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Nyaung Shwe (Inle Lake)

(Continued from previous post)

28 Jun 17, Wed

We didn’t have a night to stay at Nyaung Shwe. Hence, we headed to a cheap accommodation called Zawgi Inn, cashed in USD14 and left our luggage there.

We paid 18,000 kyat for the boat trip on Inle Lake, found in a valley surrounded by lush green mountains. It was exhilarating to be sitting on the boat in the middle of the lake with the beautiful sky above. The engine was noisy but the mind was at peace.

We started our trip at 8 plus am. After half an hour of journey, the boat stopped by a restaurant for us to have our breakfast.

Second stop was Inle traditional silversmith workshop & showroom where you can observe the process of steel being hammered and refined into different shapes, as well as to purchase the silver products they handmake there.

Third stop was the market. The one that our boatman brought us to was a distance down the lake where the market itself took place on a dry land.

Fourth stop was a place for silk, lotus and cotton hand weaving. Interesting to find out that lotus thread is stronger than silk. We observed the process whereby lotus stem was cut and how the fibre inside was used to form threads. You can even try it.

Our boatman was playing Carrom with another boatman while waiting for us. Happy to see a familiar game.

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At our fifth stop, we watched two women sitting cross legged in the process of making flavoured cheroots, local cigar. A man explained to us the different products. The cigars are wrapped in tree leaves and contain crushed tobacco and bits of dried wood seasoned with various flavour.

Sixth stop was In Dein, which was one of the small villages of Inle Lake located on the western bank of the lake. Walk up the covered walkway and a huge collection of stupas (as well as several active dogs) await you.

At our seventh stop, we met long necked women, who wear brass ring around their necks. The number of brass rings they wear depends on their age. They do not originally live along Inle Lake though.

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Jumping cat monastery is our last stop. Contrary to its name, the cats there were lazing around when we reached. The monastery itself is ordinary and does not command a special visit.

So cool to see students go home by boat.

On our way back, we kept a lookout for fishermen. There were fishermen who were doing real fishing but those were not photo-worthy. We chanced upon a fisherman who was doing the pose of traditional fishing for another boat of tourists. He then did it for us and came over for tips. Behind this commercialised balancing act, it was interesting to learn of the unusual techniques mastered by the fishermen there. Along the journey, we have witnessed fishermen and even young boys, who balance on one leg and wrap the other leg around the oar to guide the vessel. The unique position has attracted the taking of many photos by tourists, which are not just beautiful to look at, but the photos also teach us something about another lifestyle and culture.

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This position enables the fishermen to see across the lake to spot the dense weeds within the water and at the same time, the hands are free to manage the large cone-shaped baskets should they spot any fishes.

Our boat trip ended at 4 plus in the afternoon and we headed back for shower before taking JJ Express at 6pm back to Yangon. Inle Lake was my most favourite attraction in Myanmar. I wish I have enough time to stay for sunset though.

(Refer to the post on Yangon for continuation.)


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Mandalay

(Continued from previous post)

26 Jun 17, Mon

After the train ride, we checked in to Hotel Yadanarbon, the Mandalay branch, which costs us only 34,500 kyat for a night.

Having spent the past 6 hours plus in the filthy train, we showered before having late lunch at Hana Yakiniku restaurant. Somehow, it was relatively harder to get a taxi in Mandalay. Taxis were more expensive here.

We spent 15,000 kyat on taxi to bring us to U Bein bridge and back to hotel. This is the oldest and longest teakwood bridge in the world, being built around 1850. The bridge is 1.2km long. The best time to see the bridge is at sunset.

Make sure you arrive there early enough, otherwise you will miss the sunset colour, like me. We met a Shanghai photographer who mentioned that only in winter will the sun be behind the bridge. This is the spot where good photos of the bridge can be taken. Today however, the sun set in the direction of the bridge.

27 Jun 17, Tue

A kind Burmese Chinese man (“the man”) offered to bring us around Mandalay. This trip really made me realise how nice Burmese people are. Is there any bad person here?! As much as I was skeptical (learnt to have professional skepticism from my job), those people whom I encountered during the journey turned out to have no evil intention behind their kind appearance. Their smiles and effort were genuine.

The 62 years old man drove us up to Mandalay hill, which is 240 metres high. At the top of the hill is the Sutaungpyei (literally wish-fulfilling) Pagoda. We had to remove our shoes starting at the carpark. Talk about experience in Myanmar. Being barefoot on all sorts of ground. The hill was a let down. A pagoda on the top, admission fee of 1,000 kyat. View from the peak was not fantastic. I like Mount Popa more. After minimal loitering, we walked down the stairs back to the carpark.

