Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Breakfast in Yangon, Myanmar

Today we decided to take it easy and have a leisurely breakfast mid-morning just before the buffet closed. And I'm still having breakfast as I type this out. Then afterwards, I'm thinking of renting a car and driver and checking out some of the cutting-edge galleries that are starting to sprout around the city.

We've set dinner tonight at Myanmar's best French restaurant, recommended to me initially by the Ambassador of Switzerland in Manila, with dining in the garden and some of the most innovative Continental cooking in this part of the world.

Breakfast on the terrace

But for now I'm having breakfast on the terrace of my beautiful hotel with a musician playing a traditional Burmese instrument in the garden. It's rather nice and soothing, and the perfect accompaniment to a morning that's neither cool nor hot, and a garden abundant with greenery.

That's the background music at breakfast

What's a Burmese breakfast like, you may be wondering.

Condiments for a Burmese breakfast

Well, for the past mornings, I've been going local and having a fish and vegetable soup that Burmese have for breakfast and for just about any time of day, when they need a picker upper. It's called mohinga, and the type of mohinga depends on who's cooking.

At the Governor's Residence, the mohinga is thick and full of herbs, and they serve it with egg, coriander and a type of crunchy corn that gives it lots of depth. I liked mohinga from the first morning I had it here in Myanmar, and I've been having it ever since.

That's the mohinga-making station in the garden

They also have some sort of congee, which is served with dried salted fish and peanuts. I make my own version by asking them to put lots of coriander and a squeeze of lime as well.

Another staple in my daily breakfast fare here is a big slice of gooey Rebluchon cheese which I drip all over my croissant. It's absolutely delicious, and today I had two servings just for good measure. One of the waitresses then came up to me a little while ago and said: "You really like Myanmar cheese?"

It was more a statement than a question. But I looked at her with askance. "Myanmar cheese?" I asked. She nodded happily. "All those cheese are made in Myanmar."

Who would have thought? I've been eating French cheeses forever and I certainly would never have labeled this as anything else but a proper French cheese. This certainly added to the many surprises on this trip.

Happily, too, the Governor's Residence serves fresh carrot juice, which I have in Manila as well. So you might say that I'm feeling pretty at home here in Myanmar. Have a wonderful day, wherever in the world you happen to be.

The Governor's Residence
The Orient-Express Group



Serious shopping in Yangon

Today was our first day back in civilization, after four days of exploring central Myanmar on the Road to Mandalay river boat of the Orient-Express, which is perhaps the most luxurious river boat in the world. It was the most unheard-of civilized form of travel, actually, in the middle of nowhere, so I can't really say I was out of civilization for four days.

We had champagne on the rooftop of the boat, three-course meals on silver platters every evening, and extremely comfortable state rooms with turn-down service as we dined.

And perhaps the height of enjoyable civilized living was lying on the sun beds by the pool on the rooftop after dinner with really cool music playing in the background, and our desserts and coffee served to us as we looked up at the stars and talked about life. There are few moments more perfect than these.

Once, I even had to see the doctor -- yes, a doctor lives on board the boat; that's how civilized it is -- and I was almost shocked to walk into the clinic and observe that it was literally a floating hospital with a pharmacy. It was stocked for every medical emergency.


So, yes, we were away from civilization but not quite. But for some reason -- perhaps because we had been in the wilderness -- when I returned to the beautiful Governor's Residence in Yangon, a luxury boutique hotel also run by the Orient-Express that is supposed to be the best place to stay in the entire country, I felt like I'd reconnected with reality.

Today we hired a car with a driver and a guide to take us around the city. Of course we had to see the major sights like the pagodas and the old buildings from the British colonial era. Then I wanted to have lunch at the Strand and also to see Aung Saan Suu Kyi's home -- the lakeside residence where she spent close to twenty years under house arrest.


