DSC09436

Day 16: the Holy Grail (aka Singapore Airlines Suites) – READ to the end

There are some things that are so exclusive that you actually have to get somewhere in life to be able to achieve them. Singapore Airlines First Class is one of those things. SQ has been considered, for the longest time, to be one of the best airlines in the world – and they are extremely protective of their first and business class – and even more so, Suites. None of them ever get released on points except to SQ’s own members, and at $15,000 and up per seat, it’s not like one can easily just get one’s hands on them. So when I had my ticket finally reissued following the CTA ruling, I lived on needles for months, because like any travel aficionado, I wanted to try SQ Suites and the A380 for an eternity… and this was my chance. I suppose my anticipation was somewhat diluted by the Emirates experience I had on the inbound flight, as the in-flight showers are probably the most wonderful invention ever, but I still had very high expectations of what was about to come.

I had no idea what I was in for, however. What went on to happen is absolutely the most unexpected chain of events that one couldn’t script even if one wanted to.

But let’s take it in sequence.

First, we went to board our feeder flight, Yangon – Singapore. It was operated by a local subsidiary of Singapore Airlines, SilkAir, which is a full-service airline that borders on LCC (low cost carrier). The checkin experience was rather entertaining, because our bags were far over the weight limit – until I pointed out that the onwards ticket was in first class, which immediately removed any questions.

_MG_4522

We went to the Jade lounge; I was actually somewhat surprised that there even WAS a lounge. It was small, but decent, with some food and drink options.

_MG_4515

_MG_4517

 

_MG_4523

_MG_4524

Boarding was announced shortly, we went through another security checkpoint, and went to board.

_MG_4527

_MG_4526

Quite surprisingly, the SilkAir flight turned out to be absolutely excellent – the seats were pleasantly comfortable, there was food and drink, and the boy even got a puzzle for himself, which I ended up having to make – a 3D puzzle of a SilkAir plane, which was so hard to make that it took me most of our 3-hour flight.

IMG_5786

We arrived to Singapore on schedule, around 9pm. Our onwards flight was at 23:40, so we had some time to head to The Private Room – the Singapore Airlines First Class lounge, but specifically for passengers on SQ flights in First. Regular mortals go to this zoo:

_MG_4543

 

_MG_4541

 

And SQ First passengers go here:

_MG_4538

 

_MG_4537

_MG_4534

Footnote: it’s absolutely terrible how many lounges SQ operates in Changi. There is the KrisFlyer Gold lounge for rejects from other airlines who have Star Alliance Gold status, there’s SilverKris (which, despite the name, is FAR better) for business class passengers, there is SilverKris First, for first class non-SQ passengers, and SilverKris The Private Room. Phew.

The nice thing about TPR is that, although there is a menu, you can have anything you want made. The chefs will see to that. Unfortunately, we had spent most of the day in Yangon looking around and generally being busy, and then coupled with the 3-hour SilkAir flight, we were completely and totally exhausted already – and we still had a 14-hour SIN-LHR flight, then 10 hours in London, and then another 7 hours back home on Air Canada. So, understandably, we were hardly in the mood for much experimentation, and so we, more or less, just sat around in the lounge. I had a Singapore Sling, which was fairly good, but I didn’t even finish it because I had lobster coming on the upcoming flight, and I knew they served Krug, so I wasn’t going to go in plastered.

After some time went by, it was time for us to board the plane, and off we went. Sadly, unlike the checkin counters, there is no priority for premium passengers at the security checkpoints in Changi Airport – and it also takes away from some lounge time, as you have to leave early and hang out at the gates. It’s a necessary evil in today’s world, so what can you do.

_MG_4545

 

_MG_4546

We went through security, turned into a quiet private passage and finally, there it was: my suite 3C, and my glass of Krug.

_MG_4547

_MG_4550

_MG_4551

The flight took off, and I was in heaven. Really, it’s impossible to beat the exclusivity of the SQ Airbus 380 suites. It’s far too elite an experience to not take every second of it in. Except when things start to disintegrate.

It was time for dinner. Interestingly, there are lights all around the suite to set them JUST perfectly. Footwell lighting, overhead lighting, etc. – the control panel for the lights alone has like eight buttons. Strangely, I had this feeling that one of my lights – the one at the far end of the suite – doesn’t turn off. I had a vague sentiment that I have switched it off a few times, and that it came back on, but I couldn’t consciously place it as I was too busy emptying the bottle of Krug. I began my dinner. I was welcomed with some crippled utensils that apparently the UK requires.

