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Wandering through Myanmar’s Shwedagon Pagoda

Then, a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon, a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun.”
Rudyard Kipling, From Sea to Sea and Other Sketches, Letters of Travel

It was the only must-see tourist sight I planned for my stay in Yangon–the rapidly developing major city doesn’t have a lot of sites to visit. Shwedagon Pagoda (ရွှေတိဂုံဘုရား), the iconic image of Myanmar, was on every itinerary suggestion, and it lived up to expectations.Shwedagon pagoda

I had little time to explore Yangon, particularly because I did not plan the trip as well as I should have. That left me with fewer options for sightseeing–the top destination was more or less it for my limited stay.

Taxi to Shwedagon Pagoda

I took a taxi for a few dollars from my hotel near Sule Pagoda through the mess of crawling traffic. I understood then why taxis charge a flat rate instead of running meters–the idle time would increase fares exponentially. Along the way I got to witness Yangon at a snail’s pace.

Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda through the cracked taxi windshield

It can take more than a half hour to go just a few blocks in Yangon’s infamous traffic. It doesn’t help that there are a lot of narrow one-way streets that can be difficult for cars to fit through. I was fortunate that my hotel was near two main roads (one of which led to the airport) as well as two minor tourist destinations.

I would have liked to have been dropped off right in front of my destination, but after sitting through the light multiple times in front of Shwedagon and only moving a few car lengths, I decided to pay my fare and walk. I doubt my driver cared whether I got out early. I arrived at my destination well before my taxi ever reached that intersection.

A Little History

Shwedagon Pagoda is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar, as it is believed to contain relics of the four previous Buddhas of the present kalpa, or period of history. The golden pagoda in the center of the temple complex is  99 meters (325 ft) and was was built by the Mon people between the 6th and 10th centuries. However, according to legend, the pagoda was constructed more than 2,600 years ago.shwedagon pagoda

The pagoda has been damaged by natural disasters and wars over the centuries. The worst damage was caused by an earthquake in 1768 that brought down the top of the stupa, which was later raised to its current height by King Hsinbyushin. The Dutch and British both stole bells from the temple, and both bells were accidentally dropped into the river. The bell that was pillaged by the Dutch was never recovered, but the other was saved by locals and returned to its rightful place.

King Singu's Bell

King Singu’s Bell

This was also the location of some major protests by Buddhist monks in 2007 in the run up to democratic reforms in Myanmar.

Entering the Temple

As soon as I arrived I found a long hallway leading up the hill to the pagoda–it was so long that I couldn’t see the end from the entrance. I paid a tourist entrance fee that included a space to leave my shoes (you must take off your shoes at all temples in Myanmar, no matter how much dirt is on the ground).

shwedagon pagoda hallway

That’s a long hallway

The long hallway was lined with souvenir vendors as well as those selling incense, flowers, and other offerings for people to leave at the temple. There were also more than a few beggars along the way.

The hallway was a welcome respite from the heat–little sunlight enters the area and there’s a decent breeze to keep everyone slightly cooler. I breezed past the vendors as I wasn’t about to buy anything on my way in, but I figured I’d have a look on the way out (of course, everything is a bit more expensive at Shwedagon than in places like Bogyoke Aung San Market). As I left the pagoda around lunchtime, most of the vendors were taking a midday nap and didn’t want to be bothered by tourists.

Once I entered the actual temple grounds, I was blinded by the sun gleaming off the gold pagoda as well as off all the white stupas, tiles, and shrines.shwedagon pagoda

I knew this temple would be impressive and large, but I was unprepared for the size of it. Shwedagon Pagoda itself is huge–the base of it stretches 1,420 feet around. And then it’s surrounded by hundreds of small stupas and shrines.

And all around Shwedagon Pagoda and the small stupas and shrines are filled with additional shrines with numerous Buddha statues.shwedagon pagoda buddha

It begins to feel like sensory overload, but it could have also been heat stroke. It was a desperate attempt to avoid taking photos with the crowds in the way while also trying to find a little shade to avoid melting in Myanmar’s holiest site (I may or may not have seen an incident of spontaneous combustion that wasn’t so spontaneous given the temperature).

shwedagon pagoda

The crowd around Tuesday Buddha (my day)

Of course, after wandering through the grounds all the stupas and shrines begin to look the same. Or maybe I walked around the perimeter of the pagoda more than once. So much of the place blends together after baking my brain in the sun that I wasn’t sure which direction I was facing.

I’m fairly certain I took one more quick tour around the grounds to find my exit to make the trip back to the hotel easier. I wasn’t sure what was on the other sides of Shwedagon Pagoda, and I didn’t feel like getting lost in the heat and/or traffic of Yangon.shwedagon pagoda

Getting out of Shwedagon

It wasn’t easy finding my way out of the temple complex. The pagoda is symmetrical, so you can’t judge which side you’re on looking at it. This leaves visitors with only the surrounding stupas and shrines to guess location.shwedagon pagoda

I had enough foresight to take a picture of the first shrine I saw. Of course, after taking a hundred or so more photos within Shwedagon, I had to flip through a lot just to find where that one picture was.

On my way out of Shwedagon, I decided to walk down the street away from the heaviest traffic before flagging down a taxi to take me back to my hotel. Along the way, I stopped off for a light lunch and the largest bottle of cold water the restaurant sold. The restaurant was open air but out of the sun near Happy World Amusement Park, which featured a statue of Rambo.

rambo myanmar

When did Rambo get to Yangon?

I also stopped across the street at Maha Wizaya Pagoda, which has an interesting interior mural. By the time I finished with that pagoda, I was exhausted from the heat and sun and in desperate need of air conditioning and water.

