As someone who enjoys the planning side of travel just as much as the travelling itself, I never EVER thought I would find myself on a group tour. I still can’t exactly figure out how I feel about group travel for myself personally (you’ll find out why soon), though I did gain an insight as to why and how these trips can be beneficial for other kinds of travellers.
At the end of February, I flew over to Yangon, Myanmar and met a friend of mine from Sydney on the way there. Months and months ago, we found cheap flights with good old Air Asia ($450 return to the Gold Coast), and couldn’t resist. After talking, we concluded that taking a group tour was the way to go. I was a bit hesitant, but at the same time, I had always wanted to give this type of travel a go.
Here is a full, detailed itinerary and review of my two weeks in Myanmar with Geckos Adventures in February/March 2017!
Why did I choose Geckos?
“Our adventures are for travellers aged 18-29 who like to have a good time with others their own age, but don’t want to spend their whole trip crammed into a bus with 40 hungover backpackers.”
This pretty much sums up why I chose Geckos. Firstly, I was super keen to meet people from around the world, close in age to me and with similar interests, too. Nightmarish stories I’ve heard about other travel companies with hordes of tourists piled into a bus driving for long hours on end all while being hungover nearly turned me off group tours forever! On top of all that, Geckos promote the fact that they use local guides, travel in small groups and provide unique cultural experiences, all while practicing responsible tourism too! What’s not to love about that?!
Price: From $1,952
Group size: Min 1 – Max 16 (yay!)
Best time to visit: October – May. Not only is this the dry season, but the time of year when hot air balloons are flying over Bagan at sunrise. Let’s be honest, that’s probably one of the main sights you want to see, right?!
Meals: 12 breakfasts, 1 lunch
Currency: Kyat. You do need to bring in new and crisp US dollar bills to exchange at the airport upon your arrival. There are many places to exchange your currency along the way, too!
Start & Finish: Yangon
Yangon (1 night) – Bagan (2 nights) – Mandalay (2 nights) – Kalaw (2 nights) – Inle Lake (3 nights) – Yangon (1 night)
Day 1: Meet in Yangon
You won’t be meeting up with the group until 6pm, so you either have the whole day to explore Yangon, or arrive there and get settled in. We flew in early in the morning and made our way to the hotel where they thankfully let us check in straight away! After resting for a moment, we got outside and started exploring in the heat. Not far from the hotel was the Kandawgyi Lake where the boardwalk felt so unstable my anxiety was through the damn roof. Next, we were so keen to get to the famous Shwedagon Pagoda that we couldn’t wait til the last day of the trip! After heat stroke had kicked my ass, we sat in the aircon before meeting the group and going out to dinner!
Day 2: Yangon – Bagan / Mount Popa
We were pretty happy with the itinerary offered by Geckos as it included nearly everything we wanted to see. They are quite flexible, so we were able to skip out on the 18-hour overnight train this day to Bagan. We really weren’t keen on wasting this huge amount of time when we could take an hour flight to Bagan and spend the whole day in and around Mount Popa. The resort we stayed at had the most insane pool overlooking the mountain – a definite highlight. If you’re looking to see Mount Popa, you can do a day trip from Bagan, but I wouldn’t recommend doing so as your time there will already be quite limited!
Side note: the trip has been changed so that the group will take a 10 hour bus ride instead of the overnight train. Yay for more time in Bagan!
Day 3: Bagan
We met back up with the group and had some lunch before renting bicycles to explore around the area and of course the temples and pagodas. So, let me just say that it sucks you cannot rent an E-Bike on this trip like every other tourist and local. It was so stinking hot and a decent ride in the afternoon heat, I just felt so sick and heat strokey – typical Sophie. Anyway… I must say the sunset made it all worthwhile, even if the temple was overflowing with tourists and their tripods.
Day 4: Bagan
The moment I had been dreaming of for months had arrived – it was time to witness the famous Bagan sunrise. We woke at about 4.30am, got in a taxi and were driven about 15 minutes away to a secluded little pagoda. About 15-20 other tourists were with us to watch the sun peak over the mountains and temple tops while the hot air balloons floated (sadly) in the distance. I feel like we were taken to a bit of a dud spot, but hey, you can’t blame the wind for sending the balloons in a different direction that morning! As every part of my body was aching from the bike ride and I couldn’t possibly fathom the idea of riding around in the heat yet again, we set off to explore more temples on foot. There are over 2,200 temples and pagodas, so you’re always gonna have something to see in Bagan! In the late afternoon, we were taken to a lacquerware shop and village, which were a little touristy, but did give us an insight into local life.
