In early 2019 I found myself fresh out of a break-up and in need of some epic adventures to help me rebuild a bit of self-confidence. That failed relationship had been an emotionally abusive one and left me feeling quite negatively about myself – especially regarding my appearance.
So, when my number one hype man Jasmine decided that she wanted us to go on an adventure together, I jumped at the opportunity. We had initially planned to go to Laos, but the flight connections ended up being less than ideal and it didn’t look like it would be the best use of our week off work.
I then suggested Myanmar. I had had such a wonderful trip there with Chelsea in 2017 and the idea of returning was one that I fell in love with. Luckily for me, Jassie was also super keen! Within a few days we had booked flights and began counting down the days until we would be jumping on a plane.
Please note that travel to Myanmar is not just not possible at the present time, it is also completely unadvisable. The country is presently under military control – a situation that has been described as a ‘reign of terror’ – Myanmar is currently in a state of war and turmoil, now is not the time to visit. Please use this blog as inspiration for future travels, when Myanmar is once again being governed by a democratically elected government and reopened for travel.
We flew from Darwin to Yangon via Singapore. I had just come off of night shift, so our first afternoon and night in Yangon was dedicated to nothing else but sleeping.
However, after a good nights rest, we were both revitalised and ready to get on with adventures. We left our hostel in Yangon to head towards the airport – but we couldn’t stop without picking up a bunch of deliciously sweet roadside bananas!
After a short flight, we landed in Bagan and wasted no time in checking in to our hotel. Normally I stay in hostels when travelling through Asia, but this hotel was far too good of a deal to pass up.
For three nights at the Ananta Bagan we paid $179 (around $60 each) which included daily minibar refreshment, breakfast, a balcony, pool and a gym! Most dorm beds in Bagan were going for around $30 per person per night when we were there, so we ended up saving a good chunk of change.
The best way to get around Bagan is with e-bikes, a kind of electric scooter that can be rented for around $5-$10 AUD per day. The site of Bagan is honestly enormous, so it is a much better option than a bicycle.
That first afternoon we rented a bike and wasted no time in doing some exploring!
Back when I first visited in 2017, all of the temples and pagodas were able to be climbed, however upon returning the area had just been named a UNESCO World Heritage site and the vast majority of the temples were closed for climbers. We tried to scope out some that would be climbable for sunrise, but on this afternoon we found ourselves out of luck.
However, in the midst of our exploring we did find this lovely pagoda which was totally empty and totally gorgeous.
After our unsuccessful scope out, we returned back to our hotel for some poolside cocktails before having a low key dinner at a restaurant down the road.
The next day, we explored more of the gorgeous pagodas and temples but somehow, I have absolutely no photos… like, how on earth did that happen!? So to fill the gap, here are some of my favourite pictures from my previous trip to Myanmar.
Bagan itself is an ancient Burmese city dating back to the 9th century, however most of the remaining 2200 temples and pagodas date back to between the 11th and 13th centuries. It is worth noting that at the height of the Pagan Kingdom, there are estimates of around 10,000 temples, pagodas and monasteries actually being constructed.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Bagan is easily the most famous tourist attraction in all of Myanmar. It is also a personal favourite of mine! People always rave about Angkor Wat in Cambodia (which is amazing too) but because Bagan is so spread out, there is almost none of the overcrowding that Angkor sees, which in my opinion, makes visiting Bagan a much more pleasant, impressive and satisfying option.
That evening, we went out in search of some truly phenomenal food, and lucky for us, we found it!
Jassie is an extremely passionate vegan and so for our week away, I vowed to stick to a (mostly) vegan diet because I didn’t want my consumption to upset or offend her. Now, Jassie isn’t the type of person to actually make anyone feel bad about their choices, but she sure was proud of me, and honestly, I think my body was thankful for the extra veggies!
Through some googling, we found that there was a highly rated vegan and vegetarian spot just down the road, so that was where we headed.
Khaing Shwe Wha Vegetarian Restaurant ended up being one of the best places I have eaten in all of Asia – big call, but one that I feel confident making. To this day, I still have dreams about the tamarind leaf salad! To make things even better, in addition to exceptional food, the owner was a wonderfully kind man who when we returned for a second time was so happy to see us and made sure that we got extra dessert – free of charge!
The only downside? We always left feeling like we were 6 months pregnant!
Since we hadn’t had any luck scouting out climb-able temples through traditional methods, it was time to get creative! I decided to fire up the ‘ole Tinder account to see if I could get any information out of single boys in the area (a girls gotta do what she’s gotta do) and within an hour I had GPS coordinates!
It wasn’t the most scenic temple in the world and getting up was interesting to say the least, but we had done it!
Whilst we were there, a local man happened upon us and offered to show us the way to a more scenic spot, in exchange for a few dollarydoos. We had come this far, so we figured what the heck, might as well give it a go, and I am so glad we did!
I mean, come on, look at this view! So bloody worth it!
Afterwards, our newly adopted guide led us to his home, where his wife fed us fresh mango with delicious tea and painted our faces with thanaka.
Thanaka is a natural cosmetic made from ground tree bark that is a widespread and distinctive feature of Burmese people. As well as being a cosmetic, thanaka also has sun protection properties and is believed by locals to promote smooth and supple skin. It is commonly used by women and girls, but it is also not uncommon to see men donning it too.
A short while later, it was time to say goodbye to Bagan and board a flight to Mandalay. I hadn’t been to Mandalay on my first visit to the country, so it was to be a brand new destination for me. I was incredibly excited about the temples and pagodas and just truly excited to explore a new place.
We had organised in advance a private driver who picked us up at the airport and drove us about an hour away to Dee Doke waterfall. I had seen pictures of Dee Doke when researching our trip that looked stunning, but had also been warned by a colleague that it didn’t actually look anything like the pictures, so I truly didn’t know what to expect.