The Strand is supposed to be Yangon's second-best hotel. It's a member of the Leading Hotels of the World and it's nicely done in keeping with its reputation as a hotel of choice since the time of the Brits. But when we walked into the Strand, I knew we'd made the right choice by staying at the Governor's Residence as the Strand just can't compare.

For one thing, the Governor's Residence is located in the embassy district, one of the most picturesque neighborhoods in the city, while the Strand is nice but I found it a little too somber for my tastes, especially after the explosion of flora and color at the Governor's Residence. Also, the Strand is by the waterfront, but it's surrounded by construction and traffic congestion.

Finally, the Governor's Residence has the most beautiful gardens and its rooms are housed in traditional low-level buildings all over the estate, giving you the feeling that you are really experiencing the best of Burmese hospitality. The entire hotel is made of teak wood, and there are graceful carvings and artworks everywhere. Every corner of the hotel is a picture-perfect moment.


Still, I was glad to see the Strand, which has been welcoming tourists for over a hundred years now, and we enjoyed lunch there. I ordered a Burmese curry lunch while my companion had his usual club sandwich as his limit for Asian food is about three days.

Afterwards, I went to see the stores in the hotel and I ended up buying a set of seven monks carved out of teak and a intricately carved brass elephant. I had a feeling the store at the Strand would be more expensive than the regular stores, but I didn't want to risk not finding what I wanted again.

Meanwhile, Aung Saan Suu Kyi's house is by the lake, just a few meters from the U.S. Embassy. It's a pretty big house but you can't see anything from the road as it has a very high fence. The only things that give it away are four Burmese flags on the fence and a big photo of her father on top of the gate.


In the afternoon, as it was very hot, I persuaded my travel companion to humor me with an afternoon at the Bogyoke Market, which sells just about every type of handicraft made in Myanmar. He hates shopping, actually, and claims it gives him a headache. But we had one car and it was either he tagged along with me or I left him to sweat it out in some coffee shop while I hunted for exotic textiles. I really love buying exotic textiles whenever I travel around Asia, and I have these made into clothes when I get back to Manila.

It was while I was going in and out of the alleys inside the Bogyoke Market that I discovered my set of seven monks in one of the stores. It was exactly the same item and priced US$60 less. That was mildly upsetting, to say the least, as $60 can buy quite a lot of textiles in Yangon.


There are so many lovely things to buy in Myanmar. At Bogyoke Market alone, I'd loaded up on all kinds of textiles including woven silks and hand painted cottons, as well as on longjyi with different designs. The longjyi is the traditional Myanmar skirt and they come in really beautiful colors and weaves. They also have wonderful lacquerware from Bagan and intricately-made marionettes from Mandalay, as well as jade and rubies of all sizes and quality.


We got back to the Governor's Residence very late in the afternoon, but it was still fine for a dip in the pool, which is perhaps the most beautiful swimming pool in the entire Myanmar. So hurriedly I changed out of sightseeing clothes and took my trusty Macbook Pro to the pool for a bit of blogging and chilling out before a most enjoyable dinner in the garden under the stars.

Yes, I'm doing a lot of star-gazing in Myanmar...



Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Disconnected from reality in Myanmar

Hello from Myanmar.

Last Friday night, I met my travel companion to Myanmar at Bangkok airport to take the flight together to Yangon; and the first thing he said to me was: “Blackberry doesn’t work in Myanmar. In fact, no phone from outside will work.”

I thought he was kidding, of course – just trying to torture me, knowing how dependent I was on my phone. There’s no place in the world that’s not connected anymore – or so I thought. But he continued: “I’m not joking. I had my secretary check and it’s true.”

Still, I didn’t believe him. But when we landed in Yangon and I turned on my phone in the terminal, to my horror all I got was an SOS signal.

“OMG. You weren’t kidding,” I said. He shook his head with an I-told-you-so look. Then he said: “Looks like it’s just you and me for a couple of days.”


