Here is some introductory information about our trip to Myanmar for one month in October 2013 with our 2 kids, ages 3 and 5. The following posts will feature more details and photos.
There is not a lot of up to date information for travelers to Burma with children of this age, so I thought I would make a contribution knowing that many more families with young ones will be venturing to this exciting country in the coming months. Occasionally, we would see families but not many, and practically none with kids under 6.
I am not sure who was more interested in who – us in the locals or the locals in us! Myanmar is such fascinating place, and I think our presence added to it at times, even for fellow foreigners. Awaiting our flight from Heho to Thandwe, quite a few tourists looked a little dumbfounded at the sight if us. Our kids have bright, blonde hair, so that served as a magnet for the Burmese.
We are on a 10 month long trip through SE Asia, so we would like to think we are on a budget. Fitting Myanmar into the plan definitely forced us to spend much more money than its neighboring countries, especially since we wanted to play it safe by flying and staying in places a notch above backpacker digs. Once in this bracket, things get pricey fast.
In terms of planning and booking, I started one year in advance. I found a great agent, Yu Yu Win, at Tour Mandalay, who replied right away to my first inquiry and was excellent throughout. As a mother herself, she understood our needs as a family, especially in terms of safety and budget. We decided the safest way to travel between cities was flying, so she arranged all of our flights. In terms of hotels, she would present a few options based on our requests (mid range, quiet, pool, etc), and we were able to pick and choose. In some cases, her options were just too expensive, and it was never a problem to decline and book our own accomodation, which is what we did in Nyaung Shwe, Kalaw, and Ngapali. In fact, many guesthouses in NS were reluctant to book through agents at the time, so the traveller is forced to contact them independently anyway. I was able to make three bookings in NS via email, and later narrowed it down to one based on tripadvisor reviews coming in. Ironically, in the end, we loved a place we discovered after arrival called La Maison Birmane, and ended up moving. I could go on and on about how great this place is. Anyway, having an agent is nice for families, since multiple passengers must be booked and the system is a little tricky. Yu Yu arranged our first airport transfer which can be awkward with children, and was simply there for us in case of an emergency at any time during the trip. Though it seems weird and scary to wire lots of money to strange bank in Singapore, and then meet the agent in your hotel to get paper tickets and hotel vouchers, this is Burma, so you will have to prepare yourself for the unusual anyway. The Burmese are so trusting, there is nothing to worry about and you will quickly realize this upon arrival.
Hotels in Yangon are outrageously expensive, but we felt a pool was worth it for the kids, so we splurged on Summit Parkview. We received a warm welcome and the kids loved the breakfast buffet.
The pool is nothing special but at least it was an option. The best thing about Summit is its location. You can walk to Shwedagon which is where you want to visit first, in my opinion, anyway. This is one of the world’s greatest religious sites, and it was not only immensely intriguing but also fun for our children. Also very near is Happy World, a funky local amusement center and Feel Restaurant, a clean and friendly introduction to Burmese cuisine. On our walks, a cheap travel/ umbrella stroller worked just fine, since 3 year olds can never walk far. By the way, flip flops/ thongs are not a good option anywhere in Myanmar (bc of sketchy sidewalks and roads, with lots of poop, mud, trash, and general filth) besides at the beach, especially for kids. We like Keens: waterproof, sturdy, and closed toed with a good tread.
Our first stop upcountry was Bagan, and we stayed at Thande Hotel, another budget buster, but good for kids, as it is beside the river and has a pool. Bagan was wicked hot, so the pool was nice to have. However, do note we know for a fact it is untreated water as we brought pool testing strips (for the kids’ sake). After seeing the results, I was really shocked and would not swim in it. We kept our mouths shut and you should too! Antibiotic ear drops might be a good idea to bring along – we used this as a prophylactic. In terms of sightseeing, we found that mixing it up a bit with horse carts and a car/guide worked perfectly. The kids loved the horse carts, but to see the temples that are a little further away, it is most comfortable with a car, namely one with AC.
The e-bikes look really cool and even have kid seats on the back, but we tend to be very cautious after a bicycle accident in Vietnam. The horse cart drivers were happy for our business too, since the eBike threatens their livelihood considerably. Our guide was easy to find. I just emailed him based on a positive trip advisor review, and he wrote back right away. He was well spoken, knowledgeable, patient, good with the kids and at a fair price. You may PM me for more info.
After Bagan, we flew to Nyaung Shwe via Heho and stayed at a couple places before we found the ideal spot, La Maison Birmane. Their property is gorgeous, very quiet, and cottages spacious for families.
