Category Archives: Myanmar

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Saving a Cultural Treasure: Htwe Oo Myanmar

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Category : Myanmar

The evening air was warm and sticky as we climbed the narrow stairs to Htwe Oo Myanmar Puppet Theatre. Honking traffic and pedestrian chatter fell away we were ushered into the cool, dark theatre. Dressed in a crisp maroon shirt and black longyi, Mr Htwe’s wide grin gave me a sense of his infectious energy and desire to preserve this cultural gem of Myanmar. 

Mr Htwe spoke with so much passion for his craft. He explained that while working aboard a ship, he realised that the pursuit of money would never end, and decided to follow his heart. After battling political instability, money troubles due to a crumbling tourism industry, and the after effects of Cyclone Nagis, Mr Htwe and his wife Mrs Oo finally opened the theatre. 

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The Performance

Htwe Oo Myanmar has cherry picked the best parts of traditional Burmese stories and opera for their shows. Mr Htee explained that Burmese opera can go for many hours, involving an enormous cast of both puppets and puppeteers. The story is engaging and action packed, and Mr Htwe ensures that all sections are translated or explained to his foreign audience. 

Told in traditional Burmese style, this classic tale of princes, princesses, villains and heroes also picks up on themes from Burmese and Buddhist mythology.  Brightly coloured sets and loud, powerful Burmese music complete the experience.

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The Puppets

Each puppet used by Htwe Oo Myanmar is hand made using local materials and local artists. Costumes are brightly coloured and incredibly intricate, often closely mimicking the costumes worn by Burmese royals and depicted in murals splashed across temples. 

Even more intricate is the system of strings and hand movements required to make the puppets move. The puppeteers make these characters come alive in the opera. From amazingly deft small movements to convey a thought or emotion, to acrobatics that would leave my attempts in knots. Watch for the moment in the show… you’ll know it – it took my breath away!

At the end of the show, the puppeteers bring out puppets for audience members to try their hand at. I discovered I am not destined for the puppeteer life. While I managed to get a few dance moves out of the marionette, they were far too jerky and static – much to the amusement of the Htwe Oo puppeteers. 

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The Passion

Htwe Oo Myanmar is overwhelmingly passionate about preserving and promoting the art of traditional Burmese puppetry. Mr Htwe and his troupe haven’t just travel the length and breadth of their home country. They’ve even traveled overseas to perform at cultural exhibitions and puppetry competitions. While supporting puppetry masters around the country, the company also aims to engage and educate a younger breed of puppeteers. Mr Htwe and Mrs Oo’s own children also participate in the shows as part-time puppeteers, picking up secrets from the company’s own master puppeteers. 

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Details – Htwe Oo Myanmar 

This show is an absolute must see when you’re in Yangon, Myanmar. Bookings are essential, and Htwe Oo ask that you book at least one day in advance. The theatre only holds a small number, so audiences are small and intimate. We booked our spot by emailing Htwe Oo – details below.

Htwe Oo Myanmar has moved to new premises at Ahlone Township, about a 15 minute drive from the Sule Pagoda.

No. 12, First floor
Yama Street
Ahlone Township, Yangon. 

Mobile: (959) 512 7271
Email: booking@htweoomyanmar.com

Website: http://www.htweoomyanmar.com/
Facebook: www.facebook.com/htweoomyanmarpuppetryhome

It’s about a 15 minute drive from the Sule Pagoda to Htwe Oo Myanmar’s new theatre in Ahlone Township.


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The Beauty of Street Food

Street food is one of my favourite things about travelling. I love different dining cultures and cuisines around the world, and I believe food is one of the greatest ways to learn about a country and its people.

Fresh and flavourful

Street food is delicious! I love the piles of fresh produce on the carts and tables; being able to pick your seafood from a pile of ice for cooking is pretty awesome. Dishes are whipped up continuously with amazing speed. Food is pounded, chopped, stir-fried and grilled, imbibing each dish with a unique flavour. Whether you’re a lover of charcoal grilled meat on sticks, stir-fried noodles or zesty spicey som tam, you will find something delicious to eat.

A lady making som tam bu at Fisherman's Village, Koh Samui.

A lady making som tam bu at Fisherman’s Village, Koh Samui.