Losing a precious signal may not be the end of the world for a lot of people, but it’s a pretty big deal for us, as both of us can’t really be disconnected from reality for very long. In fact, while waiting for our flight at Bangkok airport, we’d made an assessment of the technology we’d brought with us: between us we had four phones, two laptops, two iPads and four cameras. And now we were realizing that only the cameras would work 100%.

But now, in the homestretch of my trip to Myanmar -- a trip I’d been so looking forward to ever since I’d decided to go about six months ago -- I realize that Myanmar wasn’t so bad technology-wise. And neither was it too bad to be disconnected from everyone for a couple of days. (This has never ever happened before, by the way...)

The disconnect wasn’t ideal, but we eventually found a decent compromise. We had no phones or Internet for the most part, but in our Yangon hotel at the start of our trip and today, back in Yangon, we had (and have) passable Internet. Yes, we're in Myanmar's best hotel and the even here the Internet is slow, and sometimes it doesn’t even work at all. But if you try enough times and wait long enough, you’ll eventually get the work done.


It was in Bagan and Mandalay, our in-between destinations, where things were expected to get rocky. But here was the big surprise. So in Bagan and along the might Ayurwaddy River on the way to Mandalay, Internet is almost non-existent in our situation, as we were on a moving luxury river boat; but each time we got to a major temple, there was free Internet! How weird was that?

Of course I wasn’t complaining, although it was a pain to walk around with my Mac, my SLR, and my point-and-shoot, barefoot and in the heat, around the temples.


Not everyone needs to be as connected as I do, so the sight of me with all my paraphernalia, walking around the temples holding an open laptop with one hand and alternately shooting photos and typing out emails and posting Facebook messages with the other hand, was a constant source of amusement to the locals at the temples and to my fellow travelers on the Orient-Express’ Road to Mandalay river boat.

But Sam, our excellent guide who has been with Orient-Express in Myanmar since Day 1, was probably pretty used to frenetic businesspeople trying to have it all while sailing through Myanmar on the Orient-Express – meaning working as if you’re at the office, and at the same time traveling to some of the world’s last frontiers, albeit in total luxury.

He continuously clued me in as to which temple had WiFi and never blinked at the sight of me sightseeing and working at the same time. It's hard and tedious to be walking around temples answering emails on a pretty heavy MacBook Pro -- but that's what a Travelife is all about.


Myanmar itself isn’t really far from Manila: not counting waiting time at Bangkok airport, it’s a 4.5 hour trip, so it’s very do-able. But so few people have visited it perhaps because it’s been such a closed country for so long. So tourist infrastructure is present but you can tell that it’s not equipped to handle volume.

However, I’m sure Myanmar won’t stay this way for long. It’s a gold mine of archeological sights and it’s got such an interesting and unique culture that it’s just a matter of time before the hordes start arriving.

But for now, it’s a very peaceful and picturesque land visited mostly by “been-there-done-that” people who want to see roads much less traveled. We met lots of nice people on the beautiful Road to Mandalay river boat and so far almost everyone has traveled as much as we have, if not more. More later on Bagan, shopping in Yangon and the Road to Mandalay of the Orient-Express after a swim in the prettiest swimming pool and an al fresco dinner in the loveliest garden in Myanmar.



Monday, February 27, 2012

Travelife with us to Malasimbo this weekend

On February 18, 2011, 1,500 people trooped to Puerto Galera, Mindoro to celebrate music and art in paradise. The first ever Malasimbo Music & Arts Festival was received with enthusiasm, merriment, and resounding support from both Filipino and foreigner alike.

Held at the foot of Mt. Malasimbo, the festival experienced excellent acoustics thanks to Puerto Galera’s adopted son, Malasimbo co-organizer Hubert d’Aboville, who generously provided his property, a natural amphitheatre overlooking the bay of Puerto Galera.

The bay was recognized in 1979 as a “Human Reserve of Man and Biosphere” (MAP program of UNESCO) and is considered one of the most beautiful bays in the world.


