Sunday, October 25, 2015

Myanmar: the Next Big Thing in Asia

Halooo.. Another exciting story to tell because again I traveled to new country, as I've mentioned before, going to a new place is always exciting, regardless where the place is. As usual I will share a little bit of background to this trip (again, you wouldn't care but I'll do it anyway..).
Okay, honestly I've never been wanting to go to Myanmar before until one of my office colleague was actually recommending Myanmar to me after he found out I love traveling, he said currently not (yet) many people travel to Myanmar (though it's increasing now) and it's really good. I browsed some of the pictures in the internet and what made me interested is also that we are able to ride a hot air balloon to see magnificent view of Bagan, the land of thousand Pagoda. I even actually considered to take the balloon ride assuming that it may be cheaper in South East Asia, compared to Turkey, well it's not, in fact it's more expensive, around 300 USD, but I was thinking, it's okay I still got to see the balloon view in the morning/sunrise above the Pagodas which surely will be awesome too. Another ugly truth is the balloon doesn't operate the whole year, another fact that I found that when I was there, not before I bought the ticket. So, the low season would be from Apr to September, and it will resume in Oct. So, please note this before you purchase the flight ticket.

My current work is actually requires me to travel to Malaysia several times a year, and one day I realized, hey, why don't I travel somewhere (which I've never been) from Malaysia using Air Asia? Any place as long as: 1) I've never been; 2) Free Visa; 3) the ticket is cheap because I know that there are more promo ticket from KL and it's cheaper compare to flight from Jakarta. When I know exactly my business trip schedule, I searched flight ticket to several destination such as Laos, Myanmar, Hong Kong, etc. And since Myanmar is the cheapest (278 RM = Rp 1 million) for return. There is one public holiday during the travel date, which is Indonesia's Independence Day, so it's even better that I only need to request for 1 day leave for 4 days of traveling. I asked my dearest friend Astri to join me since she is based in Malaysia so it will be an advantage as well for her, it's a bit of challenge to ask my friends who stays in Indonesia since they have to pay extra and it's quite expensive. She said yes and off we go!

Before traveling I checked and re-checked several websites and blogs to ensure that it's really free visa to enter Myanmar for Indonesian. The more I research, the more I got worried to pass thru the immigration, reason is there are some stories people couldn't get in even though they have the visa. The visa exemption for Indonesian was just recently decided, I think in 2013 or 2014, and considering this is Myanmar, you have to expect for the worst. So, I checked the official website of Myanmar's Ministry of Foreign Affair (Free visa Myanmar)  where it mentioned clearly that Indonesian are exempted from visa. So as a preventive action plan I printed all those screen shot from the visa to be safe. 

Aside from visa, another thing that I worried to travel to Myanmar is the conflicts related to Rohingnya Muslim, and I am as a muslim (which can be easily identified as I wear hijab) feel a bit of worried, actually it's because some friends were commented such a thing when I mentioned that I'm traveling to Myanmar. "Hey, are you sure to go to Myanmar? Isn't there is a lot of religion conflicts there, aren't you afraid to get murdered?" 
After I'm back safely from Myanmar, I think I can say it's quite safe for a Muslim to travel to Myanmar as long as your intention is for tourism and you're going to tourist destination places and big cities such as Yangon, Mandalay, and Bagan.

Other thing is (whoa so many things to be worried about, huh?) the money. Myanmar has their own currency which is Kyat (read: Chat) and some blogs, websites mentioned that I really have to exchange money in airport and the USD to be exchanged has to be in a very good condition, such as, new series, there is no marking, it has to be crisps, otherwise they will not accept it and ATM machine is not available. The truth is as of Aug 2015, ATM machine is everywhere, it's in the airport, hotels, etc. So, taking money from ATM is really not an issue but I think those requirements above about exchanging USD are still applicable.

