Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Second Day in Yangon- From Shwedagon to Karaweik Hall

Second day's itinerary, Shwedagon and Karaweik Hall (some refered it as Karaweik Palace). Both places are located beside Kandawgyi Lake, Shwedagon on the west, while Karaweik on the east. From our hotel, we took 10 minutes to reach Shwedagon by taxi, with 2,500 Kyat (RM8/ USD2.30), then 2,000 Kyat from Shwedagon to Karaweik Hall. We paid 2,500 Kyat to go back to our hotel at 38th Street from Karaweik Hall later.

Shwedagon means Golden Dagon (Dagon is the old name of Yangon). So, Shwedagon carries the meaning of Golden Yangon. It is the most sacred place for Buddhists in Yangon, and some believed that the stupa contains the relics of all past four Buddhas. Its sacredness didn't attract us. We went there because of its size and age.

Shwedagon Pagoda was built between 6th - 10th centuries. Then, it was left unattended for more than 400 years. Then, starting from 14th century, it was rebuilt and renovated several times to gain its present size, with the top of the stupa erected 99 meters above the ground. Elaborative temples were built encircled the stupa. Like Sule Pagoda, Shwedagon has 4 entrances.

We entered the pagoda through the lift at the south entrance, with entrance fee of USD5 (or 5000 Kyat). We hired an English speaking tour guide with USD5. The tour guide was really informative. He linked many part of the pagoda to the history of Myanmar, such as the lost and found of Maha Gandha Bell, the missing Dhammazedi Bell, and the statues of Buddha, which were donated by different parties. He highlighted that the giant stupa at the center of the pagoda was plated with genuine gold, topped with a big diamond. The decoration and gold items within the pagoda were donated by the believers.

99 meters stupa of gold, shine under the  blazing sunlight. It was 9 in the morning, and the golden stupa started to shine under the sun. It was the time when the believers and tourists pouring in. 9 am was just nice as the floor was warm. Visiting the pagoda under hot afternoon sun may not be a good idea, as the floor will turn unbearably hot. The pagoda opens as early as 4 am and closes at 10 pm. We did read some article teaching us how to avoid paying to entrance fee. We personally don't think that is a good idea. 

The magnificent stupa is surrounded by temples housing thousands of statues of Buddha. Most of these temples have pagoda like rooftop.

These are the temples on the western entrance.

How to differentiate the genuine gold plated structure to the one with golden paint? The colour. Real gold structures are less shiny compare to the stuctures with golden paint.

Maha Gandha bell is a 23-ton bronze bell. The bell was stolen but then fall into Yangon river. It was restored from Yangon River (upper left). Please do not confuse this Maha Gandha Bell with 40-ton Maha Tissada  Gandha Bell (bell with three tones), which was donated by King Tharrawaddy in 1841. Our tour guide was telling the history of Shwedagon in the photo gallery (upper right). Pillars decorated with glass mosaic (lower right) in one of the temples around Shwedagon. Many parts of the pagoda are finely crafted.

The top of the stupa, with golden umbrella. Very top of it, a 76 carat (15 g) diamond.

We walked through the stairway of the southern entrance, with vendors selling souvenirs and books. The stairway was well decorated by fine woodwork and mural depicting the life of Buddha. We spent about two hours at Shwedagon.

The southern gate to Shwedagon is guarded by two giant lions. This photo shows one of the lions.

A long passage, about 150 meters, connecting the entrance to the pagoda. Many stalls are available on both sides of the passage.

The lift at the south of the pagoda, 50 meters away from the lions' guarded entrance. The lift service is free-of-charge. We kept our shoes at the south entrance.

Our next stop, Karaweik Hall. From Shwedagon, the taxi fare was 2000 Kyat. Entrance fee was required for both taxi and passengers at the main gate. We paid USD2 each. The hall was built in 1975, taking the design of a royal barge. Since then, the hall has became the symbol of Yangon and Myanmar. Frankly, Karaweik Hall is not a magnificent building. However, it is special because of the unique "duck" shaped structure. We took a walk along Kandawgyi Lake, tried to see the building from different angles. It was around 11:30 am, with the sun blazed unmercifully. Luckily, dense foliage protected us from serious sunburn. We took our lunch beside the lake.

Shwedagon can be clearly seen from Karaweik Hall.

Karaweik Hall from one of the restaurants beside the lake. The price of the food by the lake was more expensive compared to downtown. To our surprise, locals were outnumbered the tourists in the restaurants.

The bridge leads to the entrance of Karaweik Hall.

