Monday, March 23, 2009

21. Free & Easy To Yangon, Myanmar in Mar 2009

Yangon is a very interesting and safe place full of history. But you must be energetic enough to walk along the busy roads downtown. There are magnificent old colonial buildings for the Immigration and Passport Offices and the Marine Departments.

There were a few Caucasian tourists seen during my December trip. Such tourists usually appreciate history. Yangon was also under British administration and many massive buildings used by the administrators are now government offices. I did not enter any of them as I was not sure whether it was out of bounds to tourists.

Just stroll downtown Yangon and you will know what I mean if you love history and architecture. Young Singaporeans may be just interested in shopping but there are many sights of the old Singapore to see.

Most visitors to Myanmar are Thai tourists coming as they are Buddhist pilgrims and there are several thousands of pagodas and temples all over Myanmar to visit. Apparently there are 426 cities and towns in Myanmar according to one person I spoke to. According to the same source, there were 400,000 tourists in 2008 - a large drop from 500,000 due to Cyclone Nagris. An increase in tourism will provide employment for the young people and help to increase their standard of living.

I was surprised to see street vendors selling cooked pork with lots of lard and oil. In old Singapore, I was brought up to appreciate pork belly meat as it was a luxury for most families in the 1950s.

The Singapore Health Promotion Board Officials will definitely shake their heads vigorously when they see the picture of the street vendors selling high cholesterol pork meat deep fried and oily.

After meeting a Singaporean who has lived in Myanmar for several years, he suddenly said: "Singaporeans find it strange that there are vendors selling high cholesterol pork meat. Many locals do not eat meat often and the pork meat with lots of fat is very filling." I used to enjoy eating lard too. I loved the can of pork belly meat with porridge but now as a senior citizen, I have to restrain myself.

As at March 2009, the estimated cost for a free and easy visit to Myanmar, 3 days and 2 nights and Silk Air are:

1. Hotel: 4-star including breakfast
Grand Plaza Park Royal Hotel: S$619
Sedona $649
Trader $669

2. Airport Taxes $28 + $86 = $114

Total will be 1+2.
For example: 3 Days 2 Nights by Silk Air, staying at Yangon's Grand Plaza Park Royal Hotel will cost around S$733.
3. Visa Fees for Permanent Residents and Work Permit Holders in Singapore $70

4. Visa requirements: 3 photos for passport tourist visa.
Some agencies want a tourist indemnity letter.

For more information:

Asia USA Realty (S) Pte Ltd
Singapore Travel Agency Licence No. 01800
Contact, tel +65 9668-6468, 9664-0404 (air ticketing)

Friday, March 13, 2009

20. Myanmar's "Mount Olympus" is Mount Popa

Dec 28, 2008
From Bagan Airport, my family reached Popa Mountain Resort in the evening. The mountain air was fresh. Dinner was at a restaurant before we reached the Resort. Our driver said that the food was less expensive and better at a hotel halfway up the mountain to the Resort. A waitress with a bald head served us. I asked my guide whether she was a nun. Do nuns work as waitresses in Myanmar? My guide asked her. She said, "No, I am not a nun. I was living in the nunnery for 7 days." I don't have the word for her action - getting enlightenment? Lots of fresh vegetables served during dinner to my delight. This area has fertile soil with ashes from Mt Popa some 250,000 years ago when Mt Popa was an active volcano.

At Popa Mountain Resort, guests stay at the wooden bungalows with high ceilings. It luxurious accommodation, so much different from living in the average small hotel room in the city. Tall green trees, starry nights, tranquility.

A big group of German and/or French tourists were already having breakfast. There were local families with their children at the breakfast balcony. Maybe around 100 people as this was a time of recession.

The Popa Mountain Resort has several wooden bungalows with high ceilings built to merge with the slopes of the mountains. Spacious bedroom with balcony facing green forests. No mosquitoes. Fresh air. Tranquil nights. For romantic couples from fast-paced cities like Singapore, a 2-night stay will be great.

Mt Popa, 1500 metres or 5000 sq ft is in the right of the picture. A most important worship centre of Myanmar. Thousands of pilgrims go to the Mahagiri Shrine which is on the top of Mt Popa to offer flowers and food to the 37 "nats" or spirits. Hence Mt Popa is reported to be the "Mount Olympus" of Myanmar. Mount Olypmpus is where the Greek Gods live.

