Sunday, 22 November 2015

Mandalay ~ Sagaing ~ Amarapura, Myanmar (Burma)

We arrived at Mandalay after a 5-hr bus ride, most locals get off at Chan May Shwe Pyi Bus Terminal, about 10km south of downtown. The minibus driver took our hotel’s address and dropped us off at its door (Shwe Ingyinn Hotel). 

Famished, we set out for dinner. Before we made it to the night market on 34th street, we stopped at a hole-in-the-wall noodle joint, while we pointed to order, the locals stopped and stared; the glowing celeb caused quite a stir and I swear one of the waiters had a crush on him. We had dumplings and fried noodles, but like most of the food here, it was heavy with MSG. We still had space to taste all kinds of snacks from the night market.
A lot of stuff was deep-fried. As long as it was fresh off the grill or hob, we figured it’s least likely to kill us. He became best friends with the vendors quickly, particularly with a couple of ladies selling fried tofu and sweet melon. After an array of crispy and greasy snacks, which all tasted like fresh hot dough, we felt courageous enough to try some yoghurt, sold in two tins stored in a polystyrene box. The vendor mixed in some honey and topped it off with coconut shavings. I’m guessing he was popular as locals bought bags of it to take home. It was a good yoghurt. 
The other stalls were mainly selling noodles, most of which had Chinese writing as well as Burmese on their menu. He opted for a bowl of hot and spicy thick vermicelli. Unfortunately I react to MSG; a small amount is tolerable and I just get swollen and bloated; any more it's cold sweat, breathlessness and lethargy. Apparently sugar helps. I only tasted the noodles as I could feel the MSG building up. It's almost inevitable here, just eat more bread and fruit at breakfast.

On our way back to the hotel, we passed a local fairground, where he tested his football skills (we’ll blame it on the ball) and we saw the most primeval ferris wheel. The shaky wheel was packed with people crammed into steel cradles, and powered by a man running like a hamster inside it. It was like waiting for disaster to happen. The guys waved at us to join… I don’t think our travel insurance would cover that.

The next morning we hopped on a motorbike taxi to catch the 9am boat to Mingun. The motorbike taxi whizzed us to Gaw Wein Jetty in 8mins; would have taken longer in a taxi. Yea the road was dusty and the helmet was a bit loose, but I loved it – it’s day 1 on the back of a bike, of course I loved it. Ferry tickets at 5,000 kyats pp for a roundtrip; the journey takes 1 hour up Ayeyawady river and returns at 12:30pm, which left us 2.5hrs in Mingun.

‘Taxi’ is a loose term. At Mingun it refers to a cart with a straw roof, powered by two cows, moving marginally faster than a slug dragging through peanut butter. But I kid you not, there are takers. More in abundance than taxis were local guides who attached themselves and started showing us around to practise their English. We politely declined his company and were left alone. It’s a small town, we could manage. The 5,000 kyat entry fee for Mingun & Sagaing Archaeological zones, however, was unshakeable. That said I don’t recall anyone checking tickets when we went into Sagaing the following day… I suppose if we had walked along the riverbank and entered town via the white pagoda pass the checkpoint…
Like everyone else, we walked around Mingun Pahtodawgyi, aka the world’s largest pile of bricks. The king back in 18th century wanted to build the biggest monument, but his prophet said the king would die upon its completion. So it was left unfinished until the earthquake hit 50 years later, hence its striking appearance. We climbed the 174 steps to the top where we could see the bums of a couple of lions facing the river and a birds eye view overlooking the town. It was hot. Unforgivingly hot.

Then we made our way to Mingun Bell, the largest ringing bell in the world, and Hsinbyume Pagoda, which the king built in memory of his wife. It was supposed to mirror Mount Meru and its neighbouring mountain ranges – exactly 100 steps up to the top.

2.5 hours was just right; a few minutes to spare on the arts & crafts stalls and buying our third 100+. Mingun was charming; perhaps we were lucky in picking a quiet day, but I appreciated its tranquillity and it was really worth the half-day trip. 

