Sunday, June 2, 2013

Journey to Inle

Journey to Inle

Thursday May 23rd saw another early departure (better though at 6.45), for the short transfer to the airport for our 2nd Air Mandalay flight to Heho. At the airport I discovered the bank there (which I didn't notice on the way in), had better rates than the shop in town, but hey ho!

We put our bags through the x-ray machine whilst the guy operating it ignored the screen resolutely staring the whole time at our kids. We then waited for our flight to be called. This flight had 'free seating' and this time we had 2 stops before arriving at Heho, but both were very short flights - around 30-40 minutes each.

At Heho airport, the taxi driver said 25000 kyats to Villa Inle but then as we were getting in, informed us it would be 35000 as it would be an additional 10000 from the main town. We tried to find someone else, but to no avail, so decided we had to go with this. On arrival in town, it was more negotiation on the boat price. The boat price was going to be 15000 then unless we agreed to use the boat for an excursion the following day. With the kids with us, we were in the situation of needing to agree this without the power to walk off and check the competition. However, as I had read a bit on trip advisor, I knew the boat price he was quoting for the excursion was reasonable and so we ultimately agreed 55000 kyats for transfer 2 ways, use of the boat the next day to tour the lake and return taxi to Heho airport on the Saturday. I knew from trip advisor our hotel was charging $35 for a 1 day boat tour and $70 for airport transfer so figured we were doing ok with our man from Sons of Inle.

The longboat trip to the hotel was good fun, but I got slightly burnt due to leaving my hat in the luggage. 

We checked in to Villa Inle and our room was stunning. It was huge with a freestanding bath in the bathroom, a rainfall shower and a large double and large single bed.

On our first day, we didn't end up doing much, apart from relaxing and exploring the grounds of the hotel. We were planning to go to visit Red Mountain winery but the hotel wanted $20 each way plus $20 per hour for the driver to wait. $60 for a 2 hour excursion wasn't striking me as great value so we declined this. The exorbitantly priced transport was an open air truck! I guess they have a captive market so can charge what they like.

On Friday morning we had breakfast in our room. There was a slight delay - some mixup with the ordering, however when it came, it was tasty and filling. We then headed to the jetty to meet our boat driver from the previous day. We went out on the longboat and after an hour stopped at a village. It was quite rural and we followed our driver through the village where we ended up at a house where some people were dressed up (seemingly in traditional dress). As our driver didn't have much English, it's difficult to say what the occasion was, it felt a bit strange with us sitting on the floor surrounded by locals. We ended up leaving there and heading back to the boat. Next stop was a weaving factory. We had a bit of a 'tour'. Some of the stuff they made was really lovely, but very expensive. I looked at a scarf and it was marked 100 - I later realised this was $100 US! We continued on to a place called the Inle Heritage Centre which had 36 Burmese cats and a lovely cafe. We had snacks and drinks and then sat out the rain (although we were travelling in monsoon season, this was our only rainy day and even then it was short spurts).

After this we headed back to Villa Inle for packing up and getting ready for our Saturday departure and dinner. It was a really nice relaxing day on the lake.

On Saturday, after breakfast we headed down to meet our boat driver to head back to town and to Heho airport. We had settled the bill at the hotel and then one of the staff was saying that we needed to pay for chips from the mini bar. We told her we hadn't had anything from the minibar. A few minutes later we were presented with an opened 2/3 full tub of chips. We again said we hadn't eaten them (and checked with the kids too). It was an awkward end to an otherwise lovely stay. We interrogated the kids later and I'm completely sure it wasn't them either. The chips were actually placed on a high shelf so it would have been very tricky for the kids to reach them. The mystery of the opened overpriced chips - they were $12!

Our boat trip back to town was good and the taxi journey was also fine. We got to Heho airport around 40 minutes before our flight and checked in. Our last Myanmar domestic flight was with KBZ and it was direct - what a bonus. The flight left 15 minutes before its scheduled departure time (everyone must have been there so why not?) and we were soon in Yangon again.

We caught a taxi to the Traders and checked our luggage in with the concierge. We then headed to the Yangon market, which was really good. Prices aren't stupidly inflated (for the few things we looked at). 

