Mandalay Palace Walls

Mandalay Palace Walls

In the heart of Myanmar’s second largest city lies a large palace of biblical proportions — Mandalay Palace. It’s hard to fully realize the size of Mandalay Palace without seeing it for yourself — it takes the form of a square roughly 5 miles in perimeter. A large, medieval-style moat encircles the historic site, which is roughly 2 centuries old.

Mandalay Palace Walls

At sunset, the wall’s towers are lit up — a beautiful site, especially on a calm night, when the moat’s water is still and reveals a stunning reflection of the structure against a multicolored sunset.

Mandalay Palace Walls

A photo from Mandalay Hill looking onto Mandalay Palace’s walls and moat

If the structure wasn’t impressive enough, it feels even larger when trying to circumnavigate it on a particularly hot day. The day I set out around the palace, the mercury read 112 degrees F (that’s 44 C), hitting a 115 heat index.

Despite that, it’s a great place to sit in the shade, drink [lots] of water, and intermingle with locals. Believe it or not, I was one of perhaps only three or four foreigners I saw on my long walk — like much of Myanmar, Mandalay remains relatively unexplored by outsiders.

Mandalay Palace Walls

A photo from Mandalay Hill looking into the Burmese countryside

Some of the best views of Mandalay Palace can be seen from nearby Mandalay Hill, an elevated area of the city containing several temples, historic sites, and view points. From there, you can see for miles, be it straight down Mandalay’s wide avenues or deep into the Burmese countryside.

It wasn’t until two days later that I had a chance to explore Mandalay Palace itself, inside the massive structure at the center of the city. Check back soon for a full post on Mandalay Palace’s structures.


After my long walk, I quickly found a local outdoor restaurant that served ice cold beer and some delicious fried rice. My dinner tab of two beers and a large plate of chicken fried rice came to a total of about $1.80.

Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda

In the center of Yangon (aka Rangoon), Myanmar/Burma’s largest city, is the Shwedagon Pagoda, a massive golden stupa and the most holy Buddhist site in Myanmar.

Shwedagon Pagoda

Pictures do not do justice to the Shwedagon Pagoda: it is over 320 feet tall and covered in plates of solid gold. You read that right, this is not gold leaf we are talking about here, but think bricks of gold. It is said there’s more gold on the Shwedagon Pagoda than was ever contained in the vaults of Fort Knox.


According to sources, the top is a crown tipped with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies, including a 76 karat diamond at the very top, but good luck ever seeing it — this thing is so huge that no matter where you stand, it’s difficult to make out its spire.

Interestingly, the Shwedagon Pagoda isn’t what you imagine from a holy site. Although pilgrims and the faithful can be found praying throughout the temple, the overwhelming atmosphere is festive and sociable. I was stopped by no less than 10 local Burmese who wanted to know where I was from and what I thought of Myanmar.

Shwedagon Pagoda

To get to the pagoda, you enter at the foot of a hill and must walk up a large, interior set of steps flanked by merchants. The photo above is only one of at least two or three such corridors. If you look below, you can see the exterior of the corridors climbing up the hill — this gives you some sense of the scale of the pagoda.


Most of this climb is done barefoot (no shoes or socks) due to the religious prohibition of footwear inside temples. For those visiting, plan ahead and bring a plastic bag to carry your shoes in. After exiting, a couple of wet wipes will also go a long way to make your world right before putting your shoes back on.

Shwedagon Pagoda

If you’re going to Myanmar, the Shwedagon Pagoda is a must-see, unlike any other place in the world. If you’re looking for other images of this beautiful country, click here to visit our Myanmar page with a full list of entries.

The Sea Gypsies


In the far southern tip of Burma, there lies a a span of remote islands largely untouched by the outside world. Known as the Mergui Archipelago, it consists of some 800 islands and is largely closed to outsiders. These islands are empty of outside development and unpopulated by all but one group: the Moken, also known as the sea gypsies.

Moken Sea Gypsies Boat

The Moken sea gypsies have lived in this region for centuries, historically traveling from island to island on live-aboard boats, occasionally making temporary huts. Moken men are known as some of the best free divers in the world, able to hold their breath for 5-8 minutes underwater while diving to catch fish.

Moken Sea Gypsies Village

Some still follow the traditional, nomadic way of life — sailing from island to island on small boats as their ancestors did. Others have taken to living in small villages spread throughout the region. These towns allow children to attend school and give shelter and better care for the sick and elderly.