From the main gate, take a right turn and walk about 300 meters along the main walkway to reach a small bridge. That's the most strategic place to take photo with Karaweik Hall, free of charge (another location, which we think is even more strategic for photo taking, need extra payment to enter). 

Shops in front of Karaweik Hall.

Back to our hotel, we took a long afternoon rest to avoid hot weather. We started our exploration within the area of 38th Street to Sule Pagoda Road again in late afternoon. Again, we tried a few types of street food, and finally, indulged ourselves at Parisian Cake and Coffee outlet beside Sule Pagoda Road.

For us, Shwedagon Pagoda and Karaweik Hall are the two places that worth a visit in Yangon. Shwedagon represents the historical, while Karaweik Hall, it's an icon.

We went to Bagan after staying in Yangon for two days. Returned from Bagan, we stayed in Yangon for another day. We did some shopping on the third day in Yangon. We will share about our experience in upcoming posts about Food in Yangon and Getting Around Yangon.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

First Day in Yangon- From 38th Street to Bogyoke Market

We arrived early in Yangon. Our watches showed 9:15 am. Crossing the time zone, the local time was 7:45 am in Yangon. We gained 90 minutes in total. The airport looked good- air conditioned, contemporary design, clean, and tidy. We felt good, until the immigration clearance took us more than 30 minutes, with less than 5 persons in the queue. Possible culprits, two consecutive power cuts that paralyzed the computer system in the airport. Power cut was a frequent event thorough our trip in Yangon. It happened many times a day.

In Myanmar, English is taught in schools, but the language is not widely used. Lucky for us, the airport personnels were very helpful. They led us to a city taxi and instructed the driver to bring us to our hotel. To go downtown, the fare was fixed at USD10, which we paid to the driver later.

Brutal and iron-fisted military government which imprisoned a soft and elegant lady for years, monks walking around without footwear, vacated buildings, waves of refugees leaving the country, poor and slow economy were basically the images of the country. Well, at least that's what we received in our country. However, in the following one-hour road trip to our hotel, our impression towards the city changed dramatically.

Well maintained road, traffic light with digital count down clock, clean street, roads packed with imported Toyota, modern buildings, lakes and green city gardens, etc. Well, either we had been misled, or Myanmar had taken a quantum leap in the last few years, we had to buy the reality that the former capital of Myanmar in front of us is far more better than the one that inside our brain.

Yangon International Airport is big and spacious, with contemporary design (upper left). We could see some modern high rises on the way to Yangon downtown (upper right). Modern buildings shooting up beside historical Sule Pagoda and Central Fire Station (lower right). Electronic billboards can be seen beside the road. Roads are basically dominated by imported cars. Unlike other capitals, such as Hanoi and Phnom Penh, motor bikes and bicycles were rare in Yangon.

We stayed in Aung Tha Pyay Hotel at 38th Street, 400 meters away from Sule Pagoda, the heart of Yangon downtown area. Flanked by busy Pansodan bus stops on the both sides of the road, it was a hot spot in Yangon. After a brief rest, we took our first exploration to buy our air ticket to Bagan. We successfully bought the tickets from a travel agency nearby. The price. USD10 cheaper than what our hotel had offered (we will talk about this in our upcoming post about Bagan).

1 pm, starved, we went out to find a restaurant for lunch. Without single English word in the menu, we left the first two restaurants in frustration. Then, we found English in the menu of the third restaurant at Maha Bandula Road. The owner of the shop, who could speak in simple English and Mandarin was an angel to us. We had a first lunch in that restaurant.

Recharged, we moved 250 meters west along Maha Bandula Road to visit Sule Pagoda. Some believed that the pagoda is 2500 years old. During the British colonization in mid 19th century, the pagoda had been set as the center of Yangon. It was the meeting points for 1988 and 2007 anti-government uprises as well. The pagoda is special for its octagonal stupa at the middle of the pagoda, and its location right in the middle of the junction between Maha Bandula Road and Sule Pagoda Road.

The pagoda has undergone many rounds of renovation, to an extent that everything that we saw inside was not more than 200 years old. However, as foreigners, we still had to pay USD2 per person to enter the pagoda. We strolled around the pagoda for about 15 minutes. Nothing interesting, except our first experience walking on the sun-baked floor with bared legs. No footwear was allowed in the pagoda. Learned the lesson in a hard way, we decided to visit Shwedagon early the next day, to avoid the hot boiling floor. We put our shoes at the designated shoes rack and had been asked for donation upon collection.

Is it worth to go inside the pagoda for USD2? No (compared to USD5 for Shwedagon). But USD2 couldn't stop us from stepping inside. Well, we had travelled more than 1000 km to the front door of the pagoda. After all, it was just USD2.