_MG_4556

 

I was further welcomed with an entree that was missing caviar: apparently, on UK-bound flights, no caviar is served. This UK theme was becoming a total nuissance.

 

 

_MG_4557

A surprisingly mediocre soup came.

 

 

 

 

_MG_4559

 

And my Book the Chef preorder menu item – the Boston Lobster Thermidor. Or a rubber tire. I couldn’t quite tell. It looked glorious, but it tasted more rubber than lobster. Harumph.

 

 

_MG_4560

After dinner ended, in preparation for sleep, cabin lights were dimmed and suite lights turned off.

Or not.

Remember that one light at the far end of my suite? Well, it stayed on. I turned it off, this time, paying attention, since this is something that became an actual concern – I couldn’t really watch TV, as it was designed to make the suite lit up, thereby preventing the TV from being seen. It came back on. I turned it off again, and like a 21st century jack-in-the-box, it came back on again after a few minutes.

I called the flight attendant. The service was very cordial and friendly; I pointed out the eternal light of hope, and he agreed that this wasn’t really the way it was supposed to work. He didn’t have any way to turn it off, so he brought an eyemask and some adhesive labels and taped the light up. He rubbed his hands with pleasure at the job well done, and despite the fact that it looked kind of silly, it seemed to work, so he left, proud of his work.

The mask immediately fell off.

_MG_4555

I called him again. He came, shook his head, and went away. He promptly returned with a new item: a large adhesive piece of paper that said SOILED DIAPERS on it. To this day I regret not taking a picture of it, but this was becoming completely hilarious. He diligently taped the SOILED DIAPER sticker over the light, rubbed his hands again, and went away.

The SOILED DIAPERS promptly fell off.

I called him again. He seemed less amused at this point, but I also felt this wasn’t really what I had signed up for. Finally, he returned with some industrial strength duct tape and obliterated any semblance of light from this implement. All was well (at least, as long as I didn’t need any lighting).

At this point, my wife called out to me. She was just beginning her dinner, and she says, “Hey, how exactly do you turn on the lighting in this thing? I can’t see what I’m eating.” Thinking she is profoundly incompetent with operating such advanced devices, I went to her suite and pushed some buttons. No lights came on. Somewhat perplexed, I further played with the buttons. Still no lights came on. I called the flight attendant, who was no longer entertained, but nowhere nearly as unentertained as I was. He played with the buttons, as well, and had to concede that just like the light in my suite wouldn’t turn OFF, the lights in this particular suite wouldn’t turn ON.

I had enough at this point, so I went to the toilet. It was dark and sombre inside, as it usually is when the door is unlocked. I locked the door… and nothing happened. Precisely half of the LED (!) lights in the toilet were nonfunctional. I hunted down the very same flight attendant and asked him if my understanding of this difficult to fathom fact is correct; he confirmed it, somewhat apologetically.

So my running total so far:

  • Lobster tasted like rubber
  • Castrated utensils
  • No caviar
  • Lights that don’t turn off
  • Lights that don’t turn on
  • Toilet where I can’t quite see where I … stuff.

I gave up. I asked for a coffee (SQ is one of the few airlines that serve Blue Mountain coffee – my favourite, perhaps unsurprisingly).

_MG_4561

Then I went to sleep. In all fairness, this was absolutely THE best sleep I have *ever* had on a plane, and this includes the seat-cum-bed on the Lufthansa 747 upper deck. It’s partially due to the fact that the seat does not convert to a bed – a proven winner combination – but rather, unfolds from the wall. They also do not skimp on pillows:

_MG_4566

_MG_4569

_MG_4562

I woke up later in the night and snapped a picture on the inflight map of where we were.

_MG_4564

In retrospect with everything we know these days, that was probably not the smartest route to fly…

For breakfast, I ordered kaiseki. For reference, this is the picture I have in my mind when I think kaiseki:

meal011

It is a supremely beautiful, complex Japanese food, which I don’t necessarily always enjoy, because of the multitude of healthy things in it that I don’t eat; but I respect it for the presentation and the skill required. So I wanted to try it. I would never order kaiseki in business class, as it would likely just be a joke – I thought that maybe, just maybe, seeing as I am preordering this months in advance, I would get something similar to the above so I have a great memory to tell about my Singapore First flight.

