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
Best sunrise: Poon Hill – over the Himalayas & Bagan – with its hot air balloons
Best sunset: Koh Ta Kiev, Cambodia – from the beach over calm water
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
Best hairstyles: Men in Vietnam & Myanmar (slick & fashionable), Women in Nepal with dyed red hair
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
Worst sleep: Train from Sapa, Vietnam with snoring man
Worst road: Motorcycling on the Thakek Loop, Laos
Worst bus ride: Getting to and from Mrauk-U, Myanmar
Coolest museum: Jakarta’s National Museum
Coolest building: White Temple in Chiang Rai, Thailand
Coolest non-religious building: Marina Bay Sands (Boat Skyscraper), Singapore
Coolest Houses: Bajawa, Indonesia & Ubud, Bali
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)
Friendliest kids: Laos, where they all wave and yell Saibaidee
Worst internet: Myanmar – non-existent in many places
Best caves: Phong Nha, Vietnam
Best Collection of Buddhas: Sukhothai, Thailand & 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
Most kitschy: James Bond Island, Thailand
Best ancient city: Angkor, Cambodia
Best Ancient Structures: Prambanan & Borobudur, 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
Best ocean wildlife: Sipadan Island, Borneo, Malaysia
Most interesting city: Kathmandu
Coolest school uniforms: Girls’ skirts in Laos (I even got one made for myself)
Best propaganda: Vietnam
Coolest flag: Nepal
Safest street food: Thailand
Best night markets: Thailand
Best music: Nepal
Best dancing: Pokhara, Nepal during Tihar festival
Worst laundry: Pokhara, Nepal (sock disaster)
Worst utensils: Laos’ chopsticks would splinter just looking at them
Tallest trees: Angkor, Cambodia
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
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.
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.
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 (email@example.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.
– 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)…
– 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.
– 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…
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
– 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.
– 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.
– 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!
275 days. 10 countries. 15 flights. 7 trains. Countless buses. Over 100 different beds/floors in 92 lodgings (not including night buses). Meals with bugs in them: 1, that we know of.
So overall, a pretty good trip. We think. We certainly didn’t know a year ago what this trip to Asia would entail. We did significantly less research ahead of time than some travelers we met. But we also did a lot more research on the road than many too. We weren’t ones to show up in a new city without an inkling of an idea of where to go. We may not have had a hostel reservation, but we usually had a street or neighborhood in mind when we alighted in a new place. And we were certainly prepared in a toiletries/medicine sense. We had way more Immodium and Benedryl than needed, but the rest of the toiletries we slowly used up and our bag now is a fraction of the size as when we started. FYI – they do have all the necessities in Asia, especially Cambodia, where you can buy almost any medicine over the counter for almost nothing.
Some things we didn’t need, most of which we returned with my parents when we met them in Nepal: full size tripod (replaced with mini tripod in Bangkok), nice flats (flip flops are universal here), extra long sleeve shirt (too warm most of the time), carabiners, extra shoelaces
Some things we lost/broke/replaced along the way: 11 socks (lost), 2 combination locks (lost), sunglasses (broke), running shoes (worn out), rain jacket (turns out it leaked), 2 of Julie’s large backpacks (each knockoff lasted about 3-4 months)
Some things we wished we had: real Swiss army knife, better rain jacket (see above), quality sunscreen (we brought 6 bottles, but had a tough time finding replacements)
Some things we acquired: incredible art from all over SE Asia, custom suit/dresses from Vietnam, friends from all over the world, ability to say “hello” and “thank you” and “chicken” in a number of languages, insight to people and cultures we knew little or nothing about
Some things we will miss (not to say we will never experience these again): access to some of the best food we’ve ever had, abundant amount of friendly & helpful locals (besides New Orleans, we’ve never experienced this outside Asia), frequently meeting new people with incredible stories, the thrill of a new and exotic city, having no set schedule
Some things we will not miss: smell of dried fish, squat and trough toilets (especially for ladies), people throwing trash out windows
The best advice I can give to people attempting something similar to us is not to overplan (and travel light). Some of the best things we did were found through word of mouth. Not having a set schedule gave us a chance to determine once we arrived how long we would spend there. It is a luxury not many people have, but even if you only have a few weeks, it is easy enough to plan a few days at a time, rather than be tied to a strict schedule. For us, because we had so much time, we usually found we were cutting days off of places we didn’t find as exciting, rather than adding days, though we tacked on a rest day when needed. I think the only time we felt really rushed was in Indonesia, when it was more difficult to get around and we only had a 30 day visa. We would have liked to visit more of the islands, but flying more and getting a visa extension would have proved cost prohibitive.
