January 10, 2014

Experience Burma

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Myanmar also known as Burma is where pagodas are like flowers scattered on the plains and rolling mountains. Burma is gaining popularity as the next tourist destination in Southeast Asia. The Military government formed a new government in 2011 and it paved the way to open the country to foreign visitors. Myanmar is now reaping from the pennies of tourism. Why not, the thousands of Pagodas in Bagan are enough to attract the westerners as well as the  Asians.





Like other countries in Southeast Asia, Myanmar owes so much to its religion - Buddhism. If not for the places of worship built by the Burmese, there will be no foreigners waking up early for the sunrise overlooking the thousands stupas covered by fog and staying in the Pagodas for the famous Bagan sunset. Burmese are obsessed with temples, golden or brick. Its everywhere.
How to go there

There are two main gateway to the land of the stupas and temples. You can enter by either Yangon in the south or Mandalay in the North. Airport in Yangon is near to the downtown as compared to Mandalay wherein it will take an hour to get into the downtown area.

There is a direct flight from Kuala Lumpur's LCCT operated by Airasia to Yangon. There is also a direct flight from Singapore to Yangon operated by Tigerair. In Mandalay, Airasia hauls flights from Don Mueng International Airport in Bangkok.



Recently, the Burmese government lifts the visa for Filipinos. We can now travel in Burma for 28 days visa free.


Myanmar or Burma?

I prefer Burma than Myanmar. For me name Burma has more bite of history than Myanmar. The English called the country Burma because majority of Burmese ethnic group are Bamar. Myanmar on the other hand was given by the Military government. According to the prince of Shan state who I met in Hsipaw, Myan means First and Mar means Strong. As observed the locals still call their country Burma. Whatever you call it, you are still referring to the rich country of the Burmese.

Meet the People

More than the thousand stupas and pagodas, Burma is a great country because of its people. Among the countries I have visited  in Southeast Asia (except for my country the Philippines), Burma has the nicest-friendly people. Burmese will never fail to smile at you. Nobody snubbed me when I was trying to ask for help. Though most of them cannot speak English, they will try to understand you and help you. If one knows how to speak english expect that guy to accompany you as much as he can. They are generous and helpful. Their spirit has touched me from within.


There is this one guy on the train on my way to Hsipaw: Obviously he know that I am a tourist because I was taking pictures of the scenery. He was trying to talk to me in gestures because he cannot speak English. When the train stopped for lunch he waived and gestures something like "lets eat". I said I am okay and I just stayed in the train. At the time I saw the Gokteik Bridge he was like pointing me to the best part of the train to take photos. He even offered to take a picture of me. After the Gokteik Bridge, I felt hungry and good thing there was a vendor selling fried noodles near me on the train. I bought one and got it on plastic. On my way back to my seat I saw the man washing his plates and fork and he was like giving it to me so that I can eat properly. But I don't know why, I refused his offer maybe not because I am concerned if its dirty or not. Maybe because I felt that his goods deeds towards me was already overflowing. I regret it after I finished eating. I realized that I should not have turned down a help from the man who has a genuine heart for helping. He already made the effort of washing it. Tsk... 

Later on thesame man thought me how to open and eat a sunflower seed (yeah I didn't know how to open it properly until this man thought me) along the way.

I will never run out stories of Burmese doing good deed to me. And for one thing I didn't felt any harm when I was there.

Money

The currency is called Kyat (pronounced as "chat"). Exchange rate would be like $1=K980. So for easy computation consider a $1=K1000 conversion.   They said its better to exchange money in the airport because they have good rates there. Well gone are those days. Today a lot of money changers in the downtown offers a good exchange rates. Better to have that crisp 2009 series 100 dollar notes to avoid any hassle. Exchanging of $10, $20, and $50 dollar notes will lessen the value of your money so better exchange your $100 bill.

What to Buy?

There are lots of antique shops in Yangon near the Scott Market. They are selling antique pocket watch for $25. I am not just so sure if these are authentic since a lot of side-street-vendors are selling it. There are lacquerwares in Bagan for $1 to $10. Shan bags are good presents back home. I bought some in Mandalay for an average of $2 each.


