Backpacking in Myanmar: Yangon – Inle Lake – Mandalay – Bagan – Yangon

Temples in Bagan When I had signed up for Myanmar, only one thing was on my mind – Bagan. Seriously, nothing else in Myanmar would interest me like Bagan. And so I thought. And oh boy, was I wrong. I reserved my AirAsia return tickets to Yangon from Kuala Lumpur 6 months earlier. I had to. I was just playing with some clicks on the mouse at AirAsia website and found the secret low-price deal – both ways in January 2015 for MYR155. That was equivalent to USD48.50 then. A real steal.

Yangon (Formerly known as Rangoon)

I arrived in Yangon International Airport on 17 January 2015, as early as 8am. My immediate destination that day would be to Inle Lake, instead of spending a night in Yangon. That meant that I had to find a transport to downtown, hang around there until evening and then, find another transport to the Aung Mingalar Highway Bus Station to catch my bus to Inle Lake.

Avoiding to take taxi, I walked out of the airport and turned right on the main road. Walked for abut 20 minutes, crossed the road and then head right to the street market. Waited there. Several buses passed by, with the ticket conductors shouted the buses’ destination. I was looking out for ‘Sule’. The bus number was 51 but all the best in reading Myanmar number. I just listened out for the shouts as new buses stopped. Eventually one came around 10 minutes later. I got up and paid only 200kyat for a ride that was more than an hour, in a crowded bus. The seats were narrow. Still, with a medium backpack, I was able to squeeze myself to the back of the bus, and got a seat 20 minutes later. 200kyat was definitely better than paying 8000kyat for a taxi ride to downtown.

Sule Pagoda, happily seated in the ring of the roundabout of the city center.

I spent some time in Yangon, walking along Sule Road. Look into the streets along the main road and one could see a different characteristic of the rows of houses with the street cables hanging across one another. Went into Sule Pagoda, which was unique as it was a pagoda in a roundabout. Cars and buses just went around it. Entrance fee was 3000kyat. No footwear was allowed.

Drivers in Yangon loved their horns. They horned for basically almost anything. They would horn if cars in front were too slow. Or slowing down. Or when they were about to overtake. Or if they think the cars in front was moving slightly to the left. They would horn. And horned. And horned again. Man, these people loved their horns. The bus ride to Aung Mingalar Highway Bus Station was taken near the pagoda. The bumpy bus ride was more than an hour. I sat on a wooden bench. Again, the ride cost me 200kyat, which was definitely better than paying 9000kyat for a taxi ride.

Inle Lake (18 – 19 Jan 2015)

I took JJ Express VIP bus, which departed from Yangon at 6pm, arriving at 5am. I took JJ Express for most of my trips. There was no website. One would have to reserve their tickets through the Facebook page – JJ-Express Highway Bus. This was a vip bus. From what I had heard, the bus transportation in Myanmar had changed significantly, as compared to 5 or 8 years ago. No more loud music blasting in midnight bus. No more additional stools in the gap between seats to take in more passengers. And no more frequent stops in the middle of nowhere. JJ Express Bus was really comfortable (except that someone should really beg them to do something about the air-conditioner. It was unbearably cold for the Yangon to Taunggyi journey). The price was 18500kyat, which was definitely better than the air flight which was charging a minimum of USD50.

We arrived early, to be greeted by pickup riders, who wanted to fetch us to our hotels for a price. I had read from the net that from Taunggyi, one would pay around 500kyat for the ride to Inle Lake. The rider told us it was 2000kyat. I was not happy about it. And secondly, we were not in Taunggyi. In the dark morning, we did not know that we were already in Naungshwe, where Inle Lake was. We (other bus passengers and I) were taken for a ride. Just two streets later, a journey of no more than 5 minutes, I found myself in front of my motel – Inle Star Motel. Again, as said, I was not happy.

Bottom line – walk to your hotel.

I did not mind paying, but not for such a short distance. I stepped into the motel, to be greeted by a friendly staff member of the motel. Generally, I have to say that my stay in Inle Star Motel was really good. My review of the motel was published here in TripAdvisor. The single bed room cost me USD25. This was the only item which was not under tight budget. I had tried sleeping in dorms in the past. It did not work well for me as I would wake up easily.

Cost me USD25 a night and it was worth it. The staff members were friendly and helpful.
Cost me USD25 a night and it was worth it. The staff members were friendly and helpful.