The mountaintop also provided an excellent venue for visual artworks by d’Aboville’s daughter, Olivia, an award-winning French-Filipina artist, and a collection of other visual artists, all of whom decorated the amphitheatre and the mountaintop with works reflecting nature, man and conservation.

Foreign and Filipino musical artists combined to provide an unforgettable experience. Favorite local performances enthralled the audience with their best-beloved tracks: Cynthia Alexander, Aquarela, Caliph8, Kadangyan, Kristian Hernandez, Nykó Macá presents GAFiEiRA (NMPG) and a then-nine-months-pregnant Christina “Badkiss” Bartges.

From overseas, Japan’s DJ Krush and South Korea’s Gong Myoung spun the crowd into happy hypnosis. Stage Craft provided only the best sound and lighting systems, transforming the mountaintop into a magical place amidst coconut trees under an ethereal full moon.


Furthering the eco-cultural tourism of Malasimbo, part of the proceeds from ticket sales were used to plant trees around Puerto Galera. Furthermore, thanks to Hubert d’Aboville’s efforts, a permanent miniature Mangyan Village was built in the festival site to showcase the indigenous culture of the Mangyan tribes, the true “katutubo” who inhabit the mountains of Mindoro.

Part of the proceeds of the festival went to reforestation in Mount Malasimbo which also provided seed-money for the installation of solar energy for the Iraya Mangyan community’s barangay hall in Baclayan which was completed by Hubert d’Aboville’s company PAMATEC last September with the generous help from individuals and institutions such as the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.

For the 2012 Malasimbo Music & Arts Festival this weekend, Miro Grgic, the Croatian President of Volume Unit Entertainment, the company behind Malasimbo, believes strongly in one-upping his performance from 2011’s initiative.

He said: “It is so important for us to show how beautiful this country is – the Philippines has become my home since moving here in 2010. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, I am Filipino! We are some of the most talented musicians in the world; it’s time the world knew just how talented.”


This year's Malasimbo Music & Arts Festival will have more musical and visual artists. Headlining the entire musical group is 69 year old Joe Bataan, the African-American-Filipino king of Latin soul from New York. He is also the creator of one of the most prominent disco labels, Salsoul Records, a word and genre coined by the musician himself by combining salsa and soul.

One of Bataan’s best albums on Salsoul records was “Afrofilipino.” Although he has never visited the Philippines, the home country of his father, Bataan was always clear on his heritage – he is proud to be Pinoy.

This Malasimbo 2012, Bataan will set foot in the country for the first time in his life, and will perform some of his best-beloved songs as a true musical pioneer and a true-blue Filipino. Bataan is also the father of Asia Nitollano, the winner of the Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for the Next Doll.

Obviously, music runs in this family’s blood, and in March 2012 the country will finally welcome home its prodigal son, and revel in the talent of Joe Bataan, in a first for the country and a first in this musical father’s long life.


Olivia d’Aboville welcomes a new set of visual artists to Malasimbo 2012 including Risa Recio, Agnes Arellano, Billy Bonnevie (who has had long experience dealing with the Mangyans), Niccolo Jose, and Nikki Luna. The artists will complement the natural beauty of Mt. Malasimbo with their gorgeous art installations, providing visual entertainment while concert goers are serenaded by Joe Bataan and other musical geniuses.

Tickets for the 2012 Malasimbo Music & Arts Festival are now available Ticketworld.


Friday, February 24, 2012

Hello from surreal Yangon

Hello from Yangon, Myanmar, after a three-hour flight to Bangkok from Manila, and then an hour's flight from Bangkok. The phones don't work at all -- no mobile phone from outside the country works in Myanmar -- and Internet is spotty at best, so it's rather unnerving to be so unconnected all of a sudden.

Surprisingly, for such an unconnected place, it's a pretty modern city. It's got five million people so it's fairly large, and on the way from the airport to my beautiful hotel, I saw lots of modern buildings and bustling commercial districts. The airport, too, is nicer than our NAIA-1.

