Burma

17 01 2013

Going to Burma was on my mind since the early stage of planning, but with what you read about the problems of traveling in the country, the trouble of budgeting because one isn’t able to withdraw money except for one ATM and one hotel in the whole country, and the concerns about the government it took me until my last days in Vietnam before I finally decided to go and booked the tickets.

It were the stories from fellow travelers and their urge that I have to go if I only have the slightest chance! They told me about mystical places, breathtaking landscapes, and the most friendly people in the world… Nothing about taking care of where and whom to take a photo of, nothing about travel restrictions (at least not for the main attractions), and nothing about the government issue… I should avoid overnight journeys by bus (I thought because of the state of the road but I had to learn by hard that this was the slightest problem) and should book in advance for a couple of regions (which I didn’t… I went nearly unprepared to Burma).

Yangon street food.

Yangon street food.

That I didn’t book anything in advance was curse and blessing at the same time! I had only two weeks to explore the country. If you go through a book with the world’s best attractions you will be surprised how often you’ll find the name Burma/Myanmar although you might have never heard of the country before, so I knew the two weeks will be packed and that there will be no chance to avoid the one or the other overnight bus ride. And planning the whole trip without buying a package tour of one of the government-related travel agencies is almost impossible. Booking sites cover only the top end of accommodation options and there is no way to book transport in advance except for flight tickets.

Sule paya in the middle of one of Yangon busiest streets.

Sule paya in the middle of one of Yangon busiest streets.

My Burmese journey began even before I set foot in the country: I had to apply for the visa and get the newest and crispest US$ bills in Bangkok. The visa application surprised me in several ways: the first thing I saw was an immense queue in front of the embassy. I feared a ominous application process after what I read on the Internet about it. It turned out that the most ominous was that you first had to queue up to get a number and then were able to pass in the documents and fees at another counter. The first counter was only responsible for issuing the numbers and telling you when to collect your visa and passport again. If you are able to read one of the several signs, then to figure out what you are applying for (express or standard) and finally to add 0 or two days to the actual date, then you would have been glad to if the first counter would be processing applications as well! The rest of the process was straight forward and they even let unemployed former students into the country 🙂 Money is best changed on Khao San road in Bangkok. The KCB (or whatever the name of the blue bank is) seems to specialize in providing bills that look like fresh from the printer in the back of the office and even if they are it doesn’t matter because the Burmese love these bills. Get a little bit of small change for the taxi and sometimes hotels only accept US$ as well. But not too much because 50 & 100$ bills have a slightly better exchange rate. Since April 2012 the exchange rates are fixed by the government so you can change at the airport you arrive at in Burma and there is no need to change at the black-market and get tricked! Since christmas 2012 one is able to withdraw money with Visa or Mastercard at certain ATMs at least in Yangon. I heard that even EC cards work with some ATMs.

Railway station in Yangon. One can feel the century before last there!

Railway station in Yangon. One can feel the century before last there!

My first destination in Burma was Yangon. While going by taxi from the airport to the city centre I was surprised how (for Southeast Asian standards) modern and clean Yangon was. I expected something else than fridges, washing machines, and computers being sold on almost every corner and to see a lot of people wandering around with smart phones clung to their ears! It’s a lot more modern as one expects when following the international news about the country!

The breathtaking Shwe Dagon paya in the afternoon sun.

The breathtaking Shwe Dagon paya in the afternoon sun.

Yangon also hosts (beside many other) the most spectacular pagoda of Southeast Asia (if not the world): the Shwe Dagon Paya! It’s size is already breathtaking… And additionally the whole thing is covered in gold! It’s impossible not to be starring at the building with your mouth wide open when it seems to glow during sunset…

The Shwe Dagon Paya is not the only sight Yangon has to offer: the Sule Paya in the middle of the city, surrounded by busy streets is a small version of the Shwe Dagon Paya, again fully covered with gold… I really kept asking myself why the poorest countries in Southeast Asia are these with the most temples covered in gold and everything else that is precious.

Colonial architecture.

Colonial architecture.

Another distinctive feature of Yangon are the colonial-style buildings that are sprinkled throughout the city center. Almost none of it is in a good shape, most of them decaying between the newer concrete blocks of residential buildings, but somehow the bad state adds to the charm of Yangons center.

Be prepared to pay a fortune (for Southeast Asian standards) for accommodation (around 25-30$US for a simple double room) and if possible book in advance! Unfortunately only a few budget and mid-range options can be booked via the big booking sites. I ended up sharing a room with a retired teacher from Sydney not just to save some money but, even more important, not to have the trouble to search for another hotel.

More street food.

More street food.

The food on the street is reasonable priced and covers (sweet) snacks, soups and rice, and a lot of small tea/coffee stalls selling tea with condensed milk that is unbearable sweet! The influence from India on Burmas cuisine is huge and you’ll find a lot of Indian restaurants, often selling Byriani dishes. But most of them so oily that you start to wonder why you don’t see a Burmese collapsing every couple of minutes due to a heart attack!

Local bus when it was still empty. Sad you can't see the full extend of the "legroom" :-)

Local bus when it was still empty. Sad you can’t see the full extend of the „legroom“ 🙂

If you are an adventurous character you have to give the local transport a try. In a guide book I read about a circle train line used by Yangons commuters. Unfortunately I didn’t had the chance to go by train in Burma 😦 those I met who used the train anywhere in the country told me about bumpy tracks and amazingly slow speed! It seems you can’t miss a train in Burma if you are not in need of a wheel chair or walking frame 🙂 I took a bus once just to get out of the city to see how life was there. The first problem was to catch the right bus: almost nobody speaks English and to make things more complicated Burma has it’s own scripture that makes it impossible to decipher the destination or even the bus number. Somehow, with a little patience and the help of many people that added little pieces to the puzzle, I made it to the correct village and back again 🙂

The people in Burma are extraordinary friendly and helpful, even more than the already very friendly Thais… If you just wander around the streets, looking the slightest bit lost, chances are that a Burmese capable of speaking English comes out of nowhere to help you with your problem whatever it is. I once searches for a specific travel agency that was recommended by a local woman but she only gave me the name of the company in English and the name of the street. After three minutes on the street and the first consulting of the map, a Burmese man on his way to the office came out of his home and when he saw me, the tourist with a map in the hand, he was curious and asked where I am from and where I wanted to go. Another three minutes later he found the agency for me and acted as translator because the staff spoke only little English. He even wanted to show me the bus station afterwards, which was 1.5km away, and it was hard to convince him that I would find it by myself 🙂 another traveler told me that he couldn’t find a specific hotel in Yangon when a man on a motorbike stopped next to him and asked if he could help. Unfortunately his English wasn’t enough to explain the route properly and he disappeared only to come back 5 minutes later with a hand-drawn map that was more detailed than the tourist maps! Most of the travelers I met had a similar story to share.

"Boarding" procedure for the trucks going to the Golden Rock.

„Boarding“ procedure for the trucks going to the Golden Rock.

After Yangon I wanted to go to the „Golden Rock“ at Mt. Kyianto. The tour wouldn’t be easy as there is only a bus leaving Yangon in the evening and arriving at the so called base-camp, the village of Kinpun, in the middle of the night. I expected to meet many foreign travelers on the way to this stunning sight but soon realized that I was the only foreigner on the bus. Somehow it seemed I was the only one speaking another language than Burmese. When we arrived at the little village that acted as base-camp for the Golden Rock, I was immediately brought to a restaurant where I was offered one of the most basic and shabby rooms I’ve ever seen… Basically it was a wooden crate with something they called a mattress… And by far it wasn’t the cheapest! At least they offered me, the only foreigner on the bus and most probably the only tourist (not Buddhist pilgrim), a separate room for myself. The rest got a little space on a concrete floor, like many families did, shared a room the same size as mine with at least 8-12 people.

Pilgrims sticking gold leafes to the Golden Rock.

Pilgrims sticking gold leafes to the Golden Rock.

