Hanging around in Krabi

After Chiang Mai, we didn’t have all that much in the way of specific travel plans for the rest of our time in South-East Asia, but we knew we were headed towards Thailand’s islands.  We caught an overnight train back to Bangkok, and then, after a not-amazingly-inspiring twelve hour wait in the airport, flew to Krabi Town, from which we expected to fairly quickly move on.  Krabi is a bit of a gateway for the islands down south.  From there, you can catch a ferry to Ko Phi Phi Don and/or Koh Lanta and/or a number of others, but it’s not much of a destination in itself.

As it happened, though, we ended up in Krabi for a good five days.

It’s not that we suddenly discovered that Krabi had a lot more to see and do than we’d anticipated.  It’s that, as sometimes happens, we stayed in a good hostel and meet some cool people;  and as rarely happens (at least for most of this rather hectic round-the-world trip), we didn’t have any immediate definite plans that would prevent us from just hanging around and continuing to enjoy ourselves exactly where we were for a while, thanks very much.

Of course, the fact that it was about the fellow travellers we met more than about the place itself makes for a not a particularly great post, what with this being a travel blog and not, say, Facebook.

I guess it’s still funny to relate that we met one of our companions when he woke up as we turned up to our dorm, and shortly thereafter realised that he’d just missed his flight back to Oz, which he was sure he’d booked for tomorrow.  Similarly that we met another when she had the misfortune to sit down next to a particularly hungover me one morning as we boarded the back of a van that would take us out on the unexpectedly long (one hour) trip out to a kayaking expedition.  (Apparently I smelt more than vaguely of beer and wasn’t the most stimulating conversation partner.  Sorry about that…)

About to go kayaking near Krabi

About to go kayaking near Krabi

And it’s still relevant to tell you that we stayed in the excellent Pak-Up Hostel, that we enjoyed the food in the street markets just down the street and the breakfasts in Relax Coffee, the coffee shop across the road.  That we had an entertaining if exhausting and unreasonably sweaty climb up the seemingly endless steps up to the Tiger Temple…

The view from the Tiger Temple (Wat Tham Sua) near Krabi

The view from the Tiger Temple (Wat Tham Sua) near Krabi

… that we had great fun ziplining at Tree Top Adventures, near town…

Screwing around in the jungle, at Tree Top Adventure Park Krabi

Screwing around in the jungle, at Tree Top Adventure Park Krabi

Screwing around in the jungle, at Tree Top Adventure Park Krabi

Not the most elegant pose I’ve ever adopted for a photo, I’ll must concede

… and that we had a nice trip out to the Emerald Pool park, before getting thoroughly drenched on the ride back home…

The Blue Lagoon, in the Emerald Pool (Sra Morakot) near Krabi

The Blue Lagoon, in the Emerald Pool (Sra Morakot), near Krabi

But I guess what I’m really telling you is that it can just as often be the people you meet as the things you see that make travel entertaining and worthwhile.  And that sometimes it’s handy to have a little flexibility in your plans, so that you can hang around somewhere you’re having fun, or change destinations to fit in with people you’ve just met.

It’s one of my biggest convictions of travel.  Yes, it’s worth making sure you plan to go somewhere you’ll enjoy.  But actually, you can have plenty of fun pretty much anywhere you end up, whether you had it all plotted out in advance or not.  Sometimes it doesn’t matter so much where you are as who you find there, and how you manage to spend your time with them.

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Scootering around South-East Asia: advice

Scootering into the Mekong Delta from Ho Chi Minh City

Scootering into the Mekong Delta from Ho Chi Minh City

Observant (or perhaps I should just say ‘persistent’) readers may recall that a while ago, I made fun of the traffic situation in Vietnam.  As you may have noticed from my other blog posts about our time in Vietnam, and in fact from Thailand as well, we actually spent quite a bit of our time riding around on scooters.  So I guess you can conclude from that combination one of two things.  Either (a) we’re just crazy and were happily exposing ourselves to risks we were lucky to survive, or (b) it’s actually not all that bad.  I’ll leave the choice up to you.  Arguing in favour of (a) there’s certainly the fact that as you wander around South-East Asia, you see a lot of blank-faced looking tourists sporting road rash or other evidence of recent scooter-related injuries.  On the other hand, in favour of (b), we didn’t have any problems at all…

Anyway, the decision of whether to scooter or not to scooter is entirely up to you.  All I’ll say is that if you’re game for it, it’s an incredible way to experience the area – and you can go a lot of places you otherwise wouldn’t, as well as going places you otherwise would, but under better circumstances (directly, at your own pace, and without with a whole other busload of people).

