We’ve Finished our RTW, so What Were Our Favorite… Ruined Cities?!

We’ve finished our RTW trip. We get a lot of questions about our favorite things on the trip. We’ve decided to start a new series called “So, What Was Our Favorite…” We visited 29 countries on our RTW: Egypt (just 1 day), South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe (just 1 day), Namibia, Germany (just 1 day), Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Greece, Turkey, Ireland, USA, Myanmar, Singapore, Indonesia (just Bali), Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Macau, and Nepal.

This edition looks at our top 10 favorite ruined ancient cities. These are not in order from best to worst. They are just our top 10 favorite in the order in which we visited them.

Butrint (Albania)

Butrint was the first large ruin we visited in Europe. This archaeological site has a fascinating history: it has been the location of Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman settlements. Old structures from all of these are scattered throughout this small park located on a peninsula in a lagoon off the Straits of Corfu.

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Delphi (Greece)

The ancient site of Delphi was a pilgrimage site located in the Peloponnese of Greece. The biggest part of the site is the sanctuary of Apollo, the big destination for those coming to consult the Oracle. Delphi was an active site from at least the 8th century BC up until the 4th century AD (meaning even the Romans kept the site active). Since it was such a popular site, many of the different Greek city states built “treasuries” containing offerings to Apollo to thank the oracle for her advice. The most well-preserved of the treasuries is the Athenian Treasury, built by the Athenians to commemorate their victory at the Battle of Marathon.

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Olympia (Greece)

Olympia was the host site for the ancient Olympic Games from the 8th century BC all the way until the 2nd century AD. These ancient games were not just an athletic competition: they were also a chance for the Greeks to pay tribute to their Gods. Therefore, the site has quite the collection of ruins, both for athletic and sacred events.

Temple of Zeus with fallen columns

Temple of Zeus with fallen columns

Mystras (Greece)

Mystras is the ruins of the medieval fortified Byzantine city located near Sparta. It is considered as one of the last remaining centers of Byzantine culture until the empire fell in the 15th century. It is located on a mountain with the ruins of the castle at the very top, with monasteries, the palace, and residences on the way down. The monasteries were both abandoned and active with some old but well-preserved frescoes that gave a glimpse into the Greek Orthodox culture as it existed during the late Byzantine period.

The ruins of the castle of Mystras

The ruins of the castle of Mystras

Ephesus (Turkey)

Ephesus is on the western coast of Turkey. According to Lonely Planet, it is the most complete classical metropolis in Europe. It started around the tenth century BC and was once part of the Ionian League. It also served as the Roman capital of Asia Minor. Its Temple of Artemis was the biggest on earth and one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Unfortunately, all that is left of that Temple is one solitary, lonely, rebuilt column. The rest of the site is quite extensive and includes a large marble-paved sacred way, lined by different structures, such as temples, fountains, public baths and even a public lavatory. The most impressive piece of architecture is the restored facade of the Library of Celsus.

Library of Celsus

Library of Celsus

Tlos (Turkey)

Tlos was one of the most important cities in ancient Lycia. It is a fascinating site because it has been pretty much continually occupied from the time of Lycia all the way up to the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century! It has the distinctive rock tombs of Lycia, as well as an a Roman-era acropolis, theater, stadium, and baths. In addition there are Byzantine church ruins and an Ottoman-era fortress atop the peak. Another thing that makes Tlos impressive is its absolutely awesome setting, situated in the foothills of the Akdağlar mountain range.

Distinctive Lycian rock tombs and sarcophogi

Distinctive Lycian rock tombs and sarcophogi

Bagan (Burma/Myanmar)

The area of Bagan  is a large plain next to the Ayerawaddy River that is covered with over 3000 Buddist temples built from 11th to 13th century.  After years of neglect, many of the temples have been restored and Bagan is one of the highlights of any itinerary in Myanmar. This site was the largest that we had seen thus far on the world trip.

View from Shwesandaw Paya

View from Shwesandaw Paya

Angkor (Cambodia)

This was another site that was extremely large, stretching over some 400 square km. Angkor  contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century. The kings who ruled over the empire constructed large numbers of temples in the city as befitting of its status. They include the famous Temple of Angkor Wat and, at Angkor Thom, the Bayon Temple with its countless sculptural decorations, and many others.

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Sukhothai (Thailand)

The Sukhothai kingdom came into prominence in the mid-13th century AD after the Khmer empire began to decline. It grew into a strong regional power and is known today for the unique artistic style that can be seen in the remaining temples. There are a large number of ruins to be seen which are spread out over a moderately-sized range. We particularly enjoyed Wat Si Chum, which contains an impressive large Buddha that is a great example of the Sukhothai style of art. The location of this image helps amplify its impact: at first you can only see the face, until you slip through a narrow passage and find yourself at the base of the immense seated figure.

Looking up at Buddha

Looking up at Buddha

Ayutthaya (Thailand)

The kingdom of Ayutthaya, located on an island in the middle of a river about 50 miles north of present-day Bangkok, came into prominence a couple of centuries later than Sukhothai. It was the capital of the kingdom of Siam and the major trading port with the outside world. An invading Burmese army destroyed most of the city in 1767, but some restoration has been done. Our favorite part was a unique and curious sight: the head of a Buddha image wrapped up in the roots of a tree. No one is sure how this got here.

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Making Links to Refugees from Myanmar in Mae Sot, Thailand

Most people only head to Mae Sot, Thailand for a visa run from Thailand or as a border crossing into Myanmar, but we had different reasons for heading to this border town. Mae Sot is located near some of the larger refugee camps on the Myanmar/Burma and Thailand border. Because such a large percentage of Della’s students are refugees from this area, we thought we would come see if we could make some connections that would help her better serve that population back home.

Originally (before we left home), Della had hoped to visit the camps herself. However, after a lot of unanswered emails, and research, it seemed unlikely. We had read that Mae Sot was a good place to meet NGO workers who might go in and out of the camps. We had hoped we could meet someone who worked in the camps who might be able to give Della a little bit more of an idea of what schooling for refugees might be like.

Unfortunately, we didn’t really succeed in our goals. However, we still really enjoyed our time in Mae Sot.

Where We Stayed

We found the excellent Pha Nu House in Lonely Planet and online. We booked via phone and were very happy with the place. It was a good location in town and the rooms were spacious, lovely, and had nice ensuite bathrooms. We really felt like we got a lot for our money.

What We Did

We had read a couple of blogs that mentioned hanging out with NGO workers at the “Canadian Bar” in town and at the Exppact Café. Unfortunately, when we arrived, we found out that the Exppact was closed. We had also heard about the BorderLine café and store which sold crafts made by refugees.