Speaking of costs, we didn’t have an overall budget for this trip. We saved for a number of years and travelled as cheaply as possible, without overly inconveniencing ourselves. Some of the cheap alternatives we took were grueling bus rides and eating street food. We walked everywhere we could, saving money on taxis and public transit. We didn’t buy many souvenirs and we spent very little on added luxuries. We avoided restaurants with table cloths, settling for plastic chairs most of the time, which turned out to have some of the best food anyway. We also stayed in hostels most of the trip, sometimes dorms, but usually double rooms with shared bathrooms were cheaper. We haggled everywhere, when appropriate, and saved a lot of money by being smart about our purchases and hardly partying. It wasn’t easy and sometimes it was very stressful, but having the luxury of no real budget let us experience a lot of things we may have forgone had we been on a strict budget. When we get back to a secure internet connection, I hope to compile our bank statements and figure out how much we spent in each country. It may be more difficult than it sounds, but I think it will be a good precedent for any future trips we take and a helpful thing to share with other backpackers.
We have been incredibly humbled by the generosity we have been privy to over the last few months. So many people have made our trip a truly unique and genuine experience. And while the food and sights were amazing and beautiful, it was ultimately the people we met along the way and the support we got from friends and family that influenced us the most.
It is bittersweet as we are waiting at the airport to leave Asia. We are excited to see familiar faces, but sad to leave behind the fabulous new things we have discovered. So thanks for reading, and sorry there are no pictures this time.
Stay tuned for more post trip conclusions and our struggle with reverse culture shock.
We were told to report for our 14:15 flight at 11:00 in the morning. 3 hours early for a 45 minute flight. Ok, no problem. We arrived at the tiny airport right on time and attempted to follow the other passengers into the “terminal” (code for low brick building with little kiosks and one metal detector). No luck, we were turned back at the police checkpoint and told to wait outside for an undisclosed amount of time. Well, it was hot and sitting on the curb wasn’t much fun, so we kept asking if we could go in and showed them on our ticket where it said 11 am. Finally, they relented and we were able to enter the building, and at least sit in broken plastic chairs until we could check in. When we were finally able to check in, we put our bags on a massive, ancient scale (which said they weighed 7 something, couldn’t have been kilos or pounds as our bags are more in the 12-15 kg range) and were ushered to the immigration counter, where a very nice man who spoke pretty good English questioned us and painstakingly wrote down our names (they haven’t figured out what is surname and what is not in Myanmar, so we are often times referred to by our middle names). Then we waited some more before being lined up for the security check. I don’t know why they even bother with the metal detector. Every single person in front of us kept their wallets and/or phones in their pockets and set off the machine. And then they had an official use the beeping wand over everyone. I didn’t set off the machine, but they still used the wand. It was madness and took forever to get through the 50 people who were boarding the plane. The plane was on time, and we took our premium seats at the front of the full flight. And then it was lovely. We had a pretty good view of the Mergui archipelago and followed our map as we flew over island after island. I leaned over Riki the whole way to see out the window. Nobody spoke English, but we were given shortbread cookies and Cokes. Wonderful contrast. Nothing like the night buses (or the 12 hour ferry we opted to forgo).
Arriving in Kawthong on the border of Thailand, we hitched a ride in a strange motobike side car vehicle and were dropped off at the pier, where we were promptly scammed from the getgo. The only way across the border is by boat, which is supposed to cost a few dollars and take about 20 minutes (we know, we read up on it). Well, first we wanted to change all our kyat to baht, buy a bottle of Myanmar rum and then go to immigration. A guy followed us around the whole time, warning that the border was going to close (it wasn’t) and that we should get on the boat right away. He found a guy who would change our money and then he followed us to the immigration counter where we were stamped out and then told to go get our stamps photocopied in town. So of course our little shadow showed us where conveniently, we could photocopy our passports right across the street. When we returned to the immigration desk to hand in our copy, I gave the guys at the desk an earful. They had a copier on the desk (said it didn’t work) and they had a passport scanner. They also had a little camera and high-tech software. They didn’t need a physical copy. Such a waste of trees. While Riki was fretting that they would put us in jail for causing a scene, I reasoned that we already had our exit stamp so there wasn’t much they could do. I’m not sure they understand all the scolding and pointing anyway. We took our boat and were packed in with 8 other Myanmar people. We went through at least two checkpoints and were finally on the Thai side (an hour later and quite a few dollars more than expected), where the immigration was painless and straightforward and free.
