South East Asia – Chapter 18 – One Day in Mandalay – Working Hands

After our overnight bus ride, we had a short time to freshen up and then we were back on the bus for our one-day adventure in Mandalay. Our guide told us that often tourists don’t like Mandalay because the city is spread out with no real ‘centre’ district. All of the attractions seem to be in different directions. It isn’t really a great city just to have a stroll in. Having said that, the attractions in the area are fantastic and I wouldn’t want to have missed Mandalay. In fact, if you are open minded and want to explore, I’m sure that 3-4 days would be time well spent in the city and surrounding area.

We headed off for a quick stop at a gold leaf workshop where the process was demonstrated and explained. On one side of the workshop, the men were hard at work pounding the materials to flatten them and increase their size. The methodical and melodic steady pounding of the metal would likely drive me crazy after any amount of time, but these folks work and sweat through it for hours every single day. On the other side of the workshop there were women busy laying gold leaf over various items that were for sale. This gold leaf is also used in most of the temples and pagodas throughout Myanmar.

Next stop was a silk weaving workshop where women were hard at work on their weaving looms. The amount of physical labour that these people do for mere dollars a day is absolutely astounding.

I believe in supporting not for profit organizations and the people that they assist, so I bought souvenir items at both of these locations, knowing that the money was going back into the community rather than being handed through several channels, such as a kid selling something at a market, to their parents, to their boss etc.

I enjoy buying items that I’ve seen the process behind and paying for an artisans work rather than buying souvenir items from a market where they have likely been mass-produced for pennies a day rather than dollars a day. I support fair labour where I can.

We also visited a weaving and marionette shop. I really wanted to bring marionettes home for my nieces, but they were large and made of wood, so I decided not to. I didn’t want to take the chance that they would be confiscated at the border. And they would be difficult to carry for the next two and a half weeks.

Besides the vast array of unique marionettes, the shop had all kinds of interesting ironworks, weaving and decorative wall art. Even such things as opium weights, animal skulls, and statues.

South East Asia – Chapter 16B – Astrology Reading

At the Shwedagon Pagoda, our local guide took us to see a lovely old man who did an astrology reading for us based solely on our date and year of birth. He did his math on an old-school chalk board and spoke only the local language.

Astrology Reading at Shwedagon Pagoda
Astrology Reading at Shwedagon Pagoda

As each one of us went in, our local guide took notes and then translated the reading for us. Some of the group were amazed by how accurate he was. I, however, felt that it didn’t work for me. You make your own judgement. Here’s what my date and year of birth had to say about me.

South East Asia – Chapter 17 – Overnight Bus

One of the things that I was worried about before arriving in Myanmar was the fact that it was monsoon season. I hadn’t read very much on the internet, but enough to know that I’d likely see some heavy rains and those heavy rains could affect the road conditions, sometimes making them impassable. I was a little concerned about this … until I got on the bus.

Even at the bus station, I was impressed. Although it was a tiny little room and the squatter toilet wasn’t the best, the staff were dressed in nice uniforms and even served us a complimentary beverage while we were waiting. Really? At the bus station?

Our overnight bus from Yangon to Mandalay was the nicest coach that I have ever been on. Now, I wouldn’t call it luxury, but it sure was nothing like what I expected. We climbed up the stairs to the upper level and got comfy in over sized seats that had an unusual amount of reclining ability. Considerably more spacious than flying Air Asia and still more spacious than Thai Airways! It was clean and air conditioned. One of my favourite parts was that they gave us each a fuzzy pink polar fleece blanket to cover up with through the night. Generally speaking, they kept the air conditioning at 18 or 19 degrees. Through the night, that’s pretty chilly.

We took off on time and after navigating through the streets for only a few minutes, we set out on the highway. I didn’t even know that a highway existed! Here I thought we would be driving along back roads, getting washed away by mud slides.

Sure enough, it rained pretty much the entire time we were on the bus, but the roads were good and the driver seemed to be very careful. Not only was it a highway, but it was a four lane highway with a median in the middle pretty much the entire way. Apparently it has only just been completed in the past couple of years. It was in really good condition and only a few big bumps when crossing over bridges.