Moken Sea Gypsies Boat

Even here, however, you see few young men. They often set out on fishing trips for several days, or longer, as their ancestors did before them.

The Mergui Archipelago

If you’re going to live the life of a sea gypsy, you could not pick a more beautiful place to do it. Above and below are a couple of photos of the surrounding region — the color here hasn’t been altered; this is actually what these sunsets look like.

The Mergui Archipelago

To get into the Mergui, you must first find a tour operator with a license to enter the archipelago. Then, upon entering, your tour operator obtains a permit for you and the Myanmar government closely checks the paperwork, then holds onto your passport during your time in the archipelago. If you do visit, you’re bound to see at least a few boats of the sea gypsies in your time there.

The best entry points for the Mergui Archipelago are Kawthaung, Myanmar and nearby Ranong, Thailand.

The Leg Rowing Fishermen

Leg Rowing Fishermen Inle Lake

Inle Lake is unlike any place you have ever seen, in person or through photographs. Traditional leg rowing fishermen, floating gardens, hotels on stilts, and water taxis are the norm here, and although the lake draws plenty of tourists, you won’t find crowds or big tourist attractions.

Inle Lake Leg Rowing Fisherman

Far from the busy, modern cities of Yangon & Mandalay, and in a radically different microclimate, it is easy to feel like you’ve stepped into a distant world. Most people come here to see the lake and experience its unique people and culture.

I never thought I would be “dusted” by a couple of monks on a motorboat!


A couple of monks leave us in their dust. This was simultaneously awesome and extremely humbling, like getting passed by a 90 year old in a Cadillac on the highway because you’re driving too slowly.

There are many ways to explore Inle, but the best is to stay on the lake itself. Once you get there, likely from Yangon or Mandalay, you find yourself in a water taxi to your destination. This was, by far, the most fascinating taxi I have ever been on. Monks, leg rowing fishermen, weavers, gardeners, and foreigners alike crisscross the lake on elegantly-shaped long tail boats. I never thought I would be “dusted” by a couple of monks on a motorboat!

Most accommodations on Inle Lake take the form of "floating hotels".

Most accommodations on Inle Lake take the form of “floating hotels”.

Many of the accommodations on the lake are “floating hotels”, like ours pictured here. The only way in or out is via water taxi. As someone who loves water, but isn’t much of a beach-goer, this had the best of both worlds. The only downside is the locals hit the water with motorboats as early as 4am, which is about as tranquil as a runaway freight train, but you can’t have it all, right?

Inle Lake Leg Rowing Fisherman

Inle Lake’s iconic leg rowing fisherman learn to balance on one leg, row with the other, and operate fishing equipment with both hands all at the same time.

Our best experience while there was actually the least structured: hiring a water taxi to leave before sunrise so we could photograph nature and the iconic leg rowing fisherman as the day started. Most of my favorite photos were taken on this trip, including the featured image at the top of this post, were taken during this early outing.

Inle Lake

While there, we also took a tour of one of several local villages built on the lake. For us, this included the floating gardens, a trip to the monastery, and a tour of a lotus silk weaver — people in this region are well known for their textiles. There are several other cultural attractions depending on your interests.

After a couple of days, it was time to move on to the next stop, which in this case involved an elephant sanctuary. If you want to read more about Inle Lake, there is a separate post on how to get there.

The Elephant Camp

Elephant Camp Wash Elephants

Not far from the enchanting Inle Lake is an unassuming dirt road leading back into the forest canopy. Follow it and you will find an oasis in remote Myanmar, but this refuge wasn’t built for humans — this is an elephant camp.

This facility, called Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp, aims to provide a comfortable and safe habitat for freed and retired elephants.

Elephant Camp

The result is one of the most amazing animal experiences imaginable. You start by feeding the elephants — there are never-ending baskets of melon and banana tree. What’s striking is how gentle the massive creatures are… They weigh as much as 10,000-11,000 pounds each but are as sweet as kittens.

Elephant Camp Feed Elephants

The first thing that struck me was how much complete freedom you’re given. Throughout your stay, you may freely feed, wash, and eventually ride an elephant without anyone limiting your interaction. The second thing that struck me was “this place would be a liability nightmare in the US”, but not because it’s at all unsafe — you’re always surrounded by attentive staff and I never once felt unease.

