The Golden Kite of Burma (Myanmar): the trail connecting Rangoon (Yangon), Bagan, Mandalay, and Inle Lake. These four locations form a common itinerary for visits to the country. Their golden stupas, fields of ancient Buddhist pagodas, floating villages, and royal palaces tell a story of place caught between its modern-day struggles and an underlying narrative of a bygone era.
Skip ahead to what interests you most:
- Inle Lake
- Google Map of Burma's Golden Kite
- Practical Details: Accommodation, Food, Transport and Internet
Bagan, Burma's little Angkor Wat. While Cambodia's Angkor temples are arguably more magnificent, the pagodas of Bagan impress because of the way their sheer numbers seem to fill the horizon.
We chose to explore Bagan by bicycle. Horse-cart is another alternative. Although we carried a map marked with all the major pagodas, we detoured frequently when we sensed something new down another dusty road. We surveyed locals on their favorite pagoda for sunset. Each evening, we enjoyed a new position from which to appreciate the effect of the sun's descent over the red brick-dotted Burmese plain.
To avoid pagoda fatigue, head into Nyaung-U and wander around the vegetable market and back streets. Perhaps, like us, you’ll go looking to fix the zipper on your bag and end up spending your afternoon chatting with a tailor and his daughter.
Maybe he will unleash his Burmese ingenuity – one that values the creative repair of things over their disposal – and wield his tweezers, super glue, and sewing machine on your abused little knock-off Kipling bag from Beijing.
Mandalay, a city of commerce and religion. Bustling markets and traders share the streets with Buddhist monasteries and monks.
During our visit, we hired a bicycle trishaw to get our fill. Not only did this allow us flexibility to see more, but we also had a grand time watching life on the streets unfold around us.
We began with the bustle of the Mann Thida fresh market followed by the tranquility of the Teak Monastery. Maha Muni Pagoda, the most famous and holy of pagodas in Mandalay, features a statue covered in gold leaf that is tenderly washed by monks each morning at 4:30AM. No, we didn’t wake up early enough to confirm, but we met our own monk who – with a broad brush – painted for us the history of Buddhism in Burma.
A gold leaf production factory followed (Gold Rose at 108 36th Street). We were hesitant, certain it was a tourist scam, but our driver insisted it would be interesting. He was right. Slender but tough Burmese men pounded bits of gold into thin strips with giant hammers. Women with delicate hands took over and separated the pounded gold from protective paper and deftly sliced it into different sizes of gold leaf squares.
The women blessed us with a touch of gold leaf on our foreheads. Unpressured, we made our way to watch the sun set at Mandalay Hill.
A boat to Mingun and an adventure on public transport to U Bein Teak Bridge rounded out our stay in Mandalay.
We arrived at Inle Lake after three days of trekking from Kalaw through the hills of Shan State. Our entry to the lake, from its southern edge, took us past floating gardens which swayed as a testament to the will and ingenuity of the local villagers.
They tended their plants with agility and balance from the pits of dug out canoes. And every so often, a stray tomato separated from its garden would float by.
Inle Lake is best taken in by hiring a boat and driver for the day. We did, and watched the sun rise over the lake as fishermen in canoes paddled with their legs and cast with hand-woven fishing baskets.
The day was just beginning in the world of the stilt villages. Children waved on their way to school and mothers cleaned up after breakfast. It was a village scene like anywhere else, only the sidewalks and roads were made of water.
The five-day rotating market that day: Nam Pan on the western side of the lake. A few souvenir vendors were perched on the edge, but just a little ways in and we were swamped in the authentic buzz and diversity of the place, as vendors and buyers descended from the surrounding hills. We quickly lost ourselves in the flow, observing trade in stacks of rice cakes, piles of greens and fresh herbs, and natural remedies to cure even the most mysterious of ailments.
We closed out our day with a visit to the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, Jumping Cat Pagoda (named as such because cats are trained to jump through hoops, literally) and a lotus flower thread and silk weaving factory. Although a bit touristy, the lotus flower weaving and patterned silk thread weaving seemed to appeal to the meticulous nature of a people who have a deep appreciation for the passage of time.
If you tire of the lake, rent a bicycle and head to the hills and villages near Nyaung Shwe or get a Burmese massage at Win Nyunt, a family massage place off of Myawaddy Road. Their circulation massage is possibly one of the best massages to be had in Southeast Asia (and at $8 for 90 minutes, one of the cheapest too).
Rangoon (Yangon), Burma’s capital city – the entry point for most. Arrival at its vaguely exotic airport quickly adjusts one to seeing men dressed in lyongi (a piece of cloth tied at the waist) and women and children decorated with thanaka (a yellow make-up derived from tree bark).
Our first walk into town, past beautiful – yet crumbling – buildings contrasted with bustling street activity and the vitality of the people. It’s all enough to snap the over-traveled out of their travel fatigue and the cubicle-weary into a new frame of mind.
The circular train around Rangoon, likely the slowest train you’ll ever take, may also be one of the most fascinating. The train itself was a veritable market on wheels. Women hop on and off, selling snacks, drinks and paan; and balancing heavy loads on their heads – all while singing, laughing and dancing. Each time the train approached a market, large bundles of fruit and vegetables would crowd the floor as vendors boarded with their wares.