If you do decide to scooter around, here’s a random assortment of advice:

  • First and most important:  be aware that what you’re doing is probably not entirely kosher.  Unless you’ve gone to the trouble of getting a local Vietnamese licence, your scooter adventures in Vietnam will be not entirely above board.  That doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to hire a scooter – far from it.  Nor does it mean you’re going to get in trouble with the law – Vietnamese police are not going to pull you over for a licence check, and even if they did, a small handful of local – or better yet, US – currency would solve that problem.  But you need to be aware that if you’re involved in an accident, then (a) it will be your fault, even if it wasn’t, and (b) your travel insurance will not cover you.  Just for the sake of hammering it home:  by hiring a scooter and riding around, you are taking a risk, and it’s a risk that your travel insurance doesn’t cover.  If you’re not OK with that, that’s fine:  don’t do it.  Obviously it’s a risk that we considered carefully and decided we were willing to accept.
  • Next on the must-remember list:  get a decent bike!  There are an absolute metric crapload of bike hire places everywhere you go in Vietnam and Thailand – your hotel/hostel will almost certainly rent bikes, as will the café down the street, etc.  That means you have plenty of choice.  Take advantage of it.  The variety of rental places is matched only by the variety of quality in the bikes that they rent out.  Don’t sweat the little things:  very very few bikes will have a working odometer, for example.  But don’t rent a bike until you’ve checked that the brakes are genuinely useful (front and back – I kid you not, we had one rental place try to explain that it didn’t matter that the front brake didn’t work, at all, because the back brake was just fine, so where’s the problem?) and that the headlights, indicators and horn work.  A working fuel gauge is also a nice-to-have, but you can always look in the tank if you need to.   A working speedo is handy, although in any case you’ll be basing your speed entirely on what you feel comfortable riding at given the road and traffic conditions, not on the number on the dial, so it’s less important than you might think (coming from a driving-in-Western-countries background).
  • On a similar note:  if you are tall, be aware that some bikes will not be big enough for you.  It would be very embarrassing to fall over while turning left out of the rental garage’s driveway because the handlebars got stuck on your leg and you couldn’t turn back nor get your foot down onto the ground.  At least, err, I imagine that would be very embarrassing.
  • Just so you know what to expect from the rental process itself:  you will be asked to leave your passport as surety (normally one passport is fine even if there’s a group of you hiring bikes, although some places will want one per bike).  If that’s a problem (perhaps because you’re expecting to need your passport for your accommodation during the hire period, or perhaps because you’re unnecessarily paranoid about losing your passport), some places will let you leave large amounts of cash instead.  (Obviously if you do that, ask for a receipt so you can be sure to get your money back!)  Some places will have you sign a detailed contract for the bike hire – chances are that indicates that this is a fairly professional outfit, so that’s a good sign.  Other places will just hand you the keys.  No problem.
  • I recommend you take a business card or something else with the hire place’s details on it.  If something goes wrong with the bike, or if you have an accident, you’ll want a phone number to ring.  If nothing else, just take a photo of the store front (assuming that there’s a prominent name and phone number on it), so that you can look it up on your camera if needed.  While you’re at it, probably note down the address, or better yet, put a pin/star on the place on your smartphone’s maps application, so that you can find the damn place to give the bikes back once you’re done.
  • Before you even get on the bike, spend some time just watching how traffic flows.  Notice that when pedestrians cross the road, the traffic flows elegantly around them – you will be expected to do that too.  Notice that despite the initial appearance of complete and utter chaos, everyone is calm and proceeding gently, with deliberate movement and no sudden changes in course.  You will be expected to do that, too.
  • You will quickly observe that the concept of lanes is a relatively ephemeral one in South-East Asia.  The concept of a lane is really only important insofar as you need to realise that the verge is considered one too.  Do not think of a lane as “yours”.  If you are riding along happily as the only person heading in your direction, and there is traffic coming towards you on the other side of the road, don’t be surprised when that traffic pulls out onto your side of the road – on a direct collision course – in order to overtake, or to avoid a pothole, or possibly just coz your side of the road looks prettier.  There is a perfectly good verge to your right, and as a scooter, you are expected to veer onto it to avoid oncoming traffic in your lane.  Deal with it, and move on.  In fact, you will actually spend most of your time riding on the verge anyway.  It’s much safer there, and as an added bonus, it’s a good spot to overtake larger traffic.  (Well, undertake, strictly speaking, but that’s not an important distinction in this part of the world.)
  • Be aware that the road quality is generally terrible.  There will be a lot of potholes, and you will spend a lot of your time looking out for them.  It will be tiring.  Factor this into your planned itinerary – you will be thoroughly and absolutely exhausted after the concentration of a long day’s riding.
  • Speed limits are meaningless.  Ignore them – everybody else does – and ride at a pace that you feel comfortable and safe at.
  • Wear appropriate clothing.  Scooters are less bad than motorbikes if you fall off, since you typically won’t end up with the bike sliding over your ankle as the latter gets ground away into the asphalt.  But nonetheless, it’s a good idea to wear long pants and actual shoes.  Don’t be the dipshit riding around in board shorts, bare feet and no shirt.  Not only do you look like an idiot, but you are one.
  • The hire places will have a range of helmets for you to choose from.  They will all be shit.  Try to choose the least shit one that fits.  And wear the damn helmet on your head, you stupid git.  I don’t care that you don’t think you look cool enough unless the wind is gushing seductively through your hair.  Your helmet is probably not going to perform as admirably as you might wish for in an accident anyway, but it’s definitely not doing you any good on your arm.  If it’s not properly fixed onto your head, it might as well be shoved up your arse.
  • A helmet with a full face visor is a godsend, if you can find one.  You probably can’t, though.  If you don’t normally wear glasses, make sure you have sunglasses.  As the sun goes down, insects will come out.  Having insects flying into your eyes at 60km/h is unpleasant.  Even without the insects, there will be plenty of dust:  we’re not talking about autobahn-quality road surfaces here.  Without glasses, you will be crying.  A lot.  The absolute most difficult and dangerous experiences I had on a scooter in South-East Asia were shortly after sunset, when it was too dark for me to continue wearing sunglasses safely, and I had to keep riding despite all the shit flying into my eyes.  It was fine, but it was unpleasant and it was painful, and we would have to stop every half hour or hour just so that I could wipe the gunk out of my eyes and then sit with them closed for a while.  After a couple of our longer rides, my eyes literally didn’t stop watering for two to three days.  Aside from other safety concerns, this is an excellent reason to ensure that you have returned before sundown.
  • Make sure you know roughly where you’re going, and roughly how long you think it will take you.  When it takes you longer than that, adjust your estimates for the rest of your day’s travels accordingly.  Do not expect that you will be able to get to your destination as quickly as Google Maps tells you you will.
  • Speaking of which, have a local SIM card with data (they are stupidly cheap) and use a decent maps application on your smartphone.  (So, probably not Apple Maps.)  Google Maps is great, and for a lot of the world you can take maps offline.  Nokia Maps (called ‘Here’) is available for non-Nokia phones now too (iOS definitely as I write this, and probably Android too, by the time this post actually gets published), and is even better.  It is unbelievably liberating not to have to worry about getting lost because you have a smartphone and GPS.  “Hey Chris, were we supposed to take that turn about 3km back?”  “Dunno Sam, how about we pull over and check where the hell we are?”  …  “Well bugger me, how the hell did we get over there?”  *shrug*  “About face and take the next left, then?”  “Yeah, sounds about right.”
  • Don’t be scared when you hear honking behind you.  If you’ve watched the Top Gear Vietnam special, you probably have the impression that there are mad bus drivers swerving all over the road honking aggressively at everyone to get out of their way.  Actually, if you hear someone honking their horn behind you, they’re probably just letting you know that they’re there and/or that they’re overtaking – so that you don’t pull out in front and splat yourself under their tyres.  Far from aggression, the honking is actually to make things safer.  If it bothers you, just relax – you’ll get used to it.  Ideally, you’ll start doing it yourself when you’re overtaking someone and you’re not sure they know that you’re there.

