A Travellerspoint blog

Myanmar

Yangon, Myanmar

Take Two

This is just a brief blog entry as I'd said that we were revisiting Yangon at the end of our Myanmar trip; we did but I'm afraid we didn't do that much.

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We arrived in the early hours of the morning after our overnight bus from Inle Lake, so were unable to check in to our hostel room. Instead we thought we'd visit the Shwedagon paya before the tourist buses arrived later on in the day. Unfortunately we only saw it from the outside as the price was more than we expected,we felt a little templed out already and it was covered in scaffold... whether this will be a decision we regret I'm not sure... We still got a good view of it from the surrounding streets anyway.

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From here we headed to the same Indian biriyani place we'd been before for some breakfast... yes, we had a curry breakfast, just doing it Myanmar style, and a banana lassi.

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We then quickly visited the Bogyoke Aung San market again to do some souvenir shopping; which included a young boy choosing some lounge wear for Jason's brother as a birthday gift. We were then both feeling pretty tired and went back to the hostel for an afternoon nap.

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We had both been quite keen to go to the Strand Hotel happy hour in Yangon, however we couldn't because they only do it on a Friday night...bummer! Instead we went into China town for a meal and a few beers for our last night in Myanmar.

Posted by bloorsontour 05:30 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

Inle Lake

Water and wine...

sunny 26 °C

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It's been so easy to travel around Myanmar; granted we've stuck to the backpacker buses rather than local buses, but even so, they're so cheap and efficient. We caught another overnight bus from Hsipaw to Inle Lake, which arrived on time, 5.30am, and we managed to check straight into our hotel to catch up on few hours sleep in the morning.
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We stayed at Blissful Inn; a relatively new hotel with very attentive door staff (racing to open the door, even tripping over themselves to ensure they get there before you). In fact all the young staff were really nice and seemed to work there 24/7, we often had to wake the receptionist and ask her to deal with our request in her pyjamas. Nonetheless, they were all really friendly and helpful.

We felt like a chilled day initially at Inle, so this turned out to be a food and wine day... lovely! We hired bicycles from our hotel and our first stop was a 'sort of' bakery for a homemade burger and avacado smoothie. We then cycled through Nuangshwe, the town we were staying at on the lake, and worked up an appetite and thirst...what better way to deal with hunger and thirst than a stop at a Myanmar vineyard. The Red Mountain winery sits just outside Nuangshwe, a short 30 minute cycle ride. It has a lovely outdoor area where you can soak up the views of the lake with a glass or two of wine. We really treated ourselves and ordered a tasting set each of 4 wines, then a bottle of wine (a lovely sauvignon blanc) and then a glass of red each. I was pleased with our wine afternoon, but I was even more chuffed that I got to eat proper blue cheese (I've not had decent cheese for 8 months and I've missed it so much). It all went down a treat. By evening time we needed some food to even up our alcohol intake, so had a nice meal at Lotus restaurant; lemon chicken, lime lassi and avocado salad.
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On our second day we decided to see Inle Lake up close...it was a brilliant day! We paid 14000 kyat each to spend the day on the lake with our very own teak boat, boatman, chairs, blankets and umbrellas. You can take your pick of boat companies to take you out on the lake, all doing the same sort of tour (souvenir shops, silversmiths, cigar workshops, traditional fisherman, stilted village and floating allotments). We picked ours based on an honest initial quote (rather than all the haggling and pestering)...it turned out to be the right choice.
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The lake's huge and surrounding mountain scenery stunning. It took us about 1 hour to get from the north side to 2/3 of the way down. We were both amazed by the stilted villages and floating farm land of fruit and vegetables...I could have spent hours just boating in between the villages to see how they live. We've visited lots of villages throughout Asia, but none like this... aesthetically it has to be my favourite... the wooden houses are perfectly suspended over the lake water by thin wooden poles, creating beautiful waterways of teak lodges. The villages have schools, the local post office and all the usual daily goings on of normal village life, except that neighbours don't just pop next door for a chat or to the local shop, instead they have to elegantly row themselves through the small water channels. Almost all of the villagers income is from farm produce, fruit and vegetables, that are grown on marsh land... you can see the villagers tending to their tomatoes, courgettes, fresh flowers on their small boats...just amazing to see! There's so much fresh food and they're all sold at the local markets that happen at village sites over the lake.
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Our boatman called in at the obligatory souvenir and workshops; including silversmiths, weaving, cigar making, boat timber men, ladies with long necks (I'm not sure what tribe they were from) and craft work.
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I think our boatman soon guessed that we weren't the type of tourist that was interested in the tacky souvenir pitch, so spent more time taking us around more villages and floating gardens.
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We stopped for lunch at a stilted restaurant and had a lime sour fish dish with rice and noodles... Delicious!
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As the sun was going down over the lake we made our way into the middle where the fisherman were using traditional techniques for their catch...elegantly the men balance on one leg and paddle with their foot, what seems to be effortlessly and with grace, whilst casting their nets out to catch the fish. Again, I could have spent hours watching them, it was fascinating. Our lovely boat man let us circle the men, so peaceful, and joined Jason with a Myanmar cigar while we all relaxed in the middle of the lake watching the sunset... a truely beautiful day, one of my favourites!
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What better way to end an already fantastic day than to have a curry and a beer in the evening. We ordered chicken and Dahl curry, with plenty of naan bread to soak it up...oh and an avacado salad (in case you haven't guessed by our Myanmar blog entries, we can't get enough of the avacados here).

