I didn't expect to discover one of my favorite countries of all time on this trip. I was feeling very homesick for my family home on a lake near the US-Canada border, so I wanted to stay somewhere with a lake. A friend in the travel business offered to book me an industry discount flight.
"Do you trust me to surprise you?" she texted.
Later that evening, she told me I'd be spending the week in ... Myanmar.
I had to look it up. I knew the country had been known as Burma, and that I had a Chinese-American friend who'd been born there. I also knew it had been under military rule for the better part of the 21st century. Only recently had Western nations begun opening trade with it. I also discovered it had just what I wanted: a large lake! Inle Lake, deep in rural central Burma.
Yangon, the major city where I'd landed, amazed me for how clean and orderly it was. The locals looked a little confused when I shared that impression. To them, the city wasn't up to par, and it was growing much too fast to manage. (They mentioned seeing people throwing trash out of apartment windows. I didn't see it in my short stay.)
But of all the large cities I'd seen in developing parts of Asia, this one was the first with hardly any trash scattered around. Or with safe driving practices. Drivers actually stopped at traffic signals. They stayed in lanes. I had never seen that before on the East Asian mainland.
The city was in transition, from one era to another. Worthless old paper currency was on sale as a curiosity. Men wore longyi—ankle-length cloths—tied at the waist in the old custom, with completely Western-style shirts on top. Little sidewalk kiosks sold traditional handicrafts. Behind them, fast food shops lined air-conditioned malls.
My hosts told me that the drive to centra Yangon took 20 minutes two years ago in rush hour. Now, it can take up to two hours.
My quiet and spotless suburban Yangon guest house, the Mango Hill Inn, named after the lush mango tree in its yard, was in a clean, leafy-green suburb of the city. It had a 24-hour desk, meals service and friendly, helpful on-site management. The staff arranged my full itinerary for me, along with all transportation.
My Mango Hill hosts discouraged me from taking the train to Inle Lake—the tracks were much too rough—and said a bus would take quite a while. So they booked for me a "puddle-jumper" plane from my arrival city to Inle Lake, where I'd spend the week.
To get back to the Yangon airport, though, they said I'd need local cash. I'd already spent mine on a tour of the city. My hosts offered to take me to a nearby currency exchange office.
There, I had something happen that I haven't seen in any other country anywhere in the world. The cash office gave me full bank rate exchange for my dollars. No fees, no percentage cuts, no skimming.
Bless you, Burmese people.
My trip timing turned out to be perfect. It was the end of rainy season in late August, so room prices outside of Yangon were rock-bottom. I booked the Sanctum Inle Resort, a 5-star resort villa right on Inle Lake, for a 2-star price.
The best part of the trip was coming up!
Next: See why Inle Lake is a must-see stop in Myanmar, and check out the 5 Things to Do at Inle Lake, here.