Big Question Marks

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Our Burmese Days Pt. 1: Yangon

Oh Burma! Where to begin? It'll be a difficult task to try and describe all that we saw in three weeks, but it was a place that had a real impact on us-- perhaps one of those challenging trips that ends up really rewarding.

It's hard to believe we only managed to visit about six places in our three weeks there, but in Burma, travel takes a great deal of time. We landed in Yangon on May 23, not sure what to expect. Would the airport be fully of stern military soldiers with huge guns? Probably, we decided. We had our answers prepared on our occupations, and were hoping we wouldn't have to declare our electronics (as we'd heard we would have to), as having a computer, 2 iPods, a tape recorder, a video camera, an SLR, and a digital camera might just slightly look as though we're into media! Surprisingly, there were no questions and we were through customs in a flash. Coincidentally, staff from the guesthouse we were hoping to stay at was waiting to pick people up and it was a seamless ride into the city.

We probably rode the whole way into town with our mouths hanging open. Everyone we saw walking on the street, male or female, (including our hotel staff) wore a long sarong of sorts, called a longyi. The streets were busy enough, but there weren't any motorbikes or bicycles-- we learned these had been banned by the government within the city. Instead, it was all cars (mostly old), ancient buses spouting dark grey exhaust, and something like cattle trucks for people, where the back would be jam-packed with standing passengers (and the trucks looked like they'd been made in about the 1940s or so). It was grey and rainy outside, which made the dismal, pollution-stained buildings of Yangon look even more dingy. And actually, there weren't really sidewalks as much as there were sometimes concrete slabs placed over the open sewer/drains which ran along the streets. Walking the streets of Yangon was a real exercise in concentration-- there's no looking in the air, as you'll likely fall in a hole somewhere along the way.

Our hotel, the Motherland Inn, was absolutely lovely-- great staff, giant free breakfast (eggs, toast, orange juice, coffee, bananas, cake) but was a bit out of the centre of town, in some sort of marine-supply district (which meant also trying not to trip on massive ropes and anchors on the sidewalk too), on the corner of the Indian district. On our first meander into the centre of the city, we could barely keep up a conversation because so many people-- usually it's just kids, but here it was the adults too-- wanted to say hello, or "Mingalaba" (hello in Burmese). A friendly bunch for sure! We were halfway to town when we came upon a grimy red Victorian-looking building which took up a whole city block, and in searching our Lonely Planet we found it was an unlabelled grey square on the map. Very mysterious! While snapping some photos and pondering whether we should jump the barbed wire fence and try to explore it, a man came up to us and started sharing the history of the building-- the former British parliament, it was left to rot after the British left. And it was also where Bogyoke Aung San (Aung San Suu Kyi's father), still a big nationalist hero who was instrumental in gaining independence, was gunned down with most of his cabinet in 1947 shortly after elections. Creepy stuff.

We didn't know what to make of our new friend who had found us by the British parliament-- in many of our past experiences in Thailand and Vietnam, generally if someone befriended you, they wanted something from you. Alfred was different (and actually, this was very characteristic of Burma)-- he was out for a stroll, and even more up for a chat. Newly retired, he'd lived right around the corner from the parliament his entire life and had some crazy stories about Yangon. Being 67, he was around for all of Burma's recent and turbulent history, sort of a Burmese Forrest Gump. He was born during WWII when his mother went into early labour because of the loud shelling by the Japanese. Alfred went to grade school with Aung San Suu Kyi's brother, was around for several coups, and last year found himself being interviewed on CNN after Cyclone Nargis devastated Yangon and the Irrawaddy Delta. He'd been a professor in the far north of the country, studied orchids, lived in Japan for two years working in hotels, and had a tailoring business after that. He was a fascinating guy.