On our last day in Nuangshwe we had just enough time to visit a couple of temples by bicycle before we had to get the bus back to Yangon. Oh, and we happened to squeeze in another curry, Nepalese this time...
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Posted by bloorsontour 18:14 Archived in Myanmar Comments (4)

Hsipaw, Myanmar

Cat and mouse

sunny 30 °C

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We'd read a few travel blogs about Myanmar and people had recommended taking the bumpy train ride from Mandalay to Hsipaw (pronounced tea-paw). It meant leaving at 4am on a very cold morning, on an extremely smelly and ramshackled carriage, complete with our very own mouse...ergh (this was despite being in upper class). The journey took 12 hours and for the most part isn't actually that scenic, but there is a creaky viaduct that makes the journey sort of worth it. The Gokteik viaduct was built in 1901 by an American steel company and cuts over a deep ravine, it is still in full use despite its age and probably lack of renovation. The train has to stop completely before it goes over and can only travel slowly, I mean snails pace over it, feeling every inch of its sway. It makes for a good photograph anyway.
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Mr Charles Guesthouse in Hsipaw seems to be on most people's travel agenda, so didn't feel much like being of the beaten path as our guide book had promised. We had a twin room with shared bathroom, very clean and efficiently ran. The guesthouse also has hotel rooms too, so there's a mix of backpackers and the more luxurious of travellers there. The big draw of this place is that it organises tours/treks to the local villages, having the monopoly of tourism in Hsipaw. We chose to do an overnight trek to the Palaung village of Pankam.
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The trek takes you through some beautiful scenery, rolling landscapes and flat fields. There were 7 people in our group and we spent a little of our time talking to a British man Ollie, 63years of age and he seems to have travelled most of the world. His 'thing' is to get a tattoo from each place he visits and his Myanmar one was of a leaf (but he didn't know why or what it meant?!). My 'thing' of collecting keyrings from each country didn't seem to impress him... can't think why? He was fitter than me and talked about some of the different treks that he'd been on over the years. The only reason he had to go back to the UK after Myanmar was because he had no more pages left in his passport.
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Our guide, Aweso, was really nice and pointed out a lot of interesting things along the way; such as Shan noodle making, peanut plants and traditional production of sugar blocks from cane. He was really interesting to talk to, his English was brilliant and he enjoyed reading novels in English; and seemed to have his very own library at home. He spoke a lot about the political history of Myanmar and the need for change, and also about his hopes and dreams for the future; which included a cheap and tasty Thai food stall with organic produce. He'd worked in Kuala Lumpur away from his family for 7 years just to save some money for his wedding (a 3 day affair with over 2000 people on the last day) and said if things didn't change with money distribution in Myanmar he would have to consider working abroad again. It's tough for a lot of Myanmar people, the county's said to be the poorest in Asia.
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We stopped for a lovely lunch break at a village and were offered an absolute feast. There was banyon leaf curry, cabbage salad, noodles, rice crisps, fermented bean bars (horrible), vegetable rice, and much more. All vegetarian and off the land, and all but one were delicious.