I arrived at 2AM but was leaving this place at 5.30AM already to go to the Golden Rock, which lies on top of a hill. I knew from the guide book that trucks are going up there and that it won’t be one of the more comfortable rides. My expectations were low but when I finally made my way to the platform of the truck, having to fight against old grandma’s as the most ruthless queue jumpers, I found myself tightly packed between some 60-70 pilgrims on the little platform (when I say truck, I mean these little ones that won’t be enough to move a little apartment). There was nothing to grab a hold, except for the ones in the first row and the ones at the sides but anyway, the people were cramped so tightly that there was no chance to move at all. If you are taller than 1.60m your knees will do the job of keeping you off the person in front of you while the truck is going down the hill or brakes by being jammed under the bench of the next row. If it goes up the hill or accelerates the only chance is to grab hold on the person in front of you… I wandered why the journey would take an hour just to realize that the trucks stop in the middle of nowhere to collect the money from the passengers (so that nobody even thinks of the crazy idea not to pay for this completely overpriced journey). After everyone has paid the drives take their time to have an extensive breakfast while everybody on the platform sooner (taller persons like me) or later (the smaller Burmese) gets cramps. Have I mentioned that the drivers drive recklessly as hell and you should consider having your kneecaps replaced after this ride? Even before I reached the top I was looking forward to the journey back to the base-camp!

When you reach the top you immediately begin to realize that buddhism is not just religion… A big part of it seems to be plain business as well! There are so many stalls offering any kind of goods or services one can think of: food and drinks, carriers if you are to lazy to carry you bags on your own, flowers, any kind of donations for the monks, gold leafs, and many more „religious“ and normal souvenirs! First I wondered why so many people were carrying bag as if they would move to the top of the hill. Later I realized that most of them were there for business and selling all the stuff up there and only a few were having picnic or staying over night.

On the way to the Golden Rock are a few other religious sites, such as another balancing rock which is smaller and not covered with gold, some bells and a gong, and most probably many other things I didn’t recognize! When I finally saw the rock for the first time, I was really amazed and a little bit perplexed: not only about this shiny huge piece of rock but also of it’s place on the edge of the mountain. I’d really like to know how they placed the rock there in the first place whenever this was (a loooong time ago)! How did it stay in this position over the centuries with the weather and everything surely not adding to the stability… And even then there are probably a hundred of people pressing gold leafs on the rock all the time! And how the hell did they manage to cover the whole thing in gold… Less than half of it is accessible!

Pilgrim from Berlin sticking a gold leaf on the Golden Rock. (Identity unknown)

Pilgrim from Berlin sticking a gold leaf on the Golden Rock. (Identity unknown)

When I stopped wondering I went to one of the more official looking stalls and bought a package with 5 pieces of golf leafs for 10$ and made my way to the rock. You have to cross a little bridge to get close to it and neither bags (not even the shoes you might carry around) nor women are allowed over there… With all the pilgrims pressing their gold leafs on the rock and praying it was almost impossible to get close enough to put a gold leave yourself without kicking somebody away or going to the less crowded areas near to the edges and risk falling down the gorge… Fortunately the most Burmese are so small that it was no problem to put my gold leaf just above their heads 🙂 I stayed a little longer on a platform with good views of the rock and observed the masses that were on the little space next to the rock… It’s a miracle that there aren’t slipping people down the gorge every day! After I watched the scene long enough I went back to the area with the trucks and tried to get on one of them… Again, the most challenging competitors where the old ladies but with a little luck I managed to get a seat in the first row AND at the side… So the way back was almost comfortable in comparison to the first ride 🙂

I stayed over night at the base camp but after I took a stroll through the village (that only consists of restaurants, guest houses, and souvenir shops) I realized that I could have taken the bus back to Yangon the same day… There’s nothing else to do!

I returned to Yangon the next day just to buy another bus ticket, this time to Bagan. I thought a lot about to which place I should go next, Inle lake or Bagan. I heard that Inle Lake is often fully booked and there was not only New Years Eve coming but also the Myanmar independence day, a puublic holiday, so I expected the worst for this place. A couple of minutes after I bought the ticket to Bagan I spoke to a couple which was coming from there… They had to leave earlier than they intended because they couldn’t find an affordable room in the whole area between New Bagan and Nyaung U, which is the transport hub of the area. I knew I would arrive there in the middle of the night and prepared for a lot of fun finding accommodation.

Plain of Bagan laced with pagodas and temples.

Plain of Bagan laced with pagodas and temples.

One thing about the buses and public transport in general in Burma: it sucks! And it isn’t the state of the roads. I don’t know when the schedules for the departure time were made, but it must have been years ago and done by an idiot who’s not reliant on public transport at all… Most of the buses leave in the late afternoon just to arrive at the main stop in the middle of the night. On the main routes they have A/C buses but not the slightest idea of how to use it. It is pretty weird and might indicate some problem or failure if the local people of a country were the average temperature of most regions is above 25 degrees dress up like Eskimos before they get on a bus! Another feature of the bus rides in this country is the entertainment program which is the worst you can get (Asian stand-up comedy [which in my opinion seem to lack of comedy but it who knows, it might be funny what they telling you in this strange language] or music videos of Asian love songs [sometimes these seem to tell the heartbreaking story of a life time and last almost as long]) and, for your pleasure, at a deafening volume. The bus drivers love to switch it off during the early night, giving you the chance of dozing a little bit, just to turn it on again the second before you fall asleep. On a night bus in Burma you’ll get everything… except sleep!

After another of these fun rides I arrived in Nyaung U at 4AM. All the buses arrive around the same time but don’t expect any hotel to be open. A taxi driver approached me and when I told him that I had no booking he went away for 5 minutes to happily announce that there are no vacancies in the whole city. I waited for 1 1/2 hours in a coffee shop watching some weird Burmese movie and then searched for open hotels. I found one place were the friendly manager allowed me to sleep on the couch until the morning and he assured me that I would at least have a place to stay in his dorm room, maybe even a room for myself if somebody checks out. At 7AM I met other travelers searching for a room and we left to search a triple room which we could share… Another 1 1/2 hours and 20 guest houses later I could proudly present that I had found a place for the three of us. What a nice morning!

Sun set over the plain of Bagan.

Sun set over the plain of Bagan.

Because we had to wait until the check-out time to move into our room we decided to rent bikes and explore the plain of Bagan which hosts 3100 pagodas and temples, a lot of them very impressive. Most of them aren’t in their best state with the stucco-work washed away by the weather and showing the red bricks they are build from. In my opinion this only added to the atmosphere and looked better than the renovated temples. We found a lonely temple complex and started to explore it. After a while we found a local guy selling sand paintings but when he realized that we weren’t in the mood to buy he just showed us around and explained the surroundings… This is what I really liked about Burma and especially Bagan. The people are new in the tourism business and especially at the sights were less tourists show up, they are not obtrusive at all sometimes even forgetting that they want to sell you something 🙂 on my second day I watched the sun set from the top of the more favorite temples and one of the locals offered me his sand paintings. After only 1 minute we were talking about the Burmese lottery, the chances of winning, and that he needs to get the jackpot soon because every young man gets a big celebration at a certain age and it was about time for his oldest son.

Development aid for Burma: Myanmar beer ads photo shoot :-)

Development aid for Burma: Myanmar beer ads photo shoot 🙂

Despite the many tourists that come to Bagan, the villages around this area still are still very relaxed and the people (even the staff of most guest houses) are very friendly. On New Years Eve our hotel manager invited all guests to a little party and we were surprised with many bottles of Mandalay rum, Cola, and food. Somebody produced a guitar and one of the staff members began to play and sing traditional Burmese songs. Unfortunately I wasn’t fit that day and I excused myself to bed after two glasses of „Burma Libre“ (Mandalay rum, Star cola, and lime) but set the alarm for 11.30PM. I didn’t want to miss the new year! Meanwhile my room mates were invited to sing karaoke at the local radio station but I’m not sure whether this was just a party or actually on-air 🙂 30 minutes before midnight I got up to go with my room mates to the only New Years party in our part of the town. It was the local Indian restaurant and when we arrived the owner of the place and his staff/family were already dancing around the bonfire… completely drunk 🙂 it was a nice party but with shit US charts music (about 3-4 different songs on repeat) that reminded me more of a beach party in Thailand…

Local water works, public transport, and Kindergarden :-)

Local water works, public transport, and Kindergarden 🙂

The main mode of transport in Bagan is the bike. You can rent one in almost every guest house or shop. The problem is that they seem to never change and always repair the tube, so you end up having a flat tire at least once a day. As soon as you get off one of the two main roads between Nyaung Shwe and New Bagan your will most probably be alone or able to watch the local life in the smaller villages. Here I saw the life I expected for Burma which is so different from the life in Yangon and the other touristic places. Traders are carrying their shop on their heads, the water supply is done by little hand carts, and monks were strolling around everywhere. If you think you’ve seen all of the temples after 1-2 days (after a while one just looks like the other, at least the smaller ones) just take a detour through the small villages of the area! If you are not short on money and have some more days you could also go to a monastery on top of a hill on the other side of the Irrawaddy river. You’ll need to hire a taxi driver for the day and take a boat to the other side of the river. If money doesn’t matter at all you can also take a balloon tour for sun rise (around 250$ p.P.)!

