Monday, February 28, 2011

The alarm went off early as seems to be the case most of the time these days. Quick shower and time to check out. Before leaving the Governor’s Residence we had time to grab a chocolate croissant and a cup of tea. Even though it was 4.30 am in the morning, the hotel already had its full breakfast set up for the morning - guess people are early risers here!

We arrived at the Yangon Airport domestic terminal and checked in for our flight. Things went smoothly enough even if it seemed a little unconventional. They did not bother to weigh our bags - a good thing since they are probably on the heavy side. The security screening was not a big deal. We took water through and no-one seemed to care. Once we were in the departure lounge it was a little confusing as to which gate the plane would leave from but everything fell into place when a guy walked around with a placard announcing the flight number and the fact that it was ready to board.

We took a bus to our plane and climbed on board. Our back packs would not fit in the overhead bins but this was not a big deal. Each bag was given its own seat and secured with the seatbelt! The flight was just over an hour and we were served an unexpected breakfast. Something you don’t get in North America these days.

We landed in Bagan and it was gloriously hot for 7.30 am. As we entered the terminal, we bought our passes for the Bagan Archaeological Zone and picked up a copy of George Orwell’s “Burmese Days” to read when we get a moment. Waiting for our bags was quite different. There was no signage as to where to go so we just stood around with all the other passengers. Eventually, various guys would bring out each passenger’s bag one by one. Once you identified your bag and the baggage tag matched, you could take it. We retrieved our two bags and then headed outside to find our driver.

The guy that met us turned out to be the guide we would use for our visit here. U Bo Ni was his name. Turns out he is a history buff from the University of Mandalay that makes a living as a tour guide. He led us to our car and then off we went to the hotel - the Bagan Thiripyitsaya Sanctuary Hotel. On the way, U Bo Ni explained the services he could offer us as a guide and we decided to give him a try. Turned out to be a great decision.

We arrived at our hotel well before the scheduled check-in time and our room was not ready. The hotel was very accommodating and gave us a day room to use while we waited. We tried to get an internet connection but were not successful. It’s been a week now since we were last connected properly! We phoned home to say hi to Devon and Logan but at US$8 a minute, the call was pretty short! They called us back and we were able to chat a little bit longer.

While we waited for our room, we lay by the pool. The weather here is hot and the pool setting very scenic. We escaped the heat for some lunch - the spring rolls and the clear vegetable soup turned out to be the highlight. After lunch, we were informed that our room was ready. This turned out to be quite a big deal. We were escorted to our river side room in a procession with three hotel employees carrying our bags and two others escorting the two of us under umbrellas like the king and queen! Once we were cleaned out of small change for tips, we started to get settled in.

The room is very comfortable and split into three rooms - a living room, bedroom and bathroom. We also have a very nice patio overlooking the Ayeyarwady River. Catherine settled in for a nap and I went exploring. After leaving the hotel grounds to visit some temples, I was quickly befriended by a young man riding a bike. He took me to one of the temples and we climbed to the top where the views of the surrounding area with all the many temples was spectacular. This is definitely the New York City of temples. After taking in the sights, I tipped my “guide” and headed back to the hotel. It was time for the sunset pagoda tour we had arranged with U Bo Ni earlier in the day.

The first temple we visited was Dhammayangyi Pahto, Bagan’s biggest temple in terms of foundation size. While I listened to some impressive stories about the temple, Catherine was set upon by scores of little vendors eager to make a sale. A few things were purchased to oblige the crowd and then we made our escape. Next up was Sulamani Pahto temple, famous for its well preserved internal frescos. This temple was more relaxing to visit as the vendors largely kept to their stalls. We visited two young artists whose work was very impressive.

As the sun was starting to set, we headed off to watch the sunset from the Shwesandaw Paya temple along with hundreds of other tourists. Despite the large of number of people gathered on top of the temple, the experience was still magical and one of the highlights of our trip.

Once the sun had set, we headed back to the hotel for dinner and the best sleep we have had in days.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Another early wake up to catch our plane from Shanghai to Bangkok. Traffic to the airport was light given the time of day but to our surprise, the drop off area at the airport was a zoo. Looks like all the cars converge on one point and then just park at the curb for as long as they like. First bit of mayhem we have experienced at an Asian airport! Check in was smooth and we had some time to visit the airport lounge before our flight was called.

