Traveling to Myanmar

 
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Little, Big Don Muang Airport used to be the largest airport in Thailand, though nowadays, it’s a mere shadow compared to the second international airport in Bangkok.
One notices quickly that things seem to work a little bit differently around here as it’s impossible to miss the golf course, which is nestled right between the airport runways of Big Muang Airport!
 Flying with AirAsia is quite cheap and comfortable, though you can count on delays. But hey, you’re in Asia, is there any need to rush?   
“Not ready for boarding, we need a little bit time,” says a member of the ground staff. “Bit more,” adds the other one. The old adage, “time is of the essence,” just doesn’t exist here.
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 Mandalay
 
The flight to Mandalay was very pleasant and took about an hour and a half. When you fly with AirAsia, you receive a free shuttle bus downtown, which is approximately a 45 minute drive, (airport is new, but quite far away from the town).
 
FYI-If you’re in need of cash, not a worry, as there’s an ATM inside Mandalay Airport or almost anywhere in the city.
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I liked the name of the hotel “AD1,” which was my main reason for choosing it. (I work as a 1stAD, (Assistant Director), so something resonated). The hotel itself, was fairly poor, though clean and cheap, with a rooftop restaurant, overlooking Mandalay.
 There was a market on the left side of the hotel, close to where I spent my mornings taking pictures before breakfast.
I was so fascinated by all the colors, scents and the morning rush.
You’d be amazed at how people in Mandalay, respond to you with a smile, perhaps even out of shyness, but you smile back, nonetheless. This was really astonishing for me… So many smiles, and smiles in return. It was wonderfully overwhelming.
 
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To the right side of the hotel was “Eindawya Pagoda,” were I actually felt like the main attraction! It was rather bizarre, that young monks were smiling at me, whilst taking pictures of me with their mobile phones. 😉
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On a side note, should you be wondering, (like I was) of a curious practice, whereby women cover their faces with a white powder, it’s called “thanaka” a yellowish-white cosmetic paste made from ground bark, which acts as a natural sun screen.
 
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In regards to food, I wondered how prices in restaurants would compare to those in Thailand, whether they would be higher, lower or the same..
The first local restaurant (non-tourist), we went to, had a delicious authentic local dish, called “oily curry.”
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As the name suggests, curry is the central element, but after you’ve chosen one- typically a meaty, somewhat oily curry based on pork, fish, shrimp, beef or mutton- a seemingly never ending succession of side dishes will follow.
We were really surprised when we got the bill- lunch for two was 800 Kyats (0,50Eur)!! The next restaurant we tried, was one where we saw other tourists eating. Portions and meals, were tourist friendly, but the prices were “slightly,” different- dinner for two was 10.000 kyats (7,50Eur), a significant mark-up!. Outcome: eat with the locals if you want to save some money!
 
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I had a great meeting and chat with a Myanmar Buddhist monk, named Pyinnya , while walking around Shwenandaw Monastery, where he also permissed me to take a few portrait shots of him.
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The next experience with him, I’ll never forget! He called us a taxi with his mobile phone and we had a mad-mototaxi-ride back to the hotel. We were laughing like children for the whole evening, until our adrenalin went back to normal. 
Speaking of adrenalin, there was another travelling experience with much of it, this time whilst taking a night train, with no sleeping car, from Mandalay to Bagan. 

Mandalay to Bagan is just 179km, depart 21.00-arrive 04.50h making this a very slow train, even though the line was only built in 1996! *2

It was couple of days just before the water festival was supposed to begin, so I shouldn’t have been surprised, at the first thing that happened, as I took a place in the compartment: A bucket of water coming in through the open window, right to my face! Fortunately there was no air-conditioning on the train, because I would have turned into an icicle!
A further interesting journey, I happened to see a rat running between the seats and some huge insects flying around. Whuaaa! 
The train was rattling and bumpy, so I had to use some pills to ward off motion sickness, for the first time in my life. No kidding! And admittedly, I have to say that I was even a little bit scared on this particular train! 
 
Bagan
 
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Welcome to Bagan, on the banks of Ayeyarwady River in Myanmar, where there’s the largest concentration of Buddhist temples, pagodas and stupas in the world. The landscape is scattered with golden temples and red brick ruins, some dating back to the 11th and 12th centuries. This is where the eternal remnants of Myanmar’s religious heritage rest, where every part of every building assumes a spiritual meaning, and age-old rituals continue to this day. It is unsurprising that in this unique, almost mystical environment, locals still hold firm to old traditions- perhaps, more so here in Bagan, than anywhere else in Myanmar. *3

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 The train from Mandalay arrived to Bagan at 4AM, in the morning. 

 Bagan train station, is a modern pagoda-style station in the middle of nowhere, about 5km southeast of the Nyaung Oo township, 9km from Old Bagan.  It’s possibly one of the few stations in the world, further from the airport than the town it serves!  The station does, however, feature a spacious, if not “spartan,” tourist lounge, in which you can wait. *2

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We took a taxi to the Bagan Umbra Hotel, (well known among the local residents, for their great breakfasts), and paid the compulsory tourist entry fee of(15USD), en route.
It was possible to take an e-bike (electronic bike), and check out the area or take a nap, and chill out at the hotel pool, after an exhausting train trip, so we did both.
 
