Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar in one day

Glitzy tri-shaw

Glitzy tri-shaw

So I just missed an airport bus outside the Sofitel on Silom. As a result, I had to fend off taxi drivers trying to convince me that I wouldn’t want to wait for the next one. One even told me to go drinking with him first! Once he moved onto the “is it a holiday at the temple, so not many buses today” line, I turned my back and walked off.

Fifty minutes later and the Airport Express arrived. I plopped my bum on the 100 baht seat and an hour later I was deposited at the departure terminal. At midnight. With over five hours until my departure gate opened. I was lucky enough to find a row of partially-padded seats I could lie on and managed maybe 2½ hours’ fitful sleep.

As ever with AirAsia, a quick and efficient check-in then on to the gate via Boots for some Immodium as my bum’s been leaking for a few days. Hey, it’s all part of the traveling experience. I live it so you don’t have to.

The flight to Yangon was perhaps half full and I got loads of legroom by the emergency exit. It’s a short flight – around 1 hour and 15 minutes. Myanmar is an unusual 30 minutes behind Thailand (though not as unusual as Nepal’s 15-minutes zone) so clocks were adjusted.

The airport at Yangon – only two years old – is quite clean and modern and certainly capable of handling more flights than it currently gets. Immigration was a breeze with very smiley officials and my bags must have been offloaded by a team of sprinters on speed (likely manufactured for the illicit Chinese drugs market in a small shed somewhere in the north with a share of the profits going to the generals who run Myanmar).

Collecting my luggage, I was approcahed by a man from one of the guest houses in the city, Motherland Inn (2). They offered a free taxi ride into town – normally $6 or $7. This seemed good to me and a minibus shortly appeared, was filled with potential guests and zipped us south.

I managed to get a comfy dorm bed with a cavernous locker underneath for $5 a night, which completely outweighted the potential taxi cost. Bargain. And breakfast on arrival. Double bargain. The staff are awesome and couldn’t have been more helpful.

I buddied up with Peter from South Africa and we went for a walk around just after midday to change currency and see a few sights.

A view of the city

A view of the city

Do note that while in Myanmar I won’t be seeing as many of the “top” sights as I’d like. It’s not the charges, it’s that the lion’s share of the income doesn’t go towards their upkeep. In lines the pockets of the “Generals” who run the country and who live in luxury. Hence, as far as I’m able, I’ll be staying with locals (i.e. not government hotels), at monasteries and using privately-run transport. I would urge anyone visiting to do the same.

It’s also possible to dodge the entry taxes and permit offices in many places. If you can skip them… do it. Checks after the sale point are vitually unheard of, and even if it happens, nothing will be done to you. In any other country I’d be telling you to do the opposite and ensure you support the upkeep of the monuments you’re visiting. But as long as the local people themselves are saying “don’t pay”, I’d recommend listening to them.

If I do stay with any locals, or if any give me advice on how to dodge anything then their details will not be on here. I don’t want to risk getting them into trouble.

So. Anyway. The streets of Yangon are a curious mixture of old and new (well, old and really old) with some exteriors in a horrendous state of disrepair, A shame as you can clearly see how good they’d look with some spit, polish and paint.

As far as the people go, I got the impression of a mixture of South East and South Asia. Where Kuala Lumpur and Singapore have their respective Little Indias and Chinatowns, Yangon is a complete mash-up of them. There are people who look Indian, and Thai, and something in between. Food on the street varies from samosas to noodles.

We walked down pot-holed streets pas a myriad of stall-holders looking for the indoor market. We’d been told not to change cash with anyone on the street as they may gave poor rates, or slip in dodgy notes. It’s best to use a jeweller’s or similar inside the market. Again, it’s black market even though everyone does it (like in Nigeria) so I won’t say who we changed with but he was very pleasant and didn’t complain in the slightest as we counted and checked every single bill.

Don’t use a bank, either. The exchange rate will be poor. And for heaven’s sake definitely don’t change your money at the airport where you’ll get the “official” exchange rate of around 5.7 Kyats (pronounced “chats”)to the US Dollar. In town, we got 1040K to a $ for our $100 bills and a straight 1000K per dollar for the rest. Just a bit of a difference, eh?