Well, it went sort of similar to the toilet and the light bulbs. This is what I got.

_MG_4573

_MG_4579

Yeah, that’s it. I have no comment.

I ended the breakfast with some supermarket cheese.

 

_MG_4580

And right up around landing, another act in this comedy of errors. I asked for some cookies for the boy, as he slept through most of the flight and barely ate. Whereas I wasn’t expecting anything handmade, I was sort of expecting something “upscale”, seeing as, well, you know, it’s a flight that costs $15,000 or so.

I got this instead.

FullSizeRender

————————————————————————
DID YOU READ THIS FAR? HAVE A COOKIE. IT GETS FUN FROM HERE.
————————————————————————

Well, here is where things get really interesting.

When I originally began writing this post, sometime in July, I was going to end with the KitKat picture. I had very little else to say, I was somewhat annoyed that my wild expectations were completely shattered (although I completely admit it was my fault for setting them so high in the first place), and I was just going to chalk it up to experience and move on. My previous experience on SQ wasn’t amazing – flying Singapore to Osaka, they offered me a choice of dinner or breakfast (blaming it on the fact that it was an overnight flight – what, people don’t eat at night?!?!?!), and only when I, incredulously, asked at least six times, did they repent and feed me like a normal person.

This time, I figured I should at least write them a letter. It was a full-fare R class booking in Suites – not an award trip – so I felt that I was entitled to, at least, give them some feedback. I contacted them through a webform and told them that I have so much I need to write (partially because I was that mad, and partially because I am far too verbose for my own good) that it does not fit into their webform that only permits a certain (small) number of characters. I got a reply back with an email address to write to directly, and I wrote most of the above, together with the hanging eyemask and the KitKats.

This is where things got even more weird. First, I got a phone call (I am always impressed when I get replies to my spaghetti whining). The reply was from the sales manager for Canada. Besides being rather surprised that a Suites passenger complained at all (apparently, not many of them ever do), the content of the complaint floored him. He apologised profusely, which I already appreciated, since I was speaking to him live, rather than by email. He told me he’s working on a compensation for me (?), and that he’d like to take me out to dinner.

This was quickly turning from a complete disaster into a complete lesson in PR control.

End result: we arranged a date that worked for both of us, he flew to my city, took me to the restaurant that I enjoy the most here, handed me $900 of KrisShop duty free coupons and promised to send me an A380 model – which very promptly showed up several days later by Fedex.

image1

image2

I was completely floored. I still am. This is an excellent example of how proper handling of a potential PR disaster can turn someone from a brand basher to a brand supporter; I can guarantee if I have to travel to Asia at this point, and am buying premium tickets, I will definitively check SQ.

On the other hand, Swiss wasn’t quite as nice to its Yangon fares. After bashing the “experienced flyers of international airlines”, as they called them in their court filings, and saying that they should have known that there was no way that these could have been correct prices, they went on to pressure Canadian officials, escalating all the way up to the Governor General… and one way or another, they managed to prevail. Their premium cabins stayed empty of the FlyerTalkers who took advantage of this sale, but their reputation amongst the frequent travellers was shattered.

So since I now had $900 to spend in the Singapore Airlines Kris dutyfree, and since I felt that this would bring great closure to this whole experience, I decided to commemorate the label that has been put on us by Swiss Airlines by getting it engraved on a bottle of something I enjoy, and that Singapore Airlines has paid for.

jonnie_walker

All in all, just as I expected, flying SQ did turn out to be the wildest experience of my life. Probably not in the way I originally planned, but one nonetheless.

 

_MG_4217

Day 15: Bagan, Day 3 (last day in Bagan)

Our original plan on the last day was to spend the morning relaxing, maybe swim in the pool of the hotel a bit. But after spending two days with our guide and realising that chances of us seeing everything are pretty low… we decided to go all out, and spend the morning doing more sight-seeing, and after some kind of a lunch and afternoon nap, head to the airport.

First, we went to see the Manuha Buddha Image.

_MG_4188

… where we saw a lot of kids who didn’t seem to be bothered with the antiqueness of the presented artefacts (but… kids be kids, and I’m pretty sure Buddha wouldn’t mind).

_MG_4189

_MG_4190

We went on to Nan Paya Temple.

