Sunday, March 22, 2009

Inle Lake: Oasis of Culture

View from a wooden stilt house on Inle Lake.

Floating villages. They're the main attraction of Inle Lake, a required stop on any Myanmar itinerary. The lake isn't just a body of water. To residents, it means transportation, food and economy.

Boatmen collecting seaweed
Boatmen collecting seaweed on Inle Lake
(Click on photo for full album)
I took a boat tour with some travelers from my hotel, Queen Inn. Jeroen and Keetie were from the Netherlands. Their great travel stories got me interested in visiting another country I hadn't considered before.

My favorite moment was as our motorboat entered the floating villages. A chorus of "Hello!" came from everywhere. Young children ran up, excitedly shouting to us from their wooden stilt houses and boats.


A warm welcome from youngsters

The majority of places we visited were craft workshops. Sadly, the Inle Lake workshops were the only blatantly touristy venues I encountered in Myanmar. Everywhere else in the country, the attractions felt more genuine.

At Inle Lake, a lot of the establishments seemed set up to sell stuff to travelers. The promises of "I give you good price!" could have happened in any country in Asia.

Jeroen and Davina
Jeroen (Netherlands) and Davina (Australia) chat outside the shop.

One example was this silversmith. When we first entered, the shop floor was abuzz with activity: silversmiths assembling jewelry, pumping fire under hot coals, etc. The guy with the best English explained what each artisan was doing, then he hustled us into a gift shop.



I sneaked back to the shop floor 5 minutes later. All the "silversmiths" were gone, probably chewing betel nut or having a smoke. Busted! Total scam.

One of the most famous attractions at Inle Lake is the "Jumping Cat" monastery. The prevailing theory was the monks got so bored of meditation and isolation that they trained cats to jump on command.


For someone expecting a circus-style act with lions leaping through flaming hoops, the jumping cats were a bit anticlimactic. Walking around looking at the Buddha statues was more rewarding.

Speaking of circus acts, we went to see the long-necked women. They're of the Padaung Hill Tribe. A Russian girl I'd met said you could also see long-necked women in Mae Hong Son in northern Thailand. They're the ones who escaped from Myanmar.

I don't know, it just felt strange to watch women with abnormally long necks while they did weaving. A saleswoman explained that long necks were a symbol of beauty in their tribe. They start young, and add more rings to their necks as they get older.



Strangely enough, the youngest long-necked girl kept staring at me as I took photos. (She's the one on the far right in the second photo). It was like she thought I was the exotic, interesting person.

Our last stop was a cigarette-making plant. All the cigarettes were hand-rolled by women, some of them young girls.



This was the only workshop that felt real. I commented to other travelers, "It gives you the feeling that they were working before we arrived, and they'll keep working after we leave."

Jeroen, one of the Dutch backpackers, set out to calculate how much a cigarette girl earned in one day. They got paid 2 kyat (US$0.002) per cigarette. If a girl made 1,000 in one day, she could make US$2. That's depressing.

A good day's work

On a more positive note, Myanmar's infamously small travel world worked its magic again. In Yangon, I'd met a group of cool French and Belgian backpackers at the Shwedagon Paya. We were supposed to meet up in Mandalay next, but I wasn't able to get a plane ticket.

While I was wandering around Nyaungshwe (the gateway city for Inle Lake), I ran into the group! We caught up on each other's travels and arranged to have dinner together at the Golden Kite Restaurant.

Their laughter, conversation and bubbling energy were fun to be around. It reminded me why I travel.

French and Belgian backpackers
Hanging out with the French-Belgian crew at Golden Kite Restaurant.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Mandalay: City of Kings


Mandalay Palace complex
(click on photos for full album)

Myanmar consistently defied my expectations. After experiencing the outdated infrastructure and basic facilities in Yangon and Bagan, I expected more of the same in Mandalay.

Instead, I got a booming, modernizing city. Mandalay was close to China, and it was flourishing from trade with the mainland. Myanmar provided raw materials, like gas and jade. In return, China sold manufactured goods (and probably military hardware).

Everywhere I looked, Mandalay seemed like the "new cities" I'd seen sprouting all over China. Giant warehouse stores, shop stalls selling household products, and lots of trade going on. The people even had more fashionable clothes. It was like a mini-Shanghai in Myanmar.