Entrance fee into Inle Lake was USD10.

As the sun rose and the streets became clearer, I was able to see the buzzing activities around the river. Stalls were opening to greet locals for early munch, boatmen were by the jetty persuading tourists to take the boat ride out to the lake and motorcycles and bicycles were roaming the streets.

Boats, awaiting tourists, at river of Inle Lake

Inle Lake was great but even as a paying tourist, it was not easy to get to the lake as the boatmen would try to hike up the price they would charge. It was really difficult. I was offered by the same boatman a price from USD18 to USD15. When I still refused to take the boat alone, he was strong in his objection to my idea of sharing the boat with another tourist. Eventually, I saw Patrick (from USA). Patrick wanted to share with me but said that he believed the price could go lower. In fact, he wanted to get more to go into the boat with us. I had no objection. I did not object. The boatmen, however, objected. When Valentine and his girlfriend from Europe wanted to share the boat with us, the boatmen hiked the price up to USD22 and then suddenly, all that talk about special trip or normal trip. USD22 – special trip (longer). USD20 – normal trip. Eventually, even my boatman was desperate and wanted to usher us away from other boatmen. After much disagreement, we agreed to pay USD20 for four, but it had to be ‘special trip’. The journey started at 9.30am.

Although the scene before the boat trip sounded crazy, it was not that bad. Bottom line – go for USD15, if you could. In January, the air was chilly and the boatman provided us blankets. It was nice to sit back and just enjoy the trip up the river that would meet the lake.

A fisherman on his way back to his village, along one of the several rivers of Inle Lake.

The trip would cover places where handicrafts were made (called as factories) and one big Phaung Daw Oo temple. To eat a cheaper lunch, one should try the stalls behind the temple, instead of the more expensive restaurants the boatman brought us to. The highlight of the whole trip was the Temple of Many Pagodas and Floating Village (which included Floating Garden).

Temple of Many Pagodas

There was a temple stop before this one. I did not care much for that temple, nor the Temple of Jumping Cats. The cats were lazy. I did not get the whole idea of a temple of cats??!! Anyway, this temple was located somewhere near the factories where one could meet the hill tribe with the ladies with ‘long gold rings’ neck. Other boats did not stop at this temple as the water was too low for the tourists to get out of the boat. However, our boatman was kind enough to go into the river, walked on the mud and dragged our boat close to shore. We spent around 15 minutes at this place. It was 2.30pm. The sun was up and at the right angle, one could catch the blue sky and white clouds. The photos turned out amazing. I was told the name was so, however, I really doubted that it was called Temple of Many Pagodas.

Seagulls, flying over the boat as biscuit crumbs were thrown up for them.
Seagulls, flying over the boat as biscuit crumbs were thrown up for them.

In the journey, at times, one could see seagulls flying over the boats of the tourists. I was curious. Why the seagulls avoided mine? Did they feel I was unfriendly? I had bad vibes/aura? I was puzzled. Eventually it was told that it was because those boatmen threw biscuits crumbs. Oh…

Balancing one foot on the boat and another to lift the net, the fisherman of Inle Lake was ready for his act.
Balancing one foot on the boat and another to lift the net, the fisherman of Inle Lake was ready for his act.

And of course, the trip would not be complete without the sight of the fishermen of Inle Lake catching fish in their traditional manner. As our boat were ending its journey, the sight of the fishermen came on. It was thrilling for me to see them. Immediately, as if they knew what we had wanted, they demonstrated their techniques of lifting the nets. I was impressed… until, they approached our boats after one or two minutes of demo and asked for money. Money?? It was just for money and not for fishing. No wonder the earlier fishermen that I had seen were catching fish with another type of net. I felt bad as I did not want to spend too much on such trick. I was about to cough out some kyat until I heard the fishermen (there were two), asking for 1000kyat. I did not know if it was 1000kyat each or shared. I was not ok with that, at all. Patrick took out 50kyat and gave to one of them. They went off, unhappy.

Tips: Go as early as possible to Inle Lake. Our journey started at 9.30am and we came back only at 5pm. And I believed we had not really covered the whole lake yet. However, it was enough.

On the land of Nyaung Shwe, there were several things one could do. Early in the morning, wake up and get views of young novice monks going around for alms. Get a bicycle and go around to see the town, where one could see the farm on the other side of the bridge, see old ruin of a pagoda or catch glimpses of schools in session.

