The NBA Part 3 – Exploring Myanmar, the Land of Pagodas and Sunsets

First sunlight sweeps across the barren plains and paints thousands of pagodas in a golden color. The basket of our balloon gently lifts of the ground and we drift into the dawn. Some claim that Myanmar is the land of perfect sunrises and sunsets. This may be true for all we know. We have enjoyed the must stunning dis-/appearances of our sunwhile we traveled this beautiful but also incredibly poor country. Here is our story.

Things that went well

– Balloon ride over Bagan: well worth it

– Day trips to the Golden Rock and Mt Popa: Worth the trip. private car made it very easy

– Nan Pan Market: very impressive, maybe the most beautiful market

– Mingun and white pagodas and 30 Buddha cave: Instagram heaven

– Hotel in Bagan: Beautiful and perfect location

Things we could have done better in hindsight

– Hotel on Inle Lake: Location was good but we would chose a better hotel with better view to make time in hotel more enjoyable.

– Change route and take car: Go the normal route, Yangong fly to Inle Lake, take car to Mandalay, take boat to Bagan and fly from Bagan to Yangong.

– Bring less dollar: Payment with Kwat and Visa is possible everywhere. Some dollars are useful (we needed to pay tour to Golden Rock in dollars) but no need for large sums.

22.03. Continued… Our Formular 1 tuktuk driver reposition us for better aerodynamics and weight balancing before hitting the mountain roads. We race through lush hills and sheet metal settlements. Suddenly, our driver takes a hard left into a perfectly manicured garden. Roads lined with palm- and mangotrees. This is our hotel, the Victoria Cliff Resort. The garden is only surpassed by the view from our room and the infinity pool.

Burmese are just as crazy about pictures with blond foreigners. So this is the first of most likely many pictured.

We spend an relaxing evening in this small slice of heaven. I am quite landsick and am still scuba diving in my sleep.23.03. The hotel staff convinced us to leave the hotel only two hours before takeoff. As we arrive at the airport, we understand the reason. Our flight is the only one in the morning. Security copies every visa in our passport by hand. Still we make it through and shortly thereafter sit in an ATR 72 on our way to Yangong with a short stop in Mergui. Michi is nervous because of the old plane, but a young boy next to us keeps her entertained by screaming, throwing up, drinking and repeat until we are in the air.

Yangong is easy. We get a local SIM card and a 10k Kyat taxi to our hotel. The room is small but nice with a view on the train station.In the noon heat, we explore the Sule Pagoda. We go with a fake monk to learn about local scams (we pay 10 USD for a short tour, a nice show, and a scam training). Past the Sule food market, we hike to The Strand Hotel, Yangongs most famous luxury hotel, and have some mocktails at the famous bar.

Conveniently, we take a hotel car to Shwedagon Pagoda at around 4pm. We plan to see light, sunset and night at the Pagoda. While the pagoda looks impressive from afar, it looks quite dull. The reason becomes clear from upclose: The pagoda undergoes the biggest restauration sonce the 1970s and thus is complete coverd under scafolding. This is a bit disappointing but we still enjoy the athmosphere. We watch budhist manhood rituals, the great cleanup, and tourists and locals mingle.

Indeed, the atmosphere changes from the lazy feeling in the afternoon heat, to romantic sunset to a busteling athmosphere at night. Locals light oil candles around the pagoda Its a beautiful sight.

We make a quick stop at our hotel bedore walking to the 19th street night market in China Town. Food is ok (skewers). But the small stretch is noisy and crawling with live. Its great fun but we are very tired and soon walk home, past the Sule Pagoda under the red moon.24.03. It is another early morning. At 7.00 our driver awaits us with a white Toyota Crown Premium 21 limousine with plush seats. We have arranged a private car to see the Golden Rock (Kayaiktiyo Pagoda). Its a 4 hours drive to the Golden Rock base camp at KinPun. The Golden Rock is Myanmars second most sacred site. It is – as its name states – a big bolder coverd in gold. The rock narrowly sits on a ledge, looking like it could roll off any second (the small, hair-thin surface on which the rock rests supposedly is a hair of the Buddah). The site is supposed to be over 2000 years old.To go up to the pagoda on 1.100m above sea level, our racing assistance quality – honed on the tuktuks of Kawthaung – are required once again. Its race truck time. Here is how it works: 40 people are crammed in the back of a truck, which then drives full speed with roaring engines through the hairpin curves that lead up to the pagodas, with pitstops for money collection and waiting for oncoming trucks (“attacking trucks” as our driver calls them).

