The Best and Worst of Southeast Asia (and Nepal)

People are always asking what our favorite part of the trip was.  That is an impossible question and I usually follow it up with asking for a category, like best nature, or best cave, or best food.  We’ve seen too many amazing things to narrow it down to one.

We started this list somewhere along the way and have updated it as we go.  There is a story behind every one, many of which are somewhere in our blog.  For the most part, Riki and I agree on these – but I’ve noted where we don’t.  There are a lot of ties.  This is by no means exhaustive as we could find a best and worst of all 275 days, but I’ll spare you.  Here are the highlights, and lowlights:

Best Meal: Hanoi, Vietnam – sautéed pork with thick strips of coconut

Worst Meal: Luang Prabang, Laos – fishy papaya salad

Best sunrise: Poon Hill – over the Himalayas & Bagan – with its hot air balloons

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From Poon Hill – some of the tallest mountains in the world.  Annapurna region, Nepal
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Prayer flags on Poon Hill
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Morning mist in Bagan, Myanmar
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Balloons over Bagan, Myanmar

Best sunset: Koh Ta Kiev, Cambodia – from the beach over calm water

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Koh Ta Kiev, Cambodia

Best snack: Fried fish powder & Broad beans

Weirdest food: Wood meat balls in Myanmar, Hue clams in Vietnam & tarantulas

Best coffee: Vietnam

Friendliest locals: Myanmar, but if you want just kids, then Laos                              

Most annoying tourists: Chinese in tour groups

Best outfits: Men – Monks with umbrellas in Laos & Myanmar (longyi – skirts), Women in Vietnam with their day pajamas

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Monks with umbrellas in Laos
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“Formal” Longyi (skirts)
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Tough to ride a bike in a skirt
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Even tougher to work construction in one

Best hairstyles: Men in Vietnam & Myanmar (slick & fashionable), Women in Nepal with dyed red hair

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Barber in Hanoi, Vietnam

Cheapest meal: Pho in Vietnam

Best new vegetable: Morning glory

Best beer: Bia Hoi in Hanoi

Worst tuktuks: Phnom Penh, Cambodia – all just scams

Most painful moment: Sun/wind burn on my hands while motobiking the Thakek Loop in Laos

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Not even ice and beer could dull the pain – I was red for a month

Worst sleep: Train from Sapa, Vietnam with snoring man

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And we were only 7 hours late on the way up to Sapa, Vietnam

Worst road: Motorcycling on the Thakek Loop, Laos

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Miles and miles like this

Worst bus ride: Getting to and from Mrauk-U, Myanmar

Coolest museum: Jakarta’s National Museum

Coolest building: White Temple in Chiang Rai, Thailand

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White Temple, Chiang Rai, Thailand

Coolest non-religious building: Marina Bay Sands (Boat Skyscraper), Singapore

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Marina Bay Sands & Lotus inspired museum, Singapore

Coolest Houses: Bajawa, Indonesia & Ubud, Bali

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Bajawa mountain village, Flores, Indonesia
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Ubud house entrance, Bali, Indonesia
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Ubud house courtyard, Bali, Indonesia
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Another courtyard in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

Ugliest building: Government view tower in Bagan, Myanmar (so ugly it’s not pictured)

Best attraction: The Himalayas & Orangutans

Best Rice Terraces: Annapurna, Nepal (most impressive) & Ubud, Bali (most beautiful)

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Rice terraces outside Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

Friendliest kids: Laos, where they all wave and yell Saibaidee

Worst internet: Myanmar – non-existent in many places

Best caves: Phong Nha, Vietnam

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Phong Nha caves, Vietnam

Best Collection of Buddhas: Sukhothai, Thailand & Mrauk-U, Myanmar

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Sukhothai, Thailand
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90,000 Buddha Temple, Mrauk-U, Myanmar
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80,000 Buddha Temple, Mrauk-U, Myanmar

Worst dogs: Kathmandu’s gangs who bark all night

Most touristy thing we did: Canyoning in Dalat, Vietnam & the bamboo train in Battambong, Cambodia

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Canyoning in Dalat, Vietnam
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Bamboo train tracks, Battambong, Cambodia
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Bamboo train, Battambong, Cambodia

Most kitschy: James Bond Island, Thailand

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James Bond Island, Thailand

Best ancient city: Angkor, Cambodia

Best Ancient Structures: Prambanan & Borobudur, Indonesia

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Borodubur, Indonesia
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Prambanan, Indonesia

Best bike ride: Vang Vieng, Laos (though our butts hurt for a week later) & Lonely Planet city tour of Mandalay, Myanmar

Worst bike ride: Julie’s flat tires at Inle Lake, Myanmar (though I got to ride in a dump truck)

Dirtiest place: The river in Kathmandu, Nepal

Cleanest place: Downtown Singapore

Only place with a shopping mall on their currency: Brunei (also the strangest city we’ve been to)

Best skyline: Singapore because its variegated

Best land-based wildlife: Chitwan National Park in Nepal & Sukau in Borneo, Malaysia

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This was one of my all time favorite moments. Rhinos in Chitwan, Nepal
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Scary macaque in Sukau, Borneo, Malaysia
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Elephant in Sukau, Borneo, Malaysia

Best ocean wildlife: Sipadan Island, Borneo, Malaysia

Sipadan (1)
Look left, see Riki
Sipadan (4)
Look right, see me.
Sipadan (3)
Look left again, see (sea) turtle.
Sipadan (2)
Look right again, see shark. Repeat.