Throughout the night, the bus had pulled over a couple of times because of accidents on the highway and to switch drivers. After all, it is a really long drive, late at night on a straight, boring highway in the rain. I slept through most of the stops, but one long one (about 45 minutes), they served everyone snacks (a piece of cake and a cinnamon bun type thing). Can you imagine? I didn’t wake up for that either! I got mine early the next morning.

We left late in the evening and arrived in Mandalay the next morning around 6:30am. Apparently that was an hour or so later than normal.

The bus tickets were included in our tour, but I think the overnight bus was $20 US or less. If you are considering the trip between Yangon and Mandalay, I think the bus is a great cost effective way to go. Much cheaper than flying and you save on a night’s hotel room.

All in all, the bus ride was uneventful and a pleasant experience. Who would have thought that in Myanmar I would have a better public bus than anywhere else I’ve ever been!

South East Asia – Chapter 16 – Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar

Probably the biggest tourist attraction in Yangon is the enormous Shwedagon Pagoda. Nearly 25 000 people visit it per day on the weekend. Although, most of this is actually locals, not tourists.

We only spent about an hour wandering around the inside area of the Pagoda, but I could have spent much longer! Thankfully, our local guide took us to have our astrology reading done where we sat in the coolness of one of the buildings, out of the scorching mid-day sun. After our astrology readings, we bought the flowers as per each of our readings and then used them as an offering to the shrine for our day of birth, where we also poured an uneven number of cups of water on our symbols.

Here’s a quick little photo essay. Put your sunglasses on and get ready for a whirlwind of gold!

South East Asia – Chapter 14 – Toys!

After our wonderful morning at the monastery for breakfast, I was absolutely in love with Yangon. What a perfect morning, being welcomed in like family, by strangers. I knew the early morning would be hard to top, but I also knew that Yangon had so much more to offer. Besides, so far, all of my activities had been people related and don’t tourists come to Myanmar for the temples / monasteries and pagodas?

Around 8:30am our group gathered and travelled by private bus to the markets surrounding the Shwedagon Pagoda.

We quickly went into a small street restaurant and went upstairs to where our table was already set. Local food was on the way for our local breakfast. In the end, it was the same breakfast that we had induldged in at the monastery, so the four of us didn’t eat a whole lot. However, I did try out the coconut rice and coconut soup instead of the fish soup. Yum!

After breakfast, we all started winding our way through the markets toward the back entrance of the Shwedagon Pagoda. The markets were incredible! So colorful with all of the local longyis, fresh produce and brightly colored flowers, material and scarves. Not to mention the massive amount of gold everywhere. Gold Buddas, gold plated souvenirs of all sizes. Everywhere you looked you could nearly be blinded by gold.

About ½ way down the street, our local guide, Ekayi (pronounced Ekery) showed us through a tiny alleyway into a shop. A little spot that you would never know existed if you weren’t with a local. There was no signage and it honestly looked like an alleyway to someone’s small home.

As we lowered our heads for the low roof and stepped inside, a couple at a time we realized that it was a kids toy shop. All around were handmade animals of all different shapes and sizes. We spent a few minutes looking around and by that I mean turning in a circle because it was so small. Interesting little shop and nice place to buy a few kids souvenirs. Unfortunately, I didn’t want to carry them for the next three weeks, so I passed on the opportunity.

I don’t even have photos to show as the place was literally too small for me to take any photos.

Definitely a great reason to be on a group tour and hanging out with a local. Locals always know about the nooks & crannies of their city. Pretty sure Lonely Planet doesn’t mention this little gem of a place!

South East Asia – Chapter 13 – Morning Photo Walk

At our welcome meeting on day 1 I had been pleasantly surprised to learn that our tour leader, JP, had a growing interest and a great eye for photography.

He mentioned getting up early the next morning to do a morning wander and photo walk. I was interested, but so tired! I was still adjusting to jet lag. Several of the other travelers were considering it, but no one really wanted to commit to getting up at 5am. In the end, we told JP not to come as none of us could commit. Eventually, he decided he was going regardless and would be at the hotel to see if anyone wanted to join him.

Well, I couldn’t stand him up!

