Aussie catch-up

Hualamphong Station, Bangkok

Hualamphong Station, Bangkok

Fair bit of travelling since the last post, but I’ll try to breeze through it all. My flight from Yangon to Bangkok was on time, but I had some “fun” at the departure tax kiosk trying to convince them to accept a torn $5 bill and a $1 with the tiniest little rip in it. Two other passengers swapped the bills for me, stating how ridiculous the system was in Mynmar where the condition of the notes is so important. Their own currency can be battered, torn, ripped, covered in grease… and still accepted.

At Bangkok, I hooked up with another guy and two girls and we shared a taxi into the city. The chap and I were both getting off at Hualamphong while the girls were going on to Khao San Road. That involved a lot of haggling with the driver, but overall it worked out at around 50 baht each cheaper than getting the bus, and far faster.

At the train station I loafed in the KFC for an hour or so until my train was ready for boarding. A menu was provided for dinner and breakfast on the train, which would cost me 250 baht in total. You can take your own (non strong-smelling) food on board if you prefer, but the grub on board wasn’t too bad for the price.

The journey was quite long – departing at roughly 3pm and arriving at Butterworth in Malaysia around 2pm the next day (an hour ahead due to the time difference). It’s fairly comfy with large seats for the start of the journey. Around 10pm, the staff wander down and convert the seated areas into berths – one upper, one lower.  The upper ones are slightly cheaper and – apparently – slightly smaller, but certainly not cramped.

I enjoyed some brief conversation on the trip with two Japanese people travelling independantly of each other. I still find it unusual to see Japanese who aren’t on package/coach tours but they’re always very nice to chat with.

No hippies allowed!

No hippies allowed!

The customs stopoff as we crossed the border at Padang Besar was fairly casual, very much like the one coming from Singapore and heading north into Malaysia. However, here there are no x-ray machines. You still have to disembark with all your luggage, stamp out of Thailand, into Malaysia and then open your luggage. The check was cursory and polite with my bag being waved on after a quick prod and a query of “clothes?”

I did spot one sign as I queued at immigration giving details on how to spot a “hippie”. Click the thumbnail for the full details. I’m hoping this dates back to the 60’s and isn’t used these days!

At Butterworth, I haggled my bus fare down from 32RM to 28 (saving about 80p…) but had to find an ATM. If you’re arriving there off the train, go to the end of the platform to the station and look to the right. You’ll see a big glass building – the dental college. It’s about a five minute walk on the other side of the freeway. There are three banks located around the bottom with ATMs.

My 14:30 bus departed at 15:45 which wasn’t great. It was very comfy, though, with fully reclining seats and just the right level of aircon. It took quite some time to get to KL – over five hours – so it was rather late when I arrived.

The stage is set...

The stage is set...

I tried to find my guesthouse – Haven – but couldn’t spot it. As I stood looking puzzled, a man walked up and identified himself as one of the staff. Due to the heavy rain in KL recently, the ceiling had sprung a leak and they’d had to close down for repairs. He then walked me to another hostel nearby where they’d made arrangements for some of their guests to be houses. It was more expensive, but they were covering the difference. Nice place, too. So next time I’m in KL, I will be booking with Haven again and hoping their ceiling’s working!

I didn’t do much in KL apart from use the internet a lot and eat too much McD’s. I had some good company in the hostel, though, with Kiki from Vietnam, a German guy who’s name I didn’t get, James from England and a chap from Sri Lanka (now living in India) who I talked to for ages.

Then the usual Skytrain/bus combo to the airport (another McDs) and late flight to Perth where the lovely Mel picked me up after midnight. Immigration was a little hiccupy as I didn’t know Mel’s address. The usual rule – if it’s got an address space on it, fill it in. Even if you don’t know one, put any old nonsense in. The immigration guy was fine about it, to be fair, but it’s still one of those daft niggles. Back at her place I was introduced to Mason – 11 months old and cute as a button. He wasn’t around the last time I was in Perth!