After an afternoon arrival, our first stop was to head to the Borderline. We enjoyed perusing the crafts, books, and documentaries about the situation in Burma. We chatted with one of the workers, asking if they had any information about schooling for refugees. She indicated that her boss would be there the next day and that we might be able to talk to him. We agreed to come back at 1 pm the next day.

Our next stop was the Krua Canadian restaurant in the main downtown area. This place is run by a Canadian immigrant and we had heard that it might be a good source for local information. We first started with drinks while we tried to decide if we would eat there. The wine was pretty cheap so we split a carafe with Peggy. The menu was a gigantic book, so we had a hard time deciding what to eat. We split a “Maesot” poutine for an appetizer and then for dinner we both got Mexican food since it had been a while! Eric got enchiladas and Della got a quesadilla.

We eventually talked with the owner and while he didn’t know much about education, he was able to give some general information about the camps. One of the more interesting things he mentioned was that he thinks the camps will be shutting down by the end of the year. He mentioned that because some of the world leaders (including President Obama) have given a sort of “all clear” relating to the current situation in Burma, that the money for the NGO support and camps is drying up. He didn’t know what might happen to all of the current refugees. He also told us that Thai school was out for the semester and he believed that the camps probably followed a similar schedule, so we began to doubt whether we would necessarily find someone currently working at the camp schools.

We headed home feeling slightly bummed that we hadn’t met anyone from the camps, but optimistic about our meeting at Borderline the next day.

The following morning, we headed out and went to the local market, which we had heard was quite lively. And that turned out to be true! It felt like we were back in Myanmar – almost everyone seemed to be from there, with lots of thanaka face paint and plenty of Muslim people. There were all sorts of food, clothes, and other goods. It stretched on for multiple blocks. At one point, we were excited to find a stall that sold Burmese/English dictionaries and some posters with Burmese/English letters. Della bought some! We went through some large market buildings and also down some small side streets. Finally we reached a point where it felt like it was ending so we turned around and made our way back through. We took a slightly different route to get out and thought we had found a dead end until we saw a local squeeze through a narrow alley to get back to the street! Overall, this was one of the more exciting street markets we have ever been to!

We then headed back to the Borderline. Unfortunately, the time we had been given was wrong and the boss had come by earlier that day so we missed him. We were bummed, but there wasn’t much we could do. Instead, Della struck up a conversation with one of the other workers who was, herself, a Karen refugee who had grown up in the camps. Della learned a bit more about the schools and the curriculum used, though not a lot that was hugely helpful. The most fun part of the encounter was when the woman agreed to help Della add to her new posters with Karen lettering. Now the posters have Burmese, Karen, and English. Della thinks her students back home will enjoy them! We bought a few souvenirs and then headed back to our hotel.

Where We Ate

Our favorite meal was actually at the Borderline where they serve vegetarian Burmese food. For a drink Eric got Burmese iced tea with lime and Della got ginger juice. We shared a wide variety of dishes: ginger salad, pickled tea leaf salad, potato curry, fried noodles, Mandalay noodle salad and curried chickpeas. All were good.

 

For dinner we decided to try another Burmese restaurant we had seen listed on TripAdvisor called Wadee. This was in the other direction and about a 15 minute walk away. The menu was much less interesting unfortunately. We got mango smoothies for drinks, then Eric got a chicken curry and Della got a big plate of fried noodles (she even had some leftover).

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We also enjoyed the Krua Canadian listed above for something a little bit different.

Final Thoughts

We didn’t exactly meet our expectations of magically connecting with a teacher in the refugee camps, but we really ended up enjoying our travel there anyway. It was fun for us to relive, ever so briefly, our trip to Burma. We had a lovely place to stay, met a few nice people, and ate good food. The market was one for the most interesting we’ve ever encountered, so that was worth a lot.

 

Myanmar FAQs

When we were researching for our visit to Myanmar, we had a few questions that we wanted the latest answers to. So, in case anyone researching for their own trip has these same questions, we thought we’d make sure our answers were available!

How Did You Get Your Visas?

We had originally planned to get them at the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok during the few days we spent there before flying to Myanmar. However, we then heard about the new e-visa service being offered and decided that it might be simpler. We applied online while still in Denver, got a confirmation of payment within an hour, and then got our visas within three days, so it worked quite smoothly. The printed copy of the visa was accepted at the Mandalay airport without issues. From what we heard from other travelers, it would have been cheaper to get the visa in person in Bangkok ($20 vs $50 online), but it would also have taken up to 7 hours, so we think that was a good tradeoff.

Were You Able to Use the ATMs in Myanmar?

Yes! Although, we only ended up using them twice: once at the Mandalay Airport and once in downtown Mandalay at a bank. In both cases we used the ATMs from CB Bank. Both our Charles Schwab and Fidelity debit cards worked without issue. The ATM at the airport was a little scary though – it would randomly fail when giving the money. But we just tried again, and then it worked.

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The ATMs dispense only 5000s which is the equivalent of a $5 bill. You end up with a LARGE stack of cash!

 

Do You Call The Country Myanmar or Burma?

Back home in the US, we knew the country as Burma. But once we arrived in the country, it was clear that all of the locals we met referred to the country as Myanmar, so that is what we stuck with. We’re aware that there is a political angle to which name you choose to use, but we didn’t ever hear enough of a debate on that to take sides.

Can You Drink the Water?

No, not even the locals drink it. But every one of our accommodations actually had a freely available jug or bottles of spring water for their guests.

How Is the Internet Connection?

Everywhere we stayed had at least some Internet connection. Some places it was surprisingly fast (Bagan) while others it was frustratingly slow (Inle Lake). But we were almost always able to get a small connection.

Budget: Myanmar (Burma)

This is one of our Budget series of posts to give you an idea of how much we spent traveling around the world. Here we will look at Myanmar. Check our posts to see what kind of activities we did and where we stayed!

In Myanmar we used the kyat. We converted to US dollars using the current conversion rates at the time of our visit. It was approximately 1000 kyat to 1 dollars. Businesses used this as a flat rate, though the real rate at the time was more like 1,300 kyat to $1.

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Total Spent (18 days): $1304.72

Accommodation: $495.32

We stayed in a variety of accommodations: some hotels, some hostels, one dorm room. Everywhere we stayed included breakfast and drinkable water.

Activities: $202.59

Activities are quite affordable in Myanmar. We did several day tours, both in boats and cars. This included entrance and camera fees to all pagodas as well as a few museums. We also did a puppet show!

Alcohol: $28.65

Overall, beer is quite reasonably priced in Myanmar. You can normally get a large bottle of beer for under $2. We also visited a winery and had a couple of glasses of wine!

Food: $170.95

Food was wonderfully inexpensive in Myanmar. You could get a good meal with drink for under $10. You can also do it even cheaper if you are a little braver than we are: if you ate street food from stalls then it would be even more affordable. We didn’t as almost every person we met who had was sick. Though, we did hear of one friend recently who had no problems!

