During a numbing day at work in the simmering heat of May …
(in a whisper) “Hey, during breakfast earlier on, we have decided to go Seoul in June! You wanna come along?”
And that’s how I ended up with Seoul on my ‘Next Up!’ list. Through the cartoon-ish Korean characters, the lush greenery of Nami Island, the neon billboards and buzzing crowds along Myeondong, the wonderland at Petite France, the art and culture at Gamcheon, the darkness at the Demilitarised Zone, and the world of face masks and beauty products, I found my Soul (pun intended).
Below are some of the highlights of the 6-day trip. Details of the itinerary and places will be published soon, hopefully. For ease, I’ve listed down the highlights based on the order that we visited.
Older fans who had jumped onto the Korean-wave wagon, should be familiar with Winter Sonata, the film shot at Nami Island. This was one of the earlier Korean films that was popularised in non-Korea lands. This was the era of soppy, brother-sister-ly love dramas. Entering the Naminara Republic, one leaves behind cosmopolitan Seoul and is left to relax and unwind amongst the tall pine trees, white birch trees, gingko trees and maple trees. Fans of Bae Yong-joon and Choi Ji-woo (the two leading actors in Winter Sonata) will be pleased to pose with the many statues of the pair, strategically placed at scenic spots which became famous due to the film.
One wonders why the fascination with Le Petite Prince in Korea? I still have no idea. But Antoine de Saint-Exupery is probably one of the most worshipped French authors in Korea (heck, probably in every part of the world). The French-themed culture village is definitely worth a visit if one is in the vicinity of Gapyeong, in Gyeonggi province (both Petite France and Nami Island should be planned on a same day trip. See itinerary for more details.) Once again, K-pop fans will be pleased to know that the Petite France was the filming location for K dramas such as “Beethoven Virus (베토벤 바이러스)” and “The Man from the Stars/My Love from the Stars (별에서 온 그대) aka 来自星星的男人”. The highlights of the village include the colourful French-styled architecture, the various statues of the Little Prince, performances at the outdoor theatre, and the presence of fresh and colourful flora abundant on the grounds of the village. There were also trick shows and plays, but all in the Korean language. Continue reading Adventures in Seoul and Busan, Korea→
The junta has taken over Thailand. There will be nation-wide curfew from 10 pm to 4 am.
With a countdown of less than 10 days before our 5-days Drive and Golf adventure to the Land of Smiles, the news was a spoiler. Logically, we knew we should cancel our trip, since such situations are unpredictable and have the potential to escalate any moment. Yet we knew that through all the disturbing reports, a big part of Thailand was still safe and life goes on as normal. We were in Bangkok in February 2014, right in the heat of all the ongoing protests and eventual election. We witnessed the closing of a busy section of Sukhumvit Road by the protesters. We also witnessed how the closed-off section was alive with night markets, parties, and rock concerts. So we knew that this time, the military rule and curfew will not make us change course too.
Though we’ve traveled through a few parts of Thailand, this was our first attempt at driving in the country. Traffic in Bangkok is crazy. Handling directions was easy, since we’ve got the handy GPS. Maneuvering through the traffic was another matter. Inching through the jams patiently was yet another. After the successful management of the traffic in Thailand, it makes one wonder:
What are traffic rules for? During rush hours, the shoulder of the road may be taken as a lane. A four-lane highway can become a six-lane highway to accommodate more. Signaling is not to give ample notice that you have the intention to change lanes; signaling is to tell people ‘Hey, I’m changing lanes RIGHT NOW’. Rules… are meant to be broken.
Our 2 weeks adventures in Myanmar was challenging. No longer as nimble as we once were, we’re glad we’ve made it through the obstacles and experienced beautiful Myanmar. With her doors just opened, we felt that it was a good time to visit before the throngs of tourists descend on the exotic country.
In a nutshell, two pseudo-backpackers (no, we wouldn’t even consider ourselves of that. Pseudo-wannabe-flashpackers, maybe) had survived local train rides, boat cruise down the Ayeyarwaddy River, internal flight, and food poisoning episodes. And it was all worth it.
Yangon is a bustling city, but without the tall skyscrapers. Rows of old shop houses nestled within some modernised buildings. Some of the common sights included Myanmese clad in their traditional longyi-s, men chewing on betel nuts, men spitting red betel nut juice onto the roads, the Myanmese ever-ready smile (teeth stained red from their years of betel nuts chewing), and lots of pigeons.
