Thoughts On: Burma/Myanmar


My first big recommendation is read the Lonely Planet and keep it for useful information such as language tips, money stuff, and maps. Then just ignore all the recommendations.


We arrived in Yangon (Rangoon) with only two nights booked in a hotel and I think that was a good decision. On out first day we sought out a travel agent - Good News Travel, they have a great website, and with their help booked ourselves through the next two weeks.

Though an unusual way to book travel in most other places I've been, in Myanmar it seems to be the way to do things. We were traveling in the low season and I have heard that booking after arriving is not as easy to do in the high season. If you know you want to do Bagan and Inlay Lake, then best to get those flights and hotels booked before you go. The only town we had a bit of difficulty finding a place to lay our heads was Hpa'an and I suspect that has more to do with a dearth of available places and not overcrowding.

We all really liked Yangon, it is for lack of a better comparison, the New York of Burma. It's a mess too - traffic is terrible in part because motos and scooters are banned, a very unusual thing in this part of the world. This is where the business community is growing and the diplomatic community has remained though the capital has moved north. The hotels are the best and they are all extraordinarily expensive. Like San Francisco during Apple Week expensive. Just absurd. Have I made myself clear here? Prepare to shell out for even the simplest place.

Go to the Shwedagon Paya, go to the Bogyoke Market (Bo-j-oke), discover Chinatown, and watch the city changing as you spend time there. We had wonderful drinks at the Governor's Residence (an Orient Express hotel), and really liked our stay at The Savoy. For a cheaper alternative to both I also recommend The Classique Inn and the Alamanda Hotel.

For food we did Myanmar Feel - it is a good place to get introduced to Burmese cuisine. We wanted to go to the food stalls on 19th Street but were rained out.

It costs between 6,000 to 8,000 ($6 to $8) kyat to get from the airport into town. Be careful of them taking your luggage and then asking to be paid for a carry fee. Otherwise no real problems - felt safe.

Mawlyamine and Hpa'an, or the South

We picked Mawlyamine on friends' recommendations and because we had the time to go. I highly recommend taking the train from Yangon to Mawlyamine, it was the most fun I had during the entire trip. It's also hot, slow, crowded, occasionally stinky, but completely unforgettable.

We stayed at the Cinderella Hotel which is the only up to par place in town. There are lots of guesthouses, and if that floats your boat go ahead. It isn't my speed anymore. Comically Cinderella provides you with a odd and wide range of room freebies, including an angry bird shower cap, ovaltine cookies, packets of powdered cappuccinos and the best shower flip-flops ever (green with caterpillars on them, shaped as a leaf).

We rented bikes from the Breeze Guesthouse and booked a boat service to Hpa'an. I would recommend staying here. The standards are not quite up to westernized tastes.


Oh and food. Go to the Beer Garden 2. It's on the Strand, a little walk away from the center of town. It's a Tiger beer garden (as in Singapore beer not animal) were you pick out mystery meats, and sometimes mystery vegetables, from a fridge. They are grilled and served to you with a dipping sauce and rice. It was delicious. Truly.


We stayed at the Hotel@Tharabar Gate and were all pleased. The rooms were nicely done, the service was friendly, the pool was great. All in all a great place to come back too after rides through the dust and heat of Bagan.

Food options in Bagan are a bit limited but we had two delicious meals at the Starbeam restaurant. I don't do places twice usually, so that speaks for itself. The Rakhine Fish Curry was lovely.

We also ate an an Indian restaurant in Nyauk U (one of the bigger villages in Bagan). Aroma 2 is tasty but they will try to sell you their touring services - the sale is very gentle and can easily be turned down.

Rent bikes, but be sure all the necessary elements are in working order - check breaks and tires. The Horse carts are used by everyone, as a foreigner you are forced to only put 2 people on a cart. It's a little frustrating since you see Burmese families of 8 on them, but that is part of the foreigner tax.

Finally be careful of the kids acting as touts. The number will probably increase and its up to you how you want to handle that. Help them out or discourage the practice - it's ultimately a personal choice.