After hailing a songtheaw, we arrived in the town of Ranong and checked into a basic hotel for a night before heading back to the pier for a boat to Koh Chang the next day. Koh Chang was just what we needed, some quiet beach time. It is full of older German people, who come every year and leave their books behind. I managed to find some English ones and read on average one a day for 5 days. Like Koh Ta Kiev in Cambodia, this island only had power from 6-10pm. It does have at least one restaurant with wifi though.
So we played cards, went swimming and walked around the island. The food was really good, reasonably priced for an island and we drank our bottle of Myanmar Rum. The island is full of cashew trees and rubber trees. Having never seen these up close, we were delighted to find that when it dries, rubber comes out of the tree just like rubber bands. That entertained us for longer than it should. Cashews grow on a tree (who knew) and have a very strong smelling fruit attached, part of which is poisonous (or sour, depending on who you ask).
The tides on Koh Chang were immense, possibly the combination of the new moon and the equinox at the same time? In the early morning, we had to walk for a few minutes to reach the water. By 11 am, it was a few seconds from our bungalow. The water was warm, calm and the beach was fascinating with fine black sand mixed with chunky white sand.
We also discovered a friendly bird species, the hornbill, who would come hop around in the trees near our bungalow. They were huge and looked like a toucan with a protrusion on the top of its bill.
Our first evening, we were minding our own business playing cards at the restaurant, when a small lizard landed on Riki’s leg. Apparently, they fall asleep and then fall from their upside down perches. Not 5 minutes later, I was putting the water bottle back on the table, when a huge lizard jumped from the roof onto the bottle, knocking it over and shocking both me and himself (as I assume he then realized the water bottle was not a giant bug) before hopping back up to the roof. We saw a few more like this big one, great colors.
We also spotted another Iguanadon (monitor lizard?) later in the week, but we didn’t have the camera. So we spent the days reading in hammocks, drawing maps (Riki), writing Myanmar blogs to be posted later (me), sewing patches on our bags (both), wandering the island, and just generally avoiding the sun (as most people do at the beach, right?). And developing prickly heat (Riki) – a local term for heat rash. Riki saw a cat eat a lizard.
We witnessed the highest tide of the year, which flooded the paths and made crossing an already precarious bridge, even more so. It was just what the doctor ordered, except for the prickly heat. During this time, we were convinced by a few people (mostly Riki’s mom) to try scuba diving. So we arranged for an open water class and headed off to Koh Chang to the other side of the Isthmus of Kra.
This night bus to Dawei left Mawlamyine at 6:30 pm and was pretty promising as the seats were pretty comfortable and were camouflaged. Felt really American. The only downside to this one was arriving at 4:30 am. This of course we did not know ahead of time and were reluctant to leave the bus when it was so dark out. Luckily, we had called ahead to a hotel and after a few poundings on the door from our driver, we awakened the desk clerk who checked us in and showed us to our room. We napped a few hours but still managed to wake up in time for breakfast. Our best so far – rice soup, eggs and bread. We met an American couple from Idaho and decided to follow their plan of heading south down the peninsula to some fishing villages and a pagoda, via motorbike.
First though, we went in search of a boat company to book our ferry down to the Thai border crossing. After walking in circles, we had found three companies all offering pretty much the same thing, a $70 12-hour trip, leaving town at midnight to catch the boat at 4:30 am. Pretty crazy, but we wanted to take the boat to see the mysterious Mergui archipeligo that is incredibly expensive to visit otherwise. So boat it was (and you can’t go by bus yet – not allowed for tourists). We returned to the first company (isn’t that how it always goes) because their English was better and seemed more professional. In the process of buying the ticket, we discovered that we could pay in US dollars and since we had stocked up on these before coming to Myanmar, and had yet to use any, and we were running low on Myanmar kyat, Riki took the motorbike back to the hotel to get them. While he was gone, I started chatting to the lady and discovered that for a mere $1 (yes, one) more, we could fly, on a 45 minute flight in premier class (whatever that meant) and arrive earlier. Seemed like a no-brainer. Spare you guys the joy of reading 1,000 words about how miserably long the boat ride was too (and the next day a ferry capsized near Mrauk-U and about 40 people were killed).
Plans all changed we continued south and poked around a fishing village before running into the Americans near a pagoda out on the water.
