Bangkok, Thailand for Christmas and New Years

We have two friends who live in Bangkok and they invited us to stay with them for Christmas and New Years this year while we are traveling through Asia. It was so nice to be with friends at this time of year even though we were far from home. It was also wonderful to be in a home for a week; nice change from the constant hotel rooms of the last 3 months. We also had another 2 friends from Denmark joining us in Bangkok for the holidays (making us a group of 6).

Because I love cooking (and have really missed it since we started traveling), I volunteered to make Christmas dinner, with Glenn as my assistant.

We sent the menu and grocery list to our friends to buy the ingredients in advance since we arrived late afternoon on December 23rd.

On December 24th (Christmas Day for Danes) we spent the day cooking and the evening eating. Perfect Christmas.

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My menu:
Turkey
Unbelievably, we were able to get a real butterball turkey in Bangkok!
I love making turkey and have never made a bad one. The trick is to keep it simple. Butter, salt and pepper to season the turkey and baste with stock every 30 minutes. Works every time.

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Green Bean Casserole
Green bean casserole is a very traditional American side dish for meals like Thanksgiving and Christmas and one of my personal favorites. Normally it is made with cream of mushroom soup but as we could not buy that in Bangkok I made it from scratch (with some variations based on the ingredients we could get).

I made a variation of this recipe:
http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/guy-fieri/green-bean-casserole-with-homemade-mushroom-gravy-recipe.html
I used asian long beans instead of traditional green beans because they were more readily available in Bangkok. I also substituted greek yogurt for the sour cream and heavy cream, mostly because our friends wanted a healthier version, but in my opinion this substitution affected the flavor (it was still great but I prefer with cream).

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Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes
I made another one of my favorite go-to side dishes, roasted garlic mashed potatoes. Make the mashed potatoes normally.
For the garlic, cut the top off of a head of garlic so each clove is partially exposed. Pour olive oil over the head of garlic and season with salt and pepper. Roast in the oven at 350 degrees F for at least an hour. Let cool a few minutes. When cooled you should be able to simple squeeze the garlic from the skin into the potatoes. This is a real crowd pleaser. I recommend 1 head of garlic for ever pound of potatoes.

Gravy
If you are having a turkey dinner you have to have some gravy and it is always better to make from scratch. I know most people are intimidated by making gravy but it is really not difficult.
Start by making a roux (butter and flour). Then slowly whisk in the remaining stock and turkey drippings from the roasting pan until combined. Continue whisking in more stock (I usually use chicken stock) until the gravy is your desired thickness.
If the gravy gets too thin, make another roux in another sauce pan and whisk into the gravy to thicken.
It is not be necessary to season the gravy. There is enough salt from the chicken stock and enough flavor from the turkey drippings.
Easy as that.

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Apple Crumble
For dessert I originally wanted to make a traditional apple pie. However, i asked our friends to buy two pie crusts, assuming they would buy 2 pastry pie crusts. Instead they bought 2 graham cracker crusts.
So, I changed my plan and made apple crumble instead.

My favorite apple for pies is a Granny Smith (I learned this from my mom). The tartness of the Granny Smith apple nicely balances the sugar, giving you a pie that is not overly sweet.
Amazingly, the Bangkok grocery store actually sold American Granny Smith apples!

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For the pie filling: peel the apples and cut into thick slices. Toss with about 1 cup sugar, 1/2 cup flour, 1 tablespoon cinnamon (you can also use nutmeg if you have it).
Pour into pie crusts.

For the crumble topping: Mix melted butter, flour, sugar (brown sugar is best) and a pinch of salt until it has the consistency of wet sand.
Here is a nice easy recipe.
http://www.marthastewart.com/355506/crumble-topping

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Extra treats
Glenn made his famous egg nog to go with our dinner and used rum that we bought in Myanmar.

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Our two friends Jakob and Michael made ris a la mande, a Danish rice pudding dessert.

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Boys love food
When the turkey was finished and carved the boys just could not wait until dinner was actually served so they gnawed on the carcass in the kitchen.

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Christmas Dinner
Christmas dinner was a huge success. We were 12 people in total and we were a very international group: Denmark, USA, Thailand and Vietnam.

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Time to Relax
Honestly, Glenn and I really needed a break after traveling and we were really able to relax in our friends home.
The guys spent a lot of time hanging out and playing computer games.
We ate some great food. I made a lasagne one night, we grilled and went out to a few restaurants.

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Bangkok Street restaurant

I read an excellent book in one week. I recently completed a two year masters program and I am loving my new found freedom to read anything other than required reading!
The Hundred Foot Journey.
Such an interesting and compelling story that mixes culture and food perfectly. Perfect for the foodie and the traveler (in my case, I am both).

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VIP Movie Theatre
Glenn and I had read about a VIP movie theatre in Bangkok that is supposed to be one of the coolest theaters in the world. We love the movies so we had to go!

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The tickets are $26 pp.
Ticket includes: either:
– 15 minute massage before the movie
or
– coffee & cake/parfait (can have before movie or bring into theatre)
or
– a glass of wine (before the movie in the lounge)

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The Lounge

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The included treats

Honestly, we were expecting more/better movie snacks during the movie and were disappointed that the ticket did not include soda and popcorn so we went out and bought some.

The seats in the theatre however almost make up for it!
The seats are in pairs, fully recline (like a laz-e-boy chair) and come with blanket and pillow.
So comfy!
Just don’t fall asleep and miss the movie!

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Christmas in Bangkok
It was nice spending a night closer to central Bangkok because it finally felt a little bit like Christmas! Even though it was so warm there were christmas decorations and lights everywhere. We were missing that in the other countries we have been traveling in.

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New Years Eve

For dinner New Years Eve most of our friends got take out from a few different restaurants at a nearby shopping center. Glenn and I found it all to be overpriced and just ok so we decided to make our own dinner. We kept it simple and sautéed chicken and french fries in olive oil, soy sauce, salt and pepper. It is not so colorful but it tasted so much better than take out!