I would have enjoyed Maha Wizaya more had it not been for the long unshaded walk to get in. It’s a relatively new temple with relic donated by the King of Nepal. The center of the pagoda is painted with trees and nature scenes–it’s not the typical Buddhist stories that are painted on so many other temples.

Maha Wizaya Pagoda

Interior of Maha Wizaya Pagoda

My only regret when visiting Shwedagon was that I didn’t see it in the evening–a few people have mentioned that it’s even more impressive with lights shinning after the sun sets. As usual, missing something minor like this provides me with a reason to revisit Yangon.

The Wonders of Coffee and Travel

It’s not secret that I love coffee. Or maybe it’s that I constantly need coffee. Either way, I seek out plenty of it when I travel, sometimes with more success than at other times. Most of the time, I make my morning cup at home, even when on the road. Coffee and travel go hand in hand–it’s what fuels my adventures.

There were times I had to find a cafe in Hanoi when the Wi-Fi or electricity cut out at my hotel in the Old Quarter and I had to find a quick place to work until service was restored. It was the first time I got to try egg coffee–a thick, sweet specialty coffee drink of Vietnam. It was good, but too sweet for me.

egg coffee vietnam

Egg coffee in Hanoi

While traveling through East and Southeast Asia, coffee is nearly everywhere. Even here in Taiwan there’s a great coffee culture–I can get a cheap cup at a to-go shop or a fancy cup at a trendy cafe, and the prices vary widely. It was similar during my stay in Seoul, though Korea seems to prefer the higher-end coffee shops. Seoul also holds the title of most Starbucks for a city, not to mention the dozens of other local/regional chains and independent shops. Tokyo’s culture is closer to Seoul, but with fewer reasonably-priced options.

Taiwan has some good coffee

I learned not too long ago that Taiwan grows a fair amount of coffee, but it’s difficult to find. There are specialty shops and some vendors in touristy areas, but the coffee is not sold in most grocery stores. Even at the airport, I have seen locally-grown kopi luwak (civet coffee), but I have never seen it anywhere else.

One of the few highlights of my trip to Tainan was drinking a cup of Alishan coffee from a vendor at Sword-lion Square, which is a small touristy shop area. The coffee helped relieve the stress of almost getting run over by cars and motorbikes at every street crossing. And as the coffee was take-out only, it was inexpensive.

Sen Gao Coffee

How coffee is served at Sen Gao

In Taipei, I usually head for Cama or Louisa if I drink outside–the former is my favorite but the shops are not comfortable for relaxing with the coffee, so it’s more of a to-go shop. There is one shop that specializes in Taiwanese coffee, though. Sen Gao Coffee (森高砂咖啡館) serves nothing but coffee grown in Taiwan, and they have their own way of serving it, which made me feel a little better about spending more than $7 on a cup. Unfortunately, they do not offer the local kopi luwak.

What is in my coffee?

The prize for most surprising coffee flavor goes to Singapore. At the Old Airport Road hawker market I found a vendor who had kopi halia (ginger coffee). I figured for about a dollar I’d give it a try–it’s two flavors I like separately but had never imagined combining. It was good. The sharpness of the ginger balances out the bitterness of the coffee–it’s almost refreshing on a hot day in Singapore.

kopi halia singapore

kopi halia in Singapore

Other than the few specialty coffees, I haven’t had much worth mentioning while traveling–as I said, I like to make my coffee at home. Usually, I end up buying coffee on my trips to bring back home. The best I bought was in Yogyakarta–of course, I tried the Java Preanger blend before buying a pound of it; it was the only blend that was grown nearby. It was also by far the most expensive thing I bought in Indonesia. I suffered a bit of sticker shock, but decided that this was the best shop to buy quality coffee.

Organic Burmese coffee at the airport

When I visited Myanmar, I only had coffee with breakfast at the hotel (and it wasn’t very good). But on my way back to Taipei, I had some leftover kyat to spend at the Yangon airport. I browsed the shops looking for little souvenirs to buy. With only a couple dollars worth of kyat left, I spotted some local organic coffee. It cost a little more than half of what I had–I asked the vendor what I could buy with the remaining money and she offered a discount on a second purchase of coffee.

Coffee in Laos

My experience was similar in Laos, though I did stop off for coffee a few times because I was on a real vacation and didn’t feel like making it myself. As I was exhausted on my first day in Vientiane, I found Cafe Sinouk, a local chain that serves great coffee. Of course, it’s geared toward tourists and expats and the prices reflect that. It was at least good enough for me to buy a half pound of local coffee to bring back to Taiwan.

saffron coffee luang prabang

Coffee with a view at Saffron

I would have preferred to buy coffee at Saffron, which focuses on organic fair-trade coffee in the Luang Prabang region. The owner of the shop even offers tours of coffee plantations (by reservation only). I enjoyed a cup while staring out the window toward the Mekong River–it is a relaxing cafe. This is definitely the cafe to try when visiting Luang Prabang. They even sell coffee soap–I was tempted to buy it but I wasn’t so sure I wanted to smell like coffee all day.

saffron coffee luang prabang

Saffron Coffee, Luang Prabang

On a couple early mornings in Luang Prabang, I grabbed a cup (and even breakfast) at Joma Bakery Cafe, which is a popular place throughout the day. It was near my hotel and breakfast was reasonable–most tourists there in the morning stay at hotels that don’t serve breakfast or that serve little more than white bread and instant coffee. Every time there, I opted for the large Americano mainly because it includes a free refill–almost $3 for a cup is expensive in Laos where the average annual income is only about $2000.