Now I’m not sure if it was the combination of knowing we weren’t taking a tremendously long boat ride, actually getting enough sleep after a night bus, or the shear beauty of the landscape, but I found the Myanmar I had been looking for. Sounds corny, but as we walked the length of the bridge to the almost-island (peninsula, I know, but it didn’t feel like that) pagoda, the water was clear, the people were friendly, and it just hit me. Everyone along the way had been waving and had the biggest grins to see us coming. Maybe they weren’t annoyed with tourists yet or its just the southern nature, because they get more sun and get to live along this beautiful coast.
We met up with the Americans at a beach and were joined by 5 rambunctious boys who spoke a few words of English, but were mostly interested in running and jumping in the sand and water, which was incredibly warm.
But you can’t have all that good, and not even it out with something bad. Just my travel karma talking. On our way back to join our new friends for a cold draft beer, we popped a tire. But within minutes of stopping along the road, 6 people on bikes had stopped and a small truck. Two groups were basically fighting over who would help us. Two students won and one took the bike with Riki on it down the road a minute to a small hut, while I rode with the other one. The hut was closed but student #1 managed to find the owner and get him to fix our tire. This involved taking the whole thing off as it was beyond patching, with a three inch tear straight across. Too hot, he said. Or two big Americans it couldn’t handle the weight. Student #2 (I feel bad, but I don’t think we got their names) spoke some English and was interested to know if we were Christians (I let Riki answer that one) as he was and his friend was Buddhist. It would have been great to hear more about that, but the language barrier was too big. Student #1 took Riki next door to the shop that conveniently had spare inner tubes for $2.10. He even paid 10 cents for the tube when Riki was too slow with his money and refused to be paid back. The guy fixing the tire requested 70 cents for the 30 minutes of work he put in, but I gave his wife the change after he refused the 30 cents extra I didn’t want back. The students didn’t leave us until we were back on our bike and headed in the right direction.
It was dark by the time we left and we missed the draft beer, but had an amazing display of generosity to replace it.
The next day we once again rented a motorbike and set off on another ambitious journey, to reach a beach further down the peninsula. We got about 45 kilometers down, right around where we were supposed to be and decided to head west toward the beach. An hour through some rather treacherous terrain, with me getting off the bike occasionally so Riki could get up or down a steep hill, we ditched the bikes when we ran into some locals who told us we could go no further with them. We headed up a trail, closely followed by some men and women carrying enormous loads on their heads. We were a bit worried about getting back as the other couples’ bike had overheated just as we had stopped, and ours seemed to guzzle fuel, so when we got a good viewpoint and realized how far the beach still was, we returned to our bikes, chalking it up to just a hike in the woods, without the rewarding swim at the end.
A bit exhausted, we finally got our cold draft Myanmar beers.
On our last day, we walked around town. Dawei is a port city, which is conveniently located near an old British beach spot. It has only recently been opened up to tourists, hence its appeal to us. There are not a lot of attractions, its just a town, a real town. Not destroyed by tourists yet. I really enjoyed just being there, not trampling through any pagodas or being harassed by touts. It was calm and we could meander through the streets without being bothered (and hopefully not bothering anyone else).
We met up with the Americans that evening and hunted down more draft beer, as our previous joint was closed for some reason. It took awhile but we found what appeared to be a Dawei beer garden, named “Seven Zero.” A good sign when the name is in English, but that didn’t translate into the menu, and while the hand gesture for draft beer is universal, the hand gesture for chicken fried rice is not. Luckily, they actually had wifi and our new friend was able to show a picture of a chicken and some rice and gestured to mix it together. Good enough.
I probably would have tried to stay longer in Dawei if our visas weren’t running out and we weren’t sure if we could cross after they expired, Kawthong being a relatively newly opened border-crossing. It was sad to leave, but we had booked the flight and we were ready for some beach time just over the border in Thailand.
Next stop: Ranong and Koh Chang, Thailand after a luxurious premier class flight and a pain in the ass border crossing.
I usually try to start my entries with our horrific travel stories, before making you jealous with the amazing photos Riki takes. But this one takes the cake, at least up til now.
Ambitiously, we had decided to take a 20 hour bus back to Yangon and then transfer to a 6 hour bus further south to Mawlamyine. So part of this long and arduous journey was our fault, but only a small part.