We toured some of Yangon's sights with Alfred the next day-- Shwedagon Pagoda, a massive gold-leafed Buddhist pagoda on a hill in the middle of the city, where worshippers donate their most prized jewellery to enamour themselves to the gods (the spires are covered in gold and jewels, bracelets, pendants, earrings, etc), and checked out the city's huge Bogyoke Aung San Market, housed in an grand old building made by the British. We were constantly dodging downpours, as rainy season was in full force in Yangon. We left the market with a few souvenirs (and Adrian had a bellyful of fried crickets, a local snack) and stacks of Myanmar cash: as there are no ATMs accepting foreign bank cards (thanks to international banking sanctions), the only way to get local currency is to bring US$ notes-- which we heard are only accepted in crispy mint conditions. We handed over our notes with delicate hands and received 1080 kyat for $1USD (quite funny b/c the official exchange rate, according to the government, is 6.54 kyat to $1! As the best rates are in Yangon, we exchanged a few hundreds, which made our bags heavy with stacks of bills, and we were a little uneasy carrying so much cash! Luckily robbery is pretty nonexistent in the extremely Buddhist country, so it was more inconvenience than anything that we felt.

We met some fellow travellers that night in our hotel and shared big local beers (about 1200 kyat for one) and bewilderment on the country we'd found ourselves in. We also found ourselves invited into a Hindu temple, where we witnessed a bizarre and colourful ceremony, complete with lots of singing, dancing, and dressing up a cow and her calf in flowers, feeding it masses of bananas, and tossing around cow pee. You know, the usual. The next day we visited the the river and were shocked at the destruction still left from last year's cyclone-- rusted-out boats stuck in the mud banks, a concrete dock completely twisted like it was made of aluminum foil. Yangon was definitely not a pretty place-- but maybe someday it will be. The next day we hopped a bus north to Mandalay...

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Off the grid?

Hello loyal readers! We write to you from the happy (if mosquito-ridden) kitchen/lobby of our riverside guesthouse in Bangkok. Tomorrow morning (whoa, we can hardly believe it!) we fly off to Burma for what will most likely be a really interesting three weeks. We've got a pocket stacked with "crispy" US$ bills (we actually had to be real bastards and reject some of the bills at the exchange place today, just in case we couldn't exchange them for the local Kyat!) and we're raring to get truly off the beaten path on the other side of the Thai border. We can't wait to show you what's there, and to tell you whether all the strange things we've read about the place are true.... the horse-drawn buggies, the men in skirts, the online censorship, you know, that stuff.

We have read that there's a good deal of websites blocked-- so we'll have to find out whether Blogspot's on that list-- not to mention sketchy electric power and perhaps a lack of internet cafes as we head further away from big-city Rangoon/Yangon. We'll try our best to post as much as we can, but please don't fret if you haven't heard too much from us in the coming weeks. We're probably just climbing a mountain or riding the bus along a very potholed road or something. Perhaps a little internet detox will do us good-- though we will miss all of you and our wifi a lot! ;)

We have heard Gmail's quite accessible though, so keep in touch with us at Catch you soon! xoxo, A&D

Friday, May 22, 2009

What they don't know won't hurt them...

So in a slight change of plan... folks, we're heading to Burma!

Maybe it was a strange choice to make, seeing as we still have all of those glorious Thai beaches and Indonesian islands ahead of us, but somewhere along the way we started feeling real curiosity about the little-traveled neighbour of Thailand. The more we read-- about the military junta; about the brand-new capital city, Naypyidaw, so new it's not even on our maps; and the fact that there's not a single ATM in the country due to international banking sanctions-- well, we've only become more intrigued. OK, we've also read and heard that the locals are sweet as can be and that the scenery around the country is astounding, and there's definitely a long and interesting history to uncover. Politically, it's just awful: ruled by a military junta since 1962, it's been in the news plenty these days after that crazy American swam across a lake in Rangoon to the house of (wrongfully imprisoned) opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi-- hope you've been following, as we sure have been.

