The Responsible Seven

Itinerary overview

Just under two weeks in duration, The Responsible Seven itinerary aims to show off and support some of Myanmar’s best responsible tourism projects, social enterprises, training restaurants and talented local entrepreneurs. We also hope it will help bring awareness to environmental issues such as the drought, deforestation and pollution caused by uncontrolled development around Inle Lake, the continued use of elephants for logging, and the fatal impact electric fishing practise is having on Myanmar’s endangered Irrawaddy dolphin population.

 

 

Day 1 - Yangon (iDiscover / Shwedagon / Shwe Sa Bwe)

 

Shortly after checking through immigration you’ll be met by a representative of Tour Mandalay and escorted directly to your hotel.

 

If arriving on an early morning flight we would recommend making use of the iDiscover’s self-guided walking app (available for both Anroid and Apple). Out of the four featured itineraries, we feel the Secretariat & beyond itinerary provides one of the best overviews. Starting at the majestic Secretariat building, you’ll wind your way through the heart of downtown, passing by myriad vine covered crumbling colonial facades, bustling local eateries, art galleries and lively streets. A benefit of using this app is that, other that using a taxi to get there, exploring won’t require the use of a car and iDiscover make a concerted effort to feature small and independently run businesses.

 

A giant puppet performance (arranged by the Institut Français de Birmanie) outside Yangon City Hall in 2016

 

Reconvene with your guide later this afternoon to explore what Rudyard Kipling described as, “A golden mystery that upheaved itself on the horizon – a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun”. The 99-metre tall Swedagon Padoga is the country’s most famous landmark; one that we believe looks extra impressive at sunset. The current hti (a golden umbrella that adorns the top of pagodas) is decorated with approximately 85,000 jewels, with the centerpiece being a 76-carat diamond. History and opulence aside, the highlight for most is brushing shoulders with the people as they go about paying their respects to Shwedagon itself, and the 150 smaller pagodas and shrines than surround.

 

 

A dinner reservation will be made at Shwe Sa Bwe this evening (PLEASE NOTE: This meal is not included). Founded by Francois Stoupan in early 2013, Shwe Sa Bwe is a hotel and restaurant training center which aims to provide training to financially disadvantaged Myanmar youth looking to pursue a career in the country’s hospitality industry.

 

Day 2 - Yangon (Rangoon Teahouse / Hla Day / colonial walking tour / LinkAge / Yangon Circle Line)

 

Skip breakfast at the hotel this morning and enjoy an obligatory bowl of freshly cooked mohinga (fish broth soup with rice vermicelli) at Rangoon Teahouse (PLEASE NOTE: This meal is not included). This will also be a great opportunity to try some laphet yay (Myanmar tea), traditionally served with sweet condensed milk.

 

Just above Rangoon Teahouse you’ll find Hla Day, a social enterprise that works with Myanmar artisans, disadvantaged groups and small local businesses to design, develop and sell quality handmade products with a contemporary twist.

 

Being located on Pansodan Road, Yangon’s grandest city stretch, you will be perfectly situated to explore some of the city’s downtown core on foot. Just a stone’s throw away you will find Maha Bandula Park, the Yangon Region Court, Yangon City Hall and Sule Pagoda. Interestingly, this was made the center of Yangon by Lt. Alexander Fraser of the Bengal Engineers, who was the person responsible for creating the present street layout of Yangon shortly after the British occupation in 1852. After looping the park, we will then walk past the Yangon Stock Exchange building, through Bank Street and onto the once extremely prosperous Strand Road. The highlight here is the 1901-built Strand Hotel, described by John Murray (a famous British author) as “the finest hostelry East of Suez”.

 

Inside the recently renovated Strand Hotel

 

We will then walk one and a half blocks north to the LinkAge restaurant and art gallery, a vocational training restaurant where street and marginalised youth are taught essential hospitality skills (PLEASE NOTE: This meal is not included).

 

To get a true sense of Yangon life, we will next take a short journey on the Yangon Circle Line. Built by the British over 100 years ago, this is still the cheapest and most time efficient way of connecting with Yangon’s outer suburbs. Time permitting, alight at a local market before driving back to the hotel by car.

 

Day 3 - Yangon to Loikaw (Kayah sausage / Loikaw Weaving and Vocational Training Centre / animist shrine / BBQ / traditional music / ox-drawn cart ride)

 

Transfer to the Yangon domestic airport this morning for a direct flight to Loikaw, the capital of Kayah State.

 

Shortly after being greeted by our ITC (International Trade Centre) recognised local partner, you will be transferred to the home of a local artisan to learn about the production of Kayah sausage. Cooking enthusiasts may wish to try their hand at making their own.

 

Next stop is the Loikaw Weaving and Vocational Training Centre. Start by exploring the centre’s luscious organic garden; here you will learn about the origin of the natural colours used in Kayah clothing, the dyeing process and traditional weaving techniques.

 

We will then travel by car to Hta Nee La Leh, a small animist village located approximately 45 minutes away. A local representative will greet us on arrival to provide a short overview of the village, its people, history and customs. Having surely worked up an appetite, a barbeque lunch will be prepared and served inside a resident’s home nearby.

 

One of Hta Nee La Leh village’s most distinct features is its Kayhtoebo, a traditional animist hunting shrine. Spread over an area a little bit larger than a football pitch, this is an extremely sacred area of land typically used to carry out animal sacrifice. This is the perfect place to learn more about traditional Kayah religious beliefs, festivals and fortune telling techniques.

