Of Makeup, Monkeys and Mt. Popa

Two words: wet wipes.
 
I’ll come back to that later.
On our second day in Bagan, our guide brought us to Taung Kalat – a monastery perched atop the volcanic plug caused by the extinct volcano, Mt. Popa. One needs to climb 777 steps to get to the summit which is home to nats or spirits represented by statues. 

Taung Kalat Monastery – often confused to be the actual Mt. Popa
 
On our way to Taung Kalat, we made a stopover at a roadside tea shed that also makes palm sugar candy and palm liquor among others.
 


They showed us the old school way of extracting the palm sugar syrup using a bull-powered grinding wheel. Next, a guy climbed a palm tree like nobody’s business. The sap was then distilled to make palm liquor. 

A nice Burmese lass also showed us how to prepare thanaka. It is a form of makeup produced by grinding a tree bark with a small amount of water on a circular stone slab to create a paste. She even painted our faces with a leaf design. 🙂
Claire and I sporting our leaf design thanaka
Aside from cosmetic purposes, thanaka provides protection from sunburn and gives a cooling sensation.
Photo credit: Ann Umaña

Next, we were treated to some tea and snacks – an assortment of pickled tea leaves, fried lentils, sesame seeds etc.
 
The side trip seemed a bit touristy, all right, but we didn’t feel pressured to shell out some kyats. But because they were so kind – and since tipping is not customary in Myanmar – we bought some palm sugar and plum candies as pasalubong.
Taung Kalat was still an hour’s drive from the tea shed. We traveled through uphill and winding roads before we reached the foot of the monastery lined with vendors and shops.
 
There is no entrance fee, but really, it should just be imposed for the monastery’s upkeep.
 
As usual, footwear and even socks must be removed. There are racks where you can leave your footwear.
 
A humongous nat a few steps from the entrance
The culprit
Photo credit: Jyse Salubre

The climb was okay, but because we are so physically fit, we stopped every now and then.
Once, we stopped to buy soda from one of the vendors when a monkey snatched my friend’s drink, which startled another friend and caused her to drop her iPad. It’s still in one piece, thankfully, though its camera had been somewhat damaged. 
Be very wary of these mischievous monkeys because there are lots of them in Taung Kalat. And oh, expect that you’ll inevitably be stepping on their piss and/or poo, too, so bring lots of wet wipes and alcohol.
Although there are ‘caretakers’ who are stationed to mop the steps every now and then, it seemed to me that they only actually start mopping when they see tourists approaching so they could ask for donations. Again, probably better to have a fixed entrance fee, no?

We weren’t even halfway through the climb and we were already panting. If it weren’t for the senior citizens — some even with a foot cast — that passed us by, we would have probably given up and just waited for the rest of the group to descend.

 Life-like nats that have human characteristics, wants and needs

After we finally managed to drag ourselves to the summit, we weren’t exactly bowled over with what we saw. Aside from the nats and a number of Buddha statues, there’s really not much to see. So unless you have more than 2 days in Bagan, I wouldn’t recommend getting a Mt. Popa tour.

Taung Kalat as seen from Mt. Popa Resort

Our driver then brought us to Mt. Popa Resort which has amazing views! Had we known how filthy Taung Kalat was, we would have skipped the climb and headed straight to this resort.
 

Bewitching Bagan Temples

With a plethora of temples to see in Bagan, it’s easy to be overwhelmed. In reality, you only need to visit about 4 dozen. Still a lot, eh?

Well, the number of temples you’ll see and which ones are going to be entirely up to you (or your guide), the length of your stay and the weather. Take note that some of my friends visited more temples than the ones listed below because they biked around Bagan on our second day.

Dhammayangyi & Thatbyinnyu in the distance

We decided to avail of Mya Thida’s tour for convenience. Their van comfortably fit our group plus one of the owners also served as our driver/guide.

Now, I won’t bore you to death with the historical facts for each temple. You can always Google that, right?

Our tour started with the smaller temples and the ones closest to the ‘hotel’.
 