On my way out of Laos, I stopped in Sinouk once more to buy a half pound of local blend coffee. It’s a pleasant, earthy blend for the mornings (I don’t make my coffee too strong at home) and it’s not too acidic or bitter.

collagen coffee laos

I did not buy this coffee in Laos. I was too scared

Of course, while waiting in the tiny Vientiane international airport, I decided to buy more coffee with my leftover kip. I had enough for a snack and a half pound of organic Lao Mountain coffee. This coffee was much more earthy than the Sinouk blend. It wasn’t earthy in a good way either; when I say earthy, in this case it means that it tasted like dirt. After a few cups, I started to think it wasn’t so bad. But I was much happier after finishing the half pound that I bought.

Where have you found great coffee on your travels? 

What to Eat in Bagan

I’ve long believed that good food, good eating, is all about risk….food, for me, has always been an adventure.”
– Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly

Myanmar isn’t known as a food destination–it’s not the reason people flock to the country as they would to Thailand or even Vietnam. But Myanmar should be on the list for travelers seeking an alternative culinary tour of Asia.

I’ll admit that I knew almost nothing about Burmese food before arriving in Myanmar. I figured with all the back-and-forth wars with Thailand that the food would be similar. The food was nothing like that, and that’s what made it amazing.

Burmese breakfast soup

Traditional breakfast soup at my Yun

The climate and availability of ingredients affects the style of food–most dishes have seasonal vegetables and light flavors to help cope with the heat. Also, as the majority of people are Buddhist, there are more vegetarian options available. The dishes I sampled were colorful and had a great mix of textures. The flavors varied a bit as well–though almost everything is a curry, there’s plenty of variety of flavor and spiciness.

vegetable curry burma

Varieties of vegetable curries, including eggplant and potato

I cannot comment on dining around other parts of Myanmar as I didn’t get to see as much of the country as I had wanted–I only had one full day in Yangon and almost got stranded in Bagan (which wasn’t such a bad thing). While in Yangon I noticed a lot of Indian and Chinese influence in the street food and restaurants, but some of that could probably be attributed to more recent economic ties. As I ate little in Yangon though, I can really only comment on the culinary delicacies that are found around Bagan. Because Bagan is such a tourist attraction, eating out isn’t as cheap as one would imagine–much like the price of hotels in Myanmar, dining costs tend to be inflated. Of course, there are still some cheap food options, particularly around Nyaung U where more of the backpacker hostels are located.

fish curry burma

Fish curry

Had I not been budgeting to avoid getting stranded in Myanmar, I would have tried more food–I was constantly tempted to order more. Most restaurants in New Bagan have set menus–you can choose a main course that comes with a few small side dishes that are mostly vegetable curries. At only around $7, the set menus were my best option for a filling meal after a day of biking.

Of course, I saved money with my hotel breakfasts, much of which wasn’t local cuisine, that allowed me to snag some fruit and bread to take along as snacks throughout the day. In the middle of the pagodas around Bagan, there aren’t many food vendors (yet), though I was offered to eat with a family cooking on an open fire as I started one of my bike rides around the area.

Myanmar dinner

How much food did I order?

On my first evening before passing out for the night, I searched nearby my hotel, Shwe Poe Eain, but there wasn’t much nearby. I also wasn’t willing to walk too far along unlit streets–I wasn’t sure about safety and nighttime wildlife at the time. I also had no local currency and prices were inflated if paying with US dollars. Fortunately, a nearby restaurant was willing to serve me despite the owner’s proclamation that it was closing time (he said they still had enough food and I could be the last customer for the day). I was served a small curry dish with fish and five vegetable side dishes. The vegetables were the best part of the meal–the variety of textures and flavors were delightful. If this was my introduction to the local cuisine, I was sold.

On the day I chose to just walk along the dirt roads through New Bagan, I chose to eat at Shwe Ou (there are multiple restaurants with the same name). It’s a simple restaurant along Kayay St. I chose this one because the restaurant that the front desk staff at Arthawka Hotel suggested was packed with noisy people from tour buses. Shwe Ou was quiet and I was the only hungry customer.

Shwe Ou

Welcome to Shwe Ou in New Bagan

I ordered two light meals–hsi gje khau hswe and Myanmar crispy bean salad. The former was a cold noodle dish with garlic oil and shredded chicken, while the latter had large fried beans, sesame paste, shallots, and cabbage. Both were delicious and refreshing for the hot, dry afternoon. The garlic in the chicken dish livened up what would otherwise be a boring dish of protein and carbs. The salad was the more impressive of the dishes as it had a great combination of crispy, sweet, and salty.

Shwe Ou food

Crispy bean salad wish noodles and shredded chicken behind

My Czech biking partner, whom I met while semi-lost on a dirt road, introduced me to the joys of dining in the open market just outside the ancient city wall of Bagan on the way to Nyaung U. She suggested a place that had been recommended by fellow travelers and guidebooks–The Moon Vegetarian Restaurant (also known as Be Kind to Animals). There are other restaurants in the area that use similar names, but this one is the original.The Moon sign

As a highly recommended restaurant at a reasonable price, The Moon is popular and can get crowded during peak tourist season. More than just the food draws customers to this restaurant–it’s one of the few restaurants that has a focus on decor; it’s quaint, airy, and colorful. This is also where I purchased a huge bag of tamarind flakes (an after-meal candy served everywhere that Burmese say aids digestion).

The Moon food

Spicy noodle stew at The Moon

The Moon was such a good restaurant that when I ran into Klara while riding around again, we stopped off for another meal. Getting there in the evening might have been more difficult with unmarked dirt roads and few streetlights.