Of course, this kind of bustling city with one foot in the past and the other in the future is pretty standard for Asia. In fact, I was just saying in the car earlier that Yangon reminds me of Colombo even now or Phnom Penh 15 years ago, before the tourists started coming. It's got that funny and rather haphazard combination of energy, sleepiness, frenetic commercialism and old-fashioned charm.

But considering how exotic Myanmar sounds -- it got only 300,000 visitors last year, according to some tourist literature I received from the Ambassador of Myanmar; he was kind enough to send his staff over with a bunch of literature on Myanmar when I'd mentioned that I was headed to his country -- and how cut off it still has been from much of the world, it's pretty much a surprise to see such modernity all around.


The modernity is combined with a very distinct Burmese flavor, though. You see monks everywhere, and about 70% of the people on the street are wearing the long skirts that are the Burmese national dress. It's such a pretty sight, really, to see everyone in this modest long skirt.

And the golden pagodas are lighted up, with people praying on the floor. I saw at least two of these on the way over to the hotel, and what picturesque sights these were.

Meanwhile, my hotel is a gorgeous jewel of a hotel. It's not over-the-top luxury but more understated elegance and comfort coupled with authentic Burmese culture. The shop and the hotel walls are all decorated with art I want to take home, so it's a nice marriage of antiques and contemporary art as well.

And for our first night in Myanmar, we weren't so hungry after a pretty tasty dinner on the plane; but we had a full-course Burmese dinner served to us on lovely lacquer trays in the hotel garden, all dramatically lit up. Talk about a nice start to an exotic trip I've been looking forward to for weeks now.

But I'll talk about Yangon and the hotel in a later blog entry.


I'm returning to Yangon and this same hotel for some more R&R at the end of my visit; but tomorrow I'm off to Bagan, the old capital of Myanmar and home to over 2000 temples on a flat plain, which is even more in the middle of nowhere than here, to just get lost in antiquities. That's really going to be a step back in time. But happily, I'll be seeing those temples in style, on a luxurious boat that's the best way to see Bagan's temples and Myanmar's countryside.

But going back in time -- even the luxurious way -- has got its tradeoffs. From tomorrow, I'll be totally cut off from the world! That's almost never happened before. Even in the most remote areas of Ukraine, India, Sri Lanka or Turkey, for example, I had either Internet or mobile or both. But tomorrow, I'll have a five-star boat serving four-course meals on silver platters under the stars with the temples of Bagan as background -- but absolutely no mobile or Internet.

But I guess it'll be rather nice for a change, in a never-endingly eventful and forever wired TRAVELIFE, to part ways with technology and work, even for just a little while.

If you don't hear from me for a while, that's because I'm probably cut off from civilization and too busy shopping for jade and lacquerware in Bagan's markets or exploring this wondrous 11th century city, one of the greatest Buddhist sites in the world.

Good night from the lands of the past.


Thursday, February 23, 2012

Islamic fashion rocks!

Tonight, I put on one of my favorite hand painted Malaysian designer gowns and attended the Islamic Fashion Festival (IFF) organized by the Malaysian Tourism Board and the Embassy of Malaysia. This is the same show that has been shown in Kuala Lumpur, New York and London with great success.

Her Excellency Datin Paduka Seri Rosmah Mansor, wife of the Prime Minister of Malaysia and patron of IFF, was the special guest for tonight, all the way from Kuala Lumpur. Meanwhile the Manila organizing committee was headed by the wife of the Malaysian ambassador and she had as her Philippine team members Doris Ho, Fortune Ledesma, Tina Ocampo and Tingting Cojuangco.

The project was started by Dato' Raja Rezza Shah after 9/11 as a means of countering the "Islamophobia" (to quote the IFF) that swept the world. He strongly felt that the world needed to see the vibrancy of Islamic culture -- and what better way to do this than via its most cutting-edge fashion?

