Thursday, January 31, 2013

Myanmar at a Glance

Usually when I travel, I fell in love with the inhabitants  before I fell for the place. In Myanmar's case, I fell for the place first. =)

Myanmar has just in the past two years opened its doors to welcome tourists in. Before that there were merely 100,000 tourists per year. Now it's a booming economy with almost a million of tourists flocking its hot spots per year. Nevertheless, I'm pretty sure that Myanmar is still not quite ready for tourists. This has been quoted in a news clipping I saw on its local TV. haha! The Myanmar tourism industry has a lot of room for improvement but they are certainly on the right track. =)

Myanmar... Burma... whatever you wish to call it is a beautiful place! Clean and has very friendly people. And it's pretty safe too. I didn't bother locking up my bag when I walked the streets of Yangon or at any other cities I've visited which is Bagan and Inle. Discriminations on local Muslims? Haven't witnessed nor experienced any. But lemme share some pointers to get around Myanmar though I'm no expert.

1. Transport

Every city/town in Myanmar is well connected. You could go from town to town by train or bus, airplane or boat even. But the route my friends and I took were like this:

18 hours of no fan/aircon and electricity! 

  • Train from Yangon to Bagan (16 - 18 hours) - USD 50 (link 1, link 2, link 3)
  • Bus from Bagan to Inle (6-7 houts) - 10,000 Kyats
  • Bus from Inle to Yangon (12 - 13 hours ) - *USD 20
All buses from Inle to Yangon are at 4 pm if from the town itself, else you'll have to go to a bus station 30 minutes at the outskirts for the 5 pm bus. Not to worry, there are many buses available. Just need to inquiry early to see if there are seats available. 

2. Local tours or guides

We were traveling in a group of four so it was pretty easy to book a whole boat or car for a day tour around town. This was what I seldom experienced during my solo travels. We could even set the time to depart and when to end. Haha! Thus we managed to capture a sunset in Bagan and a sunrise in Inle. It was truly a group effort. I don't think I'd be able to do it if I was to travel solo. *a hindsight =)

The golden Shwedragon Pagoda complex in Yangon.
  • Yangon - hired a cab for a few hours and negotiated on the price. A cab was hired for 15,000 kyats and he took us around major tourist spots within Yangon... especially the Shwedragon Pagoda.
  • Bagan - the driver who fetched us from the train stations ultimately became our tour guide for that day.  We paid him 50,000 kyats. We also took a boat ride in the Irrawaddy river for an hour which costed 7,000 kyats.
  • Inle - The tour was booked via the hotel we stayed at and it started around sunrise for 35,000 kyats (If I'm not mistaken lah. hahaha) 
3. Hotels and Wi-Fi

Internet connection in Myanmar is pretty bad. haha! But in case you managed to book a good hotel with wi-fi availability, then you're in luck. 
4. Couchsurfing in Myanmar?

Not possible. Locals are not allowed to host any foreigners or they'll be punishable by law! So don't think about it. But meeting with a local is highly possible if only you could fit it into your tight schedule that is. hehehe

5. Shopping
Cute Myanmar dolls being sold in open markets at Inle Lake.
Postcards are easy to come by but fridge magnets are not. Sobbb.... sobbb...  You could also find precious stones and buddha images at the open markets. Local wear is also available. 

6. Halal Food

This is possibly the most asked question. I've been told many times by colleagues who've been to Yangon that halal food is hard to find. On the contrary, there are plenty of them if you looked long enough. haha!

1,800 kyats bought at a street market in Yangon
But likewise in Bagan and Inle. I guess you have to make do with Maggi, seafood or be a vegetarian. =)

7. Currency Used in Myanmar

You can pay some hotels, tours, and souvenirs with dollars. But food is paid with Kyat (the currency of Myanmar) The best rates so far is at the airport of Yangon. Difficult to find elsewhere but some hotels provide exchange at their counters. Do take note, they only accept Singaporean dollars, Australian dollars and US dollars to change with Kyats. Leave all your ringgit Malaysian bills at home ya! =P

OK, this is all the info I have to blog about. Will have to wait for the awesome pictures from the other #myanmargang ms fie and ms lily to update their blogs. Hehe.


Friday, January 18, 2013

Couchsurfing in Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

My official training in Delhi has ended. I didn't stay long at the hostel to see my training mates go back to their own countries one by one. It was depressing to know that I'll be left alone.

All alone. In INDIA! *gasps

This only means that my survival instincts were heightened and I had to be more careful. All I knew was that the road ahead was uncertain and most probably dangerous. I was a woman traveling alone in a country where rape cases were a norm. That pretty much spooked me up a bit.

So I started my journey with Bismillah and took off by train to Jaipur.

My CouchSurfing Host : Hussey

FYI, couchsurfing is a volunteer-based worldwide network connecting travelers with members of local communities, who offer free accommodation and/or advice. My first couchsurfing experience was in Yogyakarta. =)

Prior to my flight to India, I've sent requests to two potential hosts in the CouchSurfing website. One in Agra and another one in Jodhpur as I was planning to head there right after my training. I had to cancel Agra because I went there with my training organizers and the host in Jodhpur never replied. Sobbbb..