 

Following this, pay a visit to a musician’s house to listen to some live traditional music, followed by a stop at another house to learn about traditional dress.

 

To end the day in style, hop on board an ox-drawn cart to the scenic Seven Lakes. Surrounded by mountains and tropical jungle, the lake provides the perfect setting from which to put your feet up and take in the sunset.

 

Drive back to Loikaw and check-in to your hotel.

 

Day 4 - Loikaw (Demawsoe market or Haw Nan Monastery / Pan Pet / jungle picnic / Thiri Mingalar Taungkwe Zedi or Mya Kalat Pagoda)

 

Start the morning with a visit to Demawsoe market (NOTE: this is open on Wednesdays and Saturdays only). This will take approximately 30 minutes by car and is a great way to experience the region’s rich ethnic diversity firsthand, as well as learning about the impressive variety of locally sourced cooking ingredients and rice wine on sale.

 

In the case your travelling date does not coincide with this, a visit to the 105-year old Haw Nan Monastery will be offered as an alternative. Built by the former Chief of Kayah (Saw Bwa Saw Ptar Du Sat Khun Li) around the time of the First World War, taking a look around inside is well worthwhile. It may also be possible to converse with one of the resident monks, but that will depend entirely on how busy their morning schedule is.

 

From Demawsoe (or Haw Nan Monastery), drive over one hour to the settlement of Pan Pet (technically a village made up of five smaller hamlets). Predominantly inhabited by members of the Padaung, a visit here provides a fascinating insight into the life and culture of this world famous tribe. With the aim of learning more than just why the women of this tribe regularly decorate their necks with brass coils, permission will be arranged to enter the home of a resident in Salong Kana (one of the five hamlets of Pan Pet).

 

We will then move on to the hamlet of Penmasong, before embarking upon a moderately challenging uphill trek to the Rang Ku. En route various edible plants can be found, with some being used for medicinal purposes. The guide will be sure to explain this, whilst sharing some of the typical myths and stories often recited by the community’s jungle leader. Midway a locally made packed lunch will be provided.

 

Continue trekking until the summit is reached, with the reward being a rarely photographed view of Pan Pet and its natural surrounds. Continue downhill to Rang Ku, where you will be able to further interact with members of the Padaung community.

 

Return back to your hotel in Loikaw via Thiri Mingalar Taungkwe Zedi or Mya Kalat Pagoda. Both are ideal spots to watch sunset.

 

Day 5 - Loikaw to Kalaw via Pindaya (overland journey / Plan Bee / Shan paper workshop / Flat Mango Village / overnight at colonial hill station)

 

With a 200km long car journey ahead, an early start is required. The road to Pindaya winds gently through beautiful Shan countryside, passing by pagodas and markets that few tourists ever make it to. Although there is not much to see in the town itself, the route also passes through Pinlaung (Panlong), which is where General Aung San (on behalf of the interim Burmese government) along with members of the Shan, Kachin and Chin ethnic groups, first signed the 1947 Panlong Agreement. From here it will take approximately 2.5 hours until the car reaches Pindaya.

 

Our first stop in Pindaya is Plan Bee, a bee-keeping project that empowers and improves the livelihoods, nutrition and food security for thousands of vulnerable people, with particular focus on women and landless households in Myanmar.

 

Although the opening times are unpredictable, Plan Bee Visitor Centre, which can be found on the picturesque banks of Pone Taloke Lake in Pindaya, provides equipment and expertise to beekeepers, whilst at the same time serving as an education centre for both locals and tourists.

 

The centre also stocks a massive selection of locally produced honey, beeswax candles and balm. Any profit made from the sale of these products then goes directly to the beekeepers in question. It is also possible to purchase hot beverages and a honey tasting set, which can all be enjoyed from the lake view café at the back of the building.

 

For lunch, we would recommend eating at the popular Green Tea restaurant, located on the west side of the lake (PLEASE NOTE: This meal is not included).

 

After lunch, we will visit a family-run workshop that specialises in making Shan paper and traditional parasols. Stemming from the fibre of a mulberry tree, a well-known plant in the mountains of this region, this paper is unique to the region and a popular medium for art and craft enthusiasts the world over. Unfortunately it will not be possible to take part in the production first-hand (mainly due to the long time it takes to complete), but the staff will be more than happy to provide a quick overview, whilst referring to any practical examples they have available. You can rest assured knowing that any souvenir purchase here is going straight into the pockets of the family that run it.

 

Our final destination today is the nearby village of Tha Yet Pya, or Flat Mango Village. A stop here is a great way to learn about the customs of the village’s Danu inhabitants and the industries they depend on to make a living. Cheroot making and weaving are particularly popular.

 

Transfer to Kalaw, once a colonial hill station, where you will spend the night.

 

Day 6 - Kalaw to Inle Lake (Green Hill Valley elephant camp / overland journey / Red Mountain vineyard / Sunflowers weaving studio)

 

Elephant camps are on the increase in Myanmar, especially now that the government has temporarily halted logging in the country’s most severely deforested regions. Without being able to guarantee the welfare of the elephants at these camps, or the health and safety of the tourists that visit them, Tour Mandalay are reluctant to recommend all but one camp in Myanmar.

