Posted in mandalay, myanmar by moonwire on November 24, 2009

After four days in Yangon, I got myself an overnight-bus ticket to Mandalay. The trip takes anywhere from 12 to 15 hours and I wasn’t looking forward to it however, you don’t really have a choice. Yes, you can take one of the domestic flights. Dodgy track record thrown in for free. Or you can take the train, which actually takes longer than the bus, but you’ll be able to book a sleeper (foreigners aren’t allowed to book regular train tickets). However, the problem with the train is that it’s 100% government run, and I believe the planes are either government or joint ventures. I know that by visiting Myanmar I am already putting money in the pocket of  the ruling military junta by paying money for the visa, the airport exit fee and 12% on bus tickets and guesthouse expenses however, you can still make your choices wisely to ensure as little as possible disappears into the pockets of those bastards. Having said that, the money made off of tourism doesn’t amount to that much. I read somewhere that Myanmar receives less than 200,000 tourists a year.

So the bus it was. I was actually surprised the bus wasn’t totally falling apart. It was an old Japanese tour bus with decent, yet very small seats. There was aircon as well as a TV blaring cheesy Burmese pop videos at maximum volume for hours at end. I can’t really sleep on those buses but I had my iPod which also blocked out the puking sounds from the lady next to me, who threw up during the whole duration of the 12 hour ride. Little bags of puke everywhere. Oh, it was an adventure.

After a few hours we stopped for a bathroom and food break in the middle of nowhere. Just looking at the food made me want to join my barfing seat mate, but I had to go to the bathroom. I opened the door and the bathroom,  basically a hole in the ground with a bucket and a scoop (I can deal with that after all those months) was filled with what I believe to be black widow spiders. There were hundreds of them. I never peed so fast in my life and basically got out still pulling up my pants.

The ride was surreal as there is no such thing as street lighting, the only time you see something lit up it’s most likely a prison. Everything else is dark. Some parts of the road were actually quite good, other parts were extremely bumpy.

We made one more of those stops and we had to get out of the bus for 2 ID checks. I was the only foreigner on the bus and I’m sure I held everybody up because they needed to meticulously browse through my passport and record a bunch of details with pen and paper. Luckily, no ‘tea money’ was required to get the go ahead and finally after 12 hours on that bus, we arrived at a dusty parking lot just outside of Mandalay at 5 AM. It was very dark, because there was no electricity. It was kind of eerie, too. Lots of buses were coming and going and I had no idea where to go as I did not have a hotel booked. I looked at my Lonely Planet guide and a taxi driver approached me. I told him I wanted to be dropped off at a certain guesthouse. He took me to his taxi, which was one of those tiny little blue Mazda pick up trucks you’d expect to see in Cuba. I climbed into the back and off we went. The funny thing is, that guy knew how to speak a little Dutch. It was just bizarre. When we got to the guesthouse it turned out to be full, so he suggested another one, just a block away. Sure, what was I gonna do at 5.30 AM…. He took me to E.T. guesthouse and it looked pretty decent so I got a room there. I took a quick nap and went for a walk around ‘downtown’.

My first impression of Mandalay was that it wasn’t very pretty. Whereas in Yangon, there’s a lot of old quite interesting (yet crumbling) architecture… no such thing in Mandalay. I honestly felt a bit lost there add exhaustion and 37C to the mix and there’s a recipe for misery. I then decided that I was not going to do Bagan, which meant another 8 hours on a bus to get there, and another 16 hours to get back to Yangon.

I got some half decent Chinese food, walked around town a bit to see if there was anything going on. There wasn’t. At night there was absolutely nothing to do so I decided to make it an early night and I ended up going to bed at 8 PM.

The next day I woke up early and I went for a walk around the Mandalay palace. There were some pretty sights but nothing that really blew me away apart from the huge propaganda posters with statements like “The Tatmadaw (the military) will never betray the cause of our nation.” Pretty eerie.

Went back to the hotel for brekkie and decided I might as well check out some of the temples as there wasn’t much else to do. So when I was walking down the street, a tri-shaw driver approached me. His English was very good and he talked about a few places where he could take me. I decided to give it a go and hopped into the tri-shaw.

