Ngapali Beach, Myanmar – Part 1

We decided to spend that last few days of our trip through Myanmar relaxing at Ngapali Beach, and that we sure did. Even from the moment of our arrival at Thandwe airport, we knew that this was the place to be in Myanmar if you just wanted to do nothing for a few days. After all our wandering the streets of Yangon, spending days cruising around Inle Lake, and exploring the temples of Bagan, we enjoyed a few days by the beach before heading back to reality. Ngapali Beach is one of the most popular and most touristed beach in the Bay of Bengal, on the western side of Myanmar. But unlike other beachside resorts in South-East Asia, Ngapali Beach is unusually quiet and laid-back – although it was their peak season, there seemed to be no one around. It’s definitely not the place to come if you want to party into the early morning, but rather a place to relax, go swimming, take long walks along the beach, visit the small seaside villages and enjoy the freshly caught seafood. We were lucky enough to find accommodation on a small stretch of beach, just north of the main beach. All that was here was our lodge, a small fishing village consisting of no more than a dozen homes, two small local beach ‘restaurants’ (a ‘kitchen’ made from local bamboo and palm leaves, plus two or three tables in the sand) and a few fishing boats swaying in the water. If you really want to get away from it all, I can’t think of a better place.

We spent our first day here walking the stretch of the main beach and visiting the fishing village at its southern end. Of course, being by the seaside, we enjoyed an endless supply of fresh locally caught seafood, which by Australian standards, was incredibly cheap. Grilled prawns, tuna steaks, squid, grilled whole fish… you name it! We also tried the famous Myanmar tea leaf salad during our stay at Ngapali Beach. I wouldn’t quite say it was delicious, but it was very interesting, and had great unusual flavours.

Since the Bay of Bengal faces west, we enjoyed some incredible sunsets, usually whilst sipping a cocktail or two.

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Getting There:
Again, if you want to same time and hassles, ditch the bus and fly to Thandwe airport, which is located about 10km north on Ngapali Beach. Most hotels should organise a pick-up service as taxis are virtually non-existent in this area.

Our accommodation at Ngapali Beach was probably our favourite in Myanmar. We stayed at Yoma Cherry Lodge, located in a small bay just north of the main beach. Excellently run by an English lady called Sue, there was nothing that we could find fault with. The room was large and clean and looked out onto the beautiful tropical gardens. The dining area overlooked the beach and was perfect for that sunset cocktail. The staff were friendly and the restaurant food tasty. We felt as though we were staying at a friend’s beach house. And the location was excellent – we were the only lodge, bar one, on this secluded beach, located near Lin Tha village. If you want to get away from it all, this is the perfect place.

Bagan, Myanmar – Part 2

We begun our second day in Bagan with an early morning hot-air balloon flight! It was nothing less than amazing. I had flown in a hot-air balloon only once before, in Cappadocia, Turkey, back in 2013 (you can see the pics here).  And it was Jonathan’s first time. I have to say that I think the landscape of Cappadocia was more stunning, but the view of Bagan from the air, with its hundreds of temples dotted across the landscape, glowing in the dawn light, wasn’t far behind. It was incredible to see the vastness of the Bagan ‘complex’ from such a height – seeing it from the air really made me appreciate the greatness of the place. I’d highly recommend spending the bit of extra money whilst in Bagan and take a balloon flight.

We spent quite a few hours that day wandering around Myinkaba searching for the perfect piece of lacquerware. There isn’t much in Myinkaba, except a few workshops dotted amongst a few dozen homes. Myinkaba is the place to purchase laquerware in Myanmar. The people of Myinkaba have been producing lacquerware for generations, with many workshops producing their own unique styles and patterns. There are so many lacquerware workshops in Myinkaba (a small town located between Old Bagan and New Bagan) that it can be a little difficult to decide what to buy and from which workshop. Take some time to browse through a number of stores, talk to the store holders and get an indication of the price you should be paying. Most places have set prices, but will go down 10%-20% if you bargain hard enough. We spent close to 3 hours going back and fourth between the workshops, before finally setting our eyes on a particular piece, then bargaining on a price. We finally left with a stunning three piece lacquerware set (I had my eye on the piece in the first workshop we visited), which we now keep on display in our lounge room.

The remainder of the day was spent wandering around Bagan on our hired push-bikes, visiting the temples of Shwezigon Paya (with it’s beautiful gilded zedi), Htilominlo Pahto and finally watching the dusty sunset from Shwesandaw Paya.