We did a self-walking tour around Yangon during our 2 days. Armed with the map taken from the airport and our handy guidebook from Insight Guides, it was pretty easy finding our way.
The shining stupa at the heart of the city’s centre, the Sule Pagoda, was the most distinctive landmark. It also serves as a round-about, in the centre of the city’s Victorian grid-plan system.
Nearby the Sule Pagoda, sit other landmarks such as the City Hall and High Court building. The architecture of these grand buildings demonstrated strong British influence during Myanmar’s time under British control.
The most famous market to do some shopping would be the Bogyoke Aung San Market. Stuff and service that were found at the market: jade, jewellery, longyis, cloth, shoes, bags, tailors and seamstresses, art galleries.
A trip to Yangon will not be complete without a visit to the Shwedagon Pagoda. The giant golden stupa was magnificent, and we stayed a couple of hours to wait for night to descend on the stupa.
Read more about our full Yangon 2 + 1 -days itinerary here.
Inle Lake was definitely one of YM’s favourite places (can’t say the same for CL, especially since he came down with fever and food poisoning here). The tranquillity of the lake and the areas around it makes it the best place to de-stress and unwind.
From Yangon, we took a domestic flight with Air Mandalay to Heho. We stayed at Nyaung Shwe, one of the oldest and most accessible settlement around Inle Lake. There were plenty of guesthouses in Nyaung Shew, and finding a decent restaurant or local coffee shop was no problem.
The highlights of our stay in Inle Lake included the scenic bicycle route that brought us to the Hot Spring, across the lake, and to the Red Mountain Estate Vineyard and Winery where we witnessed an awesome sunset. Our day trip around the various villages in the lake, and spotting the famous leg-rowing fishermen and floating gardens were also beautiful and memorable. Just sitting in the long boat, and drifting gently through the streams leading to the lake was already more than satisfying.
Read more about our full Inle Lake 4-days itinerary here.
From Inle Lake, we took a train (Shwe Nyaung station) to Mandalay, stopping at Thazi for a night. The ‘Slow Train from/to Thazi’ was quite an experience. The journey was so long (about 11 hours for the first leg, and another 4 hours for the second leg) and tedious (because it was YM’s turn to suffer from food poisoning). “Will the train derail?” was a constant thought during the very violent rockings of the carriages (we have not yet figured out whether it was due to the tracks or the train itself). Granted, there were awesome views of the mountains and crop fields during the first part of the journey, and interesting sights of the locals at the various stopovers in the mountain villages.
During our planning for the trip, we had only allocated 1 day for Mandalay. From our readings, the city did not appeal to us. Looking back, we probably should have at least stayed 2 days to explore Mandalay. In fact, we both agreed that we enjoyed Mandalay more than Yangon. Mandalay was definitely cleaner and more modernised than Yangon, with many Chinese entrepreneurs setting up businesses there.
In our short stay at Mandalay, we visited the Mandalay Hill and U Bein’s Bridge, both of which we highly recommend for the aerial view of Mandalay and its plains, and a magnificent sunset over the Taungthaman Lake respectively.
We took a 9 hour boat ride from Mandalay to Bagan. Since YM was still suffering from food poisoning, we deviated from our initial plan of taking the 14 hour public boat ride, and chose to spend more on a tourist boat that was more comfortable.
The plains of Bagan or the Bagan Archaeological Zone is by far the most tourist populated place in Myanmar that we’ve visited. It is not difficult to understand why these 3000 over temple ruins set in the shadows of the mountains attract much attention.
In our first 2 days, we hired a car and driver to bring us around the various villages in the Bagan plain and also to do a side trip to Mount Popa. We then did a walking tour around Old Bagan, selecting interesting temple ruins to explore on our own. We spent our last day in Bagan doing a walking tour to Nyaung U, a busy little riverside town.
Discovering climbable ruins, scampering up the brick and stucco towers, and witnessing the most amazing sunrise and sunset were arguably the most memorable experience of the whole trip.
Read more about our full Bagan 5-days itineraryhere.
We have also compiled some general tips for travelling in Myanmar. Read them here.
CL and YM.
Travelling the world to see the flies and lizards … and much more!