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.

Chaya and Her Phuket

Apologizing for being a tad late, she led us to her car, which was double-parked in front of our hotel. She is Khun Kritchaya or Chaya for short, founder of Phuket Heritage Trails and a Phuket native.

Chaya-and-team.jpgChaya with my team

Spend a few hours with her and you will learn to appreciate Phuket. She talks about the people, its history and its food with a real passion for her town. In her little sedan, she drove us all over town proudly introducing her Phuket to us. She said she aims to promote the culture and history of her hometown in a responsible and educated manner, to present the essence and beauty of Phuket Town.

Tunk-KaOur first stop was lunch at an excellent local restaurant in Rang Hill overlooking Chalong and a bit of Phuket town. Rang-Hill-ViewTunk Ka Café is perched on the side of the hill and has managed to become an institution in Phuket since it opened sometime in the 1970s. Tunk-Ka-mealIt was an excellent sampling of local food in a beautiful surrounding with a magnificent view to boot.

From authentic Thai cuisine, we then moved on to a Sino-Portuguese house. Baan-ChinprachaAt Baan Chinpracha House, we had a peak on the lifestyle of the wealthy. Built in 1903 during Phuket’s economic boom from the mining industry. It is today a landmark as well as a cultural and historical center. family-photosThe property is still in the family and the current owner, a sixth generation descendant still live upstairs. Although occupied, the owner has opened up certain areas of the house to the public. chinpracha-kitchenThe ground floor somewhat acts as a museum.

Chinpracha-livingroomAs you enter the house, the living room greets with a little table and stools (reminiscent of that from my grandmother’s house, truth to tell). The main attraction and the most striking in the room, however, is the inner courtyard that opens to the sky for light and ventilation. chinpracha-courtyardA beautiful fish pond decorated with plants around it added to its charm. And I must say that it had me at the sight of the Machuca floor tiles.

Blue-ElephantNext door and another outstanding Sino-Portuguese house, the 100-year-old Governor’s Mansion is home to the Blue Elephant Restaurant and Cooking School, a famous cooking school from Bangkok.

Then we drove 6 kilometres out of Phuket town, passed a bridge to Ko Siray.  It is worlds away from the modern and swanky, teeming with sun-baked tourists of Phuket’s west coast beaches. swanky-resortsThis small island with magnificent hilltop views and scenic roads is home to the largest Sea Gypsy Village in Phuket. Sea-GysiesAlso known in Thai as Chao Leh, the sea gypsies are known to be the very first inhabitants of the Andaman coast regions of Thailand, Myanmar, and Malaysia. Due to their exposure to sun and sand, many of them have reddish colour hair. Facially, their features are quite different from the inhabitants of the lands they pass through. Today only a few thousand remains and only a small portion of them are still nomadic. sea-gypsies-happyThey live a simple life – they fish, they sell and they buy beer and they seem genuinely happy and content.

sea-gypsies-boat-makerI recall Chaya telling us how as sea people, they understand the behavior of the sea. During the 2004 tsunami where Phuket was one of the hardest hit, the sea gypsies were spared.  While the others stopped and observed, they ran straightaway to the hilltop for shelter when they saw the receding sea.

The island of Phuket is ethnically diverse and Thais are relative newcomers here. A flood of ethnic Chinese started coming from Malaysia and Singapore in the 1800s to explore the local tin mines.   Many settled in Phuket to run the mines and, later on, built the town hence the many shophouses in the Sino-Portuguese architecture similar to Penang’s Georgetown.shophouses The town today is a mix of of different ethnic race and scattered around the island are Chinese Taoist Shrines, Thai Buddhist Temples they call Wats and Muslim Mosques.temple Chaya’s itinerary had stops at a Chinese temple, a Buddhist temple and a fascinating nunnery where she temporarily resides at the time of the tour.nunnery

And before returning us to our hotel, we passed by Soi Romanee. This charming little street that connects Thalang and Dibuk Rd. is one of the oldest in Phuket Town. soi-romaneeIt was once stigmatized as a den of brothels and opium houses for the tin miners. Today, it is known as one of the most attractive lanes on the island as it was the first to be renovated. soi-romanee-guesthouseToday’s Romanee is a charming little street full of life and quaint little bars where you can sit and soak up the ambiance.   There’s even a jazz and blues performance that takes place on the last Sunday of each month from November to April.