 

Founded in 2011, Green Hill Valley is a camp that focuses primarily on providing care to elephants that are no longer fit to work. Rather than pulling in tourists solely for the purpose of riding, it instead seeks to educate people (from home and abroad) about the threats this endangered mammal faces, whilst at the same time protecting the natural environment they inhabit.

 

To mix the program up a little, we would suggest hiking to the camp with one of Green Hill Valley’s dedicated trekking guides. Descending through tropical jungle, this mostly downhill trek will take approximately two hours to complete. Shortly after arriving at the camp, we will join the elephants in a shallow river nearby and give them a good scrub down with the mahouts. Once bath time has finished, accompany the elephants back to their bamboo shelters to lend a hand with feeding (NOTE: bathing and feeding will only be possible if the elephants feel like it, they will not be forced).

 

Just before saying goodbye to the elephants, you will also get the opportunity to plant a tree as part of Green Hill Valley’s reforestation program. The is not only to assist with the regeneration of the elephant’s habitat, but also to educate the visitors about the importance of reforestation and risks posed by deforestation.

 

Lunch will be served at the camp’s restaurant.

 

Leaving Kalaw behind, we will now drive 2.5 hours east to Inle Lake, a large fresh water lake famous for its floating gardens and one-legged Intha rowers. Visitors are often surprised to learn that the region’s also home to two vineyards (Red Mountain and Aythaya), and we feel that no trip here is complete without a visit to at least one. Seeing as we will pass by en route, and it boasts the most impressive view, on this occasion it makes sense to stop at Red Mountain.

 

After sampling some of the vineyard’s finest, finish the day with a quick visit to Sunflowers Organic Dye Weaving Studio. Starting her first business back in 2004, Ma Phyu Ei Thein specialises in creating a range of “Myanmar made” woven products made from lotus, silk and cotton. These items are then coloured using dyes from fruit, roots, flowers and other organic substances.

 

Transfer to your hotel to spend the remainder of the day at leisure.

 

Day 7 - Inle Lake (cycling / hiking)

 

There is no denying Inle Lake’s beauty, but with increasing tourism numbers has come increased and uncontrolled motorboat usage. With the aim of trying to limit this, today’s activities will consist of cycling and hiking around the lake’s circumference. The route and order will vary depending on the location of your hotel, and the pace and distance adapted depending on the group’s level of fitness. Ultimately, the aim is the same however and that is to reduce noise pollution and avoid adding to the further build up of boats around key tourist areas.

 

Later this afternoon return to your hotel for some well-earned rest.

 

Day 8 - Inle Lake to Bagan (Shwezigon / Sanon / MBoutik / Ananda / lacquerware workshop)

 

Leaving the rolling green countryside behind, fly to Bagan, Myanmar’s capital of culture and home to thousands of ancient pagodas and temples. Considered one of the richest archaeological sites in Asia, the area is testament to the power and pious nature of Myanmar’s past rulers.

 

Although it will not be impossible to visit every temple during your time here, start by exploring some of the most iconic. Our first recommendation would be the golden Shwezigon, a pagoda that has been damaged by earthquakes several times over the centuries, but still stands whilst retaining some of its original features. An unexpected highlight of any visit here, especially for photographers, is walking the long sunlit corridor that leads up to it. Occasionally you will find a local market being held here, with plenty of traditional and locally sourced produce on display.

 

Before moving on, stop for some lunch at the recently opened Sanon (PLEASE NOTE: This meal is not included). Launched by Myanmar Youth Development Institute with the help of FRIENDS International, Sanon is part of the successful TREE (Training Restaurants for Employment and Entrepreneurship) Alliance restaurant group. Tour Mandalay would highly recommend eating the Burmese crunchy bean and ginger salad and chicken burger with papaya pickles and harissa mayonnaise.

 

From Sanon, travel to Old Bagan stopping off at MBoutik en route. Not only is this where you will find the best selection of quality souvenirs in Bagan, but shopping here indirectly supports the economic and social development of vulnerable communities in the Magwe Region (the dry zone of central Myanmar).

 

Another must see architectural wonder, and one of Bagan’s grandest in terms of size and design, is the 920-year-old Ananda temple. Build using a fusion of Mon and Indian inspired techniques, the temple houses four standing Buddha images, each seemingly keeping an eternal watch over the north, south, east and west entrances.

 

If time permits, we will next pay a visit to the workshop of one of Bagan’s most renowned lacquerware masters, U Maung Maung (easily identifiable thanks to his magnificent bushy moustache). Lacquerware has been produced in Bagan since the 11th century and still plays an important part in daily life, art and religious practice to this very day. Perhaps what is most interesting is that the production process has remained unchanged for centuries, giving a sense of authenticity and an assurance that the products on display are truly authentic. Please note that there is no assurance U Maung Maung will be available, but a member of his family will be.

 

Finish the day watching the sunset over Bagan’s temple-strewn plain.

 

Day 9 - Bagan (e-bike)

 

Today we would recommend exploring Bagan unaccompanied, but with the help of an e-bike. This is a great way for you to appreciate first-hand the size and archeological diversity of Myanmar’s sun-scorched ancient capital. No cars will be used either, thus helping to minimise your carbon footprint.