Most interesting city: Kathmandu

Coolest school uniforms: Girls’ skirts in Laos (I even got one made for myself)

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School girl in Laos

Best propaganda: Vietnam

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Propaganda in Hanoi, Vietnam
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More propaganda in Hanoi, Vietnam

Coolest flag: Nepal

Safest street food: Thailand

Best night markets: Thailand

Best music: Nepal

Best dancing: Pokhara, Nepal during Tihar festival

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Spontaneous street dancing, Pokhara, Nepal
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More dancing, Pokhara, Nepal

Worst laundry: Pokhara, Nepal (sock disaster)

Worst utensils: Laos’ chopsticks would splinter just looking at them

Tallest trees: Angkor, Cambodia

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Not just tall – they grew out of stone

Best public buses: Bangkok (and cheapest)

Biggest mistake: To be determined (though we are out of the incubation period for malaria so not taking those pills long enough is off the list)

Best decision: Halong Bay, Vietnam timing (going in October instead of December)

Biggest regret: Phu Quoc, Vietnam (over-priced)

Best Street Art: Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Street art, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Street art, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
The world, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
The world, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Street art, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Street art, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Street art, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Street art, Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Best art purchase: Nepalese & Balinese paintings

Most useful purchase: sink stopper for laundry

Most useful item acquired: free wet wipes on buses

Best local quirk: Kissing noise in Myanmar(when ordering at bar/restaurant) & kids waving (all over)

Worst local quirk: Betel nut chewing and spitting noises

Hardest thing to find: sunscreen without whitening

Most used items: Travel pillow & electronics

Best item b(r)ought: Riki pants, tablet, umbrella

Most useless item: umbrella

Wish we had: Swiss army knife & variety of shirts

Best new game/time passer: Jenga & podcasts

Crazy things we are used to now:

trash in streets, long bus rides, motorbikes without helmets, bottled water, using a fork & spoon to eat, being stared at, being generally unclean, carrying tissues, crossing the street amidst hectic scenarios, walking on the left side of the sidewalk/escalator, never understanding the language

Things we missed:

Food – bread with flavor, Clothing – variety, Culture – western toilets & real showers

I still catch myself hesitating before using tap water to brush my teeth.  I am tempted to head left when approaching people, walking up stairs,  and standing on an escalator.  Luckily, we aren’t driving anywhere, so the awkwardness is just that, not dangerous.  I can’t shake the feeling that I should be out walking around all day.  I want to eat chicken and noodles, not sausage and pretzels.  I can’t buy food from a stall and I can’t get anyone to smile back at me on the street.  But Zurich’s not all that bad.  It has all you can drink water in fountains on every block and there’s no chance of finding a critter in the toilet bowl.

Money, money, money…Backpacking Southeast Asia

According to our Travel Map, we’ve traveled over 38,000 miles (61,000+ km) since we left New Orleans.  And while we didn’t actually make it around the world, the circumference of the earth is only 25,000 miles (40,000 km), we went pretty far.  We can’t abbreviate it as an ATW (Around the World) trip, which would be disappointing, except that I’ve just finished our budget and discovered we spent almost exactly the maximum we had intended to spend.  Considering we stayed many months longer than we initially intended, this is exciting news.  We were not as organized in our budget as some people, so my numbers are rough and are strictly based on ATM withdrawals in each country and credit card purchases.  I can’t provide daily eating or transportation expenses, but accommodation I tracked throughout the trip. There are a few variables that could swing figures from one country to another, but overall, this is a pretty good guess of our expenditures.  For example, we took some US dollars with us as emergency money in case ATMs weren’t working or our debit card was lost or stolen.  This was a few hundred dollars, and we used most of it in Cambodia and Myanmar, where dollars are accepted.  We also exchanged money from one country to the next, but usually tried to use it up rather than waste it on exchange commissions.  These figures were undocumented, but since we did this almost every time we crossed a border, I am going to say its probably a wash.  The extra Thai Baht we had converted to Singapore dollars we used in Brunei, and it wasn’t very much in the grand scheme of our trip.  We had some very generous gifts of hotel and flight points, which I have excluded from my averages.  For instance, the 5 days we spent at the Hyatt in Danang, Vietnam for Christmas and ate only the free food provided have not been factored into days spent in Vietnam (except for the tailoring we had done in Hoi An at that time, which has to, as its something everyone should do when there).

First, the average accommodation prices.  Keep in mind these are double occupancy.  Dorms tended to be about half what a double room cost.  Check out our Hotels List for specific prices and reviews.

Thailand: $13.89

Vietnam: $15.05

Nepal: $17.14

Laos: $9.96

Cambodia: $13.12

Myanmar: $20.61

Indonesia: $14.33

Malaysia: $15.76

Singapore: $22

Brunei: $26

We often went for the cheapest accommodation we could find that still offered wifi and hot water (we achieved this about 80% of the time), so you could probably spend less than this if your willing to go a bit more rustic.

Street food is often the most economical way to eat in most of these countries.  However, in Nepal and most of Cambodia & Myanmar, we did not partake in the street food as we were very wary of the cleanliness of the vendors we saw.  In Singapore and Brunei, we had trouble finding street food, so we spent considerably more there on food.  Cheap meals could usually be found for $1-2, on the street and in the plastic chaired restaurants.  Our criteria for restaurants was: lots of locals, plastic chairs, and a picture menu.  These three factors pretty much guaranteed a good, cheap meal.  Some of our favorite meals were eating $1 pho for breakfast in Hanoi sitting on tiny plastic chairs at tiny plastic tables, amidst dozens of other people, slurping away at hot soup in the hot air (mostly Riki’s favorite – I prefer soup when its cold and not in the morning).  My new favorite street food became $1 mango and sticky rice, when we crossed into Thailand for the last time.  Why I didn’t discover this earlier is something I still regret.

