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Naypyitaw – The official capital of Myanmar

Update from Tyra (26-03-2017): It was possible to rent a motorbike for 30.000 Kyats for a day at The golden Lake Hotel. When I was first here it was impossible for foreigners to rent a motorbike. The police didn’t mind foreigners driving around on the motorbike either.

Introduction and History

Naypyitaw is the official capital of Myanmar – I say official because up until 2006, Yangon (Rangoon) was the capital of Myanmar and de facto still is. In 2006 the capital was moved to a grassfield 1km west of Pyinmana. There are many speculations about why this happened but the official reason is that Yangon had become too crowded and lacked potential for growth. Another reason is that Yangon was too close to the water and was too hard to defend in case of a naval attack – a rather medieval reason if you ask me. Less official reasons speculate that it’s political (surprise).

In either case it is now a massive strictly coordinated area with designated places for everything. Hotel zones, residental zones, military zones, commercial zones and even an embassy zone. The embassy zone only has one embassy in it – the Bangladeshi. All of these zones are mostly empty and this makes for a spectacular ghost town. The hotels are huge and modern and the roads are intense.

Parliament road, for example, is a 10 laned road – in both directions – and with only a couple of cars on it, this 20-lane road is an astonishing display of how to waste money. I mean – alright, you can use it for parading around your military but that’s about it. It’s something I could see North Korea think of as a good idea.

myanmar-20-lane-road
Sitting in the middle of this mostly empty 20-lane road

What to do in Naypyitaw?

As this city is the capital they actually keep all the laws of the country and this means that foreigners can neither rent a motorbike or a car and when the roads and the city in general span over a large area with no public transportation there is only one option and that is taxi’ing it around. We were two and we paid about 55000 Kyats total for a full day (almost 12 hours) where he took us whereever we wanted. He was not a tour guide as such so we relied on the internet as a source for places to go.

Below follows a short list of what we did:

Parliament road

The behemoth of a road is a sight to behold. We asked the driver to stop so we could take some pictures and instead of pulling over to the side he just stopped in the middle of the road. Well alright then. Let’s take some pictures. The police was standing right there too and didn’t care at all that we were tossing around the road.

The highway

There is a highway going from Mandalay to Yangon going through Naypyitaw which is also scarcely used but we went there anyway and drove a couple of kilometres out and back. It’s just a highway and as such you can skip this step. Only difference is that no rules apply and we did see our driver make questionable manoeuvres like u-turns, crossings and opposite direction driving.

Lunch

We asked the driver for a place and he took us to a nearby mall. As we where coming directly from overpriced Bagan, everything seemed very cheap – priced as it should be considering the general poverty of the country. We had some good noodles and got a haircut while looking around the mall. The mall had originally produced western commodities like Nike shoes and iPhones but still we didn’t see any other white people – obviously this place mainly sees local businessmen from Yangon and in general the richer part of the country comes here.

Uppatasanti Pagoda

This pagoda is an exact copy of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon except that it’s 30cm shorter so as to not outshine the original. At first this might seem like a waste of time then as you’ve most likely already seen the one in Yangon, however, this experience is significantly different. First of all, while the Pagoda in Yangon is completely swamped with people, this one is practically empty – we were the only westerners there at all. Secondly, you get to go inside! Inside it is beautiful and this alone is well worth the trip. When we were there, there were some sort of ceremony going on with around 50 locals praying – something you wouldn’t see in Yangon.

Also worth mentioning are the walls covering the inside of the Pagoda as they are covered with paintings, revealing Buddhas path to enlightenment.

The Pagoda seen from outside. Practically noone here
The Pagoda seen from outside. Practically noone here

Golf driving range

There are atleast 3 golf driving ranges which are publicly accessible and not very expensive. We spent an hour there, just shooting some golf balls. Good fun if you are into that kind of thing

The teak

The Teak, Restaurant and Spa is a high class Spa, Fitness and Restaurant. I was extremely impressed with the level of service that we got here – everything from the poolside restaurant to the full body massage. This place will make you very relaxed and spending the whole day here is not a problem.