His name was Mr. Htoo and he turned out to be an excellent guide and also companion. He pedaled me around town for the entire afternoon and showed me a bunch of temples, which were okay but not breath taking. However, the most interesting part of our afternoon was making stops at the tea shops where you sit on tiny stools and just sip tea and eat snacks (those are very good btw. I ended up living on those things for the last few days because they were very tasty, yet not very healthy as they’re all deep fried.). I much enjoyed talking to him. He then told me that he was mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide and yes, indeed he was there. The guide stated that he rents out bicycles but unfortunately he no longer does. He told me that after the 2007 anti-government protests that were lead by the monks (the government actually started shooting at the protesters and about 30 people ended up dead and more than 1000 people were arrested) tourism came to a halt and he was forced to sell his bicycles so his 4 children could go to school. He’s hoping to open his bicycle rental business again in the new future but a bicycle costs anywhere from 40 to 70 USD and on an income of about 30 USD a month, it takes a long time to save up.

Htoo picked me up later that night to take me to ‘The Moustache Brothers’, one of the few evening entertainment options out there. The Moustache Brothers are Par Par Lay, Lu Maw and Lu Zaw and their show is a mix of stand up comedy, Burmese dance and pretty harsh criticism of the Burmese government. The theatre is actually in their garage and it’s pretty neat to be there. Locals are not allowed to attend, but it’s safe for foreigners. I honestly couldn’t believe some of the things that were said about the generals and their ‘government’. As it happens, Lay and Zaw both served 6 years in prison doing hard labour for criticizing the government and yet they continue. Pretty courageous.

The next morning Htoo picked me up again to go to Mandalay Hill and see yet a few more temples. The cutest thing was when I got out of the temples, I saw him polishing up his bicycle. He had just put on new tires and was very proud of his possession. Once again, we ended up in a tea shop and drank Star cola (Burmese version of Pepsi), tea and ate snacks. We also invited a little girl who was selling newspapers. She didn’t speak English, but she told Htoo that she has to work to add to the income of her family so she can’t go to school. Pretty heart breaking. It was also very cute to see her drink the Star cola. She wasn’t used to drinking carbonated drinks so she sipped very very slowly however, she wolfed down the snacks in no time.

That night, it was time to go back on the bus. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t as bad as the ride to Mandalay even though it was an hour longer. I arrived at the Okinawa Guesthouse once again and all was well.

I kind of regret not biting the bullet and make the trek to Bagan. Even though Myanmar was a bit boring in some regards, I did find it the most interesting country out of the bunch. The people are very friendly and curious. Other than the moneychangers, there are no blatant rip offs like you can expect in Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam. Talking to the locals is quite easy, even their English is sometimes limited. I’ve had conversations with quite a few people there and it surprised me they were quite willing to talk about the political situation in their country even though it was mostly done in a roundabout way. After all, openly opposing the government could land them in prison for many years.

And even though I hate the thought of the military junta getting any of my money, I am glad I did go. There are lots of ways of minimizing the money that goes to the government. Don’t take domestic flights, don’t stay in government owned hotels and don’t take the train, which is government run as well. All the people I’ve talked to were glad to see foreigners visiting. After the anti-government protests tourism virtually came to a halt and it was devastating for a lot of people, like Htoo. Also, from what I gathered the Burmese feel that as long as there’s at least some tourists, they are not completely isolated and a few hundred Kyat tips here and there go a long way. However, despite the friendly people and their optimism and openness, I couldn’t help but feel sad for them. Whereas in Cambodia, I feel that despite the rampant poverty, they’re on their way to something, whereas in Myanmar…. I couldn’t help but feel hopeless most of the time. Maybe next year’s elections will bring a change of scenery. Maybe not…

I didn’t take many photos in Myanmar, but here’s a few more shots:

There aren’t any public phones in Myanmar. When you need to make a phone call, you go to one of these: just a table with a regular phone.