Hope that helps.  Any other advice welcome in the comments below.

Safe travels, happy scootering.

Pai

At least if you judge by the slogans on tourist t-shirts for sale in the city itself, the most important characteristic of the northern Thai city of Pai is the number of bends on the road between it and Chiang Mai.  (There’s lots – 762, apparently.)

I can only presume that it’s because most backpackers (and it’s mostly backpackers in Pai, make no mistake) get there in the windowless back of a not-especially-comfortable van driven with not-especially-comfortable speed on some not-especially-comfortable roads.  It makes for a twisty journey, and we heard plenty of tales of stomach-turning woe.

On the road from Chiang Mai to Pai

On the road from Chiang Mai to Pai

I wouldn’t know, though, because we didn’t take the van option.  Nor did we go with the public bus (which is slower, but I gather is recommended for those who aren’t sure if they’d appreciate the speeding van).  We, obviously, hired some scooters for a few days from Chiang Mai, and made our own way.

It’s a pity that the majority of travellers experience the journey more via the twists and turns of their stomachs than as a picture nicely framed by the brim of yet another largely useless scooter helmet.  Because it’s a very very pretty ride.  And while the road may be crap, it’s perfectly fine if you slow down and avoid the more egregious of the many potholes.  (Well, ‘potholes’ is somewhat of an understatement for some of them.  There are admittedly a number of occasions when they’re more hole than road.)