Myself, Iris and Kiley woke up extra early that morning and joined JP for a walk to an even less touristy district of the city. It wasn’t even that hard to wake up. Afterall, the roosters started crowing sometime between 4:30am and 5am and in that time you’d also hear loud speaker announcements or music throughout the streets as the monks wound their way through town taking offerings.

Being low season and an up and coming destination, Yangon wasn’t very touristy to begin with. In the first two days I had seen no more than a dozen tourists (not a word of a lie).

We strolled along Strand road for about 15 minutes until we came to a pagoda. We entered through the gates and wandered through a small local market while it was still quite dark. It’s quite amazing how the city wakes up so early and is on the move before the crack of dawn.

By 6:00am the sky was starting to get a bit lighter and more people were up and moving around. The market stalls were beginning to open and in the distance, we could see monks beginning to line up for their walk through the streets to collect food and money.

We headed toward the monks and after double checking with JP, he assured me that it would be fine to take photos and interact with them. In fact, they didn’t have nearly as many rules and restrictions as I thought.

For some reason, I thought that monks were not ever allowed to speak. Is this the way it is in other cultures, or just during certain times? I’m still yet to find that out. But, these monks were allowed to speak and many of them knew English quite well. They were a mixture of shy and curious, confident and awkward. Some of them were happy to have their photo taken, others politely turned away.

I tried not to be too intrusive, not getting too close and only photographing them if I had made eye contact or asked their permission. Most of them were happy to have their photo taken, but didn’t freely smile.

This is where JP came in extra handy. He had seen all of this a million times, so he was happy to make funny faces and get the monks laughing so that we could get great photos.

I chatted a little bit in English with a few of them. Honestly, they are really friendly and often want to practice their English, but I think I was more shy than they were as I felt like somehow I was still being disrespectful by photographing them.

After about 20 minutes of wandering around, starring at and taking photos of monks a man came over to JP and invited us in to the monastery for breakfast. Of course we joined them! What a lovely opportunity … the kind that you can’t recreate or find in a guide book, the kind that is local and just happens.

Volunteers, or families donate their time regularly to cook food for the monks. This morning, the family was inviting us in to join them. We took off our shoes and headed in through a couple of rooms to a spot where about 40 or so locals were seated and filling their bellies with hot delicious food.

We were quickly seated and several of the men kept us busy chatting in English while they served up rice and fish soup. For garnish, there were fried crunchy bits, cilantro, chili flakes and …

And then came the sticky rice. OH sweet sticky rice. I could have eaten an entire plate full of this deliciousness. Sticky and cut into small ½ inch squares, it was sweet and absolutely divine.

After we had nearly finished our typical, local breakfast, Iris wanted a photo with a couple of the locals. Moments after that, locals were rushing over to get photos of all of us with them for their own keepsakes with their cameras.

Breakfast at a monastery in Yangon, Myanmar
Breakfast at a monastery in Yangon, Myanmar

Such an interesting turn of events, being on the other end of the lens. What can you do though? You go to another country and take tones of pictures of them, you can’t say no when they want to photograph you because you are equally foreign and beautiful to them!

It was really such a special morning when we all really got a feel for the warmth and generosity of the local Myanmar people. We were complete strangers, invading their space and they wanted to give to us, treat us well, feed us and do good deeds.

I’ve learned that the Buddist way of life is far beyond the generosity and caring even of a little old East coast – Canadian. Everything they do in Myanmar comes from the heart with a warm smile and no material alterior motive. Simply the motive to do good, be better and eventually reach a state of nirvana where they have done good deeds all of their life.

It certainly takes you back to a simplistic thought process and reminds you of what’s important in life. Friends, family, experiences, your happiness, health and well-being … not material items. It reminds you to be kind to others, no matter what your situation and that money doesn’t buy happiness.

South East Asia – Chapter 11 – Monsoon Season

Ever since I booked the trip to Asia back in April, I’ve known that I would be traveling in monsoon season. I tried not to research too many things before I came so I could experience things through my own eyes, but I did do a little research on the weather so I would know how to pack.

Throughout the southern part of Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia, there would be heavy rains most days for short periods of time and drizzle throughout the day. In the more northern parts of the countries, it would be just showers, not really heavy rainfall.

