A Glimpse of the Land of the Golden Pagodas: A Quick Trip to Yangon, Myanmar

It is a mysterious destination, a country off the beaten path which now seems to gain much deserved attention from people with wanderlust like you and I.  Only seeing the golden spires from secondary school books in Asian History, actually being able to see these awesome structures is now possible due to its government’s thrust to promote tourism.  With a very cheap fare thanks to Air Asia, we plunged in, ready to experience the unique charm of Yangon, Myanmar.
From Manila, Philippines, the fastest routes to take to reach Yangon are via Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur.  Having able to secure a Php 1,100 ($23) round trip fare to Kuala Lumpur, we decided to add in Yangon to our week-long trip and secured a round trip Kuala Lumpur – Yangon plane ticket at Php 3,800.00 ($81).  Looking back on the cost of the plane tickets now, it was such a great steal considering that we were able to hit two countries in one journey.  Excuse me while I pat myself on the back for the job well done because who wouldn’t be grateful when given to opportunity to see this for cheap?

The Glorious Shwedagon Pagoda at sunset.

Admittedly, the main draw of Yangon for me is being able to finally see Shwedagon Pagoda at sunset.  I could still remember the giddiness I felt when my brother and I finally took off our shoes (FYI, you have to walk barefoot in the area circling the Pagoda itself) and felt the heat of the sun on the marble floors seeping onto our bare feet.  We spent hours circling the area, which was very crowded, and waited for the sunset.  The structure really was magnificent, and despite being “templed-out” having visited loads of temples for the past two years, it still managed to amaze me.  I probably took hundreds of pictures of the same pagoda from different angles.  Haha.  And one more thing, they did have free wifi at the area, which made the time waiting for the sunset pass like a breeze.  

The busy, but never unruly, crowd at Shwedagon Pagoda
Lucky to have captured this amazing photo
 

As mentioned in the title of the post, our trip to Yangon was just a quick one, what with us having to go back home in order to cast our votes during the May 2016 National Elections.  We valued our right of suffrage too much that even with our limited time in Yangon, we had to stay in our hotel room and stream the final rallies of certain presidentiables.  Anyway, we were in Yangon for two whole days and it was enough to explore the city.

One of the alleys leading to Bogyoke Market

Yangon had an old-world charm and it was a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of work.  It seemed as though you had all the time in the world to do all the exploration you want of this unfamiliar country and it was just an indescribable feeling.  It was like being transported into a different world.

A view of Bogyoke Market taken from an overpass

For souvenirs, we dropped by Bogyoke Market which was just a walking distance from our hotel.  In fact, our hotel, Clover City Center Hotel, was centrally located that we walked to all the places we’ve been to except for Shwedagon Pagoda.

Sule Pagoda from an island in the middle of a main street

We had no definite itinerary and so despite the sweltering heat, we walked and walked and walked.  We proceeded to Sule Pagoda and explored the area around it.  We caught a glimpse of the City Hall and High Court, then found ourselves going inside their public park, Maha Bandoola Park, just behind Sule Pagoda. 

Just right in front of Sule Pagoda

A view of Sule Pagoda taken from Maha Bandoola Park
Maha Bandoola Park
Yangon City Hall
Yangon High Court

I was quite envious of how people in Myanmar still converge at the park during their rest day.  I quite envied that they had a seemingly safe park with a lot of green to gather on, which is so not the case from where I’m from.

Look at the pretty grass and the crowd gathered
Independence Monument
Maybe it was crowded because of some performance we chanced upon when we arrived.
A sidewalk eatery. There were lots.
We never really got to roam around that much aside from these places and a few more which I could not locate the photos of (sorry! Haha) but still we felt like we have kind of gotten the feel of the Yangon life.  We capped off our trip with a meal at a restaurant in Sakura Tower where you will be able to see Sule Pagoda on your left and Shwedagon Pagoda to the right.

View from the restaurant with reasonable prices

But my favorite part of the trip is being able to eat these.

KFC Egg Tarts. Not available in the Philippines.

Kidding.

I hope this short post has inspired you to finally take the bait and go to Myanmar.  ASAP while it has its old-world charm.  You will never regret it.  
P.S.  We have observed that giving way to people crossing the pedestrian lane is only optional to motorists in Yangon.  This is the only thing I want improved there.  Having been to Vietnam with swarms of motorcycles and coming from a country where compliance to traffic rules is not stellar either, crossing the roads in Yangon is still quite a terrifying experience but in the end, you’ll just get used to being extra aware when doing it.