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Unfortunately I keep having a problem with my hiking boots in hot weather and my little toe blisters. I was in quite a lot of discomfort for the last part of the trek and so couldn't wait to reach our village home to put my feet up. By the time we arrived at Palaung village it was already dark. We were staying in a large stilted house with a local family; parents, grandparents, 2 little boys. They were all really nice and friendly, but disappointingly there wasn't much interaction between us and the group considering it had been sold as a homestay. Nonetheless it was still lovely to meet them and see a little of their way of life. I learnt that 'hello' is 'cam-sigh' and 'thank you' is 'rock-main'. The family even offered me and Jason a private room because we were the only couple; it was small and cosy enough with a very firm rug to sleep on the wooden floor.
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I had a pretty bad nights sleep... it was freezing and so uncomfortable. There was a lot of noise all night from the cockerels and their pet cat. In the middle of the night the cat got louder and louder, I turned on the torch and there at the end of my bed was the cat with a mouse in its mouth...OMG! I HATE rodents, anything with a tail and it was in my room! I woke Jason up with the words "Oh...My...God" (I couldn't shout or scream in case the cat dropped the mouse in the room). Jason couldn't believe it either. Some how I managed to slowly usher the cat with the mouse out of the room, but from then on there was no way I was sleeping in case it came back in.
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The next day we got shown around the village, it has its own monastery, school and local shop. The kids at the school were so cute. We watched 6 lessons going on at the same time in one small room. Tom & Nicola, both teachers in England, there is no way you could teach properly in that environment. Each lesson involved children shouting and chanting at the top of their voices, every word that the teachers were saying was echoed back in loud chorus.
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The next day I gave up on my boots and resorted to walking in my flip flops. My blisters were now really sore. The only problem was that I am so clumsy and tripped over a stone, stubbed my toe and am now pretty sure it's broken with thick purple bruising covering my toe. Let's just say I was far from happy during the final 3 hours of walking.

At the end of the trek we were picked up by a tuktuk and taken to some hot springs. I only dipped my toes in as it was really hot in the midday sun and appeared quite dirty, but Jason went fully in; as we were leaving several locals turned up and started doing their dirty laundry in the hot baths...gross! The food in the restaurant next to the springs was very good- the tea leaf salad and shan noodles were delicious and we all ordered double portions.
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When we finished the trek we had one final night at Mr Charles Guesthouse to recover. We had a day of pottering around Hsipaw; including a visit to the market (I bought a beautiful handmade woven hat), fruit juice by the lake and we found Mr Shake smoothie bar. It's quite a pleasant town to spend a day or two in, but most people come here for the village treks like us and skip the town itself.
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We really did enjoy Hsipaw and the people are extremely friendly, but for now I need some time off trekking to let my toes recover.

Posted by bloorsontour 17:35 Archived in Myanmar Comments (2)

Mandalay

sunny 30 °C

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Rather than being unceremoniously dumped at a bus station in the middle of nowhere, the bus dropped us off right at our door. Night Sweet Hotel looked very professional with concierge to help us cross the road and see that we didn't need to open a door for ourselves... Not bad for £20 a night. We got a nice bright room on the top floor and even a pretty good breakfast included.