Just to be safe I packed two plastic ponchos, my good quality rain jacket that I never travel without and a small umbrella. To be honest, I’m glad I packed them all!

In Yangon, while out on our city walking tour we got caught in an afternoon downpour. Now, when I say downpour, it is actually quite unlike anything that we usually get in Canada. Although I suppose the freak rains / floods in Calgary and Toronto this summer likely compare. The rain comes on so fast and furious that you are nearly drenched before you can even open your umbrella. The rain comes down sideways and with a little wind, the umbrella isn’t really helping you stay very dry at all. If you are lucky you can find a building to duck into, but who knows if the rains will last for minutes or hours.

In our case, on this particular day we took short cover in the Catholic Church while we were admiring the beauty. When it was time to go, we all gritted our teeth, put up our umbrellas and went along for the adventure!

None of us were dressed particularly appropriate for what we were about to encounter.
Long skirts, see-through shirts, sneakers … you name it and someone was wearing something inappropriate for the rain. Some of us had umbrellas, others were without.

We were soaked by the time we got to the street corner, regardless of umbrella size. Just around the street corner the rain had started to gather and it was impossible for it to drain away as quickly as it was falling. Soon enough, cars driving by were spraying us with water. There was no hiding and most drivers aren’t considerate enough to slow down.

What seemed like an hour later (but likely only five minutes), we were crossing the already dangerous and busy streets on Yangon through rivers of rain flowing so heavy that they actually had current. Did I mention those rivers were knee-high in some areas? Most people (local and foreigners) were wearing flip flops (or thongs as the Aussies call them). So, on top of being in water up to our knees, the uneven ground was slippery and flip flops easily got lost in the water.

One of the travelers had been wearing sneakers and decided to go bare-foot, like many of the locals. Our local tour leader’s flip flop broke and we had to stop at a store for her to buy a new pair. Luckily, I was wearing my favorite Merrill sports sandals, the type with straps so they don’t fall off.

The day prior I had been wandering around Yangon on my own in my flip flops and in my short one hour stroll I managed to get two huge horrible blisters under the toe beside my big toe. Not only did they blister, but the skin tore off and they were left open and raw.

So, here I was on my second day in Yangon walking around in the dirty streets, with water to my knees. My feet were sore and all I could think about was that they were likely getting infected. Afterall, I would worry about that in Canada. Now, here in Asia, with the extra garbage and feces in the street, I was sure my feet would be black with infection the next day. Sounds gross, I know!

At the end of our walking tour, we finished at the beautiful Strand Hotel for a welcome drink. All of us sopping wet and embarrassed to even be entering such a beautiful hotel. None-the-less, we were welcomed with open arms, appetizers and a gin and tonic.

Despite being cold, wet and dirty, honestly, had we come in monsoon season and not experienced the torrential downpours, I think I might have been a little disappointed. I want to be able to tell people what to expect and that is all part of the experience.

Throughout the remainder of the tour we ran into a lot of showers, but rarely a downpour and after the first couple of days in Yangon, we were all prepared with rain gear and umbrellas no matter what the weather at the beginning of the day.

Although my raw, open blisters were incredibly sore for the next week, I washed them well that night, put some antibiotic cream and band aids on them and limped on my way.

After reading all of this, I’m sure many of you think this would be an absolutely dreadful vacation. In fact, it was not and it wouldn’t stop me from doing it again in the ‘off season’.

I’ve traveled to Peru and Ecuador in rainy season, Dominican Republic and Bermuda during hurricane season and now, South East Asia during monsoon season.

In my mind, the benefits of the beautiful lush greenery, the fewer tourists, lower prices, fresh fruit, produce and afternoon refreshing rains, outweigh the negatives of being drenched one or two days, with showers the other days. Monsoon or rainy season really means fast heavy rains, but they rarely last for a long time. There is often cloud cover or sunshine for the majority of the day, with only a few hours of rain.

Oh yes, and a word of the wise … don’t try to dry your wet clothes in an air-conditioned room. You’ll only end up with wet, cold clothes. Close your bathroom door and hang them to dry with the fan on. Like magic, they are bone dry the next morning.

Next time you consider traveling, think about ‘monsoon’ or ‘rainy’ season as being more relaxed, less busy and beautiful lush vegetation. It’s all about the journey and your outlook on the situation dictates the outcome.