 

Day 10 - Bagan - Mandalay (local market / Golden Palace Monastery / rickshaw ride / Kuthodaw Pagoda / U Bein Bridge)

 

Transfer to Nyaung U (Bagan) airport in time for one of the first flights to Mandalay. Having being heavily bombed by the Japanese in 1942, and later again by the allied forces in 1945, little remains of old Mandalay, but that’s certainly not to say it should be written off. It has risen from the ashes to become a young, lively and vibrant city, famous for its culture, education and arts.

 

Start your exploration of the city with a trip to one of Mandalay’s bustling local markets, a great way to naturally cross paths with the city’s local residents as they go about their daily food shop. From here we’ll then hop into a rickshaw to the Golden Palace Monastery, passing by the palace walls and moat en route.

 

The Golden Palace Monastery, or Shwenandaw as it’s also known, was built in 1878 by the last monarch of Myanmar, King Thibaw. Previously it served as the apartment of King Mindon (King Thibaw’s father), but due to Thibaw believing the building was haunted by his father’s spirit, he had it moved and converted into a monastery. Thanks to this decision, the building survived the heavy bombing and is the only building of the original Royal Palace that still stands today. Although the colour from the gold gilding has mostly faded, the intricate teak carvings and glass mosaics provide an immediate reminder of how grand this monastery, and the original Royal Palace, once would have been.

 

From here we’ll then take a short drive to Kuthodaw Pagoda, home to the world’s largest book. Built by King Mindon (as you’ve correctly assumed, an important figure in Myanmar’s history), the main stupa is surrounded by 729 stone slabs, inscribed on both sides with a page of text from the Tipitaka (the entire Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism). Sadly, the complex you see today is just a shadow of its former self, no thanks to British soldiers stripping it of its most valuable materials shortly after the annexation of Mandalay in 1885. From top to bottom, the pagoda stood bare for just over a decade.

 

From Kuthodaw Pagoda, drive 30 minutes out of town to Amarapura, the penultimate royal capital of Myanmar from 1842 – 1859 (it was also the capital 1783 – 1821). The main attraction here is the 1.2 kilometre long U Bein Bridge, believed to be the longest teak wood bridge in the world. Popular with international and domestic tourists alike, it tends to get crowded here in the afternoon, but that doesn’t take away from the historical importance and the fact it’s authentically local in style. If timed for sunset, some phenomenal views of the bridge can be observed from a quiet bank on the adjacent side.

 

Transfer to your hotel in time for dinner.

 

Day 11 - Mandalay (Harrison Institute's cooperative fishing village experience)

 

The critically endangered Irrawaddy Dolphin, although not indigenous to Myanmar, is a beautiful mammal easily identifiable thanks to its blunt forehand and nose. Records apparently date back to ancient Chinese scriptures from 800AD when they were referred to as “river pigs”. At that time, it is thought this rare aquatic mammal inhabited the water as far west as India and as far east and south as Papa New Guinea. Sadly however, numbers have now reduced so drastically that they can now only be found in three of the world’s rivers: the Irrawaddy in Myanmar; the Mekong in Cambodia and Laos; and the Mahakham in Indonesia. It is likely that a population of less than 60 remain in the Irrawaddy, and 80-100 in each of the Mekong and Mahakham rivers.

 

With increased reports of dolphins being washed up as a result of pollution and electric fishing, there is clearly more that needs to be done to raise awareness and protect the population of this near-extinct species. NGOs such as the Harrison Institute are doing a great job of this, but in order for them to be truly successful, it is crucial that they receive support from international visitors. By supporting the communities that fish cooperatively with the dolphins, it will be sure to attract attention from both inside and outside of the Myanmar, thus helping to strengthen their voices and help educate other communities nearby.

 

The journey from Mandalay to Hsithe will take approximately 2.5 hours by car so an early start is unavoidable. Along the way you’ll pass plenty of local scenery, with the distant marble mountain providing a welcome back drop.

 

On arrival into Singu (the closest accessible village by road), board the waiting boat and travel downstream to the village of Hsithe. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for dolphins.

 

After mooring up at Hsithe, head straight for some shade in the village’s recently constructed Destination Centre. Here you’ll find a brief overview of what the Harrison Institute and its partners are trying to achieve, details of the village, and numerous photographs of the birds that inhabit the area. The centre is also stocked with a small range of quality souvenir items, all of which are designed and produced by the villagers themselves.

 

After enjoying some light refreshments and snacks, we will then meet with a cooperative fisherman to learn how to prepare and cast the fishing net. After watching a live demonstration, those keen to do so will get the chance to attempt two or three trial throws in the centre’s garden. We will then take the boat across the river to test out our newly acquired skills in shallow water. Seeing as the technique takes a long time to master, it is likely the experience will provide many laughs and great photo opportunities for all involved.

 

Return to the centre to cool off and enjoy a home cooked lunch prepared by the villagers. After finishing, continue to explore Hsithe village with the help of a resident. This offers a wonderful opportunity to observe the rich cultural practice of the local communities; learn about agriculture (peanut and rice farming); enjoy a first-hand insight into home-based industry (the production of cigars, jam, fishing nets, peanut oil and tailored garments); learn about typical village architecture (houses, barns and monasteries); experience monastic life and naturally converse with a charming elderly monk (assuming he is available to meet of course).