A section of road possibly in slight need of repair, on the road from Chiang Mai to Pai

A section of road possibly in slight need of repair, on the road from Chiang Mai to Pai

And as an added bonus, when in control of your own itinerary, you can easily stop to take advantage of the many coffee shops along the way – in particular, there’s a place called ‘We 2 Coffee’ at about the halfway mark that does a very nice coffee indeed, and some excellent, wonderfully spicy lunch, to boot.

Putting aside the actual mode of transport to get there, Pai was quite a nice destination, too.

It’s a small place, and very tourist-focussed.  But there are some quite beautiful sights to be seen nearby.  And it’s relaxed.  Hell, I don’t think it could be more relaxed without being actually perched on a couch in front of a TV watching bad eighties movies.  Which would be a difficult thing for a town to be, you have to admit.

A view out over the plains near Pai, from the coffee shop at the Pai viewpoint

A view out over the plains near Pai, from the coffee shop at the Pai viewpoint

In addition to the prettiness of the countryside itself, there’s Pembok Waterfall – a nice little secluded cascade well worth the short trip out of town.

The lower part of Pembok waterfall, near Pai

The lower part of Pembok waterfall, near Pai

And there’s Pai Canyon.  It’s not exactly the Grand Canyon, but it’s attractive nonetheless, and it was fun to spend an afternoon scrambling around climbing all over it.

Pai Canyon

Pai Canyon

Climbing around Pai Canyon

Climbing around Pai Canyon

And when you’re done with that, there’s hot springs to relax in – including pools of up to 80 degrees Celsius (well, obviously you don’t relax in those).  And there’s the ever-popular game of ‘look at that idiot tourist being stupid on his scooter’ (winner:  the group of bronzed Aussie-looking boys riding out towards the hot springs in the rain, wearing nothing more than board shorts:  no helmet, no shoes, nothing but boardies) and its slightly older sibling ‘look at that idiot tourist sporting injuries obviously sustained on a scooter’ (winner:  the girl sporting road rash literally all down her right leg, more on the underside of her right arm, and a few bonus nicks on the right side of her face).

That was pretty much enough to keep us occupied for our time in Pai, really.  We took our time enjoying the ride back to Chiang Mai – and another coffee and lunch at We 2 Coffee – and hoped that the weather would hold out until we got back.

It didn’t.  But oh well.

Our scooters, standing in an extended puddle of water otherwise known as the road, as we wait for the deluge to ease on our ride back from Pai to Chiang Mai

Our scooters, standing in an extended puddle of water otherwise known as the road, as we wait for the deluge to ease on our ride back from Pai to Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai

We’d been looking forward to our travels bringing us to Chiang Mai for a while, but once we got there, we quickly found we didn’t really know what to do with ourselves.

We’d been looking forward to it because it’s a favourite destination of many digital nomads – internet-famous travelling bloggers/programmers/nerds in whose lifestyles we’d definitely taken more than a passing interest as one to consider perhaps emulating longer term.  But of course, those people love Chiang Mai because it’s a comfortable and affordable city to set up base for a while and get on with the non-touristy parts of their lives.  We, on the other hand, had no such delusions of productivity.

Statue elephants gaze along the moat that surrounds the square centre of Chiang Mai

Statue elephants gaze along the moat that surrounds the square centre of Chiang Mai

I get asked a lot what I intend to do once our round-the-world ticket comes to an end in September, and I happily tell people that I don’t know, and frankly right at the moment, I don’t care.  But I’ll admit it’s not like I’ve given it no thought whatsoever.  I like travelling, and I intend to keep doing a lot of it – whether that involves being permanently on the road, or whether it means setting up a home base in Australia again and taking lots of extended holidays as often as I can afford it.

I’m a computer programmer by trade, so assuming I’m any good at said trade, it should theoretically be possible for me to make a living pretty much anywhere in the world, working for people who could theoretically be anywhere else in the world.  I can see why somewhere like Chiang Mai would be a popular place to do that.  It has a large and friendly expat community, it has cheap and good accommodation and food, it has fast and reliable internet connectivity to the outside world, and it’s a pretty city to boot.  Who knows, maybe I will come back and sit myself down here for a few months when the money starts to run out, when I do finally have to confront the horror of having to earn myself an income again.

Anyway, all of that’s irrelevant drivel for the moment:  my point is that unlike most of our destinations to date, we hadn’t necessarily come to Chiang Mai quite so much because there was something we wanted to see or do;  we came in large part because it was a city we wanted to have checked out for ourselves, in case we might want to come back to it in future, in a different context.

