We took the slow boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang – two days cruising down the Mekong with an overnight stop in the small town of Pak Beng. We opted for the mid-range boat option, which was actually quite nice. We were fed, had a few tourist stops and got plenty of time to catch up on reading, journaling, and planning. We were told the boat could fit up to 100 people (although we weren’t sure how that would be possible looking at it), and there were only 15 of us making the trip. It was mostly Aussies and everyone was very friendly. I even got some good travel tips for Cambodia and Vietnam – I spent some time putting together a rough itinerary for Vietnam, so I don’t have to concern myself with it for a while.
On the first day we stopped at a small village on the tourist circuit. The kids were expert sales girl and we both ended up with a bracelet from them. But since I had lost the bracelet I bought in Chiang Mai for $0.30 in the jungle (it was colorful, woven bamboo, made by a very old woman), I was happy to get one of the brightly-colored embroidered cloth bracelet these little girls made (and they were only about $0.50). I probably should have bought more of them, since these kids are hard workers. But as you have to learn in Asia, you simply can’t buy from everyone.
We passed lots of farm land along the Mekong. This is the dry season, and it’s field-burning time, so our last few hours the first day were spent in a thick cloud of smoke. The smoke was so bad I covered my mouth with a bandana (like an old fashioned bandit!) and wore my sunglasses to try to protect my eyes from the ash blowing about. I have not seen blue sky too much in the last few weeks, and these farming practices are a lot of the reason why.
The second day we stopped at Pak Ou Caves – two caves where many Buddha statutes have seemingly been discarded for lack of anywhere else to put them. It has the feel of a hoarder’s hiding place, although some of the statutes are hidden in nooks and crannies that gives the place a bit of whimsy.
We opted to hike up the stairs to the upper cave as well. Although it was a hot hike, it made us feel slightly better about having lazed about for two days. And after that stop, it was just a short ride to our final destination.
It struck me that Luang Prabang is a city best shared in pictures, and I took my fair share. But I had a hard time capturing the quaintness of it all – French colonial architecture with a decidedly Asian influence. The town is on a peninsula, flanked by the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers, and both waterfronts are lined with lush tropical trees (including every kind of fruit tree imaginable and tons of epiphytes like orchids) and laid back restaurants that make you want to linger. The old town has so many small side streets (that only pedestrians and two-wheeled vehicles can use) it makes you want to spend all day wandering and exploring.
In addition to wandering about, we saw many of the main attractions – the Royal Palace museum, the TEAC (Traditional Art & Ethnology Center), the handicraft night market, many wats (of course), the UXO (Unexploaded Ordnance) Information Center (which will make you feel bad to be an American since we dropped all those bombs during the Vietnam war – Laos is the most bombed country per capita thanks to our attempts to cut off the Ho Chi Mihn Trail), Kuang Si falls (where we swam with monks!) – and made sure to take plenty of breaks for cold drinks and good food.
I have to say that Laos food is awesome! I’m trying to note the distinctions between the cuisines here, so I’ve been making an effort to take a cooking class (at least one) in each country I visit. We went to a cooking class at Tamarind. Like in our Thai cooking class, we again used a mortar and pestle to make almost everything. But we cooked everything in or on a small ceramic hibachi-type charcoal grill – unlike the gas flame used elsewhere. It was all so deceptively simple. While some of the spices used are the same as in Thai cooking, in Laos the chilies are a bit different and we used spices like coriander, dill, and mint in amounts and combinations I hadn’t seen before. While in Laos there is Laap, which is similar to the Thai dish (spiced ground meat, basically), the Laos version has more mint, no basil, and is spicier. The Laos also love their sticky rice (they eat it with every meal and use their hands) and make some great sausage (buffalo is common). Laos food feels a bit lighter, since they don’t really use a lot of coconut milk (I can’t believe I didn’t feed my curry addiction but still loved the food) and even their “stews” are more like soups (with clear broth). I wasn’t sure what to expect in Laos, honestly, and the food we got in the jungle was so bland I was a bit worried. But after eating my way through Luang Prabang, I must say that Laos food is right up there with Thai as my favorite. I just hope I can do it justice when I make it at home!
I’m now fitting in the highlights of Laos and Cambodia to give myself about a month in Vietnam before I have to head back home. It feels a bit rushed but it’s been great so far!
We crossed into Laos on the Freedom Bridge between Chiang Khang in Thailand and Huay Xai in Laos. We took a local bus from Chiang Rai which was a fun experience since it was only a few hours and I got a seat right behind the driver. It was still Songkran so most of the windows and doors were closed against the revelers throwing buckets of water at the passing cars. So it was warm. The window by me didn’t close all the way, so the local sitting next to it rested her arm over the open sliver of window to keep up mostly dry. I honestly didn’t mind the water that did get to me, since it was hot and the mother and child who were basically sitting in my lap for half the ride didn’t help.