Back at the Traders, we headed to the Traders Cafe for lunch - a buffet called 'Crazy Saturday', with kids' entertainment. What a great spread. The buffet included free flow wine - an added bonus we didn't know about before. We all had a nice time - Gary and I eating and the kids playing. We then headed by taxi back to Yangon airport for our 5.50pm flight to Bangkok.

Myanmar was an incredible place to visit. It is just opening up to tourists and I can imagine it will be very different in ten years time. The accommodation we stayed in was great. Relatively speaking, it's an expensive place to visit compared to other South East Asia destinations. However, I'm really glad we had the opportunity to visit and see it when we did. Thailand and Sri Lanka next!

Bagan - Temples Everywhere

Bagan - temples everywhere!

On Monday morning (May 20th), we had a very early alarm call due to a flight scheduled from Yangon for a 6:20 departure. Thankfully, we weren't completely adjusted to the 90 minute time zone change so waking at 4.30 wasn't so much of a hardship, despite our neighboring room waking us at midnight when they rolled in. We checked out of the Traders and received 3 'breakfast boxes'. They were full of fruit, pastries, boiled eggs and sandwiches. No one was going hungry! The trip to the airport at 5am was quick and we checked in without any drama and sat down to eat our packed breakfast. No such thing as nothing over 100ml of liquids on this domestic flight - it all seemed very casual. Soon enough our Air Mandalay flight was called. We walked up and headed to a bus to take us to the plane. On the flight, we actually had assigned seats - something we didn't get on our other domestic flights in Myanmar. What we didn't realise was that the flight wasn't direct, so on its first landing, we got up until we were told this wasn't our stop. 20 minutes later we took off again and landed 35 minutes later in Mandalay. Another 20 minute stop - it was a bit like catching a bus or train. A further 25 minute flight and we arrived at Nyaung U which was our stop. Hooray!

We wandered out and got a taxi without an issue and headed on the short journey to our hotel for the next 3 nights - the Hotel at Tharabar Gate. We were very grateful to get straight into our room and rest a little - it was only 9am! Later that morning, we headed out for lunch to the Vegan restaurant "be Kind to Animals". Good food, but a little trickier for the kids - we ordered fried rice, but it was spicy. On the afternoon of our first day in Bagan, we went for a wander and were inundated with offers of horse and cart. One entrepreneur offered us a free ride back on the condition we use his services the next day. After a swim in the afternoon, we headed to dinner to a restaurant next door to the hotel. Then an early night for all! 

On day 2 in Bagan, we decided we would take a horse and cart for the morning. After some negotiation, given how hot it was (we were melting the previous day), we decided we would take 2. We agreed a price of 10000 kyats each (I'm sure overpaying however as I've got older, my willingness to bargain has diminished!) We headed off to a number of temples. They were all pretty impressive. Alex and Tara particularly liked the old palace where they went up some stairs and found a viewing platform. Being low season, we weren't hassled too much by touts, however sand paintings were available everywhere. There were some very young kids selling too. The temples are plentiful (they are everywhere you turn) and also beautiful. It was a great half day. We finished our horse and cart tour at lunch and ate at Star Beam (very impressive bread). That afternoon we headed back to rest and go for a swim before dinner.

Day 3 in Bagan was spent resting in the morning. We ordered a taxi to take us into Nyaung U- the main town. We left around 11am, with the intention of exploring the markets - however, it was really hot already and we were all pretty hot trudging through the markets. We bought a couple of t-shirts for the kids (less than $3 each with no bargaining), and some mangoes for 200 kyat (around 20cents) each. We then decided we should get some lunch and headed to a place called Bagan Beach Bar. It was on the river (which was really low). It was huge inside, but we were the only customers initially (us and many flies). Food was ok, nothing to write home about. We then went in search of a taxi and found an old uncle with a taxi sign on top of his station wagon who would take us. No seat belts and the car had seen better days but we made it back ok - we had to stop for roadside fuel on the way. He was very friendly (as most Burmese are).

