48 Hours in Ipoh

 

CollageThough still pretty much under the radar, this sleepy town is fast becoming a foodie and adventure destination. On our way to Penang, we stopped by Ipoh in Perak to see what some travel enthusiasts are raving about. We arrived on a Sunday and lo and behold, half of Ipoh was indeed asleep. Shops and quite a few restaurants were closed.

sleepy-town

Steep limestone cliffs flank the capital of Perak, some with cave temples pocketed in the limestone. The state of Perak has much to offer regarding outdoor activities such as white water rafting and jungle treks. Although we skipped that as a previous injury prevented such activities, for now, we will perhaps go back one of these days to explore that part of Perak.

traditional-eatery

We spent the two days centered on the food and exploring the old town with a side trip to Batuh Gajah, just 30 minutes out of Ipoh.

Ipoh is shaped by the 1920s tin-mining boom, its wealth and population however ebbed away after the mine’s closure. It is now better known for its excellent food. Perak’s most beautiful colonial architecture stands side by side with shabby coffee shops.

Old-Town-White-Coffee-shop

We had a blast sampling their food specialties and discovering some fine street arts that scatter around town.

Nga Choy Kai

The first thing we did was to sample Ipoh’s quintessential dish that is bean sprout chicken or Tauge Ayam.

kway-teow-noodle-soup

It is essentially kway teow (flat rice noodle) soup,

Steamed-Chicken

poached juicy and tasty chicken and the most delicious beansprout I’ve had.

beansprout

Lou Wong’s, as recommended by the hotel and some reviews, serves one of the best. As with many of the traditional eateries in Ipoh, Lou Wong was unpretentious with round tables and stools and no aircon. We were there early, but the place was packed not long after we were seated.

Street Art

wall-art-in-market-Lane

Wandering through the lanes of Ipoh’s old town reveals a scattering of stencil art murals. Some quirky and easily spotted while others are subtly woven into the streetscape.

mural

A few were done to decorate establishments. While there are some pieces done by Zacharevic, the mural artist that started Penang’s street art scene, other artists have joined in the scene as well.

Han Chin Pet Soo Museum

A guided tour of the museum will provide a good insight into the history of the Chinese in Ipoh. Originally the house of the Hakka Tin Mining Club founded in 1893.

gambling-set

The unique museum has on display artifacts, collectibles, and photographs from the 19th and 20th century. This gives you a chance to step back in time and see how the Hakka tin miners were tempted and tormented by the 4 evils, which were Opium, Gambling, Prostitution, and Triad.

mural-han-chin-pet-soo

The founder, Leong Fun, arrived in Penang penniless in 1876. With a lot of luck and hard work, he found success in the tin mining industry. Since “Towkay” Leong Fu found the exclusive membership club, it has always been a place of mystery to non-members. Although it has opened its doors to the public now, the entry remains to be special as it is by appointment only.

Appointments can be made via the website or by queuing at the door.

Ho Yan Hor Museum

Ho-Yan-Hor-and-Hand-Chin-Pet-Soo

This two-story shophouse is right beside the Han Chin Pet Soo Museum and belongs to the Ho Family of the famous Chinese Herbal tea brand, Ho Yan Hor. Following the successful restoration of next door neighbor, Han Chin Pet Soo, the family decided to open the shop after it was left vacant for so many years and had ipohWorld run its tours.

ho-yan-hor-owner

Also steeped in history, the visit will reveal the brand’s rise to popularity. Complimentary teas for tasting cap the end of the tour.

Concubine Lane

Concubine-Lane-from-Han-Chin-Pet-SooConcubine Lane in between the two structures as seen from the balcony of Han Chin Pet Soo.

The same “towkays,” mining tycoon Yao Tet Shin, in particular, said to have given away 3 lanes as gifts to his 3 wives. These are Wife lane, Concubine Lane, Second Concubine Lane.

concubine-lane

Concubine Lane or the 1st Concubine Lane is the one that has transformed into a hip street in Ipoh with cafes, boutique hotels, food, and souvenir stalls.

hip-street

Kellie’s Castle

Kellie's-Castle

Two days is really not enough to explore all of Perak. With the limited time that we had, we decided to pay Kellie’s Castle a visit.

