Our loyal guest shares his travel experience to Myanmar. He stayed for 6 days in Yangon and Mrauk U and visited Shwedagon Pagoda and Mrauk Temples. He wrote a blog about interesting facts of Myanmar, what he saw and what he experienced. Yangon and Mrauk U is the highlight tour of his trip and every little detail will reflect on this blog. We proudly share the blog about 6 days experience of our guest, Abhijit Dutta. We believe our viewers will get something useful tips about Myanmar Travel and how safe Mrauk-U destination.
I had wasted 10 days of vacation and holidays during Christmas 2017 and New Year 2018 by hanging around in Singapore when I could have visited Myanmar instead. I wanted to avoid the tourists. Just as the new year started, it was time for the Chinese Lunar New Year. I became restless with wanderlust. Wondering if it might make sense, I wrote a very short email to Fiona @ Pro Niti asking if it was worth the effort to visit for 5 days. She was my travel consultant during my previous visit in May 2017, and she remembered the activities that I like. Within a day she responded with not just one but three itineraries to visit three completely different parts of her country. She had prepared the itinerary according to my likes and showcasing the beauty, the culture and the traditions of Myanmar.
Option 1 was Mrauk-U in Rakhine state, the former capital of the last Arakan Kingdom. With a small protest between some Buddhist Monks and local authorities have gone bad, we kept our options open. Fiona kept an eye on the situation and suggested that I pay an advance based only on the cheapest itinerary which was Option 2 and a backup itinerary.
Obtaining an e-Visa through the Myanmar Government’s website took less than 1 business day. And SQ had flights operated by MI at the most convenient times in both directions. Everything was ready a month before the Chinese Lunar New Year.
15 Feb 2018 – Day 1: Yangon and a dinner
A week ago, Fiona confirmed that the Mrauk-U itinerary was a go. I reached Changi Airport with more than enough time on my hands. First on the list to do was souvenir shopping and looking for new books to read. A couple of pints of beer and a “Champion Breakfast” for lunch later at Harry’s pub, I walked over to the gate.
The MI flight was a little disappointing this time with the in-flight F&B service. I managed to take a nap and watch a quarter of Assassin’s Creed by the time the pilot announced that we were approaching Yangon. Walking from the aircraft, through Immigration, collecting my teeny-weeny stroller and clearing customs took not more than 15 minutes!
The first surprise was seeing Mr. Ko waiting for me. He was the one who chauffeured me around Yangon last year. While I requested Fiona to check if Mr. Tun Tun Naing would be available to guide me in Yangon, I had forgotten to request for Mr. Ko as well. Fiona being had taken care of this as well.
My initial plan was to visit Shwe Dagon Pagoda at sunset but decided to skip it. Mr. Ko drove me to the hotel – Merchant Boutique Hotel – which is a stone’s throw away from the Pagoda. Check-in was swift and smooth.
Fiona was waiting for me with all the necessary documents including travel and hotel vouchers, and a local SIM card. And a surprise – a gift of a local t-shirt and a longyi. Well……..
After a detailed briefing in her usual formal, brisk and efficient style, she took me up on my offer to buy dinner. “House of Memories” it is called these days. But, once upon a time, it used to be the office of Bogyoke Aung Sun. His office is still preserved along with his desk and the office equipment that he used. Around the walls and inside the office, hung photos of free and independent India’s first Prime Minister, Mr. Jawaharlal Nehru, many with Bogyoke himself.
The F&B menu was in the style of a newspaper with the first two pages telling the history of the building. While Fiona was busy discussing with the waiter and trying to decide on what local food to order, I decided to read some history – many a secret meeting had taken place in this house about Myanmar and India’s independence from British rule; Netaji Subash Chandra Bose was kept hidden in this house for a few days for his meetings with Bogyoke.
Dinner was cooked in the way along with a couple of glasses of Myanmar Red Wine. They make some really good wine in Myanmar! Another surprise for me.
On reaching the hotel, I parked myself at the rooftop beer garden which had an unhindered view of Shwe Dagon. This was the main reason I had requested for this particular hotel – Merchant Boutique Hotel. I had a couple of pints of Myanmar Beer while I set up my tripod and camera and took some photographs of Shwe Dagon Pagoda in the night from a distance.