Sun rise over Bagan seen from  Dhammayan-gyi.

Sun rise over Bagan seen from Dhammayan-gyi.

Cheaper options to spend your time around sun rise and sun set is to find a temple with good views over the plain. The bigger ones, especially Dhammayan-gyi, are very good spots but get really crowded at these times. One morning I met Philip, who I met before at the elephant training in Chiang Mai, on this temple, looking as perplexed as I was 🙂 the world is too small.

After three nights in this lovely area it was time to move on and, of course, for another fun overnight bus ride… Which was as lovely as the ones before! This time I went to Inle Lake, a very picturesque lake surrounded by hills and laid-back, traditional villages sprinkled around the shore. I guess it is the one place not a single tourist is missing. When I talked to other travelers who already had been to Burma they were always raving about this place: picturesque (as I mentioned before), relaxing, diverse, and whatsoever… I went there with really high expectations…

Foogy canal in Nyaung Shwe in the morning. Suprisingly fresh!

Foogy canal in Nyaung Shwe in the morning. Suprisingly fresh!

As always the bus was arriving in the middle of the night. The main hub of the area in Nyaung Shwe with most of the accommodation and starting point for boat tours on the lake. Don’t mix it up with Shwe Nyaung where the train station is 🙂 the Burmese always have at least two cities with similar names in each region… There was no chance of waking up the owner of the place where I managed to reserve a room the day before. So Philip and I ended up in the place next door, the Queen Inn. They offered us to wait/sit/sleep/whatever at their communal area and even provided blankets and hot tea… Did I mention that it get’s really cold in this area during winter? The staff of the Queen Inn are amongst the most friendly I ever met… Unfortunately the place is fully booked most of the time. Otherwise I would have cancelled the other room and just stayed in the Queen Inn!

The guest houses in this area are a short stroll from the city center and located on the shore of the canal that leads to the lake. They are a good option if you want to escape the crowds. The downside that comes with the views of the canal is the noise of all the boats in the morning…

Monks love a little bit of fun as well... at least the young ones :-)

Monks love a little bit of fun as well… at least the young ones 🙂

After finally checking-in at 8AM and sleeping until noon, we rented bikes and explored the area around Nyaung Shwe. As soon as you leave the city center (which rarely any tourist seem to do) you’ll find yourself in the middle of very basic and traditional houses and will be able to observe the lives of the locals. We saw two little girls chewing bamboo (local sweets? They didn’t want to share with us 😄), cows being led into a pond for a nice bath, were cheering at a football game of young monks, and finally ended up in a house were local rice snacks were produced and packed.

Burmese "Pringles"factory ;-)

Burmese „Pringles“factory 😉

The next day we did the obligatory boat trip. The cheapest tours are available for around 12000 to 15000 kyats. If you want to go to a pagoda on the southern end of the lake (which I would highly recommend, only a few other tourists there. Many tour operators seem to keep quite about this option) one has to pay 5000 kyats on top. Try to get a guide/boat man who is able to speak English even if it’ll cost you another 5000 kyats! It is the price of the whole boat for the full day and can be shared by up to 5 people.

"Fake" fisherman posing for a photo.

„Fake“ fisherman posing for a photo.

Basically the tour will bring you to the 5-days-market which is located in 5 different villages and rotates on a daily basis. After that you’ll be taken to traditional villages, each village producing a particular range of goods. There are villages for hand-woven products, cigars, silver and gold-ware, and many more.

One of the crowded and already very tourity 5-days market.

One of the crowded and already very tourity 5-days market.

Your guide will bring you to a particular shop in several of these villages, most likely the one he favors (commission I suppose). Depending on his language skills you can choose which kind of villages you want to visit but unfortunately most truly local and traditional shops have been replaced by big tourist businesses 😞 sometimes I felt more like on one of these shopping tout-tours in a rickshaw in India than on a lake in a rural area of Burma…

Traditional hand-weaving at lake Inle.

Traditional hand-weaving at lake Inle.

Nevertheless, the lake also has some quieter areas were the locals live and which are really nice to see. Again, it depends on your guide whether he’s taking you there or you can point him to this direction. Two other attractions despite the shopping villages are a village with long-neck people from the Karen tribe and the so called „jumping cat monastery“. We skipped the Karen village because we read that these people were relocated by the government from their former territories of the northern mountains to the Inle lake as a tourist attraction. Instead we went to the monastery to learn that there are no jumping cats anymore. They have been trained by and old monk, which either passed or moved away, and the younger monks don’t train the cats. I was sad to see that the monastery was transformed to just another of these souvenir markets… Even the gong was almost inaccessible due to all the stalls 😦

Traditional form of leg-paddeling at lake Inle.

Traditional form of leg-paddeling at lake Inle.

Enjoying the quieter and peaceful areas of lake Inle.

Enjoying the quieter and peaceful areas of lake Inle.

If you want you can stay on the lake until sun set for some great photo opportunities. Then you’ll most probably be able to see the impact all the tourism has on the environment: a big cloud of smog forms over the lake every evening. The locals should start to change things soon. If the several hundreds of boats, which are catering only up to 5 people each and are powered by the most inefficient diesel engines, keep on going to the lake every day, the place will be destroyed within the next 5 years… Burma has only started the tourism business and if more people are coming to Inle lake it’s not going to work the way they do it now!

Sun set on the lake!

Sun set on the lake!

The next days we were on our bikes again. Our original idea was to go to a village called Intheim (or something similar. But it was to far for several people of our group, which had to catch a bus in the evening. So we went to a village right after the hot springs and took a boot to cross the lake with our bikes. There seem to be at least two operators, one really old guy and, at the beginning of the village, another, younger guy, both fighting for your attention. Both will do the crossing for 6000 kyats, again, for the whole boat. This boat man was actually really good. He spoke English and, although we didn’t requested it, he brought us to a friend of him, a guy that was a „real“ fishermen and not just like many other on the lake posing for photos and asking for money. He also went to a house in the middle of the lake where we could have a swim. Great and refreshing experience! After that we continued to the other side and got on our bikes again, making our way back to Nyaung Swhe.

Best way to refresh.

Best way to refresh.

Another nice and quite surprising thing to do around Nyaung Shwe is a winery on the hillside next to the city. I didn’t expect a winery in Burma at all! They offer a wine tasting of 4 different wines for 2000 kyats and it’s actually quite good stuff. They also have a variety of snacks and meals. You might not exactly get the food you had in mind while reading the menu but everything tastes really good. Only the plate of cheese is not the best value 🙂 the winery is also the perfect spot for sun set, providing good views over the valley and the lake… The best is that you can enjoy these views with a glass of wine!

Watching sun set and tasting wine. A perfect combination at Red Mountain winery near Inle lake!

Watching sun set and tasting wine. A perfect combination at Red Mountain winery near Inle lake!





From Chiang Mai to Ayutthaya… Northern Thailand

4 01 2013

Northern Thailand is all about activities… whether it is a visit to some of the virtually millions of amazing pagodas, trekking through villages of different tribes in the mountains, just enjoying the changing scenery on a motorbike, riding elephants or playing with tigers, or exploring the ruins of former kingdoms… all this and alot more is possible north of Bangkok! But the first three days I had to spend in a hospital of Chiang Mai. It turned out that the reason for my fever and weakness was the Dengue fever and because I was travelling alone the doctor wanted to keep an eye on me. The hospital (Mc. Cormick hospital) was well equipped, not worse than European standard I would say… but as I hardly know the interior of any European hospital you might not want to referr to me 🙂 When I got the bill after 3 days I was reliefed because it was less than I would have to pay for one day back in Germany!

Obviously this is not the morning gong :-)

Obviously this is not the morning gong 🙂

After my detour to the hospital I started the holiday/sightseeing program again. First on the list were the numerous pagodas and temples of Chaing Mai. If you stay in the old city most of them should be within walking distance. First I stayed in a cheap chinese run hostel in Soi 9 off the Moon Muang Road. The hotel would be very good value but especially the staff that did their morning shower and throat emptying from 6AM with a lot of loud talking was a bit annoying! After 3 days I changed to a cafe with a couple of nice rooms on Soi 6 and the loud staff was replaced by loud scooters roaming the streets from early morning…

Chiang Mai temple.

Chiang Mai temple.