_MG_4193

Next, we went to a very interesting site. Once again, somewhat off the beaten path, we went to a location called the Kay Min Ga temple. It was a collection of stupas, some of which were damaged in the tragic earthquake, and yet others stood on. Very few visitors were here, besides a few locals who were hanging around.

The landscape was quite impressive (the damaged stupas can be seen in the background).

_MG_4211

_MG_4222

As were the flowers.

_MG_4217

Everything is semi-ruined, but it makes it look far more somber and impressive.

_MG_4226

_MG_4228

Some impressive Buddha statues were to be found inside. Not as many as were here prior to a certain Mr. W. Thomann-Gillis pillaged most of the relics around 1900:

_MG_4240

… but much remained:

_MG_4233

_MG_4236

_MG_4237

_MG_4238

_MG_4239

 

And here is a rare picture in that I never post family pictures online. But the juxtaposition of old and young in this shot was too poignant. The old lady was the groundskeeper who lived there and took care of the temples in the absence of any sort of support from the local government.

_MG_4242

These were her living quarters (note the abundance of Aung Sang Kyi pictures – this tends to be the case for most rural folk in Myanmar):

_MG_4255

Fascinating visit, if only because I really appreciate the opportunity to see something so out of the way, and tended to not because it’s someone job (as is the case with most national monuments), but truly out of respect and love for the sites.

Next, we went to the Htilo Minlo temple. Built in 1218, this is considered to be the last Myanmar style temple in Bagan, and is, in a way, an end of an era.

_MG_4274

_MG_4276

 

Buddha statue inside.

_MG_4280

 

_MG_4281

Our last stop was a very curious place. It was the home village of our tour guide, who wanted to show us where he lived. A very interesting village, right next to the pier for boarding the famous Road to Mandalay luxury cruise liner.  The boarding gate wasn’t quite the same as the Frankfurt First Class terminal for Lufthansa, but it was there…

_MG_4314

One thing we did come across, which was pretty neat, and which stood out from the overall look of shoddy disrepair was a brand new temple. Our guide explained that there are competitions between villages to keep their temples as sparkling and shiny as possible, and apparently, this particular one was recently repainted – the village collected money from its inhabitants and then went on to paint it baby blue.

_MG_4339

There is an incomprehensible fascination, by the way, with plastering Formula 1 track maps on cars in Myanmar.

_MG_4323

Once our exploration of this token village was complete, we moved on to our final lunch in Bagan. For this, we decided to go to the #1 rated place in Bagan… Weather Spoon.

_MG_4354

I very rapidly realised that since it is top rated on Tripadvisor, the clientele very clearly reflects that…

_MG_4358

(that is to say, there wasn’t a SINGLE LOCAL in this restaurant – ALL tourists). The walls further reinforced this impression:

_MG_4357

_MG_4360

Coupled with their best dish being a burger…

_MG_4359

… this did not bode well for our culinary delight.

Then our food came:

_MG_4362

_MG_4363

And uh.

I haven’t eaten this well in ages. That salad on top? Out of this world good, as was the curry. And the “freshly squeezed juice”, although unlike in hipster restaurants where they put all that effort into squeezing, but in reality, are using products from the nearest supermarket which taste pretty meh, here, as in many developing countries, the actual fruits taste so good that it’s rather difficult to screw them up.

After we spent an eye-popping 15,000 kyats on this lunch (may I remind my readers that the exchange rate is 1,000:1), we headed off to the airport, as it was time for our Air Mandalay flight back to Yangon.

The airport building screams colonial greatness.

_MG_4403

Very annoyingly, despite the fact that we made a dash for the airport (well, our driver did), and because we were running late as usual, our flight… was cancelled. We were conveniently rebooked onto Air Bagan.

_MG_4378

The airport was relatively empty.

_MG_4379

_MG_4382

Annoying point #2 became that not only was the first flight cancelled, the second one was delayed. For an unknown amount of time. And electricity was out, so no air conditioning – in an enclosed, glass building. Just a reminder: April is the second hottest month in Myanmar, with temperatures in the high 30s-low 40s (in May, it goes into the high 40s).

I went around to take more pictures of random things. This man seems relatively optimistic he’s going to get on his flight sometime soon:

_MG_4381

This man is looking for something.

_MG_4380

Oops, it turns out that’s where the security screening point is. It appears that they’re going to test whether it works.