The Moon Bagan

Inviting ambiance of The Moon

One of the more interesting meals I found was Irrawaddy River prawns in curry (which, of course, came with some little vegetable side dishes). I wasn’t sure what I expected from the prawns, but they were the biggest prawns I’ve ever had (I have since seen larger ones from Penghu at my local market in Taipei, and they sell for about US$40 for three). The three enormous prawns in curry were enough for a meal and the spicy curry made them that much more delicious.

Irrawaddy River prawns

Irrawaddy River prawns

The best meal I had was my final evening in New Bagan, when I knew I had enough money to splurge on a decent meal. I had seen signs for 7 Sisters and had even seen it mentioned on travel sites (though I never read any reviews of it).

The atmosphere of the restaurant certainly exceeded my expectations. Rather than the simple layout of most restaurants in town, this one was elegant–a high ceiling, open wall pavilion decorated in the local style. More surprising was that it wasn’t much more expensive than the cheap restaurants I had been dining at–my higher bill was mostly because I ordered twice as much food as usual. The waitress even warned me about ordering more; I’m glad I listened. My only complaint is that the restaurant is dark for dinner–it’s hard to even see what you’re eating, let alone take a photo to share with readers.

7 Sisters dinner

My main course at 7 Sisters, with the remains of the vegetable tempura

As a starter, I ordered fried vegetables–it was more like a vegetable tempura, but the plate was piled high. I was only able to eat half of it. My main course was a difficult choice with so many delicious-sounding foods on the menu, but I settled on a squid curry stew, which was plenty to each especially after that heaping plate of vegetable tempura.

I would have stayed out for dessert, but I had stuffed myself to the point of no return. The walk back to my hotel at least provided enough space for me to enjoy one last beer before sleeping on my final evening in Bagan.

On Travel and Earthquakes

No one likes to think about natural disasters when traveling–it would be rather depressing to consider when you’re trying to enjoy time away from work and stress. But sometimes we have to consider the reality. Recent earthquakes in central Italy and Myanmar, two places I have fond memories of traveling through, got me thinking a little more about what can happen while on vacation.

San Domenico in Perugia, Italy

San Domenico in Perugia

I’m no longer a stranger to earthquakes. I live around the Pacific ring of fire. Fortunately, most of the earthquakes here have been mild–in fact, I don’t notice the majority of them, particularly if I’m asleep.Bagan Pagodas

My second week in Tokyo was my first earthquake. It was early morning before I had to wake up to work online and I felt the shaking. I froze. I didn’t know if I should wait inside or run outside. I was living in a small two-storey apartment building. The earthquake shelter was a school just down the street.

I later discovered that it wasn’t even a strong earthquake. I was approached by Mormons in Shimokitazawa the following weekend and mentioned how it had woken me; neither guy even noticed the quake.Shinjuku

After two months I felt plenty more earthquakes–some stronger than others. The only strong one was when I was out to dinner with a friend. Everyone at the restaurant stopped immediately and waited to see how big it was before returning to their food. Another one that wasn’t as strong struck Tokyo as I was waiting in the United Club at Narita Airport on my way to Hanoi.

Kanto Earthquake Memorial Museum

Kanto Earthquake Memorial Museum

In Taipei as well I’ve felt a few, although at this point I only notice the bigger ones when I’m awake. At the office, some coworkers’ phones give an alert when a stronger earthquake has struck nearby and will probably be felt in Taipei. I’m not sure if a 5-second warning is really enough to be effective, but it might be better for placating concerns from citizens.

View from Myauk Guni

View from Myauk Guni

Of course, now I worry less about earthquake as typhoons are a more pressing matter. Even as I prepare for a trip to Hong Kong next weekend, I have to be aware that a typhoon could throw off my plans (fortunately, Hong Kong and Taipei are well prepared for typhoons).

The earthquakes yesterday brought back memories of two of places that hold great memories–Perugia and Bagan.

Perugia steps

This is my favorite view of Perugia–how I’ll always remember it

The former was where I worked for a couple weeks before getting laid off. Rather than depart, I hung around looking for things to do. I met people–travelers, expats, and locals–who became acquaintances during my month-long stay. I was never bored walking along the winding alleys even if I had been there before. And there was plenty of time to sit in a park and read.

The latter was a shorter stay. I was stuck in Bagan due to my own lack of planning. It was the best travel mishap I could imagine. While most people zip through Bagan on their tours of Myanmar, I had five days to slowly explore the area–the dusty streets and quiet pagodas, the friendly residents, and the amazing food.

Bagan balloons

Balloons over Bagan

As I found out from Reddit, Perugia is in good shape following the earthquake that devastated some Italian towns. Meanwhile in Bagan, about a hundred pagodas were severely damaged, but fortunately only three casualties were reported. I’d like to think that the traditional bamboo houses in Myanmar saved lives–there’s not much that can fall apart during an earthquake and injure people living in those houses.

Both of these are places I’d love to see again, but I’m certain they wouldn’t live up to my memories as so many other places would not either.

I’ve traveled through many places that have been destroyed by earthquakes–most occurred a long time before, like in Chiang Mai and Yogyakarta. I’ve seen the damage nature can inflict on what we build. More devastating, however, is seeing what has been destroyed by war in places like Cambodia and Korea.

As more news about the earthquakes flows in, I’m reminded about the people in these places–those who have lost homes and loved ones. There are things we cannot control, no matter how cautious we are.

Impressions of Yangon

This is Burma and it is unlike any land you know about.
-Rudyard Kipling, Letters from the East (1898)

It was my first stop in Myanmar–the city called Rangoon during British rule. After spending so much time in more developed cities around Asia, it was interesting to see a major city undergoing such rapid change–the entire city felt like it was under construction. Unfortunately, with limited time, my impressions of Yangon may not be the most complete.