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yangon (rangoon)

Posted in myanmar, yangon by moonwire on November 22, 2009

I got my Myanmar visa sorted on Thursday afternoon and on Friday morning I caught the plane from Bangkok to Yangon. When I got off the plane, I immediately sunk into culture shock. I expected it to be somewhat like Cambodia. Somewhat still quite familiar, but it was totally different. Outside the taxi drivers were waiting, chewing betel nut and wearing longyi, some sort of sarong.

When I actually got to the taxi, I was completely shocked at the state of the taxi. The seats were half gone, the inside of the back door was gone and so was the window. Natural airconditioning! When the driver started the car, I was afraid it would blow up or break down. And a lot of the cars on the road are like that. Not only is it very expensive to own a car, the import of cars is also restricted so they will drive them til they fall apart, and then drive them some more.

I didn’t have a hotel yet, but I had done a bit of research and I asked the driver to take me to the Okinawa Guesthouse downtown. The ride was interesting. While keeping an eye on the door in case it would fall off, I watched the people making their way around town. Really old buses packed to the max with people on the roof top. Wreck like cars that would have been taken apart for scrap metal two decades ago in any Western country, people riding rickety bicycles. But not a single motorbike in sight. As it turns out, motorbikes were banned from Yangon twenty years ago. Probably a blessing.

When I got to the guesthouse, I was pleasantly surprised. It was a tiny little house in a  run-down street with the biggest potholes imaginable. They had a few private rooms and a small four bed dorm upstairs. I checked in, took a little nap and then walked around downtown looking for food. Yangon must be cholera cart capital. I ended up settling for some Indian style food, which was pretty awful. Not at all the Indian kind of food I’ve tasted anywhere else. Very bitter and sour.

Later in the afternoon I decided to walk around in order to find a place where I could get a drink at night. Mmmmmm no such thing. There are no bars. Instead I headed back to the guesthouse to have a Myanmar beer there. It tasted actually really good so all was well. At the guesthouse I met a Belgian guy, Lieven, who had been to Myanmar four times already. I asked him about bars and he said he knew of a place up the street where you could get cheap Myanmar draft. So off we went, to this tiny hole in the wall restaurant. We had a couple of beers there and ended up hanging out for the next few days.

We had more awful food, more cheap Myanmar draught, walked around town and visited the Shwedagon pagoda, as well as the meat market. Absolutely shocking. The meat market is in a damp basement of an old building. When we went in, the power was down (which is very often the case) so it was pretty dark but we carried flashlights. The floor was covered in blood, dirt, guts, shit and god knows what wildlife was running around there. The cut up animals were just lying on the dirty floor, rotting away. And this was meat for sale. It sure made Phnom Penh look like Singapore compared to that. We didn’t stick around too long as the stench was just horrendous but it sure made a deep impression on me.

A few interesting things… First of all, money. When you arrive in Myanmar you need to have USD on you (though Euro’s can also be exchanged, but only in Yangon). The bills need to be new and pristine. No ink stains, no creases. You cannot buy the local currency, Kyats, outside of Myanmar, so you’re at the mercy of the black market money changers. This is tricky. I needed to change some US dollars and was well aware of the money changing scams out there. A guy approached us on the street, he showed us a stack of 1000 Kyat bills. Counted them in front of us, but he did it very quickly. I said I wanted to re-count myself. So while I was counting, one of the guys held out the counted money in front of him. I was wearing my sunglasses so he couldn’t see my eyes and while I pretended to be counting the money in my hand, I watched his hands and I noticed that in a split second, he took a few bills from the bottom of the counted stack and put it behind his back and into his pocket. I looked up and told him ‘I saw that’. He denied. I gave him the Kyat back and walked away. This is a very common scam and you have to be very careful when changing money. Of course, never give the US dollars til you have ensured you are getting the right amount of Kyat.

Electricity… Or lack thereof. It seems completely random, and perhaps it is. There might be electricity for a few hours, then it goes off again for hours at a time. Lots of shops and restaurants have generators and the sound is deafening. Unfortunately, the Okinawa guesthouse does not and at night it was very hot. Just imagine about 35C and being forced to sleep under a mosquito net that doesn’t let any of the breeze in, if there is any. I guess I’m a bit of a princess but I found it very hard to deal with and did not sleep well at all.