Miscellaneous: $40.02

This included a several souvenirs, several bathroom fees, a laundry, and a few exchange transactions.

Transportation: $267.19

This included a variety of taxis and buses. The biggest cost was a boat ride from Mandalay to Bagan which was $80!

Visas: $100

We purchased visas online prior to arriving using the new online purchase tool for tourist visas. It was more expensive than it would have been in person in Bangkok, but a fraction of the time.

This divides out to $72.48/day which is under our $100/day budget. It is not as low as we were hoping for time in Asia, though we knew Myanmar would not be the cheapest country in Asia due to the visa fees and the relatively high cost of accommodation. 

Saying So Long to Myanmar in Yangon

Our final stop on our trip through Myanmar was its largest city (and former capital), Yangon. We had initially only planned to spend a couple of our last days in the country in this city, using it as a base for a trip to the “Golden Rock,” but in the end we decided to just spend all of the time exploring the different things the city had to offer.

Getting There

The main option to get to Yangon from Inle Lake was an overnight bus. We had to choose between the “normal” and “VIP” class buses, and we went with the VIP option with the hope that it would make sleeping easier. The seats were quite large, and had a good recline feature and a footrest. We also got a snack box and a toothbrush to use at one of the rest breaks. During the first part of the trip, they played music videos and one movie on the overhead tv, but for most of the journey the cabin was pretty dark and quiet. It really was quite comfortable,  but even so, we didn’t actually end up getting too much sleep, so after checking into our accommodations in Yangon at 7 AM, we took a nice long nap.

Where We Stayed

Finding a cheap but well-reviewed place in Yangon turned out to be quite a challenge, as there were many cheap places but almost all with average ratings. In the end we found the Hninn Si Budget Inn and ended up generally enjoying our stay. We had a small double room with a shared bathroom down the hall. The rate included breakfast, although it was the least interesting of any breakfast we had in Myanmar. The staff was very kind and helped us with transportation a few times.

Our room at Hninn Si

Our room at Hninn Si

What We Did

Explore Downtown Yangon – The city has a lot of interesting sights to see in its downtown core, a lot of it left over from when the city was called Rangoon and functioned as the capital of the country during the colonial occupation by Britain. We ended up exploring this area twice: the first on our own using a self-guided walking tour in Lonely Planet, and the second time on a free walking tour led by Free Yangon Walks. The highlights included the Sule Paya – a large pagoda which now sits in the middle of a traffic circle, Mahabandoola Garden – a very pleasant park where we relaxed in the shade and made conversation with locals wanting to practice their English, and many examples of colonial-era buildings, from the City Hall to old banks to the fancy Strand Hotel.

Even more interesting that the architecture was just observing life on the streets of this bustling city. There were food vendors of all sorts, and many people making new packs of the betel nut concotion that a good chunk of the population chews (the effect is supposedly similar to chewing tobacco). There were also vendors selling everything from SIM cards to clothes to even a large selection of used books, including many random English-language textbooks. We were also fascinated to observe the bus system: buses of all ages and conditions would go up and down the street, pausing briefly where a worker (usually a young male) would holler out the back (presumably announcing the destination) while pushing people off and pulling them on. We never worked up the nerve to get on one of these!

Ride the Yangon Circle Line – Yangon only has one commuter rail line: the Yangon Circle Line, which makes a slow loop around the city and its surrounding residential areas. Since it is a loop and costs so little ($0.50 per person), it has become a popular tourist activity. Some reviews made it sound pretty hectic, but we actually found the three-hour ride to be quite relaxing. Maybe it’s because we went on a weekend during the middle of the day; there was never too much of a crowd. We were quite interested to see life outside the train, including lively markets at some of the larger stops. Also, we enjoyed watching some of the people who hopped on the train midway through use the rest of the train ride to change their large collection of produce into sellable bundles.

Shwedagon Paya – Many people consider this to be the most important Buddhist site in all of Myanmar. We planned our visit to have us arrive by sunset since the color was supposed to be the best then. The temple complex includes many smaller shrines, but the highlight is the massive central stupa. Unfortunately, a lot of it was covered in bamboo scaffolding during our visit (although you could argue that the scaffolding itself is interesting to look at). The entrance fee was the most expensive of any payas we visited in Myanmar, although we were happy that we got a detailed map with labeled narration for many of the smaller shrines.

Botataung Paya – Much smaller than Shwedagon, but Lonely Planet recommended it, and it was just a few minutes’ walk from our guesthouse, so we checked it out. We went on a Sunday, so it was busy with worshipers coming and going. The most unique feature was that we could actually walk inside the large stupa – in all other cases this was closed to the public. This one had a maze-like interior with walls gilded with gold and a few different relics, including a few hairs of Buddha that we had to get in a line to see.

National Museum – We spent an afternoon exploring this large museum dedicated to Myanmar’s history and culture. There were many different exhibits scattered over the five floors, including displays on royal artifacts, fossils, traditional arts and crafts and the different cultures within the Myanmar. We felt the most interesting exhibit was the Lion Throne, one of the eight such thrones used by the king for ceremonial purposes (which looks more like a door). We weren’t even allowed to take cameras into the museum, so we don’t have any pictures of the interior.

The National Museum

The National Museum

Kandawgyi Lake – We spent an afternoon in this park just to the east of Shwedagon Paya. The boardwalk on the southern edge provided scenic views, but some of the boards could have used some serious repair! It was pretty hot and sunny, so we followed the lead of the young local couples we saw and found a spot in the shade to relax and enjoy the view.

People’s Park – This was one of our highlights in the latest monthly update!

Where We Ate

The most interesting places to eat would have been the different street food stalls all over the place, but we had met enough fellow travelers who reported getting food poisoning that we decided to stick to restaurants. In doing this, we discovered that in most cases, especially near our guesthouse, the restaurants were more expensive in Yangon than they were in other parts of the country. At the Malaysian place across the street we both just got fried rice since everything else was twice what we had been paying for entrees elsewhere, and then at a Chinese/Shan place down the street Eric was downright shocked when the bill came and his dish was $7 (we had been paying in the neighborhood of $2-$3 in other places).

We did find some nice cheap restaurants elsewhere in the city with the help of Lonely Planet. The first was Aung Thukha near the Shwedagon Paya. This was one of the standard curry places where you chose a main meat and got to enjoy it with a soup, rice, and vegetable side dishes. Della got a pork curry and Eric went with catfish.