The visa application process was an ordeal in itself! First off, you need an advance tourist visa to get into the country-- and there's only an embassy in Bangkok, so on Monday morning we found ourselves lined up by the creepy grey steel door for the visa department, around the side of the embassy. There were actually a bunch of us stuck out there for hours, because although we showed up well within the opening hours (9am-12pm and 1pm-3pm), there was a "problem", as an embassy staffer called it-- a protest of about 60 people out front of the embassy, chanting and singing "Dust in the Wind"-- yup, we had arrived on the first day of Aung San Suu Kyi's trial, and here in Bangkok, people were using their freedom of speech to (very rightly) speak out on the retardedness of this lady facing prison after some dude swam to her house! Nonetheless, we wanted our visas, so we avoided the cameras and the protest itself (though now we're kicking ourselves for not snapping a few).

Luckily, by the afternoon, after a teeming rainstorm and some time-killing in a bookshop, the embassy had reopened its creepy side door and we were permitted to come inside the very dingy visa waiting room to fill out a lot of irrelevant information on forms. We had to answer questions like "hair colour" (always a toughie!), eye colour, complexion (how un-PC!), and then a whole page of our employment history: note, definitely the place where you don't write "journalist". So Dayle listed a bunch of prior office jobs and hoped like hell they wouldn't Google one of her stories online, and Adrian put "programmer".... and got questioned by the official. "Who do you work for? Government?" he asked suspiciously. "No, no, for a bank. Private company!" says Adrian. "Well why didn't you apply for the visa from Canada?" asks the official-- a dumb question actually because the 28-day visa started ticking away from the day we FILED the paperwork, not even from its approval two days later. And then we spent the next few days, waiting and hoping we didn't waste our 800 baht, only to get turned away by the evil junta!

But nope, I guess they aren't the sleuths we thought they were, and very happily left the embassy with shiny stickers in our passports. Since you can't travel far across the border by land (those main roads are closed), we had to get flights into Rangoon-- we fly in this Saturday and fly back to Bangkok on June 12-- hopefully we'll be able to post from the road, though we hear internet's hard to come by and very much censored. It'll be our first trip to a country that seems so challenging, but hopefully that will mean it's extra rewarding. Tomorrow we'll exchange our money for a stack of "crispy" US$ bills, as there are no cash machines in Burma, and you cannot buy local currency (the kyat) without US$ bills, and bills with folds, rips, or marks on them will not be accepted. It's a puzzle, that's for sure. It'll be a challenge to avoid supporting the government but we'll strive to support local businesses only, and we hope our meagre tourist funds can help out the locals a bit in a country that probably really needs it.

We've started popping malaria pills, and treated ourselves to a night at the cinema and a burgers-and-pasta dinner at an American-themed restaurant (we're sure we'll be having none of that in Burma!) and we're getting pretty excited-- but we'll definitely appreciate a week on a Thai beach after this adventure!

In the meantime, if you're up for some reading on Burma, here's a few links:

-- On Burma in general (including why some call it Burma and some Myanmar)
-- On Naypyidaw, the new capital (check out the stuff about numerology!)
-- Aung San Suu Kyi's web page
-- A biography of Aung San Suu Kyi (from the Nobel Prize website)
-- Today's news from the Aung San Suu Kyi trial
-- BBC's Inside Insein Prison (where the trial is being held-- you know John Stewart's having a field day with a name like that!)

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Chiang Mai, Round Two

Ahhh, back to Chiang Mai, big city of the north with heaps of atmosphere, hundreds of ornate Buddhist wats, about a million places to eat, and a kicking night bazaar! We had great fun in Chiang Mai on our last trip, so another visit was a must in this year's itinerary.

Since we really liked the area we stayed in last time, just inside the walls of the old part of Chiang Mai, after the sweaty mountaintop ride up from Chiang Rai we grabbed a sawngthaew (a pick-up truck with a metal roof and two rows of seats in the back, a cheap way to get around in Thailand) and headed to our old street. The last time we were here, many of the recommended guesthouses were full, and we ended up in a yellow 3-storey one that we couldn't remember the name of but quite liked. So, just for fun, we thought we'd check it out again. It was a little bit different-- painted blue, renamed JJ House, and with the downstairs restaurant a bit flashier this time around. The price of a room was still the same (200 B, about $8AUD), and this time it had free wifi... so a few minutes later we found ourselves with the keys to room 301 again, up a few flights of really steep stairs but with a killer balcony outside the room! We felt like huge nerds...