By the way, somewhere here, I should mention that Shan food should be tried, since that this was the Shan state of Myanmar. The noodle was good.

Mandalay (20 Jan 2015)

I took the midnight bus from Inle Lake to Mandalay. It was really convenient as the bus would pick us up from Oriental Tour Agency, which was just 10 minutes away from my hotel. Among the 3 routes, Taunggyi-Mandalay’s journey faired the lowest. The fare was 11000kyat. There was no personal tv nor food served on bus.

The bus arrived early, at 4am, in Mandalay. I had planned to stay for two days, leaving on the night of 21 January 2015 to Bagan. Different from Yangon and Nyaung Shwe, Mandalay has motorcycle taxis. Each trip could be around 1000 to 2000kyat. However, since that no one could understand English, I had to resign to taking the taxi to my hotel.

Moe Thee Hotel deserved to be praised. I got in around 4,30am. I asked if I could check in early, instead of waiting in the lobby until 2pm and the hotel allowed me to. It was so nice of them. I was shown to my single room on the 8th floor. Took my nap and woke up to see the sunrise from my window around 6am. I made the mistake of not asking the front desk manager to arrange for me tour of Mandalay by motorcycle earlier. Instead, I went out and looked for breakfast on my own, walking around on the dusty roads of Mandalay. There was nothing much to see in the city center.

This single bed room cost MYR93.12. Superb breakfast quantity. Helpful front desk manager.
This single bed room cost MYR93.12. Superb breakfast quantity. Helpful front desk manager.

The front desk manager was really helpful. He recommended someone to bring me around for 15000kyat. I told him that I was only interested to see Mandalay Hill from afar and then I wanted to spend my time at U-Bein Bridge. He insisted that I would visit the pagodas around Mandalay Hill. So, I relented and listened to his advice. Mandalay Hill was alright for me. I was shown to the pickup truck, where I was charged 1000kyat for the trip up the hill. I was not okay with that, since that I was told to pay another 1000kyat for the trip down later. Entering the pagoda compound at the top, I had to pay another 1000kyat for camera fee. The view of Mandalay from the top of the hill was nothing to shout about. However, on my way down, which I had decided to walk, instead of paying for another pickup truck, I saw from afar, The Temple of World’s Biggest Books; Kuthodaw Pagoda.

Kuthodaw Temple, view from Mandalay Hill.
Kuthodaw Temple, view from Mandalay Hill.

My highlight of the day was U-Bein Bridge. The ride to Amarapura was long and had to go through dusty roads. And to think that initially, I had thought of renting bicylbicycle to ride there. It took me more than half an hour to reach the destination by motorcycle.

Old bridge, spanning over 1.2km in Amarapura.
Old bridge, spanning over 1.2km in Amarapura.

Arriving around 4.30pm, the bridge was not short of tourists – locals or foreigners. I just hung around, looking for inspiration for memorable photos. I had overheard one photographer saying to another. A few shots that would be worth taking – monks on the bridge, anyone pushing bicycles or anyone with umbrella.

The sun began to disappear along the line.
The sun began to disappear along the line.

For me, it was enough. I decided that I had had enough of Mandalay. Instead of leaving in the evening the next day, I decided to leave in the morning and spent more time in Bagan. Again, the front desk manager was helpful. Instead of paying for a ride to the Highway Bus Station to get my bus to Bagan, he told me that there was OK Express that would pick me up at the hotel at 8am and this van would go all the way to Bagan. The fare was 9000kyat, instead of the 8500kyat of the normal VIP bus. OK Express van was comfortable enough for tourists. It was a van of 2-1 seats. The journey was pleasant, initially. The scenery was nice. Many pagodas and paddy fields along the way. However, eventually, the ride became bumpy and the back was starting to itch. Still, it was a good van express. It delivered us straight to Nyaung Oo, instead of the new highway bus station, which was several kilometer away. Upon arrival, we were given the treat of free horse cart ride.

Bagan (21 – 23 Jan 2015)

Bagan, the city of 2250 pagodas. This was the place that triggered my interest to come to Myanmar and here I was, eager to explore. However, Golden Myanmar Guest House was not ready to admit me in yet, leaving me to venture out to the old Bagan on bicycle.

Dhammayangyi stood proud in Bagan, despite its curse.
Dhammayangyi stood proud in Bagan, despite its curse.