 

We will then return to the boat via the Visitor Centre, which will be the last chance to purchase any local handicrafts. Items include carved dolphins, dolphin summoning sticks (fisherman tap these on the side of their boats to communicate), recycled bag, mini fishing nets and local produce such as mango jam, honey, cheroots and spices. (PLEASE NOTE: Any money spent on souvenirs goes directly to the village making this a great opportunity to stock-up on quality souvenirs whilst giving back at the same time).

 

The boat will then return upstream to Singu, where your car will be waiting to escort you back to Mandalay. This will also be the last chance to spot any dolphins, so fingers crossed some will be around to provide a memorable send-off.

 

(PLEASE NOTE: There is no guarantee you will see dolphins on this tour, but your involvement will help with conservation efforts and provide much needed monetary support to the fisherman that cooperatively fish with them).

 

Day 12 - Mandalay (fly home)

 

Transfer to the airport in time for your international flight departure.

An image of Lord Buddha at Ta Moke Shwe Gu Gyi

Ten facts about Buddhism in Myanmar

 

Su Myat Naing, Tour Mandalay’s Product Executive provides us with ten fascinating facts about Buddhism in Myanmar. In no particular order of importance, here we go.

 

1) Almsgiving (food donation) to monks in the early morning

 

Putao morning market

Almsgiving in Putao’s morning market

 

Almsgiving, or ‘Soon’ in Myanmar language, is practiced throughout the country every day of the year. The sight of this is surely one of the most charming and romantic associations with religion in Myanmar. In the early morning before sunrise, monks line up along the streets and walk slowly to receive food donations from local people. This is called an alms round. Local Buddhists practitioners spoon the rice into the alms bowl and offer a range of food, including curries and desserts to monks. They will then crouch down, with their hands placed together in a prayer like gesture, in order to receive a blessing from the monk. Due to the monks are walking barefoot, it is also important that the person giving the alms also removes their shoes.

 

2) Novitiation ceremony

 

Novice monk ava

A novice monk studying at Bagaya Monastery, Ava

 

The Novitiation ceremony is another unique characteristic of Buddhism in Myanmar. The ceremony is usually celebrated during school holidays, but most often in the summer months of March and April (just before the Thingyan water festival). For pious Myanmar parents, it is deemed an important religious duty to let their son go forth and embrace the legacy of Lord Buddha. They will then join the Sangha for a short period of time to learn about important Buddhist teachings. Another requirement is that the son’s head is shaved, which is carried out as a sacrifice of vanity.

 

The first day of a Novitiation ceremony sees participants parade around their local pagoda dressed up as princes. Parents usually take lead from the front whilst carrying important ceremonial items such as an alms bowl, fan and a specially made box containing the robe. Other relatives walk by the novice monk’s side, shading them with a golden umbrella. It’s also common for the monk-to-be to be followed by a line female family members, who each carry decorative items in honour of the occasion. Upon completion of the procession, the family will then pay a quick visit to a Nat (sacred spirit) shrine for homage, before seeking permission from an abbot at a monastery to become a novice. It is also at this point when the individual shaves his head.

 

3) Religious courtesy in Myanmar

 

Conversing with monks

Enjoying conversation with monks in a monastery outside of Bagan

 

Images of Lord Buddha, along with practising monks and nuns are highly respected in Myanmar society. It is important that any visitor, regardless of personal belief, is respectful towards any aspect of life associated with Buddhism in Myanmar. Under no circumstance should you touch a monk or nun, along with his or her robes. When seated, you should not stretch out your legs and your feet should not point in the direction of any Buddhist imagery. Tattoos of Buddha, even if they were drawn out of respect, are likely to offend local people so please keep them covered up and do not display in public. Taking off shoes and socks at a religious site is a must, as is wearing appropriate clothing. Showing too much skin may see you turned away, so try to cover up as much as possible. Our advise would be to pack and wear a longyi (a sarong often worn by Myanmar locals); not only will this ensure your legs are covered, but it will be sure to put a big smile on the faces of local passersby.

 

4) Horoscopes and birthday corners

 

Birthday corner at Shwedagon

Paying respect to the Tuesday birthday corner at Shwedagon Pagoda

 

The majority of Myanmar’s Buddhist practitioners believe fervently in astrology. Due to the Myanmar horoscope practise being based on the day of the week, an individual’s date of birth is extremely important. There are eight zodiac signs in Myanmar, one for each day of the week (including two on a Wednesday). These signs are represented by animals with Monday being a tiger, Tuesday a lion, Wednesday morning an elephant, Wednesday afternoon a tusk-less elephant, Thursday a rat, Friday a guinea pig, Saturday a dragon and Sunday a Garuda (a mythical bird). When a child is born, it is common for them to be named using a name associated with their zodiac sign. Many people also believe that the day of birth determines an individual’s personality. Almost every pagoda (depending on size) has a special corner dedicated to each sign of the zodiac and this is often referred to as the birthday corner. People often visit pagodas to pay respects to their corner and carry out special devotional acts. Neglecting to do this may bring about bad luck and misfortune.

 

5) Watering the scared Banyan (Bodhi) Tree

 

Head monk at Yandabo

A head monk in the monastery at Yandabo village

 

The Banyan, or Bodhi Tree, plays an extremely important role in the spiritual life of Myanmar Buddhists. The main reason being that it is the tree associated with the life of Lord Buddha. It is said that Buddha attained enlightenment under a banyan tree and as such, it is revered by Buddhists all over the world to this day. When travelling you will notice that almost every major pagoda complex has a Bodhi tree located somewhere inside and it is common to see people paying their respects.

