48 Hours in Yangon, Myanmar

Jetstar has great non-stop fares between Singapore and Yangon. We booked one way flights for less than S$100 each (for timing reasons our return flight was on SilkAir – Singapore Airlines’ sister airline). Our flight was scheduled to leave Singapore at 5:15pm and land in Yangon at 6:30pm (Myanmar is on a weird time zone that is one and a half hours behind Singapore).

The flight was about two and a half hours long but we were late getting out due to bad weather. Once in the air, the flight was fairly uneventful.

It was dark when we landed, and there was little to see out the window. A friend at work had told me the Yangon airport is very modern (built recently in partnership with Thailand), so I was a bit surprised when we disembarked directly onto the runway.

Once inside the terminal, we joined the long, disorganized queue for Immigration.

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Immigration line at Yangon International Airport

The line was not as bad as it first looked, and we waited for only about 25 minutes before our turn came. Entry to Myanmar requires an advance visa which we obtained in Singapore the week before (this is a fairly straightforward process for Singapore residents but does involve some planning and a bit of time).

There was a visa on arrival booth at the airport in Yangon but it was unmanned when we arrived. Also, it may be limited to select nationalities, so check before you plan your trip.

Once through immigration we changed US and Singapore dollars into Burmese Kyat. I had read that the currency exchanges only accept US dollars, Euros and British pounds, so it was nice to find a place that took Singapore dollars.

The line for customs was disorganized, sprawling and vaguely reminiscent of Cameroon. Everyone’s bag, regardless of size, had to go through a single scanner manned by two men who were both distractedly playing on their phones. Amy and I were able to bypass what would surely have been a long wait by simply cutting to the front of the “line” and throwing our bags on with a Burmese family.

Once through the terminal and outside, we approached two youngish looking men in official uniforms. “Taxi?” I asked and one of them blew a whistle and a taxi appeared before us. We negotiated the price to our hotel before getting in, 10,000 Burmese Kyat, or about eight US dollars. I did not see any formal taxi lines. The ride to the hotel took about half an hour.

It was Amy’s birthday weekend so we were staying at one of the city’s nicer hotels, the Park Royal Yangon. Hotels in Yangon, unlike Thailand and Vietnam, are expensive and our hotel, with breakfast included, was almost twice the rate we would normally expect to pay in one of those countries.

I was surprised to find that the Park Royal, unlike similar hotels in the area, had a metal detector and baggage scanner at the entrance.

Security at the hotel lobby

Recently remodeled, our hotel room was clean and spacious with a comfortable bed and large bathroom. Our view was not much to write home about though.

 

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View from our hotel window

Saturday

The morning haze brought back bad memories of Singapore last October (luckily, this haze was largely gone by early afternoon).

After breakfast, we showered and changed and then climbed into a taxi for a short ride to the Yangon Heritage Trust, the meeting point for our morning walking tour. The cab ride was delayed a bit due to a morning procession of monks requesting alms.

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Buddhist monks on the streets of Yangon

Our walking tour left from the Heritage Trust’s office next to the Yangon Port Authority (our taxi got lost trying to find the right building).

The tour is $30 per person (fairly expensive for Myanmar) but we were told proceeds are used for preservation and conservation of Yangon’s poorly maintained historic buildings. The heritage trust is also working to transform the urban downtown of Yangon by promoting a revitalized, cleaned up city with more green spaces and a friendlier river front. There is little progress right now but our guide seemed hopeful that the new government, once fully in power, will be amenable to positive change.

The tour was a great introduction to the city and its troubled past through the prism of architecture. There were only two other people on the tour with us – both US expats.

We heard about this government building which was partly destroyed in 1941 by Japanese bombs. Little has been done since to restore it to its pre-war glory.

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Government building still in use today

Remarkably, many of the city’s rundown buildings (including the one above) remain occupied – either by small business owners or residential tenants.

We ventured inside this building which is occupied by several small law offices, lots of families and, disturbingly, hundreds of giant rats. See if you can spot them in the second picture amongst the basement’s garbage.

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A historic building in downtown Yangon falling apart
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Rats!

Based on their size, there doesn’t seem to be any shortage of food to scavenge.

Many of the buildings were constructed during the country’s British occupation prior to WWII. Unfortunately, many of these buildings have been poorly maintained. Architecture styles ranged the full gambit from Art Deco to neoclassical.

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Art Deco building in downtown Yangon
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Neoclassical columns
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View from the city’s downtown park

The tour left us off at Bogyoke Market (formerly known as Scotts market).

The tour ended around midday and the heat was becoming oppressive (93 degrees Fahrenheit or about 34 Celsius). Although only a few blocks away, we decided to take a taxi to the Musmeah Yeshua synagogue.