Lacquerwares from Bagan
One thing I notice in all the places I went in Burma was that they love reading. In almost all sidewalks where vendors are flocking, you can see books piled on the pavements. Old books with brown color pages and dusty covers. They will give you a book about Ang Su Kyi for you to buy.

I saw a night market in Mandalay along 82th street near the clock tower. They sell of course books, used and new clothes and household  goods made in China.

What to Eat?

The food in Burma is all fried. Should I say they love fried street food. From fried rice, fish, Chicken, beef, vegetables, prawns (yes they fry prawns) up to the things that you can't imagine frying in your homes like pig intestines and the like, they all have it there. I even saw a big sized crab being fried on the street. Their street foods are, on my standard, exotic. We have those here in the Philippines but we prepare it differently.




Eating in a restaurant especially on the touristy area could be a disaster if you are hungry. Well in most of my experience. When we were in a restaurant in Bagan where there were a lot of tourist, we had to wait like 45 minutes to 1 hour just to eat our fried vegetable. In fairness to the waiter he told us that the food will take long and it really does. I have shared this experience to an American couple and they say they experience the same thing as well. The reason behind is that they cook the primitive way. Yeah even the most posh restaurants you will see (maybe an exaggeration). They cook with charcoals and big pots. A little understanding for now is needed. I am sure 2 - 4 years from now this experience will be just history.

Honestly, Burmese food are blunt. I was like what is this? A lot of oil in the food. Sorry. I love eating and I always enjoy the food whenever I travel. But Burmese food are far from what I have tasted in Thailand and of course the Philippines. Sorry just saying. Though the Burmese Buffet in Bagan is exceptional. Though oily, I love the food especially the lamb and the black bean paste paired with crunchy raw vegetable. My Malaysian friends however told me that it has an Indian and Malay influence.

Burmese Buffet

Being a developing country which has just recently opened to the world, Burmese still lacks sufficient information in terms of food preparation. I don't want to sound like a brat health worker here but I have some reservations on how they prepare food. That should be address by the government soon.

Average price of a decent meal is K2500. If you're in a budget you can eat good food in side street for K1000. And I did it most of the time in Yangon.

Must Try:

Though I didn't enjoy eating in Burma, I recommend that you try their Yogurt drink and Yogurt ice cream. We have tried it in two stores along Mahabandoola Road in Yangon and it was so good. For K 500 to K700 you gonna enjoy it for sure. The Indians are selling this.


Plain Yogurt

Durian Yogurt Ice Cream

Another must try is the Indian Rotti or Pancake on the streets of Mandalay. We've tried one along the corner of 26th street and 83rd street. For  K1000 the pancake can be shared by two for a try.

Where to Stay?

I could say that I have stayed on a guesthouse within my budget which is $5-$10 per night. In Yangon I stayed in Mahabandoola Guesthouse which cost $6 per night with Wifi, shared bathroom (with hot shower) and with no breakfast. Just don't expect all the best in the world.

Mahabandoola Double Room

I didn't booked a hotel in most of my travels so as in Bagan. I was like there at 4am looking for a guesthouse. A bicycle driver in the bus station offered me a room for $10 but later I realized that we willstill  look for a hotel. Luckily I found Pann Cherry Guesthouse in Nyang U along the main road going to Old Bagan. I got it for $8 per night and I was not expecting that. I was prepared to pay like $15-$20 because I know that its Bagan and it the high season. The single room includes shared bath (no hot water), WiFi and overflowing tea. Do not expect to watch a youtube video with their wifi. Over all I like it. Its better than I had in Yangon.

I stayed in two hotels in Mandalay because not as planned I went there early to celebrate new years eve with my new friends. We stayed at Aung San Myu Hotel for $40 per night. I paid $20 because I shared the room with Clover, a Chinese friend. It goes with hot shower, breakfast and a good WiFi connection. The hotel is walking distance from the bus station.

The other hotel I stayed in Mandalay is AD1 Hotel located in the downtown. Quite near from the clock tower. This one I booked online through Agoda because I was nervous that I might not find a hotel in Mandalay. It was a good decision though that I booked it online. My room cost $20 per night with wifi and sumptuous breakfast. I am not sure if there is a hot shower or mine was just not working. I was kinda disappointed with my room. Good thing though the hotel staff were all nice and helpful.