Our 9 am bus arrived at 10:45 and we were once again granted the horrendous wheelwell seats. Usually we alternate who gets the window, but in the case of the wheelwell, well, Riki just can’t fit. So I get the window and Riki gets to use the aisle for a little more legroom. But not today. In standard Myanmar fashion, the aisle is also used for seating. Sometimes, it is a real seat folded out from the side. Today, just a small plastic chair with the worst possible inhabitant. He’s using Riki’s armrest as a spot for his snoozing head, wrapping his arm all the way around the rest, practically resting in Riki’s lap. He has his feet under the guy across the aisle and then in the back of the guy in front of him. He spits sunflower seeds on the floor. And then he decides to smoke a cigarette. His friend behind him says something, but he continues to smoke and snubs it out on the floor. All the while, the wheelwell is getting hotter and hotter and we have had to remove our shoes and put our feet on top of them to keep them cool. And then he smokes again. He fails to acknowledge my remarks (presumably because no one on the bus speaks any English) and my blatant display of disapproval of opening the window and letting hot air fill the air-conditioned bus. And he ignores his friend, who pokes him to stop. We decided he is a Myanmar gutter-punk. He didn’t smell like booze, but certainly appeared too dazed to be sober. NOTE: No one else smokes on moving buses here. They wait til it makes a long stop, open the windows and then smoke.
And that was just the first leg. We arrived the next day around 6 am, having slept very little. We were told there was no bus to Mawlamyine, but knew that couldn’t be true. A friendly taxi driver offered to drive us there (6 hours, can’t imagine what that would cost) but we politely declined and found another guy to take us through the maze that is Yangon’s bus station to another bus company. They also told us “no bus” and we wandered off in search of someone who could help us. Didn’t take long and a young guy who spoke some English told us three minutes walking, leaves in 10 minutes, no problem. So off we went and we were in luck. Two seats left. The guy got a little commission from the bus company and everyone was happy. Until we got on the bus. Not an air-con bus. Normally, it wouldn’t be so bad, but we had the very back seats, where there were no operable windows and no breeze and no curtain for shade. The highlight of the trip was the Shan noodles we had at the very posh bus stop in the middle of our journey. Hot and very tired, we arrived in Mawlamyine after 7 hours and shared a tuk tuk with a German guy to our hostel.
Mawlamyine is the fourth largest city in Myanmar, a former British capital and a large port. It was really just a stopover for us so we didn’t have night bus after night bus.
We attempted a modified walking tour of the town and even visited the Cultural Museum – this one was open. Luckily, there were English signs for most things, though often times we were left more confused by the translations than by the displays. But it got unbearably hot and we returned to the hostel to pack our stuff and check out.
We had some time to kill before our 6:30 pm bus further south to Dawei, so we walked to the market, which was huge and bustling. We managed to find Riki a Myanmar beer shirt (yes that’s what it’s called), which I may have been more excited about then him. Then we continued up the hill to the pagoda, which in true form, was unbearably hot to walk around barefoot. Luckily, there were a couple of cats.
Next stop: Dawei, a night bus ride to the south. Why all these night buses? Apparently, that is the only option.
Our journey began with a relatively painless minibus trip to Magwe, the pickup point for the bus to Mrauk-U. We thought is was supposed to take five hours, turns out it only took 3 and we were to arrive at 5. An unusually nice change. We had called ahead to a “fashion shop” in Magwe to arrange our next leg. This involved two motobike drivers meeting us at the bus station in Magwe and taking us a few kilometers to the “fashion shop” where we would meet the night bus travelling from Mandalay to Mrauk-U (but not for 6 hours). So we had some time to kill. There was a great sunset off a bridge and then we found a shopping mall and a place to eat. Almost every single person driving by waved or shouted “hello” to us with a giant smile. It was incredibly welcoming. More enthusiastically than we’d seen anywhere. Definitely don’t get many tourists.
We went back to the “fashion shop” and played cards with a fellow American while waiting for the bus. The bus was an hour late and an ominous sign, there was fresh vomit all down the side of the bus. As we boarded, we were told we had been moved to the front of the bus, which is usually better in our opinion. Turns out, the bus wasn’t full and everyone else had spread out to get more room and we were left with the only two seats not occupied by sleeping people. Oh and it was on top of the wheel well. So, no leg room and seats that barely reclined, and the lady in front of me insisted on leaving the window all the way open (probably for her nausea) despite the chilly night air. We had expected better, as a $30 bus in Vietnam would have been the epitome of luxury. But this particular bus route is a new thing, only recently open to foreigners and the “fashion shop” guy seems to have a monopoly on the bus. Riki didn’t sleep, I slept a bit but we were not too happy when we arrived in Mrauk-U around noon the next day.
We took a nap in our bare-bones hotel – shared squat toilet, cold shower and hard beds. But at $5 each, we could deal. We woke up in time to check out one of the popular sunset spots. We ran into a few other travellers and ended up all getting dinner together and comparing plans.
