Myanmar's Big Four: Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay, Inle Lake (and a short trek); December 27, 2017 - January 5, 2018

After a pleasant post-diving overnight in Kawthaung, Myanmar's southernmost city, we flew to Yangon to begin the second half of our trip: exploring the heart of Myanmar. During the planning it became obvious that there's a standard tourist circuit -- so standard it's become known as the "Big Four": Yangon (Rangoon), Bagan, Mandalay, and Inle Lake. We prefer off-the-beaten-track travel so we looked into all kinds of alternatives, but we kept coming back to the Big Four as the most interesting and accessible stops for a short trip. Soe-Moe of Cystal Zone Travels, who's known for offering unusual experiences within these four destinations, made some of our arrangements. In addition to cultural stops and exploring cities, towns, and villages, our itinerary included some relatively adventurous hiking, "e-motorbiking", and cycling.

We were worried about tourist crowds at the more popular stops -- it's the high (dry) season, and the main sites we'd visited in Thailand had been mobbed with Chinese tour groups. Our concerns were unfounded. Almost everywhere we went, the vast majority of visitors were Burmese. Chinese tour groups haven't discovered Myanmar yet, and tourism as a whole (mostly European) is down considerably due to "the conflict." In truth the conflict is far from the tourist areas so posed no danger to us, but given the level of international press it's not surprising visitors have canceled. We would have liked to get a local perspective, but after our first taxi driver in Yangon emphasized his conviction about the Rohingya ("they're illegal!") we steered clear of the topic.

As one would predict from the geography, Myanmar feels like a cross between Thailand and India or Bangladesh. Guidebooks describe it as "authentic Southeast Asia" -- like visiting Cambodia or Laos before mass tourism arrived. It certainly felt that way to us, although Emily points out that her week in rural coastal Thailand was similarly authentic.

Myanmar has a unique cuisine, and we tended to be adventurous and local with our eating. We tallied up a whopping 31 of the famous and delicious Burmese tea-leaf salads in our first few days alone, then another 10 or so before we were done. Sadly, the adventurous eating did take a persistent toll on our tummies; we probably should have exercised India-level rather than Thailand-level hygienic precautions -- lesson learned.

A first for our travels, and we saw several: tourists with personal drones. The video footage will certainly impress friends back home, but those buzzing fliers were a bit annoying. Thankfully some (but not all) of the most revered Buddhist sites already have signs prohibiting them. We're wondering how long it will be before tourist drones are as ubiquitous as selfie-sticks -- if there were several in Myanmar, it's hard to imagine how many there must be in more touristy locales.

And now for a rundown of the Big Four, plus a short trek in the highlands:

#1 Yangon (formerly Rangoon): Certainly the only place in Myanmar that might be described as cosmopolitan, although chain shops & restaurants and shopping malls have yet to arrive. We started and ended in Yangon but didn't devote a great deal of time to it. Shwedagon Pagoda (photo 1) was well worth a visit, as was downtown with its buzzing markets and colonial buildings in various states of disrepair.

#2 Bagan: The thousands of ancient temples dotting the landscape around Bagan are a sight to behold, particularly at dawn or dusk (photo 2). Over the last year it's become popular to explore the area by rented "e-motorbikes" -- they look just like motorbikes (photo 3) but are electric-powered and silent. We had a great time over a couple of days riding among the temples and exploring the region, although a low-speed collision with another tourist (his fault!) left Clara & Tim a bit banged up. From Bagan we also did a fantastic day-hike up Mt. Popa. While many tourists climb the small pagoda-topped Taung Kalat that's also sometimes called Mt. Popa (photo 4), very few make the hike up the real mountain (photo 5); we enjoyed it immensely. Bagan was our overall favorite of the Big Four, hands down.

#3 Mandalay: Other than the historic romanticism of its name, the city itself doesn't have a great deal to recommend it. Nearby U-Bein bridge, apparently world's longest teak bridge (though some of it seems to have been repaired with cement), is an iconic landmark (photo 6). The highlight of our stay was visiting a lively and colorful early morning market along the train tracks -- one of Soe-Moe's secret gems with literally no other tourists
(photos 7 & 8; note the face-paint and the young monks, both common throughout the country). It was quite something watching the vendors scurry out of the way when the train came through, then move right back onto the tracks. From Mandalay we also cycled to the ancient capital of Inwa. Inwa was interesting but the ride there even more so (photo 9), varying from avoiding large livestock to riding on a semi-highway. Kids and adults waved and shouted as we went by for the entire journey.

Bonus Trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake: A popular add-on to the Big Four is a 2-3 day trek from the old British hill station town of Kalaw to Inle Lake. We opted for a 2-day version, and the trekking company Soe-Moe partnered with uses an unusual route to avoid other tourists. Despite unseasonable clouds and rain, we loved it. We had an excellent young guide whose command of English and sensitivity to what interests us was unusual for this trip. We hiked through rolling hills dotted with rural ethnic villages where we were able to observe daily life and interact some with the people (photo 10, admiring Emily's well-traveled stuffed animals, and photo 11), including spending the night in a basic family home.

#4 Inle Lake: Few tourists come to Myanmar without spending a day visiting the Inle Lake region by boat. In addition to markets, villages, and general scenery and serenity, one of the biggest draws is the fishermen that dot the lake, with their unique and picturesque leg-rowing technique (photo 12).

Alex, Jennifer, Tim, and Clara returned home via a layover in Seoul long enough to make a quick visit into the city, while Emily spent an extra day in Yangon before heading off for two weeks of work at InSTEDD's iLab in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

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