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After dinner we visited the rooftop of our friend’s friend’s apartment building. Their rooftop has an amazing view of the city and an infinity pool. We were actually wishing we stayed there all night because it was so amazing!

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By then it was time to take the ferry across the river to the bar where we would have some drinks and watch the fireworks at midnight.

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Waiting for the ferry

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My New Years Eve hair done by me

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The boys on the roof of the ferry

Here are some of the fireworks from New Years

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One of the best parts of the night, after midnight there was a man at the bar making these amazing pancakes. Perfect for the end of a night of cocktails.

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Even though we didn’t see any of the tourist or cultural sights in Bangkok we had an amazing time! It was exactly what we needed. Time relaxing with friends, anywhere in the world, is the perfect way to recharge on a long trip.
Remember that if you travel for an extended period.

Getting a Traditional Tattoo – Inle Lake, Myanmar

Getting a Traditional Tattoo
Glenn has been wanting to get a traditional tattoo throughout our entire trip. He got one in the jungles of Borneo on his last trip to Asia and he wanted another authentic tattoo to commemorate this trip. We finally had an opportunity in Inle Lake.

As we walked through the market in the town of Nyaung Shwe we stopped at a stand selling antiques, including the needles used in traditional Burmese tattoos. We started talking to the vendor, asking questions and mentioned that Glenn was interested in a traditional tattoo. The vendor had several of his own tattoos and recommended that we visit his teacher (tattoo teacher). He wrote down the name and street address on a piece of paper and sent us in the general direction.

After asking a few locals for directions we got to the right street. There we asked for directions in a small shop. The girls working there made a phone call and another woman came to meet us and walked us over to the tattoo shop.
The local people of Myanmar are so nice and helpful!

Here is the tattoo shop

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Tattoo Artist

The tattoo artist was this older gentleman.

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Unfortunately we could not understand his name. He spoke no English. His daughter translated for us in her limited English while his wife brought us tea and bananas.
He spread a new clean mat on the floor and invited us to make ourselves comfortable in their home.

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He showed us the tattoo design books which are all hand drawn and passed down generation to generation, teacher to student.

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Traditional designs and tools

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Ink pots.
The ink is made from charcoal and ash.

Once we settled on a design (a Buddhist mantra in Burmese, they did not speak enough English to explain the full meaning) and price (only $5!!!!!!) Glenn laid down on his side and got ready. The tattoo artist drew a guide line in pen and began to work.

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This tattoo is incredibly painful. This is Glenn’s third tattoo and he said that by far it was the most painful (even more than the tak tak tattoo he got in the jungles of Borneo). Some of the pain was from the method and some was from the location on the rib cage.

It is definitely doable, just be aware that it will be painful and be prepared.
The good news, if you choose a tattoo similar to the one Glenn chose, it will only take about 15 minutes.

The result and the experience however was totally worth it.

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Finished Tattoo

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Glenn and the tattoo artist

If you are interested in unique tattoos and an authentic local experience, head over to Inle Lake, Myanmar and visit this shop. You will not be disappointed.

Inle Lake, Myanmar

Getting there:
As always in Myanmar, the easiest way to get to Inle Lake is by bus.
We chose to take a day bus because the night bus drops you off in Inle Lake at 3am which just sounded terrible.
For this trip we were actually in a minivan, usually about 12 people in this type of vehicle.

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It was a little tight but still fairly comfortable and the driver made several bathroom and food stops.

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Lunch: the skinniest chicken leg ever! with rice, soup and a TON of dried chili.

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This little cutie was next to us at our lunch stop.

We also stopped for snacks and at a small market (next to a rest stop) where you can buy some souvenirs if you are interested.

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Yummy snacks

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Most of the bags of chips in Myanmar have Snow White on the label. I don’t know why and can’t read the label but I love having Disney princesses show up in every day life.

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The local winery in the area of Inle Lake. We bought a bottle of their honey wine. All I can say is it tastes interesting. Try for yourself, the small bottle is only $1.

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Local market at one of our food stops.

The trip took about 10 hours so be sure to have a good book with you or some way to pass the time. You will get some nice views out the window which helps pass the time a bit.

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Inlay Palace Hotel:
We found the nicest hotel. It is technically in the village of Nyaung Shwe just north of Inle Lake. If you are looking for more budget accommodation and/or want to have a hotel in town within walking distance of shops and restaurants, this is where you should book your hotel.

We booked the Inlay Palace Hotel and were beyond satisfied.
Here is their website: http://www.inlaypalacehotel.com
We booked on Agoda.com for about $30 per night (cheaper than their walk-in rate).
The rooms are lovely, they have a rooftop restaurant with a great view and the staff is amazing!
One example: one night we asked for some boiled water so we could make some instant noodles for dinner (saving a bit of money one night). Instead of just handing us a water boiler they actually took us up to the restaurant and made our noodles for us (restaurant quality) and made us some lovely tea all for free.

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They were happy to do it. I have never had this kind of genuine service, not even in the 5* hotels I have stayed in. The staff at Inlay Palace really make it the best place to stay in my opinion.

The breakfast (included in the room price) is also excellent! The food just keeps coming. Every morning you will get eggs (any style) with toast, butter and jam. In addition, some days you will be brought lovely pancakes and other days you will be brought traditional Shan (local ethnic group) noodles with a fried egg on top. A few mornings we also got fruit and pound cake! Plus you will of course have coffee and/or tea.
Don’t bother telling them that you can’t possibly eat all of that food, they will bring it anyway. Just enjoy it.

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Welcome to Inle Lake

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Boat trip on the Lake:
If you do one thing in Inle Lake it HAS to be a boat tour. This is the way to see it. All hotels and tour companies in the area can arrange this for you.

Full Day tour: $15
(Remember that the more expensive hotels will charge a more expensive price for the same tour.)