Fall in Love with Autumn in Seoul

To my mind, it is ironic that while autumn is the season which turns the boring greens into bright reds, yellows and oranges, it is also the season which precedes the cold and biting winter.  It is funny how such a colorful season signals the coming of something a lot of people have been dreading.

It is for this reason that I have fallen in love with autumn.  While most people like spring better because of how it symbolizes the existence of hope despite numerous problems, I love how autumn slaps me with the truth that decline is still possible even for the most successful person just by looking at the beautiful red leaves which I know will fall down to the ground in a day or two.  I love how it says that everything will not be alright always and no matter how perfect your life is right now, you should be prepared to step down from your pedestal some time.  It was while looking at the pictures I had taken in Nami Island and in some areas in Seoul during the first week of November 2015 that I came to realize that the autumn season is a reminder for us to maintain our humility inspite of our achievements in life.

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Golden leaves blanketing the soft ground of Nami Island
Autumn 3
Nami Island’s famed Metasequoia Lane
Autumn 1
Squirrels frolicking amongst the fall falliage in Namiseom
Autumn 9
Fall color at its peak
Autumn 2
Nami Island is popular to both tourists and locals, especially school kids.
Autumn 4
Behind Myeongdong Cathedral
Autumn 5
Fall folliage up close
Autumn 6
They just pop up everywhere!
Autumn 7
Red leaves at N Seoul Tower.
Autumn 8
But do not be fooled! Despite fall’s warm colors, it could get a wee bit cold, especially atop N Seoul Tower on a rainy day.

Cherry Blossoms Spring to Life in Seoul

Coming from a tropical country, it has always been my fervent wish to experience spring and autumn during my travels abroad.  When I was presented with the opportunity to go to Seoul, South Korea in time for the spring season, I made it a priority to go Cherry Blossom-hunting along Yeouido Park, arguably the most famous site for this activity.

It was a little difficult to catch the dates when these sought-after pink blossoms are in full bloom as the peak period varies every year and every area.  Alas, when we went to Seoul last April 15-19, 2015, we were only able to catch the tail-end of the Cherry Blossom season.  The annual Yeouido Cherry Blossom Festival had just ended and the blooms were starting to fall.  Add to our luck that it rained during the day.  Still, the rain could not stop us from achieving our mission and off we went to locate the famous Cherry Blossom lane.

Spring 2
Random flowers spotted along Yeouido

A few minutes walk from Exit 1 of the National Assembly Station (Line 9), we turned left.  We knew we were at the right place due to the presence of the tour buses.  Pardon the image quality, I am not really enthusiastic about photography and I just used my iPhone 6 to take the images in this blog because I travel light (and frankly, I do not even know how to maximize the camera features of said phone).

Spring
Yeouido Cherry Blossoms (still crowded with tourists despite the inclement weather)
Yeouido Cherry Blossoms
Yeouido Cherry Blossoms up close

We were prepared to be wowed by the view but instead we were underwhelmed.  Maybe because it was not exactly a perfect day for Cherry Blossom viewing.

But worry not as it is spring time in South Korea, after all.  You are bound to bump into a pink petal or two during your trip.  We did not come looking for Cherry Blossoms the next day and the day after next but lo and behold, the Cherry Blossoms presented themselves to us.

Cherry Blossoms in Observatory 2
Cherry Blossoms at the Dorasan Observatory (where you will be presented with the dilemma of whether you’d view the blooms to your right, or North Korea to your left)
National Folk Museum
Cherry Blossoms in front of the National Folk Museum

Your body would thank you for travelling around Seoul during Spring (especially for people from tropical countries like me) when the weather is neither too hot (unlike summer) nor too cold (winter and for me at least, autumn).  As to how you would be able to know when the Cherry Blossom season would reach its peak, the Korean Tourism Organization releases approximate dates in its site.  It would also help if you research the peak periods of prior years.  Additionally, explore the possibility of going to Jinhae mid to late March for the Annual Cherry Blossom Festival.

 

Next post:  Fall in Love with Autumn in Seoul

 

Applying for a South Korean Tourist Visa for Employed Filipinos

I have always been a proud Filipino but if there’s one thing I hate about being one, it’s the limited number of countries that I can enter visa-free using my Philippine passport.  For single and young employees who are still establishing their careers and who do not have those lots of zeroes in their bank accounts, visa application is such a pain in the bum.  But as they say, it does not hurt to try.  And try I did.

After booking a cheap round trip fare to Incheon via Air Asia, I bravely applied for a South Korean tourist visa using my own credentials, ergo not using my mother’s financial documents to prove that I had the capacity to support my travel to Seoul.  It was a risk, but I wanted to see if my credentials were visa-worthy.  It also helps that a 59-day visa application is for free, otherwise my cheapskate self wouldn’t have taken the risk. Haha.

