Saturday, January 31, 2015

Arriving in Myanmar - A few days in Yangon

I flew from Bangkok to Yangon, Myanmar (Burma) on an Air Asia flight. I got in fairly late in the evening and had the intention of getting a new SIM card and some Burmese cash at the airport, which I had been told was possible. When I got off the plane there were big posters advertising the use of Mastercard at the airports ATM machines, telling visitors that they had arrived at somewhere that was modernizing and was ready to serve them. Well, not exactly. Every ATM in the airport was out of order. And, even thought there were people sitting in the currency exchange booths, all of them had decided that they were now closed. I had gotten lots of big American bills, but fortunately I had a few small bills as well, otherwise I might have been somewhat stuck. Getting a SIM card was out of the question.

Myanmar has only recently experienced a tourism boom as the government has opened itself up much more to foreign visitors. This means that they've started to build high end hotels as the masses of (mostly German) toursists have flowed in to the country. But what hasn't happend is an increase in the lower end inventory, to house all the budget South East Asian travellers who are making their way to the country. And make no mistake, Myanmar seemed to be on the itinerary of almost every budget traveller that I ran into in Cambodia and Thailand. So options were somewhat limited in my price range.

I had booked a room for three nights at a place called Wai Wai's Place. It had good reviews on TripAdvisor and seemed like a good option. One of the first things I learned about Myanmar is that no one seems to be able to figure out where to find things, especially taxi drivers Maps of the area don't seem to help, because once you get into the residential areas (where the guest houses are) theyre totally lost. So every time, including that first time, that I needed to get back to Wai Wai's it was a short cab ride to get into the vicinity, and then a long drive around, including several phone calls between the driver and Wai Wai herself, to actually find the place. 

Wai Wai's Place itself is simply a large suburban home in Yangon. She has several rooms that she lets out, including one "dorm" room, with five beds and a shared bath, which is the one I took. The other rooms seemed to be taken by mid and long term residents who were there to seek their fortunes. A couple of guys were setting up their version of Myanmar's Amazon, which I thought was pretty bold, since the Internet access in the country seems to be incredibly sporadic, and the ability to get something delivered to an address in a timely manner would be a struggle. But for exactly those reasons I wish them the best. There were also a few people from the West trying to find employment as political or economic consultants. These tended to be young people with little to no experience, right out of school. I may be a bit cynical, but I'm not sure why a country like Myanmar would be looking to hire very expensive Westerners with no experience to come in and tell them how to run their country. It seemed a little presumptuous to me.

My room was OK, for being a budget room. The sink was in the common area, which meant that people were being woken up by others trying to get up for the day. And the shared shower area really wasn't up for use by five people. I had also shown up without a mosquito net, which hadn't been required anywhere else that I'd been, but here was an absolute mandatory. The first night I slept very poorly, being eaten alive. After that Wai Wai was kind enough to put up a net over my bed for me, which gave me a much better sleep for the following nights. And other travelers that arrived without nets also seemed to try to sleep for a night and then request a net.

The centre of Wai Wai's
Putting up mosquito nets.

Wai Wai herself was great. She was trying to make everyone's stay as positive as possible. However, I did get the feeling that she was a little overwhelmed by all her visitors, and was a little distracted amidst all the things happening, which meant a few balls got dropped. It's too bad, because those tend to be the things travelers remember.

The best thing that happened to me at Wai Wai's was that I started chatting with one of my fellow dorm room residents whom I ended up getting along very well with. We travelled about Yangon together the following day and realized that we made very good travel partners. She and I decided to team up together and travel around Myanmar together until our agendas diverged or we grew tired of one another. My travel buddy was Franziska Knoke, a German engineer who had quite her job to travel around Europe for a few months. We stuck together through all of Myanmar, so it turned out to be a very good partnership.

The plan for Myanmar was pretty much the standard tourist version of the country. Start in Yangon, because that's where the flights come into. Then visit Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake. Some people add on a trip to the coast for some time on a beach, but that wasn't in my plans.