No fuss

Street food is the great leveler. Here, no one is above another. Everyone sits on plastic stools of questionable structural integrity, at steel tables stabilised by a folded up beer coaster. Your food will arrive on newspaper, paper plates or communal melamine plates. Linen napkins? Not here, just a roll of tissue or toilet paper perched on the table. Stall holders will greet you with loud shouts of “sawatdee!” or “mingalaba!”. There’s no fluff and pomp, but there is cold beer and everyone is happy.

Plastic plates, stainless steel tables, beer and river prawns. What more could you ask for! 19th Street, Yangon.

Plastic plates, stainless steel tables, beer and river prawns. What more could you ask for! 19th Street, Yangon.

A bit of everything

You can find just about anything your heart desires at street carts and restaurants. Ice cream sandwiches? Yep. Noodles? All over it. Banana roti? You better believe it. All manner of stir-fried meat, tofu and vegetable combinations can be found on the street, and even fried insects are available in some neighbourhoods. Fresh cut fruit is popular – make like the locals and get green mango with sugar and chili flakes for a refreshing kick. Alternatively, grab an oyster omelette, the ultimate in greasy, heavy, salty deliciousness. Counterbalance it with some spicy som tam or grilled corn. There is so much to choose from, so make sure you pick a bit of everything!

Seafood galore at street stall in Ao Nang.

Seafood galore at street stall in Ao Nang.

It’s available at any time of day

If you know where to look. Street food vendors are an enterprising bunch, setting up shop outside hospitals, universities, and office towers. Come breakfast or lunch time, they’re a flurry of noise and colour as they serve up their wares with unbelievable efficiency. As the sun starts to dip, seafood restaurants pop up on the sidewalk as though the carts are spring loaded. Walking home turns into an obstacle as diners spread out on the pavement. After dark, you can find banana rotis and noodle stalls outside nightclubs and bars to feed hungry partiers as they make their way home. Late night/early morning pad see ew beats the pants off late night/early morning kebabs, trust me.

Late banana roti vendor on Khao San Road, Bangkok.

Late banana roti vendor on Khao San Road, Bangkok.

And the atmosphere…

One of the things I love most about street food is the atmosphere that surrounds it. Stall holders gossip noisily as they wait for customers. Some even nap balanced on their motorbikes! Its incredibly relaxed and social. Tables, chairs and plates are all shared, and people get together just to eat, drink and talk – non-stop! To me, there’s nothing better than digging into a pile of fresh cooked pad thai while the streets bustle around you, after a long day walking, sightseeing and shopping. Extra points for ordering in the local language, and assuming the local squat position on the footpath (which is harder than it looks!).

19th Street, Yangon is popular with locals looking to hang out, eat and talk.

19th Street, Yangon is popular with locals looking to hang out, eat and talk.

What’s your favourite thing about street food? Let me know in the comments below!


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Lessons on life in Yangon

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Category : Myanmar

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things” – Henry Miller

They say travel will change your life. They’re not lying. Travel will also change you. It will challenge all of your preconceived ideas, teach you about yourself, break your heart and mend it again. Some experiences you won’t forget, and others you’ll never stop thinking about.

We’d been kicking back in the shaded courtyard of Zawgyi House in Yangon, when a small girl’s face popped up over the wall.

“Hello, miss! Postcard for you? Where are you from?”
This tiny thing, with shining eyes and brilliant smile, was clutching a plastic wallet full of painted cards in one hand and the hand of a small boy in the other.
“Hello, miss! Would you like a postcard? Thank you for coming to my country! What do you think of Myanmar?” she chirped, like rapid fire.
“Mingalaba!” I called back, “I love your country – you are all so friendly and happy.”
She flashed me a dazzling grin as I bought one of her postcards and she skipped off down the footpath, the small boy in tow. I didn’t think much of it until a few days later when Patrick and I got separated from our mate John inside the maze of Bogyoke Market.

Maudreyou and her little brother, Ngenge.

Maudreyou and her little brother, Ngenge.

While we were trying to work out which direction we should head to search, the small girl appeared at Patrick’s side, tugging on his hand.
“Mister, I know your friend! I will help you!”
We waited by the main entrance and watched in awe as she took off back into the market and returned a minute later with John in tow. She introduced herself as Maudreyou – well, that’s my best guess at the English spelling – and her brothers Ngenge, the small boy from a few days before, and Keto, slightly older and cautious. After a whirlwind shopping trip through Bogyoke Market, where the children chatted non-stop and bargained fiercely for us, we offered to buy them dinner as a thank you, and they shyly accepted.