The synagogue is the only one of its kind in a city that has just five Jewish families (excluding expats). At one time the city was home to over 3,000 Jews.

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Entrance to the Yangon Synagogue

We visited on a Saturday morning and were told the synagogue only hosts Friday night services now. The previous night only three people showed up, not enough for a minyan (the quorum of ten Jewish adults required for certain religious ceremonies).

inside the synagogue

After visiting the synagogue, we walked to 999 Shan Noodle, where we had a cheap but delicious meal of Burmese noodles. Popular on trip advisor, the restaurant had more tourists than locals. 999, its popularity well deserved, was clean, efficient and served a great meal.

By our glutinous western standards, the meal was rather small (similar to hawker dishes in Singapore) and so we headed over to the historic Strand Hotel for high tea.

There were two options: a traditional British high tea and a more local Burmese choice. We split one of each.

British high tea

 

Burmese high tea

We booked a food tour of Yangon for dinner. At 6:00pm, our tour guide James met us at the hotel, and after brief introductions, we headed to Chinatown via taxi. We were the only ones on the tour.

James took us to a small restaurant and we sampled a range of local Burmese foods. Of particular note for me was the fried tofu made from chickpeas instead of soybeans and the sham noodles (sticky rice noodles similar to 999). Similar to Thai cuisine, many dishes in Burma include peanuts.

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Final stop on the food tour
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local beer

James was informative but not overly friendly. It was a bit like an awkward three person first date with stilted small talk: so what do you do in your free time? How did you get into this line of work? Etc. etc.

The food was all good though and it was nice having someone who could order for us and explain the local dishes. We went to four restaurants / food vendors in total. My favorite was probably a sidewalk fish stall in Chinatown that reminded me of the fish mamas in Cameroon. The fish was lightly seasoned and grilled perfectly.

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fish from a street vendor in Chinatown

We also enjoyed this local dessert which was reminiscent of Chendol from Penang, Malaysia.

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Colorful dessert

Yangon is a different city at night – much more vibrant, active and colorful.

Yangon at night

Sunday

In the morning we ate breakfast at the hotel – I was pleasantly surprised that many of the hot dishes were new. I also explored the hotel and discovered a large state of the art fitness studio and two bars.

We left for the iconic Shewdagon Pagoda shortly after breakfast. The Buddhist temple is the tourist highlight of Yangon and it was especially crowded while we were there. This was partly due to the presence of a large cruise boat in port.

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The tourists were still outnumbered by the local Burmese who came to the temple to worship and socialize at the famous pagoda.

The pagoda has a strict no shoes or socks policy and knees must be fully covered. I was required to purchase a traditional Burmese dress which i personally think looked quite flattering. I received a lot of positive feedback from locals and westerners alike (or at least that’s how I’ve chosen to interpret the laughs and pointing).

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New outfit
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matching

After the pagoda we went back to Scotts market and wandered through the Byzantine stalls, eventually purchasing a local acrylic impressionistic painting depicting Yangon in the rain.

We ate at one more local restaurant that served Sham noodles and  other traditional dishes and then headed to the airport for our SilkAir return flight to Singapore.

A few other notes and thoughts on Yangon:
-The people were by and large friendly and helpful. At the market we found very few pushy salesmen – instead they were often reserved and rather shy.
–  lots of stray animals, especially dogs roaming the city. The pagoda was crawling with cats.
– In contrast to other Southeast Asian cities (e.g. Ho Chi Minh and Bangkok), there were almost no motorbikes in the downtown area. We were told this was due to a long standing ban instituted by a former city general. Although this generally results in a less chaotic downtown it also has the unintended consequence of increasing the number of cars on the road and by extension exacerbating the already bad traffic situation.
– The taxis are all unmetered and fares should be agreed prior to departure.

Cameroon – Part 1 (Travel to Douala)

Amy’s sister Michelle is in her final year as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Eastern Province of Cameroon, Africa. This past July, Michelle traveled back to the United States for our wedding in Washington D.C.  It was during our time together in D.C. that the three of us, along with Amy’s dad, made our first tentative plans to visit Michelle in Africa. Six months later, after lots of planning and many vaccinations, we were finally ready for our trip.  This is our story.

This is part 1 of my experience: travel to Douala, Cameroon.

Getting there:

Amy went home to Boston for Christmas but I stayed behind in Singapore. Consequently, we were not able to travel to Cameroon together. Our plan was to rendezvous at the Douala airport on the 27th of December.

Getting to Cameroon from Singapore is neither cheap nor easy. I booked my round trip flight on KLM / Air France (the only airline that flies to both Cameroon and Singapore). My itinerary to Cameroon included a long daytime layover in Amsterdam and an overnight stop in Paris.