Mrauk-U is located to the west of Bagan near the border of Bangladesh, not far from the coast, in an area full of ongoing religious strife. There’s a group of Muslims who have essentially been denied citizenship from both Bangladesh and Myanmar, but still reside in the area as they are in limbo. They have been living in Myanmar for ages, but have been persecuted and denied citizenship and put into refugee camps. Until more recently, aid organizations were not allowed in Myanmar, so they received no assistance. There are also some nearby Chin villages where the older women have full face tattoos. But that is not why we came here.
We came to Mrauk-U to see more ancient ruins, temples and such. As if Bagan didn’t have enough. Just kidding, but at this point, I had seen just about enough temples. These temples are different Riki kept saying, so off we went. And they are different (same, same, but different as they like to say in Thailand). Mrauk-U is a medieval town of the Arakan Empire, who once controlled half of Bangladesh and the western part of lower Myanmar. The temples’ architecture is different, more inverted ice cream cones than ringed four-sided cones like in Bagan.
Unfortunately, on our first full day, we were awoken at 5 am by incessant chanting and music over a very nearby loudspeaker. We were getting up to see the sunrise anyway, but knew that this was probably an everyday occurrence. We went to the northern group of temples to watch the sun come up and explored a really amazing temple with supposedly 80,000 Buddhas. I didn’t count, but it didn’t seem like that many. It had a cool spiral interior cave and they lit up a bunch of candles while we were there.
Luckily there were some goats to keep me occupied while Riki finished taking photographs. On our way back, we booked a bungalow farther from the main town, hoping it would be quieter in the morning. For $5 more we got our own bathroom, clean towels (with embroidered animals donated by an aid organization) and two very large, hairy spiders. Still better than loud chanting at 5 am. It would be enough to create some religious strife in me.
That afternoon, we woke up the bike rental lady from a nap (have I mentioned everyone naps in the afternoon? Its no wonder if you wake up at 5 am to a loudspeaker everyday, and its too hot in the early afternoon to do anything anyway) and took bicycles back to the north to explore more temples and a tiny, ornate library before heading to some bigger temples to the east. We visited a temple built by the son of the King who commissioned the one with 80,000 Buddhas. He had to outdo his dad and this one is called the Temple of 90,000 Buddhas.
The shoe issue returns. We were out in the hottest part of the day, the tiles surrounding these temples are unbearably hot. Burning, but you have to remove your shoes. And we did, but our visits were truncated as we couldn’t look up to admire the temples without dancing on our tiptoes to keep our feet cool.
That night we visited a small restaurant, where we didn’t really order, just said “chicken” and were brought heaps of food on numerous plates. We felt pretty bad, as we couldn’t eat nearly all of it, and the curries here are all very oily and tough to stomach. All for $2.
Our last day, we went to the tallest hill for the sunrise. It was a good one, like all the ones we’ve seen recently.
After, we returned to our hotel for breakfast, which turned out to be as greasy as usual. Riki usually eats my fried egg, but this one was so saturated he didn’t touch it. The rumor why they use so much grease in Myanmar is that it provides a layer of protection from bacteria and bugs when the food is sitting out all day. And that has transitioned into every dish, whether it be eggs or fried rice. Everything we’ve eaten is sopping wet with grease. Except Shan noodles, which happen to be my favorite dish so far.
We bought our bus ticket to Yangon (only $18 for a 20 hour journey) for the next day and then headed to explore the neighborhood to the west of the main market. Here we found a maze of bamboo structures, and loads of curious people watching us from their porches. They must not get many visitors. It’s a tough journey to Mrauk-U, whether you come by bus like us, or by boat, like most people. No busloads of people here, like in Bagan.
We tried to go to the cultural museum, as our guidebook said it was open Sun-Tues. That must mean closed on Mondays though, as it was shuttered and definitely not open. Instead, we rode our bicycles down to the lake for a nice view, but our skin was frying and we didn’t last much longer before heading back to nap away the heat.
Next stop: Mawlamyine, via Yangon and 30 hours on buses.
Minibus back to Mandalay featured typical locals vomiting and a rude woman who proceeded to take up two whole seats, smashing me against the window for the winding and tumultuous 5 hour trip. The alternative would have been taking the train back, a grueling 12 hour journey we had already experienced on the way up. We spent the next day planning our trip to Bagan, doing laundry (an outrageous $8 fee, though it was done by hand and dried on the roof) and exploring the hotel’s neighborhood. Riki discovered a very hip mall, a drastic difference from the surroundings and a bakery where one of the staff followed him around “stealthily” taking his picture. Maybe they’ll put him on their next advertisement. They did give him a massive calendar featuring the shop owner’s daughter on every month. We left it as a present for the hostel.