Though few tourists linger here, the Old Town is one of the more culturally interesting places on the island. It is an intriguing mix of old and new, simple and sophisticated. Phuket Town is an infusion of current art, music, and food attracting a style conscious crowd, mostly Thais. Once reduced to an abandoned shell, shophouses and homes have been refurbished into restaurants, bars, and guesthouses that are worth exploring and discovering.

And with this, I wish you all a Happy Hearts Day!

Ubud

I’ll drop everything and hop on a flight with you just at the mention of the word. Ubud is one of the places I go to recharge (read my old post on Ubud here). The cultural heartland of Bali, surrounded by rice fields and lush greenery, is my place of rest and inspiration.

lush-greeneriesIt’s a town about 300 meters above sea level so it is comfortably cooler than the rest of the island. The main reason Ubud appeals so much to me is because it feed my needs. In Ubud, I get to relax, be artistically inspired by its art and culture, enjoy the good (but not necessarily expensive) food and be in the midst of nature.

architectureThis town in the middle of Bali has been known for over a century as an artist village, a cultural center that draws those who seek crafted treasures and/or architectural inspiration. The cultural and traditional art in Ubud were preserved because when it became a Dutch Protectorate in the 1900s, the colonialists didn’t interfere much.

art-sceneIt was only in the 1930s when the Royal family encouraged foreign artists to Ubud did the modern era began in Ubud, eventually creating a dynamic art scene. Consequently, a treasure trove of museums and galleries now call Ubud home.

retail-therapyUbud is a haven for shoppers, truth to tell. Monkey Forest Road, Jalan Raya and Hanoman Streets are strips of retail therapy treats – from beautiful arts and crafts, local designer clothes and jewelry to unique housewares and antiques.

warungIt is also home to restaurants, cafes and warungs (local eateries), and a foodie’s haven. The whole island, in fact, has an exciting culinary scene and Ubud is right up there.

gastronomic-delight-At first glance, Ubud seemingly may consist of local eateries but it has its fair share of creative restaurants featuring a fusion of different cuisines. Every visit, I discover new jaunts but try to revisit one or two favourites.  More on Ubud Eats here.

rice-fieldsNature lovers will love the countryside feel of Ubud. Cafes and lodgings surrounded by rice fields abound.

resortThe view of the rice field from our resort, Munari Resort and Spa.

While birds and animal lovers will enjoy an afternoon in either the Monkey Forest or head out to Putulu Village for some white heron (kokokan) sightings.

Monkey-ForestThese herons, thousands of them, have inhabited the trees of Putulu since 1965.

white-heronsThey return to rest at around 6 pm every night so it is best to go an hour or so earlier, find yourself a warung and enjoy a few drinks of cold beer while you wait.

The one lure that calls out the loudest and the one I truly look forward to is the pampering. You can’t walk more than a few meters without passing a spa.

massageGetting a daily massage is a norm in an area swarming with spas – a traditional Balinese massage one day, a Javanese Lulur Scrub another and what about a four-hand massage or coffee scrub for that special treat before going home?

Ahh… just writing this post had me yearning for another de-stressing visit to Ubud. Sigh…

Hanoi’s Charm

Lake-2

One reason I love Hanoi is this stunning lake. Serene, spellbinding, and picture-perfect – makes for a pleasant walk, and you will definitely walk by it more than once a day.  And because the Old Quarter surrounds it, it is a good reference point when navigating the city.

The-Old-Quarters

Hoan Kiem Lake is the heart of Hanoi.  Everything happens around it, from early morning workouts (think yoga, tai chi and even aerobics) to old men whiling away time playing mahjong and vendors selling their stuff.

Fruit-Vendors

crippled-vendor

shops

Not to mention the wandering tourists that flock to this mesmerizing lake. Never a dull moment in this part of the city, that’s for sure.

What makes the lake so smashing is the striking red bridge called The Huc Bridge leaping out of the serene blue-green water.

The-Huc-Bridge

It connects the shore to the Jade Island on the northern coast of the lake.

jade-island

On the island stands the Ngoc Son Temple (the Temple of the Jade Mountain).