My fully flexible, but also very expensive economy ticket was the only option available when I booked my ticket in late October. However, the ticket came with certain advantages including the ability to upgrade to business class at steep discounts if availability existed at check-in. This came in handy later on my flight back to Singapore (a flight that was much longer than expected due to an emergency landing in Romania – story to follow).

There were other, cheaper options to get to Cameroon from Singapore, but they generally included even more stops (in not so nice cities) or otherwise long flights on small, uncomfortable planes. One option that I considered but ultimately dismissed was to fly from Singapore to Istanbul and then from Istanbul non-stop to Cameroon. However the second leg of this journey included a 9+ hour flight on a single aisle 737. I decided to pass on the Istanbul route.

Finally, I had never been to Amsterdam and the KLM / Air France route would give me almost a full day in the Northern European city.

My flight to Amsterdam was uneventful. The half empty plane left just after midnight on December 26th. After takeoff I moved to an empty row, stretched out along three seats, popped a prescription sleeping pill and slept for almost nine hours (a personal record). The sleep was neither restful nor relaxing but it made the 14 hour flight far better than I’ve come to expect from similar long-haul trips.

After waking up I was served breakfast (I was starving after sleeping through the earlier food service), watched several episodes of How I Met Your Mother and before I knew it we were landing in Amsterdam.

We arrived in Amsterdam early in the morning and EU customs only took a few minutes. I had done a poor job of planning for my layover and had little idea of how to get to downtown Amsterdam or what I should do once there. I had, however, read about the luggage storage area at the Amsterdam airport and found the large lockers in the airport’s basement extremely convenient. After storing my bag I headed out of the main airport. Luckily the airport is connected directly to the train terminal and I quickly bought a ticket and was on my way into the city.

Amsterdam was cold, overcast and largely empty when I arrived.  I tried to make the most of my time in the city though: I visited the Anne Frank house, took a canal boat tour and wandered through the red light district (although it was still early and the streets were largely deserted).

 

Not many people out the morning after Christmas in Amsterdam.
My flight to Paris did not leave until after 8:00 pm but around midday my jet lag began to catch up with me and I decided to head back to the Amsterdam airport. At the airport my exhaustion and fatigue were overwhelming and I did my best not to fall asleep and risk missing my flight.

Thankfully, I had booked a room at the Charles de Gaulle Hilton in Paris. My flight from Amsterdam was unremarkable and after arriving in Paris I stumbled to my hotel, took a long shower and fell asleep.

The flight to Douala, Cameroon was scheduled to leave Paris at 11:00 am.  My father-in-law was flying from Boston via Paris.  After suffering through the long customs lines at Charles De Gaulle I found him already seated at the gate.  We grabbed a quick bite to eat and it was soon time to board.

I had, somewhat naively I suppose, assumed that Douala would not be a popular destination and I expected a somewhat empty plane.  I was wrong. Every seat on both the flight to Douala and the flight back was filled. The Air France entertainment selection was good and the six plus hours passed in a blur of movies and TV shows. In no time the pilot came on the intercom to announce that we were beginning our descent into the city. My seat was in the middle section of the two aisle 777, but I did my best to strain to get a view of the city through the window as we approached the airport. The first thing I noticed was the smog and smoke. It looked, from the air at least, like there were fires throughout the city. A not so auspicious first impression.  Later, I learned these fires were from people burning their own garbage, something that happens not just in Douala but throughout the country.

As the plane was continuing on to another destination, the flight attendants announced that passengers would have to show their tickets when exiting the plane to confirm they were at the correct destination.

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Our Air France plane at the Douala airport
We disembarked through a dark jetway and emerged into a very basic airport gate. The walls were corrugated and opened up to hot outside air.

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First view of the Douala airport
I had no real expectations for the Douala airport but I had read and heard from Michelle that it serves as an intimidating and not so pleasant welcome to the country. We quickly passed through a health inspection station where a woman took only a cursory glance at our WHO vaccination books to confirm we had the requisite yellow fever immunization. There was no real line for this, so it would have been easy to circumvent this check.

The customs “line” was next. This resembled more of a crowded concert, with people pushing to the front, than any sort of organized line. While waiting to pass through customs, the flight from Brussels arrived and guess who we ran into. . .

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Amy waiting for her luggage at the Douala airport
The baggage claim at the airport was chaos.

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Luggage was piled up all over the place
After more than an hour of waiting, Amy and her Dad finally retrieved their bags (I had not checked mine) and we headed outside.  It was a relief to escape the airport.