Of course, none of that is to say that we wasted our time there.  Obviously we hired some scooters and explored.

Mae Ya Waterfall, near Chiang Mai

Mae Ya Waterfall, near Chiang Mai

There are some beautiful waterfalls near the city, and so we scooted happily over their way first, enjoying both the falls themselves and the scenery on the way to get to them.

We scootered out among the countryside in a big loop around to Samoeng, a nearby town, not because there’s anything there, but just because we could, and because the countryside looked pretty.

And, in a slightly longer journey, we made our way to Doi Inthanon National Park – again enjoying every moment of the motorised trek out there.

A shiny golden wat, just by the entrance to Doi Inthanon National Park, near Chiang Mai

A shiny golden wat, just by the entrance to Doi Inthanon National Park, near Chiang Mai

Doi Inthanon is Thailand’s tallest mountain – although in all honesty that’s not the most impressive of distinctions:  Thailand is pretty flat, and the lofty Doi Inthanon is a not-so-jaw-dropping 2565m above sea level.  (Yes, it’s still higher than Mt Kosciuszko, Australia’s highest peak.  No, that doesn’t make it impressive.)  Though it is high enough that you can experience the bizarreness of feeling vaguely cold and mostly not sticky, for the one and only time in otherwise hot and humid Thailand, and enough that our well-used 115cc scooters started to struggle in the power output department, what with the reduced oxygen available for their not-very-meaty-in-the-first-place putt-putt engines.  (This was especially funny because on this particular occasion Chris’s scooter was even shitter than mine, allowing me to zip past on the uphill, as he trundled along falling unhappily behind.)

A moss-covered elephant statue forming part of the King Inthanon Memorial Shrine, at the summit of Doi Inthanon

A moss-covered elephant statue forming part of the King Inthanon Memorial Shrine, at the summit of Doi Inthanon

Nonetheless, Thailand’s highest mountain it is, and it’s in the middle of a nice enough National Park. There were more waterfalls, there was a shrine to King Inthanon himself at the top, and there were pretty forests and, of course, plenty of Buddhist wats and pagodas to spy en route.

Greenery at the summit of Doi Inthanon, Thailand's highest mountain

Greenery at the summit of Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest mountain

If I’m honest, there was nothing that spectacular about it, but it was a nice day trip, largely because it was yet another nice scenic ride on the bikes.

Greenery beside the roads around Chiang Mai

Greenery beside the roads around Chiang Mai

More of a spectacle, I suppose, was the Muy Thai boxing we saw in Chiang Mai.  Before that we’d wandered the streets a little, and decided that the market and the bar area nearby were not really our thing – far too many unpleasantly suggestive noises, winkingly-offered ‘massages’ and outright sexual invitations coming from the probably-ladies at the seedy-looking bars.  So we headed back nearer town, and towards the Muy Thai venue whose details had been helpfully plonked onto our breakfast table by a scooter-borne pamphlet delivery man that very morning.

Muy Thai boxing in Chiang Mai

Muy Thai boxing in Chiang Mai

The boxing was highly entertaining.  It wasn’t, I’m sure, the highest quality exhibition of the country’s most popular sport.  But there were some genuinely serious matches, so we could see what it’s all about.  And there were plenty of more humorous exhibits, too.  Viz the five-boxer all-blindfolded arm-flailing contest that served as a sort of half-time show between the more normal fare.

The referee takes a hit from one of five blindfolded competitors at the Muy Thai boxing in Chiang Mai, and falls to the mat

The referee takes a hit from one of five blindfolded competitors at the Muy Thai boxing in Chiang Mai, and falls to the mat

And naturally there were also more respectable spectacles to see in Chiang Mai, too:  the many beautiful Wats all through and around the city.  Let it not be said that we didn’t experience the more refined side of the culture as well, before yet again temporarily acquiring ourselves some scooters for our next stop:  the backpacker-dominated cosy town of Pai.

At Wat Jed Yod (aka Wat Chet Yot), Chiang Mai

At Wat Jed Yod (aka Wat Chet Yot), Chiang Mai

Yangon

(A quick terminology note before we begin:  Myanmar is one of those places where you end up playing “Istanbul or Constantinople”, trying to figure out whether to call it Burma or Myanmar, whether the main city is Rangoon or Yangon.  (I was going to write ‘capital’ there, but for reasons that no one really understands, the junta decided a few years ago that it wanted to make itself a new artificial capital elsewhere.  So it’s not the capital any more.)  I’ve gone with what the country calls itself.  I know that the Beeb, for example, prefers to stick with the old names, as a show of rejection for the military junta’s takeover of the prior regime.  I can get that, but at the same time, I can’t help but wonder at the self-righteousness of a policy that expresses said disapproval by insisting on the name that Britain assigned the colony, upon its military takeover of the prior regime.  So, especially given that the government is gaining more and more acceptance internationally these days anyway, I’m going with what the locals say.  Myanmar and Yangon it is…)

The taxi trip from the airport to our hotel gave the lie to many of my expectations of Yangon.  Driving through some of its northern suburbs reminded me more of growing up in Melbourne than anywhere else.  Least of all the chaos of recent stays elsewhere in South-East Asia, or the dilapidation of Kathmandu.