Bagan: Land of Thousand Pagoda

Day 1 – 15 Aug at Yangon

After safely passed the immigration checking and taking money from ATM machine at the airport, we're looking for the transportation on how to go around Yangon. Our plan is to go to to Aung Mingular Bus Station first to put our luggage then go around the city. While looking around, we were 'approached' by some random guys who turned out to be fellow travelers from Indonesia..hehe there are 3 guys and 3 other girls (also from Indonesia) and magically we are heading to the same direction, bus station first then going around the city then going back to bus station to take night bus to Bagan and Inle Lake. We rent minivan for one day with a price of 90,000 Kyat (about IDR 128k) with the route Airport-Bus Station-Sleeping Budha-Shwedagon Pagoda-Bogyoke Market-Kandawgyi Lake-Bus Station, the price is quite reasonable considering lot of places covered.

First stop is this Sleeping Budha place which I couldn't remember the name, basically this is also pagoda or temple where people pray. It's quite packed with the locals and i just noticed some unique things about Myanmar people. First, the guy they wear sarong (they called it Longyi), the sarong itself is very similar with sarong that we have in Indonesia, the difference is the use of sarong is interchangeable with normal trousers, so it's quite normal to see men wearing sarong everywhere. Secondly, you will notice the women and girls are wearing some sort of cream in their face, this yellowish cream is called Thanaka, the purpose of this cream is for protection against sunburn (sunblock) as well as to remove acne and promote smooth skin. Thirdly, they are really like to chew "daun sirih" or Betel in English (I need to google this first to find what is English Translation for this), in Indonesia I know that the elders are the one who like to chew this and I don't really know what's the reason but I'm guessing it's for health or medical purpose, however here in Myanmar it's not only the elders, young people are also like to chew this Betel leaves and that's why they always spit the residual of the leaves One thing that I also noticed here is, you can almost get free drinking water in any of the pagoda and temple, so if have a bottle, you're good. I guess the reason is they are providing the water for the monks. 

ATM machine in the airport

Sleeping Budha

Our next stop is probably the highlight of Yangon which is the Shwedagon Pagoda. We hired a tour guide and pay about 2500 Kyat per person while the entrance fee is about 8000 kyat. We go directly to the top of the pagoda using elevator (yup, lame). Once there we are so mesmerized with the view of the Pagoda which so golden and shiny. The main attraction in the center is the golden stupa of 99 meters tall. The base of the stupa is made of bricks covered with gold plates, Above the base are terraces that only monks and other males can access. Next is the bell-shaped part of the stupa. Above that is the turban, then the inverted almsbowl, inverted and upright lotus petals, the banana bud and then the umbrella crown. The crown is tipped with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies. The gold seen on the stupa is made of genuine gold plates, covering the brick structure and attached by traditional rivets.When I asked the guide whether any robbery attempts on the golds and those jewelries, he said that since the pagoda is sacred place, the golds and diamonds are quite safe as people believe bad karma will happen if they try to steal those. Another thing to note that it is compulsory to take off your shoes when you enter any temples/pagodas in Myanmar (at least in Yangon and Bagan which I visited).

Free Wifi at Shwedagon Pagoda

The famous Shwedagon Pagoda

The famous Shwedagon Pagoda

The famous Shwedagon Pagoda

with new friends from Indonesia!

After taking some photos, we went to lunch place, we specifically asked the driver to bring us to halal restaurant and he took us to one Indian restaurant where all of us ordered curry chicken and some vegetables. What I noted to be special is their dried chili paste (sambal) which I can describe as very very delicious, spicy and hot, those 3 essential element in a good food for me. There seems to be dried prawn or salted fish inside the sambal aside from the dried chili. Our lunch place is actually near the famous market in Yangon which is Bogyoke Market where you can buy souvenirs and other things as well. We parted our ways and promised to meet again near the KFC there one hour later as the girls need to go to the market as they will not coming back to Yangon anymore. Me and Astri together with the boys are going to the mosque first to do Zuhr and Ashr pray, then go to the market. Actually we don't want to be separated as both me and Astri, we don't have internet (we are too lazy to buy new sim card) and so it's wise to follow one of the group to make it easier to meet up. The mosque was actually locked maybe because it's not a prayer time yet, but we are allowed to enter and pray, for women we can use the second floor of the mosque.

