First up research....Myanmar has only opened it's borders to us lot for about 3-4 years. There are bits and bobs out there but really only about the general sights.....so here is my contribution.
The Myanmar currency is called Kyat (Chat). approx 1000Ky = $1).
Here's what we did
Tourists being tourists
Day 1-3: Yangon.
Our AirAsia flight from Bangkok had us land around 5pm. A small international airport, getting through immigration was easy. We only had carry on so with our bags on our backs we head to the currency exchange at the airport. Normally you don't get a great rate at the airport, but all the research suggests this is your best bet. You get the best rate on 50-100 new, crisp bills. You gotta be careful cause banks won't take older bills, especially if they are ripped. With a mix of a fat stack of Kyats and some crisp Benjamins we head out. Well, we walk three steps to an information booth. A lovely, polite young woman, full of smiles and with a great understanding of English informs us we can get a taxi for K8000 or K9000 if we want aircon. $3 each...quids in, that's fine, let's roll.
I had expected Yangon to be a little like Bangkok. Busy streets, high buildings everywhere, the hustle and bustle you kind of expect to find in a South-Eastern major city. Nope! Driving through from the airport, with an extremely helpful, informative and polite cabbie, you really don't get a sense of that organised chaos in Bangkok. You drive through and see a real mix of old colonial Burma and the new Myanmar that is up and coming.
Not really sure what to expect, I had booked a hostel (Sleep Inn) for the first night for the three of us. Nestled in China Town on 9th Street, it's a simple place with everything you need from a hostel. At $10 a night we were more than content, and we found ourselves in a room with two bunk beds. Clean and comfortable beds with a shared bathroom just down the corridor, again our expectations were exceeded.
First things first....food. On the corner of 9th street is what you'd describe as a meet up cafe. I always say that a busy restaurant is one you should check out. Hankering for some local food (courtesy of Anthony Bourdaine's hints and tips) we order some sweet tea and mohinga. Simple tables with red plastic chairs and a small menu (written partially in English) we order. The atmosphere of the place is all go. The adolescent staff shouting orders back to the 'kitchen', who are all cooking and making tea. We don't wait long for our first sample of what will be the start of our excellent culinary adventure around Myanmar. Time to pay....there weren't any prices on the menus so we were a touch worried. K2500. OK...so K7500 total for the three of us. Errr no, K2500 total. $2.50....for three meals. Who said this place was expensive.
We spent the most of our days walking around Yangon. The weather was fairly good to us. The overcast conditions kept the furnace like sun off the back of our necks and the sporadic rain kept the temperature to comfortable walking conditions. With no motorbikes/scooters allowed in Yangon you feel more at ease crossing the streets compared with Vietnam and Thailand. You just need to avoid the big muddy puddles and the old fellas spitting out their blood red beetlenut juices. The simple grid/block system allows you to navigate easily, and meander around the city taking in all their beautiful colonial buildings.
The highlight is the main pagoda, Shwedagon. It's as fabulous as it looks in a picture, but you don't get the sheer size of it. You need to make sure you have shorts/pants teh at least cover your knees. Singlets are frowned upon and you have to walk around barefoot. No socks. As a sight, people recommend to go at sunset. They whack the lights on and it imposes itself on the skyline. We went during the day (due to a slight miscommunication and some bad advice regarding the circle train) and although there are other people around it didn't feel too busy. As you walk around you can see where they have set up a staggering amount of LED lights around the majority of the shrines. One would almost go so far as to say they had gone OTT. Nevertheless, it's astonishing to think how this was created so long ago in such meticulous detail. A real highlight.
If you didn't want to go round Shwedagon in the evening then I'd recommend heading to the nearby lake in the evening. K2000 to get in you (damned white tax) but you get a cracking view, and it's a nice walk too. Head a little further (and another K300) you can sit down with a beer, get some sushi if you want and wait for sunset. Await to be dazzled when the pagoda lights go on.
View of Shwedagon from the Lake.
Really worth a look in the evening.
19th Street BBQ
Now food. We spent every evening on 19th street. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. A street completely dedicated to small restaurants that bbq street food and serve beer. Simple and delicious. We certainly enjoyed a few Myanmar Beers (order draught beer...much cheaper at K600 a glass compared to the K1500 for a big bottle) and you are looking to spend about between K6000-K8000 per person. Our favourite spot was about 7 restaurants down on the left hand side opposite the Green Dragon. Excellent choices, but it doesn't really look like you can go wrong.
Thank you Myanmar.....now off to Mandalay.
We grab a K9000 taxi to the bus station having pre-booked our VIP bus to Mandalay for K18,500. 830pm bus and about a 9 hour bus trip on what can only be described as the most amazing bus I've ever been on. Seats to rival business class and for those of you who have been on a Korean intercity bus will know how comfy these buses are....Now add in seatback tv's and comfy headphones, a snack box, water and a bus attendant. Great fun. They had the Rambo quadology (if that's a real word) on which made me chuckle.
Day 5-6: Mandalay.
We go into Mandalay (Myanmar's second biggest city) aware of their civil unrest they have been having. Fighting between Muslims and Buddhists had meant a curfew of 10pm had been put into place. Subsequently this has been lifted.
What to do in Mandalay? Well, in Mandalay not a huge amount. There's the palace, which is nestled in the middle of the city and is surrounded by a moat. Quite impressive from the outside. After trying to get into it from two entrances and being rejected by signs saying "Foreigners not allowed to use this entrance!" we called it off for the morning cause the sun was starting to bake down on us and we were pretty knackered from the bus journey. Apparently, us foreigners can only use one entrance. But further reading about it we decided that the K10, 000 entrance fee wasn't worth it. Chatting to people and reading reviews of the palace turned us off the idea.
A spot of lunch and time to go and explore the city. Scooters are allowed in Mandalay, so there was a little more of that hustle you get in Bnagkok, but the grid system still makes it easy to get around. We checked out some markets and attempted to head to the lake but the 40 degree heat put us off this also. I really wanted to check out the night market, but I believe the curfew put an end to this cause it wasn't there. Oops. Another delicious bite to eat and a quick stock up of some local rum, snacks and we head to the roof of the hostel. The next few hour are a touch blurry.....thanks Mandalay Rum :)
I was impressed with Mandalay Hill. At the top of this 240m hill lies a monastery and better than that some pretty spectacular views of the area. Now, you can walk up it.....those of you who know me know how I feel about stairs....but our cabbie advised us to take the shuttle up to the top and walk down. Smart fella. He also waited for us at the bottom of the hill to take us wherever we wanted. The shuttle is a pick-up that holds about 10 people and costs a mere K1000. All was going swimmingly until we here a loud bang and a violent stop that could only suggest a flat. After being blamed for it for being a fatty we have to walk the rest of the way. Fortunately we were almost at the top.
Mandalay Hill would be an epic place for some kind of horror movie. It's stunning as a place. And the main areas you go to offer breathtaking views and some real fine architecture and attention to detail. You have to pay a foreigner camera fee when you get to the main shrine with the panoramic views. K5000 I believe. For some reason no one asked me for any money so I managed to avoid this tax.