So we started of in Yangon, or Rangoon, as it used to be called. I couldn't get Dr. Evil's story of his childhood out of my head - "My childhood was typical: summers in Rangoon ... luge lessons ... In the spring, we'd make meat helmets ..." Of course, this made Yangon sound much more exotic than it really was. It doesn't come close to luge lessons or meat helmets. It's a big, fairly dirty, chaotic city, with terrible traffic problems. 

Local market near Wai Wai's

The first day In Yangon started with us trying to find a working ATM and somewhere to buy a SIM card. Both far more challenging than anywhere else I'd been, particularly since we started out having almost no cash, and the first taxi that we got into, which used up all our remaining small American bills, dropped us off nowhere near where we'd asked to go, and nowhere near anywhere that we could get more money. So it turned into a negotiation with other cab drivers to see if they'd take us somewhere so we could get money. We should have suspected that that first cab driver might not be completely trustworthy when he told us that his mother thought he was still in school, even though he was out driving a cab now.

Eventually we got some cash and found our way around town a bit. We visited the "market", which turned out to just be vendors with stores facing the street, a little disappointing. We had a good walk around central Yangon and enjoyed seeing what the city was all about. We grabbed lunch at a local eatery, where I got to enjoy my first Myanmar Beer, which I would continue to consume across the rest of the country. And Wai Wai had said good things about Inya Lake, so we caught a taxi up there. There was a modern pagoda on the lake, so we went there, but it was just a fancy dinner restaurant. Frankly, there wasn't much to see there, and not really a purpose to visit. We went to have a walk around the lake, but there's a fee to use the walkway, which we felt was a little ridiculous. We had some folks to meet for dinner and drinks, so we called it a day for touring the city.

Old Yangon buildings.
Central Yangon government building.
Awesome menu for lunch restaurant. Big pictures.
Fairly standard Yangon buildings.
Inya Lake

Later on we had drinks with an Argentinian gentleman who was in Myanmar to spend 6 months meditating with the monks at a monastery. He had done this a few times before, and it was very interesting to get the full rundown on life as a monk from him. We got drinks at the rooftop bar at the Alfa Hotel, which provides a view across Yangon. It's not a great bar, and it's not an amazing view, but it's worth it to pop up there, see the city and get your bearings.
On top of the city.

It had been raining pretty hard the first day I was in Yangon. On the second day it was absolutely pouring. The neighborhood that we were in was completely flooded, with a good foot of water in the streets. Wai Wai's place was slightly elevated, which seems standard in a country that has an intense rainy season, so the water didn't come into the house, but it was close.
Flooded streets.
Locals waiting for the rain to stop.
Trusting whatever is under the water.
We hung out in the house for much of the morning, then eventually gave up and decided to give it a try. We waded our way out of the neighborhood, then caught a taxi into town. Our primary stop of the day was the Shwedagon Pagoda, which was the place where we had been erroneously dropped off the day before. Fortunately, on this day it seemed to be a holiday, so entrance to the pagoda was free. Of course, this meant that everyone in town was in the pagoda, but it was a nice vibe.

The pagoda is huge and is the central attraction of the city. There isn't much point in visiting Yangon and not going here. It takes about an hour to give it a good wander, or more if you want to really get into things. There are a variety of stations where people give the Buddha a good washing, and loads of individual shrines. One of the things that I found the most interesting was the addition of what I consider very tacky modern lighting to most of the shrines. Each Buddha seemed to have a set of neon lights around his head. Sometime's flashing in a pattern, sometimes just adding some colour. This was a recurring theme across Myanmar and was a bit disturbing. As always, just because you can doesn't mean you should.

Nuns in their pink robes.

Shwedagon Pagoda.

Washing Buddha

Franziska with the main pagoda.

After the pagoda, the lake and the city centre we felt like we'd seen a lot of what Yangon had to offer. It's a place that deserves a day to explore it, but not much more. There's a train that does a circle of the city that we'd hoped to try, but we'd have to give that a shot when we came back to the city. The following day we were heading for Bagan.