We walked to the market, this market has over 2000 shops and the largest selection of Myanmar handicrafts and souvenirs inside, you can find the sarong/longyi, traditional clothes, food, souvenir, jewelries from ruby, jade and other precious stone. We only bought some bracelet as we will be back here on our last day. We went to KFC which is located across the market and happened to be the only KFC in Yangon (we got this info from Indonesian guy we met at the Bus Station who has been living in Myanmar for 5+ years) which kind of explained why the place was so crowded (but the serviced is quite good though. We bought some food from KFC for dinner before we continue our journey.

It's raining and it caused a quite heavy traffic jam on our way and thus we decided to go straight to the bus station. We made one more stop at the Kandawgyi Lake where we can see there is this famous restaurant, Karaweik which has shaped of floating boat.


Lunch at Halal Restaurant

view near the restaurant

Mosque near Bogyoke Market

Ablution/Wudhu Place

Inside Bogyoke Market

the only KFC in town

Pretty cool car

Kandawgyi Lake and Karaweik Restaurant

We spent the rest of our day in the bus station while waiting for our bus at 8 pm. We had our dinner and we even have time to clean and freshen up ourselves a bit. Ah, maybe I share a little bit about this bus. There are several bus company to travel across Myanmar, but I believe this JJ Express Bus is the best. They have the best bus, more comfortable and the service is also great. In the bus station you practically can make yourself feel comfortable, there are drinking water free-flow and coffee. To book the journey using JJ Express bus, all you have to do is to book via their Facebook account named JJ-Express Highway Bus. You just need to send the message to them to include the details of your journey, destination, time, name of the passengers and passport number, we only have to pay cash on site. After you informed them they will confirm our booking by mentioning our seat number as well, so this is pretty legit even though only made using Facebook. We got a promo since we bought return ticket from Yangon to Bagan which is 32,000 Kyat (normal price 37,000 Kyat) per person. The Bus is really comfortable for about 9 hours of journey there are 2 toilet breaks if I remember correctly.

"stewardess" on duty from JJ Express Bus

JJ express bus

Day 2 – 16 Aug at Bagan

Arrived at Bagan around 5 am and suddenly we are swarmed by taxi and horse cart drivers offering us. Quite overwhelmed, we agreed to take 1 taxi to go to our hotel. The driver is offering us to use the taxi for one day as well and we agreed. Firstly we decided to go to this pagoda to see the sunrise, this is a failed mission as the sky is cloudy so we couldn't really see the sun. To be able to enter the Bagan Archeological Zone, we are required to pay USD 20 which covers all the cultural sites/temples in Bagan and valid for 5 days from the date of the issue. It's quite expensive and actually there is a way to avoid this if the driver just went straight ahead and cover for the visitors and told the guards that we are locals. So far there was no checking of the ticket except for at the Shwesandaw Temple. We go to the hotel and luckily they allowed us to early check-in. We actually chose a nice hotel as we only have 1 night to have a nice sleep (2 other nights are at the bus). The hotel called Zfreeti hotel and it's really recommended, the room is clean and comfortable, the location is good, the buffet breakfast is generous, there is ATM as well inside the hotel, I think the only drawback is the wifi sometimes is not working really well.

Our first destination is Shwezigon Temple which remind me to the Shwedagon Temple in Yangon, the golden temple is glimmering under the sunlight. It's quite hot in Bagan and with this rule that you have to be barefooted inside the temple is quite challenging. Here we met again with 3 Indonesian guys we met earlier, they are in one car with a couple from Indonesia as well and thus we decided to go to Mount Popa with them. Our driver is not letting us transfer 1 or 2 person to our car even though there are 2 of us and 5 of them in the other car and he asked for additional fee as the place is quite far (1 hour from Bagan center).

