I went on a photography tour in Myanmar (Burma) in December last year. I travelled to Myanmar from Perth via Singapore. My flight from Perth left at 2.05am. I arrived at Yangon International Airport (Yangon formerly known as Rangoon) at 12.45pm having slept for only a couple of hours – I don’t sleep well on flights. I was met by a smiley Tour Mandalay guide at the airport and a driver who took me to my hotel. I’d meet the photography group in a few hours over drinks in the hotel lobby bar. The tour was organised through Cardinal Photo (more details at the end of the post). Just like my other photography adventures last year, I found this tour through a google search.
Kandawgyi Palace Hotel
The first two nights, we stayed at the Kandawgyi Palace Hotel in Yangon.
We voted to have dinner at the hotel’s Thiri Cafe. After two airline meals and grazing on Christmas party canapes, I was ready for something hearty. I ordered Kyar San Him Khar – Myanmar chicken soup. The bowl wasn’t large, but the soup was substantial and satisfying, with glass noodles, dried lotus flower, fried bean curd, cloud ear fungus and boiled quail eggs – absolutely delicious. It was served with fresh coriander, chopped spring onions, lime and dried chilli flakes. Over dinner, I chatted with my new travel companions, though by now my energy was finally dwindling – besides our photographer group leaders David and Ed, there were just three others – Chris and Nancy from California, and Victor from Sydney.
The next morning, I went for a walk before breakfast and checked out the pool. Although I don’t care for swimming, wherever I travel without Jac, I always try to take a photo of the swimming pools just for her.
Our group met up again at Thiri Cafe to have breakfast. It’s what you’d expect at a hotel buffet – breads, fruit juices, bacon, sausages, an egg station, a selection of hot dishes and sweet items. I went straight to the congee station for my first round of food, then the noodle station for my second.
Kandawgyi Palace Hotel
Kan Yeik Tha Road, Mingalar Taung Nyunt Township
- Our rooms were very comfortable and included: air-conditioning, en suite bathroom, garden views, flat screen TV with satellite channels, safe, mini bar (stocked with Coke, Sprite, Heineken, Myanmar Beer and bottled water) and free wifi.
- We ate breakfast daily at Thiri Cafe. The hotel also has a French restaurant (Agnes), Chinese (Taste Paradise) and Japanese (Otake).
- The hotel has six levels; my room was on the ground floor.
Maw Tin Jetty
Maw Tin Jetty is a grimy, bustling place, great for people watching, with goods being loaded on/off the ships (hauled by strong young blokes), and market stalls selling ready-to-eat food, betel nut (which many Burmese people chew – you’ll see many red-toothed smiles and red splotches on the ground from spitting) and fresh fruit, vegetables and fish.
I must say although I wouldn’t have been game to eat from any of the stalls here, the food smelled great.
A walk through downtown Yangon
Most of our lunches and dinners were ‘family-style’ meals where we got to sample the local cuisine – we ordered dishes to share, and anyone in the group was free to ask for anything on the menu that particularly appealed. The cost of the trip also included soft drinks and local beer and wine. Every day I looked forward to our meals, as you can imagine.
We had lunch in the garden at Padonmar Restaurant, steamed rice with the first of many wonderful Burmese salads eaten on this trip – cauliflower salad, red tomato salad, pomelo salad, green tomato salad and grilled aubergine salad. We also ordered Myanmar chicken curry, fried catfish with chilli and garlic, steamed fish with lime and garlic, and pork curry with black soy paste (not pictured).
The bill for this feast (including Myanmar Beer, and lime juice for the non-booze drinkers) came to 61,800 kyat (approximately US$48).
No.105/107, Kha-Yae-Bin Road, Dagon Township,
between Pyi Daung Su Yeik Tha (Halpin) Road and Manawhari Road/ Ahlone Road, Yangon, Myanmar.
Our final excursion for the day was to Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the world’s most famous pagodas. It is a sacred place of worship for Buddhists and a popular tourist attraction in Yangon. Some believe that the pagoda is 2,600 years old, which would make Shwedagon the oldest pagoda in the world; however, there is no documentary evidence to pinpoint the date of its construction. The enormous golden pagoda is an imposing 100 metres high and visible from many parts of the city by day and by night. The pagoda’s stupa is covered with hundreds of gold plates, and the top (the crown) is tipped with diamonds and rubies. Donations allow the weather-worn gold plating to be replaced every five years or so.
Pagoda visitors must enter barefoot – the marble tiles were warm but not uncomfortable under our feet when we arrived late afternoon/early evening; I imagine they must get quite hot under the sun in the middle of the day. We spent a couple of hours there. To abide by the dress code, I wore one of my travel shirts made of light material (sleeves rolled up to my elbows) and three-quarter length travel shorts (which go way past my knees) – the sweat was rolling down my back the entire time.
Like all famous landmarks, it is difficult to take pictures that aren’t filled with tourists and other photographers, but it’s nowhere as packed as Cambodia’s Angkor Wat… for now.