Manuha Phaya

Reclining Buddha

Inset: Largest of the three sitting Buddhas

This temple houses 4 Buddhas: a 46 feet high central Buddha and two on its sides each measuring 33 feet, and a 90-feet long reclining Buddha with its head facing north on the verge of Nirvana at the side of the temple.

They said the cramped state of the Buddhas is a reflection of King Manuha’s melancholic state for being under house arrest.

Nanpaya Temple
 
Three-faced Brahma seated amidst lotus stems, roots and flowers
 
Also within the same compound is Nanpaya Temple. This temple is made of bricks and sandstone with perforated stone windows. It also has impressive artworks decorating the four pillars of its interior chamber.
 
Gubyauk Gyi
 
 
This temple may be small, but it is one of my favorites because it houses impressive frescoes – mostly depicting the 16 dreams of King Kosala and Jatakasor previous birth stories of Buddha. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed to preserve the paintings.
Dhammayangyi Temple
 
Next up is the massive Dhammayangyi Temple.
 
 
Before entering the temple, our driver/guide shared that Dhammayangyi survived several earthquakes because of the excellent brick-laying method used. The bricks were laid so close that not even a needle could be inserted between the seams.
 
The four devotional halls: each at one of the four cardinal points
 
Ananda Temple

Our last stop before lunch was the Ananda Temple – one of the finest and most venerated temple in Bagan.

Just like Dhammayangyi, Ananda Temple houses four Buddhas each facing the cardinal directions.
Gold leaf-adorned Gautama Buddha facing west
Ananda Temple’s expansive courtyard where…guess what? WiFi is available!
Had to run back inside the temple after taking this shot. Not a very good idea wandering here at midday…barefoot – something you have to get used to when visiting temples in Myanmar.

And because it was extremely hot, imagine our delight when we saw a sorbet vendor outside Ananda Paya.

We were on our way to the van, parked a few steps from where the vendor was, and I was happily slurping on my sorbet when one of my friends asked the other “Oh my god! Nakita mo ba yung kuko ni kuya?!” (“Did you see his fingernails?!”) Uhh thanks, guys! So they hurriedly searched for a plastic bag to discreetly dispose of the sorbets haha Fortunately, I didn’t suffer from food poisoning or diarrhea after that.
Thambula Paya
Photo credit: Tantan Trinidad

L-R: Claire, Me, Lecky, Tantan, Jyse, Ann and this trip’s mastermind, Chito 😀

Just a little trivia: While this trip took a year in the making, most of us only met each other for the first time on our ‘PDOS’ (pre-departure orientation seminars) LOL a couple of months before the trip.
 
Anyway, we resumed temple-hopping around 4:00 pm starting at Thambula Paya.
 
 Thambula Paya

 

Thambula Paya is probably one of the few temples, if not the only one, built by a queen.

Just like Gubyauk Gyi, it houses frescoes, therefore, photography is not allowed.

A few meters from Thambula Paya is Paya Thonzu which literally means three temples
Lone monk
Tayoke-Pyay
We were on our way to Tayoke-Pyay when we met the lady below.
The lady who asked for a ‘photo blessing’

 

We saw an old lady herding her goats and we asked if we could take her photo. She agreed and so we clicked away. We thanked her, but then she asked for a ‘photo blessing’. At first we didn’t understand what she meant so she cupped her hands. Apparently, she was asking for a donation. The smallest bill we had at the time was MMK1,000 (about a dollar), so we handed it to her and went on our way.

Then she tried to get us to take a picture of her friend, too (so we’d give her a ‘photo blessing’ as well). That didn’t sit well with us so we tried to ignore her, but she kept on calling us – more like yelling at us.

When we reached Tayoke-Pyay, Lecky and I felt she was driving her herd towards us. Good thing our van arrived to pick us up.

Thit Sar Waddy temple according to one of Mya Thida’s owner

Finally, our guide brought us to his ‘special place’, his sanctuary, if you will. He says he goes here whenever he wants some alone time.

Save for a few painting vendors who popped out of nowhere — probably because they heard our raucous laughter — we had the temple all to ourselves.

We weren’t rewarded with a spectacular sunset because the sun hid behind the clouds.