There were two main roads to head to Old Bagan. Lanmadaw 3 Road was the dustier one. Without a map (as I refused to pay USD1 for one), I stopped at any pagoda that would interest me. It was not easy. There were too many pagodas and temples.

My first sunset view in Bagan, on my first day. Not really that spectacular.
My first sunset view in Bagan, on my first day. Not really that spectacular.

However, my opinion of Bagan changed the next morning, when I woke up for the 6am sunrise view from Shwe Leik Too Pagoda. I did not take the hot air balloon ride, It was around USD350 pax. Too rich for my blood.

Spectacular view, as the hot air balloon drifted away from the sunrise.
Spectacular view, as the hot air balloon drifted away from the sunrise.

I spent 2 1/2 days in Bagan. Frankly, some of the temples/pagodas were really enchanting. I was more fond of those that I was able to climb up to the first or second floors. The view from the higher ground provided the view of pagodas covered halfway by the trees and more.

I spent the 2nd day in Bagan on horsecart. The charge was 30000kyat. I believed it could have been lower but I forgot to bargain. It was too late. Somehow, two reasons I regretted I took the horsecart. One, it was really slow. I could have covered even more pagodas on a bicycle, which cost only 1500kyat. Even the ebike was a cheap 3000 to 6000kyat, if you know how to find the right shop. The thing with the pagodas and temples in Bagan was that once I had been in a few, they tended to look the same, unless one would know what to look out for – the murals, the Buddha images etc. I did not. All I wanted to do was to climb whichever pagodas/temples I could find and view from the top. Several pagodas/temples closed their first floors, with the reason of preservation. I did not buy that. They were just trying to tie in the tourists to several temples so that they could check on one paying for the entrance ticket into Bagan – USD20. It had increased from USD15 to USD20 on 1 Jan 2015.

Better places to have your meals would be in front of Ananda Temple, where one could join the locals for cheaper and delicious meals. Not in the restaurants but the stalls/shops on the same side of the road as Ananda Temple.

I stayed in Golden Myanmar Guest House in Old Bagan for two nights. It was not really bad, but if I had the choice, I would have tried out the newer looking hotels in Old Bagan.

Old, and the most expensive place that I had stayed in my Myanmar trip. Each night cost me MYR114.38.
Old, and the most expensive place that I had stayed in my Myanmar trip. Each night cost me MYR114.38.

I bid goodbye to Bagan, taking again JJ Express Bus from the ancient city to Yangon. The fare was 18500kyat. Unlike the one that went from Yangon to Taunggyi (Inle Lake), this one was not cold. The funny bit was that the free cake and cookies were served after the stop the bus had made, for toilet break and meals.

I did not know the names of these pagodas but they were lovely, so alike one another. One of my favourites to look at.
I did not know the names of these pagodas but they were lovely, so alike one another. One of my favourites to look at.

Yangon (24 – 25 Jan 2015)

Back in Yangon in the early morning, I walked for 45 minutes from the city stadium to my hotel – Agga Youth Hotel. A funny thing was that when I was in Bagan, I was told that JJ Express Bus could stop at a ‘ferry’ to bring us to the city center. I had to pay 500kyat. So, I did. When the bus stopped in the early morning, around 5am, I was told to transfer to ‘ferry’. So, I got down, seeing a small bus, parking in front of a closed gate of a building, which I assumed was the jetty. There were other buses too. I asked what time would the ‘ferry’ move. The faces, of the few whom I had directed the question to, were puzzling. I did not understand them. Eventually, I understood. There was no river ferry. The small bus was the ‘ferry’.

It was safe to walk alone, in the dark morning in Yangon. Unfortunately, despite believing that Agga Youth Hotel had empty rooms, it did not entertain my request for an early check-in. Not at 6am. Nor at 10am. Nor at 11.30am. And eventually, although there were only two guests hanging around the lobby for check-in, I had to ask again if I could check in, at 1.30pm. It was then the receptionist flipped his paper and checked and told me – yes. I was there all the time and he could not even make the effort to check me in, until I had asked again. He walked me to my room, which of course, I refused to give any tips. The room was alright but I was still unhappy about the hotel’s refusal to check guests in slightly earlier. One night in the hotel was The map, printed and given by the hotel, was funny/misleading. It would claim several tourist sites as nearby, within 20 minutes of walking. It was more like 30 to 40 minutes. The room cost me MYR94 per night.