Sunrise at Bulethi Pagoda (1st attempt - failed)
Zfreeti Hotel
Lobby Zfreeti Hotel

Shwezigon Pagoda

Shwezigon Pagoda

Shwezigon Pagoda
I would say I'm not too impressed with Mount Popa, it's quite okay but since it's quite far if you only have limited time at Bagan, I would suggest to skip this. The attraction is a temple on a cliff. You would need to walk the stairs up, about 100 meters and you have to take off your shoes since this place is considered holy. The earlier stairs have not been very clean because of the presence of large numbers of monkeys, but along the way to the top are pretty clean as they're being cleaned by a local society. The views from the top are good although the monkeys are making us feel less comfortable.

Mount Popa

Monkey at Mount Popa Temple

Monkey at Mount Popa Temple

Mount Popa Temple

Mount Popa

Back from mount Popa, we went for lunch and again we asked the drivers for halal place. It turned out the other driver (not ours) is a Muslim and he took us to his relatives' small restaurant. They food are good and they even gave me the sambal for takeaway. As it's already near our hotel we went back to our hotel first for Sholat and asked the driver to pick us up to go to the Shwesandaw temple to see the sunset.

Before going to Shwesandaw Temple, we went first to Ananda Temple which is Bagan holiest temple. I like the architecture of Ananda Temple especially the red color at the top of this temple. Ananda Temple is one of the four main temples remaining in Bagan. Ananda temple is considered to be one of the most surviving masterpiece of the Mon architecture. Also known as the finest. largest. best preserved and most revered of the Bagan temples. During the 1975 earthquake. Ananda suffered considerable damage but has been totally restored. Inside the temple there are budha images statues, stone sculpture, and glazed works. It can be quite creepy I guess if we enter the temple by ourselves.

Inside Ananda Temple

Inside Ananda Temple

Ananda Temple

We go straight to the Shwesandaw temple which is the famous temple to see the sunset and to see the view of Bagan from above. So, if ever you google images for Bagan, you will find this magnificent view of Bagan with thousands of Pagodas spread all over, well, this is the place to see it. And for that reason, we are so determined to be able to arrived here before it gets crowded. We were there around 4.30 pm (sunset is around 6pm), but we don't mind to wait in the best spot. There are only few people at that hour and so we have some time to take the breathtaking view of Bagan. Be careful when you climb the stairs as it's getting narrower to the top but there is a handrail you can hold on to. Only about 20 minutes later the people are started to climbing up to get the sunset view. Here are some of the pictures, maybe the pictures don't really look spectacular but I can say the original view is much better than the photos, there are some things which are better in real life than the picture, I guess.

We went back to the hotel and stayed at the hotel for the rest of the night, we had dinner at the hotel and the price is quite reasonable about 5000 kyat per portion (IDR 56k). We paid around 27000 kyat per person for the 1 day car rental which a bit expensive and there is actually cheaper way to explore the city by bike, you can rent either manual or electric bike with a very reasonable price, but it can be really challenging as it can get very hot in Bagan.

Shwesandaw Pagoda

View from the top of Shwesandaw Pagoda

Shwesandaw Pagoda

waiting for sunset at Shwesandaw Pagoda

Sunset from Shwesandaw Pagoda

Sunset view from Shwesandaw Pagoda

Sunset view from Shwesandaw Pagoda

Day 3 – 17 Aug at Bagan

Our plan for today is to see the sunrise again from Bulethi Pagoda and we deiced to rent a bike to go there. We rented the bike with the price of 2000 kyat for the whole day. Initially we want to use our free bike rental as a complimentary from our hotel. However since that day is our check out day the complimentary have been expired, so we have to use it yesterday. Again it's a failed mission to see the sunrise as the sky was cloudy. It took about 20-25 minutes by bike and it's okay but when the road is sandy it a bit heavy to pedal. We went back to hotel for slow breakfast and we only went out around 12pm after we performed our pray first. We finally decided to rent the electric bike, as we believed it will be more comfortable and less tiring. Our intention is to rent 1 bike and one of us will be the passenger, but then the hotel staff told us that since it's already past noon, they will only charged us half-price. Okay then, we'll take it, so finally we got 1 bike each. It turned out to be much better option to ride electric bike (unless you have mission to exercise and burn some calories). You don't have to cycle the bike all the time especially on the uphill road. We were also blessed as that day it's cloudy day so the heat is bearable. We followed the Bagan map that we got from the hotel to visit pagodas there.