The best way to explore the city is to rent a bike. There are may places renting granny bikes (maybe even the same age as your grandma) from 40 Baht a day, mountain bikes the double. Out of reach via bike is the Doi Suthep temple, which is situated on a mountain just outside of Chiang Mai.I highly recommend to go to the Doi Suthep. It is a bit like Disneyland with a lot of vendors selling souvenirs, food, drinks, and more on the steps to the temple complex I made it to the zoo with my bike but preferred to take a shared taxi to the top. Foreingers have to pay a small admission fee (I think it was 30 Baht) and are rewarded afterwards with amazing views of a fully gold-plated stupa, the biggest I saw until then. From the terrace behind the stupa one has also splendid views of Chiang Mai!

Doi Suthep

Doi Suthep

One way to or from the Doi Suthep to the zoo is 40 Baht, the price from/to the city center should be around the same, although this depends on your haggling skills 🙂 the shared taxis (Chiang Mais public transport) are easily recognizable: pick-up cars with different colors, indicating their general routes. I saw only the red ones that go all over the town with no specific route, so you have to ask the driver first before hopping on.

Of the numerous temples in the old city of Chaing Mai I would recommend at least the Wat Phra Singh. It’s the biggest complex in the old city and provides a little area with benches and tables where buddhist students hang out and are keen for a chat.

My scooter feels comfortable in the mountains near Pai.

My scooter feels comfortable in the mountains near Pai.

Another day I rented a scooter to explore the surroundings of Chiang Mai. My initial plan was to go to Pai, a little laid-back village in the mountains north-west of Chiang Mai. The problem with this plan was, that I had to move to another guest house this morning, rent the scooter and some other thigs so I started really late around noon. The first part of the road in the direction of Pai isn’t particularily interesting, but as soon as you leave the highway and into the mountains, it gets alot better! Due to time problems I made it only to some ugly bridge that seems to be regarded as sight some 5 km from Pai. There I took a really small dust road to be able to see the real village life off the tourist track and this was one of my better decisions. Along this road was a really nice scenery with traditional houses, people working on fields like decades ago, surrounded by mountains, and with a river flowing by.

I realized that I made some mistakes in my time calculations as soon as the sun was down and I was bitterly freezing in my flip flops, shorts, and jacket… especially at 80 km/h, but I just wanted to be back in Chiang Mai as soon as possible! These were the most freezing 120km or 3 hours I ever experienced…

Feeding the little jumbo.

Feeding the little jumbo.

Another great way to spend your time in or around Chiang Mai is the elephant training. There are various companies offering almost the same package at comparable prices. Book in the „Jaidee Guest House“ for big discounts! I chose the „Woody’s elephant training“, some local guy that worked for another company before and then started his own business. At Jaidee guest house it was 1950 Baht for the full day tour instead of 2400 at all the other places! You get picked up at your guest house in the morning and drive to the elephant camp for about 1 hour. Everything is provided there: changing cloth, towels, lunch, snacks for tea time, and water. You start the day with some introduction to the camp and their philosophy and you have to learn basic commands in Thai language.

Although with two girls at the same time, this was the worst kissing ever ;-)

Although with two girls at the same time, this was the worst kissing ever 😉

Afterwards you feed the elephants and sit on them for a first time trying to command them. After a lunch (suprisingly a very good one) break of 1 hour you’re going on a little trip. Two people „share“ one elephant, switching positions (on the neck/on the back) after half of the time. The last activity is the most fun: bathing and washing the elephants in a little (muddy) pond and swimming with/on them. This was really amazing and a lot of fun!

Where's the fire?

Where’s the fire?

Chiang Mai’s night market and saturday/sunday walking streets are also very famous. The night market is in the new city, 10-15 minutes by walk from the old city. It is very!! touristy so you’ll find almost no local produce but a wide variety of T-shirts, souvenirs, jewellery, and fake bags and watches. The night I went to the night market I met a very funny guy from the UK. After I knew him for 10 minutes and we have been to the night market for only 5 minutes he already disappeared in a hidden stall to see the „real“ (good quality) replica Rolexes 🙂

Chiang Mai is very good for some relaxing days as well. It lacks a few parks where one can sit down but numerous cafes and bakeries are scattered around the Sois off the Moon Muang Road. For dinner Chaing Mai provides everything one can think of. Italian, Mexican, Indian, German, and Thai restaurants… uncountable street stalls… my favorite was a stall at the beginning of Soi 6. Over the day this is the first stall of the local market but after 6-7PM it turns into a food stall serving the most delicious „Khao Soi Kai“, which is a curry soup with normal and crispy noodles and chicken (the „Kai“ I guess). I ended up there on three of my 5 evenings! And with 40 Baht it’s very cheap.

Some petrified dude at Sukhothai.

Some petrified dude at Sukhothai.

Due to my early escape from Laos I was in no hurry to get to Bangkok so I decided to stop on the way in Sukhothai and Ayutthaya. In both citys one can explore excarvation sites of old temple complexes, some of them with at least Khmer/Cambodian influence. Actually, one can see a mini Angkor Wat in Ayutthaya.

Sukhothai historical park.

Sukhothai historical park.

In Sukhothai the temples are concentrated on a few areas. Every area charges an admission fee and I found that only the main site and (coming from new Sukhothai) the one behind are worth the money. All charge 100 Baht and sometimes a bit more for bikes/motorcycles. Most of the (cheap) accomodation is in new Sukhothai, about 14km from the old city. There is no need to take a taxi except you are in a hurry or don’t like to travel with the locals on wooden benches on the platform of a pick-up truck. These act as the local transport, cost around 30 Baht, and go every 20 minutes between the two cities.

More of these guys...

More of these guys…

In Ayutthaya on the other hand, the temples are scattered around the city and the area offers a lot more than only old temples. I did the sunset boat tour that was offered by the hotel (Joey’s Place) and can warmly recommend it. For 200 Baht you boat the canals around the city and stop at three sites you most probably had on your list anyway: a pagoda with a huge Buddha, another pagoda with some Khmer-style structures in the „backyard“, and the Angkor replica.

Huge Buddha in Ayutthaya.

Huge Buddha in Ayutthaya.

I was very lucky to be there in the middle of December because a huge festival celebrating the world heritage site was on. In one of the historical parks amid the excavated temples one could watch a show about the Thai history with traditional dance, elephant fights, and laser shows. Behind the stage was a historical market with souvenirs and a lot of food. A very pleasant and interesting night!

Mini Angkor!

Mini Angkor!

Ayutthaya hosts a night market as well and this one is primarily packed with locals, buying everything from underwear to cutlery to furniture. But it has a good share of souvenirs, (Asian) beauty products and, most important, food, that attracts tourists as well.

This must be a deep sleep.

This must be a deep sleep.

If you don’t have the time to visit both cities I would recommend Ayutthaya. In regard to the temples and excavations it is more diverse and the city itself offers many more things to do.

Historical show with "war elephants".

Historical show with „war elephants“.





Laos

2 01 2013

The bus to Laos leaves Dien Bien Phu early in the morning. This isn’t a problem because one might want to leave Dien Bien Phu as soon as possible. The accomodation around the bus station is cheap but so is the quality. It could be hard to find a bed which one would like to use without ones own sleeping bag… I shared a room with a French guy and a Dutch girl and only the French decided to explore the „sights“ of the city the next day. At 5.30AM a small bus leaves for the Laotian border. The process at the border was straight forward, easier than I expected. But I was a little bit afraid that I might have some problems to get into Laos because I had a fever raising and I knew they would take my temperature. Fortunately my temperature seemed to be fine at the time we crossed the border 🙂 The bus continues to Mueang Kaoh some 100km from the border. It’s a small town but busy with many shops and restaurants. Almost all of our bus chose to take a room in a cheap guest house across the river. To get there we had to cross a long bridge with amazing views of the river. The guest house is also next to the river with a nice terrace to have an evening beer or two. I ended up spending almost all of my time sleeping because of high fever.

Muaeng Kaoh - Laotian border town

Muaeng Kaoh – Laotian border town

The next day we continued our journey to Luang Prabang, this time by boat. I must admit that it wasn’t the smartest idea considering my constitution. Sitting in the first row of this thin and long boat wasn’t brilliant, either… there are some rapids along the river and the first two rows (and a few backpacks) ended up soaking wet. After 5 horrible cold hours on the river (I’m sure it wasn’t that horrible for the rest of the passengers) we finally arrived in a small village, some 120km from Luang Prabang, where we had to switch from the boat to a mini van that brought us in 3 more hours to our destination.

Some temple in Luang Prabangs old center.

Some temple in Luang Prabangs old center.

