I read some worrying reviews of domestic Myanmar flights, airlines and airports prior to our trip, so I thought I’d recap our experiences. During our time in Myanmar, we flew from Yangon to Mandalay, from Bagan to Heho (Inle Lake), and from Heho to Yangon. We flew Golden Myanmar Airlines all three times and our experiences were generally good. We had some delays, but nothing major and nothing that’s not common in the U.S. or Europe. The airplanes were clean, service good, flights smooth. Seats are a bit tight, but manageable especially considering the short flying times for domestic flights. Everything I read convinced me flying was the only way to go, given the state (or lack) of roads and railroads in Myanmar and the distances involved.
When making plans to visit Inle Lake in Myanmar, I debated whether to stay on an over-water bungalow on Inle Lake or in the town of Nyaung Shwe near the lake. Both had their appeal, and town is definitely cheaper. In the end, I opted for two nights at each. In retrospect, I’d skip Nyaung Shwe and spend three nights on the lake. Most tourists stay in Nyaung Shwe simply as a more economical base for exploring Inle Lake. Still, we enjoyed our time in Nyaung Shwe (except for some noise issues), and it was an interesting short stay, although lacking in any big must-sees other than Inle Lake.
Inle Lake, in the mountains of central Burma was a highlight of our trip to Myanmar. Inle’s iconic fishermen have a peculiar one-leg rowing style they use while standing at the very bow of their boats, a method that allows them to navigate the weeds and shallow waters of the lake while looking for fish. They also use unique cone-shaped nets to fish, often raising them with a foot as they balance precariously on the other leg.
The nearest airport to Inle Lake is Heho (pronounced “hay hoe”) and it is a good 45-50 minute drive from the airport to the nearest full-sized town to the lake, Nyaung Shwe, which sits a fair distance from the lake down a long canal. Lodging options are split between lake resorts and hotels in Nyang Shwe. I loved the idea of an over-water bungalow on the lake, so was sure I wanted to do that. But, I also liked the idea of staying in town to see what that might offer. So, I decided to do both.
The final destination on our Irrawaddy flotilla steamer cruise was Bagan (sometimes spelled “Pagan,” always with the accent on the last syllable), an ancient city of thousands of Buddhist stupas and temples. Bagan rivals such sites as Angkor Wat in historical value and size. The 26 square miles of plains on the banks of the Irrawaddy River that comprise the Bagan Archeological Site contain over two thousand of these religious testaments to Buddhist belief that to build a temple or stupa is to earn merit. The temples date back to the 11th century and were built during the reign of the Bagan kings until their civilization was destroyed by earthquakes and Kublai Khan’s invading Mogols.
The final stop on our Irrawaddy flotilla steamer cruise before Bagan was the former colonial outpost of Salay. We unfortunately arrived in the heat of the afternoon, maybe because our schedule had been off for the last couple of days due to a 3-hour delay when we ran aground on one of the Irrawaddy’s many sandbars. We’d been warned in advance to expect such minor mishaps and to be flexible, and the delay had been a non-issue for the most part (and actually kind of interesting to watch the maneuvers involved in extricating the boat from its predicament).
Although Bagan and its 2000 stupas was the ultimate destination of our river cruise on an Irrawaddy Flotilla Steamer, the first time we saw the city was from across a wide spot in the river and only a few days into our week aboard the steamer. We stopped overnight at Tant Kyi village, so we could visit the hilltop Tant Kyi Taung Pagoda with its sweeping view of the Irrawaddy and Bagan in the distance. Also, being there in the morning allowed us to see the many boats full of locals arrive at sunrise to visit Tant Kyi Taung Pagoda before heading back across the river to Bagan. The point of this early pilgrimage was to try to visit four special pagodas in one day, Tant Kyi Taung and three in Bagan. Yen explained that doing this is said to bring about the granting of a prayer, but the only way to visit all three is to begin in at dawn.
Another fun stop on our river steamer cruise down the Irrawaddy was at the large town of Pakkoku (population of about 100,000). As always, we moored at a rough bank of the river, no pier in sight. This time, we hiked up a steep flight of narrow stairs to find ourselves at a single-file footpath along the side of a field. As soon as we made the top of the river bank, we found women waiting to sell us the ubiquitous souvenirs: longyi (the local tube skirts worn by nearly everyone), jewelry, scarves and the like. One woman latched onto me immediately and we went through the now-familiar “you like?/maybe later?” routine. Although they can be persistent, we’ve found the Burmese to be much less pushy than other Asian vendors. Burmese are generally a friendly, cheerful group; the people on the street tend not to make overtures to us first, but they beam back when we smile at them and wave, or greet us with a bright “Mingalaba!,” the local greeting that is sort of a combination of “hello” and “auspiciousness to you.” Vendors do approach or call to us, of course, but they’re not overly aggressive, just hopeful. There was something particularly charming about my new friend, and I found myself considering that “maybe later” as she followed along the footpath with me. At the far end of the field, three larger, truck-style tuk tuks awaited our group. Climbing aboard, we were off on a dirt road through fields and past ox carts until we came to the intersection with a major paved road.
One of my favorite stops on our Irrawaddy riverboat cruise was Yandabo, a village known for pottery production. Yandabo is cleaner and more prosperous looking than many of the villages along the Irrawaddy. The government is assisting with funds to build a river wall (erosion being a big problem along the Irrawaddy) and the locals organized to clean up trash (another big problem along the river and in the villages). We were impressed to learn that the entire family of potters we visited had university degrees. Sadly, though, they could earn more making terracotta pots.
We’ve really been looking forward to our time on a wooden Irrawaddy Flotilla Steamer. Prior to WWI, the largest river flotilla in the world was on the Irrawaddy River in Burma. Most of these classic teak wood boats were destroyed, either by bombs or by scuttling. Pandaw, the river cruise line I’d chosen, salvaged and restored one of these boats, then built others, copying the original 1930’s style, but with modern updates. I’d carefully chosen our intimately-sized boat and even the side of the boat I wanted our cabin on. So, I was worried and disappointed to read an email from my booking agent the day before we boarded in Mandalay saying we’d been changed to a larger riverboat. A little research revealed this new boat, the Pandaw Orient, was 8 years older than the original, Pandaw Kindat; worse, the Orient had 30 cabins vs. 18 on the Kindat.
Yangon was, by necessity, our first stop in Myanmar although I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about the city as a destination. Flights to the country are limited and the vast majority of international flights arrive at Yangon International Airport. Due to an airline schedule change, our already brief 3-night stay was whittled to 2-nights. Yangon turned out to be a really pleasant surprise.
After a 36+ hour flight and layover odyssey, the Yangon Airport was a nice, hassle-free experience. Seated in business class, we were one of the first off the plane and one of the first through customs. We handed over the Myanmar visas we’d obtained online and printed at home, posed for a photo and were stamped into the country, all quick and easy. We were lucky as a line quickly grew after we passed through customs.