If you intend to enter any temple, and let’s face it, you’re in Myanmar so of course your going to go into a temple or two, you need to think about what you are going to wear. There are strict rules in place prohibiting footwear of any description when entering temples, including socks, so be prepared and wear footwear that you can walk around in for a long time but can also take off and put on easily. And don’t think you can get away with it because a temple appears to be deserted. Many of them, especially in the Bagan area, have family guardians who will enforce the rules. If you’re not used to this, it can be disconcerting walking around bare footed in an ancient temple that’s completely open to the elements, but you do get used to it quickly.
I ended up wearing either flip flops (thongs, jandels whatever you want to call them) and my old faithful converse trainers which got so wrecked I ended up binning them on the way home. Don’t even try to wear socks. It’s especially important to choose your footwear carefully in Bagan if you’re planning on temple hopping. The two most popular forms of transport to move between the thousands of temples are bicycle and E-Bike (an electric scooter/moped). If you’re not comfortable riding these, you’re likely to put your feet down whilst travelling (and even if you are comfortable, the ground is extremely sandy and rough), and this can be dangerous if you’re not wearing footwear that provides sufficient protection.
There are equally strict, although somewhat more vague, rules about what you wear above the feet. Most temples will require both men and women to cover their knees and wear tops which at least have a small sleeve (i.e. a t-shirt). My other half found that his knee length shorts were fine, however my above the knee shorts were not. Wearing trousers is an option but heat becomes an issue as South East Asia is hot and sticky especially when you are travelling from the rainy UK and not used to it. My thin, cotton, haream pants became my saviour on this trip (they also kept the mosquitoes off my legs), although on the hottest days I ended up wearing shorts. The best thing to do is either buy a Longyi or carry a wide scarf in your back pack so that you can wrap it round like a skirt when needed.
Speaking of back packs, having one is handy if you don’t want to leave your shoes at the temple entrance (although bring a plastic bag in which to put your shoes so as not to get dirt in your back pack) and to carry water, which you’ll need (there are small markets located near the largest and most popular temples where water and other drinks can be purchased). Some temples do have clothes you can loan whilst walking round if needed, there are also loads of locals selling ‘elephant pants’ this seemed to be a must have for any backpacker in South East Asia, I ended up buying a pair (even though I was not backpacking), and they were great.
Before going to Myanmar I was also concerned about offending the locals with my western clothing, particularly as a women in a fairly conservative country. I need not have worried, there were loads of people wearing shorts above the knee but not too short and vest tops, just don’t go too skimpy.
Travelling around Myanmar has become easier, and some would say safer, over the past few years as the number of tourists and domestic Airlines has grown. We travelled exclusively on Air KBZ flights throughout Myanmar, mainly because I could book online, from overseas, for flights almost a year in advance.
Flights in Myanmar operate more like buses. They continuously run a certain route and you may have to stay on the plane for several “stops” before you reach your destination. Therefore, it’s important you board the correct plane, which may not be labelled with your destination (remember that the flight stops at several airports but the boarding signs will only note one, check the flight number carefully), and that you get off the plane at the right airport.
We took a fairly typical route around Myanmar. Starting in Yangon (RGN) we first flew to Nyaung-U (NYU, serving the Bagan area), then to HeHo (HEH, serving Lake Inle), on to Thandwe (SNW, serving Ngpali) before returning to Yangon for an international connection. This may look like an inefficient route on the map, but it’s well served by the airlines and direct flights are available regularly along the various legs (meaning you don’t have to remain on the plane whilst other passengers board and unboard, along with their luggage, at other airports). Using well served routes also gives you some contingency for when, inevitably, flights are delayed.
Having spent a few days in Yangon we headed to Yangon Airport (RGN) for our first domestic flight to Nyaung-U airport (NYU), which serves the Bagan area.