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To Do:
Hot-air ballooning! Just check out the photos above! Perhaps not quite as spectacular as hot-air ballooning over Capadoccia in Turkey, but it’s pretty good. Seeing all the temples, pagodas and stupas from the air at sunrise is absolutely spectacular. We spoke to a couple who have flown in hot-air balloons all over the world and they said they flight in Bagan is second only to that in Capadoccia. We flew with Balloons over Bagan, who are the pioneers of hot-air ballooning in Bagan (being the only outfit until about a year ago when Oriental Ballooning showed up) and seem run a well-oiled business. They employ experienced and well-trained pilots and have not had any incidents since their establishment in Bagan in 1999. I’d definitely recommend splurging on a hot-air balloon flight whilst in Bagan. I don’t think you’ll regret it.

If you want to purchase Myanmar lacquerware whilst on your trip, Bagan is the place to buy it. The small town of Myinkaba, located between Old Bagan and New Bagan, has been producing lacquerware for generations. There are a number of workshops in this town, so it’s worth taking the time to look around and compare styles, prices and quality. I purchased a beautiful piece from Shwe La Yaung Lacquareware Store, located on the main road of Myinkaba. I found a piece I fell in love with and the owner of the store was very helpful and informative. But do shop around before making a final purchase.

Bagan, Myanmar – Part One

Bagan is one of those unique places, a place unlike anywhere else I have visited, although it is often likened to Angkor Wak in Cambodia. The Bagan archaeological zone, which an 100 square kilometre area and home to more than 2000 temples and pagodas, comprises of Nyang-U, New Bagan and Old Bagan. Each town is very different, Nyang-U being the tourist hub, New Bagan being the ‘new’ town which locals now live after being forced out of Old Bagan in the 1990s when the military government hoped to make the area into a international tourist destination (which also resulted in some bad restoration works), and Old Bagan where most of the largest and most exquisite temples can be found.

We spent our first afternoon meandering around the temples near Old Bagan, being amazed at the size and complexity of them. We were pleasantly surprised not to find too many tourists around, especially since it was the ‘peak’ season for tourism in Myanmar. However, there were many Myanmar people from places other than Bagan, who had camped there, along with their cattle, to celebrate the annual three week Ananda Pagoda Festival.

We finished our first day in Bagan with a sunset view over the Ayeyarwady River from Bu Phaya temple.
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Getting There:
We chose to fly to Bagan rather than taking a bus. We flew from Heho airport to Nyaung-U, from where we took a taxi to Old Bagan. The taxi should cost about 8000 kyat. We flew with Air KBZ and found their service quite good. Although we were quite relieved to complete each flight unscathed, as all the aircraft, ATR 72-500s, appeared to be quite old and being Myanmar, we were not sure how well or how regularly they were serviced.

We stayed at the Hotel @ Tharabar Gate and thoroughly enjoyed it. Located just outside the gates to the archeological site of Old Bagan, it is conveniently located close to many of the major temples. The entire Bagan area is rather compact, so it’s not difficult to ride a bike to New Bagan or Nyaung-U either. This was our little accommodation splurg during our trip and it was well worth while – beautiful bed linen, a large sleek room and stunning bathroom, lush gardens, a stunning pool area and not forgetting the delicious breakfasts – I couldn’t get enough of the bircher museli, nor the waffles and pancakes. Everyone needs a bit of pampering once in a while, right? Deluxe rooms are US$240 per night, and suites are US$400 (we obviously got a deluxe room).

The only pitfall of staying in Old Bagan is that there aren’t many dining options near by, unlike in New Bagan and Nyaung-U. However, we did enjoy the meals we had at our hotel (although a bit pricey by Myanmar standards – a pasta dish was about 6,000 kyat and woodfired pizzas 12,000 kyat), as well as a couple of meals we had at The Moon Vegetarian Restaurant. The Moon does an excellent guacamole served with papadums (2500 kyat) and great fresh fruit lassis (1500 kyat). They also have an array of interesting salads.

Inle Lake, Myanmar – Part Two

We spent our second day at Inle Lake cycling around the northern part of the lake (hence we don’t have many photos from day 2 – it’s a bit difficult to cycle and take photos at the same time). We hired bicycles in Nyaungshwe for $2 and went towards the western side of the lake, towards the village of Khaung Daing, and stopping at the hot springs along the way. From Khaung Daing we took a boat to the other side of the lake, to Maing Thauk village. Here we visited the hilltop monastery, before heading back north. Along the way we stopped at Red Mountain Estate Vineyard for some lunch and wine tasting, before making our way back to hustle and bustle of Nyaungshwe.