Now, it is a little outside the normal backpackers everyday budget but if you feel like splurging for a day, this is absolutely worth the money! To put it in perspective, me and my travel companion at the time were both backpackers on a tight budget and this did not shatter our budget.

massage-naypyitaw
Inside one of the rooms where we got some very decent massage, to say the least

Water Fountain Park

Finally, the last thing we did before ending our day of sightseeing in Naypyitaw was to visit the Water Fountain Park. This cozy park is apparently where all the citizens go at night and is great for an evening stroll. The park has a quaint artificial waterfall that you can walk under as well as behind. There are lots of lights that turn on at night (ask the driver when exactly) and the whole park is definitely worth a visit.

We had a our driver walk around with us – and as the evening drew to an end we talked a bit with him and generally this was a great way to end a great day.

water-fountain-park-naypyitaw
The waterfall inside the Water Fountain Park

Conclusion

This place is geared towards domestic businessmen. There are upscale restaurants and business class hotels. You can’t rent anything as a foreigner and will have to rely on taxi’s to get around. Despite this, the place is great if you just want to have some surprisingly cheap luxury (cheaper than Bagan and Inle!) including big air-conditioned rooms and spas/massages.

Add to that, the train rides to and from Naypyitaw are taken by only locals and on top being ridiculously cheap (1,5eur for 10hour trip) there are only locals there and the train trips serve as noteworthy experiences all by themselves. We took train rides from Bagan to Naypyitaw and then from Naypyitaw to Bago.

train-myanmar
Just casually hanging out the door of a moving train. Taking a trip with these 100 year old trains is like stepping into a timemachine

It is also great if you just want to experience a truly unique place and I guarantee you, dear reader, that this place will leave you in awe.

Overview of tourist hotspots in Myanmar (Burma)

There are four main tourist hotspots in Myanmar: Yangon (formerly Rangoon), Mandalay, Bagan and Inle. They are located as a diamond shape if you look at a map of Myanmar with Yangon in the south, Mandalay in the north, Bagan in the west and Inle in the east.

myanmar-tourist-hotspots
Relative locations of the tourist hotspots in Myanmar

Along with these there are a few others depending on your route and your preferences. Really, though, if you want to boil it all down, Yangon and especially Mandalay function more as transport hubs and Bagan/Inle are the only real tourist spots. Since Myanmar is not that easy to enter overland, most people are flying to either Mandalay or Yangon.

However, as I have made it a point to not fly unless absolutely necessary, I took the overland route which took me through Hpa-An. A stop I would highly recommend even if you are only in Myanmar for a week. The capital, Naypyitaw (since 2006 – it used to be Yangon), is also definitely worth visiting if you want to get off the beaten track.

Yangon (and Mandalay) – Two large cities

Both cities function as transport hubs even though Yangon is the more common one. Yangon is interesting in the way that it allows no motorbikes in the city center, not even for locals which gives a different feel than the rest of south east asia. It also has a number of interesting temples and locations. It’s a decent and nice town to hang around in for a day or two.

One thing you shouldn’t miss is the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon which is very impressive! Bear in mind though that you need proper clothes (pants, cover your shoulders etc.), will need to pay an entrance fee and will have to deal with many many tourists. This is one of the most touristy spots in all of Myanmar but still worth it.

schwedagon pagode in yangon, myanmar
The Schwedagon Pagoda seen from afar. To see it inside, go have a look yourself, I won’t give it away

Mandalay really has nothing interesting going for it. It’s good if you want a quiet hotel (not hostel) and/or can find a cheap flight ticket here. Other than that it just functions as a bus/train/plane hub to nearby places of more interest. The only thing worth seeing in the city is a very picturesque teak bridge called U Bein Bridge. I personally recommend skipping Mandalay and focus on something more unique and special, namely ALL the rest of Myanmar.