Our four-day excursion to the Myanma capital was a last-minute addition to our travels around South-East Asia, but it was obvious it was going to be intriguing.

Shwedagon Pagoda at sunset

One of the iconic highlights of Yangon: Shwedagon Pagoda, at sunset. Definitely worth a visit – and give yourself an hour or so as the sun goes down and all the gold turns reddy-orange. Also as all the neon buddha haloes turn on. (Bit strange, that, but there you have it.)

In the main part of the city, confusion and bustle is more evident, yes.  The prevalence of left-hand drive cars in a country that drives on the left can’t be helping that, I’m sure.  But a ban on bikes – pedal-powered or motor – marks this city truly a world away from those of Myanmar’s neighbours.  As you’ll soon discover if you try to cross the road as you would in Hanoi, only to find that the traffic does not in fact part for pedestrians as expected.

And like the rest of South-East Asia, there is street food aplenty here, and the footpaths overflow with sellers of fake Ray Bans and a cornucopia of shiny things.  It’s hard to walk far without being offered the services of a moneychanger, eager to do you a “good deal”, changing US dollars at well above the market rate (net of the sleight of hand that will have you actually walking away much poorer in Myanma kyats than you intended, if you were sufficiently unwise as to take the offer).

But there is definitely something more orderly about Yangon.  Dare I say, something more British.  (The smattering of old colonial architecture obviously contributes to this.)

The Ministers' Building (formerly the Secretariat Building) in Yangon – a beautiful old colonial building in its now almost jungle-like grounds in the middle of the city

Colonial architecture in Yangon: the Ministers’ Building (formerly the Secretariat Building) – a beautiful old colonial building in its now almost jungle-like grounds in the middle of the city

There’s something more secure, too.  At no point in our South-East Asia travels did we feel in any danger, and definitely Yangon was no exception.  But it went further than that:  though you do need to be careful of being ripped off by the moneychangers, Myanmar, a very thoroughly Buddhist country, has incredibly little crime.  Ferry ticketsellers and restaurateurs alike will happily turn their backs on seriously large piles of cash in crowded areas as they go about their business, with no thought to the possibility of it being stolen.  Crime against tourists is almost unheard of.  Obviously this doesn’t mean you go around behaving like an unthinking idiot leaving your valuables everywhere, but there’s a trusting vibe to the country that is obvious and reassuring and pleasant.

It’s not a lack of poverty that’s responsible, either:  there’s poverty aplenty, with most of the country effectively one step up from subsistence farming.  One of the typical tourist recommendations is to head to the central train station, pay your $US2, and catch the Yangon Circle Line:  a three-hour trip out into the pretty but far-from-wealthy nearby countryside and back around to where you started, past farmers markets, scrap yards, slums and everything else that outer-suburban Yangon has to offer.  The ride was fascinating, but probably interesting more for the people-watching on the train, than for the view out the glassless windows.  As the train passes through the main markets, and large sacks and wicker baskets overflowing with vegetables find their way into the carriages as their owners then set themselves cheerfully about their daily tasks, cutting, peeling and bundling, all mid-carriage, preparing to sell on down (or is it up?) the food chain.  The train is how most produce gets into the city, and it seems to be the industrial quasi-kitchen-prep venue as well.

Locals transporting produce to and from the market on the Yangon Circle Line

Locals transporting produce to and from the market on the Yangon Circle Line

Much of that food, once it makes it into the city, proceeds to the street-side food stalls that dot many of the main streets.  Chinatown, especially, comes alive with culinary variety at night.

Street vendors in Yangon.  Those piles of brown things are crickets.  Tasty!

Street vendors in Yangon. Those piles of brown things are crickets. Tasty!

And by culinary variety, I mean fresh produce, indefinable variations on meat-on-stick, and big piles of fried crickets.  Which are actually quite tasty, as it turns out.  Tastes kind of like chicken.  (Although I’ve been told that you really want to rip the legs off before chowing down:  the enthusiastic seller I dealt with evidently took care of that for me when he handed the tasty morsel over, but apparently otherwise, they have a somewhat irritating tendency to stick in one’s teeth.)