At the time of flying, Yangon domestic terminal was housed in an older building next door to the brand new international terminal building. Check in was quick and efficient and it was the only flight for which we had printed board cards and seats allocated. We were also given a sticker each as once you have cleared security there are no departure boards. Instead, when a flight is due to board a member of the airline will walk around the departure lounge with the flight number written on a board, this is your cue to line up for boarding. There were a couple of occasions where some passengers had missed the call to board, this is where the stickers come in handy as each sticker identifies which flight you are due to be on. The ground crew simply walked around the departure lounge looking at the stickers to identify the tardy passenger. It was also reassuring to see other passengers with the same sticker as you still in departures – if you’re the only one left with your colour sticker, you’ve probably missed your flight. We had quite the collection of stickers by the end of the trip.
The ground crew also manually transported checked bags to a small cart for loading on to the aircraft – no luggage belts here! The flight was delayed by about 20 minutes which was not a huge issue but a bit of an annoyance and added to the sense of uncertainty surrounding boarding.
All of the planes were ATRs of various ages (propeller powered aircraft), but none were so old I was worried and all appeared well maintained. The crew were friendly, efficient and spoke moderately good english. Even though the flight was only 1 hour 20 minutes we were served a meal, which was a tasty fish paste roll along with a boiled sweet for landing and a slice of cake. The aircraft are single class, all economy, and the ticket cost approximately £100 per person.
Baggage collection in Bagan was basically a room to which some porters bought the baggage on trollies then put in the middle of the room for people to collect. When you exit the baggage claim area right next the the exit of the terminal is a desk where you are required to buy a Bagan Archaeological Zone pass for 25,000 Kyats per person.
The next flight we took was to HeHo (near Lake Inle) from Nyaung-U (NYU to HEH). Check in here was again very efficient, this time the luggage is weighed on a scale and a tag placed on the bags which are then stacked together in front/next the the check in desk, it felt a bit weird to do this especially if you are used to belts whisking away your luggage, that said we never had an issues. Again you collect your sticker and boarding card – this time it’s a hand written card as seen in the picture. The departure lounge in Nyaung-U is basic but air conditioned. There was little to no information available in the departures lounge and in fact our flight was 45 minutes late, with no communication from the airline to inform us of this. Once we were eventually up in the air we were again, despite the short flight time, provided a snack in the form of a a pastry. The cost of the flight was approximately £80 per person.
Heho is the nearest airport to Lake Inle, which deserves a separate post, so look out for it. The drive from Heho to the hotel (Sanctum Inle) was about 1 hour and 15 minutes. We arranged transport through the hotel, which attracted a premium but took the hassle out of finding a taxi. On arrival we also had our first experience of immigration (even though this was a domestic flight) which was quick and efficient given the relatively small number of passengers.
After a few days in Lake Inle our next destination was Ngpali, a beach resort. We flew in to Thandwe Airport (SNW), about a 15 to 20 minute drive from the beach where all the hotels are located. Check in again was efficient and similar to that at Nyaung-U. Departure at HeHo was a little more chaotic, there were a number of airlines with flights departing within minutes of each other meaning the departures lounge was busy and overcrowded. Our flight was delayed by about 30 minutes and again there was little information available. Due to the number of flights leaving at the same time I found you had to be especially vigilant to ensure you didn’t miss the call to board. You can see from the video how boarding works.
The flight from Inle to Ngpali (HEH to SNW) cost approximately £95 per passenger.
Again despite the short flight time we were provided with a small snack, this time a pastry with some kind of egg cake. Once we arrived in Thandwe we again had to go through immigration, this time with a longer queue. Bagage collection in Thandwe was interesting and were it not for the driver our hotel provided I would never of guessed you have to leave the main building, turn left, walk 50 metres, and collect your bags from a gate next to the carpark. You can see in the below photo where luggage collection is – it’s not marked or sign posted in anyway so far as we could see.
Our final Domestic flight in Myanmar was the one that caused me the most concern. We had an international flight connection to make in Yangon and given the accuracy of departure times I had experienced so far, I was worried we might miss it. As such the day before we were due to fly I decided to move my flight an hour earlier, having no idea how well the KBZ customer service would be I chose to book the earlier flight using the website, then email to KBZ to cancel the original booking and get a refund. KBZ customer service was very efficient and replied almost immediately to confirm the cancellation and the 75% refund (which arrived in my bank account 2 weeks later – a hit I was willing to take to ensure the international connection). Thandwe airport is fairly new and there was building work still being carried out. There is a two story departure area here with a balcony upstairs however most passenger stayed downstairs as this was where the call to board was made. Again despite the short flight time we were provided with a snack this time a chicken sausage in a roll and a cake. This flight cost approximately £95 per person.