Indonesia, Nepal and Malaysia topped out our most expensive countries.  This is mostly due to the necessity of flights to get there and in between the islands (Indonesia), as well as some more expensive activities, such as diving and trekking.  Laos was by far the least expensive country, with food being dirt cheap and accommodation far cheaper than any of the other countries.

Some tips for planning:

We started with the cheapest countries (Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia).  These countries are heavily backpacked already and thus are set up for budget-minded travelers.  It is easy to get around, cheaply and mostly efficiently.  Flights are not required unless you have a time constraint, and even these flights can be inexpensive.  We generally paid about $1 per hour for buses and found them long, but manageable (my earlier ramblings may contradict this, but by now the agony of these trips has subsided).  Meals along the banana pancake trail are cheap and can be had for $1-2+.  We had a water purifier that cost about $90 with us.  It paid for itself and we didn’t have to buy an endless supply of plastic water bottles.  For a long trip like this, it was worth it.  For a few weeks or even a few months, it may not be cost effective, but will certainly reduce your waste.

Nepal is a tough one to write.  We were there in October, after a blizzard in the Annapurna region and about 40 people died.  It is a small tragedy compared to what they have more recently gone through, and all of my advice for Nepal is probably obsolete.  However, we are still in touch with our great guide in Pokhara, who is itching for more clients. His name is Raju and he speaks English better than he responds in emails (deuchatri56@hotmail.com).  It would be great if I could get him more business, especially following the earthquake.

In Myanmar, we found the street food, covered in grease, unappetizing and ate more expensively than we would have liked.  The buses were also a lot more than we had anticipated, often twice what we would have paid in Vietnam for half the comfort.  Attractions as well seemed closer to American prices.

Due to thousands of islands, Indonesia was harder to traverse and thus, more expensive.  While we could have taken more boats, we had heard these were not always safe and can take many hours.  We opted for cheap planes to island hop through Indonesia.  Bali is surprisingly affordable, with so much competition, that most of the places we saw were clean and even provided big breakfasts.

As our trip was winding down, we lost the budget-minded sensibility regarding food and went all out in Malaysia.  For this was the place to do it.  By this I mean, we spent $3-4 per meal.  And it was so worth it.  Spectacular arrays of Indian food and piles of noodles, we gorged ourselves during our last month.  You could certainly spend a little less, but its not the cheap eats you find in Vietnam.  Meals were generally at least $2, but you would get a lot of food.

In Singapore and Brunei, the food budget went out the window and we paid western prices for almost everything.  Don’t avoid Singapore because you hear its expensive.  There are still plenty of budget attractions and cheap food can be found in Little India and as always, look for plastic chairs.

MONEY.  Contrary to guides we read, ATMs are available everywhere (even Myanmar).  We opened a checking account before we left with no withdrawal fees and estimate that it saved us hundreds in transaction costs.  Local ATMs generally charge a small fee, but you learn which banks are less and which ones give smaller bills.  Otherwise, we used a credit card with travel rewards.  We never used it in Cambodia or Myanmar, but it was helpful for paying the small service fees for online hostel booking, as well as booking flights and larger purchases (trekking and diving).  Keep in mind, many small businesses still charge a 2-3% fee to use credit cards.  With our credit card, we received 2% back anyway, so for large purchases, it was often cheaper to use the credit card rather than accumulate ATM fees as they usually have low withdrawal maximums.

To sum it all up and to generalize a lot, I will put it simply.  Estimate accommodation according to above numbers.  Spend $3-8 on food per day.  Buses for $4-10 depending on length and excluding outliers like Myanmar.  Planes can cost as little as $8 (Kota Kinabalu to Tawau) and up to about $70 per way – mostly we paid around $40.  We found great last minute deals on AirAsia and were happy with the service.  Walking is the cheapest transportation, but city buses are a great alternative and we found locals to be very helpful in guiding us to the right stop.  For instance, Bangkok has a very confusing bus system, but once we figured it out and got a map, we saved a lot of money rather than hiring a crooked tuktuk or an expensive cab.  Attractions vary a lot, but search online for top free activities in each city and you may come across some great alternatives, like we did.

Talking to other travelers proved to be the best way to research a destination.  They have the inside scoop and can often recommend places that you won’t find on Tripadvisor or in Lonely Planet.  If you must resort to guide books, we found that the places right next door to the ones in the books are often cheaper and better than the listed ones, as they must compete and don’t rest on their laurels as many places in Lonely Planet do.  Although I overflow with more advice, I will quit here.  Some of our best (and worst) memories are just relying on information we received along the way.  Our recommendations will be in the next post.

Lagniappe 2b, Riki’s Thoughts….Myanmar

Riki’s thoughts on Myanmar Part 2

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One of the journals
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Old Bagan map

Bagan

– Lucky Ducks we were! – the minivan dropped us off in town unlike tour buses (and bigger buses) that stop at the toll station (same thing happened on the way out), saved us from paying the $20 Bagan park fee that goes straight to the government (and is never put back into maintaining the archeological/historical sites).

– The Central Plains is where it is at! This area had the coolest groups of temples, away from the crowds at the bigger ones, a desert vibe, and scattered ruins everywhere.

– A surprising amount of the temples looked like they were completely reconstructed recently and using new materials (they have been using these temples continuously since they were built, so renovation is an obvious necessity, but the gov’t work was quite controversial).