We make it and only have a short walk ahead of us Foreigners have to pay 10.000 kyat – something we already know from Shwedagon. We leave our shoes at the stairs and step on the blistering hot stones. To be fair, there are alternative modes of transportation.

Only ca. 300 more meters. Finally, we see the rock. It is quite an impressive sight. Only men are alowed to go directly to the rock and touch it (a reason why women live longer than men is the lack of guard rails on the small, downsloping ledge). I get to touch the rock and luckily, it does not roll off.

On our way back, we are happy to have our shoes back. And our driver even manages to get us one of the exclusive driver cabin seats on the way down.

After lunch, we drive to Bago, an old capital about 2h from Bagan. Most of the sights were destroyed in the 1970s earthquake, some, such as the giant Budda, were forgotten and only found by chance during railroad construction. We first visit the reconstructed palace with the recovered giant teak pillars. What I love is that our white limousine parks directly at the entrance steps. This is how we rolled in the 1970s.

The palace is not very spectacular due to the fact that it is completely rebuilt. The pagoda is different. Its higher then Shwedagon and feels more natural, i.e. not touristy. Outside, hawkers are selling sparrows and fried grashoppers.

Final stop is the giant reclining Buddah. We imagine how it must have been to discover the overgrown statue in the forrest.

After a 2h drive, we reach our hotel and – after a quick dinner – fall asleep.25.03. Another early morning. Today, we fly to Bagan. We planned for some contingencies but it takes us less then 1h from hotel to the gate. The route to Bagan is a tourist trail. The plane is full with western tourists – no locals in sight. The trusted ATR 72 takes us to Nyaung U Airport.

We pay our 25k Kyat Archiological Zone Tax at the airport and are happy to have arranged an airport pickup. Bagan is a collection of small villages connected by dusty dirt roads. Cows an sheep roam the villages. Our Hotel@Tharabar Gate is quite beautiful with burmese style architecture and lush gardens. Especially, it is perfectly located in the center of Old Bagan, virtually opposite of Ananda Temple. Hence, we take a quick strole to Andanda Temple, Thatbyinnyu Phaya and Shwesandaw Pagoda before we take a late lunch at our hotel. After the first few pagodas, we take more interest in the outside than the inside – maybe because the climbing ban limits the exploration options. Inside the pagodas there typically is a sitiing buddah statue. Bigger pagodas have a walkway and statue chambers on four, some on five sides.

In the afternoon, we rent two ebikes and start exploring the archiological zone. We head south east, going whereever the road takes us. As climbing the pagodas is no longer allowed after the 2016 earthquake, we enjoy the sunset from the main viewing mount.

We continue to explore the ruin fields until dark. Ghe atmosphere in the fields is peaceful and we see no other cars or people. This may be, because we follow very small tracks. Finally, we return the bikes and – after a dinner of papaya salade and bagan pork curry, we fall asleep.

26.03. Today is maybe one of the biggest days, yet, but definately the earliest. The alarm rings at 4:30 and we are ready for pickup at 5:00. Its ballon time. We decided on Oriental Balloning because they take 12 instead of 16 passengers. Our shuttle takes us to the launch site south of New Bagan. We are greated by three things, our pilot Ravi, coffee, and the revelation that there is no bathroom for 5h. Launch preparation starts at first light. Ravi gives us a stern safety briefing while the ground crew starts to fill the balloon. Michi and I get our own compartment as we are only 11 passengers.