After getting through the border the only option to get to Huay Xai was by open-backed truck (the Laos version of a tuk tuk). Apparently they also celebrate Songkran with water in Laos, as both we and our bags were drenched by the time we got close to our hotel. Of course with our luck, our hotel was again in the middle of the party zone. The street was actually closed, so we had to walk the last couple of blocks. Already wet from the ride across town, we were again doused with buckets of water and slapped with talc paste (orange this time) as we walked the final stretch. Thankfully we had a balcony and our things dried by morning before we set off for the jungle.
Bright and early the next morning we headed off for The Gibbon Experience. While we didn’t see many gibbons (I only happened to catch one swinging between trees one morning near the tree house) we ourselves experienced the gibbon lifestyle of zipping between trees and sleeping in the jungle canopy. For the two-hour drive in the open back of the truck I was prepared to get soaked, but it was too early in the day to get much more than a few sprays with a water gun (where was this treatment the day before?). One hour was on winding, paved roads, but the second hour was on a very bumpy dirt road – what a fun surprise! That part made me realize that the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland does a very realistic job imitating a ride through jungle conditions.
Hands a bit numb from bracing ourselves during the ride, we arrived in a small village where the twelve of us on this adventure were broken into two groups and sent hiking to our respective tree houses. Me and Ilene were in the larger group of seven. A good group that was a mix of nationalities and good fun. About half way into our three-hour hike, we were given harnesses for the zip lines on our route. We had watched a short instructional video before leaving Huay Xai, which was a good thing since neither of our two guides spoke much English. And once they figured out that one member of our group (Andrew) spoke Lao (since he’s taught in Vientiane for two years) he became our designated translator and they didn’t really even try to speak to anyone else. After a very sweaty hike and some fun zipping high above the jungle canopy, we made it to our tree house (only accessible by zip line).
The tree house was a good size, round and open to the jungle under a thatched roof. It included a small bathroom and a penthouse level big enough for one tent/bed combo. Tired from our long hike and the heat, we decided to relax before dinner (which was delivered to us on zip line of course). We quickly discovered that although the tap with drinking water ran, there was not enough water pressure to shower or do much else. There was also apparently a bee hive in the same tree, as there were bees everywhere. I was sure not to make any quick movements for fear of pissing off a bee and getting stung. The worst part was that the bees always hung out in groups of ten or more in the bathroom, especially in and around the toilet. So you basically had to squat over bees to do your business and also make sure not to step on any getting there (of course the tree house was a no-shoe zone). At first I didn’t think I could handle it, but I channeled my best zen-like calm and worked it out. Thankfully Andrew donated a bottle of Jack Daniels so we were all happy enough to forget about the bees for the night.
The next day we hiked to a (rather small) waterfall and had a good swim in the cool pool before making our way to a different tree house for the night (the two groups switch for the second night). This one is all one level, with the bathroom downstairs – and although I saw a few bees in there the bathroom and the tree house was relatively bee-free…phew!! And – huge bonus – the water pressure allowed for showering. And this shower was even better than in the other tree house – set in the corner of the bathroom it gave a 260 degree view of the jungle. And since the bathroom floor was just two-inch-wide wood planks with about an inch gap in between them, I could see the shower water falling down to the jungle floor under my feet. It was an amazing feeling to be showering literally surrounded by the jungle. That goes in my book as the best shower ever!
That day we did some more hiking without our packs after getting to the tree house – doing the zip line circuit a few times, including the one line that is 500 meter long. We even made time for another swim at the waterfall. Of course it was after this rigorous day that we were only given a small vegetarian dinner. By this point in our trip we were all tired of the same bland food we’d been eating for days – mostly rice and cabbage, with literally no seasoning (apparently they think white folks can’t handle it) and no more alcohol around to distract us from this sorry fare – so we had a long conversation about our favorite foods which made us all miss civilization just a little bit. But sleeping about 40 meters above the jungle floor made up for it. And we were even treated to a very impressive thunder storm during the night. Overall the experience was amazing and I’d do it again. But next time I’m packing in more whiskey!
Being back in Thailand at this point feels like coming home. After being in Myanmar, it’s very clear just how Western Thailand is – the Thais know the value of cold (cold drinks, good A/C, icy fruit shakes sold on the street everywhere), and with a 7-Eleven on every block you can very easily find the necessities. It almost felt like I was back in the U.S. compared with Myanmar, except with the easy Thai vibe that makes this place so relaxing.
We spent a good week in Chiang Mai and I still don’t feel like I saw all of it. We stayed right in the old city, just a block from the Sunday walking street. A great location and ground zero for Songkran (Thais New Year). We spent a good amount of time outside the city proper. We drove out to Mae Ngat dam, and spent the day on a houseboat – eating whole grilled fish and swimming in the cool water of the lake. We also went to cooking school (Thai Farm Cooking School), where we spent the day on their organic farm, trying new fruits and vegetables and eating way too much (we made 5 dishes!). And, what I was most excited about — we did a day with elephants!