– It would get so hot out there, 41 C/110 F, that my chapstick would melt (the good Swiss natural one, not the American one…)!

– The bat and pigeon poop in the temples was really bad – prevented us from going further in and exploring or going in at all to certain temples.

– So many Burmese tourists and/or pilgrims – so many want to take pictures with us – or they smile, wave and giggle as they pass us by in their pickup trucks.

– The sunrises and sunsets here may be the most amazing & beautiful I will ever have the opportunity to see in my life!

– Climbing the temples (totally ok, the locals did it…) barefoot was precarious, but was so much fun, especially when you had to find the hidden stairwell (often in a corner) that hopefully isn’t locked, and with a tight squeeze and lots of steps, you get on top and have these amazing views out over the plain full of temples (each one different) – repeat steps for the bigger ones with multiple layers to climb on.

Bagan – Magwe – Mrauk U – 20 hours by bus…

-the second part over the mountains at night was awful, no sleep, right above a wheel well

– Passed some sort of Buddhist parade (think it was a full moon that day) and there were a bunch of guys in wigs dancing gangham style on the back of a truck, then a large procession of stylish looking ladies in two lines holding a long white silk/cotton sheet with the heads of two dragons at the front.

– Incredibly parched landscape – desert like, and their wet season includes far less rain than the rest of the country.

– When we get to Magwe, it’s pretty ridiculous how excited people were to see us (waving, smiling, but way more than average), especially as we were walking up the ramp to the bridge to watch the sunset over the Irrawaddy (cars honking at us…).

– I finally started “Burmese Days” by George Orwell – favorite quote, besides the one about Mandalay: during a political argument about British colonialism/imperialism in Burma the Indian Doctor says, “I see the British… as torchbearers upon the path of progress”, Flory, the British main character (and “a bit of a Bolshie”) responds, “I don’t. I see them as a kind of up-to-date, hygienic, self satisfied louse. Creeping around the world building prisons.”

– I really liked the book, and though I thought it was a bit depressing, it was also way ahead of its time.

– At this time I also read “River of Time” by Jon Swain, a journalist living and working in Indochina in 1970-75. He was there during the fall of Phnom Penh and many other crazy places at crazy times. Was glad I read it after visiting all of those countries, but also wished I had read it before too.

Mrauk U (or Mrauk Oo?)

– Surprisingly small town, with really loud music and monk chanting in the mornings…

– Disappointingly abrasive people, sometimes even scowling at us (not as friendly as rest of the country, though many were still unbelievably nice), maybe has to do with the recent conflict (riots and expulsion of Rohingya) and the blame put on Western NGO’s for helping those persecuted (incl. doctors who merely treated injured Muslims) by nationalist Buddhists.

– Amazing sunrises again, with a mist/smoke fog that steadily builds throughout the town, enveloping the houses, palm trees, temples, pagodas and hills.

– The temples themselves are not as glamorous as Bagan (and you couldn’t climb up them), weren’t as big or numerous, but the insides of 2 or 3 of them in particular blew anything Bagan had out of the water! One temple was really cool as you went through the inside in a spiral with carved Buddhas lining the wall, thousands all slightly different, ending up in a central cavern. As I came out they were lighting lots of small candles and putting them in front of the Buddhas, creating an amazing, but also very smoky, atmosphere.

– Odd/humorous moment: saw a monk walking far away towards me in front of this nice temple, so I got into position to take a photo. He kind of walked towards me, off the road, stands still and smiles, so I politely ask if I could take his picture (because he is just standing in front of me and smiling), he nods and says “hee, hee”. So I take the picture, and he says “hee, hee, money, hee, hee”. Was weird and awkward so I gave him like 150 kyat…

– All together, not sure if Mrauk-U was worth coming too, due mostly to the absolutely awful bus rides to get there and away.

Mrauk U to Yangon (20 hours) – Yangon to Mawlamyine (6 hours)… Bus ride from Hell!

– Just the thought of this ride was awful, plus the extra 6 hour second leg. But of course, we got the wheel well, my seat wouldn’t stay up, Julie’s wouldn’t go down, the bus was over packed, and the guy next to me, on a plastic stool in the aisle, is falling asleep on me and the patient guy on the other side, with his head constantly in my lap or smoking cigarettes on an air-conditioned bus and spitting sunflower seeds everywhere… got absolutely no sleep… Luckily we had 20 minutes (so no waiting around) to catch the next bus at the bus station in Yangon, though this one was hot as shit and we had the bumpy seats all the way in the back (but at least it was only 6 hours)…

Mawlamyine

– Interesting city… Can see the old colonial architecture, especially along the waterfront – cool, intricately carved wood balconies, railings, etc.

– Very mixed religious representation – obviously mostly Buddhist (especially with that awesome hilltop pagoda with better views than Yangon’s), but also a lot of Islam (second biggest I think, lots of mosques), then Christianity and Hinduism (both represented near the center of town).