I did not attempt to climb up the 777 steps to the top as I did not know whether my previously injured left foot would be able to take the stress. Monkeys are present along the way up to the Mahagiri Shrine of Mt Popa. I climbed up around 100 steps. Shops along the way.

As my Canon camera has started to malfunction by not being able to focus after my visit to Lake Indawgyi. I did not manage to get any good focused pictures here and for the next 2 days of my travel in Myanmar.

The two lessons to be learnt:
1. Bring 2 cameras and 2 lenses.
2. Travel when you are young or interested in the cultures of other countries as there is a lot of walking to do. Only by walking can you appreciate the flora, fauna and culture of the country you visit. The climate was cool on this visit. Bright sunshine. Hundreds of pilgrims.

Sitting inside the tour van going from one point to another will probably be what the average Singaporean will want, but much is missed in doing this. This trip probably suits Singaporeans and Caucasian expatriates who love to know about the cultures of other countries.

Asia USA Realty, a Singapore licensed travel agency organises visits to Mt Popa and Bagan or other places in Myanmar.

For more information, e-mail, tel +65 9668-6468, goto

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

19. Shwesandaw Pagoda, Bagan, Myanmar


There is so much to see if you love history and and travel. A one-day stay is insufficient. At least 2 nights must be spent in Bagan. I spent one night in Mount Popa and then travel by the van to Bagan. Bagan is filled with history and temples and pagodas are everywhere as previous kings built them over several generations.

Domestic airlines are packed with tourists in December as Bagan is a UNESCO's World Heritage Site.

The Shwesandaw Pagoda teems with tourists only in the evening (Lonely Planet - Myanmar) only in the evening. This was true as tourists from various countries climb high up to view the beautiful sunset and see the surrounding green fields. There is a big terrace at the top and it was a beautiful sunset on Dec 28, 2008.

Some younger Caucasian tourists cycle there as hotels do rent bicycles. Older ones take cars or horse carts.

If I am not mistaken, Bagan must be the most visited tourist place in Myanmar for Caucasians. Most of the Caucasian tourists were Europeans. They did not converse in English and were likely to be Germans and French. The small airport and the plane was packed with tourists on Dec 29, 2008 when I was there.

Readers interested in custom or corporate travel to Bagan or other parts of Myanmar, tel: +65 9668-6468 or e-mail

Sunday, March 1, 2009

18. Lightning bolts of Mt Kyaiktiyo

The famous Golden Rock Pagoda is said to have a gap where a piece of paper can slide through. I did not see any gap but then the lady guide was not permitted near the Golden Rock. Devotees believe the legend that the hair relic of Gautama Buddha enshrined in the pagoda had the power to stop the boulder from falling off the table top into the valley of Mt Kyaiktiyo which is 3615 feet above sea level.

In my October 2008 tour, my party reached the base of Mt Kyaiktiyo at around 6 p.m. Just in time for the last truck to go up to the Halfway house. The truck was filled with pilgrims.

My left foot was still hurting after my fall on Day 1 at Yangon. But I managed to squeeze my leg in between the wooden planks which are around a leg's width. As the truck roared uphill, the dark storm clouds burst. I ought to have brought a water-proof plastic to protect my camera but it was too late now. One of the slim ladies - a pilgrim farmer, in front of me lent me her spare umbrella. I thanked her. My guide was soaked.

I needed the umbrella to protect my camera. The rain poured in buckets. The trunk grunted uphill and turned corners shining its bright headlamps. It was one-way traffic and the driver was good. We reached a dimly lit fluorescent roof and a shop. Burly dark-looking men in shorts and tattoos. Hats covered their faces. Greyish cheerot smoke spiralised upwards. I thought this was the military checkpoint.

No, it was a provision shop. Our tour guide purchased raincoats for us. She was already soaked to the skin and shivering. A tough lady who would sample every local noodle dish in various destinations. It was cold and wet as we shot upwards to the top of Mt Kyaiktiyo. The rain threshed the group of pilgrims and my group. It was not the typical 10-minute shower in Singapore.

After some time, the truck stopped at the Halfway house. I returned the umbrella back to the kind farmer. Instantly I was soaked in cold bullets of rain.


I carefully put one good foot on the ladder provided to climb down the high truck. To avoid falling and crashing to the ground some 6 feet down. Cold rain soaked me. I managed to alight safely. Shivering started. Hypothermia. Hot cups of tea offered and drunk. Shivering continued. Drank more hot tea.