_MG_4394

Outside, no more rush was visible than there was inside. Cars were parked…

_MG_4386

… water was being bartered …

_MG_4421

… men were chasing pigeons …

_MG_4408

… and other men were waiting for something – presumably, the Burmese incarnation of Godot.

_MG_4411

Eventually, we were rather hurriedly shuttled into the secure waiting area, where we were made to understand (by the commotion) that the flight should be arriving shortly. There, some TVs were set up, which incomprehensibly were playing Japanese jidaigeki (old samurai dramas):

_MG_4432

Not only were they playing, but the staff was fervently watching them, too!

_MG_4437

I suppose they didn’t have much else to do, seeing as the flight wasn’t there, and neither were any real customers.

_MG_4435

The WiFi sign on the wall was as much of a lie as that huge air conditioner. Neither one was functional.

_MG_4434

Eventually (about an hour after we were supposed to depart), a flight arrived. Note the “a”. It wasn’t ours. :(

_MG_4433

 

In the meantime, some men stood around and argued whether they should leave us there and go home – or not.

_MG_4442

Finally, about two hours later, our flight finally came.

_MG_4445

_MG_4449

_MG_4455

The plaque on the side of the plane with the manufacture date filled me with trepidation and respect. Kind of like if you run into a Buddhist monk you are certain died about a century ago, but turns out he’s still alive.

_MG_4458

Anyway, we got on.

_MG_4464

Some outgrowth was coming from the cockpit.

_MG_4465

A man checked with air traffic control if it was okay for us to leave…

_MG_4461

 

… and off we went. Two and a half hours late, but clearly, nobody really cared.

After arriving to Yangon, our bags got unloaded onto a donkey cart…

_MG_4495

… and a man went to do the safety inspection of the previously presumed dead but not actually dead monk.

_MG_4490

With this, our Bagan, and Myanmar, adventure was over. We had a quick overnight in the Traders Hotel, and it was time for us to return home.

 

 

 

_MG_4069

Day 14: Bagan, Day 2

On day 2, we continued exploring more temples. Considering how many there are, we couldn’t hope to get any significant percentage of them done, but we were certainly going to try.

First up was Pyathadar Temple. The interesting thing about this particular temple is that it’s one of the last temples built by the Bagan dynasty, which puts it squarely as the most complex and advanced achievement of that period. It exhibits tremendous Indian influence, which was common in the Myanmar of these times. It also happens to have pretty nice views from the top.

_MG_3879

The corridors are fairly impressive.

_MG_3881

As are the views:

_MG_3890

_MG_3892

And the detail of the upper structures:

_MG_3925

_MG_3930

 

After this, our guide took us to a really interesting small temple. It was slightly off the beaten path, and was being taken care of by a woman who, apparently, took it upon herself when her father died. Her father was an archaeologist that spent a long time researching temples of Bagan, and this particular temple was his preferred. He, through some sort of an arrangement with the Burmese government, managed to become the sole caretaker of this temple, and after his death, this duty passed to his daughter. What was special about this temple was that it represented Buddha in a slightly different light – it was designed in such a way that you would not look up at Buddha, but could instead climb on a small staircase and look at him. This was very… different from the normal way, and was intended to represent equality, as with a mere mortal.

Another interesting part is that this temple does not show up on Google Earth (not a single picture is attached to it) and there is no information on it anywhere that I can find. It really was a niche gem that our guide wanted to show us.

_MG_3935

_MG_3934

Next stop was Sulamani Temple, built by King Narapatisithu sometime in the late 12th century. Legend has it that once, on returning from a hike, he stumbled upon a shining ruby in the dirt. He saw it as a sign, and he built a temple on that spot. Decorated with spectacular murals, many of them have vanished over time, or been replaced by junk, but overall, the temple is still impressive, especially with the impressive spire.

_MG_3870

Of course, our favourite brand is everywhere.

_MG_3939

Local flowers:

_MG_3941

Entryway:

_MG_3945

Corridor:

_MG_3947

Side view of Buddha:

_MG_3949

Some of the remaining murals:

_MG_3950

Thanks for the garbage.