 

On the full moon day of Kason, Buddhist devotees honous the occasion by pouring water on the Bodhi tree. For Myanmar Buddhists this day is very important as it’s the day Buddha was born, the day he attained enlightenment and the day of his demise. The carrying out of the ceremonial act is supportive not only to the religion and traditions, but also in keeping the sacred trees green, lush and healthy during the summer months. In addition, people perform meritorious deeds by keeping Sabbath, chanting Buddha’s Summons, meditating, and by offering various items such as flowers, water and incense to images of Lord Buddha.

 

6) Festivals

 

A novice monk paying his respects in Bagan

A novice monk paying respect to a reclining image of Lord Buddha

 

Myanmar is a country rich with culture and religious festivals. When we talk about Buddhism in Myanmar, we cannot forget to mention the many festivals that take place throughout the year. For me, one of the most special is the Thidingyut (Light) festival celebrated across the country from the beginning of October. The story behind the festival is that Lord Buddha came down from the abode of Tavatimsa (according to Buddhist cosmology, the second highest level of 31 planes of existences) after spending three months of the Buddhist lent there. People welcomed Lord Buddha with candles and colourfully illuminated objects of light. During the festival, houses and streets are decorated with lanterns and strings of light. People typically enjoy this lighting festival by visiting pagodas at night with friends and family. Here it’s common to see wonderful displays of oil lamps, fireworks and manmade balloons rising slowly up into the sky.

 

7) Paying homage in Myanmar

 

An image of Lord Buddha at Ta Moke Shwe Gu Gyi

Paying respect at Ta Moke Shwe Gu Gyi

 

Paying homage is a long-standing practise of devout Myanmar people. A person, always of lower social standing, pays respect or homage to a person of higher standing (including images Lord Buddha, Buddhist monks, elders, parents and so on), by kneeling before them and paying obeisance with joined hands and bowing. This is a way of showing an individual’s reverence, gratitude and it also serves as an opportunity to ask for forgiveness. Elders readily forgive if there is anything to forgive. This form of repentance is usually carried out over the Thingyan and Thadingyut periods.

 

8) Mythical lions

 

Two lions protecting Shwedagon

Come rain or come shine, two lions keep watch over the entrance of Shwedagon Pagoda

 

In Myanmar a pair of mythical lions, known as Chin-the, can often be found outside the entrance of stupas, pagodas and Buddhist temples. Lions are noted for their bravery and magnificence, thus considered the best guardians for religious shrines and edifices. According to folklore, the lions actually stand watch for completely different reasons.

 

A princess gave birth to a son through her marriage to a lion, but later fell out of love with him. Pained with a broken heart, the lion was unable to control his feelings and unintenionallt became the terror of the land. One day, the son went out to slay the lion, only to find out after that it was his father. To atone for his sins, the son later built a statue of a guardian lion outside of a temple.

 

9) The donation of gold leaf

 

Gold leaf production

Gold leaf production in Mandalay

 

Segments of delicate gold leaf are widely sold at the pagodas in Myanmar. Devotees gently press the gold leaves onto sacred images as offerings; for most, this is seen as a meritorious deed. Some believe that by placing a gold leaf on a certain parts of a Buddha image, it will help to cure their own pain in that area. The majority of gold-leaves are made in Mandalay.

 

10) Robe offering

 

Monks in Loikaw

Two monks watch the sun slowly setting over Loikaw

 

Myanmar people believe that offering robes to monks and Lord Buddha is one the noblest forms of donation. Buddhists in Myanmar offer robes on various occasions. The most famous of all are the Waso robe offering, Kahtein robe offering and Matho-thingan offering.

 

The Waso robe offering is celebrated in the Myanmar month of Waso. It marks the beginning of the three-month period of lent in the month of Waso (June – July). This ceremony celebrates Lord Buddha’s first sermon, delivered forty-nine days after he attained nirvana. During the ceremony monks are offered robes to wear during lent, a time when they are not allowed to travel. According to the monks’ code of conduct, they are still obligated to carry out a round of alms to source the monastery’s daily provisions. Monsoon season also starts around about the time of Waso, so the offering also helps to ensure the monks have an extra supply of dry robes (anyone that’s visited Myanmar before will know how heavy the rain can get!). Interestingly, events such as marriage and moving home are avoided during the lent period and pious individuals try to follow the five precepts more conscientiously.

 

The Kahtein robe offering ceremony takes place between the full moon day of Thadingyut and the full moon day of Tazaungmone (October – November). This robe cannot be offering to a monk of an individual’s choosing, but to the Sangha in general. People also donate other useful accessories such as umbrellas, shoes, fans, medicines and alms bowls. These donations are then hung from tree-like stands (usually found in public places all over the country) and sent to monasteries in a delightful, pomp and lively procession.

 

The Matho-thingan, literally translates as “the robe that has not decayed”. Groups of devout Buddhist women start weaving robes in contest on the 14th waxing day of Tazaungmon (usually November) with the aim of completing the garment by sunrise. Shortly after, the robe is then donated to a sacred Buddhist image.