We spent a whole day riding, bathing, feeding, and hanging out with some very sweet Asian elephants. At first I was a little intimidated by them, but they were totally docile. It was actually a decent amount of work to ride them bareback (holding on with your legs and giving them the commands in Thai that we learned on the spot) and hacking down sugar cane to feed them was a bit rough. In the U.S. we’d never be set loose in a field of sugar cane with machetes and told to have at it. But in Thailand, they do exactly that. With minimal instruction and a warning about the thorns in the outer husk, we were put to work. (Unfortunately the elephant place hasn’t posted the photos for us yet, so I have no good elephant photos to share yet).
The New Year celebration – Songkran – seems largely about getting into epic water fights in the street. Although I understand it is also a time to set intentions for the coming year. We did a bit of both. We visited Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, high above the city on a hill, and received a good luck blessing from a monk, which he commemorated with simple string bracelets and a sprinkling of water.
We also ended up engaged in a four-hour long water fight outside a bar we stopped in for a drink. They graciously let us use their extra water cannons and buckets, and I reciprocated by buying the blocks of ice to add to the water supply. Once you’re completely drenched, it’s pretty fun to take turns dumping water on strangers. I preferred the water cannon, and I mostly only attacked those who were armed with water guns or hit me first. Well, maybe not always 🙂
But at Songkran no one is safe. We travelled to Chiang Rai and were still doused with buckets full of water while riding defenseless in a tuk to and from the Wat Rong Khun (the White Temple). Ice water is pretty shocking, especially as it gets toward evening and it’s not quite as hot out. I guess it was all pay back for what we doled out in Chiang Mai.
From Bagan we took a slow boat to Mandalay. It was supposed to take 8 hours, and ended up being closer to 14 (in fairness they did tell us it would take 11 hours when we got on, which almost made us reconsider, but we decided to go for it). Turns out in the dry season the boat takes longer because it has to navigate around sandbars in the shallow river. We ended up getting stuck on several sandbars, and in some spots had to wait for another boat to pass before being able to squeeze through the navigable path in the river. Once we got caught up next to a cargo ship that seemed to be anchored in the navigable path of the river for the night. But after wiggling back and forth and getting into a very slow motion collision with the cargo ship, we were free! We saw both sunrise and sunset from the boat. At first I wasn’t sure how I’d make it through the ride without going crazy — I quickly figured out that the A/C on the boat was so weak as to be basically non-existent, while the temps were in the (thankfully, low) 100’s at this point. But it’s amazing how beer and books can pass the day!
Once we found our hotel in Mandalay we ventured out to find dinner. We ended up at a street food stall serving noodle soup. We were the only white folks around. As seems typical in Myanmar, the kids run the show — our 12-year-old waitress smartly showed us a bowl with the four noodle options, had us point to what we wanted and asked us if we wanted “water” (broth) with it. We all opted for water. Although we saw others eating hot pots and stir-fry noodles, they just brought us what seemed to be their main attraction – a really good spicy noodle soup with pork. Of course this was fine with us, it was good and there is no need to complicate things. When the army of child waitresses sat down at the table next to us and stared at us while we ate, we realized we were a spectacle, which was both funny and new. In fact, we were stared at more in Mandalay than anywhere else. Apparently not as many tourists include Mandalay in their circuit and venture out for street food.
Mandalay is much rougher than Yangon. We must have missed the shiny new part built with Chinese money that we had heard about, because the Mandalay we saw was grungy. The roads were closer to dirt than anything, and the tepid refrigeration made the heat feel almost unbearable. But the city has its charms. When we hiked up Mandalay hill we were like celebrities – everyone wanted us to take photos with them and their kids, even the monks! We toured around to some of the artisans in Mandalay and to the old cities surrounding Mandalay (each of which was the capital of Myanmar at some point). We saw how gold leaf was made, which the Buddhists use to guild certain Buddhas as a form of tribute. Of course after Ilene purchased some gold leaf, the only guild-able Buddha we visited didn’t allow ladies to get near it. So the gold leaf went unused. Myanmar is the only place (so far) I’ve seen this gender discrimination in the temples.
We also visited a monastery to see the monks do their morning procession for breakfast. Apparently it’s the tourist-approved monastery, as there were many tourists there to see this. We actually felt a bit bad about making the monks into a spectacle. But the young monk Steve be-friended didn’t seem to mind the tourists.