Legend has it that in the mid 15th century, Heaven sent Emperor Le Loi a magical sword, which he used to battle against the neighboring countries, driving away the Chinese from Vietnam. When peace prevailed, a giant golden turtle grabbed the sword and disappeared in the depths of the lake (named Thuy Qua then) inspiring the name Hoan Kiem , which means Lake of the Restored Sword.

lake-3

lake-4

Streets of Hanoi: The French Quarter

The-French-QuarterCredits: 

Ba Dinh District also called the French quarter is a pleasant interlude from the chaos of the Old Quarter (especially if you are staying in the Old Quarter like we were).

tree-lined-boulevard

The area is home to wide tree-lined streets, French colonial buildings,

posh-hotel

posh hotels, fancy restaurants and swanky shops.

swanky-shops

On our way to lunch, we walked through Trang Tien, the main artery of the French Quarter, walking pass (but never entered) the famous ice cream store, Kem Trang Tien.

Trang-Tien-Street

Elegant French style buildings and villas replaced the old Vietnamese buildings in this section (as the name suggests) when the French occupied Hanoi in the last 19th century.

Opera-House

At the end of Trang Tien, on the August Revolutionary Square, the Hanoi Opera House, stand proudly as an architectural, political and cultural symbol of the capital.

Lunch at Au Lac House along Tran Hung Dao was a pleasant default. We were headed to La Badiane (which we never got to try but came highly recommended) but were unfortunately closed for the day.   The reason is a blur to me now but because we were there during the Lunar New Year, it could be because of that, but I digress.

Au-Lac-House

So, just a few steps away from La Badiane is Au Lac House, a large French Style garden house built during the French colonial period restored into an elegant dining venue.

Bun-Cha

snails

The food was Vietnamese Specialty (a sudden mind-shift from the expected French lunch at La Badiane) and quite impressive too.  Truth to tell, Vietnam is always a gastronomical delight whether it be hole in a wall or high-end.

spring-rolls

You can walk through the different stations with your server and point and choose and the food will be prepared and served accordingly.

Au-Lac-interior

The beautiful house and stunning interior with old photographs were icing on our cake.

Useful Info:

Au Lac House13 Tran Hung Dao

Opera House:  1 Trang Tien, Hoan Kiem

The Streets of Hanoi: Old Quarter Immersion

The capital of Vietnam and perhaps one of Asia’s most nostalgic. A sleepy town, Hanoi is not. On our arrival at midnight, the street was still or maybe already bustling with flower vendors unloading flowers for transport. The alley near our hotel, though seemingly winding down, scatters with people. And, of course, during the day, it is chaos.

coming-from-all-directions

Motorbikes, bicycles, cars, peddlers, and pedestrians whiz by in different directions, honking, and pushing.

street-of-hanoi

I anxiously brave through this confusion at first but comfortably got into the groove. “Just walk in a steady pace, do not stop.” We were advised. “Speeding up or stopping confuses the driver and you might end up getting bumped.”

traffic-at-the-plazaWe like watching this organized chaos from the balcony of a coffee shop .

Somewhat similar (but not as crazy) to how we Filipinos cross our streets and highways, actually.

flower-seller

Hanoi is noisy, busy and clogged with motorbikes as it is serene, cultured and delightful.

tranquil-lake

The tranquil lakes, excellent food scene, beautiful architecture, the old quarter and colonial architecture offset the madness.

excellent-food

This wasn’t my first time to Hanoi but coming back was something I knew would happen again and again. Seven years and I notice some changes, more charming boutique hotels for one and the night scene has gotten more packed. But many has remained the same.

We stayed in the Old Quarter, a nice boutique hotel in an alley too narrow for cars.

Le-Beaute-de-Hanoi

This district is the soul of Hanoi where travelers go to immerse in its historical labyrinth of 36 streets, each named after the trade it specializes in.

Lady-peddler

Similar to Morocco’s markets, streets in the Old Quarter are named Silk Street, Herbal Medicine Street, Appliance Street, Blacksmith Street, etc… you get the drift.

Why? The Old Quarter became a crafts area when King Ly Thai built his palace there after Vietnam’s independence. Not long after, craftsmen clustered around the palace according to their skills. These artists who worked and lived close together formed their respective cooperatives and the streets consequently earned its names, according to skills.

lacquer

These rows exist to this day and still buzz with commerce.  You can find about anything from the traditional down to the knock-offs.

Buzzling-commerce

Another quirk that remained unchanged:

extends-out-to-side-walk

The people of Hanoi do a lot of their living and working outside of their small tube houses or stores.

parked-motorcycles

And they make use of the sidewalk, which, of course, is also where they park their motorcycles and bicycles. People tend to walk along moving vehicles… on the street.

traffic-at-night

With its idiosyncrasies and all, Hanoi is easy to love. Stay with me and you’ll see why.