand on its own. Namely, the muscles are completely relaxed.
Either way, no one seems to have any objections to this unnecessary custom. Everyone wants to take pictures with these women, buy some souvenirs, and at the end of the day, everyone is happy. The long-neck women of the Kayan people will tell you that the bronze rings around their necks are their cultural identity, and that’s it.
The Burmese government does not support this practice, and encourages girls and women not to put rings around their necks. So many women and girls decided to break with tradition. After removing the reels, it takes about 3 days to get used to the new condition, but it still takes a long time for the neck area to regain its normal state.
Today there are about 130,000 members of the Kayan people, located mostly in the state of Shan. That is where Inle Lake is also located.
The boat ride on Inle Lake can take until late afternoon. For dinner, you can go out to Nyaung Shwe, the main center of the lake Inle. The city is full of restaurants, and the whole place has somehow succumbed to tourists. This is no wonder because everyone who comes to Burma wants to go to Inle Lake. And Nyuagh Shwe is the starting point of this lake.
It is a good idea to plan at least two more days for this area, as there is an impressive complex of Kakku pagodas nearby, and the cave Min Shwe doo, full of Buddha statues. However, these two places cannot be done in one day. It takes one day for each place.
For my stay on Inle Lake, I booked the top-notch boutique hotel Thanakha Inle Lake, which was a destination in itself. I absolutely recommend it to everyone!
As the last stop on my trip to Burma, I left Mandalay. With Mandalay, I rounded off the so-called Burmese “big 4”.That is, Yangon, Bagan, Inle and Mandalay.
The last few days I have been staying very deeply and intensely immersed in nature. That means that coming to Mandalay was a shock to me in a way. Now again I am in a big city, full of crowds, cars, traffic, a lot of people.
However, where there where the Mandalay sights are, everything is somehow different, calmer.
So calm and peaceful is primarily at the main attraction of Mandalay, and that is the U Bein Bridge. Some would say it’s nothing special because, like, it’s a bridge. However there is a lot of mystique and romance in this place, especially if you come to visit it at dusk.
Mandalay has something very resonant in his name, however unfortunately it does not correspond to reality. It is absolutely worth coming to this city because it is a shame if you are already in Burma not to visit its sights. After all, this is the former capital of Burma and there is a spacious royal palace here.
I flew from Mandalay to Yangon, and stayed in Yangon for another whole day. The next day I flew back to Europe via Singapore via Frankfurt.
Hotel recommendations in Burma (Myanmar)
For the end…
At the end of the story, I would also mention food. Gourmets may be disappointed, expecting some typical Burmese food. Well, there is no very typical Burmese cuisine. No wonder when we know which culinary powers Burma is surrounded by China, India, and Thailand! So Burmese cuisine is a mixture of all that.
Soups are an essential part of the diet, as is rice, but also a lot of noodles. There is a lot of curry, and tea is ubiquitous. Mohinga is a ubiquitous dish in Burma, and it is a fish soup with rice noodles, then spiced with everything from onions, lemongrass, ginger, and so on. Then the noodle salad is also ubiquitous, and everything you want goes in it.
Mandalay nangyi is like a noodle salad, the dish is from Mandalay, and it differs from a noodle salad in that the noodles come in three types of thickness. Shwe Yin Aye is a ubiquitous dessert in Burma and consists of coconut milk and jelly, and sometimes ice cream and bread.
In addition, Burma is a very affordable country.
The trip to Burma (Myanmar) was an unforgettable experience for me. If you have already been, I would love to hear your impressions, and if you have not, I hope this travelogue of mine has inspired you to travel! Finally, I recommend a guidebook to Myanmar that will help you a lot.