26 January 2015

Meandering in Myanmar (with Stops in Malaysia, Thailand, and Hungary)

So, it's been a while since I have taken a long trip (by long, I mean a trip more than a weekend, lasting between two to three weeks, as we both know that as much as I would love to travel over an extended period of time, I also love the routine I have, plus the familiarity of my own personal surroundings). The last one I had was Boston and New York City, but that was just 9 days of visiting friends and family. Before that, I cavorted with the companion in Italy, San Marino, and the United Kingdom, and I also meandered in Malta. While these trips were utterly enjoyable on their own, I was searching and longing for a particular type of trip, one that involved a significant amount of culture shock, as well as a dose of adventure. And the last time I had one such trip was when I cavorted in the Caucasus. So I figured it was about time.

So, why Myanmar? Back in the summer of 2014, I was looking for an adventure, when I started planning all of this, and Myanmar was an ideal candidate. See, in 2010, there were significant changes in the Myanma government (Myanmar is the noun form, while Myanma is the adjective form, just in case you didn't know that). A quasi-democratic election was held, and the country opened up. It also happens that as a Filipino citizen, I am an exception in the sense that I don't need a visa to enter Myanmar if I am only visiting for 14 days, while the vast majority of travelers would need one. And finally, since the country opened up, there have been fears that the "original" state of the country will soon erode and fade away, therefore I figured that now was a good time to visit, to experience the country before mass development and Western influences permeate it completely. So I headed there with an itinerary that would take complete advantage of the 14 days I had.

I had a rather complicated flight itinerary this time. I checked flights and it seems that it was cheaper for me to buy a ticket from Europe to a big Asian city rather than flying to Myanmar directly. After all, not a lot of airlines fly to Myanmar, so connecting Berlin with Yangon was doable but definitely expensive. So, I bought a ticket to Kuala Lumpur instead, with Turkish Airlines. And from Kuala Lumpur, I bought a separate ticket with Air Asia to Yangon.

I left Berlin on the evening of December 13, and after transiting in Istanbul in the middle of the night and spending 11 hours in a big plane (the last time I was in a big plane was when we flew to the USA with Aer Lingus), we landed in Kuala Lumpur on December 14. It was already late afternoon, and I just took the train from the airport to the center of town, where I was staying with a Couchsurfing host, Andreas, who was from Germany originally. We just decided to walk around and eat street food that evening.

I had two full days in Kuala Lumpur, since I thought I would sight-see in the Malaysian capital since after all I was there and haven't been to Kuala Lumpur before. I checked out Batu Caves, the Masjid Negara, Thean Hou Temple, and the Islamic Arts Museum. Kuala Lumpur was fascinating in the sense that it feels like it is a melting pot of several religions, and people seem to be living side by side without minding it at all. Or maybe I just haven't seen enough, I don't know. In any case, I had a favorable impression of Kuala Lumpur, and yes, maybe the street food options helped a lot to reach that conclusion.

On December 17, I headed back to Kuala Lumpur International Airport, in order to catch an Air Asia flight to Yangon. I landed in Yangon in the middle of the night, and at first I was worried that I would have a hard time in the country because I wasn't carrying US dollars with me, when everyone else who have been there in the past said that it was necessary. In fact, even the guidebook said that it was important. However, I heard counter-anecdotes to it, and sure enough, in the airport, there were several ATMs where one can withdraw local money (kyat). Before 2010, this was not possible, due to the sanctions which isolated the Myanma banking system from the rest of the world. So, I withdrew 300,000 MMK (about a little more than 200 EUR), and since the largest denomination the machine dispensed was 5,000, I ended up with a pretty fat wallet (the largest banknote that is available in the country is 10,000 MMK, yet I only saw one during the whole two weeks of my stay there).

I had three nights in Yangon, so I checked out the city. I visited Shwedagon Paya, as well as other temples in the city. The city (and the rest of the country) is abound with temples, no wonder they say that Myanmar is golden. The golden stupas just shimmer when the sunlight hits it. I also ate a lot of street food, which was found all over the place, but mainly in the 19th street of downtown, and since I was staying in 9th street, it was not far away.

On December 20, I took a 9-hour train ride to southern Myanmar. I headed to Mawlamyine, where I was staying for 3 nights. Mawlamyine used to be an important British port, and now is this rural crumbling small town. However, it also was a good base to visit the caves nearby, which was my intention. From Mawlamyine, I took a daytrip to Hpa-an, which is where plenty of these caves are found. The long train ride was not the most comfortable train ride I have had, where I was shaken back and forth, and left and right. However, the people were very hospitable, and using my Burmese phrasebook, I even managed small conversations. They were very curious about the visitors to their beautiful country.

After spending 3 nights in Mawlamyine, I went back to Yangon and stayed there for a night. I also refreshed my fill of street food. I found that I have a strange liking to preserved egg salad, which is found on pretty much every Myanma restaurant. It is similar to the Chinese century egg, where it is sliced open, and added with herbs and spices and made into a hot and spicy salad. I found myself ordering this dish numerous times in various locations around the country, and seeing how it varied.

On December 24, I headed to Yangon Airport, and took a domestic flight with Air KBZ to Bagan. Bagan was the highlight of my trip, where I spent three nights. I had two full days exploring the plains of Bagan, seeing the sun rise from the east, and slowly illuminating the whole plain and revealing the temples little by little. Travel in Myanmar is not easy, but Bagan surely made it worth it.

After three nights in Bagan, it was time to move again, and this time, I took a minibus to Mandalay. I had three nights in Mandalay, but perhaps Mandalay was not the best place to be. It was the epitome of chaos, and it put my system to the test. If I were experiencing culture shock, it was in Mandalay. I didn't like it, and I probably would not have been there if not for the international airport. By that time, I already had seen plenty of temples, and so I already had temple fatigue. And so I only checked out the non-temple sights in the city, such as the palace, and Mandalay Hill. It was a huge dusty city, with no traffic rules, and no obvious sights that would interest the visitor to make the visit worth it.

Anyway, I flew out of Mandalay (and Myanmar) to Bangkok with Air Asia again (a few days after the Air Asia crash) on December 30, where I spent two nights. Bangkok was a very welcome change. There were skyscrapers, there were highways, there was the 21st century. I checked out Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace, but that's the only sight-seeing I have done. The rest was spent discovering the old part of town, as well as sampling street food. Bangkok surprised me in the sense that I actually felt like I liked the city enough that I could consider living there. Or maybe Mandalay just left me a very negative impression that it was easy to be amazed at anything after that, who knows.

On New Year's Day, I flew with Turkish Airlines from Bangkok to Budapest, where I was to meet my partner. The plan was to hang out with his parents, as well as visit another friend of mine. I didn't do any sight-seeing in Hungary, but during the weekend, I went to the eastern part of the country, to Debrecen, to participate in a pig-killing ceremony. It was a very Hungarian experience, I should say, and I was glad to be part of it.

After spending three nights in Hungary, on January 4, it was time to fly back to Berlin, so my partner and I headed to the airport and took an Air Berlin flight back home.

This was perhaps the longest trip I have had so far, with 23 days, and several stops in various countries. My friend Paula told me that I was doing a world tour, but in reality, I just did this itinerary to save myself a couple hundred EUR.

So there you have it. Of course, detailed entries describing various things along the road will follow, as well as pictures. So stay tuned!

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