Does this building look like 2500 years old? The protruding shop lots around the pagoda have significantly diminished the attractiveness of this historical building.

Many parts of Sule Pagoda are painted in gold and yellow (upper row). The pagoda attracted many believers (lower right). The ceiling and the pillars are elaborately decorated.

Coming out from the pagoda, we walked north along Sule Pagoda Road and took a left turn into Montgomery Road to visit Bogyoke Aung San Market. Bogyoke Aung San means General Aung San. The pedestrian walkway along Montagomery Road was packed with hawkers. The market is located at Montgomery Road, about 700 meters away from Sule Pagoda.

The hawker stalls narrow down the pedestrian walkway.

Surprisingly, the market was not crowdy at all. It was around 4 pm. We took a rest while enjoyed two glasses of fruit juices, with just USD1 each. Then, we strolled around the market, discovered that the items on sale were not more than clothes, jeweleries, lacquer ware, wood and stone carved items, and a few other types of souvenirs. Most of the clothes were made in Thailand. We managed to get some souvenirs (fridge magnet and rattan ware) and left the market at 4:45 pm.

Bogyoke Aung San Market is divided into two parts- the older one-storey building and another modern two-storey building. This photo shows the two-storey building, with the older market located right behind it.

Scenes capture within the market area. The fruit juice is highly recommended.

Inside the market. Clean and tidy, with very few visitors.

On our way back to our hotel, we stayed a while around the Independent Monument next to Sule Pagoda. The garden that housed the monument was named after the former commander-in-chief of Royal Burmese Army- Maha Bandula. He fought and died in the first Anglo-Burmese War in 1825. Maha Bandula Garden is a place that worth a visit, as the garden is surrounded by beautiful Yangon City Heritage listed buildings, such as the High Court to the east, Emmanuel Baptist Church to the northeast, the City Hall to the north, Sule Pagoda and Central Fire Station to the northwest.

Independent Monument in Maha Bandula Garden. The garden is not big but worth a leisure evening walk.

Buildings surrounding Maha Bandula Garden- City Hall (upper left), High Court (upper right), and Emmanuel Baptist Church (lower left). Many locals like to take a break, sitting and talking with their friends and family in the garden.

A few youths are playing football at Maha Bandula Park Street in front of Maha Bandula Garden.

The legacy from the colonial era is now abandoned. Many rundown buildings like this are scattered around Yangon downtown. Restoration of these buildings will definitely make Yangon a more attractive place.

At night, we went to Chinatown for our dinner. Chinatown is located between 18th - 24th Streets, west of Sule Pagoda. From our hotel,the taxi fare was 2000 Kyat (RM6.50 or USD2.20). With much expectation, we found that the most happening area was the night market with fruits, vegetables, food stalls, and exotic locust snacks. We were not locust lovers and had no intention to cook. So, we just tried a few types of street food, bought some fruits and delicacies, and left the market before 9 pm. 

We experienced a hard time to explain the location of our hotel to the taxi driver, even after we had showed the English written name and the address of the hotel. By showing everything we had in English, we were rejected by two taxi drivers, before the third, who could communicate in simple English, let us getting into his taxi. So, our advice, to move around Yangon, it will be better for us to bring along the information about our hotel in Burmese Language.

Locusts are popular snacks in Yangon (upper row). Roasted pork, chicken, fruits, and vegetables are widely available in the market.

Some said that we could communicate in Mandarin at Chinatown. Well, that's not what we had experienced. Nobody could understand Mandarin there. Only one old shopkeeper who could speak in simple Cantonese. Although some said that the night life in Chinatown might drag until 11 pm, we found that most of the shops were closed as early as 8:30 pm. The night market ended around 9 pm.

We did discover some traditional Chinese food, such as the pork on stick (upper left), dumpling (upper right), and some Chinese style delicacies (lower left)in the market. We tried some of these delicacies and bought some fruits and Chinese delicacies from the market.

We spent a total of three nights at Yangon. As far as we could see, Yangon's street was safe at night. We didn't get this sense of security from what we had read. We felt it by ourselves. Many places were safe because of the patrol. To our surprise, we didn't see any police at night in Yangon.

Well, we experienced another two power cuts before we went to bed. Well, that's our first day in Yangon. Second day, we visited Shwedagon Pagoda and Karaweik.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Getting Around Hanoi

Hanoi local people are friendly, helpful, but English is not widely used. Most people could understand very basic English. We experienced difficulty in communicating with some of the locals, struggling to find the best word, or to be more accurate, the best way to express ourselves. Lucky for us, HanoiKids had offered invaluable help during our trip around Hanoi. Our sharing about HanoiKids is available here.