Our 5 hour bus to Bagan left the next morning, was uneventful, but dropped us off a 15 minute walk from where it should have. Bagan is one of the four main places to see in Myanmar. It is one of the former capitals, with many temples, some dating back to the 12th century. It is the Angkor Wat of Myanmar, is on the cover of many guide books and is VERY big. It is also very hot, and dry and incredible. Riki tends to do more historical research before we arrive. I prefer to do it when we are there, as I have a hard time grasping things without seeing them first hand. So I had no idea what to expect, having only seen the picture on the front of the guide book and reading the small intro.
To sum it all up: Temples, Pagodas, Stupas and Buddhas, lots and lots of Buddhas. And then there were hot-air balloons. It was so cool (but so hot and dry). Now you can skip down to the pictures, or you can read the more detailed account of our 3 days exploring Bagan.
We rented bicycles at 5 am. $1.50 for my regular bike, $2 for Riki’s mountain bike. Woke up the poor bike shop guy while the stars were still out. Then we rode about 45 minutes to a temple not known to be very touristy, Loukaoushaung, but with a good perch for the sunrise. The stars were still visible, but we claimed spots and waited. Here is my account, as written while watching the sun climb steadily into the sky:
“Not sure we can top this. We’ve watched as the hot air balloons slowly filled with air and jostled for positions in the sky. We arrived in the dark and ascended the steep stairs, barefoot of course, with the key keeper. The mist slowly cleared and the haze emerged as the sun rose over literally thousands of monuments. I’m almost wishing we were in one of those balloons, but remembering the $300+ price tag for such a short trip. I’ll settle for watching them float majestically across the sky. They come so close that we can hear the burners. And then a loud Chinese tourist with the biggest camera attachments starts talking/yelling (and running around) and stands right in front of me. Riki, from his higher vantage point has a better view, but I felt weird climbing up the wall of the temple (and not sure my blistered feet will thank me later). The loud guys leave and take their incessant camera clicking with them, off to ruin the atmosphere for someone else.”
We stayed at the first temple for about two hours, then headed on to explore some more. There are over 2,000 monuments and we wanted to avoid the touristy ones as much as possible. We went to Shwesan Daw Pagoda, Dhammayangyi Temple, North Guni and some un-marked ones in between. I’m sure they all have names of some sort and I am probably butchering the translations. We then rode to Old Bagan, where a whole town used to exist. They kicked all the people out when they decided to make the area an official archaeological park and moved them south to New Bagan. The old walls are still present and surround a handful of monuments. We saw Thatbyinnyu Temple and Gawdawpalin from the temple next door. We made a quick stop at Bypaya to have a look at the Ayeyarwady River and then took a long lunch just outside the walls. It was incredibly hot. We lingered as long as we could at the restaurant, just ordering more and more cold water, waiting for the heat of the day to recede some before biking on.
Our next stop was the Myinkaba village, where they are known for their lacquer ware. There are workshops there where they will show you the whole process, which is really impressive. Layers and layers of lacquer over bamboo or wood and then intricately carved and painted. The end of the tour is inevitably a stop at the their shop, where we ran into two couples who had lived in New Orleans for 30 years, but were presently in Bangkok. Small world. Our tour guide had convinced them to exchange an old $100 bill (“small head money”) for him (something we weren’t comfortable with and not able to do anyway). American dollars were used more frequently in the past, but the kyat (chat) has taken over mostly and this poor guy couldn’t exchange his old bill anymore. It looked real, and he only wanted $70 or $80 for it, in new bills. Exhausted, we rode our bicycles back to our hotel for a quick nap and then a very slow dinner (we’re talking an hour wait for fried rice).
Day 2 started much like the day before, except that we got an e-bike. More electric than bike, as you can’t actually pedal these things easily. We wanted to go a bit further and the heat really drains you on a regular bicycle. They promised it would last all day, but we were skeptical after our experience with them in Angkor. I hopped on behind Riki and we set off to see the sunrise at North Guni, one of the temples we had seen the day before. And it was just as spectacular as the day before. Balloons, mist, pointy spires dotting the landscape as far as you can see. We then rode to the central plains, with me getting off frequently, as the goat paths got too sandy to safely traverse. Well that got old, so I made Riki walk sometimes and I took the bike. Because man it was hot. And there is little to no shade. Plus its hard to take pictures when you’re driving. And Riki takes a lot of pictures (I haven’t checked yet – but I am guessing there are a few thousand pictures from just Bagan).