About to sample a tasty, tasty cricket, bought from a street seller in central Yangon

About to sample a tasty, tasty cricket, bought from a street seller in central Yangon

And then there’s perhaps the most common type of stall in all Yangon:  the beetel nut vendors.  Beetel nut is a cultural phenomenon in Myanmar:  you can see evidence of it not just in those stalls, but in the red stains on nearly all the locals’ teeth, as well as the dried-blood-coloured splotches practically painting the footpath and roads, constantly prompting you to second-guess that “Myanmar is perfectly safe” advice I gave just before.

There’s evidently quite an art to beetel nut production and consumption:  the nut is chopped up and wrapped in leaves, along with some form of white paste to keep it all together.  Watching the practised manoeuvers of the stall-owners throwing together a fresh batch (it’s typically bought in bags of half-a-dozen or so, which, judging by the consumption habits of some locals I observed, must last all of about an hour) is really quite mesmerising.

Streetside sellers of beetel nut

Streetside sellers of beetel nut

Also sold on the street, by the way, was a surprising amount of Angry Birds merchandise.  I say surprising not because I’m not used to seeing lots of Angry Birds merchandise – it’s hard to think of many places (especially in South-East Asia) that I haven’t seen it.  But because one of the things that still sets junta-run Myanmar apart is the lack of availability (and ridiculous expensiveness) of mobile phones.  There’s a certain double-take you do when you realise that the fashion is for wearing clothes which promote a game the locals are unlikely to have seen played, since it’s playable only on phones which only the country’s few tourists are able to acquire.  (Similarly unusual:  the Samsung Galaxy SIII is heavily advertised on large and prominent billboards throughout Yangon.  But I’m not even sure that it’s possible to buy one there.)

With all of that, Yangon is just a bit different to anywhere else I’ve been.  Generators dot the footpath (the electricity infrastructure is not exactly reliable), and (no doubt in part because of a lack of available power, as well as a lack of available patrons) the nightlife is almost non-existent, unlike most other Asian capitals.  (That said, the Strand Bar – local haunt of the workers at the nearby British and Australian embassies – does half price drinks from 5pm til 11 on Fridays, and some of its regulars enthusiastically informed us that while yes, most places are done for the night well before midnight, there are most certainly a few haunts that can keep an expat going all night, if you wish to seek them out.)  Everywhere you looked, there were these small accumulations of little differences that make the Myanma capital unique and intriguing.

And that was our brief experience of perhaps South-East Asia’s most reclusive destination.  We were sad not to have had the time available to get out and see anything more than just Yangon:  from everything I’ve heard from other travellers, the rest of Myanmar is an incredible country and well worth an in-depth exploration.  But we were very glad to have gone and seen a taste of a different kind of Asia, even as it rapidly changes and opens up to the outside world.

Getting a Myanma visa in Bangkok

This is an advice post, for anyone wanting to visit Myanmar and trying to figure out how to get a visa.  If that doesn’t apply to you, don’t blame me if you get to the bottom of the following wall of text wondering why you’re incredibly bored and can you have the last ten minutes or so of your life back, please.

The south entrance to Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

Superfluous photo of Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

Apparently, most Myanma embassies around the world will take forever to process your visa application.  The one in Bangkok will not – they have fixed, reliable schedules (same-day, next-day and day-after, depending on your need and willingness to pay for expedited processing), and as a result, they’re a pretty popular embassy.

Sufficiently popular, in fact, that you will be waiting in a long line to get your visa.  The visa section is only open in the mornings for visa applications.  It opens at 9, and by then there’ll be a line along the street.  We got there around 9.15, and had to wait about 40 minutes in line.  Personally I wouldn’t bother getting there earlier – my uneducated guess is that you’ll be waiting in line equally as long, just trading off more time waiting in a shorter line that’s not moving (because the office isn’t open yet) for less time waiting for the people in front of you to pass through once it does open – but obviously plenty of people are more excited about the whole waiting-in-line process than I am, and so want to get started with it as early as possible.

But in any case, before you go jump in that line, you’ll want to go to the little photocopy shop round the corner first.  It’s down a little side street off Pan Rd, north of the embassy building.  Basically follow the line from the embassy door (which is on Pan Rd) up the road, and turn right where you see all the people with visa applications coming out of the side street.  Someone will be able to show you where – everyone goes there.