 

Thanaka onboard Pandaw

Pandaw

 

The longest operating cruise company in Myanmar and easily the best value for money; for a 3-4 star product, the service on here is exceptional! Due to them having operated in Myanmar for so long, we find the excursions are extremely well-oiled and the cruise captains know the Irrawaddy’s challenging sandbank gauntlet better than anybody. The rooms however aren’t huge and it’s fair to say they’re not very private when the cabin’s curtains are open. This does however encourage passengers to get out and socialise, and judging off the multiple times we’ve sailed with them, this is one of the main things that makes a Pandaw cruise different from any other. Another important point is that, even though the ship is still considered luxurious (certainly by Myanmar standards), it’s not as “bling” or in your face as some of the more high end options. We regard Pandaw as the experienced, slightly more humble option. Although it’s only a small thing, it’s worth mentioning that they have the most powerful showers on the river – you’ll be sure to appreciate this even more after a long, often sweaty day of touring.

 

As per the Pandaw’s website: “We began in Burma. The unique Pandaw river expedition concept evolved here from the vestiges of the colonial Irrawaddy Flotilla Company. Our first ships were built here and in Burma we learnt to master river navigation at its worst. These lessons were applied to the other rivers of Asia.

 

Burma, after 1987 renamed by the regime Myanmar, is the largest mainland South-East Asian country and with the greatest variety of scenery from Himalayan peaks to tropical beaches. We have yet to meet a visitor to Burma who does not feel that this is the most beautiful, friendly and culturally interesting Asian country ever visited.

 

Most of the population live in three great river valleys encircled by impenetrable horseshoes of mountains. River life dominates the country and still to this day forms the main system of transportation, irrigation and from its rich fishing grounds the principal protein source for the majority of the population.

 

In the river valleys two millennia of Buddhist art, architecture and archaeology survive, including the 3000 standing monuments at Pagan. There is no other Asian country with so vast and varied a range of cultural sites. Almost everywhere there are temples and monasteries, festivals and ceremonies. The Burmese are a deeply pious people and Buddhist activities dominate every aspect of life.

 

The Burmese are also very warm and friendly people who since Independence in 1947 have suffered terrible impoverishment and deprivation. We do our best to support the local domestic economy and make sure our suppliers and contractors are small local businesses. We are very careful to make sure our clients’ money falls into the right hands. Sanctions and the politically correct refusal of most NGOs and international charities to work in the country has served to exacerbate deprivation and entrench the regime further.

 

Our Pandaw passengers believe that by visiting Burma we are doing something to help as has been proved by the many schools our passengers have built, not to mention the outstanding contribution made by our passengers after Cyclone Nargis struck in 2008. Most of the Burmese our passengers encounter tend to agree with this assumption. These cruises are the most acclaimed luxury vacations on the Irrawaddy river.”

 

Pandaw offer 11 cruise options ranging from the 1-night Bagan to Mandalay short cruise and a 10-night ‘Golden Land’ itinerary, which sails you all the way up to the northernmost point of the Irrawaddy. All of the expeditions can be found on the front page of their website (click here), and by clicking on ‘Learn More’ you can access the detailed itinerary and scheduled departure dates. For something truly unique, be sure to have a browse of the ‘Voyage to Nagaland’ programme.

 

BBQ

The Strand Cruise

 

Operated by the Strand Hotel, this is arguably the best option for any self-confessed foodies out there. Although it’s currently the most expensive cruise option and the entry level rooms are a little bit on the small side, the contemporary style and focus on fine dining puts this experience into a category of its own. The Strand even have their own resident Entertainment and F&B managers who provide 24/7 support to the Myanmar staff to ensure service levels don’t slip. Weather permitting, the BBQ on the side of a sandbank would surely make for a memorable highlight. Most of the dining options are a la carte (not buffet!) and the ship has what we feel is the grandest bar area on the river. The Head Bar Manager at the time of writing, Mr Win, previously worked for the popular Governor’s Residence, and his cocktail and silver service training received in Dubai after that really shows. In the evenings, the Entertainment Manager also keeps passengers amused with witty humour and mind boggling card tricks.

 

A short description, as per The Strand Cruise’s website: “The Strand Cruise is the latest Luxury Cruise to sail the magnificent Ayeyarwady River of Asia’s hidden treasure that is Myanmar. Embark for an authentic journey of discoveries from visiting temples, pagodas, palaces and monasteries to remote villages aboard this ship, which mirrors the heritage and reputation of its sister property.”

 

Currently the Strand only offer a 3-night and a 4-night cruise from Bagan to Mandalay and vice versa. The ship departs on Monday from Bagan to Mandalay (4-nights) and Friday for Mandalay to Bagan (3-nights). They only operate from September to April. For more information about logistics, please click here and select ‘Programme Details’.

 

To give you a better idea of what the experience involves, feel free to read through our detailed firsthand account by clicking here.

 

360 pool

Heritage Line’s Anawrahta Cruise

 

Heritage Line’s Anawrahta is the largest cruise ship on the river and it also boasts the largest entry level cabin. At 32-square metres, it’s huge and it also comes with a private balcony. Out of the cruises we’ve experienced first-hand, the guiding is the best, as is the outsourced entertainment. The highlight for most will be the swimming pool on the top deck, which offers an amazing 360-degree view of the passing scenery. The bar’s also fit for royalty, with large folding windows that extend fully to allow a nice breeze to circulate.