Even when the man advised to skip the royal palace, we insisted on going and then regretted not heeding the advice. Paid 10k kyat for a 5 days archaeological ticket in order to get into royal palace. This is the last royal palace of the last Burmese monarchy, more than hundred years since the last Burmese king lived here.

Left with nothing to do, we went for 2 hour KTV, lunch and mani pedi. I did my gel manicure with nail art at only 16,800 kyat at Skywalk shopping mall!

We paid 5,000 kyat for a taxi ride from the shopping mall to Hotel Yadanarbon then to the bus station. The JJ Express stewardess served coffee to the passengers awaiting the bus.

This time, we paid USD12 for VIP seat to travel from Mandalay to Nyaung Shwe (Inle lake). The ride was an enjoyable one with in-bus entertainment, drink and food. The type of food provided depends on the timing of the bus journey. We departed from Mandalay at 10pm and reached Nyaung Shwe at 5.30am. We were given a box with bread and cakes.

(Next: Nyaung Shwe (Inle Lake))


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Bagan

(Continued from the previous post)

24 Jun 17, Sat

Upon reaching Began bus station, we were greeted by many taxi drivers, who typically quoted high fare. One of the drivers was willing to offer a fare of 3,000 kyat per pax to Hotel Yadanarbon, which was the rate researched and asked by my friend. We travelled in Bagan in a group of three, having met a Turkmenistan solo traveller on JJ Express.

In the taxi, we were stopped and asked to pay an entrance fee of 25k kyat. We each got a ticket, which the taxi driver advised that this had to be shown at certain temples. (But we were never asked to produce the ticket after that.)

My friend and I did not book any hotel in Bagan beforehand. We made our way to Hotel Yadanarbon and asked the receptionist for the rate. Being the budget travellers (at least we tried to), we checked against the rates on booking.com and Agoda and went ahead with Agoda which offered the lowest rate. The hotel had the feel of a resort, in terms of its design. There was a bathtub in the bathroom. You could enjoy breakfast by the pool. The only downsides were that room was small and you could hear your neighbours talking in the next room. Luckily, I was exhausted enough to fall asleep.

The hotel offers free application of Thanaka. When you are in Myanmar, it is definite that you will notice the yellowish-white paint on Burmese’s face. Thanaka is a traditional Burmese beauty treatment made from Thanaka wood, used as a natural sunscreen. The paste is prepared by¬†kyauk pyin, a stone slab) with a few drops of water added and the log grinded against the flat round stone.

Bagan is an ancient town where over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed over the Bagan plains as a representation of power by the different kingdoms from the 11th to 13th century. Today, over 2,000 remain.

(A pagoda is a type of temple. A monastery is a place where monks and nuns live, work and pray.)

The three of us paid 30k kyat in total for each of the two days for full day taxi rides. Low season made it a good opportunity for bargain. First day, we had a tour of the temples in Bagan. After a while, all the temples looked similar. The temples are all rather near one another. Thus, expect just a short drive before reaching the next one. They are not within walking distance though. Alternatively, grab an electric bike. If you wish to understand the story behind these temples, a guide is recommended. We were lucky to meet a friendly Burmese in one of the temples, who was happy to answer our questions.

There are a few temples that are good spots for watching sunset. We watched at Shwesandaw Pagoda, a well-known spot. The stairs are steep, but as long as you watch your steps, hold onto the railing and not have any dramatic thought, you will be safe and sound.

Dinner was at Black Rose restaurant. There isn’t any air-conditioned restaurants in Bagan. We didn’t expect Bagan to be backward prior to travelling there.

25 Jun 17, Sun

We left for Mount Popa at 9.30am the next morning. Mount Popa is an extinct volcano 1,517 metres above sea level, topped by gold stupas. Popa is believed to mean flower in Sanskrit.

Almost an hour drive there. You will be surrounded by monkeys there. But not to worry, as long as monkeys and human can live in harmony, there is no war on the mountain. I wasn’t attacked at all. We climbed 777 steps up to the peak. There were shops and view along the way. Not an exhausting and challenging climb for normal people. It was cooling on the mountain and the view was scenic.

We had our lunch at Yangon restaurant (I know we were at Bagan), recommended by our driver. We had fried rice and vermicelli, at 4,000 kyat each plate, slightly more expensive than elsewhere, but for which my friend complemented for its good taste. The restaurant offered free handphone charging.