_MG_3956

One of the side gates:

_MG_3967

Next up was Dhammayan-gyi temple. This is probably the most massive temple in Bagan, and has a fascinating story. The king who built it, Narathu, built it in just three years; the length of his reign. Possibly, this is why the top is unfinished. It is said that he demanded perfection in the bricklaying work, and he would visit the site and put a needle between the bricks; if the needle passed, he would chop the fingers off the hand of the workman who laid the brick. He was also a violent, and unpopular king – he ascended to the throne via regicide, by killing his father, and by fratricide, killing his elder brother, who was entitled to the throne. He also killed his queen with his bare hands. He was eventually assassinated, but not before building Dhammayan-gyi as a sign of repentance.

The really peculiar thing about this temple is just how dark it is. Most other temples in Bagan tend to be somewhat sunlit, as they are supposed to be happy places, for worship and respect. Dhammayan-gyi is spectacularly dark… and there are bats in it. They don’t bother people, since they don’t like them any more than people like bats, but they are there – and this is certainly not the case for ANY other temple we’ve been to in Myanmar. Our guide suggested that this is due to the dark energy in the temple. I can believe that.

_MG_3858

_MG_3975

_MG_3980

Next up was a lacquerware shop that our guide wanted us to check out. We got to check out how each piece is individually lacquered – and importantly, just how many times.

_MG_3996

First, how the individual items are folded from individual pieces of bamboo:

_MG_3997

Then, after about 15 layers of black lacquer, the actual design is applied. Apparently, men do the overall high-level brush strokes, followed by women who apply intricate detail.

_MG_3999

_MG_4000

The somewhat comical thing was, when we walked in, one of the girls (the right one) was SMSing on her phone, and the other was working. But when we (the foreigners) walked in, she very smoothly put away her phone, and continued etching. I guess slacking is international.

Finally, this comes out, ready for painting:

_MG_4002

Eventually, after a lot of black paint…

_MG_4005

… and going through phases like these…

_MG_4007

… something like this comes out.

_MG_4011

Or, if you prefer it in gold:

_MG_4012

_MG_4013

Needless to say, the level of detail is fairly impressive.

Next was Myazedi Pagoda.

_MG_4063

_MG_4015

_MG_4021

_MG_4025

Saw a curious monk on the grounds. That’s a nice Nikon, yo.

 

_MG_4031

_MG_4032

Map of Bagan… in real life!

_MG_4035

_MG_4037

A tourist bus was arriving as we were leaving.

_MG_4059

Next up was Ananda temple – the most beautiful temple of Bagan. It’s a whole complex of stuff – museums, terracotta, plaques and so on. It was built around 1091 AD by King Kyansittha.

_MG_4069

_MG_4070

A few warnings worth heeding were at the entrance…

_MG_4072

A full-blown market was in session.

_MG_4073

The main Buddha statue was, once again, representative of the reallyintricate detail that the builders of the Bagan period possessed. The statue looks relatively normal in general…

_MG_4079

… until you realise that from the outer rung, the statue’s face looks happy:

_MG_4078

… but from the inner one, recognizably less so.

_MG_4077

All to do with the angle of the face, but still – absolutely fabulous when you actually realise it.

An ordainment ceremony was in process for some kids.

_MG_4080

 

After the Ananda, I expressed a desire to our tour guide to go somewhere to watch the sunset. He took us to a completely abandoned temple that had a ridiculously decrepit staircase… that took us up about one floor, after which we had a spectacular view of the valley. Another off-the-beaten path place that was a complete win.

_MG_4161

Panorama of the view:

IMG_5749

Some more pics:

_MG_4089

_MG_4090

_MG_4100

_MG_4133

We ended the day in a place called Starbeam Bistro, which, despite the Western-sounding sci-fi name had some trouble with a steady supply of electricity… but most certainly no trouble with absolutely spectacular local food.

_MG_4163

_MG_4166

_MG_4167

Best of all? The final bill. This is a dinner for three, with beer, juice and water. Exchange rate is approximately 1000:1, so this was $16.

IMG_5757

And so ended our penultimate day in Bagan. Next day we planned on doing nothing and just relaxing in the hotel until our flight in the evening… but after seeing all of what we saw, we decided to include another half-day of sightseeing to make sure we covered as much as we could. It was a well-worthwhile decision, but more on it later.

