shwesandaw pagoda

Bagan(Bagan Sunset from Shwesandaw in Black & White)

If you don’t know already, this is referred to as the sun set pagoda. It is a 3 storied pagoda where as it seems, the entire tourist population descends upon at around 5pm. For those who have a fear of heights beware, the steps are steep and I’m not kidding. However, go slow and you will be fine. At any of its level, the pagoda presents sweeping views of Bagan, although the top level was expectedly the busiest.

Sunsets and sunrises are always a wonder to us all. To photographers the ever changing colour and direction of the light at that time presents opportunities to capture some amazing images, while to the non-photographer it allows time to reflect and wonder. This wonderful event paired with a cloudless day provided the ingredients of a fiery sunset.

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(Chasing shadows at Shwesandaw)

 Starting with the heat haze the scene then turns to a bright yellow with glare. As I continue pressing the shutter I hear voices of many from near and afar, all for the time being, enjoying not only the company of nature but of each other. Tourists, locals and monks watch in splender as the sun recedes slowly, creating a fiery orange sky. Then unexpectedly, the place goes quiet as we all savour the last few seconds of the setting sun.

L

Bagan

 

Naing - My guide

This was supposed to be the highlight of the trip. I first got to know that such a place existed when I was googling pictures and came across a particular photographer who had visited and took amazing photos of the place ( this was probably less than a year ago ). I also admit that I am no history buff and most of the places that I have visited or want to visit is purely because they interest me pictorially or if they have awesome food. History tells me that if you have the 2 it usually means a great place to visit – for me.

So tickets booked and as I was flying from Singapore, I needed to go via Yangon – click here to see my earlier posts on that.

I had almost 2 full days in Bagan and for me I felt that was just about right.  I hired a guide with car on the first day. My ultimate goal was to see the sunset at Shwesandaw Pagoda and what a sight it is (more on that later), but I also wanted to get a more local taste of things. Plus, I thought it would be easier and quicker to navigate with a guide since my time was limited. I had pre-arranged my guide before-hand and I had advised him that I wanted to visit the best places for photography.

The agenda which was pretty much discussed once we met. I did tell him my key points were the sunset and a local monastery and I left the rest to him to fill-up the gaps. I won’t go into too much details and specifics of the tour as I was pretty much ‘templed-out’ after the first 2 that we saw but in brief, we went to see a few temples to start off with, then had an early lunch. After lunch, we went to a small village to look around. To be honest, there wasn’t much to see in the village in a sense that, it wasn’t really bustling with people but it gives you a sense as to how some of the locals still live. We then went to a monastery where there were many novices (young monks). The time of the visit wasn’t actually that ideal as it was time for them say their daily prayers which made for photo taking quite awkward and although I had permission from them to take photos, it didn’t seem that right to me.

I was pretty much knackered after that so I requested to go back to the hotel where I could rest for an hour and then head off to Shwesandaw, I will cover that I a separate post.

Once the sunset was over, I returned to the hotel (Bagan Thande Hotel, on the riverside) where I freshened up and lapped up a pleasantly cool evening on the banks of Irrawaddy river with a bottle of Myanmar.

I was in a bit of a lull the following day. Having felt that I had covered what I wanted to see and do I really didn’t know what to do so I rented an electric bike from the hotel and just wondered around aimlessly. To be honest, I really didn’t enjoy it that day. Maybe I was ‘templed-out’ and perhaps my original idea of this being some kind of India Jones adventure somehow didn’t stack-up. Although I have to say a large part of it is probably due to the fact I wasn’t at all comfortable riding the electrical bike. After wondering around for 2 hours or so I felt that I had enough and returned back to the hotel, again to the comfort of starring aimless at the Irrawaddy which I felt was completely relaxing.

 

Some pointers below…

– I took Air Mandalay. Booked online and collected tix at the domestic airport. For further details refer to my earlier post…………..

– At the domestic airport in Yangon & Began, everything is manual. They have people to physically carry your bags on the plane. Your seat number is manually written on your ticket and your luggage tag is stapled to your ticket (how retro!!!)

– once you have checked-in you wait in the waiting area (where all the coloured seats are) they will call you for your flight. This is done by a man or woman walking around with a sign post so look out for your flight number. Note that the flights from Yangon to Bagan (NYU) proceed to other destinations so make sure you follow the calls via your actual flight number.

– On arrival at Bagan – Once you get off the plan you enter a building. If you have checked-in luggage you need to wait here for your luggage. They will physically bring it to you.

– Once luggage has been collected there are a few money changer counters (although there was only one that was opened when I arrived) for you to get some local CCY.