Kellie's-castle-ruins-2

The unfinished ruined mansion built by a Scottish rubber plantation owner named William Kellie Smith is located just 30 minutes away from Ipoh. The castle has Scottish, Moorish, and Indian influences and had multiple passageways.

Kellies-Castle-living-room-reolicaA replica of what the living could have been.

It was intriguing and eerie to wander around the ruins. It was never completed because Smith suddenly died of pneumonia in Lisbon. His wife, Agnes later packed up and left Malaysia with her children and never returned.

Kellie's-Castle-ruins

She sold the castle to a British company. The only thing left of the home is the covered walkway, an open courtyard, and part of a crumbling wall. Kellie’s castle has been refurbished and was even used as a set in the 1999 film Anna and the King.

A friend mentioned that a foodie will always find their way to Ipoh and Penang, but I say that a non-foodie who loves adventure and history will find Ipoh to be worth a visit. But definitely go for the food.

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Yangon: A Quick Stop-Over

Delays. An annoying reality but unavoidable in today’s world of traveling. And due to this, we didn’t see much of Yangon.

Holy Trinity Cathedral is an Anglican cathedral found on Bogyoke Aung San Road next to Bogyoke Aung San Market. A beautifully preserved church left behind by the British.

Too bad because Yangon is known for its colonial architecture, which although decaying remains an almost unique example of a 19th-century British imperial capital.

Restaurant in Yangon has mushroomed in the last ten years. A combination of British, Burmese, Chinese, and Indian influence means that a delicious host of cuisines can be found here.

With limited time in the former capital, we found ourselves wandering the streets and ended up on 19th Street in Chinatown for a late lunch.   On this street, little restaurants and barbeques stands sit side by side to choose from. We randomly entered a snack bar where there was a Lonely Planet logo that has “appear” below it.

We shared a plate of Roast Myanmar Beef and Fried Chicken Wings at Kosan 19th Street Snack and Bar and downed it really cheap Mojitos. Lonely Planet didn’t really disappoint. It was pretty good for the price.

Dinner, on the other hand, was a platter of charcuterie, cheese and spreads with wonderful homemade bread.

A pleasant surprise, I must say. We went back the next day before heading to the airport and had more of what Sharky had to offer. A Myanmar legend, Sharky’s Restaurant and Deli served artisan food made from locally farmed ingredients. Know more about Sharky’s owner, Ye Htut Win here.

That was how I will remember Yangon, at least for now.  And this ends my series on my travel to Myanmar.

Keeping Ancient Traditions Alive

Spending the New Year abroad is always a treat, no matter what. Some more interesting than the others, I admit. This trip to Myanmar fell right smack on New Year— in Bagan sans the usual fireworks.

new-year-dinner

It was celebrated via a cultural program, which began with a puppet show during dinner.

puppet-show

It was similar but, in my opinion, better than the Mandalay performance.

guests-playing-with-puppets

Since the 15th century, puppet shows were used to entertain the Burmese royalties. Skillfully carved puppets that look like human substitutes were made to move and dance gracefully on stage thanks to the skills of the puppeteer.

The night progressed to a few more exhibits before the countdown. No fireworks, just good old fashion fun.

Chin-Lone

We were asked to move to the garden to watch a group of men kicking a rattan ball – demonstrating what I know as Sepak Takraw.

Chine-Lone-2.jpg

It is known in Myanmar as “Chin Lone” and is considered more of an art (although it is the country’s national sport), as there aren’t any opposing teams but they rather play as one team. Men, women, and children often play together.

elephant.jpg

 

Followed by an elephant dance. Similar to that of the Chinese’s Lion dance, two men together dance in rhythm.   And the most bizarre show I’ve witnessed so far — a snake dance that involved an adult and a kid, which had me worried all throughout. I mean, he is just a kid after all.

snake-dance.jpg

 

 

Yes, it was a unique “end of the year” celebration, so to speak.  But we had fun.

A belated Chinese New Year greetings to all. Here’s to the Year of the Dog.

Temple Hopping on E-Bikes

With thousands of age-old temples, Bagan’s Archeological Zone is Myanmar’s Must-See. Although it is not yet recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to poor management strategies and legal frameworks, it still is a sight to behold and not to be missed.

hot-air-balloon

To explore, one can choose to go by horse carriage, car, balloon, bike or an electric bike. We chose the latter (for a change).  It’s like riding a motorbike, except that the battery is charged by electricity and a fully charged battery will last for 8 hours (more than enough to get you by for the day). It can go up to 40km/h making your way to the destination quicker than riding a bike. And besides, foreigners are not allowed to drive motorbikes or scooters in Myanmar making e-bikes the popular choice.