Yangon Region Court

Yangon Region Court from Maha Bandoola Garden

It was easier to form opinions of Yogyakarta as it was a smaller city; Yangon is much larger and spread out. I also only had two days to see anything in the former Burmese capital (it was moved to nearby Naypyidaw in 2006) before heading off to Bagan and realizing that my ATM card wouldn’t work in the country.

The modernization process is evident at every turn in Yangon–there’s construction everywhere. And much of that construction is adorned with Chinese, Japanese, and Korean company names because they’re the ones investing heavily in Myanmar’s development. This is a city, and nation, that is rapidly adapting to technology–mobile phones are still new to the population, but they’ve already become ubiquitous.

Arriving in Yangon

My arrival in Yangon got off to a rocky start as I was dropped off at my hotel that I had booked for the first night. The traffic from the airport was rather miserable, but I didn’t mind much as the taxi was air conditioned and I could watch city life pass by. However, upon arriving at my hotel, I was informed that it was full and my room wasn’t available. The staff assured me, along with an irate Thai couple in the same situation, that they had a second hotel nearby and they’d drive us there. I worried that I’d have a similar experience as in Hanoi, with the awful hotel that locked me out at 11pm as I searched for other hotels.

The second hotel was fine–it was the same company and probably just as comfortable (same price too). It was a smaller hotel and the lobby wasn’t as nice as City Star Hotel, but there was less traffic on the street. I quickly discovered that some of the streets are nearly impossible to navigate by car and it’s best to find a taxi heading in the right direction on the most convenient road; if a taxi needs to go around the block to turn around, you’re more or less screwed out of a half hour. Fortunately, taxis operate on flat fees.

Yangon construction

Development of Yangon

The staff at Clover City Center Hotel was friendly and helpful, though sometimes it wasn’t easy communicating with them–they’re still learning English and how to deal with tourists, but they certainly tried their best to help out. Only real downside to the hotel was that they couldn’t book tickets for buses, trains, or flights–I had to find a larger hotel nearby that had its own travel agency for my flight to Bagan (the overnight buses were sold out).

Checking out the sights & people watching

After checking into my hotel and resting for a few moments, I headed out to Sule Pagoda, which was only a short, hot walk from the hotel. It took longer than it should have because crossing the street is as difficult as it is in Vietnam (and I wasn’t sure about the whole pacing to cross as I learned in Vietnam). As Sule Pagoda sits in the middle of a busy roundabout with no traffic light, it’s not a destination for fearful tourists; I survived, but it took a while to cross the street.

Sule Pagoda

Waiting to cross the street to Sule Pagoda

At Sule Pagoda, I noticed that while there were plenty of tourists, there were equally as many locals. Many were there to sell goods, but most were there to pray or mingle with neighbors.

Samosas Yangon

I should stop here for a snack

After my first pagoda visit, which was covered with bamboo mats for restoration work, I wandered around to the nearby Maha Bandoola Garden. I wandered through the park, watching the mostly young people relaxing in the grass; many of them were taking selfies or picnicking. I walked along the surrounding streets, around the old bus terminal, and stopped off for samosas on the sidewalk.

Independence Monument

Independence Monument at Maha Bandoola Garden

One aspect of the crowds of people in this area of Yangon that struck me was the presence of Muslims. Considering the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar, I was surprised to see such a large Muslim population. Unlike the violence that fills the news stories about the Rohingya, everyone in Yangon appeared to interact peacefully. Of course, I can’t comment on the ethnic background of the locals because I didn’t have a chance to really interact with any.

Other things I noticed about the people was that they’re colorfully dressed. There was definitely more bright colors, particularly for women, in Yangon than in Bagan. Of course, this isn’t uncommon around Southeast Asia with the batik industry in Malaysia and Indonesia. But Yangon felt more colorful, or maybe it was just wandering through the market with all the fabric vendors.Yangon fabric

I wandered farther away from my hotel in search of dinner. Somehow I ended up in Chinatown. I found a large, busy restaurant overlooking the city–I figured a view of life while I ate would be a great option. I ordered my beer and food and waited. It took about 10 minutes for the beer to arrive. 20 minutes later, as I was halfway through said beer, I asked where my food was. I asked again 10 minutes after that. After I finished my beer 10 minutes after my second request for my food, I walked up to the counter and paid for my beer. I was told that the food was on its way, but I flat-out refused to acknowledge the existence of the meal at that point.Yangon traffic

As I later discovered in Bagan, food service is incredibly slow in Myanmar and it’s fine to continually ask staff for updates on the food (it might even speed up the process in rare cases). Myanmar’s service sector has yet to catch up with the tourism boom.

I ended up back near my hotel at a little cafeteria-style restaurant for a light meal–at this point I was more tired than hungry. After wandering around a bit more in search of travel agencies that I hoped would be open (I ended up going back the next day), I found a small busy restaurant close to Sule Pagoda that served my first Burmese beer. As the evening wore on (it was only closing in on 9 pm), the crowd on the streets grew younger.  This is a rather young city to begin with, but it felt even younger after dinner. This could be a mindset of the older generations after decades of authoritarian rule and curfews.

Yangon nightlife

Nightlife near Sule Pagoda

The only thing about Yangon, and Myanmar in general, that actually repulsed me was the prevalence of betel nut. It was worse in Bagan than in Yangon, but it was still obvious everywhere I walked–the sidewalks were covered with red betel nut spit. This is a habit that’s still fairly common in Taiwan as well, but it isn’t nearly as noticeable. I found it difficult to talk with people whose mouths were coated red betel nut juice. Fortunately, they’re respectful enough to not spit in the temples where everyone has to be barefoot. People were even kind enough to offer me some betel nut to me (I politely declined).