Mandalay is a dusty, smoky sprawl of a place. Taxis were expensive so we decided to brave the traffic and get a motorbike. First stop was the train station to book a 4am train to our next destination and then on to a food stop. We found a place with nice curries and good, but expensive strawberry lassies (our latest obsession). After we decided to limit our riding around in daylight so headed back to the hotel for some planning, sleep and a couple of episodes.
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For our second day, we decided to head out of Mandalay to see some of the more picturesque former capitals. First up though was the Ubien Bridge - a large ramshackle teak bridge crossing a lake. It was quite pleasant in the early morning with mainly locals strolling along, fisherman and cockle pickers doing there thing and a bit of monk business going down. We returned in the afternoon thinking of staying for sunset and found coach loads of western tourists, many of whom looked very miserable for some reason. On the return visit, we grabbed a quick beer and a crab before leaving the tour groups to it, happy with our mornings memories and photos.
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We stopped to grab petrol at a slightly chaotic station and the staff tried to charge us for 7 litres. Knowing that our tank probably held 3 in total I explained that we wouldn't be paying that... I also explained how nice people had been so far and my disappointment at finding people trying to take advantage. After a small discussion amongst themselves, we were told no payment was necessary... Apology accepted and a good bonus - free fuel for the whole day!
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Inwa is further south of the bridge and is a pretty low key town. Horses and carts ply the streets ferrying people to various temples. I was glad to have a bike so that i didn't have to follow a stinking horse around for a couple of hours... Nothing was particularly standout, but the area is scenic and there are plenty of small temples that you can "discover" alone. The main attractions were busy enough but not oppressive. I quite enjoyed watching a photography group with one woman taking photos of kids with a huge lens about a foot from their faces.
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After Inwa, we took the bridge over the Ayerywaddy River to Saigang where gold and white stupas shine from the hillside. We chose a random monastery to visit where there happened to be a film crew up to something and a friendly monk, keen to show us around and practice his English. Like many monks, he had been "given" to the monastery as his parents couldn't afford to feed and clothe him. The monastery was beautiful, but the lack of choice in how to spend your life is quite sad... On the way down the hill a group of kid monks heckled us. One of the boys (about 7yrs old) was smoking. They looked like a proper little gang. Perhaps being a monk as a kid isn't so bad...
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Next up on our bike tour was getting lost around the western end of Mandalay. There were plenty of locals going about there daily lives, many of whom were keen to say hello. Having had enough of battling the rush hour traffic, with the sun setting and red eyes from a the dust and the fumes, we set our sites on a restaurant. Diamond Ring vegetarian Indian restaurant was awesome! So good that we went back the next day to work our way through the rest of their tandoori breads with paneer, Dahl, cauliflower and potato curries. Each one was extremely tasty (I'm writing this 8hrs into a 10hr train journey and it's making me very hungry!).

For our last day in Mandalay, we had planned to cycle around the streets, take in the palace, a few pagodas and Mandalay life in general. Given the heat, dust and our laziness, we took the motorbike again.

In the centre of Mandalay is a moat and walls cutting out a square with sides 2.5km long. Inside there appears to be very little... Its nice and peaceful and seems to he mainly army bases. At the very centre is the former palace. For us it was interesting as we'd read a good book called the Glass Palace (the author's name escapes me), which describes the walled city as a place commoners could only look upon from until the British invaded and exiled the royal family in the name of cheap teak. The palace was bombed and heavily damaged in the second world war and so much of what was there was reconstructed afterwards and is in a slightly shabby state.

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The golden monastery was originally brought from a former capital and rebuilt within the palace grounds. Later it was moved again outside of the walls. This saved it from the bombs and it's pretty impressive now, but in its glory of would have been covered in gold leaf and must have been quite the site...
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It was a hot day so we checked out a posh hotel to see if we could use their pool. It seemed we could, though at 30 dollars we decided it was a bit steep. Next door was an Olympic sized outdoor pool, which was only 2 dollars. Sophie had decided that a public pool would he disgusting and despite it being nice she stuck to her guns and watched from the side while I did a mile. Well, she actually got the Bagan blog written so she did well.
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The last activity for the day was to climb Mandalay Hill. Sophie has been a bit put out at having to walk barefoot so much, even taking to doing a strange tiptoe thing; walking gingerly, if you will. Apparently the ground feels horrible under her feet. Anyway, Mandalay Hill is a series of covered walkways between pagodas taking you to the top of the hill (about a 45 minute walk). You walk barefoot because of all the pagodas, but the ground is a little dirty (dogs, cats, birds, people). The walk up has a couple of small highlights but is generally a line of souvenir shops, dodgy construction projects and obscured views. At the top, the coach trips arrive and even have an elevator to take them the few metres up from the car park... The views are impressive, but the people annoyed us too much to justify waiting for sunset and anyway, the curry was calling to us...
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Posted by bloorsontour 08:54 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

Bagan, Myanmar

E-bikes...woohoo!

