Friday, August 21, 2015

Circling Myanmar: Yangon

Day 0 – August 19, 2015

Wow! It felt weird to be back traveling alone. My supposed company, Ruth and family have to attend her younger brother’s wedding and Dupong has approved visa to accompany his cousins to Japan, which all happened in the same month. I also felt definitely august to do a trip out of the Philippines via AirAsia for the first time. When my family dropped me at NAIA Terminal 4, the security officer informed me that the international flights were now transferred to Terminal 3. Good thing they have not left the premises, otherwise it would be hard to find empty taxicabs from that point.

I cleared at the immigration smoothly. The lady agent only inquired on the number of days I would be away. I confidently answered, “5 days in Myanmar and 5 days in Thailand.” A day before my flight, a bombing in Bangkok, Thailand was reported to damage one touristy area, leaving at least 20 dead and hundreds injured where most of them are tourists. This had definitely impact my tour plan because it meant avoiding touristy or crowded places.

Our flight was delayed, so my Brunei 2014 return trip nightmare haunted me, waiting too long for the boarding call. The flight was initially estimated to depart at 540pm but the first call for arrived resetting the departure to 7pm and then later another call set the new departure time at 8pm. Then the actual boarding occurred at 845pm. Speaking of changing flying time, my flight was originally scheduled at noon of August 20. An airline rep called me informing that slot was cancelled and I would be given new schedule. I already reserved my hotel accommodation for August 20, so I chose the night flight to Kuala Lumpur (KL), Malaysia a day before to catch my connecting flight to Yangon, Myanmar in the morning of August 20.

With the mixture of tension and excitement, I took a different seat number; 20A instead of my assigned 19A. It was very embarrassing because I double checked the seat number before being seated. 

Day 1 – August 20, 2015

I reached KL at 115am. I immediately searched for the entryway to the pre-departure gate to Yangon, hoping for a short cut. At the far end, I noticed the signage for International Transfer. As this was my first time to experience a connecting flight in KL International Airport Terminal 2, I kept myself alert to everything. As instructed by the check in teller in Manila, I checked my pre-departure gate assignment from the TV monitor and read Q9. I then checked the entrance to the gates and found it closed yet. I settled in a chair within the public lounge near the power outlet to recharge my laptop computer. I updated my Facebook status right away as this was my only way to contact my family in the Philippines I stayed awake until the battery is fully charged and the boarding gates opened. What kept me entertained was the speedy downloading of movies via torrent and I successfully downloaded 4 movies.

Boarding was called at 655am and after what seemed to be 4 hours, we landed at Yangon International Airport. I was confused when the flight steward declared 830am as our time of arrival in Yangon when my watch said 10am already... Then realized I am in a different time zone, there was 1 ½ hour-time difference between Manila/KL and Yangon; Yangon being late. I approached a money exchange kiosk inside the arrival area to change my 200USD at an exchange rate of 1,277 kyats a dollar. I got the 255,000 kyats in 1,000 denominations, pocketing three bundles. I thought then that 1,000 was the largest denomination in Myanmar, but I found out later that there are 10,000s and 5,000s.

Keeping adventure as well as frugality in mind, I rushed outside to look for local buses that would taxi me from the airport to the downtown. I only noticed taxicabs crisscrossing the airport roads. I asked locals on three separate occasions, 2 men and 1 woman, where to get a bus or a bus pick up station or bus terminal, aided with hand signals. Apparently, they only understand the last words “bus terminal” and they all pointed to the highway, “very far from the airport” they said. I understood right then that they referred to Aung Mingalar Highway Bus Terminal located quite reasonably far from the airport. Surrendering to the unfamiliarity of the new city, I hailed the approaching taxi and agreed with the driver at 10,000 kyats taxi fare.

But then the long and heavy traffic along the Pyay Highway confused me more because. It felt like I was in EDSA or C5. I actually told the taxi driver that being stuck in the traffic made me feel I am home. It was the Burmese characters written all over the billboards, signages, and street names that shook me awake in Yangon. It was already 9am and yet the buses, mostly non-aircon, were crawling and private cars in slow procession. Guessed I was wrong to skip breakfast at the airport because I was then genuinely and utterly starving.

Hotel Bahosi lies within a community village, the Bahosi Settlement. It was a right decision to take a cab going there for it would be very difficult had I boarded on a public bus to Sule Bus terminal as initially planned, then walk my way around to locate it. The hotel’s interior is entirely an opposite of its environment. Its tidiness is equated with chaotic and stingy neighborhood. But I like the cheap feel of its surrounding because for me it signals affordable, if not cheap, cafeterias or restaurants for my every meal. I  was impressed by the warmth of the reception clerks and the hospitality of the bellboy named Aung Aung. He gave me plenty of tips, walking tours, commuting and good eateries, like Shan Yo Yar. Finding all amenities tidy, white, and homey, I then dropped on my bed and snoozed the whole afternoon.

The gigantic golden pagoda is definitely majestic and beholding.

The capital’s famous Shwe Dagon Pagoda was the route of my night walk tour. It looked so close when I scanned the map. I passed by the Nursing University, the National Library, and the People’s Park on my way there. I started walking at 630pm and reached the gigantic golden pagoda at 8pm sweating profusely.