Friday, January 30, 2015

One night (actually three) in Bangkok

From Siem Reap to Bangkok is another bus ride. I had been told that it was only a 3 1/2 hour trip, and on the map it looked like a fairly short distance, but as usual nothing is as it seems. Sure, the trip to the Thai / Cambodian border is fairly fast. But then there's the border to be navigated. The bus just stops and points you in the direction of the border, you need to then figure out where to go and, more importantly, how to get on your new bus on the other side. Once across the border it turned out that we were put in the back of a truck, then taken to a restaurant for lunch. And then groups of people were loaded into large vans for the rest of the trip to Bangkok. If someone had explained this to a single person on the trip in advance it would have gone much better, but as it was we were just a bunch of lost foreigners trying to figure out our way. One person had a flight to catch from Bangkok's airport, and I doubt he made it, because the 3 1/2 hour trip took twice that time.

I've been to Bangkok before and it isn't my favourite place. It seems like an amazing city if you've got lots of money, or if you're a broke backpacker seeking new experiences, but it wasn't somewhere that I really wanted to be spending much time. I needed to get a visa in order to visit Myanmar, and Bangkok is the place to do that.

I knew Myanmar was going to be pricey, so I went for some discount accommodation in Bangkok. I stayed in a place called The Blocks Hostel in a six person dorm room. It was actually a very nice hostel. Clean. Good storage. Comfortable beds. Big TV. Free washer and dryer. My only issue with the place was the staff, who were pretty unhelpful. Plus, the place didn't seem to have a system to track who was in which bed, pretty basic stuff for a hostel, so they weren't sure who was there and they tended to not be able to clean the rooms properly when they didn't know which beds were taken. This became a bit of a problem, but helped me to get to know one of my roommates, whom I hung out with a bit.

That roommate was a guy named Andreas Ferti. He was a weightlifer from the Munich region, who was travelling around SE Asia, with the intention of visiting gyms in each location and writing up a blog about it. He's a great guy, always looking for solutions to the challenge of keeping up bodybuilding nutritional eating in SE Asia. No rice, no noodles, lots of protein. Hard to do. His blog was called Lift and Travel, and you can see them of Facebook here.

Andreas, lifting his way across SE Asia
Good Thai beers. And our neighbors, interested in the gents with all the muscles.

One of the best parts about being in Thailand is the food. Thai food is always delicious, and Thai street food is cheap and fun. There was a great place just down the street from the hostel where I ate most of my meals while there. It's just an awning and a couple of guys over woks. It's hard to breath because of all the spice in the air. And the food is amazing.

Delicious streetside food.
Simple kitchen. Great food.


Getting the visa was a time consuming but simple process. I had arrived on Saturday and the visa section of the embassy was closed on Sunday, so first thing on Monday Andreas and I went down and got in line. You're told to show up with photos and your paperwork, but when you get there there is a van outside that will sell you photos and the paperwork, or when you get inside you discover you can get them there, and not pay for the paperwork. You get in line for an hour or so to get a number, then once you've got the number you figure out how long you've got. It can be a few hours. Andreas and I went and got some lunch, then went back and waited for another hour. When it was our turns we gave them our papers, passports and photos, paid the fee, which was a little more in my case because I wanted 1-day turnaround service, and got a number to come back the next day. It had taken most of the day, but there were no issues. The next afternoon I went at the appointed time and got in line again. After about an hour I got to the front and got my passport back with the visa. I was good to head into Myanmar. Other than having to give up my passport for a day, which I never like doing, it was simple.

No one in line. Because they're all across the street hiding from the sun with me, waiting for the doors to open for visa collection.

The other thing i needed to do was get a bunch of US cash. I had read that that was the only guaranteed form of currency to use in Myanmar, and that they would only take crisp new bills for exchange. So I needed to get enough Baht to change into USD to have for my time in Myanmar. Unfortunately, I made a mistake at the first ATM I visited in Bangkok, and left my card in the machine. Western machines always make you take your card before they give you your money, so you don't run off once you've got your cash. Thai ones don't work the same way, so when I got my money I think I must have concluded that my transaction was done, and I took off, leaving my card in the machine. I called the bank the next day, but they said that they just destroy any left cards, so my primary source of cash was gone. It wasn't a huge problem, because I could take out cash advances on my credit cards, but that's a very pricey way of doing things in a foreign country, and it doesn't always work. My loss of my ABN AMRO card turned out to be a pain right up until late December, when I was finally able to get a new card sent to me.