Back in Mandalay, we hopped on a motorbike taxi to take us to the East Gate of the Royal Palace. We weren’t really sure where we wanted to go, but the general direction of Mandalay Hill was about right. Perhaps I’m uncultured, but I have never been a fan of museums and palaces, something about walking through rooms of artefacts and photographs make my eyes water from yawning… non-stop. And somehow all museums blend into one melting pot. We hadn’t decided if we wanted to see the palace, but lunch at CityMart was a sure thing. CityMart is a proper mall; aircon, restaurants, a Waitrose-equivalent and Chatime, yes, a fricking Chatime! He would never pass a Chatime:)

We had Kyae Oh at YKKO, one dry with pork and one in broth with seafood. The portions were huge compared to what we had on the street, plenty of pork strips and offal bits and crabmeat, around 4,500 kyat each. It was like vermicelli – quite good.
Two power-cuts later we had our Thai iced tea ice cream with banana and brownies at Ice Mania. The girl ‘chopped’ the ice-cream mixture with bananas (he was going to have kiwi, seriously, a kiwi Thai iced tea with brownies?!), then smeared it across the ice cold metallic surface, which instantly turned it into a sheet of ice-cream - It was magic! 
This was the first time we had seen it, later we found the same store in Bangkok. Finally, with a roasted bubble milk tea in hand, we made our way towards Kuthodaw Pagoda. It was a leisurely 20min stroll from CityMart, via a residential area where cows were living right next to people’s houses. 

The 10,000 kyat fee for Mandalay archaeological zone was sunk cost (I feel so intelligent when I use this term), apparently. Well, it includes entrance to all the main temples in the city and Amarapura, but no one checked when we went. We visited Shwenandaw Monastery, the teak temple with detailed carvings, and Kuthodaw pagoda, the biggest book in the world. Each stupa houses a slab of stone inscriptions with 2 pages of tipitaka - 729 stupas on site. It was quite special.

Then it was a race up Mandalay Hill. We could have taken a motorbike taxi… but why when we could walk?! He didn’t actually plan to walk… I have a feeling he obliged after I said I wanted to. They say the 1,729 steps take 45mins to climb; it was 5pm. Shoes off, we charged to the top, barely paused at the temples and buddhas along the way.

And we made it in just over 30mins, just in time to catch the glowing sun sink behind the mountains. 

A couple of motorbike taxis brought us back to downtown, the downhill ride in the dark was quite gripping. We had claypot noodles for dinner… same MSG story. For dessert, we wanted to try Htoe-Moun, a special sweet treat that could only be found in Mandalay. It’s a glutinous rice cake topped dried fruits or buttery crumb. Our hotel recommended Myint Myint Khin down the road, and judging from the local crowd at 9pm, it should be good. The girls at the counter didn’t speak English, but she served up a platter for us to sample.

The bits on the left to the front was Htoe moun, which was very sweet, very chewy and quite rich. My favourite was the moist custardy cake at the back and the fragrant banana cake in the middle. The crunchy jelly cake wasn’t my kind of thing. Though not the most delicious desserts, it’s quite a good souvenir to bring home.

We wanted to visit Sagaing and Amarapura on our last full day in Myanmar. Since we weren’t interested in Inwa (Ava), we took it slow and set out for find our motorbike drivers around 10:30am. May I introduce Laurel and Hardy…

Our drivers spoke little no English. We told them we wanted to tour Sagaing for the day, then to Amarapura to watch sunset. They both nodded with utmost enthusiasm and smiled and we agreed on a price. Off we went. 

Sagaing is far. The excitement of sitting on a motorbike was starting to wear thin, and it was a good 45min ride from Mandalay to Sagaing, if not more. We briefly stopped at a buddha academy and passed numerous monasteries before arriving Sone Oo Pone Nya Shin Pagoda on the top of Sagaing Hill. It was very similar to Mandalay Hill, except this was green. I think the numb bum and the heat was starting to get to me…

We hopped back on the motorbikes, thinking Laurel and Hardy was going to drop us off at the next temple on Sagaing Hill… but that would be too ideal. When we were crossing the bridge again, we stopped them to ask where we were going. They said something we couldn’t understand. We should have stopped them there - but we didn’t. Lo and behold, where did they decide to take us at 12:30? Amarapura! U-Bein Bridge! Where we should be at 4pm! Not now - at 12:30! I was so ready to unleash my wrath… 

After much pointing at the sun and the watch and the motorbikes, Laurel found an English-speaking local from the restaurant to mediate while Hardy kept flashing his advert-worthy smile on his lolling head. We finally agreed on a revised itinerary with a small top-up. Back to Sagaing. 