Other than the betel nut chewing, there’s also the pigeon population. At times I thought I was in a Hitchcock film. Seriously, what’s with all the freaking pigeons in Myanmar?

Yangon pigeons

The birds

Overall impressions of Yangon

As I noted, I don’t feel like I spent enough time in the city to get a real feel for life and the people; I only had superficial encounters with locals. There were also plenty more sights to see–I would’ve liked to spend time along the Yangon River or in the parks.

From what I experienced, I found a city transitioning into a business hub and coping with the rapid changes. Yangon certainly isn’t a city in which I could see myself living–the traffic alone would drive me insane. But like the rest of Myanmar (or so I was told by the expat I met at the airport), the people are friendly and honest. For such a busy city in Southeast Asia, it felt safe as long as you discount the issues with crossing streets.

Sule Pagoda Yangon

Sule Pagoda and traffic

Had I stayed longer, I might have sampled a bit of the nightlife, but I know there isn’t much of that yet. As I didn’t get to see enough of the country due to my own lack of planning, there’s a good chance I’d plan another trip to Myanmar with another stop in Yangon.

Have you been to Yangon? What are your impressions of the city?

Biking through Bagan

You fools who ask what god is
should ask what life is instead.
-Ko Un, Asking the Way

Most people see Bagan in a day or two while on tours through Myanmar. Due to my careless monetary planning (and bank foul-ups), I got five days in the land of pagodas.

On my first day, I rented an e-bike as I had to take a long ride to find the bank that supposedly would exchange my US dollars or possibly accept my debit card (there was another branch closer to the hotel that I didn’t see until my final day). That day I learned just what the tour books meant by bumpy roads in Myanmar. I thought about how people use GoPro cameras and what an adventure the ride through the dusty streets of Bagan would be to watch. Alas, I have no such camera nor any device to mount a camera on  a bike.bagan pagodas

After breaking down far from my destination after taking a wrong turn on one of the four main roads in Bagan, I found the Nyaung U Airport Hotel. The friendly staff helped call the people I rented from to come fix the e-bike–they also offered me a place to rest and some water.bagan pagodas

Later in the day, I met Erin, an American living in Ireland who was on an extended journey through Asia. She had similar banking problems as I had. She also chatted with me while I waited again for help with my broken-down e-bike. After I was ready to go again, we headed around to find a spot for sunset. As we ran low on time, we stopped at the first pagoda with stairs to a terrace for slightly obstructed view.

For the next two days I rented mountain bikes, which were quite a bit easier to ride through the sand-paved roads that branched off those four main roads toward the pagodas and villages. I turned down whichever path that passed for a road caught my attention, sometimes with beautiful results.Bagan Pagodas

I headed out early in the day to avoid the intense midday heat, along with the crowds, though I usually stayed out well past lunch to see a bit more. I rode out again to watch the sunset from various points in the area (my favorite was from a restaurant at the end of Kayay St. overlooking the Irrawaddy River in New Bagan, probably because it was the clearest sunset of my stay as well as the least crowded).irrawaddy sunset

I avoided riding bikes much after sunset as the streets are poorly lit within the towns, even with my bike light that I was grateful to have remembered to pack as bike rentals do not include such necessities for nighttime riding. Even walking at night wasn’t the easiest and required me to carry that little LED light as a safety precaution.

It’s easy to fall in love with Myanmar while riding a bike–the moderate pace in the heat as the sun gleams off the ancient pagodas, making them appear golden, brightens the spirit no matter how difficult the situation may be (or even if you’ve managed to screw up your travel plans). The expanse of the plain with the endless pagodas is as beautiful as any scene I’ve witnessed in my travels, and finding the quiet perches atop some of the less visited pagodas only improves the view.

Pagodas sans tourists

Pagodas sans tourists

Just like the e-bike I managed to break down, but only once after sunset when I got a flat tire and the front wheel locked up–it was only a ten-minute ride back to my hotel, but I couldn’t even walk the bike back with a locked wheel. Fortunately, multiple locals stopped to help me out–one tried to fix the bike, another called the people I rented from, and two more offered help that I no longer needed (I couldn’t imagine people anywhere else being more friendly and helpful).

A pagoda different from all the rest. No others had animal sculptures outside

A pagoda different from all the rest. No others had animal sculptures outside

On my first day of biking around with an aimless agenda, I took turns onto the sandy roads leading away from the sparse tourist crowds. At one pagoda, a family showed me the food they were preparing for breakfast–they even invited me to join them in a little while. I had just finished a huge hotel breakfast not long before, and I wasn’t sure about cleanliness of food prepared along the road, so I politely declined. I was, however, tempted by the spicy sauce they prepared.

It looked and smelled delicious. I was tempted to return for dinner

It looked and smelled delicious. I was tempted to return for dinner

As I rode toward what I thought were interesting non-pagoda structures, I encountered a new friend on a solo bike ride through Bagan. Klara, who runs a tour organization in Prague (Prague Extravaganza Free Tour), joined me for the rest of the day on our dusty journey through pagodas and vistas.

I was checking out this abandoned building before I met my new friend

I was checking out this abandoned building before I met my new friend

If it wasn’t for Klara, I might not have known how to get to Myuk Guni and reach the top terrace to watch the sun. She led the way for sunset, which became my alternate destination for sunrise the following day.

We rode around Bagan aimlessly–through various streets and paths, occasionally walking the bikes through the soft, deep sand. We had time to see everything that wasn’t on the official tours, though we still stopped at the larger temples.

View from Myuk Guni before sunset

View from Myuk Guni before sunset

We parted ways after our sunset view with other tourists at Myuk Guni. It wasn’t until my final day in Bagan that I ran into Klara again–I was riding an e-bike past the market on the way back from Nyaung U when I spotted her on a bike in the opposite direction. I shouted her name to get her attention. We ended up having lunch at a vegetarian restaurant in the market before she had to head back to the airport.