Running into the same travelers over and over in Myanmar is virtually guaranteed. Everyone goes to the Big 4: Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake. Add to this recipe is that fewer travelers go to the country in the first place and visas are only valid for 28 days. During my trip, I'd constantly encounter familiar faces.

This is welcome, since staying in touch while in Myanmar is impossible. SIM cards are overpriced, and Internet connections are pretty bad. I couldn't work on my blog the whole time I was in the country, because it would have taken ages to upload the photos.

The lack of communications forced me to be really old-school in arranging meet-ups with travelers. While in Yangon, I'd become good friends with Stephan, an expat from Quebec who ran a trading business in Thailand. Later, we met up in Bagan and had dinner. Since we were both going to Mandalay next, it was inevitable that we should try to meet.

"How about we stay at the same hotel?" I suggested.

"Okay. I think Royal City Hotel is good," Stephan said.

"All right, let's both stay there," I said.


"Wait!" I said. "What if it's full? We should decide on a backup hotel. If we can't stay at Royal City Hotel, at least we'll both go the same second choice."

"Oh, right!" Stephan looked at the guidebook for a moment. "How about the Silver Swan Hotel?"

"Then it's settled. Royal City first, then Silver Swan," I declared.

Stephan took the Bagan-Mandalay ferry, while I opted to fly with Air Bagan (it has shady connections, but what doesn't in this country?).

Neither of us wanted to take our chances on buses. In Myanmar, the bus trips are long (20+ hours) and over some of the worst roads in Asia. One Canadian girl complained, "The roads here are even worse than Mongolia!"

Upon arriving at the Royal City Hotel, I set about tracking down Stephan.

"Excuse me, did my friend arrive yet?" I asked.

"Where is your friend from?" the Burmese receptionist asked.

"He's from Quebec, Canada," I said.

The receptionist ran her finger down the guestbook. Then she stopped at a name. "Ah! Is your friend a little . . . ?" She gestured with her hands to indicate someone overweight.

"Yeah!" I said excitedly. "That's him!"


Stephan and I rolling up into the Mandalay Night Market

Since Stephan got to Mandalay a day before me, he had already seen a lot. We talked over dinner at BBB about the sights. He favored seeing Mandalay Palace over the Mandalay Hill.

My first impression was that the palace reminded me of the Forbidden City in Beijing. A massive walled city-within-a-city. The main difference was that the Mandalay Palace felt more overtly militaristic. Lots of soldiers around, because the complex housed an army barracks.

Although Myanmar was ruled by a harsh military regime, it wasn't really evident when I walked around the country. Labor camps and detention centers were hidden from public view. Mandalay was the first place where I felt the government's iron fist.

Just outside the palace on the highway, I saw this propaganda billboard.

Propaganda billboard
(Click to enlarge)

That was the sort of thing I expected to see if I visited North Korea. Myanmar is a bit freer with tourists, compared to the DPRK. I didn't have to travel on a package tour (shudder) and have a government chaperone accompany me at all times.

Certain areas, like Shan state, are off-limits to tourists because the government is waging a war against ethnic minorities who seek autonomy and even outright independence. The Karens are a prime example.

One of the big differences between Mandalay Palace and the Forbidden City is that there is a thriving town inside it. There's an entire community that lives within the walls of the palace. As I strolled toward the old complex, I passed women washing clothes, cooking food and people pedaling on bicycles. Like other places I visited in Myanmar, there wasn't a strict division between the community and the tourist site.

In the complex itself, the palace buildings were grand, in that uniquely Southeast Asian aesthetic of vivid colors and gold-leaf trim. I'd seen similar architecture in Thailand and Laos.


A couple of bright white sugar-cubed buildings stood out. They seemed more like something I'd see in Greece (for example Santorini), not in Southeast Asia.


The most interesting thing happened to me as I was walking on the long road to exit the complex. Familiar sounds started wafting to my ears. As I got closer to an intersection, I recognized it: hip-hop music.

But where was it coming from? I turned my head and tried to walk toward the sound. Then my eyes fell on two soldiers sitting down on the sidewalk at the intersection. An old stereo was at their feet. They were listening to the rapper spinning his rhymes, while they smoked and had no expression on their faces. The music was in English! From America!