I applied for my visa late February 2015, just a few days before the South Korean embassy revised their required bank statement format.  I applied again on October 2015, submitting the new requirements and revised application form.  I was approved both times.

Gainfully employed individuals seeking a South Korean tourist visa will need to secure the following documents (updated requirements as of March 1, 2015):

1.  Original Copy of Your Certificate of Employment (COE).  Your name, position in the company, tenure, salary and benefits must be indicated therein.  It must also include the contact person in the HR Department in case the embassy wants something verified and the landline and email address of the of HR.  I had our HR put at the last paragraph that such certificate was issued for South Korean visa application purposes and that I had an approved vacation leave for the intended dates of travel.  For the two times I’ve applied for a visa, the South Korean embassy indeed called the HR Deparment and asked about the position I was holding and the details as stated in the COE.

2.  Annual Income Tax Return.  It must be for the preceding year which becomes due every April 15th of the following year.  For individuals whose source of income is only from one employment, this is your BIR Form 2316.  Ask for a copy from your HR, you should have been provided one.   This form is given by your Accounting or HR by January 31 of the following year.

For those with multiple employers during the year (those who resigned but were re-employed in the same year) or those with multiple sources of income, this is your BIR Form 1700 or 1701, whichever applies.  Form 1700 is for those who earn purely income from employment while 1701 is for those with income from business and as well as employment.  I only submitted a photocopy of this.

Question:  How much income is needed for your application to be approved?

Answer:  No one really knows.  I know people with low annual income but were still approved.  I think what one needs to establish is your tenure with your company and your capacity to fund your trip.  In my case, I applied with a gross income of just a tad higher than Php 500 thousand.

3.  Bank Certificate.  Secure from your bank for a minimal fee.  This must contain the account type, balance, account opening date and ADB (average daily balance).  I had mine addressed to the embassy of South Korea (which is at 122 Upper McKinley Road, McKinley Town Center, Fort Bonifacio, Taguig city 1634, Philippines) and had stated the purpose of obtaining said document at the end of the certificate.

Now, the question is:  How much is the required amount for visa application?

Again, the answer is no one knows.  One has to show that you could afford the trip.  In the revised application form, it requires that you indicate how much you will spend for the trip.  To be on the safe side, take that amount and double it.  That should be your bank certificate balance and ideally, your average daily balance.  To give you an idea, I had a balance of around Php 100,000 for my first trip which spanned 3 days (there was no ADB requirement yet at the time) and for my second application, I had a balance of Php 70,000 for a 5-day trip with an estimated cost of Php 35,000.  My ADB was at Php 95,000.

Still, I know someone who had no travel experience and only had somewhere around Php 50,000 in the bank and likewise got approved.  There were others with six-figure balances who got denied.  Who knows, really.

4.  Original or Certified True Copy of Bank Statements/Passbook for the Last 3 Months.  Certification must be made by the bank.

5.  Passport. Still valid six months after the date of proposed travel.  This is very vital. Even if you get approved despite not complying with the minimum expiration period, the Immigration people in NAIA will notice and might not let you go on your trip or let you off with a warning that the Immigration of your country of arrival will not let you in.

6.  Photocopy of Passport’s Bio Page.  It’s that page with your picture in it and the details of your passport.

7.  1 Pc. Passport-sized Colored Photo.

8.  Duly Filled Out Application Form.  Do not leave any item blank.  Write n/a if the question does not apply to you.  Be very paticular with your answers and don’t have any erasures as much as possible.  Don’t forget to affix your signature!

9.  Original & Photocopy of Valid Visa/s and Arrival Stamps to OECD Member Countries for the Past 5 Years, if Applicable.  Korean Visas will not be counted.

Applying for a visa is always a nerve-racking experience, especially if you have already secured your plane tickets.  However, just as long as you meticulously prepared your documents, you can sleep a little bit better while waiting for the embassy’s answer to your request.

 

Upcoming:  Cherry Blossoms Spring to Life in Seoul

3 Days in Seoul, South Korea: The Planning Stage and Sample Itinerary

So many places, so little time.

That was exactly what crossed my mind when one day I deigned to type the words “what to see in Seoul” in the always helpful Google search bar and said tool gave me thousands (or even millions) of choices.  Before I go on, do know that I plan my trips myself and I do not like getting travel agencies to plan my trips for me.  I subscribe to the school of thought that you get the best of your travel experience by trying to navigate through the jungles of a new city via public transportation and commuting to spots almost every time, if the situation so permits, and arranging everything yourself.  I spend countless hours drafting and revising my itinerary months before my actual travel date.  The moment I step foot on another country, accommodations have already been booked, very specific directions to destinations on hand and corresponding costs meticulously computed.  My meticulous self thanks the development of the world wide web every single day as it made travelling to another country so much easier and cheaper.