Road through Bagan

Road through Bagan

We shared adventures from the previous two days–the advantage of digital cameras. When I mentioned bringing something back to share with my coworkers, she suggested buying a huge bag of tamarind wafers that handed out everywhere in Myanmar (how could I go wrong with such a simple gift?).

The rest of my time in Bagan was spent semi-aimless riding with stops at nearly every pagoda I came across. I met plenty of tourists who wandered through some pagodas with me, but none who seemed to be headed in the same direction afterwards.

View from Myuk Guni

View from Myuk Guni

I didn’t mind riding alone through the sand of the town–it provided time to reflect on my travels and take in the atmosphere at my own pace. It’s the same with hiking–quiet contemplation and the ability to go faster or slower depending solely on my mood. I was able to ride down whichever side streets I wanted and admire the construction of the local bamboo houses, as well as get lost in the aisles of the Nyaung U market as I searched for souvenirs with my leftover kyat on the final day.

This bike served me well, and deserved a Mandalay beer afterwards

This bike served me well, and deserved a Mandalay beer afterwards

On my final day of biking (I rented the e-bike on the last day in Myanmar because I was too tired), I ended my day with a stop at an open-air restaurant just on the edge of New Bagan at the opposite side of the town from my hotel. At this point I was just looking to relax with a cold beer–I wanted to try Mandalay Beer, but almost all the restaurants in town only served Myanmar Beer. The owner of this restaurant went out to get a bottle of Mandalay Beer for me. It was a fitting end to all of my biking through Bagan.

Sunrise Bike Ride in Bagan

What’s the one thing everyone does in Bagan? Watch the sunrise over the pagodas.

Plenty of people go for the sunrise balloon ride over Bagan, and I admit that I wanted to do the same. That is, until I saw the price tag. $350 per person. And those are US dollars, not Canadian or Australian. I had planned on splurging on this trip (up until the point that I realized I couldn’t get any more cash), but there was no way I could justify that expense.

If it wasn't prohibitively expensive, I'd be in one of those balloons

If it wasn’t prohibitively expensive, I’d be in one of those balloons

If it had been $100, I would’ve taken it (assuming I could’ve put it on my credit card or actually used an ATM in Burma). Instead, I settled for watching the hot air balloons float above the temples as the sun broke through the dust and haze of the morning.

And the view I found in Bagan was not the one I had planned.

Not a bad view at all

Not a bad view at all

On my second day in Bagan, I ended up at a large pagoda off the main road–it was past another slightly larger one, but no one seemed to visit this one. The view from the top of the pagoda was beautiful. I made up my mind to head there for sunrise–it was near New Bagan, so it wouldn’t require a long ride and I could quickly return to the hotel for breakfast and a nap.

I forgot where the pagoda was. I couldn’t find it in the predawn darkness.

I met a German tourist on a bike while searching. We came across one temple with people on the roof, but we couldn’t find the stairs up; we were confused how the group made it up. We went to a large pagoda nearby, but the upper levels were locked–the German guy climbed around the barbed wire fence to go higher, but I decided to turn back.

I'm not climbing around that for a view

I’m not climbing around that for a view

I headed for Myauk Guni (North Guni) where I had watched the sunset the day before. It was just past Shwesandaw Pagoda, which is where a large group of tourists stops for sunrise and sunset. By comparison, Myauk Guni only has a handful of people and the view is just as good.

Rather than taking a 15-minute bike ride to watch the sunrise, I had to ride more than a half hour. And I was fortunate enough to make it to Myauk Guni just before daylight broke. But it sure made the ride back to the hotel on an empty stomach more difficult.sunrise-myauk-guni

Unfortunately, I don’t have the best luck when it comes to sunrise views–my sunrise over Angkor Wat was rather disappointing. Bagan was better than Angkor Wat, but it wasn’t clear enough for the more impressive photos I’ve seen.

This is the downside to Myanmar opening up more to foreign investment and tourism. As more tourists flood the main attractions, the views will become more obscured. Fortunately, locals emphasize keeping Bagan clean and promote the use of electric bikes, bicycles, and good old mule cart to control pollution. However, that doesn’t stop larger tours with buses and people hiring taxis or renting cars. Because the roads aren’t paved, and many are entirely sand, the increased traffic simply sends more dust into the air. Even the mule carts kick up plenty of dirt on the roads.

Balloons over Bagan

Balloons over Bagan

At least with the lack of traffic the air around Bagan is still decent. The sunrises and sunsets may get a bit hazy, but they’re still beautiful and well worth seeing.

Is a sunrise balloon ride worth the money or is it better to take the less expensive dirt road?

When the Travel Plan Doesn’t Pan Out

You can’t get a suit of armour and a rubber chicken just like that. You have to plan ahead.
-Michael Palin

I booked my flight and first night in the hotel and got my eVisa in order. I was ready for my week in Myanmar. But I hadn’t planned anything. I had read a few articles with advice about traveling through the country, but most of them were at least a year old. This is a rapidly developing country due to regional investment interest, so things should be better than they were a year ago.

 

Last year's Chinese New Year sheep told me to do it

Last year’s Chinese New Year sheep told me to do it

I should skip the travel advice columns and go with my gut next time. I should’ve used Anthony Bourdain’s trip to Myanmar as a model–there was little in the way of infrastructure when he visited. But in my naive perception, I thought infrastructure had improved since then.

I pictured luxury overnight buses that I could sleep on while saving money on a hotel as I traveled between destinations. And ATMs–oh, the ATMs would be everywhere. And those same ATMs would dispense local currency and work with my new American bank card with that fancy chip (my Taiwanese bank card doesn’t work anywhere outside of Taiwan).