The first thing that I noticed the next day was that there were only two types of cars in the proximity of the city center: old motorcycle rickshaws and brand new Hilux pick-up trucks… Luang Prabang is a UNESCO world heritage because of its old centre with many temples and pagodas and that seemed to have filled the pockets of a few (or many) fortunate ones. I was really suprised to see so many brand new cars that hardly anyone can afford in Europe, especially considering that Laos is amongst the 20 poorest countries in the world! But even if you catch one of the rickshaws one notices that something is different… no matter how far you go, only a few hunderts of meters or a couple of kilometers, the price varies only slightly and starts (for Asian standards) exorbitantly high! Worst of all: haggling with Luang Prabang’s rickshaw drivers is impossible! It even doesn’t matter if you go alone or share the rickshaw with others… When we arrived all of our bus wanted to go to the same area and one rickshaw was taking two of us for 10000 Kip each… the other one was packed with 7 passengers, but still the price was 10000 Kip each!

Kuang Si waterfall.

Kuang Si waterfall.

The next days I tried to force myself out of the bed to do some sightseeing. But most of the time I ended up in bed after 1 or 2 hours because I felt too weak. One day I went on a day trip to the Kuang Si waterfalls. It’s a really nice park with a picturesque scenery and refreshingly cold water for a swim! Share a rickshaw with some others and you might get there for 60000 Kip per person including the admission fee. Again, it doesn’t matter how many you are… just more than one or two so one doesn’t need to cram the rickshaw with too many people!

Kuang Si waterfall.

Kuang Si waterfall.

During my time in Luang Prabang I tried to figure out if there’s a hospital or a private clinic of acceptable standard. The fever was already gone but now I had horrible pain in my muscles and bones. The guide book says one should fly to Thailand for anything worse than a scratch and when I asked at the tourist information I got almost the same answer. So I took their advices and flew to Chiang Mai in Thailand the next day! A very short stay in a country that seemed nice and relaxed with many more things to see and do!





Vietnam

11 12 2012

As I wrote before, the boat ride to Vietnam wasn’t the most spectacular. Funny indeed was the appearance of the Cambodian border post on the Mekong. I guess it was once installed by smugglers and other dubious people that needed a simple and almost invisible landing place 🙂

Well hidden Cambodian border post near Chau Doc

Well hidden Cambodian border post near Chau Doc

Chau Doc was the first Vietnamese city Julia and I set foot in. But only to catch a bus as fast as possible to Ho Chi Minh City. As always, some scooter-rickshaw drivers were already waiting for us but I wanted to check the situation about distance and prices first. One of the drivers was following me to the market telling me that this is the wrong way, for bus station and ATM. Having to admit that he was the only guy capable of speaking more than 2 words English we finally agreed to their price and each of us swung on the back of a scooter. As I suspected, the drivers were bringing us to the most expensive bus company in town but as we had no time to search any further we lay down in our fancy sleeper cabins (which were clearly to small for me) for a over-day ride to HCMC. The people told us that the bus is so expensive because it is the fast bus… only 5h instead of… now guess… right: 6h for the slow… and now guess again how long it took to get to HCMC?? 9 hours!! With the FAST bus… the Vietnamese have a strange humor! We arrived so late we almost could have used the sleeper cabins for sleeping!

Ho Chi Minh City, formerly called Saigon when the French ruled the area, is a very nice and typical asian metropolis. Like the Indians, the Vietnamese seem to like to announce them self via the horn in every thinkable situation and I could use my skills crossing a street through gapless flowing traffic. Julia and I had only very short time in HCMC so wen used it for shopping (Julia), a little bit of sightseeing (me) and eating (both!). The first morning I went to the War Remnants museum, were the Vietnam war is told in exhibits like posters, pictures, and real weapons, from the perspective of the Vietnamese. I knew that a lot of shit happend over there but one really don’t expect what to see and read there… It’s definitely a must-see in this city. The reunification palace reminded me a bit of the „Palast der Republik“ in east Berlin, only without the fancy coloured glass… maybe the same architect commrade?? 🙂

Some exhibits of the war remnants museum un HCMC.

Some exhibits of the war remnants museum un HCMC.

Eating in HCMC is fabulous! There are so many things to try and even more places to go. For lunch we went to eatery on Pasteur Street that consists of many little stalls offering a special dish. So one can wander around, see everything that is available and than have it in an restaurant-like ambience. For dinner we searched for a restaurant that was recommended in the Lonely Planet. But as it was so often with the LP, it seem to miss it’s target group more and more by several price categories and so the restaurant that was advertised as cheap turned out to be very posh and high priced. Luckily we were attracted by strange European music of the 1980’s and a occasional birthday song that came from the rooftop and we found a Vietnamese barbeque restaurant that was packed with locals in party mood 🙂

Delicious food in HCMC.

Delicious food in HCMC.

The afternoon and evening was reserved for shopping at the market… I was really proud when I haggled down the price of a t-shirt from 300.000 dong (15$) to 100.000 dong, only to see that a fixed-priced stall was selling it for 97.000! At least I was not ripped off and paid a normal price. One shopping speciality of HCMC (besides the millions of shirts) seem to be folded cards, some with really fine and complex motives cut from paper, and posters.

Having a rest the Vietnamese style :-)

Having a rest the Vietnamese style 🙂

Now it was time to relax in Mui Ne, a little town some 5 hours of bus driving from HCMC. Mui Ne is famous for it’s beaches and wind conditions, so we found numerous kite surfers on the long stretch of beach. The place seems to be also very famous amongst Russian tourists: there were a lot of them and this wasn’t a coincidence… even in the shops and on the menues everything was written at least in Vietnamese and then Russian, maybe followed by such minor languages like English!

Kite surfers at Mui Ne beach.

Kite surfers at Mui Ne beach.

After the first day of enjoying the sun it was time for another scooter tour and with only 7-9$ to rent one it is almost as cheap as it was in Goa! As always we started unprepared and so we missed the local attractions of the sand dunes and a lotus lake just by one or two more kilometers… 🙂 the sand dunes we have found instead weren’t spectecular but okay to roll down like a little kid… After that day we weren’t lucky with the weather anymore and headed north to our next destination: Hoi An.

Sand dunes near Mui Ne.

Sand dunes near Mui Ne.

The old city center of Hoi An is a UNESCO world heritage site and offers a lot of cool cafes, art and preserved history. If you happen to be arbound town for some sightseeing then be aware, that you have to buy a combined ticket for 6 attractions or so. We thought that at the price of this ticket we would be free to see everything, but no: only 6 sights… and there are some which aren’t worth the word „sight“! The city is best explored by bike and many of the guest houses seem to offer them for free or for 1-2 dollars a day. A stroll around the city after sunset is lovely due to the numerous of little paper lanterns lighting up the city.

Street in the old quater of Hoi An.

Street in the old quater of Hoi An.

The best in Hoi An was, again, the food. We read about a food stall serving a Hoi An speciality. The name of the stall is „Bane Well“ and not to far from the market hidden in a little side street. At the time we thought about what to order from the very limited menue, the waiters came and put more an more dishes on our table… it turned out, that the menue described only the single dish that was served and by sitting down one ordered this dish automatically. It consisted of rice paper with fresh herbs, some salad, the most crunchy spring rolls I ever had, pieces of beef and chicken on a stick, and some shrimp omlettes. And everything had to fit in two pieces of rice paper quaters… the only choice was whether to take a spring roll or a omlette because both together clearly didn’t fit, no matter how hard one tries and pushes all together 🙂

Menue of Bale Well restaurant... you don't need to order, you simply get everything on it!

Menue of Bale Well restaurant… you don’t need to order, you simply get everything on it!

Afer two full days in Hoi An we went on another bus ride to Hué. With only 140km away one thinks of a nice little ride through lovely Vietnamese landscapes… I don’t know how they do it, but in the bus it feels like it’s going really fast… but then you end up sitting for 5 hours in the bus for such a short distance…

In Hué we only had like two half days and you really have to be fast to see the most important things in such a short time. So we wasted none of it and headed to see the forbidden city on the afternoon. The area is really impressive and it seems there are a million temples, pagodas, gates, … Again, the city is best explored by bike which cost around 1-2$. In the forbidden city itself no bikes are allowed!

One of many spectacular buildings in Hué's forbidden city.

One of many spectacular buildings in Hué’s forbidden city.

The second morning we rented bikes again to go to the tombs of Tu Duc. Be warned that this is a few kilometers from the city center in a hilly area 🙂 somehow we weren’t aware of that so we had a little excercise this morning 🙂 The tomb was, again, really impressive: an artifical lake, many ancient temples and buildings in a beautiful park… and this was just the summer residence of Tu Duc. If we had more time we surely would have tried to go to some other tombs as well!