Shwedagon Pagoda, the huge pagoda attraction of Yangon was under restoration. That did not stop them from collecting from me 8000kyat for entrance fee. If Bagan was the land of pagodas, Shwedagon Pagoda was the temple of thousand Buddhas. There were so many Buddha statues in this complex that I was actually horrified by it. There were many halls on the top floor and some halls were basically occupied fully by the 10 to 20 huge Buddha statues.

I sat and waited for the main pagoda to be lit up like gold. Although under restoration, the lights beaming on the golden pagoda did light up the night. So, I guess the 8000kyat was somehow worth it.

Buzzing with activities, it was downright impossible to snap a clean cut photo.

I took taxi the next morning to the airport. It cost me 8000kyat.

I loved Myanmar and the few days I had spent there. Will I go back again? Unlikely, as I am not thrilled to pay another USD50 for its visa. Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand are the only 3 ASEAN countries where their citizens need to pay for visa to enter Myanmar. Citizens from the other countries need not to pay for a 14 days stay.

There are several areas I did not see in Myanmar; Bago, Golden Rock, Popa, Pindaya Caves, Goteik Viaduct and more. Myanmar was magically, indeed. However, there should be some restraints on the locals’ part not to bleed every single cent from the tourists. I got so tired of not knowing the right price to bargain for.

Generally, these were my main expenses. The one that I could have avoided was the horsecart ride.

  • Myanmar e-visa – USD50
  • Airasia flight from KL to Yangon to KL – MYR155
  • Midnight bus from Yangon to Taunggyi (Inle Lake) – 18500kyat
  • Inle Star Motel (Nyaung Shwe) – USD25
  • Inle Lake Entrance Fee – USD10
  • Boat ride to Inle Lake (shared with 3 other tourists) – USD5 each
  • Bicycle rental – 1500kyat for a day
  • Midnight bus from Taunggyi to Mandalay – 11000kyat
  • Mandalay Moe Thee Hotel – MYR93.12
  • Mandalay motorcycle tour – 15000kyat
  • Mandalay to Bagan – 9000kyat
  • Bagan Entrance Fee – USD20
  • Horse cart ride – 30000kyat
  • Bagan Golden Myanmar Guest House (2 nights) – MYR230
  • Bicycle rental for half day – 800kyat
  • Bagan to Yangon midnight bus – 18500kyat
  • Shwedagon Entrance Fee – 8000kyat
  • Sule Pagoda Entrance Fee – 3000kyat
  • Taxi from Yangon downtown to airport – 8000kyat

Overall – around USD363 for 8 days, excluding meals.

The best food to be consumed in Myanmar had to be the food by the roadside. Clean, proper cafes and shops may serve clean food but tasty ones are found by the roadside. I had squatted down and joined the locals several times. Usually I went for noodle soup. The price range was between 300 to 1000 kyat. More often I paid 300kyat for the food.

No chopsticks offered.
No chopsticks offered.

My favourite dishes were on the above 3. The one on the biggest photo was the first dish I have had in Yangon/Myanmar. It was mixed by using hands. Yup, you heard me. Hands. It cost 1000kyat. The second photo on the left shows Shan noodle at Nyaung Shwe. It was delicious. 1500kyat. The top photo on the left was a food almost alike Sui Kow of Malaysia’s dishes. 1500kyat too. It was worth it, as it was delicious. This was in Mandalay. The last meal I have had in Myanmar was Mohinga, which I had failed to snap any photo, as I ate it at night. Bad lighting. It cost me only 300kyat. My friend said it was the national food. It was nice.

Myanmar proved to me that it was still a place to hold mystic. There was good blend between modernisation and the old feelings. One could still hear the talks about Myanmar 10, 20 years ago. Sure, Myanmar has wifi now. The people could own smart phones with cameras. There are VIP express buses. Back then, handphones had to be left at the airport, to be claimed only when one was leaving. No wifi then. Only old, local buses which looked like it had survived the many years and many old dusty roads of Burma.

Away from touristy sites, one could find the charm of old Myanmar, still untainted much by modernisation. The people were friendly and happy to see visitors of their country and culture. There was some sense of warmness felt from the way they greeted you and the smiles they shared with you. There were so many nature sites one could escape to, to be away from the city crowd and traffic. Somehow, it was like a step back into the country life, still pure and simple.

Among all my backpacking trips, I have to say that Myanmar vacation remains one of the best experiences I had enjoyed.

Goodbye, Myanmar