New Milton, Hampshire
- One of my best trips, because experienced fellow travellers were such great company and the Burmese people were so generous with their smiles & their willingness to at least try helping visitors.
So many highlights: a rooftop bar overlooking the Shwedagon pagoda, the hair-raising drive up to Golden Rock for sunset, making it to the top of Mt Popa and just walking on free afternoons with newly-made friends for life.
There are certainly a lot of pagoda/temple/monastery visits but each had its own character and I certainly admired the devout pilgrims who were somehow able to worship amongst hordes of tourists.
All of the cave temples were stunning and it's definitely worth a 5 minute walk from the Green Haven Hotel, across the golf course to the less-visited Shwe Oo Min Phaya, but be careful in the upper cave as the floor can get very slippery in places.
The area in Monywa around Mahar Bodhi Tataung (a gigantic standing buddha with thousands of attendant buddha statues) is also pretty amazing.
Interacting with locals (especially Bilu Island but everywhere really) made this trip really special and the children particularly made us feel so welcome.
It is possible to visit a school during the trek from Kalaw. The 'Explore' classroom was bright & stimulating for the kids, so hopefully this support will extend to the whole school in time. The greatest need seemed to be for more teachers but, no doubt, any help would be much appreciated.
The trek is about 11km and easy enough, but with quite a long "up" at the end - it's not steep but take plenty of water!
It's hot but not a sticky heat, and clothes dry quickly so don't overpack. Explore are not joking when they say it's cooler in the highlands. The boats on Inle Lake have blankets and you WILL need them, plus at least a fleece, for early morning and towards sunset.
Food is cheap, especially if you eat Burmese rather than Thai or Chinese. I don't like spicy food but even I found most dishes slightly bland - ask for soy/chilli/garlic on the side to be brought early, not when you've nearly finished your meal! Buses may carry 25 litre containers of water for refilling your bottles.
As others have suggested, $200-250 is about enough spending money unless you're into serious souvenir shopping.
For my taste, there were a few too many craft outlets but the demonstrations were fascinating. Others may prefer this style of shopping over cheaper but lower quality markets.
If arriving on Sunday, there's little choice but the airport for exchanging dollars but money-changers &/ATMs are readily available except in rural areas.
Our itinerary was changed slightly - no train ride over the Gokteik Viaduct (disappointed but a needful government decision). The substitute cookery class was voted off by the group and instead, our lovely Inle Lake boatmen took us as far south as they could in a day. It was wonderful to visit outlying villages, temples and monasteries with far fewer tourists.
Overall, if this tour is on your wishlist, go now rather than later - before Burma stops being so delightfully crazy.
If you have time, it's worth stopping off in Singapore for a complete contrast of cultures - check out the Changi airport website for all the goodies you can claim in transit.
Published on: 03 March 2017