Big Question Marks

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!)


Bangkok Hotels, Thailand said...

I can't deny that you have very good idea. By the way, from my experience of Bangkok trip. I think that looking for accommodation around Sukhumvit are is the good idea because Sukhunvit is in the heart of the shopping district, both in terms of large department stores and the various stalls lining both sides of the road. The various side-streets provide a proliferation of nightlife venues. For the renowned and well-known spots, you will need to walk onwards past the Asok crossroads to Sukhumvit Soi 21 or Soi Cowboy. This area also offers a wide selection of cuisine to choose from, both in terms of air-conditioned high-end restaurants and open air restaurants offering quite reasonable prices.

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