In the evening, we took a 15 min walk to a restaurant near our hotel. Sometimes, you need to walk on your own to discover more of the unseen. We passed by a hotel nearby and the staff told us that there was no guest at all on that day. We entered grocery shops only to realise some of the food being sold there had expired. Wonder how they survive with such poor business. Bagan does seem pretty undeveloped.

26 Jun 17, Mon

To inject an element of adventure into our journey, we decided to take train from Bagan to Mandalay, despite the many bad review (disgusting toilet etc) we read online. The train departed from Bagan at 7am and reached Mandalay at 2.30pm. We dropped by the train station the day before and was informed to arrive at 6am to purchase the tickets instead. Train ride was surprisingly cheap at only 2,900 kyat for upper class. Bus ride was only a few dollars more. Our taxi driver quoted 80,000 kyat to drive us to Mandalay within 4 hours. Our taxi ride from Hotel Yadanarbon to the train station costs 6k kyat, 10 to 15 minutes drive away. I would advise to use the hotel bathroom first and avoid the toilets at the train station and the train to keep your journey as pleasant as possible.

I was welcomed by two dead insects on my seat in the train. Using a tissue, I sent its dead bodies out of the window. Having adjusted my mindset, I stayed neutral about it. In Myanmar, you have to let go of hygiene to an extent. It is a norm (or rather, mandatory) to walk within the temples and pagodas barefooted. The floor is not as dry and clean as what you may have imagined. The floor will be wet on a rainy day and you will be walking on wet and dirty floor. Just make sure you book a decent hotel where you can enjoy heavenly shower at the end of the day.

The train travelled at a speed such that if you were on the track and you heard and saw this train coming, you should be able to react and get off the track. The train made a few unexplained stops as well. There was really no breathtaking scenery to admire along the way. You just have to do your own things or look out and enjoy the peace. I’m super good in stoning, hence, I can blank out and look at the greenery. Hopefully, it can help to improve my eyesight, especially back in home country where I hardly have time to catch a breather and rest.

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(Next: Mandalay)


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Yangon

Myanmar is the designated country where I wanted to volunteer and travel in this year. The beautiful pictures taken in Bagan are enticing. I travelled with a friend and we spent 12 days in Myanmar, including 4 days of volunteering.

19 Jun 17, Mon

We purchased return air tickets to Yangon from Silkair at only SGD 208 (promotional price). We departed Singapore at 12pm (GMT: +8) and arrived at Yangon at 1.25pm (GMT: +6:30). The complementary 30kg luggage came in handy for us as we brought donated clothes, books, stationery etc over. Inflight entertainment was limited.

The first thing we did at Yangon international airport was to get a data sim card. It costs me around 10,000 kyat for 6GB of data. Uber operates in Yangon (unlike elsewhere in Myanmar). We booked an Uber ride for 2,700 kyat to Roly’s hostel, which was the only accommodation we booked prior to the trip and we only booked for a night. We thought that staying in a hostel would make it seem more like a volunteering trip (though we switched to hotel for the next few days). We got a rather spacious room at Roly’s hostel, with mosquito net over our beds. The shower room was a shared one. It was a liveable place. However, having come from a clean lion city, hygiene is important to us and the shared shower room just wasn’t ideal.

Uber brought us to Shwedagon Pagoda for 7,800 kyat. This is Yangon’s most famous landmark. Adorned with gold plates and diamonds, it is the most striking at night with lights shining on it. It was raining rather heavily and we walked around barefooted in low level of water. I couldn’t snap an ideal picture of the spectacular pagoda with the downpour. We were surprised that many locals were there to pray despite being a Monday evening.

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We hopped onto a local taxi to Beauty in the Pot restaurant. Met 14 other Singaporeans there. Our university senior then brought us to Shangri-La Residence to view her apartment. Each apartment costs SGD9,000 a month. Upscale but really modern and luxurious. We then joined the rest for KTV at The One entertainment.

20 Jun 17, Tue

Start of volunteering! I found Eden Centre for the disabled children through internet search. We were given structured timetable to follow. Each day, we would join in the lessons conducted by the teachers there and had 2 hours to execute our own activities with the children. My friend and I had not really volunteered for the disabled before. We volunteered for poor kids in Cambodia villages previously together and prepared the same kind of materials this time as well. Never did we realise that these disabled children really have special needs, of which we were unprepared for. (Lessons learnt for next time.) Every student has different disabilities (cerebral palsy, down syndrome, autism, speech delay, global developmental delay, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, intellectual delay, congenital myopathy, hydro-cephalus etc). Thankfully, the teachers were there to explain to us the students’ situation. Most students do not know English and we relied a lot on facial expression and hand signals to communicate with them. It was also heartwarming to see that the parents are supportive of their disabled children. Many parents accompany their children in school.