A few minutes later, its “Kilo Tango has lift off, permission to fly at 2000 feet” and we are gently glide into the dawn. Winds are slow but Ravi steers us at various altitudes accross the range of the archiological zone.

We fly over Dhammayazika Pagoda,

fly past Pyathetgyi Pagoda, Sulamani Temple, Dhammayangi Temple and many other pagodas.

The original aim was the golf course but Ravi adds an extra 20min to fly us directly over Shwezigon Pagoda.

After 1:40h we touch down on the banks of Irrawaddy river. It was a great flight, much longer than anticipated. The flight puts the size of Bagan into perspective. Over 2000 pagodas is just a number until you see the tips sticking out of the morning fog.

We end the flight with Champagne, apparently honoring a tradition from the first days of balloon flights in France. By boat and car we go back to the hotel, just in time for breakfast.

We take quick nap but quickly head out again to ride ebikes and go shopping. We drive to Myin Ka Bar, to Golden Cuckoo Laquerware, where we buy a beautiful bamoo tray and bowl. It takes 6 weeks to make a piece including 5 laquering steps as well as the engraving of the paint. They claim to work in the traditional way. We cannot prove its true but among the hawkers, this store seems trustworthy enough. We race back to the hotel for an 8min dip in the refreshingly cold pool and gettin ready for our afternoon ride with the “Horse Cart 144” and a guy named Kywat Tun. We found him on the Internet but Kywat turns out to be a gem. He is very knowlegable an shows us some great hidden places. We start in the village of Taungbi, where we visit a Teak monestary building with amazing carvings and a five sided temple (4 for the Buddahs that already lived – the typical number, and one for the Buddah to come – not typical).

Directly behind the tourist masses of Thatbinnyu Hemple there are two smaller pagodas. One houses the oldest Buddah statue in Bagan (?) dating to 12th century, the other one is one of the few Hinduh temples.

Kywat shows us the 12th century wall paintings inside Lawka Hteik Pan with their colors still inakt. And we take a quick peak at the reclining Buddah at Shwesandaw Pagoda.

After a quick visit to Dhammangi Temple with the only south facing reclining Buddah (typically faces north) we visit the smaller but much less crowded sunset hill.

After sunset, Kywat takes us to our hotel wher we dip in the pool, have dinner and go to sleep.27.03. We are greeted by the sound of burners of balloons flying overhead, today on a more western course.

In the morning, we plan a trip to Mount Popa, about 40km (1h) southeast of Bagan. The area around Bagan is mostly desert with palm trees (we stop at a palm sugar plantation). On the last 10km we see many people begging on the side of the road, hoping for people to throw some money from the cars. Especially locals, arriving in open trucks, donate in this way. A donation creates a short frenzy of people running into the traffic ti collect.

We make a photostop for Mt. Popa. its a fascinating site. The monastery is perched ontop of a steep vulcano. A small staircase spirals around the cliffside.

Its exactly 777 steps to the top. Half way up, we meet the infamous monkeys, frequently mentioned in descriptions of the climb. However, they are quite peaceful and relaxed. Locals clean the stairs and ask for donations.

While the main feature is the view up on Mt Popa, the view from the top is quite beautiful, as well. Many locals want to take pictures, and we get some nice ones as well. The burmese people are extremly friendly.

On the way back, we pass the ubiquitous open trucks full of worshippers, their luggage secured haphazardly on the roof. One negative side is the ubiquitous trash. Villagers burn their trash but remains scatter all over the countryside.Back at the hotel, we only take a small rest. Our trusted dealer provides us with two ebikes and we zap through Taungbi village towards Shweizigon Pagoda; but not without stopping at the pagoda fields along the river.

After lunch, just as the heat sets in, we reach the golden Shweizigon Pagoda. We have seen the pagoda yesterday from the balloon, but its well worth to visit again.