Then, to continue the deja vu silliness, we thought we'd check around the corner for our favourite breakfast restaurant-- aha, still there! [For anyone who's heading to Chiang Mai, make SURE you end up at 'Blue Diamond-The Breakfast Club' on 35/1 Moon Muang Road, Soi 9-- never mind the new age mom clientele; it has the biggest and healthiest breakfasts we've seen in ages, all served in a great little garden!] Adrian described the feeling like "returning to our summer cotttage", which sums it up pretty well. We say our summer cottage, because we're the only ones here.

To quote one of the most annoying phrases they love to use over here, you could say it's "same same but different". This time there's just no one here! First we were the only people staying on the 3rd floor of the guesthouse, and then yesterday we became the only guests left. (We hope they don't cry when we take off today.) We found a great little "bar"-- er, a couple candlelit tables under some frangipani and palm trees-- and had a chat with the owner, who told us about the major drop in tourists since the images of protesters burning a car in Bangkok were splashed all over the international media (during the red shirt/yellow shirt protests in April). We've actually heard that until June 5, Thai consulates are handing out 60-day visas for free to up tourism (and this is all after they changed the overland-crossing visa to 15 days and we flew in to get a 30-day visa, much to our annoyance!).

It's low season anyway, which doesn't help businesses, and perhaps that whole economy problem might play a factor. We've had a reprieve from the heat of the past few weeks: it's poured rain for about 75% of our time here-- so we haven't done too much. It's not so much fun to shop at the night bazaar when you're constantly dodging puddles and slippery sidewalk tiles. So of course yesterday, once we gave up on the weather and bought bus tickets back to Bangkok, we had a beautiful, clear night! Actually, we're happy to announce we've acclimatized-- we met a group of Vancouverites last night and watched them with sympathy as they sweated it out over pizza (one guy had to eat his dinner shirtless he was sweating so much!) as we sat around in t-shirts, and wondered if should have worn long pants for the 'cool' evening.

But between waiting out the rain, we've seen enough of Chiang Mai to know that some things will always be "same same"-- like crazy tuk-tuk drivers (we ended up on a pretty wild ride to the bus station, with our driver whooping and cheering every time we bounced through a puddle or speed bump-- turns out he might have had one or two before the ride), a bountiful ladyboy population, and many questionable old white man/young Thai girl "relationships", which if nothing else, make for excellent people-watching.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Pizza Company Haiku

It took him only 15 minutes to pile everything from The Pizza Company's salad buffet into one bowl...

Iron chef would-be
Abusing the salad bar
Watching his figure

3 Nations, 2 Travelers, 1 Lawyer.

Since arriving in Chiang Rai 4 days ago, it’s been non-stop. We had the good fortune of coming when the Saturday market was happening, and the night bazaar too.

Thirsting for adventure we jumped the first bus to Chiang Saen (yes, there are about 5 Chiang ‘somethings’ in the area), which was an hour and a half away. Chiang Saen is a moderate small town but smattered with old ruins from ages ago. It’s pretty wild to see a 7-11 with an 1000 year old chedi for a neighbour!
We rented a bike at Gin’s guesthouse and with a full tank we set off for the Golden Triangle, the place where the 3 nations of Burma, Laos, and Thailand meet at the Mae Kong River. It used to be a big hotspot for the opium trade, but Thailand has since stopped its production (mostly). The Golden Triangle is pretty hard to miss, a giant golden Buddha surrounded by elephants is the first hint you’re there. Yeah, it was a trap but we like our corny pictures, and Adrian got to pose with a semi-nude mermaid.

Next stop was North in Mae Sai; the Northern most tip of Thailand – also the border crossing for Burma. We had a great look across the border and now our travel interest in Burma is totally buzzing. Naturally there were all the border town characteristics: begging children, soldiers, crap souvenirs, and a bit of uneasiness in the air - but it was our first glimpse of Burmese men’s fashion – the sarong. Maybe there’s an office furniture shortage in Burma, but there were these women who’d prop the heaviest looking metal tables on their heads and cart them back across the border on foot.