The flight was again late in departing but my new booking would now allow us 3.5 hours between landing in Yangon domestic terminal and departing to Bangkok from the international terminal. When we arrived in Yangon airport late and waited what seemed like an age to collect our luggage I was glad we changed the flight time – I would recommend leaving more time than you would normally for connections due to the unreliability of the flights and inefficiencies in baggage collection in Myanmar. Once we had our luggage we then had to find the way to the correct part of the international terminal, a helpful taxi driver hoping to pick up some passengers knew exactly where we needed to go (out of the domestic arrivals building, turn left) and pointed it out to us. It was a 2 minute walk and once you are on the path its pretty hard to get lost.
Overall my experience of domestic flights in Myanmar was a positive one, yeah you can pretty much guarantee every flight will be delayed by some amount of time (every single one of our flights was delayed) but it allowed us to travel great distances in a very short time meaning we made the most of the time we had available in the Country. Do I think we missed out of seeing the world pass us by on a train or bus, maybe, but if you have the budget and are limited by the time you’re spending in the country, I would absolutely recommend flying.
Before travelling to Myanmar I had read that getting cash may be an issue, that the country was moving away from the US dollar and trying to increase the use of Kyats (pronounced similar to “chat”). As we were travelling around South East Asia we took bunch of crisp US Dollars (USD) to both spend and exchange when we arrived in countries with closed currencies. On arrival at Yangon airport (international terminal) there is a row of currency exchangers right outside arrivals with various different rates on show in the windows relating to different currencies. I chose the one with the best and duly asked for the amount I wanted. Now this is the important bit if you have new (the ones with the blue strip down the middle), pristine, dollar bills of higher values (i.e. $100) you will get a better exchange rate. The exchange rate I got at the airport using my shiny new $100 bills was the best I saw in my entire time in the country. I also took bunch of smaller bills which I didn’t exchange to use as well.
So how much kyat do you need? Well we stayed in fairly good hotels which were all pre booked through Agoda. You can guarantee a booking without having to pay until a couple of days before your check in date and the cancellation policies are also pretty good if your plans change, which ours did. As these were all paid for through Agoda I didn’t have to worry about carrying the cash to pay for my accommodation. There were a couple of hotels I had booked direct and all of them took either VISA or Mastercard credit cards with a small fee (about 2-3%), as I said these were all fairly good hotels so I am not sure what others would be like. The only thing I therefore needed cash for was local transport, food, souvenirs etc. When I ate at the hotels or booked something though them they always wanted USD and weighted the exchange rate to Kyat to encourage the use of USD (anywhere from 10 to 30%), however when we were out and about at local restaurants, or in markets, the use of either Kyat or USD was accepted although I always got the impression the USD was preferred even by the locals.
Notwithstanding the above, most foreigners have to pay to enter temples or the reservations at Inle and Bagan and for these, Kyat was the currency of choice.
Transport was cheap, with a taxi ride across Yangon costing around £2. Food varied depending on the sort of restaurants you frequent. You could easily pay £30+ for a meal for two in a decent hotel. Meals in local restaurants were a fraction of that and two people can easily eat and drink for less than £10. The usual warning apply to eating in, and booking things through, hotels. A car from the airport to the hotel cost roughly four times more than a local taxi in Yangon, but you might want to take this option when first arriving for the sake of convenience.
I didn’t actually use all the cash I had with me but there were ATMs in almost every hotel I stayed in and there were a few dotted around in the bigger towns. In terms of my credit card working in Myanmar, I tested all of mine which included MasterCard (with Lloyds Bank), VISA (with Barclay card), my other half also used his HSBC VISA with no issues. American Express was not accepted.