Dhamma Yazika at dusk

In a matter of minutes, darkness swiftly enveloped Bagan, and just like that, we were given the same view we had when we arrived at this ancient city 16 hours earlier.  

 
K

Waiting for Sunrise at Shwesandaw Pagoda

I placed one of my bags at my feet on the long bus ride from Yangon to Bagan.
 
Halfway through the trip, at around midnight, I found the base of the bag soaking wet. I thought the bottled water spilled inside the bag, but saw half the bus’ aisle was wet as well.
There was a thunderstorm, and somehow, rain made its way inside the bus. Interestingly, our bags in the bus’s compartment remained dry.
 
We arrived at Nyaung U bus terminal half past three and were immediately swarmed by horse cart drivers. After gathering our bags, we hired 3 horse carts for our group of 7 to bring us to Shwesandaw Pagoda for sunrise.
 
Bagan was still in deep slumber. Its silence broken by the rhythmic clip-clopping of the horses’ hooves.
Our feet dangling from the horse cart, we marveled at a couple of beautifully lit pagodas from afar. And just as I was trying to adjust my sitting position – trying not to fall off – we suddenly went off-road, and within a few minutes, halted. We had arrived at Shwesandaw.
 
The moon was still out when we arrived at Shwesandaw Pagoda
The moon was still out, but its light wasn’t enough for us to see the way up. Armed wiht our headlamps and flashlights, we climbed the steep stes. Climbing was not as hard thanks to the metal railing.
 
 We had the place to ourselves for a good hour or two before people started pouring in. By this time, we had already secured a good vantage point.
Sunrise wasn’t as glorious as I expected (maybe because it was monsoon?)
It took a while – past 7:00 am, in fact – before the sun showed itself. Its orange rays swiftly pierced through the periwinkle sky and revealed silhouettes of countless stupas jutting out from Bagan’s verdant plains. Thatbinnyu, being the tallest temple, was naturally the most prominent.
My pictures don’t do this place justice. You have to see it yourself.
I must admit, I was a bit underwhelmed by the sunrise but Bagan soon revealed its beauty. Just how beautiful is it, you ask? Let’s just say you don’t need to be a professional photographer to get a good picture.

It was already a bit past 8:00 am when we descended from the massive pagoda and we still had a lot of temples to explore — like, over two thousand more to choose from.

K

10 Things About Myanmar That Surprised Me

There were lots of things I saw in Myanmar that I haven’t seen anywhere else such as men in skirts called longyi. Some even have red teeth due to chewing betel nut. There’s also the tan-colored paste on women’s faces called thanaka. But these no longer came as a surprise because I already know about them even before I booked my tickets.
 
I came to Myanmar with minimal expectations about infrastructure/facilities, food and service. I was there for the temples of Bagan, anyway. But what I’ve seen and experienced blew me away.

Let me list down 10 things that particularly stood out for me.

1. The minute Claire and I arrived at Yangon International Airport, we were impressed. Yes, the airport was quite small but space was utilized well. It looks surprisingly modern, too, AND with a working WiFi to boot! You know how NAIA has several hotspots but none seem to work? It sucks, right?
Touchdown Korea Myanmar!

Samsung and LG welcomes you to Myanmar.

2. Our hostel reservation came with a free airport pickup and drop-off service, so I was kind of expecting a box-type sedan would pick us up. Well, our ride came in the form of a new van with sun/moonroof. Far out!

3. I was prepared to see lots of dilapidated buildings and old cars, and I did, but I saw newer ones, too. Yangon City is where the old meets new.
 
Just like in Manila, traffic rules are non-existent in Yangon.
 

4. If you Googled ‘telecommunications in Myanmar’ a couple of years (or even months) back, you’ll get pictures of roadside telephone ‘facilities’ like the one pictured below. I’m not sure whether they still exist, but what I do know is that they have lots of mobile phone stores now. In fact, while stuck in traffic on our way to the terminal to catch our bus for Bagan, our driver whipped out his Huawei touchscreen phone to give us his email address.

5. We took an ordinary air conditioned bus to Bagan. Imagine our delight when we found a bottled water, a small garbage bag and – get this – a pack of toothbrush and small toothpaste stashed in the bus seat pockets. Yes, these may be small and cheap things, but come on, low cost carriers can’t even provide these free of charge!