When one of the soldiers looked at me, I spun away quickly and picked up my pace. Didn't want to get into trouble in a country like this.

Still, I couldn't help but feel a little hopeful. In spite of economic sanctions, international isolation and a xenophobic government that tried to block all foreign influences, something had slipped through. Even a brawling military junta can't keep down the renegade street beats!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Bagan: A Shot to the Temple


Sunset at the ancient city of Bagan
(click on photo for full album)

"The roads are bad, the food is worse, and you'll get sick," said an NGO worker I knew who had worked in Myanmar.

Travel isn't travel unless things go wrong. So far, I'd managed to dodge food poisoning, tropical diseases, bad weather and political upheaval. But my luck finally ran out in Myanmar.

A cool Singaporean girl had invited me to take the "circle train" with her. It's a train that goes around the whole of Yangon at a snail's speed, a 3-hour trip. But I was eager to hang out with her.

Then on my last day in Yangon, I was racked by body cramps, aching bones and vomiting. The scary part was that I didn't know what I had. Talking to other travelers only made it worse, they said I could have had anything from malaria to dengue fever. Better to get an expert opinion.

The reception at my guesthouse recommended a local hospital, because it would be cheaper. Fearing a doctor would just cut out my kidneys to sell on the black market, I took a taxi to an international hospital instead. Sometimes it's wiser to spend the extra money. The peace of mind is priceless.

Gene, an American traveler, kindly offered to accompany me. I wrote out my mother's contact info for him, just in case I suddenly keeled over. He laughed and said I'd be fine.

The Burmese physician, who had gone to medical school in the United States, carefully examined me.

"Ah, you have the heat exhaustion," Dr. Zayyar said.

"You're sure it's not food poisoning?" I asked nervously.

He chuckled. "If you had the food poisoning, you still vomit and defecate." The doctor prescribed oral rehydration salts, electrolyte powder, lots of water and the standard "plenty of rest."

I hobbled back out to the street and grabbed a taxi to my guesthouse. Heatstroke was manageable, I thought. It's those mosquito-borne diseases and food poisoning that are really nasty.

"Where were you?!" Yingshi asked, when she saw me eating noodles in the dining hall. "I waited for you for like 20 minutes."

"I'm so sorry!" I babbled. "I got heatstroke and I was out in bed the whole day."
Fortunately, she understood and we chatted about her day for a while. Talking to fun girls is one of life's pleasures, but the heatstroke made it miserable. Just moving my mouth to form words was exhausting.

Having heatstroke was bad enough, but being forced to cancel a date was really humiliating. I've been left hanging by girls in the past, and I hated having to stand up someone as cool as Yingshi.

The worst part was that I had to go to Bagan the next day, I'd already booked my flight. An English friend had warned me about the terrible state of Myanmar's roads, and she said it was worth the higher expense to fly.

Heatstroke made me extremely irritable. I couldn't be bothered to do the smallest tasks, and it was like I hated the whole world. Have you ever been in so much misery that you were pissed off at anyone who was happy?

Nobody would leave me alone! Guys would constantly invite me to hang out, girls would smile and stop to chat. It was awful, I just wanted them all to go to hell. Maintaining my poise was difficult. Later, when they found out I had heatstroke, people said they were surprised that I could be so cheerful and energetic.

The smart thing to do was simply go back to Bangkok and recover in civilization. But I'd been wanting to visit Myanmar for 3 years, ever since I saw a photo of the Shwedagon Paya in a guidebook. And I'd invested so much in plane tickets, visas and vaccine shots that I couldn't just quit.

I'd like to think it's because I have supreme willpower, but it was more likely a combination of stubbornness, ego, and sheer male stupidity that I kept on going. At that point, I hated failure more than I hated heatstroke.

Somehow, I dragged my ass to the airport and got on the plane, even though I felt like I was on the verge of collapse. There was a very fashionable girl in the seat next to me. She could have been a really rich Burmese girl or a middle-class Thai. She had the dark sunglasses and white fur coat of the glitteratti. Normally, I'd try to strike up a conversation. Instead, I aimed for the more modest goal of not puking on her.

When I checked into my hotel in Nyaung U (the gateway city to Bagan), I bought a big bottle of water and went straight to my room. I drank the water with an electrolyte solution and slept the whole day. After 2 days of rest, I had fully recovered. But then I got diarrhoea, confining me to the room for a third day. Being sick sucks!