Dagon, Yangon, Myanmar
- Open daily 4am to 10pm, last admission is at 9.45pm.
- US$8 entry fee per person.
- You should dress modestly when visiting the pagoda – trousers or knee-length shorts/skirts; shirt covering your shoulders, preferably with elbow-length sleeves. As with all temples, you must enter the Shwedagon Pagoda barefoot.
- Your feet will get filthy from walking around barefoot in temples – Tour Mandalay had moist towelettes ready for us to wipe our feet with after every temple visit. I brought my own stash of antibacterial Wet Ones (I brought a couple of 15-wipe travel packs with me) and also washed my feet as soon as we got back to our hotel.
I went on a photography tour in Myanmar last year, 4 to 16 December.
- Yangon – this post
- Hot air ballooning in Bagan
- Nunnery at Sagaing Hill
- Scenes from Zay Cho Market, Mandalay
- Inle Lake
More background info
- I flew to Myanmar via Singapore Airlines (Perth to Singapore) and then Silk Air (Singapore to Yangon).
- The tour was with Cardinal Photo, led by our photographer guides David Cardinal and Ed Reinke. They’ve been coming to Myanmar for around 10 years and are very knowledgeable. We visited/stayed in Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay, Pindaya and Inle Lake.
- The tour cost was US$7,695 (including $300 earlybird discount) which included all transfers within Myanmar (we travelled in a private air-conditioned bus and via domestic flights), all meals (including local beer and wine), bottled water* while out in the field, our local guide and all park/temple entrance fees. I paid an additional $330 to go hot-air ballooning in Bagan (absolutely amazing) and an extra $1800 single supplement (to have my own room; the base price is for double occupancy). Yes, I could’ve gone to Myanmar for a lot less, but the tour had all the logistics organised with photography as the priority, and took us to places I probably would not have accessed on my own. For me, it was well worth the expense.
- Cardinal Photo organised this trip with local tour company Tour Mandalay. Our local guide Aung was excellent – there’ll more from him later in the series.
- David was great with answering my various queries via email before I took the plunge and paid my deposit, as well as in the lead-up to the trip.
- Info on this year’s upcoming tour is online: Myanmar Photo Tour December 2015
*Tap water isn’t safe to drink in Myanmar. Tour Mandalay kept us well supplied with bottled water every day and we got complimentary bottled water at most of the places we stayed. I didn’t just drink the bottled water, I brushed my teeth with it too.
Getting a visa for Myanmar
I had two options for getting a tourist visa:
- The Myanmar Embassy in Canberra (which would require mailing my passport to Canberra) – cost AU$35.
- eVisa online via the official Myanmar Government eVisa website – cost US$50. This is a relatively new option that has only been available since 2014.
As I wasn’t keen to post my passport to Canberra, I chose eVisa. Once approved, I received an Entry Visa Approval Letter, which I had to print out and take with me to show at the eVisa desk upon arrival at the Yangon International Airport (once verified, they stamped my passport). It was quick and easy.
The eVisa approval letter is valid for 90 days from the issued date. I didn’t want to leave it too late in case there was a problem/delay, so I applied on 20 October. I received the approval letter via email (a PDF attachment) a week later. My visa approval was valid from 27 October 2014 to 25 January 2015 (no problem, as I was in Myanmar from 4-16 December).
Money in Myanmar
- Cash is the best way to go. There are ATMs in the major cities but I didn’t pay much attention to them as I had no intention of using ATMs on this trip.
- The local currency is kyat. US dollars are widely accepted. I had both. When buying souvenirs (pretty much all I spent money on, as everything else was covered in the tour cost) I paid with US dollars and with kyat at different places.
- US$1 equals approximately 1200 kyat (as with any currency conversion, this will vary).
- I changed some US dollars to kyat at the airport (and then from kyat back to USD on my departure). Your US dollar bills must be clean, and without marks or creases, preferably new – or they may be rejected. I’ve read that some money changers won’t accept US bills made before 2006. You’ll get a better rate when changing $100 bills (compared to $50 or $20 bills).
Internet access in Myanmar
Not everyone will care about internet access when they travel, but it’s important to me, so here are my notes:
- All of our hotels had free wifi, though the Pindaya Inle Inn’s wifi didn’t work at all.
- I also bought a Telenor sim card (I was impressed they had nano sim cards) at Yangon International Airport for 1500 kyat and paid an additional 10,000 kyat for 1GB data. The supplied instructions took me a few attempts to decipher! Telenor is reasonably new to Myanmar and as I expected, my Telenor signal was best i.e. worked, but slowly – in Yangon and Mandalay, and was non-existent in the other places we visited. A couple of others in our group got sim cards from Ooredoo, another newish mobile provider, and experienced similar issues. In retrospect, it wasn’t really worth getting the local sim – I wrote it off as a cheap failed experiment.
- Hotel wifi was generally slow but I was able to update social media and send Jac emails every day (apart from our 1 night in Pindaya).