Day 5: Bagan – Mandalay
So, here was the day I was dreading the most. A 12-hour travel day. On a boat. My expectations were extremely low. I actually ended up really enjoying a bit of peace and quiet as we cruised up the Ayeyarwady River, passing by local villages and fishermen. Time went by quickly and the food was delicious!
Day 6: Mandalay + Mingun Day Trip
After wandering around the morning markets, we boarded a boat bound for Mingun, an interestingly beautiful archaeological site. You’ll come across the main attraction first, an unfinished temple also known as the ‘world’s largest pile of bricks’ that is surprisingly amazing and super impressive. Next up, we wandered down to Hsinbyume Pagoda, a pure white photographer’s heaven. We purchased a parasol and hopped along the walls before heading back to Mandalay as the heat got the better of us. In the afternoon, as the sun was setting, we headed up to Mandalay Hill. Monks practiced their English with us, while we stalked them and tried to stealthily take photos of them!
Day 7: Mandalay – Kalaw
Waking up with a sore throat and body aches is always a good time on a holiday, especially when you haven’t been sick in nearly a year. As sick as I felt, the thought of seeing the sunrise at the world’s oldest and largest teakwood bridge was enough for me to push that to the back of my mind! At least it wasn’t food poisoning, right!? Anyway… let me just say that we saw many amazing sunrises and sunsets in Myanmar, but this sunrise one was one of the more memorable ones! Monks strolled along the bridge as we stood at the river bank as the sun popped up next to the U Bein Bridge. Next up, we drove a few hours into the mountains towards Kalaw, located in the Shan state. The driving was split up with stops along the way. The visit to the parasol making shop and weaving shop was really interesting. Man, the Burmese are talented!
Day 8: Hiking in Kalaw
I can’t say too much about this day, as my sickness hit quite hard and I couldn’t take part in the hike *sighs* From what I heard, the 20km trek took the group through the highlands and a local village with a lunch pit stop. I would of loved to of seen a different side to Myanmar, but I couldn’t afford to become even more sick and ruin the rest of the trip! At least my hotel room was lovely and fit with a great view over the mountains!
Day 9: Kalaw – Inle Lake
Our tour guide took us to some caves just down from our hotel that were filled with hundreds of Buddha statues before making the 3-hour drive to Inle Lake. On our way into town, we stopped by the wooden Shwe Yaughwe Monastery where you’ll commonly see monks learning. We did have several activity options, but I chose to rest up and make the most of my two other days in Inle Lake!
Day 10: Inle Lake Boat Trip
After some free time in the morning, the group boarded a boat and set out on a day trip all around Inle Lake. This was a definite highlight of the whole trip for me! First, it took about an hour to reach Indein, a small village that contains a cluster of ancient stupas covered in overgrown trees. It was just as amazing as it sounds! We spent a while here exploring before getting back in the boat to see the touristy Hpaung Daw U Pagoda before having a peak in the Nga Phe Kyaung Monastery. The driver then took us through the traditional floating villages and gardens, which I loved! The best part of the day came as the sun was setting, and we found some authentic fishermen (yes, some are fake!) that Inle Lake is known for. They row with their legs, which is super unique and fascinating, meanwhile I’m struggling to sit still and balance in the boat. This really was one of my favourite days!
Day 11: Inle Lake + Day trip to Kakku
We set off on the bumpiest car ride of my life, which is never fun for someone who is extremely prone to motion sickness. Though, we made it in one piece and after praising solid ground, we headed straight into the maze of pagodas waiting for us in Kakku. As much as I loved this place, Indein was actually more intriguing to me, and is quite similar, too. We hired a local guide (a must) who gave us a bit of a historical insight into the area. In the afternoon, we got in a tuk tuk and drove to the Red Mountain Estate Vineyard and Winery, which proved to be super popular among tourist. Now, Myanmar is obviously not known for its wine, but if you’re keen on a Betadine flavoured drink, then get on over there. At least it was only $2.50, right?! Anyway, while I wouldn’t recommend the wine, it was another prime spot for sunset!
Day 12: Inle Lake – Yangon
Yay for flying! We got a morning flight that took about an hour back to Yangon and headed back to the same hotel we began the trip at. Yet again, we had to head back to the Rangoon Tea House for a delicious lunch – seriously, check out this place as I had some of the best food of my life there! In the afternoon, our guide took us back to the golden Shwedagon Pagoda. We were able to watch a novice ceremony taking place, and then watched the sun fade behind the golden pagoda. It really was a great way to end our trip together.
Day 13: Yangon or Home!