Ready for another adventure in the “Land of the Morning Calm”, I opened a few sites and I was hit with too many recommendations, i.e. Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung, N Seoul Tower, cherry blossom viewing at Yeouido Park, Dongdaemun, Nandaemun, Lotte World, Everland, Nami Island Myeongdong… a lot!  The panic alarm within my brain sounded and I decided to put off the planning for the next day due to the information overload.  I wanted to visit everything in those three days but after a quick reality check, I knew it was impossible as I was travelling with people who were used to having tour guides whenever they travel.  I had no choice but to set priorities with my companions and root the itinerary around those priorities.  We were bound for South Korea in spring, just in time for the cherry blossoms.  That definitely topped the list as we lived in a tropical country.  We were also history buffs, thus joining a DMZ tour and stepping foot on North Korean soil sans the passport stamp was a no-brainer.  And what’s a visit to Seoul without going to at least Gyeongbokgung and the shopper’s paradise, Myeongdong?  With that, we were all set.

Below is the itinerary that guided us during our 3-day travel, just click on the image to zoom in.  I hope that this could help aspiring travelers out there in planning their trips.

Day 1Day 2Day 3Numerous blogs and websites were scoured to come up with a solid itinerary, but I would like to specially mention the Korean Tourism Organization site for coming up with a comprehensive guide for tourists visiting the country.  Subway app Jihachul was also a huge help when mapping out destinations reachable by the subway system.  The earlier you study the subway system the better because look how many lines there are.

Random tips on how to plan your trip:

1.  Set your priorities.  Seeing all spots in just a few days is impossible.  To narrow it down, identify the places that you know you will regret not seeing.

2.  Use the subway.  Or the local busses.  List down all desired places and know which subway stop would take you to those places.  Map them out, group them by proximity to each other and tadaa! You’ll know where to go during the day without spending too much time and resources going to and fro when you could just travel in a straight line (subway-wise, that is).

3.  Know the operating hours.  Because you wouldn’t really want to miss out on something just because you didn’t even bother to check the internet where information is always available and most of the time free.  Also, knowing the operating hours would help you plan the chronology of destinations for the day.  It would help to know the off-peak hours to avoid the crowd.

4.  Check the weather and temperature.  But really, the weather is always unpredictable.  Anyway, it doesn’t hurt to have an umbrella on hand and layers of clothing to keep you warm (yes, we really didn’t expect Seoul to be that cold in the middle of April).  Nothing could ruin one’s mood more than wet clothes and freezing fingers.

5.  Search the net for festivals.  One of the best ways to learn the culture of other people is to participate in their festivals and it goes without saying that it’s a photo opportunity as well.

6.  Research about destinations and have a back-up plan.  From entrance fees to free guided tours, gooble everything up.  Even the landmarks that would indicate that you’ve reached your destination.  Know everything by heart as you may be required to deviate from your itinerary and look for other places to go to instead.  Alternative routes.  Alternative destinations.  Be ready with a back-up plan always to maximize the short period you’ll be staying in a foreign land.

7.  Know the exchange rate by heart and know where to exchange money.  Because losing money on conversion sucks.  Study your options, i.e. Php to KRW or Php to USD to KRW, exchange at home or exchange money abroad.  Personally, I find that I lose money less when I use USD and exchange them at the city center of the country I’ll be going to, or even at the airport sometimes when I wouldn’t lose that much for less hassle.  Still, this all depends on the country of destination and your tolerance level.  That’s why I’m telling you to study.

8.  Use your credit card.  Yes, don’t be afraid to use your card abroad. Sometimes it’s much cheaper to just swipe away all your purchases than to exchange money.  It would be best to get a card with very low currency conversion rate (in the Philippines, I’ve discovered that BPI and Maybank have very low rates).  Less hassle, less loss and importantly, more flight miles!

9.  Download applications for travel.  I have tons, i.e. Agoda, Booking, TripAdvisor, Skyscanner, Tripomatic, AirBnB, Hostelworld.  You can never go wrong with having a lot of options and booking everything online.  Beats lining up to get tickets and being turned away due to full occupancy.

10.  Be a responsible visitor.  Always remember that you are just visiting other people’s land.  It doesn’t matter if you’re helping their economy through tourism.  You are still a visitor and you do not have any right to disrespect the locals.  Know their customs, learn some manners and avoid breaking their laws (even those as simple as jaywalking).

Next post:  Applying for a South Korean Visa