Our entry point was the city of Yangon and our first outing, a morning visit to the most important Pagoda in Myanmar, 2500 year old Shwedagon, with its tall gilded stupa. With this visit I immediately realized we had been well guided in our decision. Myanmar's maintains a strong belief in Theravada Buddhism, which is evident with the countless temples and scores of monks and nuns seen throughout the country.
We happened to pop into one of the shops along Bagan's main road where a man was carving. Wood carving is an ancient art in Myanmar and is till practiced today by master wood carvers. Yoda showed an interest and before I knew it we had arranged to bring the kids back the next morning.
The next day we stopped into the shop after dinner to let them know that Yoda loved his mask so much that he was actually sleeping with it. Soe, with a smile on her face, asked why we had't come back that day. I instantly felt her disappointment. I was flooded with the realization that I had taken an uniquely western view, believing we were "wasting their time", a concept which may not even exist in Myanmar. I now understand that they too had genuinely appreciate the unique experience that we had all shared the day before.
I have very few regrets on this trip but not letting the kids return to this wood shop for more lessons is one. Luckily the positive side of having a regret is learning from it so that a similar occurrence doesn't happen again. I have leaned my lesson.
Unfortunately, we had already pre-booked our boat trip. The next morning we had to wake at 4:30am to catch a 14hr express boat trip to Mandalay, a stepping stone on our way to the more remote town of Hsipaw, the jumping off point for hill village treks.
Now what I find extremely interesting is that while Kiko and I agree that Zuki was not a big fan of the river trip at the time, she views it entirely differently now, almost 2 months later. She cheeringly compares it to Lao's Mekong river, which she has expressed interest in going on a long boat trip, and generally not acknowledging the mood of unrest of that day. This brings to mind something I find myself occasionally wondering about; I am really intrigued to see how the children view this world trip in its entirety, given the distance of time and space. In the end how will it end up settling into their memories?
Something about Hsipaw felt right. Perhaps it was simply the small size, or the super friendly and comfortable guest house (Tai House Resort) where we stayed, or the quirky cars around town; whatever it was, I was happy we choose to visit. As luck would have it, the first few days were rainy, keeping us from going straight on a trek and allowing us time to explore around town.
This time we opted for a night bus which was pretty non-eventful and comfortable enough to get some sleep. Luckily when we arrived at 5AM our pre-booked hotel had our room ready and even provided us with a free breakfast. Since Bagan and Inle Lake are the top tourist destination in the country, both are set up for visitors with tasty cafes serving a wide range of food, (Burmese, Thai, Indian, Western) numerous travel agencies, and the full spectrum of guest houses and hotels from which to choose. Since entering Asia we have slowly begun to enjoy these pockets of Western comforts on the so called "backpacker's trail."
Traveling to Myanmar?
- ATMs are widespread and functional, everywhere we visited. (Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay, Hsipaw, lnle Lake)
- When exchanging cash, only brand new bills will be excepted but there are banks in Bangkok that are equipped with these if needed.
- 30 day Visas are easily obtained via the internet. When approved you will receive an email confirmation that needs to be printed and shown on arrival. Our visas were approved overnight and there was actually a human who responded to my email after I had made a mistake on one of the online applications. http://evisa.moip.gov.mm
- Local food is quite oily and pales in comparison to neighboring Thailand, but what food doesn't? When you tire of the local food all the places we visited also offered other Asian and Western foods.
- Overland travel is long (think 10+ hours) but we found it surprisingly comfortable. Actually the buses can be downright cold with the AC blaring, so bring extra layers. Some buses provided blankets! Lots of higher end tourists flew between destinations but the prices of flight seemed high.
- Although we were warned via previous travelers and on the internet of hotels completely selling out during high season (Dec-Feb) we did not find this to be the case and regret that we panicked a little and initially pre-booked the first bit of our trip. If you are particular about getting a room at a certain hotel/guest house, pre-booking would be a good idea. We used Agoda.com and booking.com a few times and got as good prices, oftentimes better than that offered at the desk of the hotel or travel agency.