The tour ends this morning and while you can choose to head home, some may stay on one more night like my friend and I did! We jumped on the Circular Train, that cost a whopping 30 cents, and took us around the outskirts of Yangon for three hours. While it was a nice way to see the local and village life, at times it did get a little boring, to be completely honest! It was a good way to fill in the day, though. At night, we couldn’t resist having dinner down from our hotel again at the Rangoon Tea House. The next morning, we got to the airport early and said goodbye to one of the most kind, pristine and beautiful countries I have ever had the pleasure of exploring!
My view from the Dream Mountain Resort in Kalaw
I was honestly SO surprised at how nice the hotels and guesthouses were we stayed in. I couldn’t fault any accommodation – yes really! We were always able to check in super early, the service was great, rooms were clean and spacious and were always in a perfect location. Wifi was always on offer, too, along with bottles of water and coffee. Everything I need! My personal favourite was the hotel in Kalaw, that I got to know quite well while I was sick. If you want to look it up, it’s called Dream Mountain Resort!
Another aspect of the trip that really took me by surprise. I think because there were only three of us on the tour, we were able to travel in more comfortable and spacious transportation. The vans were always clean, with aircon, water and space to spread out. As for the boat I mentioned previously, 12 hours flew by because we had three little meals, clean facilities and comfortable seats. We did use tuk tuks occasionally, which were extremely cheap and fun, while the flight back to Yangon was quick and offered free food (score!)
Sunrise in Bagan
Our group with some monks and school girls we met at Mandalay Hill!
- Sunrises and sunsets in Bagan were just about unbeatable and may have destroyed all others for me for the rest of my life. Not that I’m complaining!
- I know it wasn’t part of the tour, but our idea to check out Mount Popa and stay at the Mountain Resort was awesome.
- Mingun blew my mind. It was really different to anything else I’ve seen before and the white pagoda was just so picturesque!
- Sunrise at U-Bein Bridge was another one for the books!
- The day trip out on Inle Lake was by far one of my favourite activities. From the ancient pagodas of Indein to watching the fishermen row with their legs at sunset, it was a great experience!
- Possibly my favourite part of all – the people! Honestly, the Burmese are the most friendly and caring humans I have come across. I didn’t for a second feel unsafe, only extremely welcomed every minute of my trip.
My amazing friend who blogs over at This Is Yugen
Our awesome tour guide, Thura!
- The part of a group tour that I was dreading the most became a reality; we spent the majority of our time with the tour guide. Yes, he was absolutely amazing, kind and lovely, though because of the fact that there were three of us in the group, he was able to tag along every day. I did want some time alone sometimes, but in all, he was awesome to have around as we learnt so much from him!
- Riding bikes for hours in the heat in Bagan wasn’t exactly my thing. Yes, I’m super unfit and the heat really does get to me more than normal humans. I wish the tour would of allowed us to rent an E-Bike.
- Not enough time in Bagan! This was the place I was most excited to visit and we only had time for one sunrise! I think three nights in Inle Lake was a bit much.
- We were taken to restaurants that felt a bit overpriced for a cheapish country like Myanmar. The tour guide took us to them, so we didn’t get much say, which kinda sucked.
- Sadly, there were only three people in our group, including myself, my friend and another girl from Melbourne. While we did have a great time, I was hoping to meet many more people from all over the world!
Bring a backpack
Don’t even bother with a suitcase. I can imagine it would be extremely difficult to take on and off various forms of transport!
If you don’t meet the age requirement, check out their Intrepid trips
Geckos do have a 18-29 year-old only age restriction, but they do have a sister brand by the name of Intrepid Travel that offers the exact same trips at affordable prices for people of all ages!
Don’t forget your Visa & travel insurance
Don’t even consider travelling without insurance. That’s all I’m gonna say. Just incase you didn’t know, you do need a visa for Myanmar that you can buy online. Mine cost $50 USD and was approved within an hour! But, it usually will take a bit longer than that!
Bring more money than the recommended amount – just in case!
It’s always better to have more money on you, just incase you overspend like I did. The recommended amount for this tour is $200-$300 USD, though I ended up spending $400. You do need new and crisp US dollars to exchange at the airport, otherwise they won’t accept them! Also, higher denominations will give you more Kyat (the currency in Myanmar!)
Overall, this tour really took me by surprise, and Geckos Adventures in general did too. While I won’t be limiting my travels to just group tours any time soon, I am already looking at a few trips I want to take with Geckos again! Next time, I’ll be very keen to meet more like-minded people and get a different feel to what group tours can be like in another country (Egypt, I’m lookin’ at you!) While I do love planning my own travels, it actually was nice to have someone do everything for me. I did also love being able to place a deposit on the trip and pay it off every fortnight I got paid! Lastly, I feel I met some wonderful people just by jumping on board this Geckos tour, and I most definitely learnt more about Myanmar than I would of if I travelled alone.