5 Itineraries to Help Kickstart Your Sourtheast Asian Adventure

Ever since I got back from my month-long Southeast Asian trip last August 2014, some friends have expressed their interest of doing the same, but don’t know exactly where to start.  

The thing is, when people ask me for my itinerary, I’m a bit hesitant to just give them what I used because it is customized according to MY traveling style. 
I found that it has changed over the years. I no longer feel the need to pack as many attractions as I can in day, and would prefer to pay more for convenience rather than sacrifice comfort for the sake of sticking to my budget. 

I also traveled solo, so my expenses were inevitably bigger than usual. And the only tickets I had pre-booked on sale were my Manila to Bangkok, Bangkok to Chiang Mai, and Bali to Manila flights. The rest of the flights, I booked when I was already on the road.

I actually traveled for 32 days

Continue reading “5 Itineraries to Help Kickstart Your Sourtheast Asian Adventure”

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.

K

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 

Travel Essential: Para’Kito Natural Mosquito Protection

One of my travel must-haves, especially when my trip involves beach activities and other outdoor stuff, is a mosquito repellent.
Being out and about all day, travelers are more prone to disease-carrying insects. But with the rising cases of Dengue and the discovery of Chikungunya, everyone should double up on their protection.
 
I started using insect repellent lotions, but I don’t really like piling it on my skin with sunblock (plus I always get confused which one to put first lol). Then I used the spray which was nice since it’s very easy to apply, but I can use up a bottle within 3 days because of constant reapplication especially when in-and-out of the water.
Before my week-long trip to Myanmar, I was given these Para’Kito clip and bands and was so excited to test them out.
Para’Kito natural mosquito repellent clip and bands
Para’Kito diffuses a blend of 7 essential oils extracted from plants which naturally repels mosquitoes. However, these oils are very volatile and disperse quickly which has always limited it as a viable round-the-clock solution. With the Para’Kito™ impregnation technology, it allows for the slow release of the oil providing a continuous protection for 15 days.
And because the active pellet does not contain DEET or IR3535 and does not come in contact with the skin, it is very safe for pregnant women, young children and recommended for individuals susceptible to skin allergies and irritations.
Wearing Para’Kito in (clockwise): Putrajaya, Malaysia | Dhammayangyi Temple, Bagan, Myanmar | Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar | Shwe Nandaw Golden Monastery, Mandalay, Myanmar

We took overnight bus trips, arrived in the wee hours in ancient cities and entered countless thousand-year old pagodas/temples, but I didn’t have to worry about being protected 24/7 because I wore my Para’Kito bands and/or clip.

Para’Kito loose band (Lizard) and clip in Red

The pellets are also waterproof, meaning that swimming, heavy rain or any contact with water does not affect the product’s efficacy.
The fun, fashionable wristbands come in a range of bold colors including blue, fuchsia, yellow, orange, black and white.
 
New for this year, Para’Kito™’s collection of cool graphic bands bring your wardrobe to life.
 Designed to make a difference, the graphic band is available in Love, Camo, Flower, Paw, Heart and Lizard graphics.
The bands can be worn on the wrist or ankle, day and night to repel mosquitoes.
Color clips are also available in a range of six colors and can be attached to clothing or hand luggage for a convenient and smart way to fend off the mosquitoes.
Each band or clip already comes with 2 Para’Kito pellets that can last for 15 days each giving you 30 days of protection. Refill pellets can be bought at these stores or online through AVA.