I initially didn’t know it but I entered through the western stairways. I was greeted by a lady at the entrance who signaled me to take off my shoes including the socks. Then she handed me set of flowers with some paper flaglets and silver paper umbrella on stakes for 7,000 kyats and told me to bring it up and offer. I reached the pagodas after climbing the 3-tiered escalators. I was stopped by a local and reminded to pass through a registration kiosk. I paid 8,000 kyats and was then entertained by a man named Aung Ko who later became my tourguide, hired for 15,000 kyats.

I need to know the day of my birthday, Aung Ko demanded.  He picked out something from his sling bag and showed me his calendar. I found January 9 of 1976 to be Friday. And so we started our tour as we looked for the Friday corner. While on the way, he introduced me to Burmese customs, traditions and beliefs. I only understood some because of his strange phonetic sounds and syllabication difficulty that made his statements incomprehensible. What I got was that the pagoda layers are in odd numbers, so we together counted 5s, 7s and 9s. That if we used to have 7 days in a week, Myanmar has 8 days, with Wednesday split into morning and afternoon corners; the difference can be determined through its animal representation – their revered elephant – morning it has tusks, afternoon none. That I will offer my bouquet to the Buddha of Friday corner, then pour 3 cups of water on it, another 3 cups for the spirit warrior at its back and 3 more  onto the animal representative which is a guinea pig for good luck. That there were different colors of pagodas, from gold to white, from wooden-carved to richly-ornamented ones; even Buddhas, from golden to jade and ruby-eyed. That there are four stairways; Obama entered through the North (that’s where my corner is located) when he visited. But what’s more than majestic was the grandeur of Shwe Dagon, with its umbrella tip sparkled in different hues when hit by the spotlights; sapphire here, ruby there, and white over there as you change your sighting spot.

My bare soles ached stepping on green plastic rugs, trying to skip the tiles because the wet marbles looked slippery. It was a very long turn around the pagoda’s complex, in fact we completed the four entrances and its eight corners or sections at 930pm. Then I returned to the bottom of the west gate to pick up my shoes and socks, tucked it in my bag, climbed up again and exited through the eastern side as instructed by Aung Ko.

Then I got lost. I never thought that Pan Daw Gyi lake is so large that I arrived at Royal Garden instead, which is yet 180 degrees away from the Karaweik Palace’s location. I intended that night to close it by a dinner with cultural show at the Karaweik Restaurant. I initially walked my way towards it until I resolved taking a taxi. When I reached the venue, the buffet dinner was closed tried to settle to one of the “Off the Beaten Track” bars but I found their menus incomprehensible.

I got back to the hotel at around 10pm and decided to settle to munching tarts, I picked from the convenience store at the hotel’s ground floor, for the night. My accounting for the day revealed that I spent 50,000 kyats in total.

Day 2 – August 21, 2015

I stayed at the hotel that morning. I worked on the complete draft of the FMM Section on Financial Reporting assigned to me. I still have one more section to do about Contingent Liability but I was still undecided how to organize it, so I parked it for another free day.

I walked through the Chinatown and reached Sule Pagoda sweat-sodden. I never thought it was a long walk passing ambulant vendors, shops about everything, and skipping wet and foul smelling sidewalks. I stopped at the Maha Bandoola Garden to catch a breath of fresh air and took pictures of the City Hall and Sule Pagoda. Having fully checked my map, I crossed the Sule Pagoda Road towards Central Railway Station. I read one travel blog about taking the circular train to go and see around Yangon City. When I reached Shangrila Hotel’s corner, I approached a security guard to inquire the exact location of the train station. He pointed me to the next block so I entered a building that resembled a very old train station. But the teller pointed me to another block across the bridge. I followed the crowd until I noticed the correct image of a railway station and finally approached the ticket counter. The English-speaking staff gathered all foreigners (four that includes myself, a lady from Lithuania, and the mother and daughter from Malaysia) and gave us a bit of orientation about the approaching circular train. We were informed that it would stop at 38 stations around the loop. The 3-hour train ride around the city cost me 300 kyats and a headache because the city outskirts smelled of dirt, garbage and dried horse dung (I don’t know why but there were no horse around).
The international buffet dinner at Karaweik Palace highlighted my evening affair. The taxi driver I hired today was so efficient that with 3,500 kyats fare he dropped me at the palace’s entrance hall. It was drizzling that early evening and he was so kind to drop me right there.

As a walk in guest, I was ushered immediately to the banquet hall. The kind waiter settled me at the 4-seater Victorian table at the very center close to the stage. The buffet tables are strategically situated in a corner away like an annex to the hall that won’t block the stage view. He reminded me of the 37,000 kyats cost of the dinner; they seemed to doubt I can afford it. I immediately ordered a bottle of Tiger Beer while waiting for the cultural show to start. Their repertoire kicked off with a solo musician playing their traditional bamboo-made xylophone. That signaled me to start picking my appetizers. The show went on for 3 hours from 6 to 9pm with variety of folk songs and dances. Sung in local dialect so I didn’t care about understanding the lyrics, knowing the message, but every performance deserved a round of applause from us foreigners. What really made the show awesome for me was not the routine or the performers but the uniquely sequined very colorful costumes, with this signature white tail of a cloth. Over time, I also helped myself to servings of Thai soup, main course of noodles, roasted duck and stewed sea bass, my dessert included rambutan fruits, some Myanmar delicacies and scoops of ice cream. Over all, it cost me USD39.

I left the hall around 9pm, only to find the rain pouring heavily outside. I walked my way to the gate to get a taxicab. Along the way I noticed another cultural presentation in a tent. I was permitted to peek and I later learned that it featured a celebrity cultural dancer in a sponsored event.

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