Independent visit to Myanmar

Mingun’s Hsinbyume Pagoda.

My sister, Jody, and I had a marvelous experience in Myanmar traveling independently, with guide, driver and air-conditioned car, Dec. 28, 2006-Jan. 10, 2007.

We made a number of tour members jealous, too. Their typical comment was something like, “I’m so envious of you! We usually travel independently, but Myanmar seemed so isolated and difficult we decided we’d be better off/safer with a tour, and it wasn’t necessary at all.”

You do have to watch what you eat and drink, of course, but the military presence is low-key, the people are wonderfully friendly and many speak English, thanks to the Brits and their colonial efforts. Our trip went smoothly and we felt completely safe the entire time. Myanmar’s atmosphere turned out to be much more Buddhist peace than military fear.

Canoes are the most common form of transportation on Inle Lake’s many small channels. Photos by Donna Judd

If you use a local agency as we did, you save middleman costs, of course. In addition, less money will go to the ruling junta. Any foreign tour company that assures you they will “make certain the money goes to the local people and not to the government,” as one said, is not being honest. The junta has its hand in everything.

One example — anyone fortunate enough to own a car is allowed only 30 gallons of gas a month, and for the popular Chinese-made motor scooter it’s five gallons. And gas can be bought only from the one government-run station, where the owner is registered. Fortunately for tourists, the government shuts its eyes to the black-market selling of gas along the roads.

A British company takes us ballooning over mist from the Irrawaddy River and the temples of Bagan.

A friend’s son, who had worked for the U.S. State Department in Yangon, recommended we use Amtra Travel Agency (102/20B Yawmingyi Road, Dagon Township, Yangon, Myanmar; phone 95-9-500-6614 or e-mail Larry Tin at or Amtra was the key to our wonderful experience. They spent unlimited time and personal attention attending to us.

This small, local firm charged us an unbelievable $1,100 per person for 12 nights in good to excellent hotels; flights from Yangon to Bagan, Mandalay to Heho (for Inle Lake, Pindaya Caves and Kalaw) and Heho to Yangon; a 12-hour boat trip from Bagan to Mandalay; air-conditioned cars with drivers, and top-quality guides throughout.

Worshipers far outnumber tourists at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, which is topped by a single, 76-carat diamond.

Amtra has no website, and they cannot handle your flights in and out of Myanmar or make arrangements in other countries, but for within Myanmar Amtra is outstanding.


Fullerton, CA