For the Mandalay-Yangon leg of our trip, we decided to pay a bit more (MMK16,500) for comfort since it was a long trip. We took Shew Nan Taw Express’ double-decker VIP bus equipped with a reclining chair with pillow and blanket. A liter of bottled water, cold towels, snacks (pastries) and candies were served by the attendant.

Though the VIP bus has an on-board toilet, it was too cramped even for Asian standards. The trip still had a stopover anyway, but you know what that means: having to use public toilets.

Now, being a third-world baby, I am no longer fazed with the sad state of public toilets. In Myanmar, however, I was surprised that the restrooms are relatively clean. Yes, most are still squat toilets but at least they have ample tissue paper, water supply, and sometimes, even a bidet! And the restrooms don’t stink at all.

7. The country has been severed from the outside world for many decades when it was still under military junta you’d think they have a lot of catching up to do – pop culture-wise. Thankfully, there are still no signs of Miley Cyrus, but they do have Psy dolls and Despicable Me minions sold at Mandalay temples!
Photo credit: Jyse Salubre

8. The Burmese are devout Buddhists, so it’s only natural that you’d find them at almost every temple, any time of day, any day of the week. But we’ve noticed they not only visit the temples for worship, but this is also where they (groups of teens, families, and even couples) ‘hang out’, too.

9. From the blogs I’ve read, I gathered two things about Burmese cuisine: a) they serve lots of vegetables and b) oily food. It doesn’t add up, does it? But I tell you, we never had a meal we didn’t like.

Most restaurants offer set meals. You will be asked to choose a curry of either beef, chicken, pork, fish, or venison as main. Then, either one-by-one or simultaneously, they will serve the soup, a cup of rice, a bowl of fresh or half-cooked vegetables with spicy dip, an assortment of sides and our main. You also get unlimited servings of rice. As if that’s not enough, you get free dessert, too! To say that our tummies were satiated is an understatement.

Oh, you know, just our typical Burmese meal

The country is still devoid of Starbucks and McDonald’s but that’s not to say they aren’t getting into the franchise/fast food chain concept.

In Mandalay, we requested our driver to bring us to one of their malls just for kicks. We got a table at Mandalay Donuts, and while waiting for food to be served, one of our friends decided to check the other restaurants and came back with chicken nuggets from AFC (Amarapura Fried Chicken? bahaha) Anyway, she said the menu is just like KFC’s with chicken, fries and soda. But man, the chicken nuggets she got were literally chunks of REAL chicken; no extenders. Good stuff.

The country has seen an influx of tourists in recent years and the Burmese never fail to make visitors feel welcome. No matter how little English-speaking skills they have, they will make an effort to initiate small talk. And if they can’t converse, they’ll at least give you a sweet smile.

In Bagan, one of the hostel owners where we stayed at took us to his ‘special place’ – a temple not frequented by tourists where we can watch the sunset.

In Mandalay, our driver/guide wanted us to see as many attractions as we can possibly squeeze in a day. He even gets a bit disappointed each time we asked to skip a temple because we were either templed out or just plain tired…or hungry.

Then there’s the owner of Panwar Restaurant in Mandalay — who’s a dead ringer for Sid Lucero — who starts his statements with “Listen to me…” in an assertive tone, but really, all he wants is to ensure that food is served on time, soup/rice replenished and to know that we enjoyed our meal by asking “You like my food!” which was more imperative rather than interrogative. Quite a character.

Even when doing small favors, the Burmese always seem to go the extra mile they are seriously giving Filipino hospitality a run for its money. If you want to know what customer service is all about, go to Myanmar!