Then suddenly out of the blue, a host from Jaipur requested to host me. (Well, there were a dozen other requests that Indian hosts sent me but this one particularly caught my interest the most). As I read his couchsurfing profile and his rave positive reviews from his previous guests, I decided to give it a try. And off I went to Jaipur to stay with him and his family.

My host's name is Hussey. =)

We promised to meet up at Jaipur's railway station and then hop on a bus to his home. I was met with this view from the rooftop of his humble home at Amer. Amer is located at the outskirts of Jaipur and very near to the majestic Amber Fort. I was given a room by myself and was lent a blanket and a towel. That was more than I can ask for. And for that I was grateful and delighted!

The building on the left is the community's mosque. Only motorbikes, elephants and people passed through these dirt passageways. =)
I felt very welcomed at Hussey's home and also at his neighbor's home. Sometimes his neighbors would come-by to kidnap me and we'd attend a religious session with their head of the family. It is held every night after Isha'. I remembered being asked to read out load some verses from the holy Quran to a room of strangers. Haha. My readings were then corrected and rehearsed once again until it sounded right. Adehhh.. it was a bit embarrassing though. But experiencing it, I know now how it feels to be in a Muslim family outside my country. I felt enlightened.

The friendly  neighbors (above picture) and Hussey's family (below picture)
And voilla... another picture from the rooftop of Hussey's home. I just like taking picture from there. Hehehe. This time it faces the opposite side where we could see a big wall of China-like structure which in fact is Amber fort! Monkeys too!

Great Wall of China.. in Jaipur. Hehehe
I liked that sometimes for dinner, Hussey's mom and sisters would cook roti (looks like capati) using the traditional way as shown below. But most times they'd just use the gas stove in the kitchen.
Burn some wood and let's start cooking!
I actually overstayed my visit. From the planned two nights... I stayed three nights thus cancelling my plans to Jodhpur. Haha! Maybe because I was scared to go on alone. Or maybe because I just wanted to spend more time with these lovely people where I felt safe and welcomed. ^__^

The many faces I met during my stay in Amer. 
And another thing, having a ride to almost all the places of interest around Jaipur also tempted me to stay a wee bit longer than expected. hehe.

I hereby introduce you my new brother of Jaipur, Hussey and his motorbike!

Taken during our way up to Tiger Fort. 
The list of places I visited throughout my stay in Jaipur is saved for another blogpost. Till then.... good bye!

Friday, January 11, 2013

Delhi Sight Seeing with Hop on-Hop off bus Service

On my ninth day in Delhi, I finally had the chance to tour around Delhi on a bus. Yes, a bus. Shockingly, a Delhi bus has made headlines these couple of weeks because an Indian woman was savagely gang raped while riding on one. Thankfully, I experienced nothing of that sort.

Alhamdulillah. Maybe because the bus are ridden mostly by harmless tourists? Maybe... =)
HoHo (Hop on-Hop off bus) in Delhi. Colorful!
This service is provided by Delhi Tourism. It enables locals and foreigners alike to easily discover every facet of Delhi from its medieval myriads to its modern wonders. My coordinators helped arranged for us to go on this Hop on-Hop off Bus Service on a Sunday. Inclusive a few bumps along the way, we managed to board the bus outside the INA metro station at 10 am. The first stop is called Dilli Haat (food and craft bazaar)  and pictured as number ONE in the heart of the route map below. 

HoHo bus route. We started our journey from Dilli Haat and headed upwards. (source) I purposely edited the map to show the places I went . hehe.
The bus followed the green route and I was told that the bus fare costs 600 Rupees for foreigners and valid for only a day. (this information will be revised once I get the facts straight. hehe).

The second stop for us was the India Gate. We missed some places because time was running short. =)

Stop number 2. India Gate

This marks my second time here and my first time can be read here. This time I went with my fellow training mates. Adorable huh? There were guards near the barricades and they stood motionless and in silence under the hot sun, even as we took pictures with them.

Tshering (left) and Radeep standing with the "imperial" guards. Hehe. 
Stop number 3 - The Lotus Temple

It also known as Baha'i House of Worship. It is the latest of SEVEN edifices raised in different parts of the world, each with its distinctive design, each inviting people of all religions and races to worship the Creator of the Universe and to express the love between God and men.

I eventually did enter this building, took a seat and sat in silence, as I prayed in my heart along with hundreds of others from different religions. No pictures were allowed inside but it was serene and peaceful inside. =)

At the entrance of the Lotus temple. Radeep and I.
Other lotus temples can be found in the countries stated below:
  • Apia, Western Samoa
  • Sydney, Australia
  • Kampala, Uganda
  • Panama City, panama
  • Frankfurt, Germany
  • Willamette, USA
Baha'i House of Worship, Bahapur, New Delhi, India.
The design of this building is inspired by the lotus, the symbol of purity that is inseparably associated with worship and religion in India. It is surrounded by nine large pools of water which plays a significant role in the natural cooling system of the prayer hall. No wonder it felt so nice inside!

