Saturday, August 28, 2010

Myanmar - Photos

Have uploaded the photos of Myanmar trip to my Travelogue. Click on the flag.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Myanmar - Bagan

The bus trip from Mandalay to Bagan was not so comfortable. Road was mostly unpaved, the air-conditioner was not functioning well, it was hot! The dust gushed in through the wide opened window covered up my face like cosmetic mask, 8 hr journey.

All foreigners have to pay USD10 to enter Bagan, sort of entrance fees to all sites. Traditionally the heart of Bamar culture, Bagan is crammed with more than 4000 red-brick temples. This small town has high concentration of hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops. The historical and religious rich elements make it probably the touristiest place in Myanmar.

The villagers in Old Bagan were forcibly relocated in 1990 to reserve for archeological zone. The area is largely agricultural plain land, possibly the cleanest I have seen in Myanmar. Different sizes pagoda studded all over the area. Most of them are well maintained, it presents different kind of beauty compared to the ruins in Angkor Wat (Cambodia).

Most of the tourists concentrate on the big pagodas and temples at the central like Ananda, Htilominlo and Dhammayangyi. Instead the further distance Sulamani (has the most beautiful frescoes) and the scenic Pyathada were my favourite. Cycling under the scorching sun to these remote places was tiring but fun.

There are many many more smaller temples with intricate fine colourful murals unknown to the tourists. Many of them are gated and unlit, in order to protect the precious arts from being damaged and exposed to the light (which may fade the colours).

Monday, August 23, 2010

Myanmar – Mandalay

The national security is tight, not sure of local passengers, but the foreign passengers have to register names on bus ticket. While leaving or entering Yangon, all passengers have to pass through a check-point where the identity to be checked. Strong stinky ammonia smell enveloped the area as most of the passengers clear their bladders in the open space.

Comparatively Mandalay offers more sight-seeing than Yangon, though not really spectacular. The Mandalay Palace can be neglected, wild weeds were not cut, layers of dust found their resting place, mostly empty. Mandalay Hill was better, ascending the staircases was not so tiring, the panoramic view of Mandalay city and sunset was beautiful. The glittering 13ft bronze Buddha image was the highlight in Mahamuni Temple. Over years thousands of devotees (only men are allowed) have pasted 6-in thick layer of gold leaf on the image! I had contributed too.

Mingun can either be reached by boat or 1 hr drive from Mandalay. The unfinished Mingun Paya cracked during earthquake in 1838, leaving probably the world’s largest pile of bricks. The nearby Sagaing Hill was not special, but its higher altitude grants a better aerial view of the area. Plenty of stupas studded over the area. Amarapura was another favourite attraction especially the sunset view. The 200 yr old 1.2km long U-Bein footbridge was built of over 1000 teak posts across the shallow Taungthaman Lake.

The jma-packed jade market is situated in Mandalay, we skipped the USD1 entrance fees (no one asked for it). Traders were busy scrutinizing the quality of stones and gems. Workshops were available to fabricate the products for customers.

The visits to the monasteries and their schools were the most unforgettable, that I liked most. Through conversation with the monks, I understood better the monkshood, their backgrounds, difficulties and predicaments, their future and expectation, their disciplined simple lifestyle and peaceful ideology. We were invited to their English lesson, where foreigners are encouraged to interact with them, to practice verbally.

The Moustache Brothers show (USD8), famed for its political critics was truly disappointing, thought Lonely Planet gave a lengthy recommendation was worthwhile, it was a cultural dancing show instead largely. The act was not professional but quite a mix. The emcee was trying hard to be humorous but over superficial. Sound system was weak. Place was run down, eventually turned out to be a souvenir selling at the end of show.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Myanmar – Yangon

The newly implemented Visa On Arrival (VOA) regulation attract many tourists flocking into this long self isolated country. Yangon airport was quite modern, but the atmosphere seemed a little rigid and cold. The procedure consumed an hour, surprisingly the local passport holders needed longer time to get through immigration. The officers were super friendly!

The capital Yangon looks like Kuala Lumpur in 70’s. In downtown, 100 year-old buildings can be seen standing solidly, lots of street hawkers and vendors lined up the main streets, English is fairly popular, most of the vehicles are old (no motorbike is allowed in this capital), taxi is quite expensive, buses are always in rush and heavily packed.

There are only a handful of tourist attractions in Yangon. Shwedagon Pegoda is the only “qualified” spot I had visited. The glimmering golden stupa is particularly beautiful in the evening under the spotlights. The nearby Thanlyin and Kyauktan were not spectacular, but good to kill time.

The traditional Burmese food is not my type, fermented and sour taste couldn’t please my taste buds. The Shan food which is closer to Chinese cuisine is my favourite. Lots of consumables are imported from the neighbouring countries. A can of Coca-Cola costs USD0.70, but the local Star Cola (quite similar taste) costs USD0.20.

Myanmar produce world class gems, but the export was restricted due to international sanctions. The Ruby is said the top quality in the world. It’s fun to learn how to differentiate the quality, but the price tags are not cheap. A tiny bead of top class Star Ruby could cost tens of thousands dollars.

People are generally afraid to criticize the junta government publicly, too many spies are around, rumours said. A monk initiated political talk with me, I avoided it to prevent any unnecessary trouble.

I met a lady in Bogyoke market wearing bracelet and pendant fully studded with diamonds. The bracelet alone costs USD10000. Asked if she is afraid of being rob, she replied no such case in Yangon. wow... this country is safer then ours.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Myanmar Trip

Just came back from Myanmar for 2 weeks visit. The country is seeing influx of foreign tourists lately. It was interesting to visit this self isolated country. Bagan is definitely the jewel of all the tourist spots, rest are not really spectacular. What I enjoyed was the interaction with local people.

Quick Facts

- USD is the most popular and accepted foreign currency. Exchange rate is approx. USD1=Myanmar Kyat 1000. Strictly instructed by Myanmar Central Bank, only the crisp clean USD bills are accepted. Any old, slightly torn, marked or rumpled bills would be rejected.

- The ordinary worker earns USD30 / month but the living costs are quite high, e.g. normal meal in the restaurants USD 1-2.

- Power failure is quite common throughout the country. Many hotel operators have generator installed.

- The vehicle fuel is rationed, but far too less. People have to source from black market which costs 25% higher. Gas filling stations are rarely seen in the city.

- The internet is heavily controlled/ filtered, many webpages are inaccessible. Internet café charge USD 0.40 – 1.00 per hr. Speed was slow.

- Lots of lots of pagodas, stupas in the country.

- People are mostly genuinely friendly. I had been asked “Where are you from?” not less than 50 times a day!

- Many part time guides and vendors gathered at tourist sites offering their service and products.

- Some people asked for different country notes/ coins as “souvenir”. Instead they will exchange with other tourists later. It’s a tourist scam.

- Some vendors asked me to trade my watch with their products, they thought I have a cheap fake watch?

- When renting bicycle, no one asked for deposit or document. They trust all people would return to them.

- Double pricing system are widely practiced on foreigners, e.g. entrance fees for sight seeing, transportation (but not the food).