Good old British architecture

Good old British architecture

I also bought a $5 FEC for face value. These used to be the only currency that tourists could spend, and only certain places were licensed to accept them. This meant that the government could control who you could buy from, fix prices and ensure they kept virtually all of the cash coming in from tourism. Nowadays anyone bringing in large quantities of money (mainly businesses and NGOs) must still convert to FECs… and then on the sly to Kyats. Thus they lose two times on conversion charges.

Our next stop was the Sakura Tower. It’s one of the tallest building in town and has a bistro on the top floor from where you can get a good view. They don’t seem to mind people walking in, taking photos and leaving – which is good as the food’s pretty expensive.

Back at street level, we picked up some veggie samosas with our new kyat. It was more difficult than we’d anticipated as 1000K is actually quite an amount.

“3 for 200”
“OK… 3 please”

These three were bagged up and handed to Peter who passed over 1000K. The vendor started asking around for change.

“Wait. Make it 6”

Another three were bagged up, change handed to Peter and we started to walk off. Only to have the guy run after us and shove another couple in the bag as we’d been under-changed!

We ambled around fairly aimlessly and stopped for some sugar-cane juice by the park (at 400K for a large glass), and then some chai on little stools on the street. The tea cost about 200K and is followed by as much green tea as you can drink for free. We were served by a couple of boys in AC Milan shirts who were befuddled then overjoyed at their huge unexpected tip when Peter let them keep the change from a 1000.

Do note that a lot of children work in Myanmar. This is a completely different case from Vietnam where parents need the money coming in so much that the extra pairs of hands are indespensible. Here, schools cost money and a lot of people simply can’t afford the fees. There is next to no free schooling in Myanmar, a sorry state of affairs. But then, educated people are a threat as well as a resource and the government is short-sighted in wanting to ensure it stays at the top (wallowing in cash) for as long as possible.

Fifteen minutes or so later we found ourselves down at one of the docs as the sun set. We watched two games of football being played and shook the hand of one man who thanked us profusely for visiting his country.

The nearby 50th Street Bar and Grill was our beer stop for a whileas we worked through two jugs of Tiger at happy hour prices ($3.50 each).

Burmese people can't look tough

Burmese people can't look tough

Heading home, we were a little disoriented as the streets to the east of the centre start to meander slightly. A young couple, who looked like they lived on the street corner where we were examining our Lonely Planet map, read the business card we had from the hostel and offered to walk us back. Sign language is useful! Accompanied by their beautiful babe-in-arms, who I was allowed to hold for a short while, we were back at the guest house in short order.

By the time we got back, I’d finally decided how I’d tackle Myanmar. First, north to Kalaw to do a 2-day hike to Inle Lake. Across to Bagan, north-east to Mandalay and finally the overnight bus back to Yangon.

I booked my first bus ticket – just in time. Bookings are best made a day in advance, but I got my 16,000K seat sorted for the trip to Kalaw the next day.

Before sleeping I got talking to a guy in the dorm who works for an NGO in the far north of the country, right by the Chinese border. He told me a lot about how the country functions (or doesn’t) and how much you can get away with,m being a foreigner. I’d love to say more about his job and so forth, but I’d not want to risk pointing a finger somehow towards his NGO and causing them trouble. Yes, you really do get this paranoid in this country.

Some things he did tell me were that:

Sai-kas (cyclos where the pedaller is beside the passenger) are banned from certain roads in Yangon during daytime hours
Motorcycles are banned outright for no readily apparent reason
Nobody ever checks your permits/passes after you’ve bought them
You only need to see the Shwe Dagon Pagoda in Yangon and then forget all the others in the country – it’s by far the most spectacular

A friend of his bought a sai-ka and they took it for a spin in the town. During the day. On the main roads. The police blew whistles… then realised it was two foreigners and studiously ignored them. Locals took photos – it certainly gave them a laugh!

And finally bed-time. Comfy beds, too…

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