The best thing that I had in Burma in terms of accommodation was in Hsipaw. I didn't booked a hotel there as well. I got a hotel there at the train station where there were men offering you a hotel. One man approached me asking if I have a hotel and I said none yet. He offered me a $5 and $7 room WiFi free transportation. And by instinct I know this guy is not like the bicycle driver in Bagan. I was with a Spanish couple in the tuktuk. When I saw the place, I loved it. I got the $7 room, a very nice room, with sumptuous breakfast, a good WiFi and 24hours hot shower. In addition Yee Shinn hotel has the best staff.



When to go?
I went there during the Christmas Holidays. That's from December 25 to January 6. They say its the peak season that was why there were lots of foreign tourist. I guess that's the best time to visit because you will get to experience a nice weather in all parts of Burma. Its the winter anyway. You could see me in my next post wearing jackets because it was really cold. The temperature drops at 16-18 degrees in the morning and maybe like 20-22 degrees in the afternoon.

Waiting for the Sunrise in Bagan

Where to Go?

Common tourist route is like Yangon-Bagan-Inle Lake-Mandalay.  But I skipped Inle Lake to see the Gokteik Bridge and rest of Hsipaw. I wanted to go to Inle Lake but I only had 10 full days to spare in Burma.

Yangon


Must see in Yangon is the Shwedagon Pagoda. You can also see the outskirt of the city by doing the 3 hours circular train. You do it in the morning to see daily activities of the locals. You might as well want to go out and see the highest Pagoda in the world in Bago two hours away by train.

Dried Chili in Bago Market

Bagan

Needless to say the thousands Pagoda is the highlight of Bagan. You can do it via hired horse cart or my bike. Doing both is recommended.




Biking around Bagan is a must do. For K1500 to K2000 prepare your butt for a life time biking experince around the temples. Renting an electric bike for K8000 is also an option but the manual bike is healthier and much faster.  


Mandalay

Shwenandaw Monastery or the Golden Monastery is the highlight of my Mandalay tour. I hired a motorcycle for a full day tour starting at 4am to 2pm. I witnessed the washing of the face of the Buddha, the sunrise in Mandalay Hill, I walked on the wooded floors of the Grand Palace and lastly went out of Mandalay for Innwa. You just have to pay the $10 or K10,000 for the Mandalay Archeological Fee. I also paid K15000 for the motorcycle. You also have to hire a horse cart in Innwa. You have to cross the river by boat so you cannot bring the motorcycle.

Shwenandaw Monastery

Sunrise at Mandalay Hill

Best way to end your Mandalay Tour is through the Sunset in U-Bein Bridge. Walked on the centuries old wooden bridge like the locals do and watched the sun makes its way to the lake. Doing it in the morning is more advantageous for some because there are less people in the morning. But for us we waited for the last sunset of 2013.



Hsipaw


I love Hsipaw. First I wanted to go there just to see the Gokteik Bridge. But Hsipaw gave me a real vacation so I extended my stay there. I biked around this rural town in cool weather and greeted the locals in the Villages. I met the prince in the Shan Palace and we chat for a while about his family and a little bit of Myanmar's politics. I will go back to Hsipaw. Its my priority once I go back to Burma.

Best Train ride ever - Crossing the Gokteik Bridge

Overall, my Burma Experience was like a journey of life. Its not the best but its worthwhile. I would definitely comeback maybe within 3 to 5 years. I will go back on the same period as I did, Dec to Feb because I love the cold weather. My next post will be the rundown of my itinerary from day 0 to day 12. There I will summarize the expenses and will give more tips as well.

Thanks for reading

Burma Series




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This is the travel blog of Jherson Jaya - banker by profession, adventurer by passion. Everything written here were based on his experiences. The lust of seeing new places thrilled him to explore both the explored and unexplored world. Old and new architecture fanatic; lover of food, both exotic and indulgence; and founds peace in long bus and train rides - that's how he describe his way of traveling.    

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