Top 20 Burma (Myanmar) Travel Tips
Our Ampersand specialists have picked up a few helpful hints and tips while travelling around Burma (Myanmar)... Here are a handful of their insider tips:
1). Should you call it Burma or Myanmar? Both are fine, but you will find that 95% of local people say Myanmar. However, locals do not appear fazed if you call it Burma, which most Brits do although this is starting to change as Myanmar has become the more politically correct option. You will also find that practically everyone uses the new names for local towns and cities: Yangon in place of Rangoon and Pyin Oo Lwin in place of MayMyo.
2). Plugs – sockets vary from hotel to hotel. Generally you will need a plug / adapter with two round prongs; occasionally it will need two flat prongs and sometimes you will need three pronged English-style plugs.
3). Go off-season! The rain is occasional in September and a welcome relief from the heat. More importantly you will not have throngs of tour groups to contend with and can enjoy the monuments in a more peaceful and spiritual way. It's also cheaper and rooms are available, unlike in peak season when they are fully booked months in advance.
4). Regarding Tip #5, do be aware that hot air ballooning over Bagan’s temples is only operational in high season from October to February, so if you can't bear to miss out (we don't blame you!) then try to come the first 2 weeks of December, after the November crush and before the Christmas tourists.
5). For a fun and frantic local eatery try Feel Myanmar restaurant in Yangon – ask your guide to help you order as it is a bit of a circus with throngs of people choosing their meal from an enormous selection of fresh buffet dishes. The end result is rather like a Burmese thali with a dazzling array of local delights in separate dishes with pickles and seasoning on the side.
6). Have a lunch pit-spot at artisanal foodie restaurant, Rangoon Tea House – a fun and fresh Yangon institution. It's a Westernised but Burmese-owned cafe that has a cool millennial vibe. Food is old Burmese style, locally sourced and beautifully presented.
7). In Yangon, for a charismatic colonial experience brimming with Burmese character book yourself in at the Governor's Residence (do this well in advance – the Governor’s Residence is Burma’s most sought after hotel). Request a Governor's Room on the top floor; the windows of lower floor rooms overlook the walkways meaning you will want to keep the curtains closed, making these otherwise gorgeous rooms feel a little dark.
8). Try the traditional Burmese breakfast, Mohinga, a sometimes vegetarian sometimes fish based coconut noodle soup with egg, chilli flakes, herbs and "crunchies" (deep fried shallots) for texture. We tried it on our first morning in Burma at the Governor’s Residence and ordered it for breakfast for the rest of our trip!
9). For a special treat or a blow out last meal in Burma book a table at Le Planteur, Yangon's most opulent fine-dining restaurant set in a distinguished old colonial villa serving French cuisine. Make sure to sit on the terrace, as the upstairs seating is air-conditioned and not as atmospheric as the garden terrace, which is bathed in soft lighting and shrouded in greenery. Bring an appetite if you opt for the set menu; after two starters and a main course we were given a cheese board and the most delicious dessert!
10). As an alternative to Bagan’s horse-and-cart journeys, which can be rather bumpy and only go on roads and designated tracks, we suggest setting off on your own private adventure on horseback across the temple-studded plains. Or, if you are more tempted by hiking then head out to Mount Popa - an extinct volcano which now has a monastery built at the top, Tuang Kalat Monastery, and offers phenomenal panoramic views across the surrounding landscape. It is especially beautiful just after the wet season (around October), because the plains are so green and go as far as the eye can see.
11). The Strand is one of Yangon’s most fabled hotels and a firm favourite of ours. It’s a splendid spot for your last night’s sleep in Burma as you’ll end on a high, steeped in history. In February 2019, The Strand Yangon has become the first hotel in Myanmar to receive a commemorative blue plaque from the Yangon Heritage Trust in acknowledgement of its significance in the historical and cultural heritage of Yangon. Every room comes with first-class service in the form of a professional butler. If you don’t stay, do at least drop by. Dinner at The Grill is highly recommended: people-watch and soak up the elegant surroundings of the lobby and have a drink at the Strand Bar (a great place for cocktails on a Friday night) before dining at The Grill with its vaulted ceiling, Burmese lacquer details and neoclassic pillars. They’ve recently added a lovely pool and leisure area, so perfect for hot days when you want to laze in the sun.
12). Burma’s most famous religious site, the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, is no less magical for its fame and popularity. We suggest visiting in the late afternoon to see lots of local people mingling around. Unlike in the west, temples in Burma are a place to spend time with friends and family, relax, eat, socialise and pray. Watching the pagoda's glowing gold colour changing with the setting sun is utterly mesmerising.
13). If you love river cruises, then you have a lot of luxury options here: The Belmond Road to Mandalay, Sanctuary Ananda and The Strand Cruise are our favourites and offer plenty of interesting river routes to untouched parts of the country.
14). If you're not hugely into cruising but would like a river cruise experience, we recommend taking a simple sunset cruise along the Bagan plains. Many people do not realise that on some of the long cruises the sights along the river banks do not vary greatly. The stretch downstream from the Shwezigon Pagoda, however, is strewn with temples making for a breathtaking and romantic late afternoon experience – particularly with Bagan’s hundreds of pagodas silhouetted at sunset... It is also possible to take a 1-day cruise from Bagan to Mandalay instead of flying.
15). One of our favourite hotels in Burma was the homely and beautifully maintained Amara Mountain Resort in the cool colonial hill station of Kalaw. Snuggle down in bedrooms with creaky floorboards, real fireplaces and eaved ceilings; relax with a stroll through the colourful garden, which is so much like an English country cottage garden you wonder if you're dreaming!
16). The Green Hill Valley in Kalaw in the Shan State is a conservation project focused on protecting the ecology, elephants and traditions of the local people. You can stop for an afternoon to have a delicious home-cooked lunch, bathe the elephants, hike through the jungle and learn about the conservation efforts of the team. Depending on your itinerary, by the time you reach Kalaw you would most probably have already done Yangon, Bagan and Mandalay, so you will be somewhat “templed-out” and getting out in amongst nature at this point is paradise.
17). Ask your guide to show you some of the fresh locally-grown produce. We particularly love the huge ripe avocados sold in makeshift huts on the side of the mountain roads - they are creamy and delicious. If you haven’t tasted them before we can also recommend custard apples, and the tomatoes grown on the floating gardens in Inle Lake are the pride and joy of the lake gardeners! For an afternoon snack, sample green tea leaves with peanut and cashews and dry fried garlic and herbs - it’s served on a large round plate with compartments for each condiments with the tea leaves taking centre stage.
18). At Inle Lake, ask your boat driver to take you through Pauk Per fishing village – you'll see wonderfully rickety stilted houses and local life playing out, like ladies washing their hair in the lake and kids splashing around; it'll only take a few minutes to go through it by boat and it's not on the tourist trail. N.b. Even if you think it may look silly, ask your guide to provide an umbrella on long sightseeing trips to protect yourself from the sun and don't forget to bring sun cream when taking excursions on the lake – boat journeys are deceptively cool because of the wind so you can easily forget to reapply and end up sun burnt.
19). Mandalay is for those who want to immerse themselves in local art and history – the home of the last king of Burma, this city showcases traditional crafts passed down through generations. Witness how they make the gold leaf that is applied to many Buddha statues in the revered pagodas, or join the merchants selling endless amounts of jade at the market.
20). If you're after a heavenly beachside setting, we recommend a stay at Ngapali Bay Villas & Spa. Find a beachfront seat, switch off and watch a stunning sunset dip behind the Bay of Bengal.
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