Later that afternoon, I went to go to the money changer at the local store that our horse and cart driver had taken us to the previous day. Tara and I were accompanied by a young boy who chatted to us the whole way. He told us he was 9 years old and learnt English at the monastery where I think he went to school. On our return journey he wanted to sell us some postcards. The previous day, kids at the temples were selling 10 for 1000 kyat (just over $1). My young friend mocked shock when I suggested 1000 and said no madam, these are 2000. I think he expected me to bargain, but the grin on his face when I handed over the 2000 kyats was worth it. He was very good company for Tara and I on our short walk and later on when we ventured out or dinner greeted us like old friends.

Bagan was a great place and somewhere I could see us returning to 1 day.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Myanmar Musings - Yangon

After a few emotional farewells, we left Singapore on Saturday May 19th, bound for Yangon - the first stop on our 3 week holiday before our return to Adelaide. We were at Changi with time to spare so grabbed breakfast at the airport (pancakes and milo for the kids, local coffee and kaya toast for Gary and I). Alex was impressed with the speed of getting his pancakes and declared it true fast food. Our flight to Yangon was good and we landed around 10 minutes ahead of schedule. First impressions were of friendly people - everyone was smiling.

We got a 'taxi' to our hotel. It was a sort of van, without working seat belts (a common theme here). The driver tried to sell us some tours for the next few days which we politely declined. As we got closer to Yangon centre, the traffic got much busier so it was a sense of relief to see The Traders hotel.

Check in was smooth and we were soon up in our room. We had paid for an extra bed - something that hotels here charge a lot for - in this case it was $65 US and when we arrived no bed was there, but it was soon delivered - along with an extra bottle of water and an extra towel!

Our travel agent arrived and I went to meet her and collected flight tickets etc which was all very smooth.

We ventured out for lunch and tried to find a recommendation from the LP - Aroma Cafe but it was closed, so we ended up at the East hotel - which was very pleasant. The rest of the first afternoon was spent at the pool and we went for an early dinner to Pa Pa Pizza, which was excellent.

On Sunday, after a fabulous breakfast at the hotel, we decided to try the LP Yangon walking tour. About 300 metres into it, Tara declared we were walking "so far"! Ah, the delights of travelling with kids. We stuck to the walk for a bit and then decided to take a look at the ferry. We were sent to a window / room for foreigners. The fare for foreigners was $2 US each way but they did a 'discount for the babies'. This meant the kids were free. One thing in Myanmar is they often refer to the kids as 'babies'. The ferry was very local but some fabulous photo opportunities. There were all sorts of vendors on there and some young boys tried to sell us all sorts of things. It was very interesting. Over the other side of the river, we got off and decided to go for a drink and a sit down to watch the world go by. Gary commented that it felt like a mixture of India and Thailand. I have to agree it did feel like that!

On Sunday afternoon, after a swim at the hotel, we headed by taxi to the Shwedagon Pagoda. It was very golden and very  impressive. Tara and Alex were tolerant about their photos being taken numerous times. Tara especially is also getting a lot of people touching her face or arms, but she is very good with it.

On Sunday evening in Yangon, we decided to try a local restaurant recommended on Trip Advisor which was just across the road from the hotel. This was Takifuji - with some Western choices for the kids, and local food and beer for the adults, everyone was happy! We had a very early start the next day so headed to bed pretty early in anticipation of our 4.30am wake up call!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

3 weeks to go till we leave Singapore

Around about August or September last year we found out that Gary's department at work were being relocated and after some discussion, we realised that this would be the logical time for us to move on from Singapore. It has been an incredible place for us and I'm so glad we decided on a whim that an Asian adventure would be good for us. It has been, but it is time to move on. In mid November we received the letter verifying dates. By February I had given in my notice. It has been a long time coming and in some ways I mentally checked out of Singapore a while back. I feel like I'm serving the world's longest notice period (12 weeks). And yet, today, I was at the library choosing books and I realised that the books would need to be returned before their due date because we are leaving in 3 weeks. All of a sudden it is racing towards me and mild panic starts to set in. Will I get everything done in time? Of course I will! It's an exciting and daunting time, but I am looking forward to our next chapter.