Myanmar

Puppets Alive!

On my first trip to Yangon a couple of years ago, I was unable to see a puppet show as the puppet troupe listed at Lonely Planet was only doing invitational shows.  The people who were there showed me the puppets though.  I had been to the Mandalay Marionette Theater twice and I wanted to see what Yangon had.  Fortunately, on this trip I saw Htwee Oo Puppets listed at Trip Advisor.  I don’t remember seeing it at the site when I first visited Yangon in 2014.  Checked out the website and had the hotel receptionist call the listed number for reservations.

The cab we hailed at The Strand declined as he didn’t know the address.  A guy hanging around the hotel driveway offered to take us as he knew where it was.  It was a “secret” location, he said, and not many cab drivers knew where it was.  Blogs do mention the difficulty of finding the place.  Indeed, it was located at a not so ideal neighborhood.  The car stopped in front of an apartment building. Seeing the small tarpaulin sign hanging at the 2nd floor of the walk-up apartment banished any doubts.  Our driver went to a store beside the apartment and a slender young woman opened the gate to the stairs.  We climbed up and someone unlocked a wooden door and we found ourselves in a living room that had been converted into small theater with about 20 plastic seats.

On one side of the room was a wooden cabinet with puppets from other countries such as China and Vietnam.

Aside from the 5 of us were a Russian giy and a French couple.  The show started at 6pm with the same young lady who opened the gate explaining the puppets. 

One really interesting info is that Myanmar puppets are anatomically correct.

The 45-minute show featured dance scenes and fight scenes from different stories.

The entire show was hugely entertaining as the puppeteers deftly maneuvered the strings that made the puppets dance, leap, and even show facial expressions.  

My favorite scene was the finale which featured several puppets playing traditional music instruments.

After the show, we got the chance to have a photo-op with the puppets.

We even got to try animating the puppets.  It was really such a fun experience and we all left with big smiles and profuse thanks to the puppeteers.

Practicalities

The show costs 10,000 kyats per person.  

Posted below is the business card and the address in Myanmar script.

It is advisable to let your cab wait for you as I’m not sure about cabs in the area as it is primarily residential.

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High Tea at The Strand

The Strand is what the Raffles is to Singapore, the Peninsula to Hong Kong, and the Eastern & Oriental is to Penang.  Built by the famous Sarkies brothers, like it’s counterparts, it stands as a testament to Yangon’s grand colonial past.  While it is small compared to the other colonial hotels, it is nevertheless beautifully restored.

There weren’t much people on a Monday afternoon and we had the wonderful lobby all to ourselves to take photos. 

Of course, we had High Tea at the equally beautiful cafe. 


 The Classic Set (USD 20) arrived in a 3 tier tea tray of pastries and a plate of  prawn sandwhiches, turkey sandwhiches, goose liver pate on gingerbread and other delicious stuff. 

Everything was just so good.  The scones were warm and buttery and were served with whipped butter, blue berry jam, and raspberry jam.  The pastries, particularly the Opera cake were very delicate.

So far, this was the yummiest high tea I’ve ever had and at just USD 20, really good value for money.  The service was par excellence and with male staff dressed in longyi and Burmese jackets graciously serving you, we felt like we were back in those days when Yangon was still called Rangoon.
There is an USD 18 Myanmar set with traditional snacks and served in traditional tiffin ware which was so cute.

Like other high tea sets, the morsels may seem small but they’re actually filling. We really had a lovely experience here.

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The Yangon Circular Train

We took the Yangon circular train this morning for an experience apart from the usual. We decided to do the trip today so there wouldn’t be a crowd.   We arrived at the Yangon Railway Station around 9:45 on board a taxi.  I had forgotten to bring a bottle of water but surprise! Surprise!  The friendly driver gave us bottles of water, free!!!   Arriving at the station is like stepping back into time.  It is a magnificent piece of colonial architecture with its high ceilings, columns, and arches. 


The people lounging around at the lobby floor simply added to the old world atmosphere.

We entered the station and headed up the stairs, across, and down to platform 7.  It was easy to find as there were signs.