– Went up a minaret and walked around an Islamic Cemetery (Julie wasn’t allowed to because she was female, so she was pissed, rightfully, and stormed off to wait for me at the church – where she was allowed to enter), and an older gentleman came up and walked alongside me and, in what little English he knew, tried to describe to me what the cemetery was, how Islam is like brothers to all the other religions in town, and many other things…

– Also, I was finally able to buy my “Myanmar” beer jersey (green) that I had seen and wanted since the first day in Myanmar. You saw everybody wearing it, but it was never sold anywhere! Especially not at the markets, I tried in every one… Got it at a waterside restaurant that had a “Myanmar Casual Wear for Sale” sign! So happy

Mawlamyine to Dawei Bus (6 hours)

– Great sign already when we didn’t have a wheel well underneath us, the AC worked, the seats were camo, and within the first 20 minutes they played (on the flat screen TV in the front with music blasting) a Burmese version of Shakira’s “WakaWaka” (the South Africa World Cup song). Proceeded to have the song stuck in my head for the next three weeks. We knew that from here on out, we would really like the south (of Myanmar), good vibes, friendly people, etc…

– Get to our rest stop (for dinner & potty break, we don’t eat) and “Independence Day” is on and it’s the exact moment in the movie where the President is giving his epic speech and says “…this is our Independence Day!”, and Will Smith is flying a space ship – another good sign!

– Also began to notice less longyis and more pants, and the ethnic characteristics of the people were changing.

Observations on Bus Rides, in general, In Myanmar:

– Ridiculous movies – not only is the acting soap opera-esque, but the film quality and editing standards are obviously of an industry just starting to find its feet after only a couple of years in existence.

– Also, they have music movies, where a movie is being played and its either a feature length music video/story, or they just play an entire album while muting the movie – never really found out because both options seemed plausible and entertaining.

– There were (along with all the live performances of music) great set of live comedy with old men speaking and people laughing hysterically, women dancing, and all throughout, audience members would be going up on stage handing them bouquets of flowers or pinning kyat on their shirts…

Other General Observations:

– Music in general – so many covers (in Burmese) of songs we know… Paul Simon, Sting, Santana, Shakira, etc. – not sure if they use the beat and completely new lyrics or if they translate the originals.

– Nepal has cows strolling through their streets, Myanmar has goats, though they are not holy and its mostly in the south and west.

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Dawei

– Super friendly people, waving hello, in all circumstances, at the market and while we were riding scooters – two groups of kids drove up alongside us while we were riding and wanted to talk (for like 5 minutes), it was funny, and a little dangerous.

– Great place to spend our last couple of days in Myanmar

– We went to this amazing temple on the bluffs, sticking out into the Andaman Sea, where a couple of kids wanted to take a picture with me (likely because I had my Myanmar shirt on), Julie had to ask them to smile…

– We drove on and had a huge beach all to ourselves, absolutely massive, eventually sharing it with a group of kids who were showing off, doing flips, asking for money (only a couple of times), and playing frisbee with us.

– A new rule we followed in Myanmar (which we should have done in Nepal and Laos) – if somebody comes up and wants a picture of you with them, you ask to take a picture (on our camera) with them too.

– Flying over the Mergui Archipelago was amazing in our fancy premier economy seats at the front of the new Myanmar National Airlines jet, with an amazing view of the untouched islands below – don’t think we could have seen so much in the other transport option, a 12 hour ferry ride that would have only saved us $1.

– Crossing the border, was a nuts racket, with this one guy leading me all around (I never really agreed, but he forced himself to guide me… setting me up for the scam, and getting him and his friends more money.

– He took me to a store to buy rum (was only 5000 kyat, but expensive compared to everywhere else… It’s a border town, so I guess it makes sense).

– Then into Immigration, where he talked to the officers, probably telling them we were suckers – they made us get copies of the stamps they just made, outside and across the street, WTF? We came back and Julie gave them a large piece of her mind (though I tried to tell her it’s not a great idea to yell at border guards…).

– Then he put is onto a tiny, 8 person boat to go to Thailand, where we were charged $3 more than everybody else! Oh well…

Lagniappe 2a, Riki’s Thoughts….Myanmar

More notes from Riki’s journal

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Myanmar Part 1

Yangon

The City: I got awesomely distracted the entire time when walking around town; great diversity, Hindu, Islam, Buddhism, Christianity (still see Indian influence which used to be 50% of the population); reminded me of a mixture between Havana and Kathmandu with better infrastructure than both (To KTM: less polluted but with its spirituality, but not as ancient feeling, due to it being destroyed often and recently by wars. To Havana: Tropical with the same colors and run down tall buildings, all made of concrete, all the same height).

– Shwedagon Pagoda: (has WiFi…) Stunningly beautiful, lots of people, very relaxed atmosphere many more Burmese than foreign tourists (at least 10-15% are monks, maybe coming for here for their first time), had many different shrines (day of week, etc…).

– There was this gorgeous Buddhist nun in pink, with completely shaved head (maybe in her late 70’s?), walking around the pagoda in an extremely slow, but constant pace, saying her prayers (amazing dedication).

– A group of Chinese tourists wanted their picture taken with a tall blonde Northern European woman in front of the pagoda, ridiculous….

– Sad it was being painted when we were there, but still looked cool because they painted the protective cover gold (haphazardly built with bamboo and paper).

The City continued…

– Newspapers, books, crazy movie posters, guitars & music, etc… all of these things that weren’t allowed just a couple of years ago are all SO popular, sold like hotcakes on the streets!

– All the ministries/gov’t buildings were abandoned – giving the appearance of eerie/odd inner city ruins of majestic buildings. These workers were taking down the remains of an obviously intense wall around the old main government compound (barbed wire, 4m tall, concrete posts, etc…), another of the many signs of change happening in the city (and country).

– Guys yelling at potential passengers from the doors of public buses (impossible to use, we tried) – barely organized chaos.

– Pigeons shitting everywhere (like most places we’ve seen)…

– Odd situation: saw a kid monk kick another one (who was crying and screaming) on the street… people around were making faces at the situation (not sure if they were upset and at who), and we had no idea what was happening… Later the kid who was on the street crying came up and asked for money (which I’m pretty sure novice monks don’t do) – maybe that’s why he got kicked, fake monks?