In hindsight, we should have written them a list of all the places we wanted to go, shouldn’t have assumed that they knew the main sights. The man made a very valid point that while we were having a lie-in, all the good drivers were probably taken by the early-birds who wanted to start at 7.

The Sri Lankan-style Kaunghmudaw Pagoda is quite far into Sagaing. Built 700 years ago, the enormous golden dome was only painted gold about 5 years ago by the military government, it used to be white to signify purity. I overheard the guide saying the locals weren’t happy about it. For Laurel & Hardy to think we didn’t want to visit this when we hired them for a day...

Then we made our way back up Sagaing Hill to U Min Thonze (Cave Temple). Since most people visit in the morning, as it’s right next to Sone Oo Pone Nya Shin Pagoda, the place was completely empty. That worked out quite nicely for us. If it wasn’t for the detour, we may have been able to see a bit more, but I was happy to have seen the main ones. 

For the second time we returned to U Bein Bridge in Amarapura. There were plenty of boats offering rides out to the lake to watch sunset. We walked along the bridge to the middle and waited for sunset on a cart:)

We had to try mohinga before leaving Myanmar. It’s known to be the national Burmese dish that is usually eaten in the morning. I read ZayCho market still have it in the evenings. It was Saturday night, that market looked like a scene from Residents Evil before a zombie attack - dark and deserted, roadside stalls set up on mats with portable lamps and people moving in slow-mo. The locals pointed us to one stall that was selling Mohinga. The lady began assembling our noodle soup from her tupperware boxes, finished with a thick broth from her steel pot hidden behind the table. This could kill us.

It was… an acquired taste. The fish-based broth was quite pungent with strips of fish (!), deep-fried dough and rice noodles. All I could taste was MSG. Not wanting to offend, we got through half a portion. While I survived (coz I have a stomach of steel), he was less fortunate.

The taxi to Mandalay airport from downtown took 45mins, 12-15,000 kyats. The flight to Bangkok took about the same time.

We enjoyed 9 beautiful days in Myanmar; there is an untouched charm to the country - magnificent scenery, admirable culture, kind and genuine people. Even with Laurel & Hardy. No doubt it’s developing at the speed of light, and with that mass tourism will start flooding in, then things start to change - for better or worse.

I’m just grateful that I have experienced the place now.

I’m just grateful. Because I'm so lucky.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Bagan, Myanmar (Burma)

The bus arrived at Bagan Shwe Pyi Bus Terminal around 5am, and we were met by a wave of taxi drivers. We were staying at Zfreeti Hotel in Nyaung-U, which was a small town to the east of Old Bagan. The taxi ride was 12,000 kyat and there wasn’t much room for negotiation. There was also a $20pp tax to enter the Bagan Archeological zone. 

The street-full of restaurants offered more or less the same menu: Myanmar, Chinese, Italian, Thai dishes. For brunch, we tried the tea leaf salad and Myanmar beef curry. 
The tea leaf salad was interesting with soft pickled tea leaves, roasted peanuts, toasted beans, sesame seed, crispy garlic and chopped tomato. The dressing was savoury and tangy, made with fish sauce and lime juice. I quite liked it. The curry was a bit… meh.

I was introduced to e-bikes and they are fantastic. The throttle made uphill cycling so effortless but I still got the thrills from riding - it just moves faster! I might have landed on my bum once coz the bike was quite heavy… We started off with a smaller temple, where a local came to unlock the gates and gave us a mini tour of the inside. 

We continued to explore at our own pace, making our way around pagodas, stopping at whatever caught our eye, climbing stupas, taking in panoramas, roaming free.

We stopped at the Alodawpyi Pagoda, and enjoyed a quiet view of the plains on the unassuming brick structure behind the golden stupa, followed by Ananda Temple.