This tour is private in a traditional boat that looks a bit like an oversized canoe with a motor in the back (basically a glorified lawnmower motor). The boats are quite comfortable and come with blankets if you get chilly and umbrellas if you need relief from the sun.

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On your tour, first you will pass some homes built along the waterway that leads from the village to the main lake.

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Then you will pass through a bird sanctuary. Bird watching is a popular activity in Inle Lake if you are interested.

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At the mouth of the lake you will see the fishermen. Fishing is a major industry in Inle Lake. The fishermen use a combination of nets and what looks like a type of fishing basket. They balance standing on one end of their boat, often paddling with one leg to get enough power to move through the thick vegetation.

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You will see daily life on the lake, everything on boats.

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There are several floating shops selling various souvenirs. The prices are the same as the markets and the vendors are happy to bargain so I recommend buying something to help the locals and for a fun experience.

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During your tour you will visit several artisans.

Silversmith

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Blacksmith

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Weaving
Here they weave silk, cotton and lotus thread.
The lotus thread is made from the fibers of the pink lotus flower (the white, red and purples ones do not contain fibers). It takes 4,000 lotus blossoms and 1 month to make a single lotus scarf.

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Extracting the fibers from the lotus stem

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Rolling the fibers into thread

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Spinning the thread into thicker, stronger thread.

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Weaving

Boat Builder

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Cigar Maker

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Floating Market
You will also visit the floating market (now a land market) and pagoda.
Here is a great place to buy some souvenirs and snacks.

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These are mini scallion pancakes and they are delicious!

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Glenn was too tall for the market.

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We met some lovely little kittens in the market too.

Lunch Stop
When you are hungry your driver/guide will stop at one of the many restaurants so you can have some lunch. We ordered tomato soup. Inle Lake is know for tomatoes which are grown in the floating gardens (seen later in the afternoon). This soup was the freshest and best tomato soup I have ever had!!!

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Floating Gardens
Inle Lake has been the victim of an invasive species of plant, the water hyacinth. It was taking over the lake until the locals found a way to use it. As the floating plants grew thickly together, they found that it was actually sturdy enough to add some dirt and then farm on these floating areas. Now they are knows for growing tomatoes, cucumbers, various other vegetables and flowers.

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Jumping Cat Monastery
At the end of your tour you will go to visit the famous “Jumping Cat Monastery” where all of the guide books tell you you can see shows of cats jumping through hoops (the young monks trained the cats to do this).
Unfortunately, what no one tells you is that all of the trained cats died several years ago due to an illness outbreak. They have a new generation of cats at the monastery now but we could not get a straight answer of whether or not they would be trained to jump.

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Without the cat show we found the monastery to be a let down and really it can be skipped.

All in all the tour was amazing and the perfect way to see and experience life at Inle Lake.

Mandalay, Myanmar

Hotel:
Tiger One Hotel
We stayed at Tiger One Hotel in Mandalay and it was wonderful!
Very central location, beautiful rooms and great service.
We did not book in advance but we had found this hotel on agoda.com when we did a search prior to arriving in Mandalay and it was the one we liked the best so we had a taxi bring us there from the boat. The hotel was beautiful!

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The walk-in rate is higher than the online price (walk-in rate: $45 for double room) so we sat down in the lobby to book it online using their wifi. When the hotel realized what we were doing they agreed to just give us the online rate of $32 to make it easier.
Such lovely service.

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The room was beautiful!

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Breakfast is included and is lovely. A large buffet with nice variety of food, plus eggs made to order.

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Hotel Yadanarbon
On the same street as Tiger One hotel you will find hotel. Equally nice (though we have not actually seen the rooms). The prices is about $5 more than Tiger One but is an excellent option if Tiger One is fully booked.

Food and Drink:
Golden Bagan
This restaurant was just down the street from our hotel and was so good that we ate there two nights in a row!
Highly recommended.
Here is some of what we ate:

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Getting around Mandalay:
Both Tiger One and Hotel Yadanarbon offer free bicycle rentals for their guests. Most hotels in Mandalay offer this as well.
This can be a nice option for getting around town as it is not really a walkable city. Of course you can walk but the main sights are farther apart than you think and you will end up having extremely long days if you choose to walk.

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You can also rent a scooter or motorbike.
We rented one for 2 days for $30 ($15 per day). I think this is the best option if you can drive one because it is how the locals get around and is much quicker than walking or biking.

The Sights:
Mandalay was the royal capital of Myanmar (then Burma) until the British colonization so there is really a lot to see here.
To see the main sights in Mandalay you will have to pay $10 for a multi-sight entrance ticket.

Mandalay Palace
Mandalay Palace, where the Burmese royal family lived and ruled is at the center of the city. It also served as a fort. You cannot miss it. It is surrounded by a brick wall and moat that is 2km long on each of the four sides. During the British colonial era it served as a Fort Dufferin. Most of the palace was destroyed during WWII and was rebuilt in the 1990s.
Well worth a visit!
Note: though the area is huge, tourists are only allowed to visit the palace area. Guards will keep you from entering any other area of the citadel.

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Mandalay Palace Gates

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If you drive a scooter to the Palace you will have to walk it through the gate. Once you are inside you can drive again.

Some more photos of the palace below:

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Kuthodaw Pagoda
Kuthodaw Pagoda is known as the Worlds Largest Book. Build in 1859 and surrounded by 729 marble slabs inscribed with Buddhist Canon.

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Sandamuni Pagoda
Next to Kuthodaw Pagoda (closer to the main road) you will find Sandamuni Pagoda, a copy of worlds largest book.
Though the two pagoda complexes are quite similar, we actually found this one to be much more impressive. There are more marble slabs to start with, 1774 slabs. The slabs are also open so you have the freedom to walk through, read if you can, and admire the text. In Kuthodaw Pagoda all of the small structures have bars on the doorways so you cannot actually access the marble slabs.
Sandamuni Pagoda is also far less crowded. Kuthodaw Pagoda is a part of every tour of Mandalay and Sandamuni is part of none. This offers the opportunity to admire the pagoda and marble slabs in peace.