 

 

 

_MG_3993

Day 13: Bagan, Day 1

Since I decided to go to Burma, Bagan was absolutely the most important stop on my plan. Having seen the surreal pictures of thousands of pagodas in the mist, I absolutely had to see this for myself. Getting a bit ahead of myself here, I was not disappointed; it was a complete overdose of temples and pagodas, but it was an incredible learning experience, considering they were all different. I had an excellent guide to take us around, as well – I’d be happy to recommend him if you ever go.

In my descriptions, I will heavily rely on other sourced content, as I cannot pretend to be any sort of an expert on Burmese Buddhism (and there are over 2,200 pagodas and temples in Bagan, about a thousand of which I feel we have visited over the three days). Some of the pictures on these sourced sites are far better than mine, too, but oh well.

Our first visit was to the Dhammayazika Pagoda. Its structure has pentagonal terraces instead of the more typical square base of normal Bagan pagodas. On each side of the pagoda, there is a small temple housing an image of Buddha. The usual practice in most temples was to have four images facing the cardinal points, representing the four Buddhas of the present world cycle who have already attained Enlightenment. In this pagoda, though, the fifth temple is placed with a “future” image of the Buddha. It was under renovation like several others we have seen, which was unfortunate as far as our touristic experience goes, but great for the pagodas, as a number of them have been ignored for far too long. _MG_3674

Continue reading

photo 2

Another Japan trip

It occurred to me that if I buffer my posts until I’m done posting the Burma stuff, I’ll be so swamped with subsequent travel that I’ll never get the posts done. So I’m going to intersperse the Burma trip with more “current” news.

So I had to make an unscheduled work trip to Japan. It was set basically on Wednesday, and I’ve just landed. So here are a few notes from the trip so far (though to be fair, I’m not likely to have as many “touristy” notes since I’m here for work – but food blogging shall happen!). I’d make some kind of a quip about “feeling like I’ve not been here for a while”, but that would probably be ill-received.

My flight routing was through Vancouver on to Tokyo. Sadly, the Air Canada 787/Dreamliner does not fly yet, so I couldn’t fly to the much more convenient Haneda airport. I also couldn’t fly the direct Toronto-Narita route because there were 3 seats left in business, and my upgrade chances were so low I was willing to route differently. To be fair, it’s also a bit more pleasant to break the journey into slightly shorter flights (YVR-NRT is a shade under 10 hours, unlike YYZ-NRT, which is almost 12). Continue reading

_MG_4172

Interlude: flight from Yangon to Bagan

After a wildly busy day in Yangon, I was fully expecting a no less busy day in Bagan, considering that beyond sightseeing, it actually contained, you know, flying there. For some obscure reason, all domestic flights from Yangon leave between 6:00am and 6:45am. (and there are like, 6 of them). And all domestic flights come back around 5-6pm. One would think that, you know, considering tourists are likely to have flown in late the previous day, and considering the (lack of?) volume of domestic flights, it wouldn’t make a difference whether they left at 6:30 or, say, a more humane 9am. But no. Everyone, out, early. Fortunately, everyone is used to, so the hotel prepared breakfast boxes for us, which was really cool. We had breakfast included, sure, but typically kitchens open at 6:30-10:00 or so, and if you don’t fit in those hours, well, too bad. So it was a nice gesture of them to actually prepare takeaways for us:

_MG_3591

Nothing extravagant, but sandwiches, muffins and juice. Works for me.

Continue reading

_MG_3518

Day 12: A day in Yangon, Burma

When looking for hotels in Yangon, I went through a number of threads and reviews, since I haven’t been anywhere close to the city, and there were no major chains present. I ended up settling on Traders Yangon, which is as close to a chain as possible (it’s a Shangri-La property – an excellent chain of hotels); there were a few other very good options, such as the Governor’s Residence, but unfortunately, the glory days of $100 5-star hotels in Yangon are far, far gone, and the Governor’s Residence was pricing out in the $400 range for the days I needed it for, which was completely unreasonable. I managed to find a sort-of a mistake deal on the Traders (with breakfast, too!), so I went with them instead – plus, having participated in the Shangri-La 3rd anniversary game, I had some points to blow on dinners.

Seeing as Traders is the “budget” version of Shangri-La, I was prepared for a somewhat scrungy 3-star hotel. I wasn’t quite prepared for what we came to, though.

Here goes the photographic diarrhoea that I had previously promised. On the off chance it makes you feel any better, I have a total of just under 4,000 pictures from this trip; so what you are seeing here is a very carefully curated subset.