Tired, we take a short break at the hotel with a dip in the cold pool. In the afternoon, we head out for a final ride among the pagoas. We decide to go down south to Dhammayazika Pagoda. From there, we turn east, passing through West Pwazaw Village. People relaxing in the cool evening air or play foogsal. Following ever narrower roads and footpathes between the pagoda, I manage to navigate us into a dead end somwwhere in the bushes south of Minnanthu village. Instead of turning atound, I decide to drive through what I think is the yard of a house This is true. Unfortunahely, the house has no wall on this side, so we basically drive through the living room – and the owner is home. Indiana Jones on eBike. But its worth it. North of the village is a nice pagoda field and a sunset hill. However, we decide to enjoy the sunset from our bikes.

We take the long way around, past the very ugly sunset tower, past the golf couese and finally end at our hotel. One last dip kn the pool, one last tea leaf salad and we are ready to go to Inle Lake.28.03. We can sleep in! Until 6:30! One more time, we pass the pagodas on the way to the airport, before we hop in our trusted ATR 72 for a short 35min flight to Heho (Nyaung U Airport has no printer, so name and seat are glued onto the boarding pass). Heho airport as the others, has no conveyor belt, so luggage is delivered directly – much more personal. At Heho Airport, we catch a taxi (25k Kyat without negotiation, Inle Lake tourist fee is 15k per person) to Nyaung Shwe boat jetty. From there, we take a boat (15k kyat) to our hotel.

On the boat ride, we see the famous fishermen of Inle Lake. While they use one leg to row, only very few use the old, basket-like nets.

Advertized a “on the lake” it is the equivalent of a good old highway motel. Its situated on a main canal with boats going by. But technically, its “on the lake”. We hire our boat driver for the next three days because he is nice and the hotel cannot organize trips. No problem.

Inle Lake feels a bit like Disney Land. It is the equivalent of the German “Butterfahrt”. We are put in a boat and shipped from one (work)shop to the next. At every stop, we are greeted at the dock, led in some workshop where a tedious manual manufacturing process is explained to us and finally we are guilted into buying overpriced mumbojumbo. We get to see (1) lotus and silk weaving, (2) blacksmith, (3) boats and (4) burmese cigarres. Its a strange feeling since it is impossible to go anywhere without a boat or even by ourselves.

In between we visit the Burmese cats and indogeneous fish of Inle Lake at the heritage Center…

have lunch while watching people swim on the main canals and men remove scales from live fish – food is ok –

visit the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda

and the Nga Phe Kyaung Monestary.

Back at the hotel, we enjoy the sunset from the hotel tower. Actually, we have a better impresdion of the hotel, now. After an ok dinner, we retire. Our stitlt house gently sways with every step we take.

29.03. We wake up to the sunrise over Inle Lake.

The morning starts with a sumprious breakfast in an almost empty hotel (3 rooms are filled) and – surprise – workshops. First a silver workshop and second umbrella making and long neck women… Disney Land…

Once we are finally done with shopping, we navigate the small canal to InDein. The canal is interupted by small dams with an opening just wide enough for a longboat to pass through. Its a small wildwater ride as each dam creates a 20cm step we need to drive up.InDein has a double treat for us, as its todays spot for the 5 day market. Visiting the market is fun, esp. watching the locals shop and chat. We wander around the stallsand look at fresh fruit, tofu, fresh made fish cakes and, inbetween the food stands, people pumping and selling fuel. Nice.

From the market, we cross the river and head into the long walkway to the monastery. Very soon, we break out to wander inbetween the withered pagodas. The closer we get to the temple, the more (ugly) renovated and golden pagodas we see. Ontop, we walk through forrests of pagodas.

For lunch, we drive just a few bands to Miss Nyaung Shwe, which serves Burmese and local Intai food. While we eat, we watch the tourists driving by.

At noon, our “Butterfahrt” is coming to an end. We make our way nack through the canal. On the way, we watch water buffelos bathe.

On our way back to the hotel, we make a short stop at the floating gardens. The gardens are built on seaweed and held in place by bamboo stakes. When I step on the garden, I can rock the entire are by moving back and forth. Quite cool. Also, they grow tomatos.

We stop to take some pictures of Inle Lake fishermen – more modern ones with moder nets.