16 Feb 2018 – Day 2: Shwe Dagon Pagoda, Sittwe, and sailing on the Kalan River
I woke up earlier than planned, at about 3:45 AM, and decided to make use of the extra time. The excitement of visiting the majestic, 2,605-year old Shwe Dagon Pagoda for the second time, that too at sunrise, could not keep me in bed. A cup of coffee and after a seven-minute walk through a couple of back alleys I arrived at the Eastern gate of Shwe Dagon Pagoda where I was greeted with enthusiastic “Mingalabar” from the locals and the usual question if I am from India (Indu). The security folks and the temple officials at the visitor’s ticket counter were friendly as usual, and by 4:45 AM I had set foot on the sacred platform around the Pagoda.
Without any tourists and only the serious devotees, the place was quiet, calm and serene. Walking past the Southern and Western gates, I settled down at one of my favorite spots – at the North-West corner, near the Wishing Well where there were a number of devotees praying and meditating.
After absorbing the atmosphere and having taken a few photographs, I walked over to the North-East corner to wait for the Sun to rise and light up the Pagoda with the first ray of the day. There were a number of Bikhu and Bikhuni on the temples surrounding the pagoda chanting their mantras in Pali. A special treat indeed.
By the time the Sun came up over the distant horizon, the platform had turned into a beehive of activity with more devotees having flocked in for morning prayers. For a while, I kept shuttling between the North-West corner and the North-East corner trying to capture the Pagoda in its magnificent glory at sunrise.
After eating breakfast at the hotel, I left for the airport to take a domestic flight to Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state. The domestic terminal was quite awe-inspiring with a really fast internet connectivity. One of the eateries had some really bing, mouth-watering puffs that were fried to just the right golden color. Salivating just by looking at them, I settled for their signature coffee instead while I waited for my flight to be announced. The flight, an ATR operated by Air KBZ, was delayed by 20 minutes and had a short stop-over at Thandwe, a sea-side town.
On landing at Sittwe, I was met by Mr. Tun Nay Win, my local guide. Mr. Tun turned out to be quite an interesting person as I got to know him during the next two days. We took a boat from Sittwe and sailed north on the Kaladan river up to the town of Ponnagyun. The bright and hot afternoon Sun did not help, and with nothing much on either side of the river except barren lands, temporary fishing villages and fishing boats, I took a short nap. The first bottle of Myanmar beer was taking its toll. Just as we neared Ponnagyun, we got to see the Sunset behind a small Pagoda near Uritetaung Pagoda, both of which are located on a hill near the town. At Ponnagyun, we crossed the Kaladan river as we turned North-East to sail up one of the tributaries to Mrauk-U. We sailed in darkness, navigating the twists, turns and exits, between fishing nets and boats, without any light except those from the distant stars. I cannot fail but to admire the navigation skills of these Rakhine boatmen. The sky was black, with a gorgeous view of the stars and to some extent, the Milky Way, our home galaxy. The Three Wise Men shone in full glory all throughout.
The hotel, a resort located on the outskirts of the town of Mrauk-U, had a jetty of its own and we berthed there after sailing a distance of almost 67 km that took 5 hours and 17 minutes.
17 Feb 2018 – Day 3: Mrauk-U
Mrauk-U was the capital of the fourth period of the Arakan Kingdom until 1784-5 when it was conquered by the Burmese empire, leaving Mrauk-U completely devastated during the invasion. The kingdom then became a part of the Burmese kingdom. When the palace was burnt by the conquering army, the metal was taken to Mandalay, the then capital of Burma, where it was melted to make a bell that still stands in Mandalay. The architects and other Arakan scholars were also relocated to Mandalay at the same time along with a considerable portion of the people from the Arakanese population.
Today, the two (inner and outer) ancient walls of the city and the palace exist in a crumbled state with most of the city walls overgrown with vegetation. Around the city, wall are stupas built by the kings on high points (hillocks) that overlook both into the city and outside.
Traveling on a tar road that needs to be repaired, our first stop was at Mong Khong Shwe Du Pagoda, followed by Peisi Taung. While the former, a stupa, is still more or less intact, the later, a temple, is in ruins. Both Pagodas have images of the Buddha from the days of the Arakan kingdom.
After spending time at both the Pagodas, we visited the Kho Thaung temple (“Temple of 90,000”). From a distance, this temple resembles the temple at Borobodur though is shorter in height with about 4 levels. The temple is mostly in ruins, though a lot of the images of the Buddha are still in good condition. The stupa at the center is intact with a shed built to cover the main image of the Buddha beside the stupa.
We took a short detour to view the moat, a part of the ancient city wall and gate from a hillock with a stupa, followed by a visit to Para Oak village and Alay Zee village where we watched a local lady make hand fans with bamboo by hand in the traditional way. We then took a walk on the ancient city wall to get a sight of the city inside the inner wall through the city gate.