John shopping with Maudreyou and Keto.

John shopping with Maudreyou and Keto.

While we waited for the food, Keto and Maudreyou told us about their family and what life was like for them. It wasn’t a happy story. The family lived at the nearby Yangon train station, bribing the staff and police to let them stay. Their father was an army officer, who had been injured in conflict and promptly booted out by the junta. He couldn’t stand for long or walk long distances, and relied on the children’s mother to take care of him.  By day, the kids sold postcards and bamboo fans (and cigarettes in Keto’s case) to make the money they needed.

We all sat silent in a state of shock and sadness, as these three beautiful children devoured the noodles and rice they had chosen. John asked what we were all thinking – do mum and dad to have enough money to feed you? Keto looked embarassed and continued slurping down noodles. Maudreyou answered carefully – “we have food, but not as nice as this”. She beamed. I simply could not believe the happiness that radiated from this tiny being. After life had thrown at her, she was still so cheery and lovely. She wanted to go to school, to be a nurse, “or maybe a tourist person!” (tour guide, I think). She explained she liked talking to tourists, it helped her with her English. I was filled with hope and hopelessness; I wanted to help.

This sweet girl was so full of happiness, it was infectious.

This sweet girl was so full of happiness, it was infectious.

We ordered ice cream for them to share, and they stared at it in complete confusion. They had absolutely no idea what to do with ice cream… but I had never seen children eat ice cream as fast as they did once Patrick showed them. I realised at that moment, that I had unknowingly taken every single thing in my life for granted until that point. At the risk of sounding cliched, I had a bed and a nice inner city apartment, a good education, plenty of food and I was so incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to travel. I wasn’t naive enough to think that people did not live in poverty, however it was the first time I had been confronted with it in such a raw and physical form. What Maudreyou and her siblings did have though, was a loving family. Half way through our dinner, Mum and Dad arrived in a panic because the children hadn’t made their way home. They were incredibly grateful to find them sitting up at the table with us, chowing down on noodles and chicken.

Mum, Dad and their kids.

Mum, Dad and their kids. Keto had borrowed our camera and took lots of photos.

Truth be told, I was ready to adopt those children then and there. I wanted to take them home with me, give them a proper bed and send them to school. I wanted to sell everything I owned and move to Yangon, to do something – start a school, start a program to help Maudreyou, Keto and Ngenge. The situation these children were in, the exhaustion and despair written into the faces of their parents broke my heart. I was also angry that in a world where I could book flights on a mobile phone, there were kids like these three selling postcards to make a measly living. It’s hard for me to accurately put into words; I knew this occurred all over the world, but this was the first time the issue had been given a face, and a giggle, and a smile… and hopes and dreams. Since leaving Yangon, I have thought often of Maudreyou, Keto and Ngenge. I wonder what has happened to them, if they still live at the train station, or if they have gone to school. I am forever thankful to fate/karma/your preferred deity that I met them. Our encounter changed my life and my outlook on it, and I feel guilty that I didn’t do more for them.  When we return to Yangon later this year, I have all the hope in the world their situation has improved and the kids are happy and healthy.

Maudreyou, Ngenge and Keto.

Maudreyou, Ngenge and Keto.

The experience served as a reminder to me of what can happen if you are open while you travel. Talk to the locals, share in their culture, listen to their stories, maybe even share a meal with them. I can guarantee you’ll walk away with a different sense of the world, and at the very least, some amazing memories.


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Air Bagan or Air Mandalay? – Choosing a domestic airline in Myanmar

“Are you sure?”
“If you don’t book it now, I’ll change my mind!”
– Patrick checking for the umpteenth time that I was still keen on going to Myanmar.

That’s it, we were going. With one swift click, we sealed the deal on the second leg of our trip. Our confirmation and e-tickets promptly arrived in Patrick’s inbox. We would soon realise how much we took that for granted.

Having decided on our Myanmar itinerary – Yangon for three days, Bagan for two days and Mandalay for two days – our next debate was how we would travel between the three. Information on trains and buses seemed contradictory and given it was our very first visit to Myanmar and we have absolutely no idea what we’re in for, we decided to fly. Quicker, convenient and safer – we hoped.

Flying within Myanmar presented us with a choice of two airlines – Air Bagan or Mandalay. Patrick has a bit of a fear of flying, so his research into each airline was intense and thorough. Both airlines seemed to be privately owned, with very small fleets. Air Bagan has a fleet of five aircraft including one Fokker 100, two ATR 72 and two ATR 42; whilst Air Mandalay owns and operates three aircraft including two ATR 72 and one ATR 42.