Catfish curry plus all of the sides

Catfish curry plus all of the sides

Near the National Museum we ate at Feel Restaurant. The menu was quite overwhelming, with 20 pages of choices, and none of the descriptions in English. We both pointed at pictures that looked good and hoped for the best. Della ended up with a noodle dish and Eric ended up with a soup with the consistency of egg drop soup with a meat that tasted like chicken. We crossed our fingers as the bill came, and were very pleasantly surprised that each dish was only $2!

Final Thoughts

We think it was the right decision to spend our last five days all in Yangon. There were plenty of things to do, and we enjoyed getting to explore the city at a leisurely pace instead of rushing between sights. The city was also a great way to get a good last glimpse of the people and culture of Myanmar. As we flew out of Yangon, we were a little sad to say goodbye!

Enchanting Inle Lake, Myanmar

After exploring a billion pagodas at Bagan, we were ready to try something a little different. We headed to Inle Lake!

Getting There

We booked a bus to Inle Lake through our hostel in Bagan. They sold us a ticket, assigned us seats, and then told us the bus would pick us up at 7:00 am. We had dealt with a few other early pickups (ah the joys of dorm living) and so knew the drill. It seemed as if minibuses picked people up and whisked them away almost every morning. We were content, feeling like everything would be easy. Our first inkling that something was a little weird was when a roommate from our dorm came in explaining that she was doing the exact same trip the following morning. She had a different colored ticket, and her shuttle was coming to pick her up at 7:30 am. So after comparing our tickets and departure time, we just figured we’d all go with what we had been told. Secretly, we thought she must have misunderstood and was going to get left.

To us, this bus ticket implies that we will be riding on a real bus...

To us, this bus ticket implies that we will be riding on a bus…

We caught our shuttle the following morning with several other people from our hostel and we were off! We were crammed in the back and we saw that we were clearly picking other people up, though there seemed to be some confusion about where. We went to another hotel in New Bagan (the town where we were staying) but no one showed up. So, we drove all the way toward Nyuang U (30 min away and where we thought were going to catch the main bus). We went to another hotel and no one showed up… So the minibus promptly turned around and headed all the way back to New Bagan where we went to another hotel and did finally pick up another couple. By this point it was about 7:45. We saw on our ticket that pickup had been at 7 am but the bus departure time was at 8. We were starting to worry about making the bus. Our minibus headed back toward Nyuang U again! We stopped and picked up another couple. By this point, it is 8 and we are really concerned about making the bus! All of us in the minibus discuss and assume that our drivers have to be in communication with the bus and that it will wait. Then we toodle to a final place where we pick up a final person. We now have a completely full mini bus with 12 people crammed in.

We figure we must be ready to head for the bus! We arrive in a dusty parking lot where we see a couple of large buses, so as soon as our driver stops, we all start to tumble out of the minibus. Our driver runs back and gestures no no to get back on the bus! Finally, we were able to communicate a little that the small minibus was indeed the bus we were to take the 8 hours to Inle Lake. This is where the dread set in for us… We had been ushered into the very back in the corner. It was hot and stuffy back there and we could hardly move as our knees were shoved into the seats in front of us. And that’s how we rode…. all the way. Ugh.

Luckily, when we did finally arrive in Inle, the minibus dropped us off directly at our new accommodations and by some great luck, we were the first ones off! Phew!

Where We Stayed

Remember Inn – We had picked this place based on a recommendation by another traveler and from the Lonely Planet. We had also found it on agoda.com. We booked one night using that site as we kept hearing how everywhere would be full, but we were unhappy because we felt like were paying way more than we should. Luckily, when we arrived they said that if we wanted to stay extra days and pay for those in cash, we would get the more normal rate of $25. We were happy enough as our room was quite large. Though, there were some ants in the room and the Wi-Fi was extremely slow and only sometimes would let us connect (and only from near reception, not up in the room). This made it difficult when we were trying to book our accommodation in our next stop, Yangon.

The best part of our stay here was the included breakfast. It was served on the roof top with nice views of the surrounding area, and it included a menu where you could choose a variety of things. There were western style options like eggs and pancakes, but also two delicious local options, a Shan Noodle Soup (which Della had every day) and a Mohinga (a traditional fish soup breakfast here in Myanmar).

Shan Noodle soup in the front with Mohinga in front of Eric

Shan Noodle soup in the front with Mohinga in front of Eric

 

What We Did

Bike to the Red Mountain Winery – On our first full day in Inle, we rented bikes and headed out of town toward a winery! The Red Mountain Winery is about 5 miles outside of Nyuang Shwe (the main town for Inle which we were staying in). It was a glorious day and we really enjoyed the ride. It was quite a push up the hill to get to the winery, but it was so worth it. You can get a taste of 4 wines for about $2. The wine was OK though not fabulous. We each found one we liked well enough to enjoy a glass of while we nibbled on an appetizer and took in the view. We waited around for the free tour and ended up being the only 2 on it for a little while. It was a short tour and we learned how the winery is quite new, imports most of its plants from France, and has mostly broken machines so they do things like label by hand. We also ended up eating lunch there. The food was pricey (by Myanmar standards) but good and the view was hard to beat.

The Aung Traditional Puppet Show – We were excited because we got to meet up with some new friends from Mandalay again in Inle. We met them (and another couple from Switzerland that they also knew) for the traditional puppet show. The show was only 30 min but was thoroughly enjoyable. It was run by one man and his son. They have been in the puppet business for years (the man showed us a picture of his grandfather doing the same). It was quite amazing to watch the intricate movements the puppets made and to see some of the puppeteering action. The man was dancing as much as his puppets were! We definitely enjoyed this and recommend it!

Boat Tour of Inle Lake – We organized through our hotel for a boat trip on the lake. We asked then to pair us up with some other travelers to share the cost, plus it is always nice to meet new people as well. The 5 of us met our boat driver at 8 am and headed to the water. We entered a long, sort-of canoe like boat. Our driver make sure we each had a wooden chair with a cushion, a life jacket, and a blanket.

We then headed out down the canal! Watching the life on the water was just amazing. It was a major thoroughfare and we saw tourist boats along with boats transporting produce and many other goods. After stopping for quick gas up, we make our way out onto the big part of the lake where we got to observe the fisherman rowing their boats in the traditional fashion, using their leg to move the oar. We rode all the way down to the far south end of the lake and then through a village floating on the water. It was interesting to see how the people who lived in these houses used the water as a kitchen sink, washing machine and shower.

Past the village we found the floating market. The market rotates around to different locations. We understand that there are 5 locations. The day we went, it was near Thaung Thut. We didn’t shop much, but we were very happy to find a bathroom after a few hours on the boat. Luckily, if you keep walking through the market and up the hill, you end up at a fabulous pagoda. We enjoyed the views at the top before heading back down!