Building from the outside:

_MG_3469

Metal detectors at the entrance:

_MG_4499

Continue reading

IMG_5659

Interlude: On to Myanmar (Burma)!

So with our trip to Japan wrapped up, it was time for the part of the trip I have been waiting for for a very long time. In fact, before I got my hands on the so-called “RGN fares”, i.e. the first-class tickets from Myanmar to Montreal that happened in September 2012, I didn’t even know I wanted to go to Burma. It is only once this incredible deal came about that I got on the bandwagon, and decided to go. I participated in what was called “round 3″ – because it was the third time airlines ignored the warnings from IATA that the Burmese kyat was about to be devalued by 100 times, and fares departing Burma had to be reindexed. The first two rounds were either to the West Coast, or on non-Star Alliance airlines, so I didn’t bother with them, as I couldn’t earn any mileage that I cared about in one case, and positioning to the West Coast was not exactly exciting for me; but to Montreal? Really now.

So we packed our stuff and headed to the airport. For once, we were early arriving to Kansai Airport – a completely unheard-of feat for me, so I was profoundly looking forward to using the beer machine in the lounge. It’s the coolest beer-pouring device you can ever come across: you put your glass on it and, as is the case with most things in Japan, press a button and wait. It will tilt your (cold) glass, pour beer with no foam, then straighten it, then put the foam in. Completely awesome. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The excitement mounts.

IMG_5658

Continue reading

_MG_2817

Day 11: Kyoto and Sakura (cherry blossoms)

There is probably no more beautiful city than Kyoto. It’s a terribly cheesy statement. An intensely disputable one, as well, considering the multitude of other examples of cities which are serene and beautiful. But if you visit Kyoto, and especially if you live there for a bit, there is something undeniably unique about it, which sets it apart from other cities. I’m getting ahead of myself here, but after our usual pilgrimage to the city, I spent some time trying to understand what is it in Kyoto that I like so much, and I couldn’t quite: in a way, there is nothing specifically different about it (besides a myriad temples). It has the same streets as other Japanese cities. It has the same overhead power lines. It has the same mix of old and new houses (though “old” tends to dominate, and even new ones tend to respectfully follow older design guidelines). It has hordes of tourists, both foreigners and Japanese, especially during important holidays and seasons. But… after everything, there is something so deeply ingrained into its fabric that connects with you and just pulls you in that you can’t vocalise it, but it sticks forever. To complete this sentimental soliloquy, Matsuo Basho, a famous Japanese poet, once wrote, “Kyo nitemo… kyo natsukashiya.” – “Even when in Kyoto, I long for Kyoto”.  

So we went to Kyoto to see cherry blossoms. Clearly, one of the dumbest things you can do in Japan is go to any of the major locations during sakura season. Considering we pretty much only had this day to visit Kyoto, we didn’t have much flexibility in the matter, but should you ever find yourself anywhere in Japan during sakura season, go somewhere other than the major tourist spots. Heed this advice. There are so, so many people that congregate in the key spots, and yet, especially if you have access to a car, there are numbers of beautiful spots that are devoid of people (hey, Tottori turned out to be one of them!).

Before we get to Kyoto, though, here are a few general sakura shots from Kobe. Technically, they aren’t entirely relevant to this subject, but I don’t want to make a separate post just for them, so this is kind of a good place to fit them, seeing as we’re talking about sakura in general.
_MG_3159

Continue reading

20140515-181651.jpg

Apologies for slow updates

I must apologise for the general lack of updates, especially considering I pretty much stopped at the most interesting point. Two days after landing home, I had to fly out to Miami for two weeks for work, and two days after returning from Miami, I had to fly to Seattle for a further three. Besides the fact that those two trips will warrant trip reports (Sixt is one of my favourite car rental companies, for what it’s worth), I am flying back today. I would love to begin updating the trip report on landing… but we’re heading to NYC for the weekend on a Delta mistake fare from last December that will see us fly in first class on a CRJ900 (which really means just a slightly wider seat – everything is called “first class” in America – and really, it’s a CRJ900. You couldn’t make that sound “premium” if you gold-plated it and strapped it onto a space shuttle). Finally, in June, on the same mistake fare, we are heading to Honolulu and Kona, which will at least be on domestic 757s on Delta, so if not much more glamorous then at least with slightly better seats.

So yeah … I will catch up with all these trip reports. I promise.