My favorite temple was by far the Salamani Paya, I loved the wall paintings and the atmosphere.

Pyin oo Lwin and Mandalay

We stayed at the Kadawgyi Hill Resort and I'm not sure I would recommend it. It was in some ways lovely and in others disappointing. The room was clean, everything worked fine within the limitations of Myanmar (slow Internet, poor English skills, expensive but bare). This was out first encounter with unpleasant staff (in a weirdly friendly and polite way, but still unhelpful) who refused to help us get cheaper travel back to Mandalay.

There is a very posh hotel next door called the Pyin Oo Lwin Hotel. The rooms are nice (we got a tour) but the place is odd in that Burmese way again. For cheaper places I'm afraid I just don't know.

Bikes are again highly recommended. You can discover Pyin oo Lwin in a day (2 nights) or on a simple day trip up from Mandalay. I am glad we stayed almost 3 days, it was nice to get to know the city a little bit better.

Best meal was a dumpling soup from the Shan Market. If you are coming from out of town and heading towards the roundabout, its the first stall on your left. She has a pot full of it - point and smile. Delicious. Best meal in Burma award.


In my opinion, is skippable. It's too hot, too flat, too decentralized. The palace is a military base and most of the old buildings are gone. The Paya on Mandalay Hill gives a great view of the plain in which the city sites, but that is good enough for me. The U Bein teak bridge was nice because it was cool there, and its nice to see local people out for a stroll, but again missable. The cafes at the entrance to the bridge were frankly dirty. So all in all, if you have other choices of places to see in Myanmar go there instead of Mandalay.

We stayed at the Rupar Mandalar. Out of town and more of a resort than a place to stay in Mandalay. I'd recommend something closer to town. 

General advice

Ever wonder why our paper money is so used up in the states? It's because the Burmese have all of our nice new ones stockpiled. The books and websites do not lie on this topic. Bring all your money with you in 2009 and 2006 (only 100s, no new ones have been issued since then) fresh, crisp and unwrinkled $ bills. The economy is not as dollarized as a year ago, but to get kyats you will need to go and have them exchanged. The exchange desk will inspect every bill, and will give you a corresponding exchange rate depending on the quality of the dollar you hand over. In some cases, but increasing less, they will turn down your beautiful, post-2006, flat, and unfolded $100 bill because of a microscopic discoloration. They really won't take any older money.

This is set to change as the banking system gets linked up to the international system in 2015. Already in a year (we swapped stories with friends who'd been there a year before us), kyats where more widely in use and it was easier to get around with credit cards. Hotels will accept them, no one else yet will.

One final note, don't wait till the day before to source your drug dealer standard USD bills. The banks will not have them at the ready. Go from bank to bank for at least a week before, request specially the bills you need. Increasingly banks are getting used to tourists going to Myanmar and will understand and help.

Get used to Betel nut chewing. The smell, the teeth and the strange red stains on the floor are everywhere. It's not as offensive as it sounds and you quickly get used to it, but the first time you see bright red lips and a mouth with black, red, and missing teeth it's a bit of a shock. It's everywhere. The smell isn't unpleasant but it is noticeable - a kind of slightly sweet and acrid smell, at least to me. The Burmese don't spit about willy nilly, but you do see the effects of it as the ground is stained bright red. It's essentially their chewing tobacco with all the associated health and dentistry problems. It's just also bright red and very wide spread.

Health wise the food is clean, if very greasy and not super vegetarian friendly. Bottled water is easily available and if you are particularly sensitive, western food is within easy reach.

We solved most of our travel problems mostly by standing around and finding that someone would jump in and solve the problem for us. The bike incident in Mawlyamine, transport questions in Pyin Oo Lwin and Mandalay. All were resolved quickly and with very little work on our part. I think that will change as the country gets used to tourists. Maybe it won't too, maybe its part of the national culture, who knows yet.  My point here is don't stress, Myanmar has a funny way of stepping in and helping you out unlike any other place I've been too.