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Also at Sandamuni Pagoda we met a local family selling some amazing pieces of sequin embroidery! As we passed I noticed the pieces in a basket. As someone who does some needlepoint and embroidery myself I noticed the amazing craftsmanship and asked if they were selling them. They were! They had new ones made by their mother and antique ones made by their grandmother. The antique ones had the original bronze sequins! The prices were incredibly reasonable for such amazing work $5-$10 depending on the size. We bought several because they were so unique and beautiful and also because the family was so friendly and willing to tell us everything about the pieces without pushing us to buy anything.

If you see this family please buy something from them. We were their first customers in 2 weeks! Such a shame because the pieces are beautiful and a much better souvenir than something made in a factory and sold in a big store. You also will have a great experience speaking with the family and have a wonderful story and memory.

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Atumashi Monastery
Atumashi monastery is one of the major sights in Mandalay. Honestly it is not too exciting, but since it is right next to the other pagodas and temples and is included in the Mandalay Sights entrance ticket you might as well visit. It is basically just a huge monastery, big and impressive but you will only spend a few minutes here because there is not much to see and it is no longer an active monastery.

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Shwenandaw Monastery (Golden Palace Monastery)
Next to Atumashi Monastery you will find Shwenandaw Monastery. This one cannot be missed. It is made entirely out of teak and is so impressive. It is also the only remaining part of the original royal palace.

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Mandalay Hill
Mandalay Hill is at the center of Mandalay and is the best place in the city to see the sunset. You can drive up if you rent a scooter. You can also take a local scooter taxi to the top. Or if you choose, you can walk up the stairs (about a 30 minute climb).
If you decide to walk up this is a great place to buy some souvenirs as their are venders lining the entire way. This area is technically a temple but honestly the huge number of tourists an all of the vendors selling things takes away the spiritual aspects and turns it into simply a tourist attraction.

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Note: At Mandalay Hill you may see a few long-neck ladies, local tribes women who wear gold rings to elongate their necks. Please do not take your picture with them. They are often exploited in Myanmar and made into tourist attractions like the characters in Disneyworld. Do not support this.

Puppet show/ traditional music/ traditional dance
If you are interested in seeing a traditional show, look no further than Hotel Yadanarbon. They have a rooftop restaurant and every night they have a free show with traditional music, traditional dance and a puppet show! You can have dinner during the show but it is also fine to just order drinks (menu looked great but a little expensive).

Here are some pictures from the show:

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Street Fair
During our stay in Mandalay, we were extremely lucky that there was a local street fair on our street right outside of our hotel. It was not big but we were the only foreigners their. We played a few games and bought a cotton candy (made on a machine powered by a hand crank on the back of a man’s scooter). Such a fun experience. These local experiences are the best travel experiences.

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Outside of Mandalay:
The Ancient Capitals
Surrounding Mandalay are 4 cities which were capitals before Mandalay and each has amazing sights to see. Unfortunately we did not have enough time to visit these cities but we heard great things about them and plan to visit next time we are in Myanmar. I would guess you need 2-4 extra days to see these 4 cities. We did have enough time to visit U Bein Bridge near the ancient capital of Amapura.

U Bein Bridge
This bridge is the world’s longest teak bridge connecting two villages. It is well worth a visit. It was about a 20 minute scooter drive from central Mandalay.

It seemed to be a very popular spot for young locals to go for a date, we saw many walking arm in arm.

You can take a boat trip on the lake, this is very popular at sunset. WE however had a wonderful time during the middle of the day.

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If you are at U Bein Bridge during lunch or dinner I recommend the restaurant on the far end of the bridge right next to the water (these places had no names that we could find). We had amazing friend noodles!

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You can arrange a trip to U Bein Bridge with your hotel in Mandalay if you do not rent a scooter. Most cost about $20 pp.

Have fun in Mandalay!

Bagan to Mandalay by River Boat (Myanmar)

To get from Bagan to Mandalay (or vice versa) you can of course take a day or a night bus, but a more relaxing and picturesque way to travel is to take one of the river boats.
It takes longer (about 12 hours) but you see beautiful scenery along the Irrawaddy / Ayeyarwady River.

Cost:: $35 per person, including breakfast and lunch.

Departure: 5am

I recommend pre-booking a taxi to take you from your hotel to the boat.
If you look at the map, the pier looks like it is walking distance from most of Nyaung U but we found that the maps are not always accurate or to scale. Because the departure time is so early it is just less stressful to take a taxi.

Sunrise:
Even though you might be tired and want to go back to sleep when you get to your seat on the boat, stay awake.
The sun rises at about 6 am and it is so worth it to see along the river.

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Breakfast:
Breakfast is included in your ticket, served from 7am – 10am in the restaurant.
Menu:
toast with butter and jam
hard boiled egg
coffee or tea

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Lunch:
Lunch is also included in your ticket, served from 12:00 noon – 2pm.
Menu:
Fried glass noodles (vermicelli) with vegetables and an egg fried over easy. Served with a sweet/spicy sauce and a chili/garlic soy sauce.

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Views from the boat:

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Village stop:
Along the way the boat pulled off to the river bank at a small village, allowing the locals to sell some goods to the boat passengers.
We bought some bananas, a huge bunch of bananas (probably we got 10). The local woman selling them threw the bananas up to us on the second deck of the boat and we threw the money down. Very fun experience.

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Sunset:
Sunset is also very beautiful from the boat. Head up to the top deck to see it.

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Arriving in Mandalay:
Word of warning, there is NO pier in Mandalay. The boat anchors along the riverbank and the staff lay two wooden boards between the boat and shore and that is how to disembark.
Work on your balance! The boards are only about 1 foot wide.