Bagan – Temples galore

Note: I’ve heard from multiple sources (other travellers) that you can no longer climb the temples at night, ie. for sunrise and sunsets. This is a very large part of what makes Bagan unique. This is, however, still Myanmar and I’m sure you can just do it anyway – even if you do get “caught” then a small bribe or simply saying you’re sorry should be enough. Has anyone been there since this change that can confirm/update on this ? Please comment!

In short, this is a massive archaeological site boasting an astonishing 2700 (approximately) temples. During it’s prime it was closer to 13000. This doesn’t mean that the area is huge, in fact you can drive from one end to the other on an e-bike in about 30-60 minutes. Without having the exact numbers I’d estimate it to be an area of around 20 * 10 km.

The area is surrounded by 3 cities: New Bagan, Old Bagan and Nyang-U. The night-busses arrive in Nyang-U but most of the backpackers go to New Bagan – a taxi ride of about 7000 kyats although they will ask for 15000 from you. in Nyang-U there are cheaper (and worse quality accomodation) and in Old Bagan is where the more upscale accomodation is. I staid in New Bagan which is quite touristy and expensive but has a good vibe. Lots of backpackers in that area.

When you get there, rent an e-bike (motorbikes are not rented to foreigners in Bagan) and scoot around the temples. This is basically the whole thing. Go with a group of friends and see the temples or drive around alone and get lost in the land of temples. Find yourself an empty roof and just sit there and contemplate about things in life.

bagan-relax
Finding a nice temple to be alone can be a very relaxing experience

There are very few bars in New Bagan and the temple area is the whole thing. But it’s worth it. This area is obscenely picturesque and when you see the sunrise/sunset you will fall in love. At sun-rise about 25 hot air balloons fly every morning, making for some of the most beautiful sunrises you will ever see.

bagan-beauty
The beauty of Bagan. Atleast some of it – so many amazing pictures have been taken in this area

Inle Lake

Most of the flashpackers you see out there will do one or two days at Inle Lake. It’s a small city called Nyaungshwe near the lake where everyone stays and it’s from here the tours/trekking starts.

The lake is beautiful and there is a reason why everyone goes here but it has become murky and brown even though just a generation ago you could drink from the lake. Motorized boats sailing around tourists add to this but mostly it is due to fishermen and other locals using the same motorized boats and fertilizers used in the floating gardens.

You can get a day-tour boat trip from any hostel you stay in taking you to the sights of the lake – the floating gardens, the four tribes living on the lake and the fishermen amongst other things. It makes for a great day and is worth doing. Remember sun-screen!

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Fishermen on Inle Lake

Another day can be spent on a bicycle ride around the monastery’s and caves in the area. For an evening activity visit one of the two vineyards in the area – one is close and has an amazing sunset view but unfortunately lacks good wine – the other has good wine but is further away and requires a tuk-tuk ride or an avid bicycler.

If you spend more days in the area, you can go on two or three day hiking tours in the mountains or alternatively hike from Kalaw to Inle Lake instead of taking the bus directly to Inle. Trekking is always a fun activity and the mountains are beautiful – if you are going in the dry season some of the waterfalls along the Kalaw – Inle Lake route will be dried out so maybe a tour along the lake starting and ending in Nyaungshwe is better.

pagoda-mt-zwegabin-monastery

Sleeping in a monastery on a mountain top in Hpa-An, Myanmar

Update 18-10-2017: As per comment on this post, it looks like it’s no longer possible!

Update 20-10-2017: I asked my niece who was there 7 months ago and she went up there and slept just two days before it happened. She also says that she’s heard alot of people say they couldn’t go up there anymore.

Please confirm / de-confirm if you have updated knowledge

Note: for detailed practical information, scroll down

The mission (and its complications)

The first time I saw the monastery in Hpa-An was while visiting a field filled with statues of Buddha, more than 1100 actually. There, in the distance on a mountain top, I saw the monastery and I immediately wanted to go up there. I knew it was possible to go up there and climb down the same day but I’d also heard people talk about sleeping in the monastery. However, there were some implications.

buddha field with a view to mt zwegabin monastery
Standing between a sea of buddhas with a view to the monastery. Do you see it? It’s right there!