My final thought is a simple one - go now, go soon. The country is unlike anywhere I, and many people I have met, have ever been too. It's India and SE Asia, and yet it is neither. It's friendly, open, giving, and genuine in a way no other place I've experienced is. Will that change? Maybe, maybe not. Just don't wait too long to find out.


Thoughts On: Laos

I really enjoyed what I saw of Laos, but since I didn't get to spend as much time there as I would have liked I don't have very much to say on the country. I'll keep this Thoughts On limited to the travel essentials. 


Laos is still technically a Communist run country and a single party state. Since the end of the Cold War they have however followed closely in Vietnam's wake and opened up the economy. Luang Prabang, which was the only place I saw, is a lovely UNESCO protected spot and a gem of a town. I could not recommend it more. I will qualify that only by saying that if you want an off the track, unadulterated, and non-euro experience this is not the place for you. It feels a little bit like the St Tropez of Laos (without the ocean, but remember Laos is landlocked).

Luang Prabang

I stayed in the 3 Nagas Hotel after I saw a thing in an oldish travel magazine about it being one of the world's best small hotels. Right, well, take those things as you will, but it really was lovely. The room was gorgeous, the bed very comfortable, the shower worked perfectly, the service was friendly. The only bum note was they try and push some expensive outings on you and seem to daily encourage you to use their services. If you go through the hotel to see the must see Kuang Xi falls and the caves, it will cost you $100 per person. That price is absurd. Walk down the Main Street and either negotiate with a driver to take you to the falls for $15 or book a day with one of the many agents and it will cost you half or less than the hotel's prices.

We only had breakfast at the hotel, but it was the best breakfast food of the whole trip. Their Laotian dishes where phenomenal.


Food wise we ate a street food at the food market and it was good and safe. Our best meal though was at Lao Lao Garden where we had Laotian "BBQ". Fantastic and fun. We also enjoyed a nice colonial lunch at L'Elephant restaurant. We had drinks at Utopia, watched local kids breakdancing and cheered them on. We used Tiger Travel travel agency for a kayak trip to the caves.

Over all Luang Prabang and Laos felt safe. We really enjoyed our time but it is a very varied country, with a multitude of ethnic groups and landscapes. It was heavily bombed during the war and therefore some parts of the country are still off limits for safety reasons.

Thoughts On: Cambodia

The "Thoughts On" post is to reflect on the experience in each country I visited, and to provide some useful information for readers. The format for each "Thoughts On:" be the following:

  • Where did we go and where did we stay?
  • Was it any good?
  • What did we eat and where?
  • And General Travel Advice.

Lets start with Cambodia.

Siem Reap and Angkor

We spent three nights at the FCC Angkor. Hotel options in Siem Reap abound - something like 2 million tourists come through every year - there are hotels dedicated to the Chinese tourist, the French tourist and any other national variation of tourist, most if not all speak decent English.

We liked the FCC Angkor a lot. It's a great mid-market hotel, with a good location just half a km from the center of town. I'm still craving their coconut and lime lassis and their pool is fabulous. It's a little bit tired on the edges, but fine when you consider location, staff and cost. [Other hotels ($$$) options: Les Nuit's d'Angkor and Shinta Mani.]

FCC Angkor had good food options and we ate there twice. Downtown is a tourist mecca - bright lights, 'massage' therapists for miles, crowded, etc. A bit like a Cambodian Place St. Michel. That said, they've tried to make it user friendly and not to down and out. The bones of the old town peak out amongst the fluorescent lights, and you can glimpse some lovely old Chinese shop houses and colonial architecture. Much and in high season I imagine overwhelmed with people. We ate downtown once, and I'll just skip on even recommending a place. Too hard.

Oh right, and what about Angkor? Amazing, truly amazing. You will not be alone though. You can spend a day, or a week, discovering the temple complex. Rent a bike or a tuk tuk - your choice though the tuk tuk is easier in the heat. They have plenty of official guides for you if that is what interests you. Go.

