Tim Foolery

Myanmar National Airlines Economy (HEH-RGN)

Our time in Myanmar had come to a close. The final portion of our trip would have Mike and I split from John and Ryan who would continue on to Mandalay, while we headed to Bangkok for 36 hours of luxury hotels and meals.  We all were flying out of Heho (the airport that serves Inle Lake) at around the same time.

We were taking a new airline for us, Myanmar National Airlines.  This state owned and flag carrier of Myanmar has 21 planes, with six more on order and serves 31 destinations in five countries (China, India, Singapore, Thailand and of course, Myanmar).  Most of their fleet is made up of various versions of the top wing mounted ATR 72.  They have a few Boeing 737s, two Embraer E-190s and even four Cessna 208 Caravans.  Our flight to Yangon was on a new ATR 72-600

Like our other intra-Myanmar flights, we arrived at the airport and our guide wandered off with our passports and our luggage. We stood around like confused tourists, because, well  we were confused tourists. Our guide returned with our boarding passes and we walked to the gate area. Several flights were leaving around our departure time and the various gates just led out to the tarmac. It didn’t matter which gate (really, just doors) you left from, you end up on a walkway plane side.

Myanmar National Airlines Check-In Area, complete with the dry erase departures board.

Asian Wings Check-In Area.

The rest of the terminal…

I love big walls of clocks for some reason. I love seeing what time it is in different parts of the world, wondering what people are doing in that given city at that exact moment. The big board of time in Heho was a little off…

The gate area at Heho had an old world LED Clock…what’s wrong with those times?

We boarded our plane, from the rear door and took our assigned seats. Like with our trips on Air KBZ, the aircraft door closed and we were moving without us even noticing. Not sure how a small prop plane like that can be so smooth and relatively quiet, but it was.

Some pretty great plane spotting at Heho Airport.

Our chariot from Heho to Yangon. Myanmar National Airlines ATR-72 600.

The plane was pretty new and wasn’t dirty and gross like many of United’s planes, especially the small quick hop planes for flights about an hour long. The flight to Yangon was about 40 minutes and as we passed about 10,000 feet, the flight crew jumped into service.

Interior Cabin of our ATR 72-600. Clean. New. Comfortable (for a very short haul).

Pretty abysmal pitch on this flight, but for the short time aboard, we survived.

We had a breakfast box with a pain au chocolat and a type of fruit cake. The chocolate croissant was typical airline fare and the cake had an odd, super sweet flavor – I had a single bite.

Breakfast box served on our extremely short flight.

Our carb-tastic breakfast pastries. The chocolate croissant wasn’t all that bad, but I think my expectations were pretty low based on this presentation.

As we come in for a landing, the flight attendants brought around baskets of pizza candy, which I initially thought would be some funky tomato or pepperoni flavored candy (it is Asia…), alas, it was just a hard candy shaped like a slice of pizza and flavored like fruit (or even cola).

Pizza candy was our pre-arrival snack.

It just looked like pizza, but tasted like chemicals…

We landed in Yangon, right on schedule and left the plane as quickly as we boarded it. The passengers for the next flight were chomping at the bit to board and get in with their journey.  Of course, they couldn’t do that until the ground crew in Rangoon replaced a shit ton of oil in the port engine. I am no airline mechanic, but this seems like a lot of oil (they weren’t changing the oil, they were adding oil).

After landing the ground crew came with a ton of oil for the engine…that doesn’t seem right to me.

In general, unwound have absolutely no hesitation in flying Myanmar National Airlines again. The service was quick and efficient (I would have been fine with no service, it was a 40 minute flight for God’s sake). The airplane seemed safe (except for maybe the oil issue, I found upon landing).  These flights throughout Myanmar are the only real way to get around the country when you are on a short vacation – you can’t waste all that time driving or taking the train that often has inexplicable delays.

Food of Myanmar

Myanmar is a country nestled between India, Thailand and China.  It is at a cross roads of culinary delight.  The textures, flavors and the spices (both from a flavor and a heat standpoint) of these three countries make them home to some of my favorite cuisines.  I knew nothing of Burmese food before we started planning this trip.  I had never been to a Burmese restaurant and come to think of it, I don’t believe I had even seen a Burmese restaurant in the United States.  I chocked that up to the isolationism of the totalitarian regime.  There were few refugees from Myanmar making it to the United States – the influx of Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s spurred the growth of Little Vietnams in various cities as well as expanding the American palate to embrace these non-American flavors including Vietnamese Fish Sauce, which you’d be hard pressed to find before the refugee influx.

