Sunday, February 19, 2012

Myanmar - The Golden Land

My first trip of 2012, exploring the Golden Land of Myanmar. I always get the usual response, what another Asian country.. What's there to see? Well, that's what I was about to find out and being clueless may give you the best surprise. Relying on Lonely Planet and some internet reference on Myanmar, me and my buddy embarked on a 7D 6N budget trip and we tried to cover almost if not all the places of interests.

Day 1 - Yangon  
We arrived around 5.30pm at Yangon International Airport and all the money exchange operators were closed. You wouldn't believe that most of the businesses here closed at 4.00 or 5.00pm. Since we need to collect our domestic air tickets at Air Mandalay office for four destinations, we were slapped with 1000 Kyat per destinations. We were at their mercy and paid USD 16 for two persons based on conversion rate USD1= 500 Kyat.

The taxis here are not really up to expectations and they charge different rates based on the vehicle conditions. Though not being choosy, we still have to pay 7000 Kyat to reach our downtown Thamada Hotel, which is next to Park Royal Hotel, nearby the main train station of Yangon city.

We took a cab to visit Shwedagon Pagoda, acclaimed to be the largest pagoda in the city and the night view and neon lights didn't disappoint me although we need to pay USD 5 entrance fee. There were many locals during this time, paying homage to their deities and simply relaxing after a day hard work.

Since it's already late back from the pagoda, we took a short stroll along the streets nearby our hotel. And dejavu, the conditions of the Sule street makes me feel like I'm in the New Delhi again. Since Myanmar is near India, don't be surprise that you'll find Indians here with their traditional sarees as well.

Day 2 - Yangon - Inle 
"Mingalabar", that's how Myanmar people greet each other. Early morning, we walked to the nearest Sule Pagoda while passing the infamous Sule Paya Road, infested with local scams trying to lure you into exchanging their local Kyat currency at higher rate. Do not get tempted and just walk away. It's better to change at the money exchange counter or local banks.

The target place to visit is definitely the Bogyoke Aung San Market or Scott Market which is famous for their jewellery and gems at dirt cheap prices. You can buy a variety of interesting Myanmar lacquerware, wood carvings, textiles and clother all under one roof in this market. Just prepare to bargain, bargain and bargain.
We also managed to go into a hypermarket here, SuperOne but do not expect to see wide range of local food products here except for some basic cooking ingredients such as chili paste, dried fish paste, chickpea powders and etc. Others packed consumable snacks are mainly imported, even from Malaysia (IKO, Hap Seng, Ali Cafe, Supermix).

Then we departed to airport for our next destination, Inle which is popular for their floating market, vegetations, and houses. It's already late in the evening when we arrived at Heho airport. The route to Inle Lake, or more specifically the small town of Nyaung Shwe was a mountainous journey but heck lucky we hired a cab, else I can't imagine going through this in a truck or bus.

From Nyaung Shwe, we took a long boat ride overlooking the sunset while enjoying the cool fresh air to our hotel, Paramount Inle Resort which is a floating hotel within the Inle lake vicinity  for a good night rest.

Day 3 - Inle - Mandalay
With a good start of yummy breakfast pre-ordered last night, we checked out early around 7am to start exploring Inle Lake. Our first stop was at a local morning market selling various groceries from fresh vegetables, fish, poultry, clothes and and some souvenirs.Nothing much in particular bit just a glimpse of the daily hood of the Inthar (people of the Lake). Sitting on a boat and admiring the mirror-like images on the water surface is simply amazing. We passed through some floating water vegetations that grow tomatoes, beans, cauliflower, melon, banana and etc. The lake dwellers are well-known with their one-legged rowing style, so make sure your eyes are wide open.

Moving on, we visited Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda which is the main pagoda in Inle lake. In the pagoda itself, you will notice five small weird round figurines which are actually Buddha images all covered with gold throughout the years of layering by worshipers. The last stop at the lake was the Jumping Cat monastery, as the Lonely Planet puts it, the Buddhist monks in this monastery have become so enlightened they have managed to teach cats to jump.
Before departing to Mandalay, we had lunch at the local eatery serving Myanmar food not to my alike. Our flight is delayed again for the second time and we didn't managed to reach U Bein bridge, the acclaimed best place to witness sunset. We reached Mandalay around 7pm and headed straight to our hotel, Mandalay Swan.