Evil ATM. Silly me.

The need for American currency in Myanmar is a bit of a funny issue. I was glad to have it, but I didn't really need it. There are lots of ATMs in many places, so as long as you plan ahead you're fine. But I was glad I had it in case I needed emergency back-up. Plus, since I entered the country on a one-way ticket, since I didn't know where I was going after, flashing the cash was what proved to the airline that I had means to get out of the country. If I hadn't had it they may have told me I couldn't enter the country. (I could have bought an exit ticket and thrown it out if my plans changed, but that's a pricey solution.) I left the country with 90% of the US money I entered with, but it's been quite handy ever since, as I've had a few visits to the US in the past months and haven't needed to get cash once.

There's not much more to say about my time in Bangkok. I read a lot and didn't really do much sightseeing. I love their food, but the city is a chaotic place, hard to get around. I was there for a purpose, and I got the job done. Next stop, Myanmar.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Visiting Angkor Wat

The day started with breakfast at the TeaHouse in Phnom Penh. I was then picked up by the bus company shuttle to the departure point for the bus to Siem Reap. It was supposed to be a ride of a bit over 2 1/2 hours. Unfortunately, after about 30 minutes the paved highway disappeared and became a wide dirt road, and it continued in that manner for the next couple hundred kilometers. Our driver was adventurous in the mud and pushed it hard, coating any cars, motorbikes or cyclists that we passed with a bow wave of muck. We made one stop along the way, to repair a predictably flat tire and catch our breath, then we carried along. The ride was about 5 hours and somewhat exhausting.

I later heard that the reason why there is an incredibly long dirt road where there once was a paved highway is because a contractor was hired to rebuild the road. They laid down an entire new road, then discovered that something was wrong with it. They then tore up the entire highway to repair it, rather than just tearing up one section at a time. Once they'd removed the whole road, they went bankrupt, leaving a 200 plus km dirt track between the two biggest cities in the country. Love it!

Nice view beside first stop.
"Does anyone know how to fix this thing?"
Beware passing vehicles.
"You wish your girlfriend was this dirty."
In Siem Reap I was staying at the Goyavier Boutique Hotel. This place was fantastic. Incredibly welcoming staff. Beautiful rooms with gorgeous bathrooms, comfortable beds and lovely patios. And a pool that was perfect for relaxing in and by after a long hot day. Good breakfasts. All for a very reasonable price. I'd highly recommend this place, even though it wasn't terribly centrally located.
Great rooms. Hard to capture in a photo or two.
Really nice pool area.
Being a budget traveller I hadn't usually taken a guide when I visit places. But on my first full day in Siem Reap I decided to get one to show me around Angkor Wat. I knew that this was one of the premiere "must see" destinations, and I wanted to get a good grasp of it and really understand what I was looking at. I was glad I did, because my guide was very helpful in getting me to understand the history of the area, the background behind each of the temples, and a bit about the current day climate in Cambodia. Plus, we got a tuk tuk to drive us around between each of our destinations, and with Angkor Wat being spread across such a huge area this was a big plus.

I won't go into depth about the history and background of Angkor Wat here because there's so much available online through far better resources than my memory. As usual, just Wikipedia it.

Everyone says to get up early to see the temples at sunrise. This probably makes sense, but it wasn't an option to me. While I've been travelling I've also been looking around for my next job, and on both mornings while in Siem Reap I had calls to take. I do understand that it gets a little crazy first thing in the morning, but that it's beautiful. I also spoke with some people whose guide had taken them around the back of some temples in the morning, so that they could get the view without the crowds, and they said it was terrific. If I were to go again I'd likely try to do that, but I don't really expect to go again. It was fantastic, but not something that requires repeating.