At 1pm we are back at the hotel and wonder what to do. We decide to relax, check emails and plan our trip to Mandalay. Time passes quickly and we can enjoy another sunset at Inle Lake.

We have dinner at the hotel (our plan to steal the hotels small paddle boat is thwarted as one of the staff had the same idea, only earlier). We pack and go to bed in our swaying cabin on the lake.30.03. After a night on sea, we enjoy our final sunrise over Inle Lake. In the early morning, we plan another visit of the 5 day Market at Nan Pan. This market is supposed to be much bigger than Indein.

Our boat driver takes us through the tranquile villages with more and more boats joining in the stream towards the market.

Then we arrive. Hundreds of boats line the shore of Nan Pan Market.

At 8:00 the market is in full swing. Fish, fruits and vegetables, clothes, souveniers and fresh, handpumped gas for the way home are the main items sold. We wander around and enjoy the busteling athmosphere.

From the market, we go back towards Nyaung Shwe. On the way, we stop by some traditional fishermen. one of them poses for us for a small tip.

Despite the posing, I am surprised how many people actually live on/from the lake. In the early morning the lake is full of boats harvesting seaweed (to expand the floating gardens) or fish (in both, the traditional and modern way). The lake is very clean and very shallow, making life on the lake easier.

We are back to Nyaung Shwe early. So we wander around fir one hour and have some Samosas at a local restaurant.

The drive to the airport is also much quicker. Its rice planting season and we see many people and water buffaloes on the fields on the way. With our China safety net still intact, we arrive at the airport way to early.

The incoming plane is delayed by 3h. We use the time to plan the upcoming Japan trip. Finally, at 17:10 we take of to a 25min (!) flight to Mandalay (in hindsight, renting a car would have been more interesting and more efficient). We arive at the hotel at 19:00, enough time to explore Mandalay street food. After some wandering around (including me wandering head first into a thick branch, cutting my head open) we find “Mandalays best Tea Leaf Salad Place” according to the Internet on north side of 26th street between 64 and 65th street. The mixed tea leaf plate is delicious.

31.03. Nothing prepares for a return to China than breakfast with a Chinese tour group. Still, we start the day of well. We meet our driver “Take it Easy” (alternative option would have been “Fatty Ko”) at our hotel for a “4 ancient cities” aka Instagram day trip. Before we get going, we see a “Donation Ceremony”, a ceremony for a boy becoming a monk. Men have to become monks twice in their live. For girls its optional. One is a upper middle class distinguished by the elephant.

First stop is Mahamuni Pagoda in the south of Mandalay (in the Budda stone mason district). The Mahamuni Budda is the holiest Budda in Myanmar, said to be made by the gods from Buddas image. The Budda is covered by hundreds of kilos of gold. Only male gold leaf donors are allowed in the inner sanctum and touch the Budda. I go, anyway. The base of the Budda is small and high. Buddihsts aparently have good balance.

After the donation of 4 gold leafs at the price of 2500 kwat (<2 USD) we drive on to Mingun. The typical route is by public boat. By driving is faster, more convenient and equally pitoresque. Migun has never been a capital of Myanmar (which is surprising, as most cities seemed to have been at least a province capital). However, Mingun has been under royal patronage. Our first stop is the White Pagoda, named Hsin-Byu-Me Pagoda or Mya-Thein-Dan Pagoda. The Pagoda may be a reason to get an Instagram account.

A short walk away, past the worlds second largest bell and past giant, broken lion heads loom the remains of the Mingun pagoda. This was supposed to be the talest pagoda in Myanmar but it remained unfinished. Two earthquakes added to its aura by introducing giant cracks in the facade. Unfortunately, its no longer possible to climb on top and enjoy the view.

From Mingun, we backtrack to (the province capital) Sagain. We visit the 30 cave pagoda, a semicircular structure with 30 entranves and 45 Buddas sitting inside (Umi Thonze Hpaya).