 

A short description, as per Anawrahta’s website: “With the largest cabin space on the Ayeyarwady, and the highest crew to passenger ratio, The Anawrahta offers the finest on-board experience in Myanmar. This impressive vessel is named after the founder of the Burmese nation, modern day Myanmar. During his reign, from 1044-1077, he introduced and spread the religion of Theravada Buddhism throughout the land.”

 

Heritage Line offer a diverse range cruise options, varying in length from 3 to 11 nights. The most popular cruise would surely be the 3-night Ancient Capitals/Golden Land cruise, with the crème de la crème being the 11-night Exotic Chindwin, which only sets sail in August and September. Information for each of these cruises including logistics and timings can be found by clicking here.

 

To read a detailed first-hand review of Anawartha, please click here.

 

Kalaw Princess Hotel

 

Rating: Medium

 

Located nearby to some of Kalaw’s best hiking routes, Kalaw Princess is a modern hotel that’s attempted to model itself in the style of a European classical mansion. We say attempted because it’s more a mishmash of European and local style, which we feel is made evident by the pink walls, heavily polished teak furniture and gaudy decorative items. It is however, perfectly clan, comfortable and the rooms are very spacious considering the price.

 

An unexpected highlight for most will be the view of the green surrounds from the top of the hotel’s rooftop bar. In a destination that’s popular with adventure enthusiasts, this is an excellent addition as it provides the perfect setting in which to relax after a full day of touring.

 

Due to it being located on the outskirts of town, it’s likely most guests will end up dining in the hotel’s cosy ground-floor restaurant. Although it’s a long way off Michelin level, there’s a good amount of local and European inspired dishes to choose from.

 

If you’re looking for something that’s great value, has local character, a countryside location and a bar with a great view, you can’t go far wrong with a stay at Kalaw Princess Hotel.

 

Facilities:

  • Restaurant
  • Rooftop bar

 

Keen to know what people on TripAdvisor are saying about this property? Please click here to find out.

 

Back to Kalaw accommodation guide

 

About

Founded as a family business in 1994, Tour Mandalay is one of the longest established and most experienced destination management companies in Myanmar. With annual tourist numbers set to increase to 7.5 million by the end of 2020, we are delighted that interest in our Golden Land is finally picking up. However, the country still faces many challenges in ensuring that these visitors travel responsibly. Through mutual cooperation with yourself, our partners and the local community, we are confident we can make this happen, whilst continuing to provide exceptional service and unique experiences for our guests.

 

Tour Mandalay’s staff celebrate 20-years

 

Tour Mandalay proactively source and contract our own local guides, thus ensuring you are taken care of by a representative whom is experienced, knowledgeable and extremely passionate about the area in question. On top of this, we have access to our own fleet of sedans, mini-vans, mini-buses and deluxe coaches, enabling us to cater for the majority of client’s transportation needs. With over 150 employees across four regional offices, and a small number of local representatives present in more remote locations, we can also ensure you will always have someone nearby.

 

On behalf of the people of Myanmar, we look forward to greeting you with a smile.

 

Contact

If you are looking to tour Myanmar with the help of Tour Mandalay, please get in touch using either of the contact details below – we would love to hear from you!

 

Email: info@tourmandalay.travel
Telephone (Yangon Head Office): +95 (0) 1 545 850

 

U Khin Zaw (Tour Mandalay’s owner and founder)

 

Please be aware that communication in Myanmar can be at times problematic, especially when it comes to using the internet. If you haven’t heard from us after a couple of days, please try again as we would hate you to think that we were intentionally ignoring you.

 

We would also like to stress that we deal with inbound travel only, and do not operate tour programmes to any other part of the world.

 

Royal Kalaw

 

Rating: Medium

 

Originally built in 1928, Royal Kalaw has recently undergone substantial renovation work, helping to further accentuate its period features. Surrounded by well-maintained gardens, with views over Kalaw’s mature green landscape, Royal Kalaw’s real strength is it’s location. Being only a short walk from the centre of town, you’ll also be within easy reach of some exceptional, low-key local restaurants.

 

The most sought-after rooms are in the original building, but the Deluxe rooms in the new wing will perfectly suit most; they’re bright, clean, spacious and tastefully furnished.

 

Facilities:

  • Hotel library
  • Spa
  • Restaurant

 

Keen to know what people on TripAdvisor are saying about this property? Please click here to find out.

 

Back to Kalaw accommodation guide

 

Amara Kalaw

 

Rating: Deluxe

 

Hidden down what could easily be mistaken as an English country lane, Amara Kalaw is a strong contender for the grandest and best preserved heritage property in the country. Surrounded by mature trees and a manicured garden, a stay here provides an idyllic getaway and sense of what it would it have felt like in Kalaw during the early 20th century (the main building was built back in 1909). Renovation work has been carried out since then, but thankfully this was done in keeping with the original style so it doesn’t feel as blingy as some of the other colonial options in town.

 

Guest rooms are large with their own fire place; these are necessary to fight off the evening chill of winter (December to February). In keeping with the original design, the interior is plain and simply furnished, with small splashes of red colour providing a warm contrast.

 

We occasionally receive comments that the restaurant is expensive, which is true when compared with other options available in the local area. Amara Kalaw does however source a lot of produce from it’s own garden, so it’s really in a league of its own when it comes to this.

 

Facilities:

  • Restaurant
  • Spa

 

Keen to know what people on TripAdvisor are saying about this property? Please click here to find out.

 

Back to Kalaw accommodation guide

 

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