Also, perhaps related to the lack of electricity… there isn’t any at night, so almost everything shuts down at around 9 PM and the city goes black. A flashlight is an absolute necessity to carry with you at all times, especially at night walking the streets because the potholes are huge and there’s a lot of open sewers.

Another interesting thing is mobile phones. There is no international roaming in Myanmar but you are given two options. One of them is to buy a temporary sim card, which costs 20 USD and cannot be reloaded and will expire after a month. Those 20 USD won’t get you far, making/receiving calls on a mobile phone is very expensive. The other option is to buy a post-paid SIM card. Just the card itself costs USD 1500. Needless to say, very few people have mobile phones in Myanmar. It is sheer luxury.

However, on Sunday night we decided to live it up a bit and we went to see the Michael Jackson movie ‘This Is It’. The theatre was surprisingly nice. Quite retro for our standards but the screen was good, and so was the quality of the movie. Though most memorable was when the movie was over and the lights went on…. the garbage left on the floor was shocking. It was as if a garbage truck had crashed and toppled over right there. Very strange, because the Burmese take a lot of pride in appearance and they mostly look well groomed and very proper. We were about the last people to leave the theatre because we couldn’t stop looking and couldn’t get over the mess all around… and the sad looking empty garbage cans nobody was using.

Another interesting visit was a stop at the Myanmar Tourist & Travel office. Lieven wanted to go see the Sea Gypsies in the South. He wanted to find out how to get there by bus and boat. Well, the answer was ‘not’. The only way he’d be able to go was to sign up for some $1000 tour and apply for a permit (turn around time about two weeks). He’d have to take a plane as foreigners are not allowed on the roads in that area. He asked about other places. The answer was pretty much ‘no’. As a foreigner, you are highly restricted in your movements around the country. You can go to Yangon, Mandalay, Inle Lake, Bagan and a few places to the North and West but that’s it. He ended up taking a bus to Pegu, to visit a monastery with a 100 year old snake and I ended up taking a 12 hour night bus to Mandalay.

In the next installment, my impression of Mandalay a variety of other tidbits and why you should go to Myanmar.

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bangkok revisited (again)

Posted in bangkok, thailand by moonwire on November 12, 2009

I flew to Bangkok on Sunday morning in order to apply for my Myanmar visa. Decided to stay at the same hostel as last time as it’s in Silom, an area I like, close to the skytrain and there’s lots of food options around. And of course, it’s a 10 minute walk from the Myanmar embassy.

On Monday morning, I arrived at the embassy at 7.15 AM. People were already waiting there. Finally, at 9 AM the office opened. It was a bit chaotic, but I was able to get my token to actually submit my visa application (they have a certain limit on daily applications, though nobody seems to know how many exactly, and it may change daily). At 9.45 AM I left the office, hoping my request would be approved.

I had a few days to kill in Bangkok before I could pick up my passport again. And just like last time, I didn’t do too much, but I did venture out of the neighbourhood. I went to Sukhumvit and Chinatown at least. Just walked around, basically. And of course, since Thailand has branches of the Boots drugstore, I did stock up on a few essentials while at it.

I did discover a really cool little restaurant on Silom Soi 20, about a 10 minute walk from the hostel, called the Siam House. There’s these two dudes, probably father and son, running the place. Absolutely amazing food, very friendly people and the food was ridiculously cheap (a bit over a dollar for a plate of Pad Thai). I ate many times there and I ate a lot. Just getting in some reserves as I’m not sure how the Myanmar situation will be.

This afternoon I went back to the Myanmar embassy to pick up my passport and I got my visa. I’m flying out tomorrow morning to Yangon. I know I won’t have wifi there, but there is internet but no 24 hour electricity, so I’ll try to update on Twitter as much as I can, but there won’t be any blogging or Flickr photos for the next 10 to 15 days. I am not quite sure what I want to see and do in Myanmar, but definitely visit Yangon and Mandalay.

And off I go on another adventure.