Just outside the Douala airport, first night in Africa
See part II of our trip to Cameroon here.

On my way to Brunei

This afternoon I will be flying to the tiny country of Brunei for work.  This will be my first trip to the country and also to the island of Borneo. Unfortunately, I may not have much time for sightseeing as I’m scheduled to return tomorrow evening.  I will update this post once I return.

Update: I have returned from the haze-free and mostly sunny country of Brunei. Although the trip was short (I was barely there for 24 hours) I was able to visit many of the city’s more prominent attractions (mostly a few very ornate mosques). Travel outside of the city, to the country’s rainforests and famous caves will have to wait for another trip. 

My flight from Singapore to Brunei was on Royal Brunei Air, the country’s flagship (and only) airline.  

 
As an uneasy flyer to begin with, my anxiety level was elevated at the prospect of flying an airline I had little knowledge of. Despite the plane being a bit old, the flight proved to be generally pleasant. The seats were comfortable with ample legroom (especially compared with some of the budget airlines in the area), and the flight attendants went out of their way to make you feel comfortable. The flight was relatively short at just under two hours but food service was still provided. Unfortunately, the food was the one drawback of the flight. I had a rice and chicken dish that was even less appetizing than it looks. 

 
I would have enjoyed a drink to calm my nerves on the flight but Royal Brunei Air, like Brunei itself, prohibits the sale and consumption of alcohol (although non-Muslims may bring small quantities of alcohol into the country, provided it is not consumed in public). 

This was also my first flight with a pre-takeoff prayer following the safety briefing. The Islamic prayer was projected over the plane’s drop-down video monitors and I believe was in Arabic (although I could be wrong). There were also two sets of subtitles with one in English and I’m guessing the other in Bahasa Malay.  

Strangely, rather than finding the prayer off putting, I actually found it somewhat soothing, but then again that might have just been the anti-anxiety drugs (notice the plural) I took before leaving. 

I was lucky to be shown around Brunei by one of my work colleagues who was born and raised in the country. He picked me up at the surprisingly large and modern airport in a big Toyota Camry. Sitting in that familiar car with the sun shining down, I watched the palm trees pass as we drove out of the airport, their large branches swaying in the afternoon breeze. From my slumped position in the backseat, I could have been forgiven for suddenly feeling fourteen again, freshly landed in West Palm Beach, and on my way to my grandmothers house. 

Despite being shown around the country by a local, I’m still not sure what Brunei cuisine exactly entails (or at least what, if anything, sets it apart from popular Malaysian dishes). During my short visit I can list out what we ate:

  1. Burger King at the airport 
  2. Authentic…Malaysian food
  3. Starbucks
  4. Japanese – mostly very fresh sushi 

Before leaving I was taken to one place for a taste of local Nasi Lemak (a coconut rice dish generally found in Malaysia and Singapore). The “restaurant” was simply someone’s house where you order from an opening in the living room window. 

Me ordering local Brunei Nasi Lemak from someone’s house
 
The food was certainly good, but aside from the presence of a red (pickled?) vegetable, I’m not sure how it differentiated from the Malaysian version of the same dish. 

New Zealand – The South Island

Last Friday Amy and I took the only non-stop flight from Singapore to Christchurch, NZ. The plane left at 7:50 pm and arrived at 10:40 am in New Zealand. We left a grey, haze covered Singapore in hopes of a little blue sky and sunshine. Unfortunately, Christchurch was cold and raining when we landed. I managed to get a little sleep on the plane, but not too much.

Devastation from the recent earthquake

From Christchurch we drove east through mountains to reach the beautiful Banks Peninsula. I won’t bore you with all of our activities but they mostly entailed hiking the lush green hills surrounding the water (see pictures below) and a wildlife cruise to see a rare species of dolphin that only exists in these waters.

We ran into a few sheep at the top of this hill

  

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We also took part in a tour of a natural penguin habitat in a cove abutting the Pacific Ocean.

Nesting penguin
 
Enjoying the cool spring weather
Lots of sheep
I bungee Jumped off of this platform in Queenstown
Hike and wine tasting outside Queenstown

Purpose

The purpose of this blog is twofold: first, to chronicle and document my life abroad (from the mundane to the exceptional) and second, to provide a simple platform where I can share my thoughts, reflections and personal observations on everything that makes up the daily grind of life.

On the second point, let me say upfront that I don’t have high hopes for any groundbreaking epiphanies. My aim is much smaller. I only want to tell the truth. At least the truth as I see it.  So this is probably the appropriate place for an Eminem quote:

“I can’t tell you what it really is
I can only tell you what it feels like”

This is a place to share what I’m feeling. Even if what I feel, more often than not, is all wrong.