Since the train was coming in a few minutes, a guy from the ticket office quickly gave us tickets so we didn’t have to line-up.  The roundtrip ticket only cost 200 kyat, a far cry from the 1,000 kyat charged to foreigners before.  

The train arrived at 10:10 as scheduled and discharged passengers.  Being a holiday, there weren’t too many people. 

The carriage was quite hot due to the summer heat but not uncomfortable hot.  I can just imagine how it is on regular days when it would be quite packed.

The train was quite slow and made many stops.  There really is nothing much to see as it winds along the outskirts of the city.  In fact, you see much garbage and shanties. As a commuter train, people get on and off at each station.  

The real treasure is in being with the friendly locals.

We didn’t have time to take the entire 3 hour route so we jumped train after about 30 minutes and took a taxi to our next destination.

It was an interesting experience to just sit and people watch.  If you can spare a few hours, it’s highly recommended.

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999 Shan Noodle Soup

Each time I’m in Myanmar, I always head to a Shan eatery.  While there are a variety of establishments to choose from in Mandalay, the same cannot be said in Yangon, at least to my experience.  Along comes 999 Shan Noodle Shop. Highlighted in my Lonely Planet guidebook and saved in my Trip Advisor mobile app, I never got to try it in my previous trip to Yangon.  This afternoon, I almost didn’t get to try it again as the driver we hired got his directions wrong and the LP map wasn’t quite right. Fortunately, we got to the right part of 34th street and saw the huge sign.

The place was quite full but we were quickly ushered to a table by the stairs to the second floor.  

The Shan Noodle with Oil was so tasty. The noodles had the smooth chewy texture reminiscent of Chinese hand-pulled noodles which I really love.  The pork  and  “oil” toppings were just right. Tita Cel’s Fried Noodles had a very rich eggy taste while Rhoda’s flat noodles was made more savoury with the addition of beans.  

What really won the palate was the Yellow Rice with Tomato.  It was a very unusual dish but really really good.

We really enjoyed our lunch at this place.  Service was quick and very friendly.  It’s a small place but the noodles we had were really big in flavor.  A few feet down the road is 999 Shan Cuisine which had a counter of pre-cooked food.  Not sure if it’s related to the noodle shop though.

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Back in Yangon

Yey!  I’m back in Yangon for the 2nd time (the first one was in 2015)!  Traveling this time  with four other people — my eldest sister and aunt and two colleagues from the university.

Last year, at a conference in Malaysia: 

 “Are you going to ____ next year?” 

“Where?” 

“In Yangon.”  

“Yes!”  (Turning to my sister and aunt who joins me af conferences, “We’re going to Yangon next year!”)

So after a sleepless night at Suvarnabhumi spent in transit at the departure area after arriving from Manila  for the connecting flight to Yangon in the morning, we’re finally here!  Never mind the traffic-clogged streets and the hot dry weather, it’s good to be back.

Checked in at Crystal Palace Hotel and proceeded to the buffet breakfast still laid out at the tables at past 10 in the morning.  Food was cold but quite good— baked beans, scrambled eggs, sausages, and a variety of Burmese snack food.  Anything after airline food is bound to be good anyway.  

Spent the next couple of hours just resting at the hotel.  Really snagged a good deal at this place.  Clean comfortable rooms with nice beds, buffet breakfast, really friendly staff for just USD 100 per person for 7 nights!  It’s away from the downtown area though but near the the conference venue.

Headed to the Bogyoke Aung San Market later in the afternoon to window shop.  It was the first time for the others and they wanted to check out the prices first.  Went to Yoyomay, the Chin store where I bought some music instruments before. Many beautiful stuff but expensive.

Next stop was the Shwegadon Paya.  It still is a majestic site to behold even after seeing it the second time.

Women power.  No we know how they keep the floor clean. 

We didn’t wait for the sunset anymore as we were all hungry. Headed to Feel for dinner where outdoor stalls and tables had been set-up.  

