Unveiling Burma – Saga Holidays Myanmar Tour Revisited

STE’s Holiday Editor, Tony Taylor, reports on his experiences on a 14 day Saga Holidays tour of Myanmar. Guest author, Charles Askew, reported on a similar tour two years previously; this article provides a different viewpoint.

Burma: Kathadow Pagoda in Mandalay
Kuthadow Pagoda in Mandalay

We were collected from our home and driven to Heathrow in a shared taxi, a service always included for Saga Holidays with a long haul flight. The flight time was twelve hours to Singapore, where we broke the journey for a three day stay.

Yangon the capital of Myanmar was just a further two and a half hours’ flight. (Myanmar was previously known as ‘Burma’ and Yangon as ‘Rangoon’ – the names were changed 30 years ago.)

We arrived at the Hotel Chatrium in Yangon at 11 am. This was our base for the next three nights. The afternoon was at leisure, with a welcome evening dinner at a local restaurant. As with all lunches and dinners on this holiday, food was included but drinks were extra. These were reasonably priced. Local beer cost about £2-4 (but up to £6 in hotels), local wine £2-4 and soft drinks £1-3.

Fast four-seater boat around Inle Lake
Fast four-seater boat around Inle Lake

Our first full day was filled with a tour of Yangon, starting with at Kandawgyi Park and Lake for a stroll and view of the enormous replica Royal Barge. We continued to the beautiful Botahtaung Pagoda, the first sacred hair relic pagoda. Etiquette requires that the shoulders and knees be covered, and that shoes and socks are removed. Easy to remove footwear is recommended and wet wipes were provided by the tour guide at each religious visit to clean your feet.

12th Century Pagoda in Dien
Inle Shwe Tain Pagoda in Dien

After tea and snacks in a local tea shop we visited St Mary’s Church and walked around a number of colonial buildings. Following lunch and a rest, we visited the spectacular Shwedagon Pagoda, the most revered temple in Myanmar, where we spent a couple of hours looking around and joining in an oil lighting ceremony.

On the next day, we took the local ferry across the Yangon River to Dala village. Here we were taken by rickshaw to the local market, followed by a visit to a candle-maker, a recycling enterprise and the monastery. Here we gave fruit to the children, who were being taught and looked after by the monks. After lunch we spent an hour or so looking around the market for souvenirs.

Mount Popa in Bagan
Mount Popa in Bagan

Saturday was an early start to catch the 8 am plane to Heho. A coach took us to the She Oo Min Cave, a rather different type of pagoda with Buddha statues in caves. We looked at the colonial railway station and a colonial house at this British Hill station. The two hour drive after lunch was broken by visits to a local market and a demonstration parasol-making by a local expert, a very efficient showman.

We had a very enjoyable full day trip in a fast four-seater boat around Inle Lake, with a several interesting stopping places. Highlights included visits to a local market, a traditional weaving centre and a cheroot production site. We encountered members of the Kayan tribe, who have long necks supported by brass rings. A one and half hour walk from the lakeside took us to the 12th Century Inle Shwe Inn Tain Pagoda at Dien.

Bagan Royal Palace
Thirizayabumi Palace in Bagan

The next day was at leisure and we chose to relax rather than take an optional tour. We walked to the local market and village of Khaung Daing, looking at local shops and viewing village life, before spending the afternoon relaxing at the lovely Pristine Lake Resort and Spa, our base for next three nights.

The next flight was 40 minutes to Bagan. On arrival we went to the Gubyaukgyi Temple with its walls covered with old murals (a torch is handy if you are not near the guide with a light) and then to a lacquerware workshop – good quality but expensive. After lunch we went up the Bagan Nan Myint Tower, which provided magnificent views over the whole area. That evening we had an uncomfortable 45 minute ride in a horse and cart, past many pagodas and stupas in an attempt to see a sunset, but it proved to be cloudy and misty.

Train journey to Gokteik viaduct
Train journey over the Gokteik viaduct

On Wednesday we travelled for one and half hours to Mount Popa. The 900 steps to the top were far less daunting than it sounds. It was well worth the effort for the excellent views and colourful pagoda at the top. After another good lunch we saw how palm toddy was made and also sampled it!

This was followed by the only other day at leisure. Again we decided against any optional tours, but did our own thing. After a leisurely breakfast we walked into old Bagan, visited the Thirizayabumi Palace, the lacquerware workshop and a museum before refreshments in the River View Hotel. In the afternoon we relaxed by the pool.

Stone carving in Mandalay
Stone carving in Mandalay

On the next day, after a short 25 minute flight to Mandalay, we were driven for two hours to Pyin Oo Lwin, a former British Hill station. After lunch we wandered round an enormous local market, before having a comfortable horse and cart ride through the town to the small Botanical Gardens. The evening here was much cooler, with the temperature the following morning being only 11C.

We found the next day’s scenic four hour train journey (upper class!) through the Shan Mountains and over the Gokteik Viaduct to be very enjoyable. The return trip was by coach, along the mountainous road with many hairpin bends. This supposedly three hour journey was prolonged at least an hour by roadworks and teak tree felling. Hence a stop at a strawberry and dairy farm for coffee/milkshakes was very welcome.

U Bein bridge
Teak wood U Bein Bridge

After the two nights at Pyin Oo Lwin, the two hour drive down to the Mahamuni Pagoda on the south of Mandalay left the chilly mornings behind. The journey was broken by a 15 minute stroll around a lovely large wholesale market.

After visiting the pagoda, we moved on to stone carving workshops showing the interesting, but very dusty production of small and large carvings. We then saw the world’s largest book, 728 sides of stone slabs, in the Kuthodaw Pagoda. An evening drive in a basic truck to the top of Mandalay Hill ended the day with a sunset view, although again mist somewhat spoiled the spectacle.

Nunnery in Sagaing
Nunnery in Sagaing

Our final full day included a tour to Sagaing. On route we stopped at the 1.2 km long teak wood U Bein Bridge, built over 160 years ago across the Taungthaman Lake. Walking over the bridge was quite an experience as it had no sides!

We were driven over the nearby Irrawaddy River by the new bridge, returning by the old one. Our next stop was a Nunnery where we watched the nuns chanting, collecting food from donors and dining. The day also included visits to a typical silk and cotton factory, an artisanal pottery and a bead production plant in a small village.

We found the two week tour to be very interesting but rather hectic; we would have enjoyed an extra day to relax/do our own thing in Mandalay prior to returning home. The Saga Holidays tour guide was excellent and the hotels very good. The temperature was generally a pleasant 30C and not too humid – it was very good to escape some of the cold 2018 winter weather in the UK.


Before travelling to Myanmar, please check the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website for travel advice.