The flight to Bangkok was painless - four and a half hours. Great Thai meal on the plane followed by a couple of episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and we landed on time at about 12.45 pm. Our Thai Airlines flight to Yangon was scheduled to leave at 5.55 pm and we noticed there was a earlier flight on Bangkok Airways leaving at 3.10 pm. This earlier flight would give us the chance to see some of Yangon in the daylight, so we made the switch. It cost us a little bit extra but it was totally worth it. Hopefully our flight from Yangon to Bangkok in a few days time is still intact! By the time, we had switched flights, cleared immigration and got back to the departure area, it was time to leave.

The flying time to Yangon was about an hour and they too have a fairly new international terminal. Even though there are not many flights here, it still took an eternity to get our bags. We had called ahead to advise of our new arrival time and our driver was waiting for us as planned. We asked him to take us to the domestic terminal before heading to the hotel so we could pick up our tickets for the next leg of our journey to Bagan. This was quite an experience. The domestic terminal is quite unlike the international one. Quite old and run down. After much amusement, we eventually found the Air Bagan ticket office - a room in the back with no windows, lots of papers all over the place and four or five people crammed into the tiny workspace. They took our voucher and wrote out our tickets by hand the old fashioned way. It was neat to see.

With tickets in hand, we headed off to our hotel for the night - the Governor’s Mansion. A wonderful hotel with a gorgeous setting. Lots of old teak wood was used in the construction and it was very colonial in style. Our room was fabulous and the staff were wonderful.

With daylight starting to fade, we decided to walk to the Shwedagon Pagoda - one of the most significant buddha temples in the world. The pagoda is spectacular and there is gold everywhere. The stupa (main tower) is made from several tons of gold and more gets added all the time. The temple was very busy with lots of family worshippers on a Sunday evening. We were completely blown away by the sheer size of the place. Very impressive.

After our visit, we took a cab back to the hotel and had a meal on the outside dining terrace. The food was outstanding especially the spring rolls, Myanmar chicken curry and the Myanmar beer. As it was now getting close to 9.00 pm, we decided that some sleep was in order given our long travel day and the fact that we need to be up again at 3.45 am to get ready for our flight to Bagan.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The problem with going to bed early is that you wake up early - 4.00 am to be precise. Good excuse to keep reading “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”. Catherine woke up early too. We decided to get a head start on the day and went for an early breakfast. Still love those hot chocolate croissants!

Today we arranged to go on a tour of the city with one of the drivers from the hotel. First stop was the Yuyuan Bazaar in old Shanghai. Great place. Teeming with locals on a Saturday morning. Lots of strange looking and strange smelling delicacies which we decided not to sample. After a walk through the bazaar, we visited the Yuyuan Gardens - a classical Chinese garden of Ming Dynasty design in the heart of Shanghai. We were surprised how big the gardens were - all the nooks and crannies would have made hide and seek a nightmare.

After visiting the gardens, we set off to try some Chinese tea at the Hong Hong Tea Shop. We were impressed with the show that went in to preparing the different teas - we tried oolong tea, jasmine tea, Long Jing green tea and lychee flavoured black tea. They were all good. After the tea tasting ceremony, we were led off to the shop where we ended up buying a miniature tea set along with some oolong and jasmine teas. Not sure we can make it like they do here, but we’ll try.

Next stop was the trendy Xintiandi district - a fashionable area with trendy shops, restaurants and bars. This seemed to be the place where most westerners hung out. Our driver left us here for lunch.

After lunch, we visited the site where the Communist Party of China was essentially formed. Mao Zedong, who later became Chairman of the Communist Party, was here at the Party’s first meeting. Seems ironic that almost 100 years later, this site is now in one of the most trendy and fashionable in all of Shanghai. 

We headed back to our hotel after a full day of sightseeing by walking back along Huaihai Road, the renowned fashion area of Shanghai. We grabbed some Starbucks coffee and dessert along the way. After a quick rest at the hotel, we decided to try some Chinese massages at a spa just down the road. An interesting experience and a relaxing one too! 

We finished the day by packing up for our flight which leaves first thing in the morning. We fly to Bangkok and then to Yangon in Myanmar. Hopefully, we can post all our of stories and photos to our travel website when we get to Bangkok. Our site seems to be censored here in China.

Friday, February 25, 2011

After a good night’s sleep, it was time for our first full day in Shanghai. We ate breakfast at the hotel. Interesting looking bacon and sausages - the highlight was definitely the hot croissants filled with chocolate! 