– Everybody says “hello” (in English) when answering their phones here…

– The central market and main pagoda are the only places you really see other tourists (besides rarely passing them on the street).

– Embarrassing moment at the hostel when I looked at a picture of a general on the wall and asked if it was Than Shwe (the old general/president/dick), but it was Aung Sun (national hero, his daughter is the leader of the opposition)… oops.

Train Ride around town:

– An old man pointed at Julie and then at a no kissing sign (not sure what he was trying to hint at)…

– So much fun hanging off the side of the train and waving at the people who pass (and when they recognize that I’m a foreigner, they always smile and initiate the wave – all ages, not just the hundreds of kids).

– There is the red dried spit (from the betel chewing) on the outside of all the windows, and its gross (same as all the cars in town).

– Experienced our first case of amazing Burmese/Myanmar hospitality – two ladies on the train sitting with us proceeded to give us 6 oranges, chocolate goo/tea, and hot corn!

Bus stop on way to Inle Lake: Nicer than the ones in the states and they played some no word version of “House of the Rising Sun”! Made me think of NOLA

Inle Lake:

– Bikes that sucked, and got too many flat tires, though riding around was really nice.

– Fire on the hillside at dusk (especially after our wine tasting… where only half of the wine was even consumable…) was crazy! This, and the fact that there were these big hills/mountains that were really dry, and completely surrounding us, reminded me of California (SoCal), whereas the lake, houses on stilts, canals through the floating gardens in Inle, reminded me of the Louisiana Bayou.

Boat Tour:

– Fishermen were posing for the tourists in the morning, and there were so many tourists in the boats (and locals who would all smile, giggle and wave to us), I thought it quite odd, so I took pictures of them later in the afternoon, on our way back into town, when they were actually fishing.

– The “floating market”, close to the silver shop, was so disappointingly and unexpectedly  touristy.

– The whole boat tour thing was quite touristy, including all the huge resorts on the water and the various shops/houses they take you to, etc. But still, the other villages on stilts that we drove through were awesome, bamboo curbs/wave breaks, as were the floating gardens.

– The cigarettes they make with licorice and other natural ingredients were surprisingly smooth (even though I had a sore throat).

– We met two journalists that were making a documentary on the lake (and how its losing so much surface area) – we might be in some footage that shows cats on an island…

Football Game at Inle:

– Was a pretty intense game (field was just rocks and dirt), every time the ball took an awful bounce, the whole crowd erupted with laughter.

– I was the only non Myanmar person at the game (seems as though other tourists never go to these games, or even know that they are happening, considering all the interested looks I got there). Guy at the gate/entrance told me, very enthusiastically, to come and watch the game as I approached, even though that was my plan all along, and joked that the price was 3000 kyat ($3), which I was ready to pay, but then informed me that it was actually 300 kyat ($0.30) – great laughs were had all around.

– I sat down near the middle of the field, in front of the stands, next to a bunch of other people who were all quite excited to talk to me (or make hand gestures) and ask me questions.

– I met this one guy who used to be a trekking guide, and he explained to me how one time he showed an American the area, took him home to dinner, and this guy eventually married his sister, so he had a soft spot for Americans. After the game he takes me to a “bar” where I seriously doubt any other westerner had ever been  (I was getting very surprised looks). When we get there, there was a drunk guy yelling, pointing, crying, and pushing the other people around, so we sat in awkward silence for a while as everything eventually calmed down (we didn’t even go right into the bar at first because he was doing all this stuff in the doorway). I tried the dried fish that I had seen everywhere, which was very strong, but was ok with the cheap whiskey that was easy to drink, as well as the fish rice chips we ate. I learned many things from my new friend, like how the Burmese (likely just the men) all drink before dinner and in the morning, and how now they can openly discuss politics, when before they couldn’t and that he was definitely going to vote for the NLD (previously banned opposition group) in the upcoming elections.

Mandalay

– The city had always seemed like such a romantic/historic sounding place – but I was told to drastically lower my expectations of the place because it was a dusty, dirty, confusing place. But it was surprisingly unique and different from Yangon, and really any other city I had ever been (almost 40% Chinese, due to recent immigration). Yes, it was more dusty, yes it was not that big, yes the palace had been reconstructed with forced labor 20 years ago, yes it was hot and not built up (and at one point I literally walked through a wall of mosquitoes that nearly knocked me off my feet), but it seemed like a young, hip, and more artsy (graffiti, etc.) city than anywhere else in the country, and the people were of course super friendly (especially prevalent when I was walking through the random side streets of the city).

– One of my favorite quotes from George Orwell’s “Burmese Days” which I started reading later on: “Mandalay is rather a disagreeable town – it is dusty and intolerably hot, and it is said to have five main products all beginning with P, namely, pagodas, pariahs, pigs, priests and prostitutes…”

– The Mall was surprisingly posh (full of young hip people), with a lot of shops selling the same stuff as Bangkok, but not as aggressive/tacky, and there was an awesome grocery store in the basement. But it was a huge change from just outside where there was a real food market (and all the accompanying smells and flies) and dusty, dirty streets…

– There were female monks (Buddhist nuns) everywhere (no hair, dressed in pink with yellow bags). Also, more monks than anywhere else (total number and percentage of population maybe?) in Myanmar.

– Funny moment: went into a pretty nice little bakery, looked around confused, saw all the ladies working there with matching blue outfits, start to look at selection, lady with tray shows up behind me, insists on holding it while I choose what I want, while her coworker in the corner discretely takes a picture of me, and 30 seconds later is obviously taking pictures of me (no doubt to show her friends?)… and they gave me a huge calendar with awkward pictures of the owner and his family when I checked out.