We hopped back on the boat and drove back through the floating village and then to a place that did traditional hand weaving. None of us was interested in buying anything, but felt pressured to get out. Watching the weavers at work was actually quite fascinating, as they use these old machines with hand cranks and foot pedals. After this we paused for lunch at a restaurant over the lake.

After that, we headed to the big event: Indein. We had heard that this was best stop on the whole lake. To get there we drove upstream on a river – even up over a few waterfalls! Once at the village, we spent time walking through the very long tourist market, through some old pagoda ruins, and up to a beautiful pagoda at the top. It was quite lovely but we weren’t sure if it was that much better than the pagoda at Thaung Thut.

Back on the boat, we rode through the floating gardens, where it was fascinating to see how produce is grown and cared for in the middle of the lake. Our final stop was the Npa Hpe Kyaung Monastery, also known as the Jumping Cat Monastery because a monk once trained cats to jump through hoops on command! But that monk died and the tradition died with him. So now the main thing to see is the large wooden hall with many different Buddha images. There was a large clowder of cats that we watched for a while, but none of them ever jumped through hoops.

Explore the Market and Town – On our final day in Inle, we checked out of our hotel but had several hours to kill before our overnight bus for Yangon left. We decided to go out and stroll around the market and town. The market was great, with almost everything you can imagine. It was bustling with people, mostly locals. There were tons of fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, and clothes. Of course there was the occasional tourist trinket booth as well! Della was particularly excited because she found a seamstress in the market. After buying some “banana pants” (this is not a real term at all… just what Eric calls them) the day before, she had been disappointed when the elastic in one leg broke immediately. It was awesome though, because for $0.50 the woman in the market fixed the elastic, re-hemmed the leg, and did some additional strengthening of all the seams! The pants are now fixed and even fit better! On the rest of our wanderings through town we also found the old sports field and slightly dilapidated independence monument.

 

Where We Ate

We’ve already mentioned two of the places: lunch at the winery and lunch on our boat tour. We did also eat out in Nyaung Shwe two nights. Our first night in town we ate at the Lotus Restaurant, which had been recommended by Lonely Planet. Eric’s meal here was a little bit different in that it was a multi-course set meal which came with a soup (with maybe some pumpkin in it), a tomato and cucumber salad, and a pork and potato curry. He also got a fruit plate for dessert to share. Della went with her standard noodle plate.

 

The night we went with our friends to the puppet show, they suggested going to a Nepali place. We had already eaten some snacks so we just shared two small plates: fried vegetables and avocado salad (which turned out to be more like guacamole).

Nice dinner with new friends!

Nice dinner with new friends!

The last day, we ate lunch at the Unique Superb Foodhouse (yes, that was really the name!) Della stuck with her delicious friends vermicelli and Eric tried fried rice.

Fried vermicelli- YUM!

Fried vermicelli- YUM!

Final Thoughts

Inle Lake was a great place to visit with a lot of things to do in the surrounding area. The lake had a great laid-back vibe that we really enjoyed. The town of Nyuang Shwe was hectic, but enjoyable, but it was easy to get out on to the lake or up to the winery for some instant relaxation.

E-Biking Through the Temples of Bagan, Myanmar

The area of Bagan in central Myanmar is a large plain next to the Ayerawaddy River that is covered with over 3000 Buddist temples built from 11th to 13th century. After years of neglect, many of the temples have been restored and Bagan is one of the highlights of any itinerary in Myanmar. Given how many other ruins we have seen along our trip, we were especially excited to see these and compare.

Getting There

Since Bagan is such a big tourist destination, we had quite a few options to get there from Mandalay. Based on recommendations from fellow travelers, we decided to go via boat down the Ayerawaddy River. It was much more expensive than the bus would have been, and slower (even though this was the “fast” boat, it was scheduled to take 10 hours) as well, we decided to splurge and see what life was like along this wide and slow-moving river.

The boat left bright and early from the dock in Mandalay at 7 AM. We had an assigned seat in a lower-level area with airplane-style seats, but as soon as the boat pulled away from the dock we were free to roam around the three different levels. There were a few different open-air decks where we could grab a chair and look out. Unfortunately the day was overcast, so the scenery wasn’t as beautiful as it could have been. Also, there wasn’t quite as much activity on the river as we expected. Nevertheless, this meant that we had plenty of time to catch up on some reading and just relax, so we still were glad we chose this method.

Where We Stayed

The first choice one has to make when visiting Bagan is which area to stay in: Old Bagan – the easiest access to the temples but the most expensive, New Bagan – further away from the temples with midrange options, or Nyaung U – furthest away from the temples, but the biggest town and with the cheapest options. We chose to go for the midrange option in New Bagan.

We had read that booking ahead was preferable, so we used agoda.com to find a place to stay a few days in advance. Here we found the At Bagan Hostel, which seemed new and had good reviews. There were only dorm rooms available, but we figured we could rough it for a bit and booked two beds in a six-bed dorm.

Getting to the At Bagan from the boat dock proved to be a challenge for one big reason: the name on the building it is in and the name the taxi drivers know it as is NOT “At Bagan!” The building is still called the Thiri Sandar, for unknown reasons. If we hadn’t been warned about this by fellow travelers we happened to meet we would have been even more confused.

For this and other reasons, we had mixed feelings about the At Bagan. The facilities were definitely new; it almost seemed like you could smell the fresh paint drying, the beds were quite nice and the Internet was by far the fastest we have had in Myanmar. Breakfast was also nice, in a restaurant across the street, with a local fried rice option. But, the staff was a little hard to get an answer out of sometimes. They certainly weren’t mean, but there were a few times where we felt like we were slightly misled or just couldn’t communicate well with them. So we enjoyed our stay but it won’t get as strong of a recommendation as the other places that we have stayed in Myanmar.

What We Did

We took our two full days that we had in Bagan to try and fit in a good selection of the thousands of temples in the area. We decided to follow the basic path laid out in a sample itinerary in Lonely Planet, which we felt worked out pretty well.

There are a variety of ways to get around Bagan, but we had heard good things about renting an e-bike so we decided to give it a go. For $6 a day each, we were able to rent nice e-bikes from a place just across the street from At Bagan. We were expecting them to look more like bicycles, but we felt they looked and behaved more like scooters. At first we were nervous, but it was very easy to operate and pretty quickly we got used to zooming around on paved and dirt roads like pros. We would highly recommend them as a way to get around!

We could list out all of the temples we visited, but you might get “temple fatigue” just from reading about them all! So, we’ll try to stick to some highlights.

Top Choices

Our favorite was the Sulamani Pahto, which we found to be beautiful both inside and out. It was built in 1181, so it is one of the later ones built and seems to be a little more refined than some of the earlier ones. We enjoyed the stucco ornamentation on the exterior and the extensive murals found in the interior. We also kept wanting to call it the Suleiman, since the name sounded so much like that of the famous mosque we visited in Istanbul :-).