The reason everyone goes there is that for a run-of-the-mill general photocopy shop, they’re particularly specialised:  they basically major in helping people get together whatever they need for the visa application.  They can provide you with copies of the application forms for the visa even before you get to the embassy (in fact, well before the embassy even opens), so that you’re not hurriedly filling them out once you get to the front of the line.  Plus they can print off your other supporting documentation for you (you’ll want a printed flight confirmation if you’re going for a same-day visa), photocopy your passport’s photo page (yes, you need to hand this copy in with your application, even though you’re also handing them your passport itself – presumably this is to save the embassy staff walking around the corner to the same shop to use their photocopier themselves, or something), take your passport photos (you need two, one glued on the form, one paper-clipped to it), and even look over your filled-out form to make sure you’ve got it all right before you even get in line.  They’re exceptionally helpful, and they’re cheap.

Once you’ve done that and lined up, you’ll need to fork over some money to the government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar itself:  you can pay the minimum fee (800-ish baht, I think) and get the visa in three days (so apply Monday morning, get it Wednesday afternoon), or you can pay more and get it the next day, or even more (around 1100 baht, I think) and get it that same afternoon.  (Although note that to apply for a same-day visa you’ll need some justification for why you need it the same day – such as a flight confirmation for tomorrow.)

And then you’re done, until whenever you paid for your visa to be ready – at which point you line up all over again and pick it up between 3.30pm and 4.30pm.  It’s actually all particularly straightforward.

One final note:  on the application form, they ask for a brief employment history.  Apparently they have a history of refusing visas for people who’ve worked for NGOs or as journalists.  Mightn’t hurt to leave that off if it applies to you, I suppose.  They don’t ask for any proof of employment or anything, so you can put whatever you like, really.  I always liked the sound of “professional traveller”, myself.

Sula Paya in the centre of Yangon

And there you have it – enjoy your time in Myanmar

Pungent Bangkok

Bangkok just didn’t really do it for me, I’m afraid.  So there’s not going to be anything particularly exciting about this post.

Perhaps it was because we’d just come from the marvels of Angkor, next to which most places are going to seem a little dull.  But I don’t think I would have found myself very excited regardless.  Perhaps it’s just that after travelling for a while, each big city starts to look like the previous one.  Although as much as that may be true for looks, Bangkok certainly didn’t smell like anywhere I’ve been before.  It stinks – the open sewers and the garbage on the streets (complete with enormous rats, rooting around on the footpath for their share) fill the air with a certain eau de unpleasantness.  So maybe that was the problem.

A wing of the Grand Palace, doing its best to look supernaturally responsible for some oncoming inclement weather

A wing of the Grand Palace, doing its best to look supernaturally responsible for some oncoming inclement weather

We saw a few of the sites:  we went to the Grand Palace and a handful of the famous Wats (temples).  But even they didn’t do it for me.  I think Chris summed it up best:  somehow the over-the-top grandeur of the palace and the Wats just feels like a monumental version of the waving cat tacky souvenir thing you can buy pretty much all through South-East Asia.

Lots of gold trim, in Wat Phra Kaew

Lots of gold trim, in Wat Phra Kaew

We considered taking a boat tour on the canals – as had been recommended both by a friend and by our guide book.  But we had difficulty convincing ourselves that we’d enjoy what promised to be a particularly odoriferous experience, so we gave it a miss.

And yes, we did wander through the smuttier areas of Bangkok, too.  Past the dodgy bars touting dodgy shows of dead-to-the-world girls doing bizarrely inappropriate things with their genitalia.  I even went to one of them, accompanying a group of Canadian girls who wanted to know what all the fuss was about.  And no, that didn’t make Bangkok for me either.  Funnily enough, I remain convinced that ping pong is an activity best undertaken fully clothed.

Our time in Thailand’s capital wasn’t a complete loss, though.  Conveniently, our hostel was just down the road from the Myanmar Embassy.  Which was good, because it was off to Yangon next, to see what Burma looks like now that people are starting to stop calling it Burma.  And we needed visas.

Also, in fairness, we enjoyed some pretty good food.  First, a street restaurant on the steps of a bank branch in Silom Road, which did tasty and spicy food for cheap.  And second, on our way back through after Yangon, before catching the train up to Chiang Mai:  Sizzler.  Yes, you heard right;  so far as I can tell, Bangkok is one of the few cities outside of the US still to have a Sizzler.  Complete with everyone’s favourite all-you-can-eat salad and dessert bar.  And my god, can I eat a lot when tasked appropriately.  That salad bar took quite a beating.  And that despite the fact that I ordered – and demolished – a full rack of juicy juicy BBQ spare ribs.  And topped it off with a couple of chocolate mousse things for dessert.  Or maybe it was three of them?  I really can’t remember.  It was probably more than is really required before a sixteen-or-so-hour overnight train ride to the north of the country, in any case.  But I’m getting ahead of myself:  both Sizzler and that train trip were on our way back up through Bangkok, after a four-day trip to Yangon…