If you do end up with some leftover Kyat when leaving Myanmar you can change it back to USD (at the slightly worse rate) at Yangon airport however you must do this before you go through security. When you are air side there are no currency exchange booths the only way to get rid of it is to spend it in the remarkably well stocked duty free with an exchange rate weighted to discourage you. I found myself in this exact position but luckily needed to replace my sunglasses so was only left with a few souvenir notes and enough for a bizarre Burger King.
It feels a little bizarre to recommend visiting a fish market as a tourist, but Tsukiji Market (aka Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market) in Tokyo is worth the visit. It’s the biggest fish market in the world, and one of the largest wholesale food markets of any type, anywhere. It’s a sprawling complex on the banks of the Sumida River in the Tsukiji area of Tokyo and is a hustling, bustling trade hub.
There are a few things you should know if you plan on visiting.
Get there quickly
Despite a fair amount of opposition, it’s looking like the fish market will be moving away from Tsukiji in late 2016. If you want to see it as it is now (highly recommended), go now before it’s too late.
Get there early
If you’re planning on seeing the daily auctions (and you should plan to do this, this is the main attraction), get there very early. Visitors are split in to two separate groups of 60 people each. The first group will enter the market at around 5:30 with the second visiting at around 6. The official website says registration starts at 5am, but it actually starts much earlier and you will almost certainly miss out if you arrive at 5. Registration consists of being given a coloured vest. Once all the vests are gone, there’s no more space. You cannot reserve a space in advance. My recommendation, and it’s what I did, was to visit on your first day in Japan. I was jet lagged enough that I was awake anyway, so it wasn’t too big a pull to get up at silly o’clock. If you do this, be sure to plan for a power nap at some point in the day, because you’re body is probably going to take one regardless of whether you plan for it or not (I fell asleep on the underground, which I have habit of doing).
A lot of the guides I read before hand recommended getting there for 4am. I’d aim for 3:30 am at the latest to get in the first group. We got there shortly before 4 and were in the second group. You will have to wait in quite a cramped waiting room once your registered but feel free to sit on the floor. There are also toilets outside (head right out of the door, then right again at the road and the public toilets are just before the bridge). After registering I actually wandered around the area for 30 minutes or so.
Know where you’re going
Embarrassingly, we found it a little difficult to locate the registration area. Our taxi dropped us off on Shin-Ohashi-Dori, which is where the market is. It is not, however, where you need to go to register. To register, head to the building marked on the map below. There are signs, but your best bet is to look for the large group of very tired looking people wearing bright waistcoats.
Once you arrive, you are given a multi-lingual information sheet that includes a map of the whole complex. It’s handy, but perhaps a little too late if you’ve already struggled to find the reservations building. You can download a similar sheet on the official website though.
If you want breakfast, be prepared to queue
Getting a delicious fresh fish (sashimi) breakfast at the market seems like an obvious choice. Be warned though, the queues for the more popular eateries can be two hours plus immediately following the auction. If you’re ordering something, definitely go for the fatty tuna sashimi.
If you’re looking for something else to do after the market, Ginza isn’t too far away and is a good place for a bit of shopping therapy.
Be aware that this is primarily a functioning market
The tourist aspects of the market are secondary. This is primarily a functioning market where people earn their living. As such there are some strict rules which are enforced. Read up on these rules before visiting, otherwise you will not be granted entry. Also be aware that you have to walk through large parts of the wider market to get to the auction room and you will encounter vehicles moving quickly through the area. It’s also going to be dark at the time you’re there, so be careful, follow the instructions of the guards and stay with the group.
One other thing to be aware of is that when you’re in the auction room it’s quite a tight squeeze and you need to make some space for yourself. You’re also going to see a lot of dead fish, if you’re squeamish about such things, this may not be for you.
Enjoy the experience
The video above contains some scenes from the market, both inside the auction room and the surrounding area. The auction is remarkable to watch. It’s fast moving, completely unintelligible for those uninitiated in fish auctions (and those who don’t speak Japanese) and fascinating. You can also spot the buyers examining the large tuna that constitute the day’s catch and doing deals all over the complex.