Thanks to Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor, there are about 4 “Be Kind to Animals” vegetarian restaurants near the gate to Old Bagan. We went to The Moon, which also claimed to be the original. The servers here look about 18, but they all sounded like American war veterans; they spoke with a husky tone, heavy American accent and ended every sentence with ‘sir!’. We had the coconut milk curry and aubergine curry, both excellent, possibly the best meal we had in Bagan.
After Maha Bodhi Phaya, a local led us to and showed us the dark hidden stairs up to watch sunset. From there we could see Shwegu Gyi Phaya, Thatbyinnyu and the rather ugly archaeological museum.

The next day we rose early for sunrise. Our hotel said Shwesandaw is a popular spot, and we were lucky that by ‘crowded’, there were only 20 of us. It was fairly cloudy but some light came through and it was still quite spectacular when the hot air balloons began floating across the plains. We weren’t hot for forking out 350USD each for the balloon ride, apparently plenty of people were and it often gets booked out.

After breakfast and a quick nap, we set out for our second day towards Minnanthu with our e-bikes. The road was clearly marked on the map and the hotel said the route was do-able with our e-bikes. Umm… perhaps the hotel was too optimistic with the bikes, the ‘road’ was merely a muddy track where even scooters had trouble navigating. About 45mins in, the track sort of disappeared and led us to a field with two huge cows. The good bit was that he had a compass, can read a map and managed to lead us through some deserted temples back to the road. The less positive bit was that we had to ruin a man’s field (twice, possibly the same man), it was a scaldingly hot day to push our bikes, I was feeding every bug within the mile and getting scratched by every plant.

Ah well, once we found the pristinely white temple, we got back onto the real road and made a few more stops, including the Dhammayazika. A coach-full of monks also visited at the same time, with their sunnies and smartphones:)

We stopped at New Bagan for lunch before heading back to Old Bagan to finish what we had missed the day before. There was a lot of development happening in New Bagan, with plenty of small hotels and hostels popping up. That’s probably why I prefer the quieter Nyaung-U. The tourist info centre was just as useful as our hotel reception desk. 

I think he felt obliged to visit the Bagan Museum… we might have spent 15mins in there... the early start of the day was starting to catch up with him. We climbed another temple as the sun began to set. He is absolutely brilliant with the technicalities on his camera, just despairingly hopeless when it comes to framing:) After a quick walkaround Bu Paya, the golden Humpty Dumpty, we made a quick stop at the Moon again, where Colonel No.2 served up some homemade banana ice cream and papaya lassi, a much needed sugar boost.

The next day we arranged a half-day trip to Mount Popa. Well, it’s actually called Taung Kalat where the monastery sits on top of the volcanic plug. After a 2-hour drive, we climbed 777 steps to reach the top. Perhaps we were templed-out, perhaps I was hating every minute with the monkeys running wild, perhaps it was the heat from the climbing, it was a bit meh. Thankfully we had the rest of the day free to chill, arrange our next stop and buy new pants:)

We weren’t overly impressed by the restaurants in Bagan, most meals were a blur of poor Thai and Myanmar curries or stir fried noodles, washed down with Myanmar beers. Black Bamboo in Nyaung-U served the best dinner with a fair wine selection in a beautiful garden, though it was 30% pricier than the main strip. We also enjoyed ma-la fish, which was a whole fish grilled with peppers and chillies, not dissimilar to sichuan cuisine. Finally the ‘best burger in Asia’ by Weatherspoon did not disappoint despite my scepticism. The beast was packed with avocado, crispy bacon, a juicy patty, melted cheese and fresh salads; I can’t confirm if it was the best in Asia, but it beats the ones I have had in Singapore so far!

We had a few options for the next few days. Inle Lake was ruled out quite quickly, mixed reviews plus the idea of being on a touristy lake with lots of mosquitos gave me the shivers, or the itch. Some may say I have missed out. We contemplated Monywa but trying to book last-minute accommodation was proving difficult, not to mention wikitravel’s “buy” section only mentioned mosquito repellent. In the end we decided on Mandalay and perhaps do day-trips to Monywa later if we fancied it. 

The boat from Bagan to Mandalay takes 11 hours, daily departure for the tourist ferry and costs 38,000 kyat pp. The local boat leaves twice a week and it takes 14 hours. It was a very easy ‘No’ - we went for the minibus, 5 hours - 10,000pp with door-to-door delivery. I'd say bring some snacks for the bus ride, it was pretty much non-stop and options were limited at the bus stop. 

Next stop: Mandalay