We stopped at Sulamani Temple and Pyathada Pagoda, where we were accosted by pilgriming locals. I was sitting at the top of a large open area, with a great view, minding my own business, taking in some shade and waiting for Riki to take all his photos. An old man walks by, sees me and then beckons his granddaughter to come over. Motioning and asking to take a picture with the little girl, I oblige and even manage to smile, despite how sweaty and dirty I feel.
And that was fine. But then a whole gaggle of women, in their Sunday best see this and come over to do the same. But they don’t ask and I stand there awkwardly as five or six of them stand next to me to get their picture taken one at a time, or get really close so we can take a selfie (no selfie-sticks here). I felt bad, I must have smelled pretty terrible, but they didn’t seem to mind. I was getting annoyed until Riki came around the corner. In the middle of taking pictures with me, they spot him and run off in his direction. Yes, run. And they are giggling and yelling at each other, obviously delighted that there is another one! And this just makes my day. He didn’t see it coming. Everyone takes a photo and then I have to join and by the end, we had to get a shot with all of them as well. Pretty hilarious.
We then went to some more, you guessed it, temples. I’m pretty much done with them at this point, as most are very similar. But Riki is always up for climbing something and exploring, so we continue on. I skip some, wait in the shade and watch the goat herders go past. We visit Phya Phat Gyi, Shin Phu Shin and many in between. We leave the sandy paths and find a concrete road we discover we are across from another village, Minanthu. As we are taking a short break under a tree and looking at the map, a woman runs (yes runs) across the road and invites us to tour the village. Her English is pretty decent and we follow her across the road. She shows us some old workshops, weaving, peanut oil, cigars, silversmith. We have the obligatory tea, even though it is scorching hot and hot tea is the last thing I want. In the end, we offer her some small bills and continue on for a late lunch and long break in New Bagan. We continued to explore the central plains behind Dhamayazika and found some cool murals and a cool spot to return to for sunset the next day. We ended at the same temple we had started with the first day, but this time, with Riki’s help, I scaled the temple and had a more amazing view.
Day 3 started slowly. We opted to sleep in and skip the sunrise. We took another e-bike in the early afternoon and returned to the northern and central plains, taking goat trails and going nowhere fast. The northern plains temples were some of my favorite. We were the only ones there and some had incredible carvings, murals and oddities.
Our final stop for sunset, just behind Dhamayazika, where we had been the day before has cool paintings inside and was deserted. We hoped it would stay that way, but others saw us at the top and came up to investigate. Two girls we shared a boat with in Phong Nha were among them, and remembered us as the cookie people, as we had shared some Oreos with the group back in December. Small world.
Some general thoughts:
Bagan is really an incredible site, and sight. It’s teeming with tourists though. Big buses go to the major points, probably just spending a day or two in town. You could spend weeks here, if you are really into temples, and still not see everything. We did a really good job avoiding other people, even managed never to be asked to pay the entrance fee (which is $20, goes to the government and not to preserving any of the monuments).
We found that exploring the smaller temples was so rewarding. Seeing the key keepers living right up next to the monuments, with 100+ animals (cows, pigs, chickens, ducks, dogs, cats, etc) was really interesting. They have little bamboo huts with a single solar panel (often times half shaded by something) powering a few light bulbs and a little TV.
It is a desert, dry and very hot. We were told over 100 degrees. And it felt that hot, not the humid heat we are used to. We managed to find some Australian sunscreen (not whitening like most sunscreen here) and didn’t get burnt, except for that little line on the top of my head where my part is. Always forget about that.
No socks or shoes in temples. I could probably write a book ranting about this, and Riki is sick of me talking about it, so I will keep it short. I will cover my shoulders, wear pants, and even remove my footwear to go into temples. But its not just the temples where you take off your footwear, its the whole area around the temple, which is outside and gets extremely hot and dirty. That’s not the worst. Many of the temples are full of bats and pigeons, so you are traipsing through shit and guano in your bare feet. And then you climb the narrow stairs and there is a giant snake skin on the step. And little rocks are getting stuck in your toes and in the bottom of your feet. Then you step on the little thorns that have blown in, curse avidly right in front of Buddha (hopefully he doesn’t speak English) and hop along until you can get them out. So you leave this temple with black feet, bruised and bloodied and burnt. And if you are Riki, you are lucky enough to step on the 1 inch thorn just as you’ve put your sandals back on. It still goes through, but could have been worse. Did I mention I already had blisters on the bottom of my toes? And that was the short version.
Next stop: a more remote archaeological site near the west coast, Mrauk-U via a horrendous bus ride.