The second thing that struck me was “this place would be a liability nightmare in the US”

Regarding safety, you’ll also notice there aren’t any “tuskers” in the photos; that is, a male elephant with iconic ivory tusks. They do have one such bull on site, but our visit coincided with mating season, so he was separated far from the group, as the men tend to get temperamental.

Elephant Camp Ride

Washing and riding an elephant was honestly something I never thought I would do — it’s one of those things that wasn’t even on my bucket list for lack of imagination. It was incredible, and certainly makes you appreciate these creatures, and nature in general, even more.

The forests of Myanmar are populated by as many as 5,000-8,000 wild Asian elephants, but all too often these wild elephants are captured and put to work in the timber industry, sometimes legally, sometimes illegally.

Elephant Camp Baby Elephant

This baby elephant was very precocious. He knew he was in the medical tent to get some vaccinations and was not happy that he was about to see the doctor!

Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp is funded by tourism, which is a brilliant approach, as the experience is both educational and recreational. Each group of 2-3 people has the chance to sit down for tea with a mahout (elephant caretaker) to learn more about their elephants, what brought them here, and Asian elephants in general. You leave with more knowledge, excitement to tell as many people as you can, plus this great experience. Although we were short on time and only stayed for a few hours, they offer overnight experiences as well, and are located near the amazing Inle Lake.

Elephant Camp

As a parting note, I should mention that the elephant camp aims to be ecologically friendly, so they grow a lot of their food on-site using renewable methods, thereby minimizing their environmental impact. Many staff are locally employed as well, with a goal of providing employment and economic opportunity for the surrounding town. Finally, the elephant rides given are very short (about 5 minutes) and each elephant only gives a maximum of one or two per day.

If you’re interested in getting there, I wrote a separate post on getting to the Inle Lake region.

Getting to Inle Lake

Getting to Inle Lake

Imagine a beautiful lake untouched by hordes of tourists, where fisherman have learned to row with their legs in an iconic technique and floating gardens and houses form the periphery. Also imagine the most terrifying experience you’ve ever had in a motor vehicle, and that pretty much sums up my trip getting to Inle Lake.

If you haven’t already read my experience at Inle Lake, click here, as that’s a good place to start so you know why I sought to visit this amazing place, otherwise read on for my journey to get there.

Getting to Inle Lake

The area surrounding Mandalay is bucolic and stunning, but you’ll notice there aren’t any major highways.

To reach Inle Lake, you first must understand infrastructure in Myanmar. There’s no easy way to get anywhere, at least not yet, so getting around is like trying to bring me to a shopping mall; it’s a lesson in patience and compromises, with periodic moments of sheer terror thrown in.

Getting to Inle Lake Downtown Mandalay

Downtown Mandalay

In this case, I was arriving from Mandalay and departing to Yangon. To get there from Mandalay, the options were flying, bus, train, or car. Those are also possibilities going to/from Yangon, but any travel by ground would entail many, many hours, so we elected to fly.

Getting to Inle Lake

Given that, we decided to get to Inle Lake via car, a trip of about 6-7 hours. The train would taken much longer with an overnight in a small town, and the prospect of traveling a winding road in a bus loaded with people in 110 degree weather sounded like my own personal definition of hell.

I don’t know if we made the right decision and, honestly, I don’t know if there is a right decision. The price was worth it (about $110 for the car and driver, and you can split that between as many friends as you have with you), but the journey was terrifying given Burmese road rules [or lack thereof], no guardrails on a tall mountain pass, and a noteworthy lack of seat belts. If I could do it all over, I’d insist on seat belts in the car when booking it. That said, when we asked our driver to help us access the seat belts (which had essentially been uninstalled and bolted under the seat), he cheerily replied “Ah yes! Ok, ok. It’s okay!” then proceeded to get back in the car and continue driving like a robber fleeing the scene of a crime.

How to Get to Inle Lake

Our “floating hotel” on Inle Lake.

Once in Nyaungshwe, it’s easy to find a long-tail boat to take you to wherever you’re staying on the lake, or you can stay there for the night. The average time to a hotel on the lake varies from 30-60 minutes, depending on the hotel’s location. From my understanding, there are no other entry points to the lake, so regardless of where you’re staying, this is your starting point.

How to get to Inle Lake Heho Airport

Heho Airport

Leaving was much easier than getting to Inle Lake. We spent the morning at a nearby elephant sanctuary, one of the my coolest experiences anywhere then flew from the nearest airport, Heho.