E-bike

So at 9AM, right after breakfast, our guide talked Anton through the mechanics of operating the bike, which is basically like driving a scooter. And then we discussed the day’s itinerary and requested that we start the route from the end – our way of avoiding the usual crowds. That was how we found ourselves (alone) in the midst of temples and stupas sprawled across the Bagan plain.

temples-spreadout

guideOur guide

Lying on the bend of the Ayeyarwaddy River, spanning 26 square miles, Bagan was once an ancient city that was the capital of the prosperous Bagan empire that dates back to the Christian era. At the height of the empire’s power, more than 10,000 temples and pagodas were built. Over 2,200 temples and pagodas still exist today.

Starbeam-Bistro

In between pagodas, we had a delightful lunch at the Starbeam Bistro, and we likewise managed to visit a market (my all-time favorite activity).

market

pya-tha-da

Our first stop and closest to New Bagan, where we were staying, Pya Tha Da had a fantastic panoramic view of the area and is said to have one of the best sunset spots around.

view-from-the-pya-tha-da

We didn’t get to see it, but we luxuriated in the sight all by ourselves.

Thatbyinnyu-Phaya

Thatbyinnyu Phaya, our next stop after lunch, is one of the highest monuments.

Thatbyinnyu-Phaya-up-close

It towers above other temples nearby and can be seen from much of the Bagan plains.

Thatbinnyu-from-PyathadarThatbyinnyu Phaya from Pya Tha Da

Ananda-Temple

Adjacent to it is the Ananda Temple. Considered to be one of the best surviving masterpiece of the Mon Architecture and one of the 4 surviving temples of Bagan.

Ananda-Temple-door-detail

Ananda-Temple-details

Well preserved and most revered, the impressive temple has been called the “Westminster Abbey of Burma.” This is my favorite.

Shwezigon

Last but not the least is the Shwezigon Pagoda, a Buddhist temple in Nyaung-U, a town just outside of Bagan. A prototype of Burmese stupas, it’s circular stupa is gilded in gold leaf. Among the 4 important temples of Bagan, Shwezigon is the most essential reliquary shrine of Bagan.

Other temples seen only from afar:

DhammayazyiDhammayangyi Temple
Gawdawpalin-templeGawdawpalin Temple

First Impressions

It started in this guesthouse, my fondness for Mandalay, where we were greeted with grace and elegance.

Big-rooms-at-Mama's

The tastefully built B&B has three floors of spacious rooms and a dining area on the roof deck.

hallway-at-Mama's

Once owned by the mama, Wyn and wife, Sue, now run the place. With her immaculate English and years of experience, mama still plays host and entertains with grace. We asked for a good referral on where to eat, and mama volunteered to prepare our first meal in Mandalay and truth be told, hers was one of the most memorable of our ten days in Myanmar.

Meal-at-Mama's

Talk about first impressions.

With half a day to explore the city, we decided to explore the area on foot. Good idea as we were able to witness every day Mandalay life unfolding walking along 62nd street.

pedestrian

street-food

The 2nd largest city and the last royal capital of Myanmar, Mandalay is not exactly pretty at first sight, but its charm grows on you as it slowly reveals itself.

planter-on-the-side-of-the-roadInnovative plantbox sighted along the roadside.

It’s a relatively new city, built in 1857 when King Mindon was trying to re-establish Burmese prestige after the country’s defeat in the 2nd Anglo-Burmese War. If you take the time to explore, there is much to be enjoyed. You’ll need at least two days.

The 62nd Street led us to the Shwenandaw Monastery.

Shwenandaw-Kyaung-2

Made entirely from teakwood with intricately carved façade, the monastery also known as Shwenandaw Kyaung provides one of the most exceptional examples of traditional 19th-century Burmese architecture.

traditional-19th-century-Burmese-architecture

This is the only surviving structure from Mandalay’s Royal Palace. King Mindon initially used the building as his personal apartment and died here in 1878.

Shwenandaw-Monastery

His son worried that his ghost still resided there dismantled the structure and transported beside the Atumashi Monastery.