First of all, I wasn’t sure if it was even legal/possible with the Myanmar government having some strict laws against foreigners (hostels have to have a license to be allowed to host foreigners) and I was getting mixed signals from asking around – some said it was possible, some said it wasn’t. Secondly I had to actually climb 2000 steps and finally I was probably going to have to sleep on a rather hard surface with nightly temperatures actually making the experience a rather chilly one. Even though it was warm in the day, it got chilly at night.

After getting direct confirmation from people who had done it I was convinced and my mission was clear:

  1. Climb the 2000 steps
  2. Watch the sunset
  3. Sleep there
  4. Watch the sunrise
  5. Climb down

The ascend to the monastery

I started the ascend from the bottom of the mountain around 15:30 (3:30pm) carrying with me 1 litre of water, a hoodie, a camera, a phone, my wallet and a power bank. Around 17:00 I finished. I believe it can be done in 1hour with someone experienced but takes more like 2 hours if you are not rushing, I did it in 1:25. The first step of the way I was following a guy that was going pretty fast but halfway up (after only 35 minutes) he got ahead of me and I slowed down my pace considerably after that.

beautiful-hike
Halfway up the mountain, the view is already beautiful. It was an astonishing hike

The steps seemed to be endless and just when I thought I’d made it another leg of stairs revealed itself. In the end I found that a very slow speed (like a step every second) was the way to go, as I almost didn’t have to take any breaks like that. Slow and steady wins the race and finally I got there.

The top

At the top there was a sleeping hall for the monks, a sleeping hall for tourists and a restaurant like building where they cooked food. It was also possible to buy food there as a tourist between 6pm and 7pm. There was of course also a few Pagodas and other religious symbols. And then there were monkeys – aggressive monkeys. They would snatch anything you had left unnoticed including things out of purses and coke cans out of your hands. Luckily there were also dogs and all through the evening the dogs and monkeys would fight each other – the monkeys would come close and the dogs would bark them away. It was fun to watch how, as soon as someone made a little scream due to a monkey coming too close, the dogs would come running instantly to scare them away.

Quickly after reaching the top, I sat down at the eating area and was offered free food and tea by the monks – not enough for dinner, but enough to keep me going until real dinner later that evening.

The rest of the evening was spent watching the monkeys and the sunset and also the 8 of us up there who were tourists played a bit of cards before hitting the bed early.

sunset at top of mt zwegabin in myanmar
View from the top of the monastery as the sun sets over Myanmar
evil monkeys
Evil mischievous monkeys

The descend

The descent in the morning around 6:30 was much quicker. I got down and scooted back to town to return the scooter. I had made an agreement with the scooter renters to not charge me an extra day even though they technically want you to return it the evening before. One thing to note though is that you should stretch! I could feel my calves for days after that descend.

Practical information

  • It takes about 2hours to climb the steps, 1hour if you are fast, 3 hours if you are slow
  • Sunset is around 5:45pm but depends on time of year. I started at 3:30pm  and made it easily.
  • The first four to check in will be sleeping in twin rooms (2 in each – seperate beds)
  • The rest will sleep in a sleeping hall
  • Beds are not soft but not rock hard either
  • You are expected to give around 5000 kyats in “donation” to sleep there
  • There is food up there and you will be provided with a blanket. You can also buy soft drinks – no beer!
  • I slept in shorts and a hoodie and that was warm enough – I was in a twin room. This was in winter time
  • There was power in the twin room
  • The climb is fairly rough and steep but I’m not trained at all and I would say anyone could make it, given enough time.
  • You’ll be in shade about half the time
  • I rented a scooter to get there and left it overnight. Another guy hitchhiked there and back – it’s not hard.
  • There are two entrances and the main is at the field of Buddhas about 30 mins out of Hpa-an- ask around but it’s not hard to find.
pagoda-mt-zwegabin-monastery
One of the Pagoda’s at the monastery on top of Mt Zwegabin