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Hope, People, and Myanmar

As in all my travels,  it is the people who leave the most impression on me. My first trip in Myanmar was December 2014. Elections had been announced and was scheduled in a few months. Everywhere I went and with the people I interacted with–trekking guides in Kalaw and Inle Lake, motorcycle drivers in Mandalay, and locals everywhere— on warming-up to conversations,  talk would eventually turn to politics. Most knew Aquino was the Philippine president and they had deep regard for him and our country’s history of democratic struggle. The people I talked to were cautiously hopeful with the elections. Myanmar was changing rapidly. Mobile phones and sim cards are now widely available and cheap (sim cards years ago were as much as USD500 and were raffled off), a Norwegian company,  Telnor, was providing Internet connection, and people had Facebook. But the people were well aware of their history,  particularly what the post-1998 election events. So they was an edge in their hopes.

A year later, December 2015, I return.  Elections are over and the National League for Democracy has won more than 90% of parliamentary seats. Aung San Suu Kyi is everywhere. The people I have interacted with have hope in their eyes and optimism in their lips. A significant part of their dreams have come true. As motorcycle driver in Mandalay told me while sipping a cup of tea at a popular tea shop, “More change is coming. Slowly… slowly… but there will be change.”

It is my fervent wish that it really does happen.

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Happy Independence Day, Myanmar!

Every January 4, Myanmar celebrates its Independence Day commemorating the end of British colonial rule. Since the capital was moved to Nyay Pyi Taw in 2005, all government-organized activities have been held there. More interesting are the celebrations held in the residential quarters. That means games and races, particularly for children,  on streets and alleyways. In Yangon, one need to just walk along the road to witness the these. If you hear someone on a mic talking loudly,  chances are there’s some sort of a game going on.

In this game,  young boys race to get the potatoes on the ground.

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Children balance empty water bottles on their palms as they walk to the finish line.

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Just outside my guesthouse in Lanmadaw street is a game of football which is quite popular in Myanmar.

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At Kawyangi Park, aside from couples canoodling behind the bushes, large groups gathered for some games.

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Walking back to my guesthouse, a large crowd had gathered around some tables where women were giving out free noodle soup.

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I was in Mandalay at last year’s Independence Day and I was just at the mall.

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Reasons To Love Yangon

1. Low Vibes City
Sure, the traffic can be quite maddening at times especially downtown but it doesn’t take more than a few hundred meters to find a quiet street.
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It’s a gentle city that still reeks of old Asia charm when life’s rhythms are punctuated by temples and markets.
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2. Tea Houses
Aside from serving up a cuppa and more, tea houses are important social places where people gather to gossip, exchange news, or simply watch the world go by. It’s refreshing to be in a place where people actually mingle and talk to each other rather than staring at a tablet or a smart phone.
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3. Those roadside cafes
They’re everywhere—under a tree or in the shadow of a building. Mornings is the best time to come here, take a seat, and enjoy a bowl of mohingya and a cup of sweet tea with milk.
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4. Shwedagon Paya
How can one not fall in love with this beautiful pagoda especially when lit-up at night. More than an architectural wonder, it is ground zero for the locals’ Buddhist faith.
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Yangon’s two other temples, Botataung by the river and Sule at the center are beautiful too.
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I am in complete awe by the fervor by which the people practice their faith in these temples. From solitary meditation to group chants.
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With their spacious grounds, especially Botataung’s the temples also function as mini-parks for families and couples.
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5. Colonial Heritage
Yangon has the best preserved colonial cityscape in Southeast Asia. You can take the walking tour in Lonely Planet and detour in a few streets to see other architectural marvels outside the guidebook’s radar.
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Some are crumbling.
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While others have been put to adaptive use.

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Go ahead, take a peek inside.
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Always remember to gaze-up and see beautiful architectural details.
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Wherever you go, down an alley or a street, you’ll find your own architectural wonder.
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6. Taxis are everywhere
It’s easy to flag-down a taxi anywhere and anytime. The usual rate is 2, 000 k. Some will ask for 2, 500 or 3, 000. Just flag-down another one. Most taxi drivers are really nice. They follow the usual 2, 000k rate and if they can speak English, engage you in conversation.

