Thursday, 4 June 2015

The Road Less Traveled: 7 Days in Myanmar (Part 1)

After a long excruciating pain of waiting for almost 3 months after we booked the tickets, we finally set out on our next adventure to the holy land: Myanmar.

To be honest, I didn’t get a good feeling since the start of the journey, mainly because I did not plan this trip. The bulk of the itinerary was provided for by a dear friend, who even helped us get cheap day tours for the various cities that we will be visiting. However, we were too underprepared for this unexpected trip.

To start with, we travelled on a budget airline – Jetstar to Yangon. Having booked the tickets way ahead of time, we got really cheap tickets. However, do to the lack of planning and incomplete information, our mini nightmare was about to start. We took an early flight departing Singapore and we arrived at Yangon near noon. To our horror, Myanmar do not allow visa on arrival for tourists.
Please take special note on this if you are ever travelling to Myanmar.

Myanmar DO NOT allow visa-on-arrival for tourists. This is only applicable for business travellers and require company registration as well as letter of invitation by the company.

And so the story goes.. We got deported.

It was a horrifying experience. We tried talking to the immigration officers as well as the airport staff. But we were only met with hostility. We were being shoved back onto the plane. Even back in Singapore, we were being escorted by staff after staff. We only managed to clear customs at almost 7pm. The whole ordeal took us more than 12 hours. Hungry and tired as we were, we were considering flying back the next morning (with our visas of course) or to change the whole itinerary and fly somewhere else instead. Rationality made us fly back, considering that we have already paid for our hotels, and some of the attractions we were so looking forward to.

And so, we spent the whole night sorting out the documents we need for the visas and we re-booked our air tickets, all ready to fly back the next morning.

Visa = USD 50 per pax (straight new notes only)
New air tickets = SGD$383 each (Note: We only paid SGD$243 per pax initially)


And finally, we cleared customs without hiccups and all ready for our first adventure of the year. We changed some local currencies at the airport (before you exit the airport) and took a cab from the airport to the hotel our friend will be hosting us for the day before we leave for Bagan that night.
Singapore doesn’t really have any currency exchange whom sells Myanmar Kyats (pronounced as charts) and I have confirmed with my Burmese friends that the exchange rates at the airport are pretty good. Just note that Burmese are a little concerned with straight new US notes. Meaning if your notes are old and crumple, they will reject your notes (as I have suffered later on).

1 thing that I like is that there is a taxi booking stand right after you clear the customs. There’s only 1 so there’s not much left to chances.  We were told that you could haggle for the price and the costs of a cab from the airport to Downtown usually costs MMK8,000 to MMK10,000. After the whole ordeal, we thought our whole luck has changed for the better since we got the lower of the range without even asking.

Taxi = MMK 8,000
Note: Exchange rate is approximately USD1 ~ MMK1000 (for easy reference)

We settled at a nearby place for lunch and it was fabulous!

It was near evening and we got a cab to the bus terminal for our night ride to the long awaited Bagan. Truth to be told, the 10 hours bus ride was none but torturous. I have no idea why I could bear with the previous 7 hours ride in a minivan to El Nido but this seemingly comfy ride was rather an agony. There was only 1 stopover for a quick bite and toilet break in between. And finally as we reached Bagan at near 5am, only the next horror struck us.


It was COLD. It was actually FREEZING COLD. BRRRRRR.

We were told that Bagan would get colder at night but we didn’t know it would be so cold. As a simple reference, it is colder than Genting at night. I have to wear 2 thick jackets and I am still freezing my butt off. Brrr. As I was saying, we got deported so our itinerary was all pushed back by a day. Our guide came to pick us up and we were ready to check in but our hotels made a mistake and told us that no room was available for us until later in the day at about 9am. What a joke. So anyways, we went to visit the renowned sunrise of Bagan.

Part I

We climbed the Pagoda bare footed in the darkness. It was almost horrifying. And then we waited…

Slowly, the sun came up.

It was beautiful. It was stunning.

But it’s also cold as hell. Barely fighting the cold, we left soon after the sun rises. Remember us saying climbing the pagoda in the dark was horrifying? Trust me, the climb down in broad daylight was worst. 

Way worst…

As we were told that the room will only be ready by 9am, we went for a local breakfast before we head back to the hotel.

It consists of "you cha quey", local bee hoon soup (it's not spicy, don't be deceived by it's looks), curry puff lookalike thingy and chinese tea!

And it only costs us 800kyats!!! We were finally checked in and the hotel was amazing!!!

Zfreeti Hotel
As Bagan is naturally cold due to its high altitude, the room was naturally cold and do not require air conditioning. They have an outdoor swimming pool which would be great during noon as the sun can be pretty harsh at that hour. We have told our guide to pick us up at around 1030 after we are rested and washed up. Since we have paid for the room for the day before, we also enjoy complimentary breakfast! They have a simple fare of western and local dishes for the breakfast. To be honest, it wasn’t fabulous but I thought it was good enough for the 2 of us. I love it that they serve eggs cooked on the spot. So you can have a choice of omelette, sunny side up or jus scrambled.

