Burma – an adventure tour trip report

Alex Burgess travelled on our Best of Burma tour in December – read what he has to say about this newly emerging tourist destination.

What were the highlights of your trip?

There were so many highlights for me – viewing the thousands of pagodas at Bagan from the top of one of the tallest pagodas at sunset; seeing about 20 men lifting teak trees out of the Irrawaddy River on to the back of a waiting truck; the journey on boat along the Irrawaddy to Mandalay and climbing up to the Golden Rock (Kyaiktiyo Pagoda) at 5am to watch the sunrise as thousands of pilgrims who had spent the night next to the rock were streaming down.  We had one of the best coffees I’ve ever tasted in one of the small hotels at the top while we were waiting for the sun to rise.

First impressions of the country and tour group?

There was quite a queue to get through immigration but once through I hopped in a taxi which took me to an impressive arrival hotel where I met the rest of the group – 16 people ranging in ages from 20’s to early 70’s and a mixture of males and females, couples and solo travellers from Europe, America and Australia. They were a really good bunch with the general consensus that the more you put in to a trip socialising the more you get out of it. They all said they really enjoyed the tour.  

What did you think of your tour leader?

Our tour leader was San Aung (San), a lovely local Burmese man with one of the broadest smiles I’ve ever seen.  His English was very good and he was really well organised and super-efficient especially when our bus broke down and he used his mobile phone with telescopic aerial (which we ribbed him about) to arrange for a replacement bus in a matter of about 40 minutes - which was quite a feat in a pretty remote rural area near Bago!

San’s local knowledge was good and he had a great sense of humour.  The drivers were all very professional and extremely polite at all times.  San joined us for all meals and even when he was extremely tired stayed with us when we had drinks late into the evening - to the point where he almost fell asleep and we had to tell him to go back to the hotel!

What was the accommodation like?

It was good.  The nicest was probably at Bagan where we had the use of a swimming pool.  The others were clean and comfortable which was fine as we had lots of long days so all I wanted to do was get a good night’s sleep!

Types of transport used whilst on the tour?

A massive variety! We took the overnight train from Yangon to Bagan, hired bikes to ride around the pagodas and hopped on a horse and cart as well.  We took a river boat to Mandalay and a smaller boat to Mingun from Mandalay.  We also used coaches and took a van up to the Golden Rock Hotel.  On our internal flight from He Ho to Yangon we got some fantastic views of the landscape.

What was the food like? 

The food was very interesting.  Most meals were served with some kind of soup as a starter and normally consisted of rice and a curry dish (fish, lamb, beef or pork) and there were normally some poppadoms and lots of small vegetable dishes.  There were also quite a few noodle dishes available.  The local beer was called Myanmar which was great!  We ate in local restaurants generally which were basic with friendly staff.

What were the local people like?

Very friendly and they have a beautiful smile.  Many of the women and men had their cheeks painted with thanakha (a yellowish white bark paste) which protects their faces from the sun and is traditionally used all over Burma.

What was the atmosphere of the country?

Very relaxed generally.  Burma seemed to be a fairly peaceful country (from what I saw) which is down to the mainly Buddhist religion and the fact that the people will go out of their way to help each other out whenever they need it.

Do you feel that you got under the skin of the country?

I think we did get under the skin of the country in that we spoke to local people, ate in local restaurants and saw both city and rural village life.  We tried betel leaf at a market in Kalaw and even joined a National League for Democracy (NLD) rally just outside Mandalay where we met one of the famous Moustache Brothers renowned for their political satire against the military regime.

What rating would you give the tour?

It was an amazing trip and I felt the tour was well planned and organised. It would be a moderate trip in terms of comfort.  You need to be prepared for some rough roads and some early morning starts. It’s a full itinerary so there isn’t a lot of time for relaxing.

Do you feel the tour was value for money?

I thought the tour was very good value for money considering the popularity of Burma at the moment and the demand for hotels in the country.  We saw the main sights, had an excellent tour leader and did as much as we could in the time we had.

What advice would you give to other potential travellers?

Burma is definitely worth visiting whilst tourist numbers are relatively low, especially compared to neighbouring Thailand.  As the country opens up, more of the western culture will infiltrate which is a shame but inevitable as international companies establish markets there.

Take some warm clothes as it can get quite chilly in the hills at night and early mornings though the weather was dry and warm during the day – high 20′s/low 30′s. Perhaps consider a few extra days in Yangon at the start as there is a lot to do there.

Take as much cash in USD$ as you need as ATM’s are still few and far between in Burma! You change the dollars in to local Kyat (pronounced chat).  The higher denomination notes got a better exchange rate and they need to be in pristine un-creased condition. Most hotels and banks can change currency.  The cost of an average meal with drink was £3-4.

What was the most inspirational moment of your trip?

Probably hiring bikes in Nyaungshwe for the day with another chap and cycling around Inle Lake to the thermal springs in Khaung Daing, 4 miles away.  We biked along a tree-lined road with locals clearing the ditches and saw fishermen out on small boats poling past the stilted houses and egrets.  When we got to the springs it was just us and about 8 Buddhist monks relaxing and joking on a lovely sunny day.

Sum your trip up in one sentence.

I had a brilliant experience made more so by the tour leader, San and the fantastic group of people I was travelling with.  Burma is such a beautiful country and there is much to explore with each state having its own identity. It is definitely somewhere I’d like to go back to again to explore further – preferably by bike!

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