The Monasteries of Mandalay Part 1

Our first day in Mandalay began with a brief visit to Mahamuni Paya followed by a trip to Sagaing Hill.
Seven-tiered Pyatthat-style roof housing the Mahamuni Buddha (the most revered Buddha statue in the country)
On our way to Sagaing Hill, the driver pulled over before reaching the bridge so we can take pictures of the numerous white and gold pagodas dotting the hill.
Snapped from the van
Shortly after crossing the bridge, we drove through uphill winding road until we reached the parking lot of U Min Thonze Cave.
Unlike Mt. Popa, it’ll only take about 5 minutes (you can probably make it in just 2 minutes if you’re really fit) to get to the top.
U Min Thonze or ’30 caves pagoda’ has 45 gilded Buddha images housed in a crescent-shaped colonnade on the side of Sagaing Hill
Just before we reached the colonnade, I came eye to eye with a guy sporting a smirk and thought he looked awfully familiar. Why was the guy smirking?
Well, 8 hours earlier, a group of taxi drivers immediately approached us upon our arrival at the bus terminal. One of them asked where we were staying and gave a price. One of us tried to haggle, but maybe he thought we didn’t have enough money and so he offered to take us to an ATM or foreign exchange. You see, when you approach a group of Filipinos and you drop words like ‘ATM’ and ‘ForEx’ when all they want is a taxi, this raises a red flag. Some of us misinterpreted his intention and thought he was trying to scam us. We went ballistic and left the poor guy wondering what he had done wrong.

Of course we just realized we might have overreacted after we managed to compose ourselves. LOL

Just like a miniature Shwedagon Pagoda
Meanwhile, on another hilltop lies Sone Oo Pone Nya Shin Pagoda.
With massive Buddha statues, a golden stupa, mirror-inlaid pillars, beautiful hallways and colorful tiles, shutterbugs will go crazy here. There’s just a small ‘camera fee’ that you have to pay at the entrance, though.

Inwa Ancient Village

After lunch, our guide dropped us off near a riverbank where we took a short ferry ride across the Myitnge River to get to Inwa Ancient Village. Upon arrival, visitors can choose from the plethora of horse carts waiting to take them around.

Inwa is my favorite among all the places we visited in Mandalay because of its laid-back vibe.

Big trees line both sides of the road; their branches almost touching each other creating what seemed like a tree tunnel. Naturally, we enjoyed the cooler temperature thanks to the lush vegetation. It was a really pleasant ride.

 Bagaya Monastery
For centuries, Inwa (also known as Ava) was the most important royal capital in Myanmar but abandoned after it was destroyed by a series of major earthquakes. Today, only a handful of structures remain.
The first one we visited was Bagaya Monastery which is made entirely of teak wood.
It used to be where the royals were educated. Now, some parts are used as classrooms for the village children.
Weathered teak wood with exquisite carvings
On our way to Yadana Hsimi Pagodas
Yadana Hsimi Pagodas – a group of small stupa ruins
With dark clouds looming over our next destination, our horse cart driver hurriedly passed through muddy roads – giving us a roller coaster ride-like experience – to get to the watchtower. 
Nan Mint Watchtower – the only remaining part of the Bagyidaw Palace.
Nothing really much to see here, and even if visitors were allowed to go up, I don’t think I’d climb that rickety staircase.
The last attraction we visited in Inwa was the Maha Aung Mye Bon Zan Monastery.
Guarded by humongous Chinthes (Burmese mythological lions) at the entrance, the mighty ocher-colored monastery made of bricks and decorated with stucco stand proud.

Maha Aung Mye Bon Zan Monastery

It was already late in the afternoon and soon started drizzling, so we left Inwa and went on our way to the last stop for the day: sunset viewing at U Bein Bridge.


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!


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).