Artificial lake at Tu Duc's tomb.

Artificial lake at Tu Duc’s tomb.

Stone soldiers at Tu Duc's tomb.

Stone soldiers at Tu Duc’s tomb.

Stone soldiers at Tu Duc's tomb.

Stone soldiers at Tu Duc’s tomb.

From Hué we flew to Hanoi to avoid another backbreaking overnight bus journey. Hanoi is the hub from where tours to the famous Ha Long Bay start. Because we heart stories about Ha Long Bay being overcrowded and not nice anymore we decided to go to Bai To Long Bay, just one more hour of driving after passing Ha Long Bay. It is very close to the Chinese border and from the look in the faces of the local people you can say that tourists are still an attraction over there. The journey from Hanoi until we actually sat on a boat took us more than 5 hours. Keep that in mind if you’re planning a 1-day (yes, these exist) or 2-days tour!

Our boat to explore Bai To Long bay.

Our boat to explore Bai To Long bay.

On the boat we had a delicious lunch and set off to cruise to a spot where we could swim and kajak. I think the scenery of the Bai To Long Bay doesn’t have to hide behind the famous Ha Long Bay, with spectacular rock formations peeking out of the water and so we enjoyed the boat ride until we reached our destination for the night, a small island with a bunch of guest houses and so called „home stays“. The island doesn’t provide to much sights so after 20 minutes of walking through the village we were ready for dinner. We were encouraged to help preparing it but it turned out that the only thing to do was rolling spring rolls, a task that even someone who usually avoids the kitchen could do without struggeling.

Our boat to explore Bai To Long bay.

Scenery of Bai To Long bay.

Scenery of Bai To Long bay.

Scenery of Bai To Long bay.

The next morning a bike ride around the island was on the schedule and combined with some time at a beach. I don’t know were they manage to get all these old, squeaky bikes with almost non-existent brakes from… maybe they produce them to order 🙂 After our little tour it was time to get back to the boat and back to Hanoi then. Eventhough it was only a short time the trip was really worth it. The next time I would book one more day so that there’s more time outside the bus and on the boat…

Our local island trasportation waiting for us at the landing place.

Our local island trasportation waiting for us at the landing place.

Before and after Bai To Long bay Julia and I explored the city of Hanoi. It’s not as big and busy as HCMC but it doesn’t lack of things to see, do, and, most important, to eat 🙂 Hanoi has a beautiful old city quater where the streets are still named after the guild thatsettled in this street and one can see all the little old shop houses. In some of them are little boutiques that sell souvenirs which are different from all the tourist stuff that is sold on every corner.

Hanoi street food: fried rice stuffed with something :-) delicious!

Hanoi street food: fried rice stuffed with something 🙂 delicious!

Another speciality of Hanoi are the little eateries that are hidden between all the shops. They sell everything from famous Hanoi dishes, like Bun Cha, a soup with some meat chunks where you add your noodles and herbs bit by bit as you eat is, and Bun Bo, a similar soup but ready made and with different flavour. Try Bun Bo Nam Bo in Hanoi. It’s one of those typical eateries you would not enter in your own country, but it’s serving delicious food!

Bun Cha

Bun Cha

Save space for more customers at every price! :-)

Save space for more customers at every price! 🙂

Another lovely place was the Quoc Tu Giam park, housing on of the oldest universities of the country. We found this place only because we wanted to go to a special restaurant nearby, that is giving street kids of Hanoi the opportunity to learn a propper job. The food is a little more expensive but still reasonable and the food is fabulous!

Quoc Tu Giam park.

Quoc Tu Giam park.

After one more day in Hanoi, Julia had to go back to Germany and I went on the overnight sleeper train to Sapa, Vietnams most famous trekking area. Sapa seems to be attracting a lot of visitors, predominantely Vietnamese that want to enjoy the cool breeze of the mountains. And it was really freezing some times, so pack a few warm clothes if you plan to go there! It was spectacular to see how the weather changes from sunny to absolutely cloudy and grey and back to sunny again in less than 10 minutes. Many times you are literally walking through the clouds…

Vietnamese guys running down the hill, followed by tree trunks.

Vietnamese guys running down the hill, followed by tree trunks.

On my first day I trekked a little bit on my own and I chose a hidden route just at the beginning of Sapa on the road to Lao Cai. It was really hard to find, but the locals seem to be accustomed to tourists that look a little lost and eventhough they don’t speak a word English they just point to the right direction. This is really necessary because the path is nothing more than a slippery and muddy trail that looks more of dried stream than an actual trekking trail. After just a few meters I had to jump out of the way of 3 people dragging a whole tree trunk down the trail… they had to be really fast… at least as fast as the tree trunk was rumpling down behind them 🙂

Panorama of Sapa.

Panorama of Sapa.

On my way up the mountain I could enjoy spectacular views of the valley in which Sapa lies. Some small tribe villages were also on this trail and you could see in the puzzled faces of the locals that tourists don’t come often this way. The only downside of trekking in Sapa is, that on three different trekking maps, the routes in the same area differ from map to map… so you never actually know where you are! At one point I had to ask a local guy on a motorbike about my whereabouts… but even with him looking on the map, we couldn’t figure out exactly where I was…

"Tribes village" Cat Cat.

„Tribes village“ Cat Cat.

The next day I was hiking to some touristy tribes village called Cat Cat village. Unfortunately there is nothing much left from the village except hunderts of little merchandise stalls that were also blocking the views of the stunning rice paddies on the mountains. There’s also a waterfall but I think the hike isn’t worth it. Alsmost every meter is plastered with some stall trying to get your money… I wanted to take another trekking path to the Fansipan mountain, the highest peak in Vietnam. Because the maps, one I bought in a shop in Sapa and another one printed on the backside of the admission ticket of the Cat Cat village, weren so inconsistent that you couldn’t figure out which path on the one map was the equivalent on the other, I missed my intersection and hat to go back, where, according to the map on the ticket, was a shortcut to the path I wanted to go. The shape of the path fitted perfectly to the one drawn on the map. But when I was near some private house I knew something was wrong… After the chicken escaped from me in one direction, three very aggrasive dogs approached and attacked me! They surrounded me and I had serious trouble keeping my distance to all of them on the small slippery path I was on. At one point one of the dogs tried to bite me and I was lucky that I got away with only a little scratch and bruise. I finally found stick to keep the dogs at least 1 meter away from me and slowly escape backwards. Still, the dogs followed me for several hundret meters and I was so relieved when they finally stopped following me at some point. I never experienced such a dangerous and scary situation so far, not even in India with its millions of straying animals… When I finally got on the right trek I figured out that there was no possibility of another shortcut that I could possibly have missed! The idiots that published the map on the back of the admission ticket of the Cat Cat village are intentionally guiding you to some private property with aggressive dogs that guard the area! Just don’t go to this tourist trap of Cat Cat village!!

Kids playing on a rope bridge near Cat Cat village. No parents to bee seen...

Kids playing on a rope bridge near Cat Cat village. No parents to bee seen…

On the trail to the Fansipan the next suprise hit me after only 30 minutes. On neither of the maps was evident that you have to cross rivers… both maps showed clearly that the trail is situated between two rivers… one of the few accordances between both maps… so I was not happy to see that there was no other way than the one crossing a river. The first time everythin went well but when I came back to cross the river again I just chose the wrong stone to step on and found myself up to the knees in the water… Very nice with 1 1/2 hours to go back to the hotel and a temperature of around 10-15 degrees Celsius… This day really sucked!

Former Sapa market beauties :-)

Former Sapa market beauties 🙂

Obviously, the next day I wasn’t too keen for another day of trekking so I rented a scooter and explored some of the other sights, such as a so-called „cloud bridge“ and some tribes villages. It was really nice driving through this stunning scenery but all of the „sights“ were not worth going. The „cloud bridge“ is just another rope bridge like so many others in the area and it’s at such a low altitude that I’m sure there will hardly be any clouds around the brindge at any time of the year. In all of the villages I was surrounded by little kids trying to sell cheap stuff like wrist bands and phone covers. I really thought of buying some stuff I don’t need just to support them, but most of it was still welded so you could see it was some Chinese crap and not locally produced. At least I enjoyed the scenery while I was on my little scooter!

Beautiful rice paddy sceneries during my scooter tour.

Beautiful rice paddy sceneries during my scooter tour.