Along the way back to Chiang Saen we had a whole 4 lane highway to ourselves, and eerie feeling. So what a great place for Dayle to learn a new skill: motorbike driver. She was excellent (we’ll post video soon), Dayle not only mastered the ‘leaning’ basics, she took us 25 km before we drove by a huge scrub burn off and she got some crap in her eye. Well done, Hell’s Angels look out!

Since we’d missed the last bus we were fortunate to catch a ride back with the actual Gin of Gin’s guesthouse. He’s also a Provincial lawyer, and we had a great and colourful conversation with him and his wife Julie. He even invited us to his house in Chiang Rai and played us a song on his piano, see lawyers aren’t all bad (mostly).

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

More to Come...

More blogs to come, we promise! Stay tuned for posts from the north bits of Thailand-- we're currently in Chiang Rai, getting eaten alive by the nightly mozzie fest after sunset, and will head to Chiang Mai tomorrow. Internet's a bit sparser here but we'll devote a day to it soon... talk to y'all soon! xoxo D&A

Monday, May 4, 2009

Eight Days in Bangkok

It's hard to believe how easy it was to spend eight days in Bangkok. OK, we did spend some time running errands (sorting Australian bank stuff, etc) but mostly we were enjoying the city life-- shopping, hopping around town on public transit (something there wasn't much of in Vietnam), just taking in the action in the biggest city we've been in in ages. It's funny to think that on our first visit, we barely lasted 4 days before we were dying to leave. All we can figure was it was too much culture shock, a fear of spending too much money, and maybe spending too much time in the neon-light, "very strong cocktails", dreadlocked hippie tourist circus around Khao San Road.

This time we took a few days venturing into the thriving Siam Square area, the ultra-modern area in the centre of the city, full of megamalls and skyscrapers. We spent a whole day wandering the seven floors of the MBK Centre, a mall full of trendy Bangkok teenagers, with an entire floor devoted to all things mobile phone (we got utterly lost there and will never return to "cell phone purgatory" if we can help it). But what other downtown shopping mall can you arrive at by taking a riverboat past old temples and then a monorail between modern towers? The journey's half the fun! On our first visit to Thailand, coming from Canada, finding chain restaurants like Pizza Hut and A&W would not have thrilled us-- but after two months in Vietnam (where the only chain eatery is "Ga Ran Kentucky", or KFC) it was a real treat to have a DQ ice cream, a Starbucks frappuccino, a Pizza Hut pizza, and an A&W root beer. Maybe we're just too North American!

We finally visited the Grand Palace-- which was very grand and beautfiul. It was incredibly hot though and hard to really enjoy wandering the grounds, and despite our tries to dress the "proper" way this time (we failed twice last time!) we were still forced to wear the prescribed hospital-style pants (Adrian) and Thai silk wrap-around long skirt (Dayle) to tour the place, since our shorts were just not long enough!

And the best thing about Bangkok: Chatuchak Market. It's got to be one of the biggest markets ever-- our Lonely Planet says it has 15,000 stalls-- and only runs on Saturday and Sunday. It's a madhouse of people in a shopping frenzy; if you hate crowds, it's not a good place to be. You can buy just about anything there: clothing, paintings, furniture, used books, garden supplies, ladyboys (well, that's a guess), even pets. In fact, pet squirrels were all the rage when we were there, and some were even dressed up in little t-shirts. The puppies and the kittens were unbelievably cute too, and if you were the proud owner of a cute pet, you'd best bring it to the market to show it off. We were blown away by all the cool fashion shops and cool t-shirts galore- it's all a real fashion show, and in the three days we went to Chatuchak, we spent so much time browsing and people-watching we hardly bought a thing. Good fun though!

We've found the key to really enjoying Bangkok (besides shopping your heart out!) is just to sit back and enjoy the show. Check out our pics from the last few weeks in Vietnam til Bangkok-- we went on a little uploading spree a few days ago. Enjoy!