Again, not a lot to do in Perth except lay back and chill out with Mel, Matt, Mason and Jezza. I bought a bundle of second hand books from an OpShop (charity place) for $4. The bill only came to $2.50 (a pound!) for about 12 books, but I don’t mind giving a charity shop a bit extra. My plan’s not to use aeroplanes so the extra bulk/weight shouldn’t be a problem.

Rocking hard!

Rocking hard!

The guys also had a gig in a nearby bar on Saturday night which I went to. They’re Matt drums, Mel sings and Jezza plays guitar. There’s also a bassist and another vocalist/guitarist who I met. The band’s called Crimson Ink and they’re pretty good! The sound was a little squelchy on their first set, but by the second and third they had a decent sized crowd up and dancing.

After the gig, there was a little altercation outside. Kids who couldn’t hold their beer – same all over the world. I helped break it up and ended up with blood down my arm and on my shirt. Not my blood, I hasten to add! And I don’t even know how it got there as I didn’t see anyone actually bleeding. Still, it all ended more or less peacefully and the venue seemed to like Crimson Ink – with luck it could mean a residency.

And that’s me up to date. I’m currently trying to get a lift to Adelaide ASAP. Failing that I’ll bite the bullet and get a flight. Tiger have one for the ridiculously low sum of $88 at 1:45am on Wednesday although I have to worry about those books. Hum.

Oh, I also have an Aussie mobile. If you need the number, contact me through the link on the right and I’ll give you it. It took me an age to register it as – like in the UK now or soon or planned – you have to register with a valid Australian address. Which is pointless as it’s not checked. The online registration refused to recognise Mel and Matt’s address, so I had to go through the voice recognition system over the phone. In an area with a really dodgy signal. Somehow I got it working though.

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One last pagoda

A wave and a smile

A wave and a smile

After a better trip than the northbound one (comfier seats, more legroom, quieter telly and milder aircon) the bus arrived into Yangon at a little before 7am. I rebuffed all offers of a taxi and walked out of the bus station. This isn’t as easy as it sounds as the “station” is more like a vast industrial estate with many roads through it. The trick is to get your bags quickly and start following the full taxis as they’re heading for the main road.

South entrance

South entrance

Once there, I turned left towards the city and walked for about ten minutes until I was asked by a driver if I needed a taxi. From here, it was 4000K – around half what I’d have paid when I stepped off the bus. You can use this trick at the airport as well.

With a little luck and guidance we managed to find Motherland (2) where I’d stayed when I first arrived in Myanmar. A dorm bed was available and I dropped my things and sat down to breakfast.

I got talking to two guys in my dorm, both German. One’s in his fifties, I’d guess, and has been traveling for 6 years. The other is the guy who owns the tri-shaw that the NGO member I met 13 days ago told me about. He offered to pedal me up to the Shwe Dagon Pagoda as it was on his way to work. He also bought most of my Kyats back from me at the same rate I paid for them in US Dollars. Smart.

So big we couldn't steal it

So big we couldn't steal it

As he said as we were cycling, “this is the easiest way to get the locals to smile!” And smile they did as they watched a white guy pedalling another white guy along the street. They also clapped. And waved. And pointed. And told their friends to look. It was rather cool.

He dropped me a short walk from the Shwe Dagon Pagoda, the jewel in the crown of all the religous monuments in Myanmar. By all accounts a must-see even with the government-imposed $5 foreigner tax. As ever, I’m not averse to entrance fees if the cash goes to the upkeep of whatever it is you’re seeing, but not when it goes into some corrupt bum-wipe’s back pocket. My judgement is based on the opinion of the local people regarding skipping the payment. Unanimously it’s been “avoid it” and they know better than anyone else.

Little buildings

Little buildings

So skip it I did. It’s not tremendously easy, but the route I took was to walk round to the east entrance. Just past the guards on the entry there is a set of gates which were open. Up there as far as I could go and then across the walkway to the west entrance (with escalators, believe it or not). The ticket check is above the escalators, so the trick was to walk up the left hand stairs. Immediately at the top of these is an opening into the Pagoda itself. You have to be sneaky, but you can slip in this way without being seen.