So our guide came and picked us up for the 2nd part of the tour. Well, I am not going to bore you anymore.

Part II

One thing to note is that most of the operable temples and pagodas in the area require you to be barefoot, so bear in mind to wear slip-on footwear for simplicity sake. You can thank me later.

And we head for our lunch before we head back to the hotel for a short rest!

I love the guides in this area. They are so chillax, and so cool about everything. They'll go, "oh, it will be really hot in the afternoon, why not we start earlier in the morning so that it's more cooling and we can go back to the hotel for a short rest during 1-3pm when the weather is the hottest." AND I LOVE THE IDEA! Travelling is always meant to relax our mind, so I guess no point we stress ourselves over the hot weather. 

One more stop before we head back to our hotel for our afternoon nap.

Booking the hot air balloon tickets!! Actually, it was a concern for me for the entire time because I understood that the tickets are usually sold out way way before flying day. Hence, I have requested our dear friend whom assisted us in this trip to reserve ticket for us since she said she was able to get them at a cheaper rate and guess what? WE DIDN’T HAVE A TICKET!!! It was really nightmare after nightmare. So, we have to get our local guide to help us source for alternatives. Finally, we found the GOLDEN EAGLE hotair balloon ride simply because no other operators have vacancies anymore. It is really true that you have to book your hot air balloon way way way before your trip to secure a seat. Lucky for us, as Golden Eagle was only established slightly over a year ago, it was only known amongst the local tour operators. Meaning, it would be almost impossible to locate them over the web. However, they only provide the exclusive services, which means we have to pay more. SOBX. But since this was the main intent to Bagan anyway, we have decided to go for it.

Part III

After our brief nap in the room to compensate our lack of sleep this morning, we proceed for the 3rd part of the itinerary. 

Since we had sunrise for breakfast, it is necessary to complete the course with (i bet you guess it right) SUNSET!! We had chance to witness this beautiful sunset at another historical building (duh!). And it was pretty exciting as you have to climb through a steep stairway that i can barely fit through (bear in mind I'm pretty petite compared to the other travellers there). But the end result was a set of remarkable and cloudless sunset.

After the day long tour, we had dinner in our hotel, by the pool. It was very romantic, considering the dim lightings and dining under the stars. It was an incredible experience.


AND HERE COMES THE HIGHLIGHT OF OUR TRIP!!!! We woke up at 4:30am to wait for our bus to come pick us up. It’s really really cold in the morning. But the anxiety kept us warm and hopping around.

My boy was really hilarious. We came out of our hotel all sleepy and we saw a bus for BALLOONS OVER BAGAN and guess what he did? He ran to the bus and told me to follow up. It was until I opened my eyes then I told him it was not our ride. I couldn’t stopped laughing since.

So we board the mini bus and we got to the place from the day before, the large open fields preparing for the taking off. We were then served bread and tea/coffee in the cold hard wind. The process was really delightful as the flow was smooth and things just happened one after another. Just as we finished the breakfast, we were told to observe the mini balloon sent up to determine wind speed and direction. Then they also tested the burners and the warmth of it felt so great!!

And then you get really excited because they started to give us a brief training on safety and they start to PUMP UP THE BALLOON!!! It was really exciting as it marks the start of the ride and I haven’t exactly seen a balloon this size being pumped up before.

We climbed in and up we go!!!

The view is breath-taking. And the ride was surprisingly stable. You almost didn’t feel like you are in a balloon. And we learned a few things about the hot air balloon. For instance, you cannot navigate a hot air balloon, you can only control the height of the balloon and “catching” different layers of wind going different directions. I thought this was pretty cool as it really gives you an idea of a really really primitive type of transportation and you are totally reliant on the experience of the pilot and nature forces.

The landing was rather similar to that of the taking off, we both had a dozen people “sending” us and “picking” us. The landing was surprising smooth, no huge bumps or “turbulence”. The pilot accredited this to his crew. He was joking how he flew in so many other countries and he only had 1 assistant to help him along the way, and how pampered he was flying in Bagan with a luxury of crew to assist him, thus causing him to be so reliant on them.

And so we landed and we were presented with champagne and a certificate (of course) for our completion of the ride of a lifetime with the backdrop of the crew packing up the huge balloon!! 

After which we were sent back to our hotel.  We checked out and get ready for our next journey. We hoped onto our pre-booked bus and off we go. I thought the service for the bus is pretty good as they sent our bus tickets to our hotel. Also, we were due to arrive in Mandalay bus station but they offered to drop us at our hotel in Mandalay!! I guess our luck is turning for the better. (or at least I thought)..

Till later......

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