The tour guide was bargaining with the palanquin bearers who demanded double the usual fee as it was raining cats and dogs. There was no alternative actually. No more trucks were permitted to go up to the Mountain Top Hotel at night. There would be another 30 minutes by walking. It was too dark and too risky to drive. The government forbidded tourists to go by car to prevent any accidents to tourists. The other pilgrims had already alighted and made their way to the much more affordable huts and accommodation around the Halfway House. I could not walk. A disabled person. So palanquins were the answer.

The picture above shows a palanquin going down Mt Kyaiktiyo. Everything could be seen during daytime. But on that dark and gloomy night, it was an uncommon experience for city folks like me and my Singaporean office ladies. Lightning flashed around corners as the palanquin bearers marched uphill. Just like bombs exploding in Baghdad flashing their light when they landed if you had watched the TV during the Iraqi War.

I don't know whether lightning would strike me. I was exposed on one side of the mountains as the 4 men marched uphill. Some smoked the cheerot. I had time to reflect on my past. How fortunate I had been. No major illness, no high blood pressure or diabetes at the age of 58 years.

Here, I was exposed in the palanquin to non-stop multiple forked lightning bolts. 4 thin men who needed to earn a living carried me, braving the rain. Upwards their slippers swished. After some 15 minutes, they slowed down. Put me down. They could rest and smoked the cheerot.

My raincoat covered the camera and shoes well. Swishing of the slippers of the palanquin bearers continued. Clear raindrops swished past me. Visibility was very poor. I could see the shadows of trees when lightning struck. The bearers grunted as they talked and swung to the rhythm of cornering.

One command and they shifted the poles onto the other shoulder after a while. It was hard labour carrying an adult human of 80 kg up the hill for over 30 minutes. Reached Mountain Top Hotel after a long time. The other family members and guests were somewhere in front of me.

Finally we reached Mountain View Hotel. All safe and sound. The rush to change to dry clothes. The two office ladies were not pleased with this encounter with nature. Soaked to the bone. Hypothermia. Wet, wet, wet. Complaints. The guide had left their luggage at the bottom of the hill as the bearers demanded a lot of money to carry the luggage uphill manually in their baskets. So the guide got the luggage in the van with the driver who stayed at the foot of Mt Kyaiktiyo.

Lesson for tour guides to Mt Kyaiktiyp: Ask the tourist to take along another set of clothing for the overnight stay when they get into the truck. Give them raincoats and provide umbrellas.

The front of the truck has some seats (cost more) for those who wish to avoid the rain. The memorable experience and fun for those who are able to appreciate nature is the drenching of the rain on the way up. But few readers will agree with me?

Well, the best time to go up to the Golden Pagoda may be during the afternoon. There may be no thunderstorms during daytime, it seems. We descended during daytime. There was no rain at all. Oct to April are the dry seaons and usually there is no rainfall.

Lessons to be learnt for amateur travel photographers
Get a plastic bag to protect your camera in case it rains! I do read about this advice in travel magazines but did not heed it.

Asiahomes --- Start-up Travel Agency focused on Myanmar Travels and Tours

In February 2009, the Singapore Tourism Board licensed my company, Asia USA Realty (Singapore) Pte Ltd (asiahomes), as a travel agency.

Asiahomes focuses on Myanmar tourism for Singaporeans and expatriates. Over the past 2 decades, very few Singaporeans tour Myanmar.

In general, I estimate that less than 1% of Singaporeans visit Myanmar as it is a country perceived as "not safe" for tourists. Very few travel agencies in Singapore advertise Myanmar travels and tourism as they have greater demand for visits to Australia, New Zealand, Korea, China and so many countries as reflected in their Straits Times advertisements.

In a small survey, one Singaporean vet's wife told me that the planes are not safe although there have been no international reports of air crashes in Myanmar in the past years. One husband of my Toa Payoh Vets cliente told me that he would never visit Myanmar because it is a dictatorship. Another of my client told me of the frequent blackouts when he visited Myanmar 10 years ago. Much has changed and the tourist hotels have generators to provide electricity during blackouts immediately in the event of a blackout. Yangon (known as Rangoon previously) is rapidly developing compared to 5 years ago and property prices have had gone up 100%.