 

We checked in to Sky Man Hotel at night and stayed there for 3 nights. The bathroom did not look that clean but at least, we had our own bathroom. Nonetheless, it was still a wallet-friendly and decent hotel.

21 Jun 17, Wed

To immerse in Burmese lifestyle, we took public bus to and from Eden Centre. The Admin manager from Eden Centre guided us in the morning. The ride in the morning was a comparatively comfortable one as we had seats and the bus was air-conditioned. We took a smaller bus in the evening, with no aircon. The bus was packed with people knocking off from work. It was a challenge trying to balance, along with the stuff we were carrying. The 200 kyat bus ride sapped our energy away.

22 Jun 17, Thur

The parent of one of the kids at Eden Centre invited us to her house, which was 10km away. She arranged for transports and cooked for us a sumptous dinner. How hospitable and kind of her!

23 Jun 17, Fri

The Admin manager from Eden Centre brought us to a wet market nearby to buy ingredients to cook our chicken rice for the staff. It was interesting how the Burmese sit on the platform and sell their stuff.

We booked JJ Express bus tickets to Bagan for Fri via Facebook messenger. How convenient! As we booked only on Wed night, there weren’t any VIP seats (US$19) left. We were left with business class seats (UD$12). The VIP bus is characterised by its 2+1 seats in a row where business class bus has 2+2 seats in a row. Light snacks are served in VIP bus. We departed Yangon at 8pm and reached Bagan before 6am. We had one rest point at around 11 plus. The seats were spacious and comfortable, good enough for a night rest.

(For the trips to Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake, please refer to other blog posts!)

29 Jul 17, Thur

Coming from Nyaung Shwe, we reached Yangon at around 6 plus in the morning. JJ express bus stopped by a highway where we shifted to a shuttle bus which brought us to airport and downtown. From the railway station at downtown, there were taxis waiting for customers. We took one that costs 2k kyat to Hotel Grand United 21st Downtown.

The hotel reception was located on the 4th floor and the rooftop breakfast venue was on the 9th floor. We booked a twin bed room for SGD 55.76. The hotel had good reviews for its sumptous breakfast. The room was small but otherwise, good. It was in the heart of downtown, which made it convenient to travel around.

 

We walked around City Hall area.

 

Next, we headed to the railway station to take the circular train. When you are at the railway station, follow the sign for platform 7. The ticket can be purchased on the platform at only 200 kyat. The train ride took 3 hours. It is a great way to catch a glimpse of the daily routine of the Burmese away from the commercial area. You will notice the gradual change in landscape as you pass more stations Рfrom city concrete to rustic villages and paddy fields.

 

We were taking photos on the train and we got a man in singlet to help us take a few shots. Another man and him in singlets were resting around. While the train drew closer back to Yangon railway station, these men abruptly changed into their uniforms. We caught by surprise that they were actually police officers on the train and were on duty. They changed back to uniforms while nearing Yangon railway station because their boss was at the station. What a funny and interesting sight. (In case I created trouble here, I am sure these police officers were still on a lookout in their singlets. The ride was a peaceful one.)

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After the ride, we took a taxi for 3,000 kyat to the Brunch Society, a restaurant and bar at Sule Plaza. Nice ambience there.

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At night, we bought our food from Yangon food bazaar, which was only 5 minutes walk from our hotel. We figured it was time to try street food.

While I was waiting for my cooked fish at one of the stalls, there was a sudden heavy downpour and I was stuck at that tentage. As I was the only one at the table, a group of 3 Burmese joined me at the table and had their dinner. The older guy then told me that he just finished a Japanese lesson with his 2 pupils there. We chatted occasionally while they savoured the delicious-looking crabs. It was nice to bond with people from other countries who have the same interest as me.

30 Jun 17, Fri

We left for Yangon International Airport the next day. It was home sweet home, back to our country.

What has left me the deepest impression from this trip? It is the people. The country is so safe that I wonder if there are any bad people. The Burmese we met along the way were all selfless, who would put in extra effort to help us at no cost.

Also, along the way, even if you are not able to communicate with the Burmese because of the language barrier, you know you are at home when you see their smiles.