The breakfast pancakes were more like true crepes, a real treat. The kids loved making friends with all the people in the neighborhood. We ate frequently at the restaurant Beyond Taste, which had a kids menu, and even kids plates and cutlery. They were very kind. We enjoyed the boat trips on Inle lake but plan wisely with kids since they can be long, cold, uncomfortable and noisy (bc of the boat motors). We stayed on the lake at Shwe Inn Tha for 2 nights, just so that we were better positioned to see the remote southern end and be around for the pagoda festival. This paid off, but the hotel was overpriced despite the pool, gorgeous scenery, and large room.
Also from NS, we did an overnight to an isolated Taung Yo village accessed 2 hours by car plus 1 hour walking (uphill, in the mud). Shanta Foundation, based in our home state of Colorado and run by an acquaintance, assists this village, and Comet Travel in town arranged everything. We also did something similar out of pretty little Kalaw to a Danu village through a local guide there. Alex was truly excellent (pm for more info). Both experiences will remain as highlights of our entire trip. Staying in 2013 with people who still live as our ancestors was fascinating and enriching for the entire family. we were treated to amazingly fresh local food prepared by fire, and washed our hands beside a huge rainwater cistern outside among pigs, water buffalo, chickens, and ducks. Our host family’s generosity was so touching considering how little they have. And, simply feeling so connected with nature was exhilarating. Though a little challenging, both treks were totally doable with young kids, and they loved it since to them it was like camping! We saw lots of animals of all sorts, and even took an ox cart ride to get us back down the mountain — bumpy but awesome!
After Kalaw, we flew Heho (departure lounge has a REAL espresso bar!) to Thandwe in the pouring rain and luckily landed safely after a rather bumpy ride. (All of our flights were on Air Bagan, which seemed ok.) Due to the fact that over 2012 and into ’13 Burma progressively became more and more expensive, we eventually had to rule out a fancy Ngapali resort with a pool. For a basic resort room away from the beach, we were still beyond our budget, so it did not seem worth it. Instead, we went with Laguna Lodge, and the owner, Oliver, was able to arrange and hold our booking for months. We paid cash in advance once we arrived in Yangon, which resulted in a 10% discount. It is frustrating to experience what 52 Euros apparently gets you at Ngapali: not much, if not more filth, Mosquitos, and stinky towels than I would like to mention. But there are some major pluses to Laguna for kids: you don’t need a pool because you have a fabulous kid friendly beach with fine sand and gentle water right in front of your door. In places like Thailand and Malaysia that are dealing with jellyfish problems and Hawaii with sharks, there is truly nothing to worry about here. The water is so warm and waves so gentle, we were really pleased. We tried Amata’s pool next door (had to purchase an expensive drink) but the water was freezing. Laguna is one of the only places we saw with a natural beach front – no sea wall, no landscaping, so if you like natural, this is your place. There is nothing like falling asleep to the waves crashing literally at your doorstep. And the kids could just run free throughout the property, no problems, and the staff were very engaging with them. In particular, one of the massage girls, Pan Su, was especially sweet with our daughter, essentially babysitting her for large portions of the day on her own volition.
Oliver’s son who is 8 was also around, and our kids immediately became best friends with this congenial and very talkative boy.
All in all, it was a good time at Laguna mostly because the setting is truly superb, but I would not recommend it unless they make some major improvements.
A word about the Internet:
Upon arrival to Myanmar I quickly realized my blogging days would be limited due to spotty Internet. Some places ranged from occasional wifi in the room, to absolutely none, no where. A lasting signal of any sort, anywhere never happened. Our last two stops, Kalaw and Ngapali, were of the nada sort. In these places, we almost had a destitute feeling, not knowing what the weather was going to do, not being able to conduct business at home, and wondering if loved ones had written. Not being able to do the simplest research on our location was a little frustrating since our lonely planet has long been out of date, even since its publishing date with all the rapid change here. I knew Internet usage would be less convenient here, but not this bad.
A Word about Health:
Before we left for Yangon, we stocked up on some essentials in Bangkok, and I also had some things from home. We got hep a, b, typhoid, tetanus, mmr, polio, etc shots at home, but also japanese encephalitis and seasonal flu shots at the international traveler’s clinic in Bangkok. Malaria was not a concern, but Dengue was, so protect yourself and kids. None of us got sick from the food beyond a little adjustment period, though my son did get a mild 2 day fever followed by a cold. I would recommend bringing the following: multivitamins, since the kids mostly ate rice, bread, pizza, and pasta, and only a little meat, veggies and fruit, the probiotic Saccrymyses, which does not need to be refrigerated, broad spectrum antibiotic, antibiotic ointment for cuts, antibiotic eye and ear drops, Betadine or other non-stinging wound cleaner, bug repellant (lots, since it is hard to find in Burma), a battery powered ear thermometer, paracetamol, tummy ache chewable tablets, alcohol wipes, hand sanitizer, cotton balls for wound cleaning, bandaids, and antihistamine cream.
We had a wonderful time in Myanmar and you will too. Just take a few precautions, come with an open, patient mind, and get ready for memories that will last a lifetime.