Tour Guide

I contacted one of the guides who was mentioned in Trip Advisor. Well I actually contacted a few via email but only 1 or 2 came back with a reply surprisingly. My guide was Naing Naing. If you want his email please feel free to contact me or leave a message.

He was very polite & helpful and the car provided was in very good condition. Always on time and had previously answered my emails promptly. Overall I was satisfied with his service, he was very attentive and flexible to what I wanted to see and what I didn’t want to see. A point to note that as a tourist, I would say I am quite self-sufficient and not demanding in terms of asking a lot of questions about the place and history. I am more the type to kind of take it in on my own. What I am trying to say that if you are a real history buff, I wouldn’t be able to tell you how good his knowledge was because that was not my criteria. But he was very fluent in English and provided what I had asked of him so from that aspect I would recommend him if you are looking for a guide.

New Bagan or Old Bagan?

I see a lot of these questions. I can only comment on Old Bagan as I did not visit New Bagan. Firstly, there are not that many hotels in Old Bagan I think maybe 5. All of which I guess are classed or marked as higher-end in terms of the price. The advantage is that its close to the sites. My hotel was 10mins by electric bike to Shwesandaw and that’s because I was going slow! The disadvantage is that its isolated from the main town and therefore you are limited to your choice of food / restaurants. You can take a taxi but I was quoted 6,000 kyat as a one-off fee one way which I thought was rip-off. In any case, I was only staying for a night and although the food at the hotel was not great, it was sure relaxing dining on the river (ok the view is not fantastic, but I found it extremely relaxing).

 In conclusion and looking back, I did enjoy my time in Bagan. How much time you want to spend depends on the type of traveller you are. 2 days was good for me, whilst some I met were spending 3-4days. If you are like me who is rather fidgety and need to be on the move then I think 2 days is good enough. The temples and sights are amazing for what they are but after a few, they were pretty much the same to me, but that is just me.

L.

 

Pic of the week #2 – Blue hour in Chinatown

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London Chinatown during summer 2013. One of the best summers in a while, with the sun setting around 9:30pm the sky manages to stay blue for an extended period of time creating a lovely glow combined with the neon lighting. If you ever go, try four seasons Chinese restaurant for the duck or if you are in need of a big fed and low of dough, go to Misato for some decent no-frills Japanese.

My Guide for Yangon

Right, in my earlier posts I hope I have given you all a flavour of what to expect… I have come up with a list below of some tips and guides which may help you through your planning process and hopefully making it easier for you to visit. They are in no particular order.

–       A tourists Visa is required. You should get this at the Myanmar Embassy in your home country. As far as I know, a visa on arrival is only for business and I imagine even if you could get a tourist one, it would be a waste of time.

–       For Singaporeans, it costs $45 (website still says $35). Go to the online website and apply online. Turn up on appointment day and go inside the building. There are no English signs so just go into the building on your right once you enter the gate. Basically the Q system does not work so just line-up on a first come first served basis. Pick-up of visa is on the same day. There is a photocopying machine in the room which you can use, but double check that you have everything that’s required.

–       Bring Crisp USD bills. You can’t get the local currency outside of the country. At the international arrival hall where you collect your luggage there are about 5 money changers.. All with similar rates but you walk around and compare. They will only take CRISP bills. If you have a tear in your bill or some creases, most will not accept, seriously

–       Taxi to the city is about 10,000 kyat takes about 45mins with traffic (on a good day). If you arrive after 9pm in the night, traffic is pretty good.

–       Booking of internal flights.. I booked an Air Mandalay plane tix to Bagan and back. All done online before I arrived in Yangon. The website is quite primitive, but it works. You basically select the day and destination and flight time. You DO NOT pay online. They will send a confirmation email to you and you will need to collect the tix and pay in cash at the domestic airport (if you choose to buy online). Despite the process it still worked, and everything worked out fine. I had a few email exchanges with them and they were very prompt and their English was very good. If you are doing what I did then it’s probably best to collect your tickets the day you arrive. This will save you time and effort.

–       Costs….In general food and transportation is cheap, compared to other cities, but because of that if you are not careful, it can rack up since you end up taking taxis everywhere. Not saying it’s gonna break your bank depending on what budget you are on, but I was having trouble accounting for my cash. That said, the hotels are generally on the expensive side for what you get and relative to other cities. There are also a limited number of decent hotels and they all book out early especially in peak season (Nov – Jan / Feb).

–       Food – I’m no expert in Burmese cuisine so not much to say here. Fortunately I didn’t get ill, but at the same time I ate at restaurants (not posh ones) and didn’t eat any street food except for a road side coffee which was dam good for 50 cents

–       Perhaps some information which may not be obvious, but I find important – when do you use USDs vs kyat. Basically you will pay in the local currency. Almost all restaurants / taxis / buying stuff will all be done in kyats. However, some hotels (especially the up-market ones) will bill / quote in USD. You can pay in kyat, but the rate is often unfavourable.