Apparently the entry ticket includes a sticker you’re supposed to display prominently, but I’ve always found that these fall off anyway. None of the so-called inspectors seemed to be in attendance anyway so I just enjoyed myself.

Good luck

Good luck

It really is something special. Rather than simply being a load of bling, it’s like a small town surrounding an enormous (nearly 100m-tall) stupa covered in gold. All the buildings are different styles, colours and so on. Some people seem to have a preference for praying at one or another, I’m sure with good reason. But it really is pretty amazing.

The only downside was that the stupa itself is currently covered in a latticework as – I assume – work is done on it. Or as the generals steal a load of the gems encrusting the upper levels and replace them with coloured glass.

The main stupa

The main stupa

I was up there for almost two hours before sneaking past the desk again in case they got arsey about my lack of sticker. At the bottom of the stairs, two monks tried to get $1 out of me for looking after my shoes. Even though they hadn’t. It’s typical round here – the monks really are different from elsewhere in SE Asia. I’ve seen them begging, smoking, drinking, driving Jeeps, chewing betelnut… you name it.

On the walk back into town I stopped for a chilled Star Cola and to scratch a cat behind the ears. I was on the point of getting a pizza for lunch, but picked up a whole ear of boiled corn and half a pineapple. Even at the upper level of pricing for these (300K and 500K) it was cheaper than the pizza and better for me.

West entrance

West entrance

Back at the hostel, the older German chap bought a chunk of my US Dollars off me in exchange for Australian ones at the prevailing exchange rate, which will have saves me a bit. I’ll change the rest in KL as the commission in Oz is mad.

A quick trip up the road garnered me some sweets and beer for when the football’s on this evening and now I’m typing up the last few entries that I’ll upload in KL.

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Bus to Kalaw

My bus was at midday so I was told to catch a taxi at 10:30. I toyed with getting the public bus, but this would take up to two hours plus the walk into town to catch it.

I said my goodbyes to Peter and a group of lads who’d given me some trekking hints and jumped into the taxi.

100m later we did a u-turn as I’d forgotten my hat. As luck would have it, a French couple were just leaving and looking to share a taxi, so my 6000K fare got split 3 ways.

It’s 45 minutes or so out to the bus “station” which is an enormous open-air affair. It’s more an industrial estate with streets all over. I was dropped at the Hein office for the start of my 18-hour journey.

The seats in front of me were taken by a Polish couplewho were heading all the way to Inle Lake – and had also been told their journey would be 18 hours. So I guess mine would be 16. Or theirs 20. Or something. Welcome to Burmese transport.

The journey was nothing really to write about. Movies and music at ear-splitting volume reminded me of India, and frigid air-con brought back memories of a boat trip in Malaysian Borneo. My earplugs reduced the noise to the level I’d normally listen to my MP3 player at, and I long-sleeved top kept off the frost. I’d kept my sandals on, so my tootsies were cold once night fell.

The air-con barely seemed to function during the day, but at night the temperatures became positively arctic. Well before myself and the Poles started to wrap up, locals were donning jumpers and jackets with the hoods up – and looking utterly miserable. I just don’t understand why someone didn’t say something.

We were stopped partway up the main highway and us foreigners had our passports checked and details taken. On boarding the bus back in Yangon, my passport number was logged against my seat. They really do try to keep track of your movements here.

For dinner we stopped at one of those huge cafés that anyone who’s bussed through South East Asia will know well. I decided to cross the road and go to a tiny little place with dinky chairs and tables instead. None of the girls who worked there spoke a word of English and I’d left my guidebook on the bus so I looked and pointed – rice, chicken and a random soft drink.

As I ate, I glanced up and all five of them were staring at me. They broke into a mass fit of giggles and dispersed.

At 4am I was woken by the Poles who’d decided to hop of at Kalaw which we had reached. We walked the empty streets for a while until we found the Golden Kalaw guest house which the Poles took the last room in. I wasn’t really up for paying for a whole night when I was only sleeping for a couple of hours, but after getting bored walking round until 5am I rang the bell of the Golden Lilly next door and checked in.

It was cold, but the bed was snuggly and only $5. It was still a shock to see my breath in the air after the heat of Yangon.

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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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