Our final day on Inle Lake was spent exploring Samkar, which is located at the southern end of Inle Lake, and a lot less touristed than the main lake. The few people who  visit Samkar make the trip to see the old Buddhist ruins located in and around the village, as well as to experience the local village life of the Shan, Intha and Pa-O people, which has been left virtually undisturbed by tourism. Getting to and from Samkar is part of the experience – even through it is a long trip, about 2.5 to 3 hours in each direction, along the way you get to see many beautiful lakeside villages, as well as the stunning landscapes which hug the narrow straight leading from the main part of Inle Lake to Samkar.

You no longer need to pay an entrance fee to visit Samkar, nor are you required to hire a Pa-O guide (another aspect of the opening up of Myanmar to tourism).
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Food in the Shan State (where Inle Lake is located), because of its proximity to China, is greatly influenced by Chinese cuisine. Staying on the lake, we were unfortunately limited to our hotel restaurant for dinner options. However, one dining suggestion for Inle Lake would be to visit Red Mountain Estate Vineyards and Winery. We stopped there for a late lunch one day. Here you can sample the local wines as well as enjoying a simple meal with a great view over the winery and the lake below. They have some well presented European options on the menu, including burgers and pastas, for those who are getting a little weary of the local cuisine. To get there, hire a push-bike in Nyaungshwe and cycle around the eastern side of the lake, towards Mine Thauk Village. There is a sign at the turn-off to the estate.

Inle Lake, Myanmar – Part One

We arrived at Inle Lake in the late afternoon, just in time to watch the sunset from our lake side bungalow. If there is anytime of day which Inle Lake looks utterly amazing, it is this!

We had a jam-packed itinerary the following day, being sped around the lake from place to place. First stop was the tribal market, which is part of the five-day market circuit around the lake. Here many of the Pa-O women from surrounding villages, distinguishable by their black clothing and coloured head scarves, come to sell their produce. Myamnar is a multi-national country, full different tribal and ethnic groups. The Pa-O people, which live in the areas surrounding Inle Lake, are just one of these tribal groups.

Next stop was to visit the weaving workshops of the Kayan women, known for their brass neck rings. These women are indigenous to the southern part of the Shan State (south of Inle Lake). Scarves created from lotus steam fibres, an extremely time consuming process to create threads from these fibres, can be purchased at various workshops on the lake. Because of the shear work involved in creating scarves from lotus threads, they are not cheap.

We took a bit of a detour on our ‘tour’ of the lake and headed to Inn Thein, a large historic temple complex on the western side of the lake. Here you can find crumbling stupas, overgrown with vegetation. If you follow the long covered corridor which leads uphill, you will find another complex of stupas, many of which are well maintained and shine bright white and gold in the Myanmar sun.

Our final stop for the day was a visit to the floating gardens of Inle Lake. This was by far the highlight of our day. The late afternoon light brought out the deepness of the blue lake and the rich greens of the vegetation. It was incredible to see local people working on these floating gardens from their boats – tending their crops and collecting vegetables.

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Getting There:
Inle Lake is most easily accessed by air (unless you’re keen for a long and bumpy bus trip). Flights from major cities and tourist hubs arrive in Heho, the nearest airport to Inle Lake. From the airport a taxi takes about 45 minutes to an hour (depending on the driver) and costs about 20,000 kyat (or US$20). Taxis drop you off in Nyaungshwe. There are many accommodation options in this bustling canal-side town. If you are staying at one of the bungalow-style hotels on the lake, head to the canal where you will find a boat to take you to your hotel. It should take about 30-60 minutes, depending on where your hotel is located, and cost between 10,000-15,000 kyat.

We stayed on the lake, at Paradise Inle Resort. Although the resort is looking a bit tired and in need of a little TLC, being on the lake was fantastic and our room was comfortable. After experiencing the ‘chaos’ of Nyaungshwe, we were happy to be paying that bit extra to spend our nights on the lake. Generally speaking, more budget accommodation options can be found in Nyaungshwe, but if you can spend that bit extra, I would recommend staying on the lake. But the downside is that you are stuck at your hotel after sunset, as the boats don’t ferry people back and forth after dark. At about US$100 per night for a double room, Paradise Inle Resort is one of the cheaper hotels on the lake.