If you have an extra day, this is absolutely the best way to travel between Bagan and Mandalay!

Bagan, Myanmar

Getting There:
The easiest way to get to Bagan from other cities in Myanmar is by bus.
See my previous post to read about our bus trip from Yangon to Bagan.

Arriving:
Our bus arrived in Bagan way ahead of schedule, at about 5am so our taxi driver took us to see the sunrise over the pagodas (the #1 thing to see in Bagan) before dropping us off at out hotels.

Entrance ticket:
To enter the Bagan Archaeological area (basically the entire city and surrounding area) you are required to purchase passes for $15 per person. You will purchase these at check points along the road as you enter the city. When coming from the bus your taxi will take you here to buy your passes.

The passes are valid for 5 days.

You are supposed to always have these passes with you to show at various checkpoints. We were never asked to show ours after buying them but I would NOT recommend skipping this step. Just buy the pass to be on the safe side.

Sunrise over the Pagodas:
Bagan is home to nearly 3,000 pagodas.

Between the 11th and 13th centuries over 10,000 temples, pagodas and monasteries were built on the Bagan plains and nearly 3,000 still remain standing today.

Of course these pagodas and temples are beautiful at all times of the day but the most well known and most talked about time to see them is sunrise over the plains.
The sun rises at approximately 6am (check with your hotel or online to be sure you have the correct time of sunrise for the time of year you are visiting).

Sunrise can be enjoyed from anywhere across the Bagan plains but the best view is from the top of the largest pagodas. One example is Shwesandaw Pagoda.

Here are just a few photos of the sunrise (we took about 100!).

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Hot Air Balloons:
Another option you have to see the sunrise over the pagodas is to take a hot air balloon ride. This experience looks absolutely unbelievable however it is not cheap. One ride (about 1 hour) costs approximately $300-400 per person!
Of course this was NOT in our budget.
Maybe someday.

The balloons do really add to the beauty of the sunrise view.

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Renting an E-bike:
And electric bike is really the best way to get around both the city and the pagodas and the prices are very good.
Small e-bike (hold 1 person) $5 per day
Large e-bike (holds 2 people) $10 per day

The bikes are not terribly powerful but Bagan is pretty flat so this was not a problem. Tourists are not allowed to rent scooters so the e-bike is the best option.

Note: most likely there will be a problem with your e-bike. Once we ran out of battery and another time we got a flat tire.
Don’t Panic.
Every bike has a phone number attached to the front of the bike.

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Simply call that number and they will send a repair man or a new bike to you at no charge.
Don’t have a local phone. Don’t worry.
The locals are so friendly and helpful. Just flag someone down and they will call for you.

One of the times we had problems a car stopped even before we could flag them down and then a second one stopped. They called the bike shop for us, explained what was wrong in Burmese and stayed with us until the repair man arrived.
You will be well taken care of.

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Other ways to get around:
You can rent a bicycle for about $2 per day. This is a very easy and cheap option but you will not see as much because it will take a lot longer to get around.
You can also ride in a horse cart. These fit about 2-4 people. It is a very charming way to get around but is not cheap (I do not have the exact price but it was the most expensive option for getting around the pagodas.

The Pagodas:
When visiting the Bagan plains, there are simply too many pagodas and temples to even come close to seeing them all. Some guidebooks will give you lists of which pagodas you ‘must see’.
I say, don’t bother spending time trying to find these specific temples.
Just rent an e-bike and start driving. Each pagoda you come upon is more amazing than the last. It is best to just explore and see what you find.
By doing this you will also likely avoid most of the tourist crowds allowing you to enjoy visiting the temples and pagodas in peace (and giving you the chance to take many photos without other people accidentally photo bombing all of your amazing photos).

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Most of the pagodas are open so you can go in and explore.
You are also able to climb many of them!

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The roof area of the pagodas have wonderful views and are amazing photo spots!

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Enjoy exploring!

You will also find that locals are at several of the pagodas. Many of them are the caretakers of that particular pagoda (unlocking it in the morning, locking it at night). The government lets them live on the land of the pagoda rent free in exchange for them taking care of the pagoda.

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Many of these men (in our experience they were all men) are also artists. After giving you a FREE tour of the pagoda they will likely want to show you their work (of course hoping to sell a painting). Please give them a few minutes. Mostly they are interested in talking with you, telling you about the history and culture and their painting techniques. We found that these artists were not pushy at all so if you don’t want to buy anything it is not a problem.

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However, I highly recommend buying a painting. I cannot think of a better souvenir! The paintings are beautiful. They can also handle travel.
The artists paint start with a piece of white cotton, add a layer of glue and river sand and then add paint on top.
These paintings can be folded and ironed (on the back) and the color will not come off.

Some paintings are done in acrylic paint. Others are done in natural colors (made from nature). The colors are as follows:
Red – Marble stone
Yellow – Saffron
Green – vegetables
Blue – Indigo
Brown – tree bark
Black – soot (ash from a fire)
White – limestone

Visit a traditional village:
Another great thing you can do while exploring Bagan is to visit a traditional village. You can find the village nestled among the pagodas near Nyaung U.
Ask your hotel how to get here because the maps are unclear and often not to scale.

At the village entrance you will find one or a few local women who will take you on a tour of the village showing you everthing they produce and how they live. At the end of this tour she will of course ask you for a bit of money but it is completely up to you how much you give. I do not have a problem with this because it was such a nice tour and an interesting experience. We gave about $3.

In the village they:

Grow peanuts and sesame

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The sesame seeds are pressed into oil using this machine (powered by a cow walking around it).

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Make beautiful silver (mainly jewelry).
I bought a set of 7 thin silver rings for $18 and a pair of dangle earrings for $10, which I thought were excellent prices.

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Make lacquerware items (these were expensive, buy elsewhere in Bagan for better price).

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Weave lovely fabric and scarves

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The village also grows cotton and grandma spins it into thread for the weaving.