It was time to move on… Unfortunately I hadn’t spent my best days in Sapa, so I was excited about getting to Laos. The first hurdle was to get the Dien Bien Phu, close to the Laotian border. It’s only 250km from Sapa and should take about 5-6 hours. After 2-3 hours of driving the scenery gets fantastic. At some point, on a small road with the mountains climbing up the one side and a steep fall to a river on the other in a beatiful jungle setting, we had to wait for about one hour, because they were blasting some rocks to extend the road and had to clean up afterwards, kicking pieces of rocks as big as the excavator itself into the river. They seemed to be in a hurry because shortly after the blast before us, that forced us to stop, we could watch another blast some 100 meters behind us 🙂

After our 5-hours drive turned out to be 10 hours, we finally arrived in Dien Bien Phu. It’s not a nice city and almost nothing to do for tourists that to sleep one night to catch the bus to Laos early in the morning. If you are French or interested in the Indochine history you can probably spend a day there because Dien Bien Phu is the spot where the French lost a battle that marked the begiining of the end of the French control of the area.





Cambodia

11 11 2012

After a short stopover and a very nice evening with some friends and delicious food in Singapore, the next destination was Siem Reap in Cambodia. Siem Reap itself is a bit touristy, with night markets where one gets blind due to the blinking lights and numerous shops selling the same stuff one doesn’t need 🙂 they even sell T-Shirts with prints like „No Tuk-Tuki“ and „Don’t Need Anything“ which would also have been helpful in India… The weirdest area in Siem Reap is around a street called „Pub Street“, where millions of tourists sit in numerous bars playing all different music so that it is impossible to chat or not get crazy after 10 minutes. I didn’t expected to see something like that, but with a monument like the Angkor Wat temples only a few kilometers away I think one cannot expect a rural and still unchanged area. Another fact that is disturbing is, that the preferred currency is not the local Riel but the American Dollar. This destroys a big part of the experience of beinig in a foreign country and makes haggling impossible and therefore everything more expensive. The sentence you hear on every corner, even in the area around the temples of Angkor Wat, is „One dollar…“, announcing the price of almost everything… A whole pinapple, fresh and nicely cut: „One dollar!“… a small mango: „One dollar!“… a coke: „One dollar!“… Even most of the restaurants provide the prices in Dollar although there is a law that these must be given in Riel and the ATMs provide only dollars… hopefully Cambodia is able to ban the dollar at some point in the future!

Exploring Angkor Wat on bikes.

Exploring Angkor Wat on bikes.

On the next morning we rented bikes („One dollar!“… but at least, this was good value!) and cycled the 6km to the entrance of the Angkor Wat Park. The admission is exorbitantly overpriced with 20$ per day or 40$ for a 3-day-ticket. For the first day we planned to see the eastern side of the park and it turned out, that, due to the distances, it is impossible to see everything on one day. We cycled the whole day for 8 hours and almost 40km and just managed to see 4-5 temples in detail. Right now, reconstruction work and excarvations are done at many temples. If you are and archeologist there are a lot of cooperations between the Cambodians and many other countries and this might be a cool workplace 🙂

Bateay Kdei temple.

Banteay Kdei temple.

Most of the temples are impressive and simply breathtaking. It is unimaginable how the ancient people were able to build up such complex and huge temples, everyone with beautiful carvings and more a piece of art than a building. Often one ends up marvelling in front of any of these temples. The different temple complexes are spread over a wide area of several kilometers in length and width. Often one has to drive or cycle a few kilometers to get to the next complex. Walking through the park is almost impossible if you want to see more than 1 or 2 temples a day.

The most impressive temples are Bayon, Ta Phrom and the well known Angkor Wat. If you have only one day try to see at least these ones!

The amazing temple of Ta Phrom - all the documentaries of earth without humas were probably filmed here.

The amazing temple of Ta Phrom – all the documentaries of earth without humas were probably filmed here.

The Ta Phrom temple area itself is so big that one could spend half a day only at this site. Some of the temple’s structures and buildings have collapsed and were taken back by nature over time. This adds to the charme of the complex because everywhere huge trees are growing out of walls and even on top of some buildings.

Bayon - maybe the facebook of the early days :-)

Bayon – maybe the facebook of the early days 🙂

The features of the Bayon temple are also well known and became a synonyme for the park almost as known as Ankor Wat itself. It is one impressively huge temple with multiple levels and numerous little towers with faces carved into the stone blocks. In total there are 216 faces smiling at you from every direction.

Angkor Wat complex.

Angkor Wat complex.

The Angkor Wat temple itself is surrounded by an artifical water pond and a wall right behind it. Inside the wall is a immense garden and in the back the black and grey Angkor Wat with its iconic 3 (5 in total) visible towers. One can walk around inside the building, watching the beautiful carvings on lamost every wall and piece of stone, and even go to the top level of the temple with nice views of the surrounding. Make sure to wear cloths that, at least, cover your shoulders and everything down to the knees (maybe not a dress). They are very strict if you want to climb the top level of Angkor Wat and Baphuon temple. It might be because of religious matters but in my opinion it could be also because of the very steep steps and to avoid that people can look under the women’s dresses.

After two days of exploring the temple park by bike, which is highly recommended not only because it is so much cheaper than a Tuk-Tuk but also the better experience to get a feel for the size and the distances, we tool a mini bus to Phnom Phen the next morning. The „highway“ connecting Siem Reap and Phnom Phen is less than a small road connecting villages in Europe. But still, everyone is driving as if on a highway with 3 lanes… in each direction 🙂 our driver was the most reckless this day and so we managed to get to Phnom Phen in less than 5 hours (considering the state of the road this was almost the speed of light) with not a single car that was able to overtake us…

In Phnom Phen we only had 1 1/2 days so we saw the temples and riverfront around our lovely hotel on the afternoon and went to the Genocide museum and the central market in the morning and did some shopping in the afternoon. Many boutiques are found in the area where most hotels are situated but most of them are exorbitantly overpriced. I really can’t understand that these „french designers“ dare to offer their (mostly similar) stuff in one of the poorest countries at prices that are higher than in Paris! If you wanna be impudent, be it in your own country!!

A must-see in Phnom Phen is the Genocide museum. It was a former school but as schools where unnecessary during the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975-1979 it was transformed to the S-21 prison and interrogation facility. There is a very good but also depressing exhibition about the inmates and the few survivors of the facility.

Head to the Central Market but not for the touristy shopping options rather than the local food stalls on the outskirts of the market. Be brave and taste some of the delicious dishes although you’ll seldom know exactly what you are eating 🙂

On the last day of our short stay in Cambodia we chose the more cumbersome otion to get to Vietnam: by boat from Phnom Phen to Chau Doc and then further on to Ho Chi Min City by bus. The boat trip takes 4-5 hours is not very spectecular but at least I can say that I was on the Mekong river 🙂 be sure to know a bus company, their departure times and, most important, their address if you want to travel to HCMC the same day. There are some „fast buses“ that should take 5 hours for the trip, but our fast bus needed 8 hours and was definitely not worth the price that was double of the „normal“ bus (which officially should take 6 hours)! The easy option is to take the bus from Phnom Phen directly to HCMC.

Julia at Cambodias Mekong border post...

Julia at Cambodias Mekong border post…





India – Land of extremes

3 11 2012

It’s time to sum up my experiences as impressions of India. First of all: I am positively suprised! When I talked to someone about my little trip before I was leaving and we came to India thereaction was often the same: „India? Aren’t you afraid of the hygiene and the poverty? Everywhere is waste and you’ll have serious diarrhea at least a couple of times“… These were my concerns, too but I soon realized that it’s not that bad or at leat one adjusts to it. From my third day I even went to the smallest street kitchens mounted on a bicycle. Especially these made the trip the amazing experience it was for me: the curious street workers that couldn’t believe that a foreigner is eating with them at their street stall. Even the annoyances, especially the people from tourist agencies, shop owners in tourity areas and the permantent hooting and inquiring tuk-tuk drivers. After some bad experiences during the first few days I got into the haggling mood and soon I was able to distinguish between a serious offer and a rip-off. In Cochin I met the only tuk-tuk driver asking me „you are not going to haggle about 10 rupees with me?“ 🙂

I think I griped enough about the attitudes of people involved in the tourist business and Indias middle class. I think because of all the touts and the general interaction with tourists, India won’t become a major destination in the near future and remain it’s exotic status, attraction mostly adventurers and backpackers. Talking about exotic, a friend in Goa told me, that she was attracted because of the stories from other travellers telling from exotic smells and colors. Yup, there are exotic smells and colors, but very often it will be the smell of urine, shit, and other waste burning besides the road. I was suprised on the one side, that it was less than expected (still, too many places are too dirty), and on the other side how fast one can even adjust to these smells. I remember that I was trying to avoid smelly places the first days in Mumbai and in Agra, less than 3 weeks later, I was barely shocked when I passed someone on the street at night and I saw he was just taking a shit over some kind of small canal… and he wasn’t the only one! Sometimes the smell is still overwhelming, in a positive way near some food places and markets, and negative, which might happen around every corner.