Day 4 - Mandalay - Bagan
Early morning, we headed to visit some of the main attractions i.e. Mahamuni Pagoda, Kuthoda Pagoda and the wooden monastery of Shwenandaw Kyaung. Nothing much to shout about but to admire the beauty of the structure and figures since Mandalay is considered centre of Buddhism in Myanmar.

Then we set off to U Bein bridge again where we took a boat ride for 5000 Kyat around the river. This teak bridge is still strong and sturdy, with an amazing backdrop for photo taking.
Afterwards we climbed up Sagaaing Hill, overseeing the lush area which is covered in 600 white painted pagodas and monasteries. In comparison with Mandalay Hill, personally I think the view is much better here.

Day 5 - Bagan
Bagan sits on a dusty plain and thousands of ancient temple dot the landscape as the eye can see even from the sky above. 

It's a slow and easy adventure on this day where we chartered a pony cart for full day, exploring most of the important temples such as Shwezigon, Gubyaukgyi, Sulamani, Dhammyangyi and Thatbyinnyu.These temples and pagodas are beautifully crafted and bear statement to a glorious past, thus try to observe and appreciate their natural beauty.

The perfect way to round off our day is an observation of the spectacular sunset from the upper terrace of the Myaukguni Temple which we skipped since we're too tired from a day of bumpy rides. You may need to negotiate the price with the pony chart driver to see the sunset for an extra 5000 Kyat. Normal full day pony chart ride fee ranges from USD 12-15.

The souvenirs that really worth to buy here are the sand art painting ranging from USD1-15 and wood carvings.A popular purchase in Bagan is lacquerware, which is made into bowls, cups, vases, tables and various items, and is available almost anywhere. As a general rule, the stiffer the lacquer, the poorer the quality and the more you can bend and twist it, the finer the quality. Higher quality means more money to pay, and we didn't buy any since the color isn't really interesting for me, limited to dull black, red, orange,blue and green.

Day 6 - Bagan- Yangon
Today, we headed out of town to Mount Popa with our rented car. On the way, we stopped at some dedicated tourist spots, learning how peanut oil is extracted from peanuts using the traditional mortar grinding method by a cow. We also have a taste of palm sugar candy, made from boiled palm sugar and dried under the hot blazing sun.

The main attraction in Mount Popa is Popa Taungkalar, dedicated to the local legendary "nat" spirits. As we ascended the 777 steps towards the top to view the stupa and monastery, we can see many wild monkeys loitering around begging for food and some locals cleaning the steps due to droppings from these monkeys. As precautions, just walk slowly as the steps are steep and hold onto the hand rails.What lies on the top is the beautiful panoramic view of the surrounding areas.
After lunch, we headed to the airport to catch our flight back to Yangon.

Day 7 - Yangon - KL
Last day of our Myanmar trip. With half day morning left, we boarded a 3-hour circular train journey to experience the daily life of the locals. The ride is slow and steady and it felt rather odd as we are the only foreigners throughout the ride. Nonetheless, the locals are quite friendly and very well-mannered, judging from the way they treat the elders and helping those standing to carry things. 

Later, we walked to Bogyoke Aung San Market again for last minute shopping and ended up with a pack of tamarind flakes snacks and some gems bracelets.
Its time to fly back home and we were left with 900 Kyat on hand. Since the currency is worthless back home, you can either keep them as souvenir or exchange back to USD at the airport. Feeling 'kiasu', I bought another bracelet from a souvenir shop with special price :-)

Travel Tips
1. If possible, try to reach Myanmar in the morning before any money change operators close business. Bring enough USD money in small denominations for easier transactions and negotiations. Larger USD notes yield higher exchange rates and vice versa in Yangon.
2. Tap water in Myanmar is not safe to drink, likewise ice may be contaminated. Bottled water is readily available at many tourist sites and local shops.
3. Bring along a cardigan or sweater during cold season as the windy breeze can be really chilly in the morning and late evening. 
4. You need to think twice if you're those who likes to wear shoes during traveling. In Myanmar with the dusty conditions and local custom when visiting temples, it is better to wear loafer or slippers and no socks please. 
5. Respect the rules for visiting pagodas : no shoes or socks, no shorts and scanty attires. In practice however, shorts are tolerated
6. Buy arts from authorized dealers only and get a certified receipt. Otherwise, you may have it confiscated at the airport. In addition, basically anything real and old is not supposed to leave the country, especially Buddha images or figurines.

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