I knew this trip to Myanmar was going to be special when a 44-page briefing document arrived via email. I’ve always taken a perverse pride in planning a family holiday: the hours spent finding the best flight connections, locating TripAdvisor-rated hotels closest to the things we want to see, and hunting down the best restaurants for local cuisine and even the must-try items on the menu.
But with a recently-arrived baby, I had tried to book a Myanmar trip a couple of times and it had defeated me. The size of the country – not to mention our always-limited travel window – meant we would need to take internal flights, and the connections and transfers never seemed to match up.
When baby Edwin reached 18 months of age, and our two older boys 8 and 10, we thought it was time to try again.
Travel specialists Country Holidays came highly recommended by a colleague and I can certainly see why after using them for our Myanmar adventure. The aforementioned document that they emailed through was more like a mini travel guide, with all relevant background information included, along with details of eight full days of culture and activities tailored to the ages of our children – even taking into account breaks around lunchtime for our baby to nap.
Here are just some of the things we covered.
In Yangon we stayed at the Sule Shangri-La, centrally located just across the road from the Bogyoke Market. This market has everything for locals and tourists alike, and often cheaper prices on jewellery and crafts than we found in the villages where they are made.
The city has some lovely tree-lined streets, two big lakes and an interesting mix of Indian and Chinese architecture. Motorbikes have been banned in the city centre since 2003, so there is a leisurely feel to the place. New money flowing in is bringing big changes though: a huge multi-storey commercial development is opening soon on Inya Lake, opposite Aung San Suu Kyi’s house, and more cars are on the roads every day.
The food we had in Yangon and Myanmar in general was a real surprise – very tasty, with an emphasis on fish (in tomato-tamarind based sauces), tempura, stir-fried vegetables and curries. The further north we travelled, the more the cuisine became Chinese-influenced, with leaf-wrapped dumplings and sesame flavours.
On Day 2, we visited an orphanage run by a monastery, where we had the chance to serve lunch to the children. Country Holidays had organised for us to contribute the meat dish and fresh fruit for the meal, and we took lots of stationery items and small gifts for them to give out to the children later. Some of the boys were studying to go to university and loved talking and playing soccer with our kids.
The Shwedagon Pagoda is the cultural highlight of Yangon. It’s a huge, dazzling complex on top of a hill, with lots of gold and as many as 68 stupas and pagodas, all paid for by donations. The central pagoda (being upgraded while we were there) is 110 metres tall, and covered in hundreds of gold plates and over 4,500 diamonds, including a 75-carat diamond in the top; needless to say, it’s very impressive. We took the easy walk around the terrace, where locals enjoy bringing picnics and watching the sun set, beneath thousands of crows circling the spires.
Bricks and balloons
The next day involved an early morning flight to Bagan – the ancient capital from the 9th to 12th century. There are over 3,000 temples, pagodas and stupas spread over this massive plain along the Irrawaddy River. The locals moved out 25 years ago and created New Bagan, which is where the hotels are, but it’s easy to get to and around the temple area – whether by bicycle, electric bike, horse and cart, or car and driver.
Bagan Lodge is a very new and beautifully planned hotel, with spacious, freestanding villas housing two interconnecting rooms, perfect for a family. I wish we could have stayed here longer to enjoy the space and the pool.
We saw too many temples to provide specific details, but the overall feel of Bagan is as though a giant has scattered “stones” or temples across the plain, and they have been left to weather and age over time, tumble-down but still bearing traces of their former glory. We saw incredible frescoes (some being uncovered from the lime which residents covered them with to save them from marauders), gold and red spires, and an ancient palace being dug from the earth, its layout shown by rows and rows of red bricks and holes where columns had been placed.
Staff at the hotel looked after Edwin the next morning as we left at 4am for a hot air balloon adventure. Balloons over Bagan operates a fleet of deep burgundy-coloured balloons, with traditional French baskets capable of carrying 14 passengers and the pilot (ours a jovial Englishman called Graeme) on a floating journey over the treetops as the sun rises over the plain. This was a magical experience – the fog burning off as the sun rose, its light bathing the temples in a bright golden-terracotta glow. Not a bump nor a drop, just a calm, floating sensation with the occasional “sssshhhhhhhh”, as the flame was increased to lift us over the trees if we got too low.
A horse and buggy delivered us to the port of the river later that afternoon, and we watched the sun go down over the Irrawaddy, with a picnic basket and watermelon cocktails aboard one of the old, brightly painted wooden boats that ply the river with tourists on board.
The following morning we took a flight to the Shan State (Heho), near Inle Lake; then a drive to the colonial mountain village of Kalaw, with its hollyhocks, crab apples and English cottages, plus a cooler temperature and clear skies. Quite surreal.
The boys visited a sanctuary for retired elephants, washed the elephants in the river and played soccer with the mahouts afterwards. The elephants are released into the jungle each night to forage for themselves; the place is not set up for tourists, so you feel like you’re involved in a real part of the working day.
Inle Lake, our final stop in Myanmar, is almost 3,000 feet above sea level, which makes for amazingly clear skies and huge white cloud formations. The vivid orange sunsets we watched each night from our balcony at the beautiful Villa Inle were breathtaking.
Not knowing what to expect on arrival, we were bundled on to one long-tail boat, and our luggage on to another. The only way to get to the lake hotels (most on stilts over the water, ours on the shore) is by these boats. With no time to worry, we strapped the little one into his life jacket and were off!
The water was glassy both days we were there, and we loved the sense of calm that lay over the lake, with the famous Intha fishermen standing in their boats, paddling with one leg as they pull in the nets.
Over 100,000 people live on or around the lake, which is around 22km long and 10km wide. Villages are built on top of piles of weeds that are dug up from the bottom of the lake and then floated; it’s then topped with soil, on which the local people grow vegetables, raise pigs, and build thatched or wooden houses with satellite dishes, bars, restaurants and post offices.
We loved visiting the village “factories” and watching the old ladies weaving silk or lotus root thread, or rolling cheroots while they laughed and chatted. Everywhere we went, children ran out to wave and greet us.
The renowned “forest pagodas” of Indein are a 30-minute trip away up one of the lake’s tributary creeks, followed by a 10-minute walk. Here, hundreds of stupas are clustered around a hill, some tumbling down, others being restored – painted gold, whitewashed or simply having their red bricks replaced. This is another very quiet, calm place – a light wind gently stirring the leaves on the trees is all you can hear.
Our last day involved a series of connections: a 7am long-tail boat from the hotel, a minibus to the airport, our flight to Yangon, a minibus to a park for the kids to play and have lunch, another minibus out to the airport, then finally home to Singapore by around 10pm.
It was an incredibly long day to end on, but also fitting in a way, in view of the amazing number of sights and experiences that we’d been able to cram into our eight-day Myanmar trip, thanks to Country Holidays and their amazing tour guides. We definitely couldn’t have seen or done half as much if we’d booked this trip on our own, no matter how long I spent planning it.