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saigon (part 3)

Posted in saigon, vietnam by moonwire on November 8, 2009

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saigon (part 2)

Posted in saigon, vietnam by moonwire on November 7, 2009

My sister left on Monday morning morning and I decided to stay in Saigon just a little bit longer, trying to figure out my next move. Of course, my life of luxury at the Lac Vien VIP room was over, too. Back to Schmutzland. I found a little family run hotel across the street. It isn’t exactly a nice room. It’s far from squeaky clean and it’s got no balcony, just a small window, but the staff is really lovely and makes up for everything else. And oh, it’s cheap — I’m back on the backpackers budget.

I did not do anything special, just walked around several neighbourhoods in hopes of finding something to shoot. There is lots to shoot and yet there isn’t. I didn’t take any breathtaking photos, but I shot a lot, even though it was mostly brightly sunny (and extremely hot) between 8 am and 4.30 pm. It gets dark here, early. By 5.30 pm, the sun sets and at 6 it’s dark.

I did meet Peter Grevstad’s friend, Allyson for drinks and Vietnamese BBQ. Peter lived in Vietnam for 5 years and has been a tremendous source of information (as well as entertainment). It was great meeting her. She took me to some loud place full of locals and the food was exquisite.

Other than that I basically did the same thing. Eat, drink, read, relax, sleep a lot. No touristy things. Just be. And enjoy being here. Vietnam has been absolutely amazing. Especially after Cambodia I’ve become somewhat jaded about seeing ‘new things’ here in the region. Really, wherever you go, you see/hear/smell the same things. Cholera carts, people enjoying food and drinks while sitting on tiny plastic chairs, noise, air pollution, markets, motorbikes. But I must say the Viet people have really made this part of my trip.

Considering the history of this country it is really amazing to see how they are building Vietnam up again. It is chaotic and noisy as hell, but there’s some really good vibes in the air. These people here are friendly, welcoming, gracious and thriving. Things somehow function quite well here. Sure there is poverty, but nothing like I encountered in Cambodia. With the exception of Saigon, I have seen very few beggars, if any. There’s beggars here, and I see the same ones every day.

One of them, Lei (sp?) is a 26 year old guy who lost a leg. Every night he works the streets. I actually ended up having a beer with him at Zoom Cafe and he told me he lost his leg in a motorbike accident. I bump into him all the time, and he always waves at me or comes over to say hello. Does not ask for money, probably because he knows I’ll give him some later at night, when I’ve had a Bia Saigon. Hah!

There’s another one, my sister and I saw him on our first night. A man, could be anywhere between 30 and 50, horribly disfigured; he walks on one side of his foot. The rest of his body is also totally disformed. He wears a hat with a big hole and some of his hair is sticking out. I only saw him one more time. Looking at the condition of his clothes, he most likely has to resort to sleeping on the street. Absolutely heartbreaking.

Also, I haven’t seen the kind of street kids I encountered all the time in Cambodia. But one evening, my sister and I were getting some crepes on the street and this little girl (she looked very small but was probably about 12 years old) who had some sort of Down Syndrome came by to sell us chewing gum. We didn’t need the gum, and I don’t buy from kids on the street, ever. But we offered her a crepe and it was so cute. She started hugging my sister and would not let go. Really endearing. When her crepe was ready, she put it in her bag and continued her way to sell more gum, hugging my sister once again. Wish I had had my camera ready.

So Vietnam has been amazing. Though I don’t have any real outstanding stories, I much enjoyed it here (except for Hoi An). I’m off to Bangkok tomorrow, hoping to get my Myanmar visa there.

I took literally hundreds of photos here and I have not gotten around to processing them all. I’ll post another Saigon photoblog post from Bangkok.

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Posted in saigon, vietnam by moonwire on November 4, 2009

Because the train ride from Danang to Nha Trang had proven to be traumatic for my sister (haha), we decided to skip another 9 hour ride in favour of a one hour flight to Saigon. We took the scenic route by taxi from our hotel to the airport and it was absolutely stunning to see the coast line. Unfortunately, a lot of big hotels were building there. In a year or two, that whole part will be populated by package tourists. Such a shame.