Ratank Kiri and Jungle trekking

We stayed at the Terres Rouge Inn, and I wouldn't exactly recommend it. I'm not sure what other options there are in Ratank Kiri at this level, the majority are dodgy looking guesthouses, so if you want to go this is probably your only option. Clearly management knew that was the case and let things slip. However, we arrived shortly after a new manager had started and a planned refresh of the place. Maybe in a few months it will be better.

The biggest weakness was the questionable quality of the trekking guides and the cost. Poor and high, respectively.

Since you aren't in Siem Reap or Phnom Penh, the food is not very sophisticated. Unless you eat at Terres Rouge (where the food was tourist friendly if not at all good), you are eating what the locals eat. If that floats your boat, great, if not be prepared to crunch through a lot of tiny chicken bones.

Phnom Penh

We stayed at the Kabiki Hotel, the sister hotel to the Pavilion Hotel where we really wanted to stay. It's a great little oasis in a big buzzy city and I recommend it. The pool area is lovely, the little restaurant is good and makes a great breakfast. If you go, book the bigger deluxe twin room. The smaller room is very small and you will feel cramped with more than one person. The bathrooms are not great because there isn't enough air circulation but they are absolutely passable.

Food was much better in the capital and we had some yummy Khmer food. My favorite dish was the (choice of meat) and ginger. A stir fry of meat and grated ginger that was flavorful and filling. We also had a lovely drink at a French run bar on Samdach Preah Theamak Lethet Ouk, a street that runs north of the palace and ends at the river , listened to live music here at Equinox and danced away the night here the Banana Leaf hostel.

I liked Phnom Penh a lot. It has charm, culture, its easy to get around and you can spend a great few days to few weeks there. Some of my favorite things where: the architectural tour (link), the central market, walking along the river's edge, shopping, riding a cyclo and going out a night. It's an expats' city - full of well meaning people spending their governments donor dollars, for better or for worse.

Politically, its depressing. I won't go on about it here except to say don't expect a functioning democracy, or high literacy rates. If you want to read more about the country, some of the books we read there and before are "Cambodia's Curse" and "First they killed my father". Cheery stuff.

General Travel Advice

Cambodia is still a heavily dollarized economy, especially for tourists. Expect to be asked of pay in USD. Unlike Myanmar they aren't too overly concerned with the crispness and newness of your bills, though they will turn down ripped ones.

Outside of the main cities, when ordering food, expect service to be a bit, if not downright, surly. Chicken dishes are not your clean cut little pieces of chicken, they are a part of the chicken chopped up into little pieces, bones and cartilage and all. Food is not terribly spicy, so don't worry too much about that, but it tends towards greasy. Buy and wear a lot of bug repellent (See favorite Travel Buys).

The country isn't very clean. It's a sad thing to note and keep in mind I'm saying this within the context of SE Asia. You get used to it, but be prepared for some unpleasant smells.

Cambodians are used to tourists and they will negotiate. They tend to price everything at $1 up for tourists, though I suspect locals often get a similar service for much less. It's the foreigner tax - just accept it. We often ended up somewhere between 60% and 70% of the original proposed price for goods and services we negotiated. I don't go to 50% because those two or three dollars means a lot more to them than it does to me. It is still a very cheap country.

The roads are in terrible shape. They seem to be in a constant state of construction, but I suspect a healthy dose of graft means they aren't being built very well. As soon as you get outside of the Siem Reap- Phnom Penh route (which itself, I've heard, isn't great) expect very bumpy, broken down, asphalt-if-your-lucky-but-probably-mud roads. Renting a car and driver to go long distances can be expensive as cars are still a novelty. Most are old or second hand.

And finally here is a blog I like to read about Cambodia. It's written by Brit who moved there recently.


The "Thoughts On" post is to reflect on the experience in each country I visited, and to provide some useful information for readers. The format for each "Thoughts On:" be the following:

  • Where did we go and where did we stay?
  • Was it any good?
  • What did we eat and where?
  • And General Travel Advice.