Yangon, Myanmar – Part 2

Our second day in Yangon was short, as we were flying to Heho at around midday to explore Inle Lake and its surrounds. However, we had an interesting morning exploring the fresh produce markets along 26th Street in downtown Yangon. I have been to many fresh produce markets around the world and I have to say that the morning market on 26th Street is probably my favourite. And perhaps one of the most photogenic I have visited. It as a distinct local and authentic feel – with dirt and all. I think we were the only tourist there. But, if you like exploring markets, it is worthwhile taking a morning out to see the local trade.

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Although much more tourist orientated than the morning markets on 26th Street, if you want to purchase a souvenir or two from Myanmar, Bogyoke Aung San Markets in Yangon is the place to go for souvenirs from all around Myanmar under one roof. From lacquerware, to weavings, marionettes, teak carvings and parasols, it can all be found here. It is a rather difficult to sort through the hundreds of stalls and be confident that you’re buying authentic items, but if you didn’t have time to shop for souvenirs during your travels, this is the perfect last resort to get a piece of Myanmar. Some stores are better than others, so it’s worth having a good look around. My favourite store was Yoyamay Textile Gallery, which is the place to go for ethnographic textiles, particularly from the Chin and Kachina tribes from the north and north-west of Myanmar.

Did you know?:
Prior to 2010 independent travel was not allowed in Myanmar. If you wanted to visit the country, you had to do so on an organised and approved tour. There are still many parts of the country where tourists are not allowed to venture, or require a special government permit to visit.

Yangon, Myanmar – Part One

We arrived in Yangon mid-morning and after checking into our guesthouse we caught a taxi into the city. Lunch of byrani rice satisfied our hunger and we embarked on a walking tour of the city (following our trusty Lonely Planet guidebook) to discover some of the city’s colonial heritage. Yangon is considered to be one of the better preserved colonial cities in Asia, as many of the colonial town buildings, such as the court house, customs house, town hall and the like are still standing, since they have not been knocked down to make way for modern office buildings and apartment blocks (western countries officially dropped sanctions on Myanmar in 2012, so foreign investment is yet to alter the landscape of the city).

The heat and chaos of the city became a bit much for us, so we headed the the beauty and serenity of Shwedagon Pagoda. This pagoda really is a site to see. It is enormous and can be seen from most parts of the city. Surprisingly it is not overrun by tourists, unlike major attractions in other world capitals, but rather is full of local worshippers. Unfortunately, during our visit the main stupa was covered due to restoration work, so its brilliant gold was not visible. However, we visited the nearby Maha Wizaya Pagoda to get an indication of what the main stupa would look like if it was not covered in sheeting and bamboo scaffolding. An hour or two can be easily spent meandering around Shwedagon Pagoda and taking in the atmosphere.

We ended our first day with a dust walk around the peaceful Kandawgi Lake – which also has beautiful sunset views towards Shwedagon Pagoda.

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Getting There:
We flew Singapore Airlines from Sydney to Yangon, via Singapore. Upon arriving at Yangon International Airport, take a taxi to your accommodation. The approximate taxi fair to ‘downtown’ is about 8,000 kyat, or US$8.

We stayed at Classique Inn, located in the leafy upmarket suburb of Bahan. A home conversion, this guesthouse offers warm service and presentable rooms. Although the interiors are a little dark, many of the rooms have teak furnishings and private balconies or courtyards. Breakfast is served in the pleasant front courtyard. Although the guesthouse is located about a 20 minute taxi drive north of the downtown area, the surrounding streets are clean and quiet, and the city can be easily navigated by taxi. We were very impressed with Classique Inn and would recommend it to anyone staying in Yangon. Rooms range from US$100-$150 per night.

Like any big city, there are so many places to eat in Yangon. From street stalls, to tea houses, small restaurants and fine dining. I have to say we sampled all of these, with some notable meals enjoyed. Do sample some Myanmar food whilst you’re there, but there are plenty of other cuisines to chose from, notably Indian, Chinese, and Thai, as well as others. Look out for Indian rotis on street corners, which sell for about 100 kyat (or 10 cents) each. A great little snack on the go. Or even sample some Shan noodles. We ate lunch on our first day at a tea house serving biryani rice dishes near the corner of Sule Pagoda Road and Anawratha Road. A vegetarian biryani rice was 800 kyat (80 cents). Restaurant eating in Yangon isn’t much cheaper than in western countries. We ate dinner on night at Alamanda Inn (in the Bahan district) and enjoyed a delicious Moroccan tagine ($12). And another night at The Strand Hotel with a group of Australian ex-pats, where meals range from $15-$25 (but this could be considered high end dining in Yangon).