Patrick quickly discovered that Air Bagan had links to the military junta and the U.S prohibits its citizens from dealing with the airline due to sanctions imposed by the U.S against the junta. Whilst safety records aren’t published freely, he spied an alarming amount of news reports about Air Bagan plane crashes.

Air Mandalay on the other hand read much better. We couldn’t find any mention of sanctions or links to the junta. There were less reports of Air Mandalay aircraft being involved in crashes (in fact, at April 2011, Air Mandalay had been operating for 16 years without incident – the only Myanmar airline to do so). Also worth noting for those trying to decide on an airline is Air Mandalay’s company profile in which the proudly and openly disclose the European standards their aircraft are maintained to, and that the fleet and maintenance hanger are inspected once a year by the Direction General de l’Aviation Civile (DGAC) of France. For us, the choice seemed obvious – Air Mandalay.

Booking with them was a whole other experience. Where we in the West can book and pay for an entire holidays in a few mouse clicks, it was rare to find a Myanmar company that has the ability to do this.

To book with Air Mandalay, we selected our desired flights (much the same as you would booking with Air Asia) and the dates we wanted to fly. Instead of being taken to the usual credit card details page, we were taken to a “Travel Booking Request Form”. Patrick filled out all of our details and clicked send. We were still unsure of what was happening. The page told us our request had been sent to Air Mandalay’s booking office and we would receive an email shortly. Sure enough, about an hour later Patrick received an email informing us our tickets had been reserved and instructing us that we would need to pay for and collect our tickets from Air Mandalay’s head office in Yangon.

What? No tickets in my inbox? Help! Whilst experiences like this are all part of the adventure, I would have felt a lot more comfortable if we had our tickets right away. Perhaps it is a symptom of my generation, or perhaps its my lack of travel-before-credit-cards-and-internet experience? All I know is e-tickets and the internet are the greatest invention known to mankind and I will never take them for granted again! I was tad terrified that they would lose our reservation, but was also slightly comforted by the knowledge that we are were the very first tourists to Myanmar and if it were too hard, nobody would bother.

On our arrival in Yangon, we asked our taxi driver to take us to Air Mandalay’s head office on the way to our hotel, so we could collect the tickets. We arrived at what could have been mistaken for an enormous white rendered house, and Patrick went in to pay and collect. After what seemed an extraordinary amount of time, John and I went to investigate (we had stayed with the taxi, basking in the heat and admiring this country we had come to be in). We found Patrick waiting patiently while the Air Mandalay staff hand wrote each of our air tickets. Hand written air tickets!

While Lonely Planet notes it is perfectly fine to book the tickets once you are on the ground in Yangon, I would argue that it is better to plan ahead and book/reserve your tickets online. Both airlines only run limited flights in the morning, as the hot air is too thin for the planes to take off later in the day. With the current tourist boom in the country, flights fill up quickly. If you are planning to fly on domestic airlines in Myanmar, save yourself a headache and book ahead. While we were picking up our tickets in Yangon, there were two backpackers trying to get on a flight the next day – already full, much to their dismay!

Side note – On 25 December 2012, Air Bagan’s Fokker 100, flying from Yangon to Heho, crashed on a road after mistaking the road for the Heho Airport runway in heavy fog and striking powerlines on decent. Two people were killed, including one on the ground, and 11 people were injured, including two Australians, two Britons, two Americans and a Korean. That pretty much sold it for us – Air Mandalay!

Who did you fly with in Myanmar? Have the online booking facilities been updated since our venture into Myanmar in 2013? Drop me a comment below and let me know.


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Shwedagon Pagoda.

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Category : Myanmar

When we decided to visit Myanmar, the Shwedagon Pagoda was at the top of my list. All the photos I poured over looked breathtaking, and I must admit I was not disappointed when I finally got to visit it in the flesh.

IMG_2838 The glorious Shwedagon Pagoda.

Our guide, Mr Oong, had a smooth dark skinned face and a beautiful wide grin. He greeted us in the Burmese way – traditional yet excited, with sentences like rapid fire – “Mingalaba! Thank you for visiting my country! What do you think? Today we will see the most important temple in Burma!”. As we walked from the visitor entry to the complex, he waved his arms and gestured to Patrick and John’s longyis.

