We have got to the halfway point of our travels in Myanmar (Burma) and until Bagan, we thought had a good understanding of the country in general.. How we were so wrong..
We have been South as far as Mawlamyine and as North as Mandalay and during the first half traveled through Kyaikto, Yangon, Pyay, Magway and then up to the northern parts of Bagan. The culture was similar, the transport was easy and life was good.. Then Bagan happened. I can't quite understand why as soon as we hit the more touristy places things got a bit shit.
You'd think that Bagan and Mandalay would be the places that are easiest to work with, but it's not the case. Firstly Bagan is hard to get reasonably priced and OK transport out of.. Then you get to Mandalay where most tourists spend more time at and it's just not got any of the culture that the South has.
Sure people are friendly, but they are also more likely to try and fleece you out of every penny you have.
When we stayed in New Bagan, there was no real local culture there compared to everywhere else we had been. The town was built for tourism solely. But even though tourism was the big thing, the bus journey today was the worst we have experienced. When it's this bad, I kind of think there must be some government involvement and monopoly practices going on in the background.
The food choices in Bagan are poor and over the top expensive and even though we have been in Mandalay just a day, I'm beginning to think the same thing! Tonight we went to a western run bar / restaurant and had a perfectly good meal.. But it was not nearly as satisfying or good as local beer stations in the South. Not only that, it lacked attentive staff and nice atmosphere and was over the top expensive (the place is called Hunters by the way – if you want some western cuisine worthwhile hitting it up as there is little else choice in downtown Mandalay).
What a massive contrast though. We will likely come to the conclusion at the end of this trip that you should avoid the Northern parts.. Why? Well say you want to go to Bagan.. And want to see it before it becomes too touristy and the new Angkor Wat. Well guess what, from now on… It can surely only get better! More accommodation means lower prices overall and better quality rooms having to be offered. Meals that are not over the top expensive and transport that is quicker and less expensive. So my advice, don't listen to people saying go now before it's too late. Now it is the worst time to go, wait 5 years and you will save money. These temples and stupas are not going away, they will simply become more convenient to visit which isn't a bad thing for you wallet.
The time to visit the South? That's now, because you will see parts of a country not frequently travelled and you will get nice treatment and easier travelling. The culture there WILL change over the next 5-10 years and soon it will be too late.
We really love Yangon, it's got the best food in the country, incredible colonial buildings that have fallen into beautiful urban decay. A peaceful and grand Afternoon Tea at The Strand, traditional beer stations offering well priced Myanmar Beer (this stuff is awesome!), Bamar-Chinese cuisine overlooking the Irawaddy just off Strand Road. Biryani on a street corner, the incredible glowing splendour or Shwedagon Paya.. So much to see, do and eat. I don't think I can say the same about Bagan and Mandalay.
It's a shame as well, as many people don't see much else apart from Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake. Yeah sure these are the big draws.. But can people say a country is defined by buildings from thousand of years ago, a lake backed by mountains and a city that has lost its splendour. It's like saying England is defined by Hyde Park, The City and Stonehenge.
My advice to you is see these main attractions but make sure you don't make your trip just about the highlights. Otherwise all you will have is pictures and little memories and experiences.. Ticking off something on a list is gratifying and all, but pick at least 1 place on your journey that isn't on the cover of your guidebook, that isn't featured at the top of the list in Wiki Travel. Stay at a hotel that hasn't got any reviews on TripAdvisor or Agoda, eat somewhere that there are no other tourists. Do something different, jump out of that safety bubble. Dream, Discover and Explore.. Oh and get your ass to Burma as the majority of it is pretty fucking spectacular!