Today we walked from our hotel to the Bund - Shanghai’s shopping and financial district. On the way we stopped at People’s Square and visited the Shanghai Museum. Very impressive with lots of artifacts going back hundreds (and in some cases, thousands) of years. Following our stop here, we walked over to the promenade on the banks of the Huangpu River with its magnificent views of the Pudong skyscrapers on the other side. Quite an impressive skyline with the futuristic looking Oriental Pearl TV Tower dominating the view. Hard to believe this whole area was built from marshland over the last twenty years.

At this point, it was time to eat and we headed over to the Peninsula Hotel for afternoon tea. An excellent choice. Very similar to its sister hotel in Hong Kong. The sandwiches were excellent as were the various desserts and the darjeeling tea was just what we needed. Well rested and warmed up, we explored the hotel shopping arcade and couldn’t resist each buying a pair of trendy Roberto Botticelli Italian shoes! Very snazzy and comfortable.

We left the Peninsula and went in search of the metro line to take a train back to our hotel. After perilously crossing several roads occupied by crazy scooter drivers, we found a subway station and figured out the right routing. As with the rest of Asia, a very efficient public transit system. Upon getting back to our room, we made the fatal mistake of having a quick nap. Didn’t wake up until the following morning!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Plane landed at 6.45 pm. Yet another brand new airport in Asia - are there any old, tired airports on this continent? Cleared immigration fairly quickly, grabbed our bags and went to look for the driver we had arranged. We looked through all the names on the various placards being held in the arrivals area and could not find our guy. A helpful lady from one of the other hotels asked if she could help us find our driver. She phoned our hotel and just as she got through, our driver appeared. 

The Shanghai Pudong airport is located about 35 to 40 minutes from the city centre and the drive to the hotel was quick on a newly built and well maintained highway. For a city of 20 million people, the infrastructure here is incredible. We checked in to our hotel - the Mansion Hotel - in the French district of the city. The hotel is a house from the 1920’s and 30’s that used to be the home of a prominent gangster! It is very interesting with lots of period artifacts all over the place. Our room is comfortable and spacious and has a door that has to be the biggest hotel door we have ever seen.

Took a quick shower to get cleaned up - the shower certainly qualifies as unusual. Quite a work of art to operate the five shower heads that point down at you! Feeling a little more refreshed, we headed up to the rooftop restaurant for something to eat and a good cup of tea. We snacked on fresh vegetable spring rolls followed by tiramisu and ice cream. After a quick walk outside the hotel to get some fresh air, it was time to get to bed.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Woke up super early to catch the flight to San Francisco. Checked our bags through to Shanghai, cleared US immigration, bought the wake-up Starbucks latte, grabbed a Tim Horton’s breakfast sausage english muffin (with hashbrowns!) and then headed for the departure gate. Flight was set to leave on time but as the plane pulled back there was an electrical fault. We headed back to the ramp and the maintenance guys got to work. Took them an hour and then we were good to go. Arrived in San Fran at about 9.00 am with about four hours to wait. We walked the shopping concourse and then headed for the airline lounge to fire up our laptops and get connected. Guess today ends at lunchtime and tomorrow starts in the evening. Will have to see where all this time goes while we are in the air.

The flight is sure long. Thirteen hours. Have to say that the service in United’s business class this time is way behind what it was when we flew to Hong Kong last year. I would give it a three out of ten. There is so much low hanging fruit here on the service side that could easily get this up to an eight out of ten. Watched a few movies, read a bit and tried to sleep - somehow managed to get through the half day of flying time. Even though Catherine successfully slept through most of the flight, I still can’t really account for the loss of a whole day!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Back in Vancouver for the latest trip to Asia. Left a cold and snowy Calgary for a wet and rainy Vancouver. Wrong - that should say warm and sunny Vancouver! The grass is green and there is no white stuff in sight other than on the mountain tops where it should be. Flight over from Calgary was relaxing - plane was half full even though the check-in machine said we were on stand-by when we got our boarding passes. Checked in to the Vancouver Airport Fairmont Hotel. This is a great spot to spend a night while in transit. After we checked in, we went for a walk around the airport in search of the famous Cadbury mini-eggs. Our hunt was successful. We had a super meal in the hotel lounge - the highlight was definitely the mushroom and potato soup. We have to re-create this when we get home. Tomorrow is a big travel day. Need to get up at 3.40 am to get ready for our flight to San Francisco and then its thirteen and a half hours to Shanghai. I suspect many mini-eggs will get consumed on the way.