Just a little bit more about HanoiKids, they are a group of local universities' students volunteered to be tour guides in Hanoi. They are very helpful and dedicated ambassadors. HanoiKids offer their service totally free of charge.

The information about HanoiKids is available on their official website at Please take note that there are several other websites providing misleading information about Hanoikids, e.g. and [This paragraph is added as requested by HanoiKids' member]

We found this fruit hawker using a very traditional scale to weight the plums for us (upper left). People in Hanoi are less sensitive to the camera, and have no issue posing for a total stranger (upper right). We saw a group of creative youth taking their group photo with their traditional costume in front of Royal Citadel (lower right). Have a sit at the road side and enjoy the nice food is a part of their live.

Place to Stay
Thirty-six streets all together. Highly crowded. pedestrians, motorbikes, bicycles, and cars are flooding the narrow streets. That's the Old Quarter area in Hanoi, that is a great place for the tourists like us to stay.

Different types of shops operate to cater the needs of locals, and support the tourism. Hotels are many. We stayed in Hanoi Old Centre Hotel at Hang Hanh Street. It is located in the heart of Old Quarter, about 50 meters away from Hoam Kiem Lake. We found other six hotels down the street of 50 meters. More were sighted further away.

Be noted that many of these small hotels are actually a part of the shop lots, due to the lack of space for the standalone building. Finding a place to stay in Old Quarter area should not be a big problem, while staying somewhere near Hoan Kiem Lake might be a good idea. Switching from one hotel to another is possible, as the choices are many. We were lucky to stay in Hanoi Old Centre Hotel. The hotel offered good service with remarkable low rate.

Hanoi Old Centre Hotel from the outside (upper left), the lobby (upper right), and the room for two (lower right). Free snacks and drinks were complementary.

At least six other small hotels are available down this street.

Be noted that the weekend night market (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night) is held from Dong Xuan Road to Hang Dao Road. It is located 50 meters away from our hotel, north of Hoan Kiem Lake. Shops around Old Quarter are categorized based on the location. Coincidence or not, shops located on the same street tend to sell same types of items, e.g. shoes at Lo Su and clothes at Hang Gai. Shops and hawkers selling food are scattered all around Old Quarter.

Based on our experience, the price of the items could be haggled, but not too much. We tried to press for 50% discount on a pair of sandals and 90% on a wallet, ended with disagreements. But we got 20% of discount on the souvenirs (fridge magnets and hand painted bookmarks) at the night market, much lower than the offer from the shops at Hang Trong Road. We bought 5 pairs of sport socks with 60k Dong (RM8.5), good quality with cheap price. Kelly and Livien bought a few clothes with good bargained price as well. Well, we would say that haggling within 20% is possible. To go beyond that, you might need to haggle more vigorously than us.

By the way, the night market at Old Quarter is lack in variety, dominated by clothes made by neighbouring countries. Some low quality fake items bearing well-known brands are available as well. Food was the greatest attraction to us there.

Night market at Old Quarter. Do expect a big crowd at the market.

Shoes on sale. The whole street is full of shoes.

Searching for something to bring back home at a souvenir shop.

Traffic and Transportation
The traffic is in total anarchy, but we adapted to it well, as we had experienced that before in several other places. Motorbikes are the king of the road. They are everywhere, driving in all direction without following the signage, and above all, many with no helmets on their head.

Be careful that not all the drivers are following the traffic lights. Many of them charge on green and never stop on red. The pedestrian crossing area is no different than any other places on the road. In case it is your first time experiencing this type of traffic condition, we would advise that a few demonstration from the others (the locals) might be necessary before you move on with you first crossing. What amused us was seeing a dog following the flock in crossing the road, twice. Too bad we didn't manage to capture the amusing moment.

We travel by foot for the places nearby our hotel, while taking taxi to access further places. Taxi is the most convenient mean to go around Hanoi, aplenty, cheap, and many of them are run by meter (Taxi Group and Mai Linh Group). A trip by trishaw or rent a bike can be a good idea too. During our visit, Hanoi was covered by haze, which effectively blocked much of the sunlight. We lost a clear blue sky, but earned more cooling and comfortable temperature to walk around by foot.

Motorbikes are everywhere. Bike rental is widely available. We saw trishaws roaming around Old Quarter area. However, we didn't really go for a ride.

Crossing this street here is the final exam for road crossing in Hanoi. Of course, not in the middle of the day, but during the opening hours of the night market.