I should've brought more non-Taiwanese cash

I should’ve brought more non-Taiwanese cash

What a fool I had been. Those luxury buses were sold out in advance due to the Chinese New Year holiday and all its travelers, as were the trains unless I wanted to book a hard seat for the 18-hour journey. Those ATMs didn’t work with my new card either because those signs for MasterCard were false, the ATMs didn’t have enough money, or my bank claimed I didn’t tell them my travel plans for which I have a confirmation email (yeah, screw you Capital One and MasterCard). (I even met a fellow traveler with the same bank and same problems. I also met some Europeans who had problems with the ATMs.)

Welcome to Yangon

Welcome to Yangon

So, what were my options? How could I continue what was supposed to be an inspiring and relaxing holiday away from work and still ensure that I could make it back to Yangon to catch my flight back to Taipei so I could return to work?

This is how I feel when scrambling to make a plan

This is how I feel when scrambling to make a plan

First problem I ran into was that I had to book a flight from Yangon to Bagan, which meant I also needed an extra day at the hotel (the hotel I had already booked didn’t have available rooms the day before, so I needed a different one at the last minute). Both the flight and hotel had to be paid in cash (flight in USD, hotel in kyat). When I got to the hotel, they allowed me to pay the next day when I could exchange more USD for kyat at the little business around the corner that gave absolutely awful exchange rates and wouldn’t exchange more than $50 (I exchanged the rest of my cash at a bank that opened later in the day–I had to beg the clerk to help me because they weren’t supposed to exchange money at the time).

After that, I tried a few more ATMs with no success. I was left with $160 worth of kyat and five more days in Myanmar. And no one in Myanmar will exchange Taiwan dollars–as a friend told me, “It’s the black sheep of currencies.”

Views of Sule Pagoda in Yangon are free

Views of Sule Pagoda in Yangon are free

I had to make a quick decision for my remaining time in Myanmar. Despite my desire to see Inle Lake, I thought it more prudent to stay in Bagan. I could find another hotel that would accept credit cards and then hope to book a flight back to Yangon the day before my flight back to Taipei.

I counted my money and made a budget:

  • 15,000 kyat for food each day
  • 3,000 kyat for bike rental each day
  • 10,000 kyat for taxi to Nyaung U Airport (actually only 7,000)
  • 20,000 kyat for taxi to and from Yangon Airport
  • 15,000 kyat for miscellaneous

I had plenty left over and used the extra to pay for my daily expenses. Anything left on the last day would be used for splurging on a nicer food, drinks, and souvenirs/gifts.

I was fortunate enough to have invested in two things for this trip: 1) a local SIM card that I overpaid for because I bought it immediately at the airport, and 2) a new mini laptop for travel. The second item helped out much more in saving my skin and vacation. But the SIM helped when I got lost and needed Google Maps or when my bike or ebike broke down and I needed to call for help (though locals always stopped to assist me).

I’m sure I could’ve booked hotels and flights on the phone, but the service in Mynamar is slow and limited (I had only 120MB of data to use). It was a little easier working with the slow hotel wi-fi on the laptop to search for flights and hotels. Of course, some of the domestic airline websites don’t actually work or won’t allow users to actually book tickets.

All the things I couldn't buy at the Nyaung U market

All the things I couldn’t buy at the Nyaung U market

I managed to find ONE hotel that was $100 per night and accepted credit cards, but it was on the other side of New Bagan from my hotel (I could’ve stayed in Old Bagan or Nyaung U, but that would’ve required paying for a taxi and going against my budget for the remaining cash). Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any flights to Yangon on the day before my flight, and I found only one that arrived a few hours before my flight out and required a stop in Heho (I prayed the flights were at least close to on time). I’ll admit, I panicked a little when I was forced to book that flight. On the bright side, that freed up 20,000 kyat in taxi fares.

Once everything was booked, I began to relax. Alright, I’ll admit it, it took an extra day of riding a rented bike around Bagan and talking with other tourists to truly calm me down so I could enjoy my extended stay in the land of ancient temples.

In fact, getting “stuck” in Bagan was quite possibly the best thing that could’ve happened.

I took one day to just wander around New Bagan–roaming the dusty streets to watch the lives of locals. A few came out to greet me, but it was mostly just children shouting and waving to me as I snapped photos of the exquisitely constructed bamboo houses–the perfect angles and extensions out from the main structure made them beautiful. I even found a housing development created from shipping containers. And the day ended with watching the sunset over the Irrawaddy River with only a handful of other quiet tourists.

Getting "stuck" meant I got to see this sunset

Getting “stuck” meant I got to see this sunset

I was able to take an additional day of biking around the historic sites of Bagan. I even made some friends along the way who joined me for meals and temple exploration (and one who waited around with me to have my ebike fixed on the first day).

One of many similar views in Bagan

One of many similar views in Bagan

The pace of having the additional days in Bagan was the most relaxing vacation I’ve had in a long time. And because I over-budgeted, I was able to buy plenty of souvenirs and gifts. I had planned on have two dinners on the last night, but my fancier-than-other-restaurants-in-town dinner was far bigger than expected. Instead, I ended up with a beer in a more locals-friendly restaurant while everyone watched European soccer.

After hearing stories from people who only spent two days in Bagan, I realized how fortunate I was. On my way out of Myanmar, I met an expat who told me Bagan is probably the best possible place to get stuck on a trip through the country.

And because I didn’t see Inle Lake or even Mandalay, I have more reason to take another trip to Myanmar. Well, for that and the food…and the wonderful people.

Have you ever had your travel plans fall flat? How did you handle it?