The flight was fine and we got picked up at the airport by our hotel. Yes, ladies of luxury, all the way. Well, almost, at least. We had done some research on hotels and the Ngoc Minh looked fabulous. Huge room, balcony, ‘television with remote control’; the works. Well, when we got there, the situation didn’t look so rosy. Yes, the room was big but it had creepy vibes. Having stayed at a variety of shitholes in Asia, I am not easily unpleasantly surprised, but this room was something else. It was clean and it had a kick ass shower but I can’t think of any more positives. We decided to stay the night anyways and look for something else the next day.

Well, after a bit more research, we decided we needed to be in a different area, so we took a walk, hoping to find a nice, cheap-ish restaurant on the way. No such thing. The area in which we thought we wanted to stay was so not our thing. There were Gucci and Versace stores, big hotels and people dressed up in corporate attire. Paying 6 dollars for a sandwich in Vietnam is also completely unacceptable! It was a good thing we went, as we both agreed there was no way we wanted to stay in that area. Back to the drawing board. And back to the creepy hotel.

Things got better. Or, depending on your perspective, worse. Not only did we get creepy vibes from the room… stuff started happening. The toilet would flush by itself. Okay, bad plumbing. But then the television started making popping sounds as if it was ready to blow up and we quickly turned it off. Then, the icing on the cake was the fan that exploded on us. It was actually quite funny. We were on the tiny balcony, trying to steal wifi from the neighbours, and we completely freaked out, closed the door and were actually scared to go back in, in case the fan would fly apart. Eventually, I ran in and cut the power. Yes, it was time to leave the Ngoc Minh Hotel (which we nicknamed ‘The Overlook’ from the movie ‘The Shining’).

And we did. We walked around the area and found a lovely street, Bui Vien. We saw the Lac Vien hotel and it looked really good. We thought it was probably too swanky for a pair of backpackers, but we decided to check it out anyways. Well, as soon as we entered the ‘VIP’ room, we started to hear angels sing. Sold. It was a huge room with 2 big beds, a big bathroom, a lounge area with 2 couches and a fantastic balcony overlooking the street. Happy as clams we moved in there and enjoyed it very much. And all of a sudden our happiness radiated all over the city. Our initial impression of Saigon was not so great, but once we were in a happy place, the sun came out and we enjoyed Saigon very much.

The jaded traveler I’ve become, I don’t enjoy the typical touristy things much. And luckily, neither does my sister. We mainly spent our time walking around the area, eating good food, enjoying each other’s company and having fun with the Vietnamese. And it was remarkably easy to escape the tourist ghetto. Just a five minute walk and we’d be hanging with the locals. Very cool. At night, we’d often to go the Zoom Cafe, right on a corner of a busy intersection and watch the motorbikes fly by.

And it got wilder. One evening when we had some really good pad thai at the Coriander cafe, we met a Filipino couple; Hero and Catherine. They were musicians and were going to perform at the Factory Club. I must have been under the influence because I don’t like clubs, but we said we’d be there. And we went. And it was really cool. There were some foreigners, but mostly Vietnamese. The club was like an old warehouse inside and the music was loud. The band was surprisingly good. It was fun for a bit, then we went back to Zoom, but I’m glad we went.

We did visit a few other places, though. One of them was Cholon, China Town. Honestly, I wasn’t all that impressed with it, though it was lovely walking around without seeing lots of tourists but there wasn’t really much that peaked my curiosity.

However, we also visited the Cu Chi Tunnels……….. My sister put it so well: ‘the biggest trap here is the tourist trap’. It was perhaps one of the most boring things I’ve ever seen. We were put in a tourist bus with another 40 people or so and you were expected to stay with the group. All we wanted to see was the tunnels, not be subjected to propaganda cinema or the shooting range (with a restaurant right next to it; relaxing… not). And on the way there, we stopped at some villlage to ‘look at the Agent Orange people’. You know, those poor people who lost limbs due to Agent Orange during the Vietnam war. How disgusting that you can make a tourist attraction out of that. We did not go. Just stayed at the bus. However, there was light at the end of the tunnel (hah). We got dropped off at our hotel area at 3 PM and had some kick ass Indian food at Akbar Ali. All was well.

I did take a lot of photos in Saigon, but none of them are really good, though seeing them together will give you a good feel of the place. So, here’s some more.

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