For transportation to the Bagan temples, I rented a horsecart and driver for the day. It cost 10,000 kyat (US$10). I got lucky that my driver wasn't a motormouth who constantly explained every temple to me. As we pulled up to a new one, he'd give a succinct introduction, like, "This is the only Indian temple in Bagan" or "This is the tallest temple in Bagan." I prefer to explore on my own and take photos, rather than listen to a verbal textbook all day.

In another topic, I've never walked barefoot as often as I have in Myanmar. In Laos, sometimes I had to take off my shoes to enter temples and even shops. But in Myanmar, the entire temples and the surrounding grounds are off-limits to footwear. Flip-flops are a must. Otherwise, it's a hassle to always have to slip off your shoes.

This became a problem, because Myanmar is really hot and dry. In the middle of the day, the stone floors can be scorching. When I was walking around outside the Ananda Pahto, Bagan's most famous temple, I tried to stick to the shaded areas. Whenever I came across a wide space in the blazing sun, I'd run across as fast as I could, cursing the whole way: "Fuck fuck fuck! My feet are getting fried!"

Ananda Pahto
Ananda Pahto Temple

While I was wandering around the Ananda Pahto, a Burmese man came up to me and told me to stand in a certain position with the temple behind me. Confused, I thought I'd broken some rule about visiting temples. Once I was standing in the right place, he called to a group of Burmese girls. They excitedly took turns standing next to me, while the man took photos of us!

Acting like a star with a random Burmese girl

My white friends who've lived in China and Japan have told me this had happened to them. But I've never experienced it, because of my Asian appearance. It's the first time I had that celebrity treatment for just being a foreigner. Or did they mistake me for a Burmese film star?

Bagan is one of Myanmar's biggest attractions, so any tourist will face a gauntlet of people trying to sell them postcards, paintings, etc. It wasn't as bad for me, because I can pass for a local sometimes. But some of the white tourists I saw seemed harassed and weary of the constant haggling.

My favorite sight was the Dhammayangi Temple.


Unfortunately, it was the also the worst for dealing with touts and vendors. From the moment I stepped through the entrance, I was bombarded with offers to buy souvenirs. Young children would offer to give me "tours," but their only real service was carrying a flashlight to guide me through dark corners. I had brought my own flashlight, so I didn't need them.

Luckily, an Indian tour group came in after me, so the vendors abandoned me for riper pickings. Now I was free to wander without interference.

If you love to climb and explore, Bagan is paradise. There are lots of hidden stairways and tunnels all over the place. But the stairways are often really narrow. I'd have to squeeze my shoulders in and walk sideways to get through the stair entrance doors. I joked to my driver, "Were Burmese people really that small back then?" He laughed and nodded.

After a grueling day of walking in the hot sun and listening to endless sales pitches, I was ready to go home. I got into the horsecart and asked the driver how many temples I'd seen. He counted in his head, then said, "Thirteen!" When you've seen that many, even the Buddhas start to look the same.

Buddha in Thatbyinnyu Paya
Golden Buddha at Thatbyinnyu Paya

The sun was setting as my horsecart clip-clopped away from Bagan. Then I saw a cool temple in the distance.

Buledi Temple a.k.a. Temple 394

"Stop!" I said to the driver. Pointing, I said, "Take me there!"
He looked in that direction. "That temple not famous!" he protested.

"Never mind, just go," I ordered.

Later, I found out that it was called the Buledi Temple (a.k.a. Temple 394). Excitedly, I climbed up the steps toward the top.

Once at the peak, I walked around the corner to where the sun was setting. Awesome.


I saw down to appreciate the view. I overcame heatstroke, diarrhoea and every tout in Bagan for this. Totally worth it.

But I couldn't help feeling a bit sad. Sunsets are best when they're shared.

"Well, look who's here," said a feminine voice.

Surprised, I turned around. "Yingshi!"

"Hey! Good to see you," she said.

"When did you get in?" I asked.

"I just arrived on the bus from Bago," Yingshi said.
"Perfect timing," I said, smiling.