“Longyis, yes! Very comfortable!”

Upon entering the pagoda itself, I was instantly overwhelmed. The stupa rose up before us, a mountain of dazzling gold, with maroon-clad monks and nun in light pink padding barefoot across the marble. People swarmed around the pagoda, edging past us effortlessly, making offering at different planetary posts (your planetary post is based on what day you were born on, thus also determining your animal, colour and planet), lighting incense and praying. Some applied gold leaf to Buddha images or twirled prayer beads through their hands. Men and women in longyis sat gracefully on the floor, praying, eating or talking to each other. The air was thick with incense smoke, and the sound of temple bells echoed gently around the stupa. It was so quiet, and yet so overwhelming at the same time.

IMG_2783 Locals pray at the pagoda.

The Shwedagon Pagoda is one the most beautiful places I have been. Everywhere you look, there is a Buddha figure or something glinting in the light. The stupa itself is crowned with a golden hti, an umbrella shaped crown, embellished with over 7000 gem stones, including rubies and diamonds. Oong explained that the hti is topped by an enormous diamond, around 70 carats. “You need binoculars to see it, but it is there! It was put there to catch the best light at sunset!” he grinned, making ‘binoculars’ from his hands.

This is a place which commands respect, which means you must follow all rules set by authorities. Men and women must wear longyis and shirts with sleeves. If you don’t have either, you will handed some when you arrive at the entrance hall. As with all temples in SE Asia, you must remove your shoes and leave them in the racks at the entrance. Socks are also forbidden – you must be barefoot. For this reason, it is best to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda in the early morning or late afternoon; the marble floor will become too hot underfoot in the sun otherwise. Entry will cost you $USD5 each, and is valid for multiple entries the entire day, including at night time when the pagoda is illuminated and seems to sparkle more than in the day time, if that were even possible.

IMG_2853 One of my favourite shots from the Pagoda tour. Our guide, Mr Oong is to the left.

Getting a guide is highly recommended, as they will be able to translate signs for you and explain the significance of each piece of the complex. They will also do their best to answer any questions you might have about the complex, Buddhist religion or Burmese culture. Our guide cost us 5000 kyat each and was well worth it.

Taxi drivers will know exactly where to take you if you ask them to take you to the Shwedagon Pagoda. Alternatively, you could take the number 43 or number 204 bus (learn Burmese numbers however, not much is in English!). Information and prices were current as at April, 2013.

 


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Visas are done, Thunderbirds are go! [flashback]

Category : Myanmar

Before we jet off to Thailand, here’s a post from my old blog about getting our visas when we went to Myanmar in 2013. Thankfully, Myanmar now has an e-visa option – highly recommend!

Our passports are back from the Myanmar Embassy in Canberra, all visas are complete. That’s it. There’s no turning back now!

This is the first time I’ve had to apply for a visa and if you follow me on social media, it’s no secret that sending my passport off to Canberra in the post is one of my least favourite things. Registered post is all well and good, but Australia Post managed to lose a university assignment I sent by registered post between my house and the campus – a distance of about 200 kilometers. Imagine what they could do with my passport between Brisbane and Canberra!

Visa requirements (for Australians) can be found on the Myanmar Embassy website, which in itself is tricky to find. It doesn’t come up in Google searches, but luckily we found a contact phone number for the embassy and got the proper address. We submitted everything, booking confirmations for all our accommodation and all domestic flights while in Myanmar. It was quite possibly overkill, but having read about Allan and Fanfan’s visa issues, I was more than happy to provide extra information. “Better to be looking at it, than looking for it” as my Dad would say.

Mugshot and Myanmar visa!

Mugshot and Myanmar visa!

After a couple of stressful weeks and a handful of phone calls to the embassy to check on the progress of our visas (the lady on the other end of the phone was so patient, thank you so much!), our passports arrived home last Friday. I admit I squealed and did a little jig when I opened it.

I did a lot of reading of blogs the last few weeks, and had only just days before our visas return read about Adventurous Kate’s Vietnamese visa being issued with an error on it. Once I’d finished my jig, I picked over our visas with a fine toothed comb. No mistakes, whew!

It’s all happening now. Only 25 days left… I’m about to start being really annoying to my friends and co-workers. Apologies!

 

This post was from 2013, before we left for our first trip to Myanmar. Myanmar now has an e-visa option making the visa process much easier!