–       How much to change? This is a difficult question. An average meal I would say per pax is about kyt 5000-8000 (this is probably slightly above the average) you can obviously go much higher and arguably slightly lower. I probably spent around kyt 10,000-15,000 a day on taxis but I was in and out a lot. For example 1 trip in the morning to roam then back to hotel, and then 1 or 2 in the afternoons and evening (it all adds up). Current exchange rate is around 1USD / 970 kyat (approximate)

–       Although you may have a map and the distances may seem walkable, IMHO the distances are way further than shown on maps. Having said that, walking around say china town and the Muslim area is by far the best way to see the local life.

 

That’s about it I think, If you have any questions – Please leave a reply.

 

Photo of the week #1

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Hi! Im going to start my photo of the week post. I hope this inspires not only me but you all to go out there and take more pictures. Im using this opportunity to troll through my collection and hopefully finding some gems which I have not noticed in the past and when I run out, well Its out for more shooting. I hope you enjoy the first .

A little bit about tho image above. This was taken at south bank in London. The particular area plays host to skaters and bike riders and there are ramps where they can do stunts and hang out. Its an extremely vibrant place, full of colour, more so on a crisp summer afternoon. Taken with a Nikon D700 with a 50mm.

I hope you enjoy the image and come back for more. Thanks for looking,

L.

Yangon Attractions – Shwedagon Pagoda

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Arguably a sight that all visitors to Yangon will visit, you can’t miss it if you are travelling from the city Center to say Inlay lake. In fact one would mostly see the pagoda coming from the airport.

It’s a  sight to behold in the night, but magical during golden hour when the sky turns from purplish to blue.

For photographers, it’s a good idea to get there early say an hour or so before sunset. The place will be packed and its good to have time to spare to take it all in. It’s an expansive place, on one hand there is much to photograph, on the other, its repetitive as the Pagoda is circular. It also takes a while to get your angles right as you mostly need a wide angle to get it all in whilst minimising any distortion you may have.

On the day I visited, the place was rather empty. I noticed that there were large groups arriving once I was leaving which was after the sunset and I did not have the equipment to capture anything meaningful. It’s good to know that the place welcomes photographers (although I would be mindful and respectful of taking pictures of those actually there for prayer). I was hoping for a higher proportion of locals vs tourists but it didn’t happen on the day and the places was quite muted. Not sure which days are busiest but I was there on a Friday evening.

In terms of equipment, I went light and wide. This was in contrast to quite a few people I saw whom had 70-200 & 24-70 zooms, as soon as I saw those (and there were many) I felt “out-kitted”. In hindsight, a good portrait focal length would have gone a long way – so now you know.

If you are planning to go and have time to be flexible, choose a cloudless evening to visit on as the glow from the pagoda whilst the sunsets against a clear evening provides the opportunity for some stunning images.

Yangon – Circle Line Train

It’s been about 2 hours into the ride. I’m lying down staring at the rotating fan hanging from the ceiling of the train. It makes a thudding noise as it rotates, arguably reminiscent of a hot overseas jail cell (well, not quite and I wouldn’t want to know!) I feel my eyes getting heavy and decide that resistance is futile.

I close them for a few minutes but before long, a loud whistle blasts. I can feel the train slowing into another station, but this one sounded different. There was a lot of commotion, more so than the previous say 10 stops. I get up slowly, feel the warm breeze across my face on what is a smouldering day. Looking out of the window, I’m fascinated.

The platform is packed as people get onto the train. On the other side where the rail tracks are, a market takes place where people have come to buy and sell their produce – fresh vegetables, fruit as well as cooked foods and drinks.. All happening right before your eyes, the local Burmese people go on with their lives and is is only a privilege to have been a part of something local and authentic.

Info
– 1 USD for a ticket. Ride is approx 3 hours one way but it circles and returns to Yangon stn

– Ticket sales from platform 7 but train may leave from any other. Stay close to the officer at the ticket office and they should be able to bring you tithe right train.

– This is not for everybody. I wouldn’t say it’s roughing it, but this is a train that locals take to go from A -B carrying their goods to sell. This can be anything from bananas to live or dead chickens. But it’s a great insight into how people live

– train station is walkable from Traders hotel.

– Bring water

– Although you can get off and take the train in the opposite direction I didn’t figure it would get me back sooner factoring time to wait for the other train, especially if you have been on for say an hr

– If you can, move to the local carriages where is more fascinating. The train doesn’t stop for long at the stations so make sure you move from one cabin at a time!

I leave you with an image of a little traveller on the circle line.

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