Atumashi-Monastery-2.jpg

While most of Mandalay is flat, Mandalay Hill (where the city took its name after) offers a stunning bird’s eye view of the city. We planned to walk up the hill, but we were tired of walking, so we hailed a taxi instead to take us to the lift (one could scale up the 240-meter hill by taking the long stairway up to the summit).

view-from-peak

At the peak is the Su Taung Pyei Pagoda. On its terrace, people stay to wait for the sunset and take in the panoramic view of the Mandalay plains, how expansive the city is.

crowd-waiting-for-sunset

sunset-from-mandalay-hills

The pagoda itself I find gaudy with over the top mirrors that sparkle and shine at every turn and the LED lights that adorned the Buddha shrine.

Su-Taung-Pyei-Pagoda

On our way back, we passed Mandalay Royal Palace, as time prohibited us from entering the palace, we admired it from the road.

Mandalay-Royal-Palace

When the taxi driver dropped us off at the restaurant recommended by the guesthouse, he made us take a photo of his contact details. I found it amusing and very enterprising.

taxi-diver-contact

Traditional dinner and a puppet show after capped our first day in Mandalay.

tea-leaf-saladThe very traditional and iconic Tea Leaf Salad (must try!)

mandalay-beer

Traditional Burmese puppetry, called Marionettes, is an art form using wooden puppets to entertain Burma’s royalty.

puppet-show

It also served to communicate news, stories and moral lessons to its people. Today, as with many cultures, it is a dying art.

Tomorrow, we explore more of the beautiful outskirts and downtown of Mandalay.

 

 

 

 

Mingalaba

I approached the guy holding a sign with my name on it. “Mingalaba (hello),” he greeted and then led us to a Toyota Corolla. The first thing I noticed (aside from it being an old car) was the right-hand steering driving on the right-hand side of the road. Before we even reached the guesthouse, I was already helping him navigate the road (making sure the blind spot is clear of any passing cars – haha!). And that, my friends, was my introduction to the world of Burmese driving.

Burma, also known as the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, where the landscape scatter with golden pagodas, and where more than 100 ethnic groups live. Under the rule of the oppressive military junta for almost five decades, exploring this nation can feel like you’ve stumbled into a bygone era as it has remained a rural country of traditional ways.

Expect to be dazzled by Myanmar as it steps out of its checkered past. With tradition deeply rooted in the philosophy of Buddhism, Myanmar shimmer with gilded temples and stupas, flourishes with emerald-green landscapes, beautiful lakes, and lush tropical forest but most memorable are the encounters with its gracious people ready with warm smiles and eagerness to introduce their country and culture.

Follow me as I cast my mind back to the beautiful ten days wandering around the different cities of Myanmar.

Of Snows and Hot Baths

In the middle of Daisetsuzan National Park, nestled in narrow scenic gorge flanked by cliffs,

abundant hot springs, powerful waterfalls,

and fantastic rock formation is a full-scale mountain resort town called Sounkyo.

It has become quite touristy because it is an excellent base for trekking and skiing around the National Park.

From late January to the end of March, the town hosts (you guessed it) the Sounkyo Ice Waterfall Festival (Sounkyo Onsen Hyoubaku Matsuri).

The highlight of this festival is the frozen waterfalls along with the man-made, multi-story high structures that have a maze like tunnels running through them, all built around the Ishikari River.

Snow domes and ice sculptures likewise scatter around the compound.

Heated quarters with warm drinks and food here.

And even if logic tells you to stay indoors due to the severe cold weather, make sure to be there at night


The Ishikari River runs through the festival.

or miss out on the spectacular lights that illuminate the whole place come sundown. On weekends, you’ll be lucky to witness fireworks too.

Us in an ice bar display

The best way to end the evening is to thaw off at one of the many hot springs found in town. At the Sounkyo Kanko Hotel, we went for the spacious outdoor bath at the back of the hotel. Crazy it may seem, but because this open-air bath is unisex, it was wonderful to be sharing this experience with the hubby. Getting ourselves to walk the short distance from the dressing room to the pool in skimpy clothes provided by the hotel was unimaginable, but once in the hot bath, it was nirvana. This being the last stretch of our Hokkaido winter holiday, it seemingly melted away all the frozen kinks in our body, accumulated over the past days.

Ahh… Always a good experience, this bathing in the snow.