India also suprised me with having stunning, diverse landscapes everywhere, from the Himalayan mountains, over desert areas with sand dunes, green fields with any kind of crops, to tropical areas with beautiful beaches, palm and lovely rivers. Breathtaking monuments like forts, temples, and other architectural highlights are literaly around every corner with more things to explore in the immediate proximity. Until now, for me India is the most interesting and diverse country I have been to! It is even easy to travel despite the sheer size of the country! Driving with local buses and trains was always one of the most exciting but also annoying experiences.

So India is really a land of extremes. Not only positive, but everything seems to have it’s counterpart here. In one way it is very easy to travel and explore all the great things India has to offer, on the other side, identified as a tourist, you are always only half a step from being riped-off. If one gets in touch with the local people one will feel the warmth and friendliness immediately, but it is hard to meet them because of the language barrier and the general suspicion against everybody a tourist will soon build up, because of the touts. Last but not least, around the stunning sites, no matter where you go, is always a lot of waste and pollution. Even in the Himalayas at a height of over 4000m it was hard to find a spot without plastic bottles. The backwaters of Kerala would be so much nicer if the water wouldn’t look soapy! Why the hell aren’t the Indians follow the signs above their head to use the dustbin! And why are there so few signs resp. dustbins? And it’s not all about waste, they even have problem with sound pollution. More than one week in a major city will drive you crazy because of all the noise from cars, bikes, and buses using the horn constantly. What about sticking to the traffic rules (at least a bit)? That woul make most of it unneccessary! Different shops and even temples try to drown the sounds of their neigborhs with louder sounds.

Still, I would everyone asking give the same advice: Come to India!





Kerala

3 11 2012

My last days in India I spent in the state of Kerala in the south-west. In Kerala, everything is a bit more quiet, laid-back, and clean. Somebody told me it is the richest state of India and if you see suburban-like middle-class houses of Alleppey and Fort Cochin you won’t belive anyone telling something else. The streets are not exactly clean and still the Indians burn their waste on every corner, but in comparison to all the other places I’ve seen in India this is the closest you get. Like in Goa the weather is hot and humid.

River through Alleppey

River through Alleppey

Because my flight to Singapore is from Cochin I chose to go directly to Allepey, the hub for tours on Kerala’s backwaters. As always I preferred the local transport options and instead of paying a fortune for a tuk-tuk or taxi to Alleppey I had the fun of experiencing the fight with sturdy Indian grannys who wanted to jump the queue. Ha! not with the German… I’m long enough in India to have no restraint to use my elbows even against them. Otherwise one always ends up having to stand with a 15kg backpack in the aisle of a bus that is driven by somebody who must be convinced driving a Ferrari, having to give way to boarding and unboarding people every few seconds with no space to move at all.

 

In Alleppey all the touts seem to wait for foreigners at the bus station. They give you fancy business cards of guest houses resp. homestays (if every dump was a resort in Goa, every house with a free chamber is a homestay in Kerala) or backwater tour operators. I ended up in the KTC Guest House that offers rooms from 500 rupees. I think there are a lot of better options but I was too tired to search any longer. And the grandfather that lived in the premises as well seemed to be very nice and helpful. On request, the owners offered me backwater tours and other options as well, but to me they seemed a bit overpriced. I was really glad that I didn’t accepted any of their offers because a quick comparison with the tours other guest houses were offering confirmed my assumption. By chance I met some other Germans just in front of my guest house searching for a place to have dinner. I joined them and it turned out, that they just came back from a lovely backwater tour and so I booked my tour at their homestay. The group was on a gap year, working with children and disabled people in and around Banagalore for one year and they traveld a bit because of some school holidays. I’m not sure if I would have been prepared/strong enough to work for one year in an Indian village without water in the house at the age of 18 or 19.

Local ferry

Local ferry

Backwater houseboats... fortunately I had a small, manpowered kayak

Backwater houseboats… fortunately I had a small, manpowered kayak

The next day my backwater tour started at 8 in the morning. Somebody catched up with me to drive me with his Honda Hero the 300m to the ferry terminal. There I saw one guy that could have been a Berlin or Hamburg hipster, with a moustach that absolutely didn’t fit to the rest of his appearance: small and skinny, more like a 18-years old. It turned out that he and his girlfriend were going with the same operator as me and so I sat with them on the table at the family’s house of our boatsmen for breakfast half an hour later. It turned out that he only had a special kind of humor and he grew the moustache to look like 95% of the Indians. Seriously, „all“ Indians who are able to grow a moustache have one and they look like from the 80’s 🙂

My funny baotsman

My funny baotsman

I had my own boat and boatsman, who didn’t speak more than 20 word English and was missing his front teeth but still was so funny in his appearance and manner. The boat tour was at first very interesting, seeing all the other boats on the canals and lakes, the houses, some of them flooded, the people doing laundry in one or the other way, washing the cloths on a stone in front of their houses or washing themself fully dressed (at least the women), and observing their daily routine.

One of the many backwater laundries...

One of the many backwater laundries…

After a while, when I had seen the same routine in many houses, it got more and more relaxing 🙂 The highlight of the tour was the stop at a local bar for having a glass of coconut beer. I have to admit that it was really disgusting but the locals seemed to love it, having red eyes from the alcohol at 11AM…

Having a coconut beer

Having a coconut beer

After the beer, we all (Jonas, Celine and me) were brought to a strange catholic church were they build a big house around a small one that was the birthplace of some curch dude. In the canals we often saw boatsmen calling something that sounded like a longstreched „heeeeeyy“, sometimes in a high voice, other times in a low. They are selling fish and „heeeyyy“ in a high voice means that they offer small fish, in a low voice big fish 🙂

Delicious lunch at a local family's home

Delicious lunch at a local family’s home

The tour ended with lunch at around 3PM back at the family’s house. On the menu were roasted „heeeeyy“ (high voice), some curries and prickles and rice, served on a banana leaf. It was one of the most delicious meals I had in India, attesting that the locals and small stalls with their simple dishes are often better that the sophisticated and high priced restaurants.

Indian "Spice Girls" :-)

Indian „Spice Girls“ 🙂

After lunch we could also enjoy a performance of the family’s daughters, presenting several Indian-style group dances, giggeling all the time. Although we hardly did anything over the day we were all really tired on the ferry ride back to Alleppey but agreed to meet upon dinner in a small local food stall.

 

The next day I drove back to Cochin. This time everyone was already seated when I came to the bus, so I had to stand in the aisle all the way back. I had no time to complain about the weight of the backpack on my back, being busy to grab a hold and not showing any fear on my face. I was able to look out of the front window, seeing the maneuvers the bus driver made. Now I know why I have never seen a bus driver older than 45-50!

Chinese fishing nets at Fort Cochin

Chinese fishing nets at Fort Cochin

Fort Cochin is situated on a little island off the coast from Eranakulam, the city on the mainland. In Fort Cochin one can see several catholic churches (due to the portuguese era), a Dutch palace, and even a jewish district. The main attraction are the chinese fishing nets on the northern coast. I read somewhere that this is the last place were this kind of nets is still used for fishing. It takes 5 people to operate one net. Unfortunately there were a lot of plants in the water under the nets due to the tides so that nobody was able to fish. Another must-do in Cochin/Karala is the Kathakali theater. Ancient stories featuring Indian gods are told, using extensive makeup. The characters itself aren’t speaking or singing, everything is expressed via facial expressions, hand signs and a little bit of dance. Unfortunately the admission was so high that they can afford A/C and as always, the higher the temperatures outside, the more they freeze it inside.

Kathakali theater

Kathakali theater

On my last night in Cochin I took another cooking class, this time South Indian food: fresh, spicy, NOT fried 🙂 The family with whom I cooked was really friendly but also mostly distracted by TV shows like India’s got talent and various soaps 😦 The food was really delicious but the fun we had at our cooking class with Shashi in Udaipur would not come up. Now it’s time to say goodbye to India. Therefore I will go to Sri Krishna Cafe, a very laid-back, tasty, and cheap local canteen, with my favorite Cochin lassi man, Ramesh, only 100m away. Note: No lassi for me that day… it was closed 😦