Sunrise at Bulethi Pagoda (2nd attempt - failed)

Bulethi Pagoda

Bulethi Pagoda

cycling at Bulethi Pagoda

Cycling at Bulethi Pagoda

View near of Bulethi Pagoda

Fitness center in the middle of nowhere

We made some stops at Thatbyinnyu Temple, Shwegugyi Temple there are several temples as well which we forgot the names. We also stopped at Golden Palace Museum and Site but we have to pay if we want to get in (so we didn't get in) and Bagan Archaeological Museum which we didn't get in also as it's closed, I forgot the reason why it's closed though. In the map there is this one temple which looks so big named Dhammayangyi Temple, but it's located outside the old Bagan and from the map it's only only an-inch, a pretty short distance, right? right? Okay, let's go to this temple as our last destination. It took about 40 minutes from old Bagan. I used google map to go there. Hey, have I told you that we actually can use google map even if we don't have internet connection? The GPS is still working, so what you need to do is when you have internet, you open to google and ask the direction, leave the map open, and when you are internet-less open the map and you still can see the map and it shows where your position is. So you can use this to direct you to your destination.

Our road to this temple is really long and winding road (to exaggerate...) we have to pass a very small road where we didn't see any human living pass the road for about 20 minutes or so, we only meet this herd of goats, it's quite an experience and to make it even worse it's started to raining.. we are so glad to finally find the temple. It's very big, I think it's the biggest in Bagan, but with the location, maybe not so many people visited this temple. Going back, we decided to use another road, and that's the time we realized, there are another way (which is more common) to reach this temple, and even bus can also reach this temple, and the door where we got in to the temple earlier is actually the back entrance, not the main entrance. We are happy nonetheless since it's not every day you got to cycle in the middle of nowhere.

Thatbyinnyu Temple

Thatbyinnyu Temple

Golden Palace Museum and Site

Shwegugyi Temple

Bagan Archeological Museum

one pretty Pagoda

Dhammayangyi Temple

Dhammayangyi Temple

Dhammayangyi Temple

We went back to the hotel and had a very late lunch at the hotel as we couldn't find halal place. We waited at the hotel as there will be a pickup (provided by JJ Express Bus) from the Hotel to the bus station in Bagan, a very good service, right?

JJ Express Bus

Day 4 – 18 Aug at Yangon

This is our last day of our trip and we don't have many plan. Arrived at terminal bus at Yangon, after freshen up and change clothes, we hired a car to go to the city. Our main agenda is only to see the Sule Pagoda and some colonial buildings in Yangoon, to the Bogyoke market to buy some souvenirs and to have lunch at this Indonesian Restaurant named Toba Restaurant. Things didn't go smoothly as our plan as we were stuck in a very bad traffic jam, it took 2 hours to reach city center (with 20km distance), we were like talking, sleeping, waking up, sleeping again and so on but we're not there yet. This was worse than Jakarta, I guess. When finally arrived at Sule Pagoda and the this park near the city hall, we were not in the mood to go around and there was small rain as well. After taking some pictures, we tried to look for this Toba Restaurant, but since we don't have internet, it's really difficult to find the restaurant even though we already asked several people and finally we decided to walk to the Bogyoke market and had lunch at KFC again. After that we went back to the bus station and to get our stuff and go straight to the Airport to catch our flight at 7.30 pm, the flight duration is 2.5 hours but since there is time difference of 1.5 hour, we arrived at Kuala Lumpur almost midnight. 

Sule Pagoda

High Court Building

Yangon City Hall
So, that's it, the story of Myanmar trip. Hope to write again soon! Thanks for reading :).

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