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We caught an overnight bus from Yangon to Bagan, with JJ bus company. We'd definitely recommend them as a mode of transport; hostess with a drink & snacks trolley, plenty of leg room to recline and more importantly the journey time took exactly the 9 hours they'd promised...none of these frustrating delays we'd heard about.

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When we arrived at the bus station we were greeted by the usual mayhem; local men shouting and pestering for our custom. They claimed to offer "good price" for their taxivan to the hotel, however then proceeded to try and rip us off. Us, alongside another group of 5 backpackers, refused to pay their 5000 kyat per person transfer and after 30 minutes of arguing we all walked away...only to miraculously find them chasing us to offer the ride for 2000 kyat per person instead (I'm sure it's supposed to be even less than that in reality).

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We'd got a lovely room at Northern Breeze Hotel and luckily for us they let us check in straight away to catch up on some much needed sleep. The room rate included a lovely breakfast with fresh fruit, omlette chef and bread & jams. Plus our view at breakfast included a sky filled with hot air balloons floating past. We also hired their e-bikes to explore Bagan on. Couldn't have asked for more.

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Unfortunately our first day was a write off... Jason woke up ill! Let's just say he needed to spend the day being very close to a toilet...oh dear! It was an excuse for me to have a relaxed day too; catching up on blogs, editing photographs, reading and watching Dexter. The only thing I didn't like was having to dine on my own; I'm not sure I'm very good with my own company, Jason says I need him to twitter my thoughts to...I think he's right! Luckily the next day he felt much better...

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Bagan used to be Burma's capital city and is now on everybody's tourist trail to see the magnificent landscape of stupas and pagodas. It does not disappoint!

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The temples are built with brick and topped with guilded pinnacles, often decorated inside with ornate frescoes of Hindu and Buddhist images.

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The main temples, such as Ananda Pahto and Dhammayangyi, get lots of tourists but it is incredibly easy to escape the bus tour crowds.

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The best thing about being in Bagan was exploring. It was hilarious bombing around on these little pink e-bikes. Heading down muddy paths that lead to overgrown ruins that you feel you've discovered for the first time, then being chased away by cows down dirt tracks and then finding your own roof top view to enjoy all to ourselves...we loved it!

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Mum and Dad you may be interested to hear that a lot of the river cruise companies stop off at Bagan as it's next to the Ayewaywady River. There's a gold temple right on the river and I'm sure the best view of it would have been sailing past it on a cruise but unfortunately we didn't have time. We were going to get a boat from Bagan to Mandalay but the 32 dollar fee exceeded our budget on transport... tis a shame because it's meant to be beautiful.

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Bagan is famous for its sunset vistas. Finding a quiet spot to enjoy it is more of a challenge as lots of tour groups arrive on buses to catch a glimpse of the view. We managed to sit on our very own temple while lots of people crowded on the one in front of us. We watched the sky turn to pink as we admired the jaw dropping view.

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There's a local village in the centre of old Bagan, real Burmese life on the doorstep of a huge tourist trap. This was nice to see, especially as when I was researching about Bagan I read that the Myanmar military forcibly removed a village from the archeological centre and relocated them..all for government money prospects from tourism. We caught local men playing football volleyball (I've yet to find the actual name of the sport) in the evening as the sun's heat was dissipating. There were some impressive overhead kicks going on, very athletic.

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I've not mentioned thanaka yet. As soon as you arrive in Myanmar you'll notice that everybody has sandy cream on their face, usually round splodges on their cheeks. All different ages and genders wear it. It's a beauty cream made from the bark of a tree... can't remember which tree now. This little girl on the photograph was interested in having some of my lipstick to match her cream.

