Walking out of Sedona – possibly the most upscale hotel in Yangon, or all of Myanmar – from our friend’s wedding, we shouldn’t have been surprised when a middle-aged taxi driver uncle quoted a seemingly ridiculous 8000 kyat to take us to our lunch destination. Fate would have us refuse on the basis of not-getting-ripped-off, because that actually equates to less than HK$50, and end up meeting Liam.
Yangon was the last stop of our 9-day trip around Myanmar, and Liam, a young (business)man who grew up in Singapore, driving a taxi part-time to gain customers for auto sales, shocked us with English so excellent, our observations about this fascinating country were finally put into perspective, explained in depth, by a “real person”.
We too wondered why Liam had moved away from Singapore and back to Myanmar. Given the extremely rapid change in Myanmar over the past few years, he tells us he earns the same amount of money in Myanmar as he did in Singapore, except of course the cost of living is substantially lower. Just how much has Myanmar changed? Just two years ago, scarcity meant that a SIM card costed US$200. Now we can all get it at the airport for US$4.
Myanmar is also quickly making its way to travellers’ agendas and even though Yangon is home to Shwedegon Pagoda, the standard “must visit” in anyone’s itinerary, I personally enjoyed our trip to Inle Lake the most.
Here, you primarily travel around in a tiny sampan-like boat and much of the pagodas, temples, weaving factories, wood workshops, restaurants and even markets, were on stilts above the lake.
Tomatoes, avocados and coffee beans
We flew into Heho to get here. It’s located almost 1000m above sea level, which is why, I was ecstatic to find out: Myanmar grows their own coffee beans! I bought and brought back some from Baboon (inside the terminal of Mandalay airport) and they were really good.
Myanmar has been a closed country until very recently and so the abundance of delicious produce – especially avocados and tomatoes – are still only enjoyed domestically. The country is home to a staggering 54 million people; no wonder trade hasn’t really needed to take off.
Shwe Kyar Pwint – The best meal I had in Myanmar
Our tour guide (you need one at Inle Lake) took us to Shwe Kyar Pwint for lunch and it was my personal favourite meal of our entire trip around Myanmar. The food is meant to be simple local food, but the flavours were spot on and most importantly, they had access to the freshest ingredients. A fresh (and huge) steamed fish cost us less than HK$30! They also had really good tea leaf, tomato and avocado salads.
Regional market – A charming experience and place to shop for handicrafts and produce
But the most fascinating place was the regional market. In Inle Lake, they have regular 5-day markets, and their location moves around the lake. Your tour guide or driver should know the details. The market is split into two parts – one with lots of handicrafts made in Myanmar (good for souvenir shopping) and one for locals to buy their groceries, produce and seafood. It’s definitely a charming experience to take a deeper look into local life, and would be loved by those who enjoy buying ingredients and cooking.
We also got sampled a tofu salad here, and felt extremely local about it too.
Although Inle Lake was my favourite part of Myanmar, it’s hard to argue against Bagan being a must-visit stop. It’s an ancient city filled with over 2,000 stupas, pagodas and temples and is genuinely a beautiful scene to see, despite the air being a little dusty during our visit.
Balloons over Bagan
Hot air ballooning is the thing-to-do here. It does cost an extortionate US$285 per person, yet it was also an extremely enjoyable and, I rationalised, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. To date, I’m still divided as to whether it was exactly worth it. But I think I would recommend it to anyone who’s not on a budget – once-in-a-lifetime, right?
A few of our friends chose to enjoy the sunrise from one of the temples instead. The views were different and no less beautiful. The main turnoff is the huge crowd who’ll be enjoying it with you.
So sick of… Pagodas
I’m not going to pretend… I got extremely sick of taking off my shoes and visiting pagoda after pagoda, especially at Bagan because that’s essentially all there is to do here. It’s good to visit 2-3 and I felt personally drawn to the beauty of Thatbyinnyu Temple. I think it’s important to do a private tour or explore this place yourself, because it’d be pretty unenjoyable to involuntarily visit 10 pagodas in a day.
As such, 1-1.5 days to do the hot air balloon and visit two other pagodas is honestly more than enough in Bagan.
Unimpressive dining scene in Bagan
Plus the dining scene was the most unimpressive here too. You can tell that most restaurants are here to cater to foreigners. We saw great reviews of Khaing Shwe Wha on TripAdvisor (ranked #1 at the time) but were extremely disappointed at the mediocrity of the food. So much so I had to write a review here. We did, however, really enjoy our lunch at Sanon – a casual al fresco cafe which serves slightly fusion-y Burmese food.
On the hunt for a good coffee shop
Wherever in the world I go, I’m always on the hunt for good coffee shops. I was even more motivated after discovering that Myanmar grows their own coffee beans – they must be somewhat expertised in brewing coffee too then, right? Wrong. Time after time I was disappointed with the cafes I chose to visit, despite rigorous Instagram and web research. I even inquired Liam, a former-barista in Singapore, “where’s the best coffee shop?” To which he sternly answered “No! None.”
But it was in Mandalay where I finally had a pretty good cup of coffee at Nova Coffee. They also do pretty good desserts. It still doesn’t live up to the good coffee shops we have in Hong Kong, Taipei, London, or many more coffee-cultured cities around the world. But if you need your caffeine fix like me, this is the place to go.
UNESCO Heritage site: The World’s Largest Book
Many of the sites around Myanmar are not recognised by UNESCO as heritage sites because people keep ‘adding on’ to the original structures. Changing parts of them, renewing bits and pieces, or covering temples with gold leaves. Kuthodaw Pagoda, or The World’s Largest Book, is one of the exceptions.
There are 729 of these little stupas which each house two pages of Buddhist scriptures inscribed on a slab of stone. Apparently if one spent 8 hours reading this book per day, it would take 6 months to finish it. It was a beautifully quiet place, charming, kind of romantic and one of my personal favourite places in Myanmar.
Go beyond Yangon
Before I visited Myanmar, I knew nothing about the geography, demographics or history of this country. To truly appreciate and enjoy this place, I think it’s absolutely paramount to travel beyond Yangon. In fact, apart from visiting the Shwedegon Pagoda and Bogyoke Market, there isn’t much to do in this city but be stuck in a lot of frustrating traffic.