Despite never eating Burmese food, I was extremely excited to have 10 days of basking in the culinary bliss that I just assumed would be an amalgamation of Indian, Thai and Chinese.  I was looking forward to trying curries filled with various types of protein (beef, pork, chicken…I wasn’t expecting the Burmese to have anything too exotic like dog or snake in their curries).  I figured we would switch between eating these great curry dishes to eating noodle soups, each with a varying level of spicy and flavor.

I was mistaken.

Well, that’s not 100% true.  We did eat curries with more traditional proteins (beef, pork and chicken). We did get noodles from time to time.  The food was not the heavenly blend of food from the three neighboring cultures.  It really was a relatively bland effort.  We tried different preparations of the food as we moved around the country and as we did, we would find a slightly different take on the same beef or fish curry.  Nothing I had wowed me. I didn’t create an ever lengthening list of things to try again or to track down back in the US.

That being said, we did have one dish that I really enjoyed and would order it again in a heartbeat, if I could find it again.  Shan Noodle is a dish from the Shan province in Myanmar.

A lunch buffet with numerous curries.

We went a little wild at the buffet.

My first Shan Noodle from 999 Shan Noodle.

A great shrimp spicy noodle dish served as breakfast at the airport.

A series of Burmese food.

I’m enjoying a Myanmar Beer, which was a staple lunch drink for me.

Chicken Curry wrapped in a banana leaf.

Grilled Spicy Fish.

The best meal in Myanmar, a Shan Noodle Family Recipe.

The chef/owner of Myat That Kavng Restaurant.

While we only had one meal that was bad (I think the beef had turned, but the hotel restaurant at the Pristine Lotus cooked with it anyway), most meals were bland, yet perfectly sustainable.  We weren’t able to find the flavorful food the locals eat.  Our guide, who was a local, said that we were indeed eating the local food, which was disappointing.  I was hoping we could find the Myanmar equivalent of the delicious peasant food of France or Germany or the wonderfully nuanced noodles the Vietnamese people eat.

One of the main goals for me, when traveling, is to explore the local cuisine. One of the main things I look for when planning a trip is the food. I was disappointed in that aspect of our trip to Myanmar.

What is your favorite dish from Myanmar?  Do you have a Burmese restaurant back home you like to visit?  Other than Shan 999 or Myat That Kavng where should I have eaten on my trip to Myanmar?

Favorite Places and the Resulting Lost Opportunity

One of the key benefits of travel is the ability to frequently try new things. One of the key detractors of travel can be the lack of consistency, lack of the known, the comfortable. When traveling, you can be met by newness every time you turn a corner. That newness, that unexpectedness is both the most exciting part and the most nerveracking part of travel.

When you find a place that you love, be that a restaurant with great food, a bar with excellent service, a bookshop with friendly and knowledgeable staff or a boutique that has the perfect gift, do you find yourself returning to that place time and time again when you visit that city? I do. When in LA, I visit The Lobster (Santa Monica) in Toronto, I dine at Barberian’s. When in Portland, we eat and drink at Departure. In New Orleans I always get an Absinthe from a dive bar abutting the cathedral. These are my go to places. They have special meaning to me and I love sharing these experiences with my travel companions.

The problem with these familiar places not only shines during travel, but while home. Every time you visit one of your regular haunts, you miss the opportunity to experience something new and magical. You feel comfortable, but you don’t push yourself to try something new.

We spent Memorial Day weekend in Paris (if you follow me on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or Google+ you already know that). We returned to Le Marais (4e Arrondissment), the same neighborhood we stayed in during our first visit in 2011. We stayed in a different hotel this time. We ate at different restaurants this time. Three of the four nights we were there, we stopped by a small cafe on Place Saint-Catherine and ordered a bottle of rosé. Each day we were in Paris it was over 30C each day, so a late night rosé was quite refreshing. We had the same server each night. Our final night we stroll up, take a seat on the Place and our server came up, took my hand and pulled me from a welcome handshake into a big bear hug. He asked, in French, if we would like a bottle of rosé tonight. He was welcoming. He was happy to see us. Yes, he was making money off of us, but he appreciated our loyalty.  We appreciated the sense of home despite the fact we were more than 6,600 kilometers from our actual home.  We will return to this cafe on our next trip to Paris.

Place de Vosge – Le Marais.

What are you missing? Does what you get from visiting the same place out weigh the possible opportunity for something better elsewhere? When you travel, what do you push for? Newness with each experience, or a level of comfort?