Another favorite was the mysterious Dhammayangyi Pahto. From afar, we felt like this one was reminiscent of an ancient Mayan temple since its spire at the top is no longer there. Inside, this one felt much more abandoned than the others as well. It had very high ceilings, and you could hear birds flying around between the chambers. The interior part of the temple is blocked off with bricks that were supposedly added after the king who built the temple died, as payback to dishonor his memory. All of these factors made this one a spooky one to walk through.

Others of Note

Ananda Pahto felt like the most actively used one – Della was happy that she was allowed to place gold leaf on a statue (not like in Mandalay). Thatbyinnyu Pahto looks impressive from a distance since it is the tallest in Bagan (especially from atop the old city walls which are climbable nearby) but is not very interesting inside. Nathlaung Kyaung was interesting because it is actually a Hindu temple – the people of the area have not always been Buddhists.

Shwesandaw Paya and Pythada Paya have excellent terraces for views over the temples, which mean they are great for sunset viewing – but it also means they get pretty crowded so we avoided them. The first day we saw some other people atop a small temple south of Shwesandaw, so we went to check it out. A local attendant showed us the narrow staircase up to the top. Unfortunately it was almost completely overcast so we didn’t see much and ended up leaving early. The second day we intended to watch the sunset at Dhammayazika Paya. It was a nice and serene area, but under renovation. A friendly local pointed us to a neighboring small temple with a terrace, so we went there thinking we had found a hidden gem. When the first of three tour buses pulled up we realized we were mistaken! The colors were nice but we ended up watching the last parts of the sunset from below because we couldn’t stand the crowds of tourists.

We also enjoyed a few moments where we ventured into areas with only smaller temples. Many of the popular temples felt overwhelmed with crowds of tourists, locals, and vendors, so it was nice to find some spaces to just wander around and feel like we had the place to ourselves.

Where We Ate

There was a stretch of restaurants just across the road from our hostel which we visited for a quick easy dinner on two of the nights. They were all about the same, serving your standard curries and noodle dishes. Della got her favorites fried vermicelli at both places. Eric tried the curry at one and was disappointed that it didn’t come with any sides like we thought was standard!

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One of the days we were out visiting the temples we decided to eat at a restaurant that we had been given multiple recommendations for called Be Kind to Animals the Moon (no, that is not a typo). It is a vegetarian restaurant, so a bit different from what we had been eating so far. We shared an appetizer of spring rolls, and then each got a curry with special rice: Della a coconut curry with brown sticky rice and Eric a garden vegetable curry with coconut rice.

Final Thoughts

Bagan was an interesting place to visit, but two days was probably sufficient for us at least. We definitely recommend using the e-bikes to get around, both for the amount of ground you can cover and for the fun factor! We wish the weather had been a little less gloomy while we were there, but we still were able to find a bunch of different places with great views.

Exploring the Past in Pyin Oo Lwin, Myanmar

Most people visit the town of Pyin Oo Lwin in the hills to the north of Mandalay to revisit its past history as Maymyo, a “hill station” founded by the British to escape the heat of the lower elevations and later the location of the colonial summer capital. While we were interested in visiting the sights associated with this history, we were also interested to visit because Della’s parents had visited Maymyo on their RTW trip as well. When home for the holidays, we had come across a few pictures of their time in town and wanted to try and see how they had changed in 15 years.

Getting There

On the advice of our guesthouse, we took a shared taxi to get to Pyin Oo Lwin from Mandalay. This is basically the same thing as a normal taxi, in that it picked us up at our guesthouse and dropped us off at our new one, with the only difference being that there were two other passengers that were in the car at the same time. It wasn’t too expensive ($10) so we were happy with the service. The road to Pyin Oo Lwin is narrow and windy, so we definitely held on tight as our driver passed the slower-moving trucks.

The road with no lanes, passing the slow trucks up the hill!

The road with no lanes, passing the slow trucks up the hill!

We also took a shared taxi to get back down to Mandalay after our stay was over. This time we noticed something interesting: halfway down, the driver pulled over to the side of the road and poured buckets of water over the brakes, which produced a good amount of steam. Guess the brakes were in danger of overheating!

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Can hardly see, but the driver is pouring water over the back brakes!

 

Where We Stayed

We found the Royal Flower Guest House on tripadvisor and called them from our place in Mandalay to make a booking. We got a double room with an ensuite bathroom for $30 a night (breakfast included). The room was nice, and the staff was very friendly and helpful. Also, it had a very nice patio on the roof where we could watch the sunset.

What We Did

Most of the activities we chose to do were driven by our desire to try and see how the places had changed since Della’s parents had visited them. But, these were also the most popular activities so we didn’t go too far off the beaten track.

Pwe Kauk Falls – Our first day in town we rented bicycles from our guesthouse and rode in the direction of these small waterfalls that we thought Della’s parents had visited. This was about a 5 mile ride along a highway, which was a little scary but we were able to hear big trucks coming and get over in time. We had gotten general directions from our guesthouse for the turn-off to the falls, but almost missed it because there is no English sign. If you are trying to find the falls, make sure to take this road:

Turn down here off the main road!

Turn down here off the main road!

Once there, we paid our entry fee and camera fee and then explored the different small falls. The infrastructure around the falls makes it feel like it is a nice local getaway, with different restaurants and souvenir stands, and concrete paths and bridges between the different parts. We were the only foreign tourists there for a while as well. We wandered through both the lower and upper part. We think we found the area in the upper part where Wayne swam, but aren’t sure. We also purchased some local wine: both strawberry and something we had never heard of called damson.

Candacraig Hotel – This former British guesthouse is actually where Della’s parents stayed when they visited Pyin Oo Lwin. Our guesthouse listed it more as a local attraction than as a place to find accommodations, but the Lonely Planet does say it’s possible to stay there. We again rented bikes and set out to find it and see how much it had changed. A word of warning to anyone else trying to do this: make sure you know where you are headed! We trusted a map given to us by the guesthouse, and where that map put the Candacraig was wrong and where the owner told us to go was wrong. We investigated multiple old colonial houses in the general area before finally asking a few locals who pointed us in the right direction. (Looks like the location on the Lonely Planet map is correct but we didn’t have that along…).

Finally found it! Phew!

Finally found it! Phew!

The hotel had a very mysterious and slightly abandoned air about it. There didn’t seem to be anyone else around and the garden was somewhat overgrown. It definitely feels like something that would have been built during the colonial era. We took a few pictures of the outside and then headed on.