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Bagan is beautiful, not yet spoiled by tourists, compared to Angkor Wat, for example. 
Surely though, this is the fate of Bagan, though fortunately for us, not yet.
I took it upon myself to take the e-bike (electronic bike) around, though was sometimes overtaken by busses filled with Asian tourists, every now and again.  
 
 Our next trip was to Yangon, so off we went to purchase train tickets.

FYI-To buy train tickets in Bagan, you don’t have to go all the way out to the station as there’s a Myanmar Railways ticket office in Nyaung Oo, on Lanmadaw street, opposite the Grand Empire Hotel.  The office is in a shop for kitchen supplies, called the ‘Blue Sea Kitchen Mart’. Tickets are sold up to 3 days in advance.  The office opens at 09:00 and closes late afternoon, around 17:00 or 18:00.*2

When travelling, there’s always much to see, and it’s so easy to lose track of time- which we totally did, almost missing our train to Yangon! We weren’t even able to finish our hot and spicy ginger soup in the midst of our huge rush! Grabbing our luggage, we hopped in a taxi towards the train station, until (thankfully!), I remembered that my macbook was charging at reception, so back we went. Luckily we just made it in time for our next train adventure!
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I found travelling by train far more enjoyable then travelling by bus. It was wonderful to watch “Myanmar’s  National geographic program,” through the open window, and surely we took many pictures on the way.
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The next day around 11AM we arrived to capital of Myanmar. 
Yangon
I found it funny so I booked another film themed hotel, this time “MGM Hotel,” owned by the Chinese community. The hotel was standard, and we were tired from travelling, so we decided to catch up on some much needed rest. This is where Indian Bollywood movies came in handy-especially those starring Shah Rukh Khan. 
Yangon is perfect for a short stay- one or two days maximum.
One of the most interesting things I noticed was the abundance of people chewing on something red, then spitting it out. You notice this everywhere in Myanmar. . 
They are actually chewing on “betel leaf.”
The betel (Piper betle) is the leaf of a vine belonging to the Piperaceae family, which includes pepper and kava. It is valued both as a mild stimulant, and for its medicinal properties. Betel leaf is mostly consumed in Asia, and elsewhere in the world by some Asian emigrants, as betel quid or in paan, with or without tobacco, in an addictive psycho-stimulating and euphoria-inducing formulation with adverse health effects. It’s also notable for staining the teeth of regular users.
Kun ja, (as the Myanmar people call it), is said to be good for chronic bad breath and getting rid of intestinal parasites as well. 
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Always a curious cat, I arrived to a stall, whilst wandering around, and said “one please.” The stall owner looked a little surprised, smiled, and made us two portions. I offered him money, though he refused to take it. 
Well, yes we tried it, and to make a long story short, it was disgusting and we spat it out practically immediately!
Indeed, we were feeling funny, likely even stoned, after chewing betel for only a short time .. It left such a terrible aftertaste, which we washed away with Coke, as you do ;).
Our next plan was to see the Golden Rock Pagoda, which is 210km from Yangon, but the buses were packed, likely due to the water festival, and though we’d be able to catch a later one, we decided not to risk missing our flight back to Bangkok, the following day.
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Travel Tips for Myanmar:
1) People are very honest. It’s welcome, after the tourist scams of the other countries in South East Asia. The scale for negotiation of prices is limited, but do negotiate and you can save a few bucks.
2) Don’t rely on good internet connection in Myanmar. It’s really slow and almost unusable. Skype calls will not work. 
3) No one speaks English (Like most of southeast Asia- just a bit worse). Sharpen your sign language and don’t string long English sentences to confuse the locals. Use 1 or 2 word sentences. Maximum 3 words in a sentence.
4) Transportation options are limited. From one city to another there are usually 3-4 buses in a day. 2 in the morning and 2 in the evening. Take the evening bus to save time using overnight travel. Most of the buses drop you off at 3-4 am in the morning. And check out timing for most guest houses is 10 AM. So be prepared to rough it out. Train journeys are a fun adventure, but trains are too slow to use. Unless you have a lot of time don’t use them. There are VIP buses that are a bit expensive, but a little bit more comfortable. Buses have really cold aircon settings, and play bad Burmese movies on full blast. So carry good headphones!
5) Don’t spend too much time in Yangon. It’s a rich cultural experience, but other than that there is nothing much to do there. Plan no more than 1 or 2 days max.
6) Compared to other Indo-Chinese countries, Myanmar is a little more expensive. Be prepared to pay around 15$ a night for a single room, in budget accommodation.
Best time to Visit:
November to February. Also the busiest – so budget rooms are full and it’s harder to find cheap budget places to stay. The weather is perfect.
What to eat:

Burmese cuisine varies depending on the part of Burma you visit. The vegetarian options in Myanmar are much better than the rest of South East Asia. Try out the Shan cuisine for sure, on Inle Lake. Pork, rice and noodles is what is served in most places – Definitely a lot of Asian and Chinese influence. Given the Indian connection there is a lot of Indian cuisine too. (Indian, Burmese). Try out the Burmese Biryani in Yangon  Do visit the Barbecue street at night, in Yangon for some local food. *5

 
Credits: 
 
1.hotels: www.agoda.com
2.Seat61.com
3.3sixty.com
4.How to get Myanmar visa in Bangkok
5.Nomadic Matt.com
 
Thanks to
Kristin Kay
Manj Sehra Carthigaser