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We took a lot of photographs. I won't bore you with the history of each temple, but its fascinating to think that the earliest ones are from 1057AD. There's a huge conflict between 'restoration and preservation' and UNESCO are trying to ensure that original styles and techniques are being upheld (which in many cases they are not).

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We found a couple of good restaurants around Bagan; Be Kind to Animals served delicious tamarind leaf curry and mint & lime tea and Weatherspoon's (nothing like the chain you get at home) did an amazing avacado salad and Myanmar Mule (rum, lime, ginger and soda). I enjoyed celebrating with my midday cocktail...celebrating what I hear you ask?! You'll see...

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We did a lot of debating about how we compared Bagan to the Angkor temples and Petra... I thought Bagan's plus side is it's scale and skyline of pinnacles, however the buildings themselves are very samey and restored to varying qualities. You can maybe get a bit bored by the red brick and 4-sided temple combo. There was always something different to look at in Petra and Angkor. Bagan is great for exploring, it's relaxed and there are lots of interactions with the locals. People here are very friendly, dignified and respectful. There are plenty of souvenirs on offer, but people aren't pushy and they won't take your money for showing you around. Three kids on top of one temple were plenty happy with a chewing gum each after we wouldn't buy a painting. Individually the temples don't have the wow factor but overall we had a great time exploring.

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Posted by bloorsontour 01:50 Archived in Myanmar Comments (5)

Yangon, Myanmar

Mingalarbar Myanmar!

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Our journey from Manila to Yangon (via Kuala Lumpur) was 17 hours, so you can imagine that by the time we got to Sleep In Hostel in Yangon we were ready for our bed. The transfer from the airport to our hotel was very straightforward; hassle free, fixed price and comfortable. We've been warned about the frustrations of travelling in Myanmar. So far so good...

At the end of our Myanmar trip we fly out of Yangon airport so only chose to spend one day here now (and hopefully another day before we depart at the end). As we were staying in downtown Yangon we thought we'd explore this area and follow the Lonely Planet's walking guide, well, loosely anyway.

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From our hotel we walked through the busy streets of downtown; fresh fruit and vegetable stalls, Indian street food, lots of shouting, chaotic streets. It gave us chance to soak up the atmosphere. We felt very safe and were only greeted with smiles from the locals.

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We called in at a traditional tea shop for a rest from the sun's heat. I ordered lemon tea, which disappointingly came in a sachet and tasted like Lemsip, whereas Jason joined the locals and had a very milky, sugary cup of tea... it was so sweet and reminded us of the Sri Lankan teas we had. You can find lots of tea shops in and around the streets.

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The walk then takes you past some grand buildings; the city hall, high court building, banks and the Strand Hotel. We had a sneaky peek inside Yangon's most expensive hotel; posh restaurant, cafe, musician in the lounge. If we get chance when we next come to Yangon I'd like to enjoy their evening happy hour (we can't afford their drink prices normally).

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There's a relatively large street area dedicated to books, the outdoor library.

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It was so hot and so it only set seemed fair that we should have plenty of food and drink replenishments.

A bag of fresh pineapple.

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A delicious chicken and vegetable biriyani (amazing!)

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And Jason's personal favourite, a fresh strawberry lassi from a street corner stall.

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The Bogyoke Aung San Market is a large area filled with souvenir stands selling jade bracelets, longyis and paintings. The upstairs area is filled with fabric shops and seamstresses; some of the floral embroidery work is beautiful.

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Before catching our night bus to Bagan we had just enough time for a quick rest and freshen up. Jason got a few food supplies from the outdoor vendor for our onwards journey; including Indian nibbles and fruit. Our food experience so far has been very Indian in flavour, but I gather this changes the further north you travel... we shall see.

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We're both looking forward to returning to Yangon in a couple of weeks (hopefully for a cocktail at The Strand and Jason for another strawberry lassi) and to see the main temple based attraction: Shwedagon Paya.

Posted by bloorsontour 05:24 Archived in Myanmar Comments (1)

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