National Kandawgyi Gardens – This large botanic gardens surrounding a lake also dates from the colonial era and is the main highlight to be seen in Pyin Oo Lwin. After finding the Candacraig, we rode our bikes down to the park and spent the rest of the day exploring the different areas and just relaxing. There are quite a few different areas to visit, so we followed the map to make sure we didn’t miss anything. The highlights included the town name spelled out in flowers, a petrified wood and fossil display, an elevated walkway through a swamp, a bamboo garden, a pine forest, an aviary, an elevated walkway through a forest, an orchid garden and a butterfly museum. There was also an observation tower, where we climbed 201 steps to an observation deck for views back over the park.

Also in the middle of the lake was an island with a pagoda which we think was in one of Della’s parents’ pictures. It doesn’t look exactly the same as before, but we think it has to be it. We were disappointed that we didn’t see anyone strolling around the lake with a parasol either like there was before.

Where We Ate

Our first night in town, we ate at a place on the main road very close to our accommodations called the Seezar Bistro. They had a huge menu so it took us a while to figure out what we wanted. Della got her standard fried noodle plate and Eric ordered a “Seezar” fried rice which ended up coming with an omelet wrapped around the fried rice – pretty neat!

Our second night in town we decided to branch out from Myanmar food and check out a South Indian restaurant called Aung Padamayar that had been recommended in the Lonely Planet. There was no menu, just a choice between chicken or mutton for a curry. The meat (we both chose chicken) in the spicy sauce came with rice, a lentil soup, curried vegetables and freshly made papadum. We were plenty full by end! It was a little more expensive than the previous night, but not so outrageous, so we were pretty annoyed to hear the tourists at the next table over loudly complaining to the waitress about “how expensive” it was (the meal cost $4 each).

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Our expensive meal!

 

Final Thoughts

Pyin Oo Lwin was a pleasant place to spend a couple of days! We had a lot of fun on our “scavenger hunt” for items from Wayne and Peggy’s trip, but even beyond that enjoyed the vibe of what this former colonial town had to offer.

 

Our First Taste of Myanmar in Mandalay

Out first stop in the country of Myanmar was the city of Mandalay. When originally planning this part of our trip, we had assumed that we would start in Yangon, but when we found out it was possible to get to Mandalay we figured it would be better to start up top and do a one-way trip down to Yangon. The guidebooks and fellow travelers didn’t rave about Mandalay itself, so we wondered a little bit if it was going to be that much fun to visit.

Getting There

The key to our decision to start in Mandalay was figuring out that there was a cheap flight from Bangkok to Mandalay every day on AirAsia (technically the same airline as the one that just crashed, but there are different subsidiaries in each country and this one on the Thai version). The flight left from Bangkok’s secondary airport, Don Mueang, which we had to take a taxi to get to. The flight itself was delayed for an hour because of a military airshow, so we were there in plenty of time and were able to enjoy a bowl of noodles at the gate.

The Mandalay airport itself was a bit small but getting in and getting our bags went smoothly. It is located 45 minutes outside of the city, but AirAsia provides a free shuttle to the city center. We caught the shuttle and then at the dropoff point were able to get a taxi to our guesthouse.

Where We Stayed

We can’t rave enough about the Yoe Yoe Lay Guesthouse. If you are going to Mandalay, you should stay there, no question. The level of service is amazing: everything is done with a smile, the provided breakfast is large and you have to fight to keep from getting extras and the facilities are nice, clean and commodious. The owner, who everyone calls “Mama,” is amazingly kind and generous, and will go out of her way to make you feel at home. Also, this place seems to attract a nice crowd of like-minded travelers, and we made a lot of fun connections just hanging out in the common area each night. Yoe Yoe Lay set a very high bar for the level of accommodations we are going to expect in Myanmar.

We ended up staying at Yoe Yoe Lay for four nights, and in three separate private rooms. We only booked two nights in advance since we weren’t sure we would like Mandalay, but almost immediately we decided we wanted one more. But by the time we asked them, our room was already spoken for, so we had to switch to a different room. The new one had a private bathroom instead of using the shared facilities, so it wasn’t too much of a sacrifice. We also stayed one more night in a different room after spending two nights in the nearby town of Pyin Oo Lwin (separate blog post coming soon).

What We Did

Ancient Cities Tour

The taxi driver who took us to the Guesthouse on the first day also told us that he would offer his services for the day to drive us around to sights in the three “ancient cities” near Mandalay: Amarapura, Sagaing and Inwa. All three were the capital of a kingdom at some point in history and have remnants left over from their glory days in addition to active Buddhist sites. The cost for the day was $35, which our host told us was reasonable, so we decided to accept.

The day started out bright and early with our driver picking us up at 8:00 AM. Our first stop was actually within the city of Mandalay: the Mahamuni Paya, the main Buddhist temple in the city. He dropped us off at one of the lesser-used entrances. We put our shoes in lockers (everyone must be barefoot within the sacred area) and walked into the complex. The main attraction is a 13-foot tall seated Buddha, made of gold and believed to be 2000 years old. Male worshippers may approach this image and apply gold leaf, but women have to sit outside or watch on one of the TV monitors. There were quite a few people visiting this image on the day we were there. In the buildings surrounding the courtyard, we also went through a gallery of paintings describing how the Buddha was moved to Mandalay and a room with some bronze figures from Angkor Wat.

The next stop on our tour was at a shop that did traditional wood carving. It was pretty interesting to watch the male workers chisel away at the pieces of teak wood. We were tempted by a smaller piece but didn’t want to have to figure out how to get it home. Inside there were some ladies working on pieces of embroidery. We did buy a smaller piece of this which had an owl on it.

We then headed onto Amarpura and into the Maha Ganayon Kyuang Monastery there. Our driver instructed us on where to stand to watch them get their lunch at 10:25. We had a little bit of time before to wander around the grounds. We made it back to the spot by the road in time for them to line up. Unfortunately, there were a ton of other tourists there, so it was kind of a strange experience, with everyone snapping pictures of all of the monks as they stood in line. It was interesting to watch the process of how they got their food: volunteers were standing just outside the dining hall, and the monks would file past and get a large serving of rice, some cake and a drink.

We got back in the car and drove on south. We paused before crossing the big Ayerarwady River on the new bridge to take in the sight of the river and our next destination: Sagaing Hill. We could see the large hill with many sparkling pagodas covering it. This was the site of a capital of a Shan kingdom in the 14th century but now is mainly known as a big site for monasteries and temples.

We were dropped off at the base of the hill and shown the path to take to get to the top, through One Lion Gate. The path up took a while – Lonely Planet says it was 350 steps. Once we reached the top, we took off our shoes and explored the Pon Nya Shin Pya, with its shiny gold stupa and a big Buddha image. The platform surrounding gave nice views of the surrounding area. We stopped and sat for a while just to relax.