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Roll cigars

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In the village you (my female readers) can try tanka, a sort of make-up/sunblock that the local women wear. It is made by wetting a stone and rubbing a branch from a particular type of tree on the wet stone to make a paste. This is then applied to the cheeks.

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Hotels:
Hotels in Bagan on average are quite expensive. When we looked online the cheapest option we found was about $45 per night (way over our budget).
So, we decided to take a chance and just see what we could find walking around town.
It paid off!

We found a lovely guest house in Nyaung U after only about 10 minutes of walking.
Pann Cherry
A double room was $16 per night.
Rooms were simple but the rooms were large and the bed was comfortable and very clean.
The bathrooms are shared but very nice.
The wifi works well.
I highly recommend this guesthouse for budget accommodation.

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Food and Drink:
During our stay we spent most of our time in Nyaung U and exploring the pagodas in the plains area. Here are a few of my food recommendations.

If you are looking for a quick snack, breakfast or just a drink head to Bagan Regalia in Nyaung U.

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For some excellent local food with a river view try
Kyi Kyi Mya in Old Bagan near Buphaya Paya Pagoda

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For a nice dinner with a free puppet show go to Pyi Wa in Nyaung U.

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If you are craving a burger try Weather Spoons in Nyaung U. Everyone raves about them!

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I will be honest we did not try the burger…crazy I know, but we were craving fried noodles. They were amazing! So I definitely recommend this restaurant for whatever food you are craving.

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A few more photos of Bagan:
Because it was so beautiful and amazing

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Buddhist nuns collecting alms

Temple Details

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Sunset over Bagan

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Yangon to Bagan, Myanmar: Night Bus

The easiest and most common way to get from Yangon to Bagan is to take a bus. You can either take a day bus or a night bus but I recommend a night bus because it is a long trip.
On a map it does not look so far and apps like google maps will usually give you shorter drive times but the road infrastructure in Myanmar is not the best. The roads are very bumpy and not straight at all so the drive always takes longer than you think.

We booked with JJ Express and had ana amazing experience. The tickets were 18,500 kyat pp ($18.50), which is actually quite expensive because it is a VIP bus.
You can book a standard bus for about $10 per person.

The bus station in Yangon can be chaotic. I lost count of how many bus companies there were (this is the main way to get around the country) and each bus company has their own storefront and waiting area. DO NOT try to do this on your own. Book a transfer with the bus company or have a taxi take you directly to your bus departure area (just show the driver your bus ticket and they will know where to take you).
JJ Express waiting area was a welcome break from the chaos. There was nice seating, a clean bathroom (no toilet paper so have your own) and we were offered endless cups of coffee.

I have to say, JJ Express was well worth the price. The seats recline with a foot rest (much like the first class reclining airplane seats) and are nice leather. You are also given a blanket and a pillow. The bus is set up to have 2 seats on one side and single seats on the other side of the aisle. Very comfortable.
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The bus did have a bathroom, HOWEVER, it was kept locked the entire trip and we could not find out why. Don’t worry though, we made 2 bathroom stops and if you need additional stops you can just go tell the driver and it is not a problem.

And the best part, JJ Express offers snack and drink service! Just like an airplane! The had a small cart that wheeled down the aisle. Each passenger was given a snack box containing cake and cookies (individually wrapped) and offered tea/coffee/soda. This was such a nice touch.
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About a third of the way there we stopped at a large rest area called Oasis. Here you can use the bathroom and get some dinner. We had a really nice noodle soup.
I also noticed at least one ATM here! (I would have cash anyway though because you never know if it will work or not).
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Our driver was driving incredibly fast. At times it felt more like he was flying the bus rather than driving it. Think about this if you get motion sickness, it is a bumpy ride.
To help I recommend keeping the window curtains closed and do not look out any of the windows, including the front window. Also, when you sleep use an eye mask and ear plugs. This helps you to ignore the swaying of the bus to a point.

Because our driver was going so fast we arrived in Bagan early. We were scheduled to arrive around 7am and we arrived at 5am!
Taxi drivers will bombard the bus trying to get your business. This was incredibly overwhelming so early in the morning after a night bus so get ready!

I recommend talking with some other passengers on the bus. Bagan has three main areas: Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nyaung U. People going to the same area should share a taxi to get a better price (most of the taxis are more like a mini van or mini bus).

Finally, if your bus arrives as early as ours did you are before sunrise. Ask your taxi driver if they can take you to see sunrise over the pagodas before taking you to your hotel (likely you can check in that early anyway). Our driver took us to see the sunrise for only an extra $5 per person which is a great price!

This is a great option because
1. Sunrise over the pagodas is the #1 thing to do in Bagan
2. You are up anyway
3. Likely you cannot check into you hotel at 5am and nothing else is open yet
4. You do not have to get up before dawn another day of your vacation

It was really the best way to kick off our time in Bagan.
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Yangon, Myanmar

Arriving in Yangon Airport:
One of the first things you will notice when you arrive in Yangon is how nice the airport is. It was so much nicer that I was expecting.

The border control is very easy. And quick if you have done your visa correctly (see my previous post).

Once you enter the arrivals area head over to the information booth. They will help you with whatever you need.
They also have the only free maps we found in the entire country! We picked up a general Myanmar map, a map of Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan.

The only way to get into the city center is by taxi but not to worry, the prices are good.

Hotel:
Hotels in Yangon are expensive (most are overpriced for what you get). This is primarily due to inflated property values and a government tax.

I DO NOT recommend trying to find low budget accommodation.
We spent three nights at the beginning of our time in Myanmar at Everest Hotel. The price was $16 per night for a double room including breakfast. However, calling this hotel basic would be an understatement. We changed rooms once because the first one was dirty. The staff was lovely and really tried to help but the hotel facilities were just a disaster. We were extremely happy to leave.

On our final night in Myanmar we were back in Yangon and found a much better deal online at Bo Myat Tun hotel. We paid $30 per night for a double room including breakfast. This room was simple but lovely and very very clean.