Train from Mandalay to Kyaukme – was quite cool, very bumpy and hard to get any sleep – saw amazing change in the landscape as we got higher – better irrigation – more green fields. The viaduct was crazy/scary – 1 lane – 5 mph… pretty glad when we reached the other side.

Kyaukme, Shan State

– Was cool that we were the only Westerners to get off at the train station (considering how many were on the train), and we never saw any others walking around the town, just a couple at the guesthouse.

– Johnny, our trekking guide: really nice young guy who’s English was very good – taught us a lot on our trek, like that the controversial (in the West’s eyes) change of name of the country from Burma to Myanmar recognizes the numerous minorities around the country that aren’t Burmese (never saw it that way before).

– There were a number of places we couldn’t go trekking because of continuing fighting between the rebels and the government (recent changes highlighted the constant fighting). Apparently lots of local girls are joining the rebels.

– The homestay we spent a night at had a calendar with pictures of the Paulung Rebels posing in these ridiculously photoshopped setups, but they still looked like a legit and formidable army.

– Apparently the rebels like to get (force?) 1 or 2 people per village as soldiers (never brothers), and /or the oldest/youngest son in a family (I think the gov’t does the same thing in lowlands…).

– We learnt that the government used to make the farmers plant shitty Chinese rice (because the military had arranged some agreement with China) and pay high taxes, which they couldn’t afford because selling shitty rice doesn’t get you much money (and this was in the main towns of Shan State, not just up in the mountain villages) – can see why there was much disagreement/hostility with the gov’t.

– Quite funny that there was this big fashion trend a year or two ago of all the boys and young men having these emo haircuts.

– Kids at the school on the first day of the trek were crazy, all grabbing both of my arms and screaming “hello” “good afternoon” “nice to meet you!” – try to picture a little novice monk almost angrily, but definitely aggressively push other kids away so he could have me all to himself as he smiled and said all these things over and over… also, they would never let go, so this went on for like 10 minutes!

Lagniappe 1, Riki’s Thoughts….Cambodia

(I have been hounding Riki for months about typing up his journal notes for me to post.  Now, as we are sitting in the Swiss Alps, it all comes together and all you guys who have been bugging me about this can all relax.  And check out the pictures too – some hand drawn maps included.)

The Journal (Just a bit larger than an index card)
The Journal (Just a bit larger than an index card)
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Cambodia Map

 

Border Crossing from Phu Quoc (Vietnam)

– 5 Buses, 1 Boat, & 1 Clueless Tuktuk

– Didn’t have luggage with us at one point, separated when driving to Bus Station, was not cool

– There was an immediate change in buildings and stores on the other side of the border (much poorer construction with far fewer supplies). There was also a crazy big casino right on the Cambodian side (many vices found in Cambodia are not allowed in Vietnam).

– Drive through the countryside was really cool – dried rice paddies, flat, pockets of palm trees with little wooden huts. Much more similar to Laos than Vietnam.

 

Phnom Penh

– Crazy Tuktuk guys introduced us to the city as 10 of them would run 30 meters alongside the minivans seeking any business they could (each time we let a person off as we wound our way through the city), absolute madness.

– Traffic in this city is like Vietnam, but more cars and absolutely no organization whatsoever. They have quite wide roads, which makes it far more difficult and dangerous to cross (nothing like the organized chaos of Hanoi & HCMC), and there are Toyota Camrys everywhere, likely 90% of all the cars, all different ages (probably some knockoffs too).

– Great to be able to get draught beer again, $0.50 for a glass, but I miss ripping off the labels from the bottles (to save for art projects at a later date).

– Back to seeing SexPats (far more than we saw in Bangkok). Granted the Khmer women are all beautiful, it’s very weird and off-putting to see 7 skinny women, dressed like they are out clubbing, hanging out in front of the bars, at ALL hours of the day trying to lure in tourists, as well as all the 18 year old Khmer girls (some likely younger) hanging out with 60 – 70 year old white men.

– Some of the SexPats are young (but really quite unfortunately ugly) men hanging out with these beautiful women.

– Saw, at a minimart, a short Khmer girl holding the crotch of the much taller white guy… from behind (through the legs)… at the cash register (while the cashier, her friend, Julie and I all look at each other trying to hold back our ?laughter?).

– Genocide/Prison Museum was very intense (especially the movie we saw where one of the few surviving prisoners was interviewing his former guards), you could still see the signs of it being used as a school before the Khmer Rouge took control.

– I noticed that all the faces of the KR leaders were completely scratched off by people (even some I didn’t recognize).

– I also noticed that the pictures they had of the prisoners, were awful and showed an obsessive/crazy rule (where everybody was always suspicious of all others), but there were a number of duplicates (saw this even though all prisoners had the same haircuts, women: short bob & men: even shorter).

– The City seemed a little more sketchy/rustic/poorer than all of the other major cities we visited, but it definitely wasn’t the shit hole that a bunch of people made it out to be before we got there.

– Once again, the men, like in the rest of SEAsia have these amazing mole hairs on their faces that grow out about 3 inches/8 cm, everything else they shave or can’t grow (I heard somewhere that they are good luck).

– One can definitely notice that there aren’t as many older Khmer people as there were older people in the other countries in the region (a still highly visible aspect of the genocide).