Sights a s Sites of Inle Lake

Inle Lake is a large fresh water lake in the Shan Province of Myanmar. The lake is quite shallow, only 1.5 meters deep in the dry season and 3.5 meters in the rainy season. Even during the dry season there are a ton of boats on the lake.  Locals use the lake not only for transport and for fishing, but they build these floating farms and grow dozens of types of produce.  We also saw locals harvesting nutrient rich soil from the bottom of the lake to use in the floating farms or on land as well.

We hopped in the boat, piloted by a local and our guide who had been with us since Yangon.  The shallow boats work perfectly in Inle Lake.  These boats are powered by small two stroke outboard engine with the propeller on the far end of a very long pole.  These engine cough out silver/purple haze and a loud chugging sound.

I don’t swim – I can’t swim.  Whenever I get into a boat, I’m always a bit nervous.  We were only a few inches above the surface of the water and I was fearful some of our less graceful travel companions may capsize the boat. I didn’t realize the lake was so shallow at this point.  The boats are actually quite stable, so you should have no fear when you take one.

The view across the lake to the mountains was beautiful.

A house on stilts sitting above a floating farm.

Our first stop during our cruise around the lake was for lunch and next to the restaurant was a Burmese Cat Sanctuary.  #PoorMissLilly, my 15 year old cat is part Burmese, so of course, I had to stop in and see these kitties.  They were all so affectionate and well behaved.

The cats at the Cat Rescue enjoying their lunch.

We continued on over the two days we spent on the lake visiting various temples, some of which were being restored by both foreign and domestic benefactors.  We visited a small shop where one could watch weavers create beautiful scarves, table clothes or other textiles.

A Kayan woman with the golden neck rings. I mistakenly thought those rings elongated her neck, but it actually just pushes the shoulders down. The rings can be released without harm.

Our boat cruising under a footbridge.

We visited a temple where worshipers would buy gold leafing and add it to some of the Buddha statues at the alter. After years of this practice, there were no features of the Buddha visible, they just looked like rough golden blobs.

Worshipers applying gold leafing.

We visited a market that sold everything from freshly caught fish, to vegetables brought down from the high country, to tourist gifts.

Long boat parking at the market.

This Shan woman, wearing traditional clothing, sells spices and vegetables.

I bought a couple of decorative souvenirs for myself and this woman wasn’t too keen with taking a pic with me.

We eventually visited one of the floating farms and learned more about how they were built – basically using the dead, hallow reeds from plants, that float on water, which are covered in dirt and fertile mud, plants are grown, harvested and the cycle continues.

Exploring the floating farms.

We stopped to watch the sunset on the lake one evening.  A fisherman, who obviously performs for tourists regularly, put on a show for us.  He demonstrated the techniques he and his colleagues use to catch fish and he also showed us his excellent balance.  The beauty of the sunset was really a highlight of this day.  The fisherman are quite talented – and have a much better sense of balance than I do!

A fisherman in the sunset.

Like in Bagan, the area around Inle Lake was being burned – both for agricultural benefits and just burning trash.  The smell was both sickening and sweet.  The haze added a bit of beauty to the landscape, but knowing that some of the smoke was poison (burning plastic), I felt sad and disgusted.

Our trip in and around Inle Lake was a nice way to close out our time in Myanmar.  It was beautiful, relaxing and a must see.  Have you been to Inle Lake?  What was the highlight of your trip?  Did you check out the cats?

Pristine Lotus Lodge Inle Make Region, Myanamar

Our third and final stop in Myanmar was in the Inle Lake Region.  We flew from Bagan to Heho then drove 45 minutes through winding hilly roads and reach the hotel, which straddles the road and abuts the lake itself. Our rooms were across the road from the lake, near the reception area, the restaurant and the spa.  Getting to the lake took just a couple minutes – the road you must cross is no more than 4 meters wide.

As we pulled into the circular drive, the bell staff were ready and waiting to help with luggage.  We headed up to the reception area to collect our keys and we were given cold watermelon juice and cold towels to help us recover from the commute.  The weather was much warmer at Inle Lake than we had experienced throughout the rest of the trip, but it was still cooler than we had anticipated. It was in the mid to high 30s (95F) and the sun was intense.

We were assigned room 2003, which was just a 2 minute walk from the he reception area. We were driven in a golf cart and our luggage was taken in a separate cart. Completely unnecessary, but a nice gesture.

Each room was in a separate lodge – ours was the one on the right.

The room was large with two twin beds-again, our request as someone snores… There was also a lofted area with another bed, we didn’t use this one of course.  Each bed had their own mosquito net and the room did have air conditioning, which worked quite well and cooled the room down quickly.

View from the loft of our two twin beds complete with mosquito netting.