A taxi from downtown to airport costs 6, 000-8, 000 k. I left at 8am and took less than an hour, traffic included.

TIP
Have someone in your hotel write down all the places you wish to go to including your hotel address in Myanmar script. That way, you just show the address to your driver. Sights listed in Lonely Planet guidebooks have Myanmar translations. Taxis have a/c but most drivers leave it off and roll the windows down. Just ask them to turn it on. They’ll be most willing to oblige.

Yangon is a city best enjoyed leisurely. It’s charm grows on you.

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My Last Day in Myanmar and I Have the Runs

Such a bummer. Woke up this morning with the runs. Who could the culprit be?

Suspect #1
The tapioca-coconut dessert I had at the Bogyoke Aung Suun Market. See the one on the center.

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Suspect #2
The fried rice and the crispy pork at one of the night stalls near 19th street.

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Suspect #3
Sorry, I didn’t take a pic. My breakfast of fried rice and beef ribs curry at a street stall.

This was just the third time I had traveler’s diarrhea.  The first was from a stir-fried squid dish at a street stall in Georgetown,  Penang and the second was from a beef dish in Banlung, Cambodia.

Such a bummer.  It  means skipping the circular train ride. I did manage to take a walk around Kauwangyi Lake before heading back to the guesthouse to use the bathroom. It did seem like it was under control already thanks to the loperamide I took.

So I went to have lunch at Feel Myanmar. I had barely finished my dessert of red velvet cake when the toilet started to beckon. Thankfully,  there was a Western-style toilet. Perhaps it was all that food that made my tummy go ballistic again.  But I was not to be deterred. I headed to Monument Books and found a nice book on Myanmar culture with several sections on music for just 2, 500 k. Another toilet break. Someone was taking ages in the male toilet (passing-out books perhaps) so I used the female one. Fortunately, aside from the staff who were all lounging downstairs the only other customer was a kid buying a toy on his own (a car was waiting for him) and me.

Next stop was Nanyamadaw shop. They didn’t have the books I wanted but they did have a clean toilet.  I headed back to the guesthouse after to sit this thing out.

Managed to get immodium tablets at a Chinese-run pharmacy. I simply pointed to my tummy and made sprinkling motions with my hands. At another store, pointing patting my tummy resulted in flatulence tablets being handed to me. I read every tablet pack there and there was no anti-diahrrea.

I’m better now. Just had a piece of bread for dinner and a pot of green tea.

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Beautiful Shwedagon Paya

The Shwedagon Paya is most iconic of Yangon. If you’ve seen the film,  “The Lady,” it is the site of Aung San Suu Kyi’s massive rally in 1998. Of course,  that was just a replica as the military junta would go cold first before they would let anyone film there.

I arrived there this afternoon around 5 pm to catch the sunset. There were many many people. When the sun did set and the pagoda was lighted all up, it was breathtakingly beautiful.

Before sunset

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Sunset

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After sunset

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Walking along the Swedagon paya you are treated to sights of people praying praying.
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There are many shrines and quiet corners for solitary respects to the Buddha.
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Saw this group of women quietly seated in front of King Tharabar’s huge bell.
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Of course, one needs a little break from all that praying.
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Practicals
1. Taxi from downtown is 2, 000 k.
2. There are many entrances. One entrance is directly across People’s Park. At each entrance is a counter where you can leave your shoes for a donation of 1, 000 k. Take note, though, as is the case of Myanmar’s temples, you already need to take-off your shoes at the bottom of the steps. Bring them with you to the second level where the shoe counter is. You can also bring a plastic bag for your shoes and bring it with you inside.
3. Foreigners fee is 3, 000 k and includes a free map.
4. There are ATMs at the entrances should you run out of cash shopping for souvenirs at the stalls lining the steps.
5. Best time to go is either early morning or at sundown. Should you go at the latter, stay until the evening (it closes at 10pm) so you can see it all lighted-up.

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