Stop number 4 - Qutub Minar

This was the only place in India that I successfully entered using a local price. (20 rupees). And I didn't even used a local aide! My friend of Maldives had a distinctive Indian look about him and he managed to buy the local tickets for both of us! He said only a few words (since he knows no Hindi). As expected, the officers in charge at the entrance didn't even glance at the tickets when I came in. Haha!

Alai Minar. An unfinished building inside the Qutub Minar complex. I have no idea what it is until I googled for it. LOL.
Alai Minar was abandoned because the king who initiated it died and his successors didn't bother to continue it. What's left is only the first storey of the building and if it was ever to be finished, it was supposed to double the height of the Qutub Tower. Meanwhile, the Qutub Tower; also known as Qutub Minar, is the tallest minaret in India and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Intricate stone carvings on the cloister columns at Quwwat ul-Islam Mosque, Qutb complex, Delhi are seen on the pictures at the left side. Upper right is the unfinished Alai Minar and below is the famous Qutub Minar. =)
Other marvels in the vast Qutub Minar complex can be read here. I didn't stay long enough to explore all of it! Sobbb.. sobbbb...

We finally ended the bus ride at Dilli Haat and went down. But we didn't end there. We went into the open bazaar just a few meters away and later on boarded the metro to shop at Rajiv Chowk. that would be in another post i guess? Or should I just blog about Jaipur? Hehe.


Thursday, January 3, 2013

A tourist bus to Agra, India

I was planning to go to Agra after my training is done but lo and behold, I didn't imagine the training coordinator had plans for us to go there during the weekends. Bus included.

We weren't able to use the government bus as it was on the weekends and not on official duty. Haha. So they rented a tourist bus for us. And I was very, veryyyyyyyyyyyyyyy happy! (This change in itinerary have helped saved me a lot of time and money) The Agra trip was on held on a Saturday, 8th of December 2012.

And this in fact helped to accomplish No. 44 on the 49 journeys you'll never forget list published by CNN Travel. =)

"44. New Delhi to Agra, India 
SMT: Tour bus
Define “tour bus” anyway you like, but the roads out of Delhi are so much nicer when someone else has to drive them. A mere 200 kilometers southeast of this madness takes you to Agra and that checklist-notching date with the Taj Mahal. "

The writer was right. The bus ride from Delhi to Agra was pure madness!!! The vehicles don't stick to the road lines, the drivers simply love pressing their horns (beep! beep! Almost every minute!) and our driver in particular, had Hindi music blasting loudly in his bus. He also had this weird looking ornament in front that's full of tiny lights.

Thankfully, we arrived at Taj Mahal in one piece... four hours later (because we stopped for breakfast, it usually takes less than three hours). =)

Once we got down, we all got on this camel carriage as seen below to get to Taj Mahal's entrance. They charged us per ride and not per head. Somebody helped pay for this so I don't know the price. Hehe.

A camel ride to Taj Mahal from the parking lot. It was actually not that far! We could actually just walk! Grrr!
Taj Mahal entrance tickets:
  • Locals - 20 rupees
  • Foreigners - 750 rupees (what the hell kan?)
But it was worth it!
Clockwise from upper left - Flower carved unto the marble (outside wall of Taj Mahal), Darwaza or Main Entrance to Taj Mahal, the interior design of Darwaza's ceiling, and Taj Mahal.
You could pretty much see the complete layout of Taj Mahal complex below. We came from the "main entrance" as pictured in the below picture and went through Darwaza where we first caught a glimpse of the magnificent Taj Mahal.

Taj Mahal is noted as the "tomb" on the far right of the picture. (source)
Once we have reached the tomb, we were required to put a cloth-like cover on our shoes. For some, they prefer to open their shoes instead. 

The layout of Taj Mahal. (source)

To enter the mausoleum complex, one goes through the main gate, called darwaza. The tomb is at the far end of the garden. It sits on a podium, or plinth. At each of the four corners of the plinth is a minaret. On both sides of the tomb is a pair of buildings that are mirror images of each other. The one on the left (west) side is the mosque. The one on the east side is another building that is the mirror appearance of the mosque, called the jawab.

Clockwise from upper left - a minaret, delicate exterior design, the mosque at the side, and the 3-D effect on one of the corners.
Well, I wouldn't want to explain what Taj Mahal is... because you could read it yourself here.  I'm only gonna blog about the pictures I took. Hahaha! *maaf, aku pemalas.

And so that ends our day trip to Agra and to Taj Mahal. We headed home after stopping by for late lunch and caught a sunset on the way back.

Adios Agra. Till we meet again. =)
Next site visit is the Delhi sight-seeing trip on the next day. More on that in my next blogpost. Bye! ^__^