After 2 exploratory visits of at least 7 days each, in October and December 2008, I find that Myanmar is a safe place for tourists. I had a local guide and my driver as I wanted to experience more of the local culture and take pictures. A group guided tour will not permit time to enjoy the beauty of the rural areas.

With custom travel, I can visit various places and stop at others without the pressure to rush to view various places of interests. In my December 2008 visit to Lake Indawgyi, my hands-on experienced bike repairer guide even helped a damsel in distress as her bike was on the verge of breaking down. While he and my driver repaired the bike, I walked around photographing the farmland on that bright and sunny morning.

Myanmar is a big country of 55 million people and 8 ethnic tribes and two visits can't do justice to its variety of cultures and food. There are still many places I will like to visit.

Asiahomes provides the following services to Myanmar in particular and other countries in general:
1. Airline Ticketing (tel: 9664 0404)
2. Hotel reservation
3. Free independent Travel for a group of young people.
4. Custom Travel for small groups who wish to travel without the pressure of a fixed schedule. A tour Guide and driver, rental of car, van, mini-bus, horse or bullock carts and bicyles. Let the guide know when you want to stop the vehicle to take pictures or rest. I find this custom travel to be the most enjoyable.
5. Guided tour for small groups of families, friends, Singapore expatriates or undergraduates about to graduate.
6. Corporate incentive tours at affordable rates.
7. Luxurious tours staying at upscale hotels.

Contact +65 9668-6468, 9664-0404, 6254-3326, e-mail, goto for more info.

The following are a summary of places of interests to tourists from Singapore:


Myanmar is a big country with more than 55 million people unlike Singapore with 6 million. There is an impression in Singapore that the country is not safe for tourists. Myanmar is safe for tourists nowadays. Several thousands of Buddhist pilgrims from Thailand and China visit the pagodas in this country.

Foreign tourists are not permitted to visit certain areas like certain parts of Myitkyina. However many more areas are now open to tourism. There are so many places of interests, more than an average traveller will have time for.

BAGAN Many German and French tourists visit Bagan which is a unique historical and archeological town. My stay of one night in Bagan was insufficient. It should be at least 2 nights to enjoy the history. Another 2 nights should be spent at Mount Poppa Mountain Resort which is 1-2 hour's drive away. My 5-month-old Canon Camera EOS 40 failed me as it could not focus at all. So all my pictures of Bagan are blurry. I ought to have a standby. One learnt from mistakes.

At least 2 nights to de-stress. A big inland lake with clear waters and the golden sunset. Many pictures are available in this blog.

YANGON Previous administrative capital. Many interesting historical areas of British colonialism to visit. Little India and China town are interesting. Boat rides to visit nearby villages can be arranged. The Strand Hotel is historical and excellent for your wedding dinners and/or honeymoon. Stay at least one night at The Strand.

PYIN OO LWIN The British officers re-located their administrative capital to Pyin Oo Lwin to escape the hot and humid climate of Yangon during summer. Its climate is cool. Flower festival in November. It is still a garrison town and there are many places to visit. Walking in Pyin Oo Lwin is great as the air is fresh and free of congested traffic.

Personalised tours for 4-8 people are best as they are more interesting. If you are the type who watch Discovery Travels documentaries from your armchair and wish to experience travel "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" without danger from insurgents, you will appreciate the safety of tours into Myanmar. Your major grouse may be the uncomfortable road travel unlike the good roads in New Zealand or Australia. There will be pot-holes in the outlying roads but not all roads are bumpy. Many towns have sentry outposts to collect road toll.

In conclusion, there is safety for the foreign tourists and there are no beggars pestering tourists for money. The climate is cool in October to April which is the peak tourist season. April to September is the rainy season and so is off-peak season. The hotel rates are much more affordable than those in Singapore and one may afford a stay in 5-star hotels in Myanmar's popular tourist resorts. In Singapore, the average person will not be afford to stay in a 5-star hotel like Raffles Hotel. Yet in Myanmar, the Governor's House at Pyin Oo Lwin is affordable and much more spacious and interesting than Raffles Hotel, Singapore.

Every tourism dollar earned helps to elevate the standard of living of the ordinary Myanmarese. If you wish to do a litte to help to improve the lives of the poor farmers and villagers, visit Myanmar at least once in your life-time. And when you are able to trek and walk and walk.

Contact +65 9668-6468, 9664-0404, 6254-3326, e-mail, goto for more info.