K 

What You Need to Know Before Going to Myanmar

Myanmar (Burma) has been under repressive military rule for nearly 5 decades until it was dissolved in 2011.
Soon enough, it opened its doors to the world and was instantly included in several ‘Countries to Visit in 2012’ lists.
It is the most beautiful country I’ve been to, to date! It definitely deserves all the buzz.
Our view from Shwesandaw Paya in Bagan
But before you get all too excited, here’s some things you need to know before going to Myanmar.
How to get there:
1. From Manila
  • Book a flight from Manila to Kuala Lumpur > Kuala Lumpur to Yangon (like we did); or
  • Book a flight from Manila to Bangkok > Bangkok to Yangon/Mandalay; or
  • Book a flight with Tigerair from Manila to Yangon (with a layover in Singapore)
Either way, you will still have a layover of +/- 6 hours.
2. From Thailand
  • Tachileik-Mae Sai
  • Myawaddy-Mae Sot 
  • Htee Khee-Sunaron
  • Kawthaung-Ranong
How to apply for a Myanmar visa in Manila:
 
*As of December 5, 2013, Filipinos can now enter Myanmar visa-free for up to 14 days. So this section is pretty much useless now. :p*
1. Requirements:
  • Passport (valid within 6 months) and photocopy of the first page
  • Photocopy of a valid ID
  • Copy of your itinerary with flight details and accommodations
  • Passport-sized ID picture and a CD with the soft copy – we had our pictures taken at Kodak, Makati Cinema Square since they already know the requirements of the embassy. 
  • Signed application form/waiver from the embassy – most blogs written a year or two ago will advice never to indicate anything related to media/writing/journalism in your occupation because your visa application will surely be denied. But just this year, they announced that reporters will now be able to work in Myanmar for up to a year.

2. Submit your documents at the Myanmar Embassy Manila, 8th Floor Gervasia Corporate Center, 152 Amorsolo St., Legaspi Village, Makati City.
 
If you’re coming from the south, alight at Pasay Road and just walk until you reach Waltermart/Don Bosco. Makati Cinema Square is just a few steps away. Enter MCS and exit at the side of Amorsolo, cross the pedestrian lane and turn right. The building has a spa at the ground floor.
 
3. Payment – Don’t be surprised if you get conflicting information about the payment because the embassy itself is not consistent.
 
It is clearly posted in their office that they no longer accept payment in Philippine Peso and that you have to deposit the payment to their dollar account (details of which they’ve already changed when I went there to claim my visa, so chances are, the bank account details you will see online is outdated).
 
Anyway, my friends and I were able to pay in Peso – Php1,100, to be exact. I brought $20, too, just in case. 
 
After submitting the documents and paying the visa fee, we were given our claim stubs. Visa processing only takes 3 days including the day you submitted your papers.
 
To our horror, 3 out of 7 of us had typographical errors on our visas. See mine below.
My visa with misspelled surname and wrong gender corrected by applying correction fluid countersigned by the consul. They said it’s okay since we’re only applying for single-entry visa.
 
We actually stressed over this for days and even requested the consul to give us letters stating the errors and corrections they made just so we can have peace of mind.
Thankfully, he was right and clearing immigration at Manila, KL and Yangon were uneventful. We still laugh every time we think about that visa blunder especially when we found out that it ‘always’ happen.
It’s all about the Benjamins!
 
After getting your visa, the next thing you should worry about is getting crisp US Dollar bills. Unlike visiting neighboring countries, you cannot just go to Myanmar with just about any kind of US Dollars.
While it does not need to be freshly-printed-it-can-slice-tomatoes crisp, it shouldn’t have folds/creases, markings, tears, and preferably, 2009 series and above.
Naturally, the $100 bills will get better exchange rates but also prepare small dollar bills in $1 and/or $5 to pay for entrance fees, guesthouse/hostel etc. People used to change their dollars in the black market, but it is safer to change your dollars to kyats (pronounced as ‘chat’) at the airport. Rates are also competitive. I changed $300 and got about MMK290,000.
They say you can’t change your kyats outside Myanmar, so if you still have some left, better change it at the airport before you leave.

The kyat is used to pay for taxis, meals in non-hotel restaurants and other purchases.
There’s also an ATM at the airport — right at the foreign exchange counter where I changed my USDs so access to money is not as hard as it used to be. We also saw several ATMs in Mandalay.
Women will also be pleased to know that some jewelry stores in Bogyoke Aung San market accepts credit cards!
And no, internet is not dial-up slow (at least in the places we stayed at).