Yingshi from Singapore
Yingshi (Singapore)

Friday, March 13, 2009

Yangon: Stepping into Burma

"Then, a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon - a beautiful, winking wonder that blazed in the sun of a shape that was neither Muslim dome nor Hindu temple spire. It stood upon a green knoll. 'There's the old Shwedagon,' said my companion. The golden dome said, 'This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about.'"
--Rudyard Kipling, Letters from the East (1898)

Monks stroll past the Shwedagon Paya
(click on photo for full album)

"Myanmar? Where's that?"

This was the response I got from many backpackers, when I told them I was going to Myanmar (a.k.a. Burma). If I thought Laos was obscure, then Myanmar was a complete unknown. Even travelers who've been everywhere from Bali to Bangkok had never heard of Burma.

Before I landed in Yangon, there were many signs that I was heading into frontier territory. I applied for my Vietnam and Myanmar visas in Hong Kong. While the Vietnamese consulate was crowded with backpackers, the Myanmar consulate was totally empty. The consular official there seemed surprised that anyone even wanted to visit her country.

Before arriving, I read articles about about the country's brutal military junta. I admit to watching Rambo 4, and still wanting to do it anyway. The decision of whether to visit is a controversial issue, best detailed in this Lonely Planet article, "Should you go?" (PDF file). When I landed in Yangon airport, I was braced for the worst. I was expecting an Orwellian ordeal.

The big shock was that the airport was actually nice. The white, gleaming hall looked brand new. Instead of snarling soldiers, the immigration officials were all cute, cheerful little women. Later, I found out that only the international terminal was nice. The part of the airport for domestic flights was as ugly and decrepit as I expected.

I'd like to romanticize Yangon, but my first impression was: Third-World Hellhole. More than once, I asked myself, "Why the hell did I take a vacation in Burma?" The city was littered with buildings that should have been demolished decades ago, streets criss-crossed with enough huge cracks to undermine the best shock absorbers and an appalling amount of dust and dirt everywhere.

Yangon was a far cry from the buzzing urban machines of Shanghai and Bangkok. In Asia, a booming region with countries battling for economic dominance, Myanmar felt like the slow kid left behind in the race.

"Residential Development"

"Public Transportation"

The mix of economic mismanagement and diplomatic isolation made the country feel like a time capsule of what Southeast Asia was like in the early 20th century. Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore might have been similar to this before they leaped into hyper-charged GDP growth.

In a fair world, Myanmar should be one of the richest and most-visited countries in Southeast Asia. It has large deposits of oil, natural gas, precious gems (particularly rubies), teak wood, jade and metals. Its man-made and natural sights are spectacular, rivaling anything I've seen in Asia--including China.

The first thing that struck me was the people. Men and women wear sarong-like garments called longyis. Women and children wear a yellow paste on their faces called thanaka. It's used as make-up, moisturizer and sunblock.

Employees at Motherland Inn 2
Employees at Motherland Inn 2, my guesthouse in Yangon

Noodle vendors at Bogyoke Aung San Market
Noodle vendors at Bogyoke Aung San Market

Burmese are surprisingly upbeat, friendly, and cheerful despite their poverty. They are amazingly hospitable to visitors, making them natural-born hosts.

I've seen Buddhism all over Asia, but never as fervently practiced and revered on such a grand scale as in Myanmar. In a nation where people struggle to find enough to eat, they lavish all their wealth on their temples. The poverty of their living circumstances is a stark contrast to the magnificence of their Buddhist architecture.

Shwedagon Paya complex

Instead of sterile exhibits, Burmese sights have no velvet ropes, glass cases, and warning signs to keep tourists from touching. People are invited to wash monuments with water, add coatings of gold leaf and maintain them. They're living pieces, not just museum artifacts.

From what I gather, Burmese people are concerned with building up merit to ensure they have better conditions in the next life. They do this by showering their attention and gifts on temples and monuments.

Giant reclining Buddha at Chaukhtatgyi Paya

This is a 180-degree difference from how Americans focus on the here and now. Try to imagine if Americans spent all their disposable income on renovating their churches instead of on their houses and cars, then you'll have some idea of how passionate Burmese are about Buddhism. Anyone interested in this religion should definitely check out Myanmar.

I read that Myanmar gets half the tourists Laos gets, and only about 1.5% of Thailand's intake. That makes it the least-visited country in Southeast Asia. It's hard to appreciate that when only looking at the numbers.