We headed back down the stairs and found our driver. We drove back over the river on the old bridge (much smaller) and went to the dock to head to the dock for Inwa. We found out that the driver doesn’t actually take you there – you have to take a boat across. Inwa has been the site of a royal capital four different times from 1364 to 1841. There are a few ruins and old temples spread about. The way they expect you to see the sites is by horse cart. We weren’t sure we wanted to pay for this, so we started walking past them, declining numerous offers. We had just turned the corner when we gave in to one persistent driver and took the cart. This caused some sort of argument between him and other drivers, which left us feeling a bit awkward.

The ride in the cart down the narrow dirt/sand paths was fun but quite bumpy. After a little while we were dropped off at our first stop, Maha Aungmye Bonzan, also called the “Brick Monastery” since it was built from brick covered in stucco (in 1822). It felt quite older than the other temples that we had thus far seen. There weren’t a lot of other people around. As we were first circling, a teenage boy came up and started talking with us in English. We think he just wanted to practice, because he never asked for anything. We had to pause where a Burmese family basically insisted that we take a picture with their infant. Della held it while the rest of the family tried to make the baby look at them. We then took off our shoes and entered inside the upper level, still accompanied by our conversation friend. He followed us until we left to head back out to the horse cart.

We then stopped at Nanmyin, the “leaning tower of Inwa”. This was a watchtower for the palace of King Bagyidaw. The staircase to go up into the tower was closed for safety reasons so we just briefly walked around one side of it.

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Back on the cart, our driver cut through a banana field and took us to the Bagaya Monastery. This temple is built out of dark teak wood, and definitely had a different feel to it. This was probably our favorite of the different things we saw in Inwa. It was also the most crowded with tourists. We took our time strolling around the buildings, making sure not to damage our bare foot with any nails.

Our final stop was a small complex called the Yadana Sinme Pagoda. The highlight of this area was the ruins of an old chamber (with columns arranged like a Christian church) with three Buddha statues at one end.

Our horse cart driver then returned us back to the dock. We hopped right on a boat and returned to the other side where our driver was waiting. He drove us back to Amarapura, this time to the U-Bein Bridge. This famous bridge is made out of teak wood and is over 1 km long, making it the longest teak bridge in the world. It also seems to be quite a popular destination in the evening, with many people strolling back and forth over it. We walked all the way over to the other end of it, then returned to about halfway and waited for the sunset. Eric went down off the bridge briefly to snap some pictures of the bridge from below on an island.

As it got dark we returned to our accommodations, arriving at about 6:30 PM. Quite a long day of sightseeing!

Sandamuni Paya and Kuthodaw Paya

The next day we decided to stick to sightseeing within the city limits. We rented bikes from the guesthouse and braved the Mandalay traffic (just stick your nose out there and people generally give you a wide berth), heading in the general direction of Mandalay Hill. We rode past the large fortress walls and moat but did not go inside.

This was one of the quieter streets we rode on. Otherwise we couldn't have taken this picture!

This was one of the quitter streets we rode on. Otherwise we couldn’t have taken this picture!

Our first stop was the serene Sandamuni Paya, which contains rows upon rows of white stupas (1774 to be exact), each of which holds a marble slab inscribed with a page of writings from one of the teachings of Buddha. There were few people here, and we enjoyed relaxing and listening to the tinkling of the bells attached to the tops of the stupas. While we were wandering, a monk approached us and struck up a conversation in order to practice his English.

He directed us towards the nearby Kuthodaw Paya, which has 729 inscribed marble slabs of its own. Its temple complex was more brightly colored that Sandamuni, and there were many more people visiting, so we didn’t prefer it quite as much.

Mandalay Hill

We rode to the base of Mandalay Hill, parking our bikes in a dedicated area next to the entrance with two big stone lions. We knew this would be a long hike up, so we were sad to see that we had to take our shoes off at the base! Reluctantly we followed the rules and started hiking up the hard concrete barefoot.

After long flights of stairs, we went through a few different small pagodas and one with a large statue. We made it to a landing with a pagoda with a large golden Buddha pointing back at the city. We thought this must be the top so we stopped and gulped some water.

But then we walked around the back and saw the stairs continued upwards. We kept going, and realized that it seemed like it would never end. We passed more small pagodas, a really steep staircase that led to what felt like an abandoned warehouse, and a flashy temple with a Buddha footprint. Then, we finally reached the top! We walked around the outside railing, enjoying the views in all directions of the area below. We also sat own and rested our aching bare feet.

But we knew we couldn’t pause for too long since it was almost 4:30, and we didn’t want to be riding bikes home too long after the sun set at 5:30. We started back down the hill at 4:50. Our feet were really killing us but we pushed on as fast as we could. It took us about 20 minutes to get down. We hopped back on our bikes and rode home as fast as we could, making it back just as it started to get dark.

Where We Ate

We had heard that Myanmar food left something to be desired, so we weren’t quite sure what to expect. As it turns out, we were pleasantly surprised by the meals we received.

Our first night in Mandalay, we headed with some fellow travelers to Win-Win 35, a restaurant/beer station/live music venue within walking distance of Yoe Yoe Lay. Each of us got a variation of an “iron plate”, which turned out to be an iron skillet with a meat of choice sizzling on top (kind of like fajitas). It was very tasty and filling – we probably could have shared one between the two of us.

Iron plates at the Win-Win

Iron plates at the Win-Win

On our Ancient Cities day trip, our driver directed us for lunch to a restaurant near the Inwa ferry landing. It felt pretty touristy but was a nice introduction to some of the traditional dishes. Della tried some of the fried noodles, which she enjoyed. Eric ordered a chicken curry, in which the meat itself was definitely mildly spiced, but the best part was that curries traditionally come with multiple side dishes, including a sour vegetable soup, noodles, and a few different sauces plus vegetables for dipping.

Eric's curry came with a lot of side dishes

Eric’s curry came with a lot of side dishes

The day we rode our bikes to Mandalay Hill, we stopped for lunch at Too Too Restaurant downtown, recommended by both our guesthouse and Lonely Planet. Here we each picked a curry from a selection of trays near the front. We enjoyed eating our selected meat with the similar spread of all-you-can-eat side dishes and rice.

Lunch at Too-Too

Lunch at Too-Too

 

The day we returned from Pyin Oo Lwin, we ate lunch at a simple noodle house next door to Yoe Yoe Lay. We thought our noodles were great, but that may have been because “Mama” came over and made sure the cooks knew not to make them too oily (a common complaint from tourists)!

Our noodles, as supervised by Mama

Our noodles, as supervised by Mama

Final Thoughts

As it turns out, we are really glad that we started our trip in Mandalay. We enjoyed the sites that we saw, and we got to experience a great guesthouse. If this is a destination that some people think is skippable, we can’t wait to see what the rest of Myanmar has in store for us!