By then it was time for lunch. A hearty local meal of fish cake, chicken, and greens with rice was what we had at the main town market in Mrauk-U city center with the locals.
After lunch, it was time to visit some of the more famous temples of Mrauk-U, the Shai-Thuang (or Shite Thuang, “Temple of 80,000”, “Temple of Victory”) and Htukkant Thein Temple. Next to the Shai-Thuang temple are two more pagodas – Andaw Thein Temple and Yadanabon Pagoda – spending some time at the former.
Last stop for the afternoon was the Lay Myet Hna Temple which is just a stone’s throw from the Htukkant Thein Temple.
And while we waited for the Sun to set, we took a break to drink some Myanmar Beer with local snacks. The view from Ratana Sanrie hill was stunning, but the sunset flattered only to deceive with low clouds blocking the best part of the sunset.
18 Feb 2018 – Day 4: Visiting the Chin villages
The day started with a sunrise over a landscape covered in fog and mist. I stood freezing my bare feet on the stone floor at the entrance to a stupa on a small hillock near the center of the town, overlooking what might have been the old city of Mrauk-U, the capital of the Mrauk-U kingdom for 355 years in the not too distant past, and further away, the remains of the ancient city walls. Behind me, inside the temple, was the Buddha, ever serene and smiling.
We proceeded to the local market which had already started to bustle with activity. The flower-women had set up stalls on the main street. We settled down at a local tea shop where I had a double breakfast of local food , palatar and thin rice noodles in a soup.
At 9:00 AM, we drove to Lay Myo river jetty from where we took a boat to visit a couple of Chin village. The view was scenic on both sides, and as the river wound its way among the mountain ranges, we watched bamboos being floated down the river, children playing with boats or collecting pebbles near the banks. At the first Chin village, I met 4 of the elderly Chin ladies who in their youth had tattooed their faces in the Chin tradition. We spent some time walking around the village and visiting the primary school where we saw a few children attending Sunday classes with their teacher. We stopped to chat with these elderly ladies who were more than happy and excited to wear their large earrings and demanded that I take their pictures. After a short break to drink coconut water from some really big coconuts and taking photos of the Chin children, we proceeded further up river to another Chin village. Each of these Chin villages has a population of approximately 300 people whose sustenance is mostly cultivation.
After walking around the second Chin village, we decided to quench our thirst with some local beer before taking the boat back to Lay Myo river jetty and to the hotel.
By the time we reached Lay Myo jetty, it was late afternoon. I decided to skip the sunset and instead Mr. Tun, and I went to meet a friend of his and partake of the local rice alcohol with some spicy Rakhine food in a small shop beside the canal at the local market. Since we had not had a chance to eat lunch, the food helped. With the local food and the rice alcohol flowing, we had long and interesting discussions covering the history of Rakhine, her people, local topics, and issues. We kept eating beef curry, fish, fish cakes, etc., finally adding rice towards the end to call it. It was late in the night before we decide to call it a day.
19 Feb 2018 – Day 5: Mrauk-U-Sittwe-Yangon
We left the hotel by the same boat to return to Sittwe. Unfortunately, the tide was coming in, and sailing was a slow down river, taking almost 5 hours to reach the jetty in Sittwe. After a hurried stop at the local branch of a bank to change some money, we rushed to the airport bypassing the Old Sittwe jetty.
Mr. Tun Nay checked me in and then helped me clear immigration and custom. Interestingly, they have both even for domestic travel. After saying goodbye, Mr. Tun headed to the city to look for a bus to Mrauk-U while I went back inside the airport and into the departure hall to wait for my flight. An ATR operated by Air KBZ brought me back to Yangon in time to visit the Shwe Dagon Pagoda again, this time during sunset.
Sunset is probably the worst time to visit as I found out. The platform around the Pagoda was packed with devotees. But probably matching them in numbers were tourists from the west, gawking at and admiring the magnificence of the place, the devotees and the Theravada Buddhist way of life and worship. I spent just the amount of time that I required to get the 3-4 specific frames.
Mr. Ko was waiting outside to take me to Sule Shangrila where I was to spend the night. Check-in was swift and smooth once again, and in about 15 minutes, I was back on the Sule Pagoda Road to visit Sule Pagoda on foot.
During my last visit to Yangon in May 2017, my guide in Yangon, Mr. Tun had shown me a Chetty restaurant next to Sule Pagoda, and this time I decided to eat my dinner there; Palatar (Pratha) and Naan with two helpings of Mutton curry at the Chetty restaurant run by 3rd generation Tamils.