I highly recommend increasing your hotel budget for Yangon in order to enjoy your stay. Save money somewhere else.

The Sights:
Free Walking Tour
The number one thing I suggest for you to do in Yangon is take the free walking tour. Free walking tours are my favorite way to see a city. They give you a great overview of a city, it does not break the bank as many city tours do, and the tour guides are usually incredibly enthusiastic about their city.
Free Yangon Walks
http://www.freeyangonwalks.com
Every Monday, Saturday and Sunday afternoon. Every Wednesday morning.

The walk will take you to many of the great sights to see around Yangon, primarily focusing on the colonial history (as Yangon was the British colonial capital Rangoon). You will even pop into the famous Strand Hotel.

Our guide was an expat living in Yangon but she also had a co-tour guide who was from Myanmar to answer more of the cultural questions.

Definitely worth it!

Sule Pagoda
This is a 2,500 year old pagoda in the middle of the city’s busiest traffic circle.
You cannot miss this pagoda and will constantly see it as you venture through the city. It is actually a great reference point for getting around.
You can enter the pagoda (fee for foreigners and another fee for storing your shoes while you are inside). We chose not to go in and many people we spoke with said that the inside is not worth the minimal fee.
From the outside, however, it is very impressive.

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Bogyoke Market
The perfect place to buy all of your souvenirs and very good prices (actually cheaper than most other places we looked for souvenirs around the country).
You can buy laquerware, jade, jewlery, local handicrafts, longyi (traditional skirts for men and women), and any other souvenier you can think of.

You can also get really great fresh juice which I highly recommend.

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Shwedagon Pagoda
This temple complex is a collection of temples, pagodas, stupas and statues all covered in gold.

Note: this is too far from the city center to walk so you should take a taxi.

Because it was so far from the city center and our limited time we did not make it to this pagoda (though we drove past it on the way into town from the airport – it looks impressive!).

We cannot wait to see it on our next visit to Yangon.

Food and Drink:
Street Food
Unfortunately, street food is not really an option for foreign tourists in Yangon (really in all of Myanmar). It is abundant throughout the city and looks delicious but we were warned by several people that the food is not clean and contains a lot of bacteria. This means that there is a HIGH chance of getting food poisoning, so try to avoid it.

Our Favorite Restaurant
We found that Yangon does not have much of a restaurant culture. At times it was a big challenge to find a place to eat because most locals eat at the street restaurants which we were told were not clean. However, we found a great restaurant and ate there several times because it was so good!

The Woody House

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The food was excellent, the service was friendly and the location was close enough to city center that you can walk.
I highly recommend eating at this restaurant.

Here are a few dishes we had there:

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There is an indoor section of the restaurant but each time we opted for the outside section, plastic chairs and tables set up in the street just off the sidewalk. This is where the locals sit and is perfect for people watching.

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19th street Chinatown
Several people recommended that we go to 19th street in Chinatown for good restaurants so of course we went over but honestly we did not like the look of it.
The entire street is lined with BBQ restaurants and the prices are ok (a bit expensive actually).
The restaurants are set up so you get a basket and choose each individual skewer you would like to eat. The selection is great.
Our problem with it was that the raw food was out in the open air, exposed to flies and bacteria.
We decided not to take the risk.

Cheap Cocktails
One good thing that came out of exploring 1th street was that we found a great little bar with the cheapest cocktails I have ever seen!
Mojitos for only $0.80 each!!!
They were excellent and strong. Well worth a visit.

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Going to the Movies:
One of our favorite discoveries in Yangon was a movie theatre in the city center, Nay Pyi Taw Cinema.

This is the perfect place to escape the midday heat in Yangon.
We visited in December (the cold season) and had temperatures around 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees fahrenheit). In the summer temperatures are of course much higher.
The air conditioning of the movie theatre is a welcome relief from the heat.
(We could not find many air conditioned buildings, really only the expensive hotels and restaurants and a few western chains have air conditioning).

In our total of 4 days in Yangon, we went to the movies 3 times.
How could we do this you ask?
The movies in the main theatre are only $1 per person!!! (1000 kyat).

We saw The Hunger Games: Mockingjay twice (once for the movie, once for the air conditioning) and Exodus once.

This theatre gets all of the new releases first of all the theaters in the city and the main theatre changes movies every Friday.

It is also a unique experience because the tickets are hand written and you choose your seat manually on a paper layout of the theatre.

Here are some photos from our time at the movies:

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These are the set movie times:

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A Few More Photos of Yangon
Now I would like to share a few more photos of Yangon to show you what you should expect.

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Free Water Stations are all around the city (theoretically this is filtered water but to be safe use with a filtered water bottle).

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Throughout the city, if you are not interested in a standard taxi, you can choose to take a bicycle taxi.

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Typical Yangon buildings and cityscapes.

I hope you are ready to explore Yangon now!!!

Myanmar Visa (Burma Visa)

Getting a visa to visit Myanmar was surprisingly easy.
Likely this is an effort to attract more tourists to the recently opened country.

Of course you always have the option of getting your Myanmar visa at a Myanmar Embassy or Consulate. I always recommend doing this if you live in a city where the embassy or consulate is located because doing it this way tends to be the fastest and most stress-free way to get any visa (at least in my opinion).

However, if you do not live where there is an embassy or consulate or if you are traveling, Myanmar now has an online visa system. And amazingly, it works pretty well.

NOTE: You can only use the e-visa when you enter Myanmar via Yangon or Mandalay International Airports. If you enter the country any other location you must get a visa in advance.

Visit one of these two websites to apply:
http://www.myanmar-visa.org
https://www.myanmarevisa.gov.mm/LoginPage.aspx
*we used the second one, the government website.

Step One:
Fill out the online application.