South East Asia – Chapter 10 – The Streets of Yangon

I woke up at 4:30am on August 17th and couldn’t seem to get back to sleep. I guess jet lag had me on weird hours. Could have been worse though. I dilly dallied around until about 6:00am when I decided to get out of bed and get my day pack ready to go exploring.

At 7am I headed down to the lobby for breakfast. While I was waiting for my food, we heard a bit of commotion outside and I could see a row of young monks walking by in their pink and orange robes, each carrying their silver container. I ran outside to see what was going on (typical tourist).

The row of monks stopped about two doors down from the hotel and stood in a line while someone from a nearby truck did some announcements. I really wasn’t sure if I should be photographing them or not, so I didn’t. When they didn’t leave right away, I went back inside my hotel to ask at the front desk if it was ok to photograph them and they told me yes. So, I walked to the front of the line of young monks and moments later, they started walking again. I turned my go-pro toward them and recorded them while they walked by. (or not, apparently I didn’t have it set on video so I got Nothing! boo me).

I went back into the lobby to eat my breakfast which consisted of three pieces of toast, two large slices of delicious watermelon and two barely cooked eggs.

Then, I headed out on a mission to find the Sule Pagoda which was only a few blocks away.

Here’s a quick video of what the streets in Yangon are like at around 8am on a Saturday morning. This was after I had gone to photograph the Pagoda and I was on my way back to the hotel.

South East Asia – Chapter 9 – Welcome!

I arrived safe and sound at the Myanmar International airport shortly after 5pm on August 16th. Originally scheduled to arrive at 8am, but a few hours later really wasn’t all that bad after all that mess!

Airport Welcome sign.
Airport Welcome sign.

It is a small, but clean and easy to navigate airport. There are no wrong turns to take. You follow the signs to passport control, straight through to get your baggage on the other side and then go through the green or red security depending if you have anything to declare.

My luggage had already nearly made it the full way around the conveyor belt when I got there, even though it was only a few minutes of waiting in the passport clearance line.

I quickly went and changed money at an exchange booth. We had been advised to bring new, crisp, US currency without tears, marks or bends. We had also been advised that changing money at the airport would be our best option. It can be done on the street, but the rate will not be as good.

I exchanged $400 US to last me my entire 10 days in Myanmar. When they handed me back 380 000 Kyat I think my jaw dropped. It’s a huge stack of cash. Hard to be inconspicuous with this hanging around!

Burmese Money
Burmese Money

Once I was through security (which took about 1 minute), I started looking through the handful of people with signs in hand with people’s names. It took me no time at all to find my sign and a petite young Burmese woman with a warm smile holding it.

She welcomed me to Myanmar and told me her name is Ickery (spelling?). She was warm and friendly from the moment I saw her across the room. She took me out to the front of the airport where we waited for our transfer driver. I was extremely surprised to see that the car was in excellent condition, new-ish and perfectly clean. I had definitely expected to be driving in older vehicles that were questionable and in need of repair, but surprisingly not!

After loading my luggage in the back, we were off!

Ickery explained that it would be about an hour drive because of traffic at 6pm at night. Along the way she pointed out many of the main sights of Yangon. Her English was far beyond what I expected. She was well spoken, easy to understand and excited to tell me about her country.

We passed by Inya Lake, the Shwedagon Pagoda (AMAZING), The University of Myanmar and other things I can’t recall because I was busy taking it all in.

I learned how to say a couple of words in Burmese (spelled phonetically, not correctly!):
Hello = mingunlaBaa
Thank you = teezooBee

I also learned that there are four types of license plates to watch for:
Red = taxi
White = embassy or diplomat
Blue = tourist
Black = personal

We arrived at the Aung Tha Pyay Hotel at about 6:30pm. It was dusk out. Ickery helped me check in, made sure I had the hotel’s business card in case I got lost and needed a taxi and then I went to my room to check in.

Aung Tha Pyay Hotel Yangon
Aung Tha Pyay Hotel Yangon

Ickery explained to me that the city is very safe, even for walking at night. She suggested I go to a restaurant called Monsoon (about 6 or 8 blocks away) for supper, but I decided to stay closer to the hotel at another spot she recommended that is a little local beer bar.