Luckily for me, my colleague must have just visited during a period of bad weather, because it was every bit as gorgeous as I had hoped, and then some.
We got to enjoy about 15 minutes of relative peace and quiet in this turquoise water paradise before the vibe completely changed. We got to the following few photos and enjoy a little swim but within moments about 50 Burmese teenagers arrived, armed with quite the sound system and turned the place into more of a rave than a relaxing spot! They played Despacito at least 50 times in a row before finally putting the tunes onto shuffle.
It definitely wasn’t the experience I had expected to have at Dee Doke, but it was absolutely hilarious and a tonne of fun, and really, isn’t unpredictability like that a big part of the fun of travel?
The next day was one that I had been so unbelievably excited for. Hsinbyume pagoda is easily one of the most striking and utterly unique places in Myanmar. It is a striking white pagoda situated on the western bank of the Irrawaddy River that is modelled after descriptions of the sacred Buddhist site – Mount Meru.
I had seen it on the ‘gram so many times and wanted to visit so much, but I was kinda worried that it would be a disappointment in real life. I was worried that it would be packed full of tourists and that it would just not be the experience I had hoped for.
So, we had hired a private driver in advance who would pick us up from our hostel in Mandalay at first light and (hopefully) get us there before the throngs of tour buses. We negotiated to pay $40 AUD for the entire day, which was a total bargain.
It was about an hours drive to the pagoda. We arrived at around 8am and much to my surprise, we hadn’t just avoided the throngs, we had successfully avoided everyone – we had it completely to ourselves!
Amazingly, visiting this pagoda ended up being even more wonderful than I could have hoped for.
We got to climb and clamber around, take photographs and just generally be awed by the beauty, all without the pressure of having other people around.
After around an hour, we moved across to a little food stall across the road to enjoy some icy cold coconuts and really soak in a bit more of the view.
Around 200m from Hsinbyume lies Mingun Pahtodwagyi – a purposefully unfinished stupa dating back to the late 1700s. Construction of this project was started under the rule of King Bodawpaya and slowed down after a prophecy emerged that he would die once it was completed; and once he died, construction completely stopped.
It is popular today due to the incredible cracks running down the facades, but especially for the one side that has a particularly wide one. My only advice? Tread carefully, there are a lot of three horned jacks growing at the base of this pagoda and you must walk around barefoot.
Our driver then decided to take us to a few more temples that we knew nothing about. The first was Umin Thonze. This lesser known pagoda dates back to the mid 1800’s and features candy colours, gorgeous mosaics and 45 seated buddhas in a curved formation. Getting to the top required a bit of a hike, but we were welcomed by the locals who used the temple to worship and the workout was more than worth it.
How gorgeous is this?!
The colours of the pagoda were unlike anything I had ever seen before, the chiming bells were hypnotic and the views from the top of the hill were absolutely glorious.
This temple was a complete surprise. In all my research I had never seen any pictures of it, and even to find the name of it on Google was an effort. Just goes to show, sometimes you just gotta let the locals guide you!
We then visited a pagoda which housed many Buddhas from all around Asia. Unfortunately, I cannot for the life of me find any information about it online! I have trawled Google images and cannot find anything that looks remotely like it. It was however, a lovely stop – maybe it would best be found by asking a local if they recognise it?
As the day wore on, we headed back to the city to avoid the heat for a few hours before meeting back up with our driver later in the day. We killed some time by indulging in a traditional ‘no oil’ Burmese massage (which was kinda strange, but surprisingly good) and some more incredible vegan eats.
That evening, I had the grand plan to visit U Bein bridge for sunset. This 1.2km long bridge spans the Taungthaman Lake and dates back to around the 1850s. Thought to be the longest and oldest teakwood bridge in the world, I had read online that this would be a beautiful sunset spot… I was wrong.
U Bein was easily the most insanely touristy place we visited in our entire trip and to make navigating hundreds and hundreds of people even more difficult, this evening was insanely windy and we often felt like we were going to be blown off the bridge and into the water!
We gave up just as the sun went down and headed back towards the parking lot. However, on the way we happened across a few tiny puppies and I couldn’t resist getting in there for a snuggle. How I haven’t caught fleas yet is an ongoing mystery.
The next day we flew back to Yangon. We were pretty wrecked after a big week of travel, so we decided to take a break from adventures and instead splurge on a beautiful luxury hotel.
For around $270 per night (or $135 per person) we scored an absolutely stunning room, access to an incredible pool, nightly happy hour drinks and the most incredible breakfast buffet I have ever seen.
We spent two incredible nights here and both of us were extremely reluctant to leave. However, we eventually had to leave Yangon and make our way back to Darwin. It was the perfect way to end an absolutely phenomenal week of travel.
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Belmond Governor’s Residence Yangon: This incredible 5* hotel is extremely good value and absolutely wonderful. Stays start at around $250 AUD per night
Ananta Bagan: Ananta is a fantastic value hotel in Bagan – it is even cheaper than a dorm!
Safety: Please note that travel to Myanmar is not just not possible at the present time, it is also completely unadvisable. The country is presently under military control – a situation that has been described as a ‘reign of terror’ – Myanmar is currently in a state of war and turmoil, now is not the time to visit. Please use this blog as inspiration for future travels, when Myanmar is once again being governed by a democratically elected government and reopened for travel.
Camera: Images captured with an Olympus OM-D E-M1 in conjunction with M.Zuiko 7-14mm f/2.8, M.Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8 and M.Zuiko 40-150mm f/2.8 lenses
Remember: Bring long pants and skirts as these are the most suitable clothing options when visiting temples and pagodas