Currency and Exchange
Believe it or not, get US Dollar from Malaysia and exchange the money to Vietnamese Dong at Old Hanoi Centre Hotel gave us the best rate, better than exchanging MY Ringgit to Dong directly in our country. Well, why not contact our hotel in Hanoi today for the currency exchange rate?

Most of the pricing are listed in Vietnamese Dong. We will be on the losing side if we insist to use US Dollar. Taking the taxi for example, from Women's Museum to St. Joseph Cathedral. The fare was around 18,000 Dong, or about USD 0.85. If we pay with US Dollar, the minimum payment is USD 1.

As far as we had explored, the streets around Old Quarter are safe, day and night. We didn't feel threatened nor uncomfortable on the street. In fact, the streets were quite clean during our visit. Surprisingly, we didn't see any beggar in our entire trip. That's rare for a big city like Hanoi.

We saw many interesting things on the street- tangling cables, motorbikes with all sorts of crazy loads (dogs, piglets, chicken, huge number of eggs, fruits etc.), and hawkers with formal attires are a few of them. Many travel agencies are available just a few steps away from hotels.

A small lane during the day time.

This is a scene of another street at night.

Food and Drink
Nobody will get starved in Hanoi. Food are everywhere. Well, it will be more fun if you are comfortable with the street food. Beef noodle, Vietnam coffee, and spring roll are highly recommended. Read our post about Hanoi's food here.

Please follow the links below for more about our experience in Hanoi and Ha Long Bay. Our next destination, Yangon and Bagan in Myanmar.

Note: We would like to thank HanoiKids's member to check on the information provided on this post.  

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Vung Vieng Fishing Village at Ha Long Bay

Second day on the junk. We woke up as early as 5:30 am, intended to catch the sunrise. The heavy fog disappointed us.  But, we didn't lose much, as we earned the layering view of islets created by blurring fog. The scenery was beyond description. The humming of diesel engine followed a few minutes later. 

Again we continued our journey through the gaps between ancient limestone karsts. We had only one place left in our itinerary- Vung Vieng Fishing Village. Sitting quietly on the deck, we snapped the beauty of nature, while enjoying the cold breeze in Ha Long Bay.

 Junk with picturesque lanscape as background.

 Fishing boat disturbed the tranquility of the reflection.

 Vegetation grow on one of the islets.

 Some areas in Ha Long Bay have high density of islets.

 Feel like in Paradise.

The small boat had shifted through a thousand hills (轻舟已过万重山) is best depicted by this photo.

 This is what we saw from the upper deck.
 Other Indochina Junks were gathering and moving forward to Vung Vieng.

 One of the fishermen that we encountered.

We reached Vung Vieng after our breakfast. The fishing village was built under government's initiative. The village has developed from a simple anchorage in early 19 century to more than 70 households now. The villagers moving around by boat, if they decided not to swim.

 We visited the small scale fish cultivation industry.

Then we visited the school of Vung Vieng. Tony was our teacher. He taught us a few Vietnamese words- e.g. "cam on" means thank you.

After visiting the fishing village, we were brought to witness the greatness of God's creation around the village on a bamboo made boat. We used the small boat to move around Vung Vieng.

Beautiful natural arch near the village.

 We went through a narrow passage to go back to our junk.

We couldn't hold ourselves turning our head around, tried to catch all the great scenery around us.

The rower was very helpful. She helped us to take several nice photos.

At the end of our trip, we were arranged to visit the pearl farm just beside the village. For us, the farm was small. A demonstration was done to show us how to insert the nucleus into the oyster (lower left). Pearl products were displayed at the souvenir shop near the exit. The prices for the items displayed  were quite high (similar to what we can get from Sabah). We stayed at Vung Vieng for about 2 hours.

We took our lunch on our way back to Ha Long City. This is our group photo with our tour guide Tony (white shirt at the middle), taken before we left the junk. He was helpful, friendly, and very good in kayaking.

We reached Ha Long City at 12:30 pm. Then, another 4 hours of journey back to Hanoi. Exhausted, but worthy. If you have the chance to visit Hanoi, we would recommend that you spare a day or two to visit Ha Long Bay as well. Ha Long Bay is truly a place that we should visit at least once in a lifetime. Spending a night on the junk is expensive, but worth it. 

Indochina junk has provided very good service to us. We had been given free drinking water, coffee, and tea, delicious food with non-repeating dishes for every meal, plus, caving, kayaking, and taking boat trip around Vung Vieng without extra charge. If we wish to list one thing in lack, then, it should be a free pearl necklace as souvenir, haha!