You will enter basic information. Here are the questions as listed on the website
( 1 ) your full name as in your p/p ( 2 ) gender ( sex ) ( 3 ) father’s name ( 4 ) nationality ( 5 ) race ( 6 ) religion ( 7 ) p/p related five data : passport ( a ) number ( b ) issue date ( c ) expire date ( d ) place of issue & ( e ) issuing authority ( 8 ) date of birth ( D – M – Y ) ( 9 ) place of birth ( 10 ) occupation in native country ( 11 ) full address in native country together with contact phone number ( not PO Box No. or C/o address ) ( 12 ) purpose of visit to Myanmar ( 13 ) arrival / departure dates to / from Myanmar ( 14 ) flight number & airline that you will fly in / out of Myanmar ( 15 ) personal related four data, colour of your ( a ) hair ( b ) eyes ( c ) complexion & ( d ) your height (16) your hotel in Myanmar.

You also need proof of your round trip flight to/from Myanmar, a valid passport (as usual).

You will also have to upload a passport photo to the online application.
For us this was actually the most difficult part. The e-visa website is very slow and very particular. You cannot upload just any photo. It has to be a very small file size and cropped to the exact size of a passport photo.
The system rejected about 20 of our photo attempts before we finally found one that could be accepted.

Because the system was slow and because of our issues with the photo uploader, the online application took us about 2 hours for 2 people so be sure to set aside enough time to complete this part.

Step Two:
Payment

When you finish your online application you will have to pay for the visa. As of now, the fee is $90 (USD) per person. This can be paid by credit card.

Step Three:
Wait for visa approval letter (email)

This is the part that can take a while. Both websites claim that the letter will be emailed to you within 7-10 days, however in the fine print it says this can take up to three weeks.
*be sure to leave yourself enough time for this process*
Our visa approval letter came in 8 days.

When it arrives you receive an email with a link. Then you must log into the e-visa website to retrieve your visa approval letter.
You must then print it out to take with you to the airport.

This letter entitles you to a 1 month visa for Myanmar from the date of entry. The letter is valid for 3 months, giving you time to arrange your flight if you have not already done so.

Step Four:
Enter Myanmar

Now that you have your visa approval letter it is time to enter Myanmar.

Both websites claim that you must have your visa approval letter, 2 passport photos and $30 in cash to claim your visa at the visa on arrival window (just before immigration counters).
However, we did not need this.

We went to the visa on arrival window and were simply waved ahead to the normal immigration counters.
There we handed over our passports and visa approval letter and were issues stamps in our passports (aka our 30 day visa).

*I recommend having the cash and passport photos with you just in case they do require this when you arrive.

Now that the visa system is so simple there is no excuse not to go to Myanmar. Check out my posts later this week chronicling our time there!

Cambodia to Thailand: Land Crossing

Border Crossing
A very budget friendly way to get from Sihanoukville, Cambodia to Bangkok, Thailand is to book a bus for a land crossing.

You have two options: a night bus or a day bus.
The night bus is more comfortable (you actually have a double bed instead of standard bus seats) but it takes several hours longer as it takes a route north to Phnom Penh before driving to the Thai border. The day bus takes a more direct route along the coast.
Both times are the same price, about $17 per person.

We chose the day bus. We were picked up at our hotel at 7:00am and arrived in Bangkok at about 7pm.

The bus on the Cambodia side was fairly comfortable, decent seats and working air conditioning.

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Halfway through the day we arrived at the Thai border. Here you have to take everything off the bus (it will turn around and leave again so do not leave anything on the bus).
You then carry your baggage across the border to the customs offices and wait in line for your visa or passport stamp.
Being from USA and Denmark neither Glenn nor I needed a visa to enter Thailand. We simply had to fill out an arrivals form and wait in line for a passport stamp.

Typically you are only given 2 weeks visa when you do a land crossing. This is the amount of time Glenn received. However, for seemingly no reason I was given 30 days. It seems like it depends on both what country you come from and on which customs officer you get.
Either way the process was relatively easy.

Once you have your passport stamp/visa you continuer across the border to an area where the streets are lined with shops and food stands. This is where you will struggle to fine your next bus.

The staff from your first bus in Cambodia have left and there are no signs directing you to any buses on the Thai side. The only option is to find people who look like they might be drivers and show them your ticket until you find the right one. I found this process incredibly stressful and difficult.

Once we finally found our bus we discovered it was actually a minivan, 11 people crammed into a Minivan for a 6 hour drive on bumpy mountain roads.
NOT FUN!
My only recommendation is don’t look out the window. The drivers drive like maniacs and the less you look out the window the less sick you will feel (at least in theory).

The only lucky thing about this
Art of the trip was that there were some really nice people in our van that we talked with during the trip. This made the trip feel a bit shorter and was basically the only thing we could do on the drive because it was so bumpy (reading and using a tablet was impossible).

When we finally arrived in Bangkok we were dropped off at Khao San Road, the main backpacker area.
From there Glenn and I hailed a taxi to take us to our hotel.

Overall we made out ok with the land crossing and it did save us a lot of money but I really did not enjoy the experience. If you can afford to fly I recommend it because it is faster and so much less stressful.

Hotel: Don Mueng Hostel:
We had only one night layover in Bangkok before our morning flight to Myanmar the next day so we booked a small hotel near Don Mueng Airport.

The hotel we booked was a bit challenging for the taxi driver to find (they do not use gps) so be sure you have a map to help them.
Here is what the outside looks like to help you find it.

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Once we found it the hotel was great. Lovely staff (though they don’t speak much English so be prepared to act out some things).
The rooms and bathrooms are small and basic but impeccably clean and air conditioned.
It is really a perfect hotel for a layover.
It is a 15 minute walk to the airport and a very good price. We paid $25 for one night.
Here are some photos of the hotel

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The other great thing about this hostel is that there is a 7-11 just around the corner and it is open 24 hours.

I highly recommend this hostel if you have a layover in Bangkok or if you have an early morning flight from Don Mueng airport.

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