The third bed, in the lofted area of our room.

There was a sunken living areas with a somewhat uncomfortable couch and chair. The TV didn’t work, but the channel guide showed about a dozen news channels, just like we saw at Bagan Lodge.  It would have been nice to watch the news as the Internet was excruciatingly slow and it would drop connection frequently.  I just wanted to keep up on the ACA news back, the London Attack and the Russian Election Interference Probe.  It is good to disconnect a bit though.  I do wish, if the Internet was that slow, they just wouldn’t offer Internet, it just causes me frustration when it is exceedingly slow.

The sunken living room with a pretty uncomfortable sofa.

The sunken seating area – looking out upon the first floor balcony.

The desk in the sunken living area was not used by us – 100% vacation mode here.

Off the living area there was a deck that looked towards the lake, but no lake view. On the deck there were two chairs which we used both days to do some writing and quiet reflection.

The four piece bathroom had a segregated WC, a single sink, a separate sunken tub and an open shower. The closet was also in the bathroom area.

The single sink basin and vanity sat opposite of the closet area.

The amenities were wrapped in hotel branded linen sacks.

The price list for the decorative items in the room. Not my cup of tea.

The closet was situated in the bathroom, but had enough room to store both of our suitcases.

The sunken bathtub – I figured I would step back and break my neck!

The open shower had consistently hot water – no frozen showers here!

The amenities were fine – mostly unneeded for us (toothbrush, hair dryer, sewing kit), but needed to check the boxes for the various hotel rating agencies.  The shampoo, body wash and lotion were in ceramic vessels. I didn’t like this. One, it was hard to get the right amount of shampoo out – I felt I was wasting so much of it. Two, I was afraid it would fall, shattering when it hits the floor and then subsequently slicing my feet. I prefer individual plastic bottles. That’s my personal preference.

I took breakfast in the hotel one day, which was included in our rate. They opted not to set the buffet, but allowed us to choose from the a la carte menu. I had French Toast, which was a little bland and a bit under cooked- very eggy.  The breads that were served were good and half the fruit was great. The watermelon was at the peak of ripeness, while the pineapple was mostly core and at least a week from being ripe.

We ate dinner at the restaurant once and it was awful.  Like most of the trip, we ate family style. The chicken curry was flavorless, which was head and shoulders better than the beef. The beef tasted like it had turned. I couldn’t put my finger on it exactly, but something was definitely wrong.  I started with the Tom Yum Soup, which had great flavor, but the vegetables were so large, you couldn’t eat them – each vegetable was at least an inch and a half long, which makes it difficult to spoon.  We left not hungry, but saddened.

We decided to visit the spa during our stay too. The hotel was running a special on a 60 minute Thai massage for 34USD. Yes, I know we could have schlepped into the neighboring town and got a cheaper massage, but about a fifty cents a minute, I’ll pay for the convenience.

I had a special massage (not like that!). I was escorted to the treatment room, which had a queen sized bed, no massage table, just a big bed.  I was given thin sweatpants and a t-shirt that was at least 3 sizes too small. The massuese was very small, but she was strong and used every portion of that bed.  She used physics to contort me into positions I hadn’t been in since I was in college!  At one point as she’s holding both my legs straight up in the air, I thought she was trying to get better TV reception – I was her antenna and she couldn’t get Judge Judy to come in clearly. After about five minutes of playing human windmill, she got back to the traditional Thai massage techniques.  She did a great job.

The hotel has a pool, which is across the street from the rest of the hotel amenities. We used the pool for a few minutes, but there weren’t enough umbrellas nor was there a bar, so it got hot and sober pretty quickly. We did spent a bit of time in the hot tub, which is filled daily from local hot springs. The first day they failed to fill it. The second day we spent about 45 minutes relaxing in the hot tub, with a cocktail. The hot tub is near a stagnant lagoon (at least when we were there), so it was very buggy.

The pool needed more umbrellas and a bar – or at least bar service from across the street.

The dock allowing guests access to Inle Lake via motorized long boat.

The bar had a standard drink menu, with a focus on local fruit drinks as well as classic cocktails (Negroni, Old Fashioned, etc.) and we’re priced at standard Myanmar Hotel Bar prices – between 4-5USD each.

While we didn’t choose this hotel ourselves, it was selected by our tour operator, I would definitely stay here again. The rooms are nicely appointed and comfortable, the amenities are higher end and the service was a bit slow, but genuine. Just don’t eat at the restaurant for dinner.

Have you been to Inle Lake? Where did you stay? What do you look for in a hotel on a Trekking vacation, like this? What amenities and a must have?