The fish themselves are impressively huge, and there’s a lot of them. There’s also a frenetic energy around the place and interesting things happening everywhere. It’s hard to follow what’s going on, but it doesn’t really matter. I’d recommend walking around some of the small shops inside the larger market complex after seeing the auction to see what the restauranteurs are doing with the catch you just saw being sold as well as to see some unique things for sale. You can also catch a peak in to some of the working areas in the market, which is very interesting.
If you’re in the Kyoto area, it’s well worth the short train journey to Arashiyama. Using your JR Rail Pass, it’s about 15 minutes from Kyoto arriving in to Saga-Arashiyama Station on the Sagano Line. We stayed in central Kyoto near Karasuma so it was a quick trip on the Tozai line to Nijo Station and then the Sagano line to Saga-Arashiyama, about 25 minutes total.
Arashiyama is a fairly touristy area and can get quite busy. However, there are a few reasons that make the trip worthwhile.
Probably most famous of all the attractions in Arashiyama is the Bamboo grove. I was a little surprised when I arrived at the bamboo grove (less than a ten minute walk from the station that’s well signposted). Most of the photos you see show the grove as a relatively calm, quiet place. This does not match my experience. Despite the photos, it was really busy. Whilst I’d heard this might be the case, I wasn’t expecting there to be taxis driving along the road you’re on as you walk through the grove. The further you walk though, in general, the quieter it gets.
Do make sure you walk right to the end though, not least because it’s the entry to the next attraction.
Okochi Sanso (Ōkōchi Sansō) Villa & Gardens
This is one of the more overlooked gems in Arashiyama, and was relatively quiet on the day we visited (I suspect because of the roughly 1000 yen entry fee). Okochi Sanso Villa is a collection of buildings and gardens originally built over a number of years by famous Japanese actor Okochi Denjiro. The buildings aren’t accessible but the gardens are worth the entry price alone. Especially in autumn, which is when we visited.
The gardens are separated in to different types of arrangements, including moss gardens, trees, shrines and a tea garden (the entry fee includes a cup of tea). What’s impressive is how the paths are crafted to reveal different parts of the gardens to visitors.
It isn’t all about the gardens though. As you meander your way through the property you are, at various points, presented with wonderful views of Kyoto. Again, stunning in the autumn when the colours are out.
Iwatayama Monkey Park
Visiting the monkey park is not for the faint of heart. The visitor centre is approximately 160m up (160m elevation, you’ll be walking further) a steep, twisting path that has to be walked (there’s no other way up). On a hot day, it’s quite a challenge. Depending on your fitness level and the weather, you’re looking at a hike of between 20 and 45 minutes. There are two routes, one of which is steeper but shorter, and another which is longer but less steep.
As you can see from some of these images, the path isn’t necessarily well maintained either. In some parts it’s quite overgrown and most of it is uneven. You’re fortunate if you’re walking on a section with a handrail (although most of the really steep sections do have handrails). There are some wonderful views of Kyoto though.
It’s also important to manage your expectations when arriving at the park itself. The visitor centre is little more than a shed with a small shop and toilets. You can purchase food to feed the monkeys for around 100 yen, but you have to feed them from within the building, you are not permitted to take the food outside with you. These are wild animals after all, and I can imagine it being quite uncomfortable were they to round on someone they believed to be carrying food. There are warning posted around the area to this effect advising you to avoid eye contact (although I don’t know what “Don’t put a load on outside” means!). I did receive a warning from one of the monkeys who gently punched me on the leg, but I’m unsure what my indiscretion was!
What’s remarkable about the Monkey Park is that there are monkeys everywhere. You have to be careful walking around so as to not step on one. Even when you’re walking up to the park (and back down again) there are monkeys in the trees above you. You can hear them, and see them. It really does feel rather wild at times. There are regular feedings performed by the staff in the park which brings out even more monkeys that were previously hiding in the trees.
Thankfully the walk down is much easier. If you’re a fan of wildlife (I’m told there are rare birds in the area as well), it’s a worthwhile visit.