– We are convinced (especially Julie) that we need to buy these awesome PJ’s that all the ladies here are wearing (usually top and bottom matching) all day…

– It is really odd using US Dollars here (with Khmer Riel as the small change 4000=1). Got a $2 bill! (a couple we met didn’t realize that they are legal tender in the US, you just don’t see them much) But apparently they often don’t accept them at stores/food stalls in Cambodia (though they are more than willing to include them in your change).

 

North East Cambodia – Kratie & Banlung

– The red dirt/soil up here is amazing (much like Cuba), but it can be quite awful when it’s all dust

– In Kratie, just a couple of minutes up the road from the Irrawaddy dolphins was this amazing place with boardwalks, thatch roofs & hammocks everywhere over these small rapids (whish I could spend every weekend there forever…). There were some kids doing flips and posing for pictures after we went onto a sandbar past where the people use the toilet, pretty impressive acrobatics.

– All the kids in the northeast are really cute when you ask if you can take their pictures (they never ask for anything, candy or money, unlike all the other touristy places we go), and they are always very excited to see themselves in the picture.

– In the north especially, but really most places in Cambodia, the locals are all wearing soccer/football jerseys (literally half of all people, mostly young to middle age men and women, the older ladies all wear PJ’s).

 

Siem Reap & Angkor Park

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Angkor Map

– “Siem Reap is a tourist town that I like.” – Julie remark at the market

– The city is completely transformed at night, with ten times more people out and about (having all just left a long day at the temples).

– Was fun to go to Angkor Wat at sunset (instead of that hill where everybody else goes) and be slowly chased out by the guards at closing (like 20 other people doing this too). Was actually able to get a couple of photos of the temple with a few, if any people, ruining the view.

– Waking up in the morning and leaving the hostel by 5 and arriving at 6 at Bayon, all alone, was super frigging awesome! Walking around, losing your bearings, all dark, mysterious faces on the stones, etc…. We did the same thing at Ta Prohm the next day and it was equally as awesome, but two British girls beat us by half an hour (but they hadn’t entered yet because it was still too dark to see anything).

– It was so amazing climbing over the boulders and stones at the fallen temples (especially Ta Nei, Ta Prohm, Beng Mealea, etc.). Though it was awkward to be “contributing” to the slow destruction of the temples… but everybody else was way worse, and I was always very careful never to step on any of the carved stones.

– The temple being restored by the Chinese (every temple has different countries helping to restore them in their own unique ways: France, India, Japan, Germany, etc.) looks disappointingly fake, with new stones of different colors everywhere.

– Our guidebook ($10 in Phnom Penh with a week to read it vs. $5-8 in the Temple park) is obviously a rip-off used there for the last 15 years, but also awesome. I would read it twice before we visited a temple (so I could walk around a take pictures of the stuff I had learned about), while Julie studied it and used it as a guide at the temples (though sometimes it was quite hilariously out of date).

– Saw a gutter punk looking white guy without shoes on at least three occasions throughout the day… I dunno… I guess its relatively clean, but still, how does one climb over all those sharp rocks and steps?

– Its really interesting to see the legacy of when the region changed between the religions (Hinduism, two types of Buddhism). Lots of whole Buddhas scraped off walls, same with some of the faces of Hindu gods. Looked way different from the general looting that has taken place (& it’s vast).

 

Koh Ta Kiev

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Koh Ta Kiev Map

– Various thoughts while sitting on beach/patio: It’s so cool here with all the little beaches where you are alone and feel like you have the whole island to yourself. Perfect setup they have here at Coral Beach, right before the rocks start, and after all the other bungalows and day trippers, with 3/4 nice little beaches.

– What I’ve “accomplished” since I’ve been here (on the island): sewed on all of the flag patches I had, made a piece of “art” – an intense dream catcher thingy with stuff found on the beach, started working on my journal again, and learned a couple of new fun games.

– One of my favorite things to do on a vacation (or in life really): have a nice breakfast, with coffee, sitting on a small dock over the clear blue water with an amazing view of the gently lapping waves of the bay…

– Perfect situation #10 (I don’t remember all, they just happen…): sitting on the tree house level platform with the sun going down, with a group of people playing music and singing on the beach below (some of them had great voices).

– Different times at the Absinthe Distillery: First Night – with staff , had the green one, kittens playing all around me, guy (owner?) asleep in corner. Second Time – with Chilean couple, show up right as they are closing, kittens asleep, guy asleep in corner, tried the strongest one. Third Time – no drink, changed camera battery, guy asleep in corner.

– Funny moment when a group of Italian girls from Florence and Rome were arguing about who’s city had the greatest culture/legacy.

– Pretty sad when we had to leave the island. I had an amazing time doing nothing, but would not have made it much longer there… tummy issues, wanted a hot shower (had only washed with soap maybe two times), no more sand…

– … only to be stuck at a shithole place for two terrible nights with termite noises, Rat poo, and the giant accompanying Rat (who moved rocks and wasn’t afraid of us at all!).

Otres Beach One

– I imagine this to be what Phu Quoc (Vietnam) was like 5/10 years ago. But here there are more shacks (“bungalows”), a flat red dirt road, and a bunch of empty beach chairs.

– Said “Aokun” (Thank you) for the first time in a week (was a little weird how it was like a western peoples utopia on the island). I was also odd looking at some of these beach places (bar/restaurant/hostel things) where it looks like 5-10 western kids (“employees”) were doing nothing , one “working” at the bar while all the others took up all the bar chairs, while the one Khmer guy or girl does all the actual work.

– Ladies and Girls selling trinkets in Cambodia (at least the southern part) be like: “If you don’t buy now, you promise, if you buy later, you buy from me? Pinkie promise?”