Shwedagon Pagoda, the most popular tourist sight in Rangoon, is also its most sacred. While it boasts a staggering 60-ton-o-gold-covered stupa and a crowning 76-carat diamond on top, the people and their rituals serve as the main event.
They pour water over statues that represent the day of the week they were born and then pray, light incense and make offerings. Try not to miss the broom brigade and their in-formation sweeping rounds of the complex.
Our last recommendation: walk and get lost amidst street markets, food carts and hidden Hindu and Buddhist temples. The people will light your way.
Read more about Rangoon, including practical details on accommodation, food and transport at Rangoon Reflections.
Bagan Travel Information
- Where to stay: We stayed just outside of Nyaung-U at New Park Hotel ($14 per double room, including breakfast). Peaceful, clean, friendly and just a couple of blocks away from Bagan’s restaurant row.
- Where to eat: We enjoyed a few meals at Moon Vegetarian Restaurant right near Ananda Temple, including a delicious roasted eggplant salad and guacamole. Most restaurants along the main strip were empty each night, so we sampled a different one each evening to spread our money around.
- How to get there: We arrived in Bagan via a rump-busting bus ride from Meikthila (after a train from Toungoo). The more common route: by plane from Rangoon or by train or boat from Mandalay.
- Staying Connected: The only ADSL connection in town (at that point) was at A Little Bit of Bagan, on the main restaurant strip. You’ll find other internet cafes in town, but it’s all dial-up and glacially slow.
Mandalay Travel Information
- Where to stay: Royal Guest House at #41 25th Street (between 82nd and 83rd Streets) offers double rooms with a private bath for $12-$15, including breakfast.
- Where to eat: Chapati stand at 82nd and 27th Streets, Nepalese Restaurant at 81st Street between 26th/27th. Local joint down the street from the Teak Monastery. Check out our piece on Burmese Cuisine for details.
- How to get there: We arrived by train from Bagan ($10). Other options include a flight from Rangoon, the overnight train from Rangoon, or a boat from Bagan.
- Staying Connected: The internet café just down the street from Royal Guest House was fantastic, given the constraints they continually battled (power outages and fierce government censorship of the internet). They worked around the clock to stay one step ahead of the government censors and employed universal power sources and generators to limit disappearing emails.
Inle Lake Travel Information
- Renting a Boat: There is certainly no shortage of boats and drivers at Inle Lake, but landing the right itinerary might be a little harder. Boat drivers earn commission by taking tourists to craft and souvenir shops. It's in their interest to spend the whole day going from shop to shop (as happened to other travelers). We booked our boat at a new agency next to Moon Star restaurant (past Golden Kite) on Yone Gyi Road (main street). The owner was great; we agreed to four craft/shops that we were assured were interesting in their own right (half were). Cost=12,000-15,000 Kyat ($12-$15) for the whole boat for the day.
- Where to Stay: We stayed first at Queen Inn ($12-$15/double room) with our own bungalow right on the water. Very friendly, great food and a nice atmosphere, but make sure you have ear plugs. The long-tail boats start early on the water. We then moved to Teak Wood Hotel ($15/double room), which was closer to the market and restaurants in Nyaung Shwe.
- Where to Eat: For refined Burmese food, try Unique Superb Restaurant. If you’re on a long tour and craving Western fare, try Star Flower Restaurant for excellent pizza and pasta.
- How to Get There: We trekked for three days from Kalaw, but you can also take the bus from Kalaw, Mandalay, or Rangoon (24+ hours). A more painless option: fly into Heho (35 km away).
- Staying Connected: It’s best to forget about internet. Although you'll see signs, ignore them if you wish to preserve your sanity. The combination of glacially slow shared dial-up and constant power cuts makes checking your email a grueling experience. To their credit, the internet cafes really do try. But they are battling tough odds.
Recommended Books for Burma (Myanmar)
Pre-trip reading can help you better understand a place — its culture, history, cuisine, and popular stories. The following recommended books are either about Burma or written by Burmese authors. We hope that they make your visit even more enriching.
- Burmese Days: George Orwell uses his own experience working in Burma as a young man to show a glimpse of life in British colonial Burma in all of its craziness and spirit. The stories that left perhaps the strongest impression on me were those from the teak forest of the elephants working in the there and the relationship they had with their mahout (master), including their abilities to mourn and remember. A quick read.
- The Glass Palace: I actually read this after we had left Burma, and wish that I had read it beforehand. Amitav Ghosh's takes the reader through an incredible story that begins on the cusp of British rule in Burma (1885) and continues through to World War II and into the present. So much historical, cultural and economic context in this historical novel.
- The Art of Hearing Heartbeats: In Jan-Philipp Sendker's novel the urban, American daughter goes to Burma to look for her father who has disappeared. Along the way she learns about his family, childhood growing up in rural Burma, and realizes she really knew so little about her father. I read this book several years after visiting Burma and feel that the description of Burmese culture and people to be well done.
- Lonely Planet Myanmar (Burma): Although things in Myanmar (Burma) are changing quickly we still appreciated having an actual paper guidebook with us. Even if restaurants and hotels change hands, the guidebook maps are still really helpful new cities and areas. Pick up a Burmese language phrasebook if you want to learn a few local words and sayings.