After dinner, I walked around Sule Pagoda, and it’s neighborhood before proceeding to the nearby pedestrian over a bridge that is strategically located with a view of both Sule Pagoda and Little India.
As I headed back to the hotel, I decided to look at the cinema theatre next door. Last year it was Bahubali 2, this year it was the controversial (and banned in some countries as it might hurt the religious sentiments of the people of that country) Padmavaat. Yes, Indian, especially Bollywood, movies are a big hit in Myanmar.
It was time for a nightcap and I headed to the Gallery Bar of the Sule Shangri-La for some “Myanmar Beer” before calling it a day, evening and night.
20 Feb 2018 – Day 6: Dala and Twantay.
My last day of the trip began with a sumptuous breakfast at the Café Sule, a breakfast buffet that covered Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Western cuisines. Teriyaki pork, dimsums, onion vada with mutton curry, sausages (pork and chicken), bacon and eggs was food for the soul to start a day.
After a big breakfast at Café Sule – the Sule Shangrila has a big spread Japanese, Chinese and Indian cuisines, in addition to Burmese. And they also keep the Halal meat. Breakfast was Teriyaki pork, onion vada with mutton curry for a change, pig, and chicken that had been turned into sausages by some curse (or blessing), bacon and eggs, and I left with Mr. Tun and Mr. Ko to wander and wonder at a different part of Yangon and Myanmar.
First stop was the jetty to take the ferry across Yangon River to the village of Dala. Three big ferries donated by Japan ferry passengers across a river. Once across at Dala, we took a trishaw. Trishaws in this part of the word are different – A cycle fitted with a side passenger car. Something like those WWII motorcycles with a sidecar.
For the next hour and a half, I was treated to the sights and sounds of Dala. The villagers are dependent on rainwater harvesting in the traditional way for their daily water requirements. 7-9 ponds spread around the village takes care of the requirements. Water from ponds covered with Lotus leaves and flowers are used for drinking, while the other ponds provide water for all other human needs.
I had the option to visit the local market, but seeing the crowd, I decided to give it a pass. Not much different from ones we still have in many cities and towns in India even now.
The highlight of the tour was when we by chance ran into the Abbott of one of the monasteries, and he decided to have a conversation with me. Mr. Tun had to become the interpreter yet again while the Abbott took us around the monastery. The devotion that people have towards the Monks and Abbotts in Myanmar left me flabbergasted. Yet the Monks and Abbotts lead the life of a Bikhu.
While we took the ferry to cross the river and were wandering in Dala, Mr. Ko drove upriver to cross the bridge across the Yangon river and reach Dala. We met up at the clock tower and proceeded to Twantay town a 45-minute drive.
Having missed the turn to Snake Pagoda, we went around the town to head back to the Pagoda. Nightmare time when I found out what the Pagoda was about, which was at the door. Live pythons were sleeping inside and around the structure. Not me in there, turn around and run!
We stopped to take a photo of a stupa built to house the remains of some monk from the past, and then went back to Twantay to visit the Shwe San Daw Pagoda. Almost a replica of Shwe Dagon Pagoda, it is about 70 feet or so shorter. Around the Pagoda on the platform are wooden houses built in the Mon style. And like Shwe Dagon, Shwe San Daw also has four entrances from the four cardinal directions. It was here that Mr. Tun told me something of significance – why Buddhists in Myanmar enter from the East and go around the platform in a clockwise direction.
We then proceeded to visit small, local pottery where the owner gave us a tour of his factory where he makes water filters from clay by hand in the traditional way. No thermometers to measure the temperature inside the kilns, but a small, tiny thing that he buys from Singapore to measure the heat and temperature inside the kiln manually.
As we headed to Yangon International airport, we had lunch of local food at a roadside tea house. A meal that consisted of water crests with mushrooms, an omelet, minced mutton in a spicy sauce flavored with tomato and of course, rice, a meal that Mr. Tun, Mr. Ko and I shared.
“Anitya,” said the Buddha Gautama. My wanderlust was not permanent this time either. It was time to go home. Enlightened a little more in some way about the people of Myanmar, their culture, their traditions, their history. And of the Arakanese people of today’s Rakhine.
At the departure gate in Yangon International Airport, while I waited for boarding to be announced, I found one of those never-ending, winding, meaningless, senseless Indian soap opera being telecast by a local channel on the wall TV. That too in Hindi with subtitles in Burmese. These meaningless, winding, never-ending, Indian TV soap operas seem to be a big hit in East Asia from China, through Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, all the way down to Malaysia. Does not matter even if it is still in Hindi.