Beer Bar Yangon
Beer Bar Yangon

After spending an hour or so settling in to my room, I headed two doors down to the beer bar. It was nearly full, mostly with local men. It smelled of beer, was filled with loud voices and laughter and there seemed to be about 20 staff running around in this tiny little place.

I sat down and a lovely waitress came over to bring me a bilingual menu (thank goodness for that!). She spoke very little English, but we managed! It appeared that some of the other staff spoke a little more English than she did.

Bilingual Menu at Beer Bar in Yangon
Bilingual Menu at Beer Bar in Yangon
Chicken & Fresh Pineapple
Chicken & Fresh Pineapple

I was at the beer bar for about an hour in total. While I was there, one other tourist couple came in, but everyone else was local men. As I sat and observed everything around me, I was amazed how happy everyone was, how much laughter there was … mind you, I was at a bar at the end of the work day.

It was interesting to see that young children (5-10 years old) were running around helping out at the bar. They may not have been doing the most important jobs, but they were working.

It is common place for men to chew something (not sure what yet) that is red and then spit it out. By each table was a spit bucket. That’s kind of gross to me, but I guess I’ll have to get over it. Not all of the men were doing it but a couple of them were hawking up whatever it was and spitting with force into the bucket.

Everywhere I looked, people had lovely smiles and horrible teeth!

I was also really interested to try and learn the traits of Burmese people versus other Asians. Most of the ones who were sitting at the bar last night looked almost Indian. Many of the people on the streets though have been a cross between various Asian cultures. It is a really interesting mixture.

My meal cost me 2900 kyat which is about the equivalent of $3 US. I left the girl the remainder of my 5000 kyat. I’m not sure what the policy on tipping is here, but she seemed genuinely thankful.

South East Asia – Chapter 8 – Masaman Curry

*written Aug 16th.

Still hanging out at the DMK airport with no internet. I fell asleep with my face buried in my luggage for a good 45 minutes at one point. When I woke up I was really confused. I had no idea where I was or if I had missed my check in … or if I had been snoring! No one seemed to be looking at me funny, so I decided I must have muffled my snores in my camera bag that I was laying on.

It was about 12:45pm local time and I was set to check in sometime between 1 and 1:30pm.

Both my left arm and leg had completely gone numb from the way I had been sleeping. I nearly cried when my leg started to get feeling back. I couldn’t move it at all it hurt so bad. So, I sat wincing for a few minutes hoping that the blood would soon be flowing normally again. Once I was sure I could stand up without falling down, I had toward the check in gate and found a seat there.

At 1:30 I checked in and then made my way through passport clearance and on to the other side of the airport. AH! It is much nicer on this side. Newer, more comfortable, fewer people, nicer shops and restaurants.

I wandered down to see where my gate was (directly in front of Dairy Queen). Quickly looked at the DQ menu and then decided since I was in Thailand, I’d try something more Thai than Dairy Queen. On their menu though they have various types of hot dogs and Matcha green tea blizzards.

Instead, I went to a café where I could sit and have my first Thai meal. I ordered an ice cran-apple tea and masaman curry. It happens to be my favorite when I eat Thai at home, so I wanted to compare. It was ready within five minutes and I was drooling from the scent before it even hit my lips.

It is a fish sauce / curry broth with chicken, onions and a chunky vegetable. At home it is made with sweet potato. Here, I’m not sure what it was. It looked more like turnip, but didn’t taste like either sweet potato or turnip, so I’m not sure.

Served with rice, a fork and spoon, I mixed it in together and gobbled it up. It was a bit spicier than the masaman curry they make at home, but it was very good. The only part I didn’t like was that they left the skin on the chicken. I’m not a fan of slimy chicken skin in my soup, so I ate around it.

The meal cost me 291 Thai Baht. (about $10 US). At home it would be around $12 to $15 Canadian. Keep in mind though, it is pricier because it is at an airport.

$50 US = 1480 Thai Bhat (airport exchange)
$1 US = 30 Thai Bhat

I don’t think they feed me a meal on Air Asia, so my next meal (if I’m hungry) will be in Yangon.