The organizers of tonight's event

Last Saturday, I happened to be at dinner with the Malaysian Ambassador Dr. Ibrahim Saad and his wife, and Madame was diagonally across me at the long dining table at the residence of the Ambassador of Indonesia. We were talking about tonight's event as Madame was clearly excited about it.


"What's Islamic fashion like?" I asked her. She gave me a smile then and said mysteriously: "You'll see on Thursday night."

Well, tonight I walked into a full ballroom and took my place at one of the tables right next to the walkway for a very good view of the models. What gorgeous colors and what beautiful designs. Everything was a blaze of artistry, albeit with the characteristic modesty of Islamic designs. Nothing revealing anywhere but nevertheless so beautiful to look at and so feminine. And almost every piece was wearable and elegant.


There were a total of seven designers: three Malaysian designers, one Italian designer based in Bali and three Filipino designers. KL designers Melinda Looi, Syaiful Baharim and Tom Abang Saufi are great favorites of the fashionable set in Malaysia; while Milo Migliavacca, who is based in Bali, is known as the King of Batik Couture.

Representing the Philippines were JC Buendia, Jun Escario and Veejay Floresca.

And in between fashion numbers, we were all entertained by Stephen Rahman-Hughes, a well-known performer in London's West End, who has starred in a variety of musicals including Bombay Dreams.

I was fortunate to sit beside some very interesting people and we had a lively conversation all night when we weren't admiring the fashions. I recounted to them how I always buy at least a handful of dresses and gowns when I'm in Kuala Lumpur, and how I get the most amazing compliments every time I wear one of them in Manila. This has made me a fan of Malaysian fashion for life. I'll never visit Malaysia without buying a suitcase full of clothes.

I really like how their clothes are so graceful and elegant, and not at all revealing; but you don't feel prissy either.

They had really cool men's fashion too

Now tonight, everything was wearable and really refreshingly beautiful. There were a lot of headscarves; but, of course, as I'm not a Muslim, I won't be wearing the headscarf. But I could imagine myself in many of the dresses and gowns, especially the long flowing ones with intricate designs.


Later on I saw the Ambassador's wife and I said to her: "What a lovely surprise to see Islamic designs so beautifully done."

If you've been reading this blog, you'll know that I'm a big Malaysia fan. And tonight I was so happy to see so many friends from KL including the honorable Minister of Tourism Dr. Yen Yen and the Tourism Malaysia team. Seeing all of them and the beautiful fashions tonight made me want to plan a trip to KL sometime very soon. And just in time too, as Travelife is planning a tour to Malaysia this May 18-20, 2012. Do join us for a weekend!

together with the Malaysia Tourism Board
Enchanting Malacca & modern Kuala Lumpur
May 18-20, 2012
US$650 per person

Call Meg at Travelife for more details
8138400/ 8922620


Finally, one of the highlights of the evening was a long conversation I had with a top hotel executive from a very aggressive international luxury hotel. I kind of know everyone in the industry but for some reason, I'd never met him before. Well, tonight we just couldn't stop talking and he had about a hundred fascinating stories to tell about his one hundred lives.

We've also hatched a couple of projects tonight in that very short time of dinner. The way we were thinking up projects, you would've thought one of us was joking. Or tipsy. But no wine was served tonight so it certainly can't be the latter.

"And I mean what I said," he told me, after discussing the last project. And I guess he meant that this wasn't just some social conversation for him -- wherein people talk about doing things and then never do them. I liked that as that's exactly me too. So I replied: "That's the same for me. I don't ever say things I don't mean."

He then looked at me and said: "Why has it taken me seven years to meet you?" I had to double-check whether he'd sneaked a bottle of wine onto the table when he said this. But all I saw was water and iced tea. Anyway I just smiled and said: "See you when I get back from Myanmar."

More on this and our very interesting conversation in a future blog. Gotta pack for Yangon and get some sleep now.