We do not go further up to the pagoda for the view but our driver takes us 5min further to a small and much less crowded monastery with an equally great view over the many pagodas scattered across Sagain.

We go for a late lunch. At this point, we have given up to convince Burmese to bring us to truly local placed. Hence, we dutifully eat our tourist curry and noodle soup.

After lunch, we take a boat across the river to Inwa, the old capital. The area is difficult to access by car so we take a horse cart to visit the teak Bagaya Monastery,

Yandana Sinme Pagoda,

the palace tower and Maha Aung Mye Bonzan Monastery.

The tour is interesting but people are quite pushy to sell something so teh ahhmosphere is a big tense. Back across the river, we drive to our final stop: U-Bein bridge at Amarapura. Its the longest Teak bridge in the world with 1.2km and another famous sunset spot. The water level is so low that we can walk the entire way also underneath the bridge. Again, locals take the foto opportunity with Michi.

Unfortunately, as in many places we have visited, trash is a severe problem. People simply throw their rubbish of the bridge.

At one side of the bridge is a fair. The caroussels have no engines and are operated by hand. And sand is swept at the gates.

This is the end of our long but fun day. We drive back, order room service (I fight with wordpress app as this post is gettingto long for the app to handle) and call it a night.01.04. Final full day in Myanmar. Its time to explore Mandalay itself. Our hotel is perfectly situated, only a short walk from Nadaw Shae Market, our first stop. Its a dark but interesting place.

First sightseeing stop is Shwenandaw Monestary, a beautiful teak monestary, next to the more modern Atumashi Monastry. We meet a group of burmese travelers, so its picture time, again.

Behind the monestary lies Kuthodaw Pagoda, also known as the largest book in the world. 729 marble slabs, each housed in an own pagoda, caputere the results of the 5th buddhist world synode of 1871.

Next Kuthodaw Pagoda lies Sanda Muni Pagoda. More impressive than the pagoda itself is a later addition: 1774 pagodas containing stones with comments to Buddahs teachings.

Now, at 11am and ca 35°C, comes the exercise: Climbing Mandalay Hill. Aparently, we are among the few that attempt the ca. 2000 steps. There are virtually no shops and no people around. We enjoy the silence. The view from the top is not overwhelming (unless you like golf courses).

While there are people on top we do not find a tuktuk driver to take us down. Only at the bottom, we meet a tuktuk driver of German travel guide writer Stefan Loser. Back at the hotel, we take a break over the hottest time of the day. In the afternoon, we walk to the Royal Palace. The military has setup camp on the palace grounds. Hence, rules dor entry are strict (no photography outside the palace, passport as deposit). The palace is a replica. Not very spectacular.

Final stop is the market around Zegyo Market. Its a busteling and colorful street market.

After the market, we wander around and eat at an Indian corner caffee with a nice view on the sunset. Past the somewhat underwhelming Mandalay train station we head to the east in search for night markets. However, we seem to be in the twilight zone between the day and night markets. We are tired and decide to call it a night.

From our hotel, we have a nice view on our ascend route on Mandalay Hill.

02.04. Today, we leave Myanmar after 18 days. We have our driver, Mr. Take It Easy, pick us up for a final, short tour through the city. First stop is the now open Zay Cho Market. Last night, we explored the street market, no we take a quick stroll through the run down 5 story building.

Next stop is the not to be missed gold leaf workshop. Gold is punded for a total of 7h to form thin gold leafs that worhippers place on holy statues.

We learned in Bagan that mandalay is famous for Teak wood carving. We visit a workshop and watch the workers create giant carved wood panels. Compared to the workshops on Inle Lake these workshops are much more realistic and equipped to produce at scale.

The final stop is the stone mason alley. Here, Buddah statues are carved, polished and sold or discarted. Workers wear no masks to protect them from the ubiquitous dust. Statues are first carved in rough shapes. The face is added last. Then, the marbel is polished. The marble itself comes from a quarry north of Mandalay.

That final image concludes our Myanmar trip. We head to Mandalay Airport to catch a flight to Kunming and onward to Shanghai.