The lack of tourists made a big difference in my experience. Whenever I'd go to temples and other sights, the locals would far outnumber the foreigners. I felt more privileged at getting to observe another culture. Everything felt more authentic and less manufactured to chase travel dollars.

Until Myanmar, I'd assumed that all the great sights of the world had been discovered by the hordes. It's one of the last places left for a pure journey.

Inside Information

For great articles on Burma travel, check out the New York Times Myanmar Travel Guide. The Wikitravel Myanmar Guide also has some good tips.

Need more convincing to go? Here's a fabulous photo essay called The Spirit of Burma. The complete photo album is up at

Burma's media is tightly controlled by the military junta. The best independent source of news is The Irrawaddy. It's a news magazine founded by Burmese dissidents in Thailand.

Burma experiences power outages every night. It's a good idea to always keep a small flashlight on hand.

Money Matters

The most practical advice I can offer about traveling to Burma is to bring lots of U.S. dollars. They must be in pristine condition, Burmese are super-picky about what bills they will accept. Also bring lots of smaller bills. You need to pay in U.S. dollars for admission to tourist sites like the temple complex of Bagan.

Burma has no financial infrastructure. Foreign banks pulled out when U.S. President George W. Bush enacted economic sanctions on the country, and all the local banks collapsed in a financial crisis in 2003. There are no ATMs and most places won't accept credit cards.

Certain top-end hotels will allow you to get cash advances on your credit card, but will charge punishingly high rates. I knew one Belgian backpacker who didn't do any research and showed up cashless. He said a cash advance had a 20 percent fee.

A safe place to exchange dollars for Burmese kyat (pronounced "chat") is the Central Hotel. If you're confident in your haggling skills, try going across the street from the Central Hotel to the Bogyoke Aung San Market. If you look like a foreigner, you won't have to look hard for a moneychanger, they'll find you. US$100 bills get better exchange rates than smaller bills.

Always count the kyat yourself before handing your dollars over. Important: once you've counted the kyat, do not let the money changer touch the kyat again. Travelers have said they're like magicians in their ability to snatch back bills without you realizing it.

Yangon is the best place to exchange money. You can exchange money in the other main tourist sites like Mandalay, Inle Lake, and Bagan, but you'll get a worse rate. I did most of my exchanging in Yangon at the beginning of my trip, then exchanged smaller amounts as I went along.

Spend all your kyat before you leave Burma. You won't be able to exchange your kyat once you're out of the country.

Where to stay

The Motherland Inn 2 is the main center of Burma's tiny backpacker scene. Make sure to call them to book a room, their online reservation form doesn't work (welcome to Burma). They also offer a free pickup service at the airport. The cars are pretty dirty and old, though.

It's a great place to meet other travelers. Since the Burma tourist scene is so small and everyone goes to the Big Four (Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, and Inle Lake), you're bound to run into the same people over and over again.

The one downside is that it's a good 30-40 minute walk from downtown Yangon. Taxis cost like US$1.50, so it wasn't a big deal. If I visited again, I'd stay at the Mayshan Guesthouse or somewhere else more central.

Most guesthouses also offer travel services for booking onward transport. When I ordered a plane ticket at a travel agency, the price was nearly the same as what Motherland Inn 2 quoted. Also get the desk clerk to call and book your next hotel for you. They're usually happy to help.


You can access the Internet in Yangon, but the speed is really slow. Part of it is bad infrastructure and also the government tries to censor it. Luckily, most Internet cafe operators know how to get around the firewalls. This was a surprise, because when I lived in China, it was much harder to access sensitive websites. I thought the mountain town of Pwin U Lwin had the fastest Internet speeds.

Moving on

Most backpackers use long-distance buses to get around the country. I wouldn't recommend this, as distances are vast and the roads are in abysmal condition. It doesn't matter how plush your bus is, the roads will make the ride miserable. I flew everywhere, and the planes are serviceable.

Air Bagan has the nicest planes, but they're often sold out. I usually flew on Yangon Airways, which is also fine. The planes are small and propeller-driven. Avoid the government-run Myanma Airways. It's easy to steer clear, since most local travel agents don't even bother to sell tickets for it.

Many airlines do a daily "circle flight" stopping at the Big 4: Yangon, Mandalay, Nyaung U (for Bagan) and Heho (for Inle Lake). It's almost like an aerial bus route.