On my first day I did what's referred to as the small circuit. I didn't really want to do something that's referred to as "small", since I wanted to take it all in, but the guide recommended it and it turned out to be more than enough. The small tour included visiting Angkor Thom, Bayon, Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm. (Angkor Wat is just one temple in the entire complex, albeit a very large and impressive one.) I could say what I thought of each one, but if you're going to go you're going to visit all of them anyways. Suffice to say that I share the opinion of many in that I felt that Bayon was the most beautiful. And Ta Prohm is probably the coolest, because it has been reclaimed by nature and still has trees winding through it. It's better known as the Tomb Raider temple.

Across the water from Angkor Wat.
My guide.

Original 12th c stones on left. With 2 holes in each stone where the bamboo went for transport by elephant.

It was a long day of templing. One great thing about having a guide was that he know all the best places to take photos. We'd be walking along and he'd tell me to climb a wall or stand in a corner for the best shot. I just wish I had a camera that would do a better job of shots with both sky and temple wall in them, because any effort to get both in meant that the shot would be washed out or black.

Look out for the crocodile.

Getting artsy.

Me & the tree from Tomb Raider. 

We had a lunch break at one point, where my guide introduced me to a restaurant with A/C and Wifi, while he went around back to eat with the other guides. I had invited him to join me for lunch, but I think he was happy to hang out with his friends. It was very hot out, and at the end of the day I was exhausted and very happy to head back to my hotel. After a while the temples all start to blend together, so it was so nice to return, take a dip in the pool, and get refreshed.

That evening I went to a place called Haven Training Restaurant, which is a place that gives opportunities to disadvantaged Cambodian youth and gives them valuable hospitality experience. The place fills up, but being a solo traveller does have advantages sometimes, and they gave me a seat on a couch. The food was delicious and the atmosphere was welcoming. I'd highly recommend it.
Tuk tuk into town.

I had decided to do a bit of a self-guided tour the following day. I wasn't going to get much more information out of a guide on the second day, and I thought it would be cool to explore a bit on my own. I wanted to visit the temples that were to the east and north of the main complex that I had visited the day before, so I rented a bike from my hotel and headed off.

The bike had seemed like a nice idea, and overall it was, but I hadn't really taken the heat into account. I had to do a morning call again, so I didn't get going until a little later in the day, and by that time it had warmed up nicely. My hotel was a bit of a ride from the temple complex, and once there it was still a fair ride to the places I wanted to see. By the time I reached my first temple, over an hour after I had left my hotel, I was absolutely drenched with sweat. I had dressed for a nice casual bike ride, not a spinning class. I bought lots of water to keep myself quenched, but it was a bit of a slog all day with soaking clothes.

Progressively smaller doors as you move into the temple.

Cycling from temple to temple on my own time was quite nice though. It's very peaceful, and I only had to see what I wanted to see. I'm sure I missed many things that a guide could have pointed out to me, but the bike journey complemented the prior day's information filled venture nicely. Once during the day it rained heavily for about 1/2 an hour, but I hid in a 12th century temple to stay dry. Over the course of the day I had the chance to visit Pre Rup, East Mebon, Ta Som, Neak Pean and Preah Khan. Neak Pean was the first I visited after the rain and was very cool. It was a temple built on an island, with a simple footbridge across the water. The temple was pretty much gone, but the bridge right after the rain was incredibly peaceful.

Waiting out the rain.
After the storm.
Playing tricks with the light. Photo by security guard seeking tip money.
A menacing entrance.
One final look on the way out.

At the end of the day, hot and sweaty, I headed back for my hotel for a dip in the pool and to refresh. It had been a great visit, but I was templed out. People that visit the temples for a full week either absolutely love this stuff or didn't know what they were getting themselves into.

That evening I had a somewhat forgettable dinner along Pub Street, the chaotic very touristy part of town. What I didn't do, and in hindsight I regret not doing, was go to Phare, the Cambodian circus. I had considered it, but decided I was a bit tired. People whom I spoke with after had a great time, and I wish I'd gone.

I had no plans for the following day, and I made the best of it by doing as little as possible. I spent the day enjoying the nice hotel and its pool. I made another venture to Pub Street, to see if it had improved. It hadn't. I made it a nice quiet evening and prepped to head out the next day. I was moving along, this time to Bangkok, where I was going in order to get a visa for Myanmar.