We took the train from Mandalay to Inle Lake, which required an overnight stop in a little town called Thazi. The train from Mandalay to Thazi was just shy of 3 hours, and since we got the tickets day-of, we ended up in “Ordinary Class.” It was a lively ride with lots of vendors coming through. And not having A/C wasn’t a huge deal for such a short ride. The ride was dusty though, and we all emerged covered in a layer of dirt from riding with the windows down.
Thazi is super small and that was the only time we had a bit of trouble getting food. We wandered into a random place (Ilene and I being the only women in there) and tried to point to what we wanted. We ended up eating – some fried rice with egg and some flat bread – but it was the simplest meal we had in Myanmar. We stayed overnight in a cute guesthouse, very simple, with only fans against the heat. It was all fine until I locked myself out of my room at 11:00 p.m. — and with the heat I was basically in my undies, which isn’t a great thing to wander around in in this super conservative country — and I couldn’t find the owners anywhere. Apparently I can’t be trusted to go down the hall for the toilet! Thankfully the box of keys to the unoccupied rooms was unlocked, so I crashed in another room until morning. I didn’t sleep well though, as I was worried about missing the early train if the owner wasn’t up at 6:00. But in Myanmar the locals get up early (I often heard locals playing their morning music before sunrise) and it all worked out.
Unfortunately I woke up feeling a bit off. I had some coke and crackers in the time we spent waiting for our train (it was an hour late), but this didn’t accomplish anything apart from earning me a new doggie friend on the platform. When the train arrived, we were shuttled on, only to be told we had to move at the last minute because the porter mistakenly put us on the wrong car — interestingly, while the seat/car numbers are written in the Roam alphabet on the train tickets, the train is labeled in the Myanmar alphabet, making it impossible for us to match up where we’re supposed to go. For this ride we were able to get “Upper Class” seats, but they were not much different than the “Ordinary Class” ones on the (apparently) nicer train from Mandalay – no more than bench seats with a bit of thin cushion on them, still no A/C, and the train was super old and dirty.
So I was feeling really nauseous by this point, and as we were hurrying between cars I lost my coke and crackers – giving everyone on the train a good show as I puked three times while making my way down the length of the train. Seeing no alternative to the 8-hour ride ahead of us (which ended up taking almost 11 hours) I declined Steve’s offer to abort. Instead I spent the ride trying to sleep. Ilene and Steve were nice enough to give me a whole bench so I could just about lay down with my legs crunched up — assuming the fetal position. Sitting up was more than I could handle! I tried to hold down water, but had two more rounds of losing my cookies. The most exciting was when I got up to use the toilet, but barely made it to the open side door of the train in time to puke out the side of the moving train. Some locals sitting in the seats by the door saw this and sweetly asked if I was okay (using a questioning thumbs up sign) and offered me a piece of fruit. I said thanks, but hand-signed back that if I ate the fruit it would also come back up, so no thanks. Somehow I made it through the hot, rocky ride on the train (the narrow gauge railroad cars rock so much that at points I was sure we’d derail). It took two rounds of antibiotics to clear this thing, so much of my time in Inle was spent eating rice and resting.
What I did see of Inle was beautiful. What is sad is that the air quality is not great – likely because they burn all their trash right out in the open, often right on the side of the road – otherwise the mountains surrounding the lake would be more visible. On the days I felt well enough to go out, I joined Ilene and Steve in exploring the town on bike, got a Myanmar massage (mostly similar to Thai massage, but not a rough), saw a traditional puppet show, and did a full-day boat trip. From the boat we saw the floating villages and the fisherman (including the ones who just seem to pose for tourist photos right at the entrance to the lake), and of course were escorted to many local artisans – weaving, woodworking, silversmiths, blacksmiths, cigar making, etc. – who all wanted to sell us souvenirs. It’s amazing how quickly Myanmar has got the tourist circuit mastered, considering the country only recently opened officially to tourism.
Around Inle, the locals do all their bathing and washing in the lake — it was really common to see whole families in the water splashing around with soap in their hair, having their afternoon wash. They also grow lots of produce on the lake, which is interesting. The lake is really shallow and water plants are visible on the surface or right under it in most areas. But the farmers have also set up fields on top of the water to grow all sorts of produce. Pretty ingenious. Another impressive thing was the bamboo lock system on the small river we went up. The first one looked like a dam made out of bamboo, and I thought maybe we couldn’t go any further. But there was a small slot cut out of the middle just wide enough for the long, narrow boats to slip through. The boats fit through that slot one at a time, passing through the locks to make their way up or down river. Pretty cool!
Most everything I read about travelling to Myanmar said it’s a country that time forgot. I won’t echo that well-worn sentiment here, but I will say it is the most un-tourist-tainted country I’ve been to. Yes, there are English menus in all the major cities, you can find your way around between cities without much problem, be quoted prices in English, and even find Western food in most areas (although we mostly steered clear of it). But, the locals still dress conservatively in their traditional longhi, paint their faces with a thanaka root-water mixture to protect against the sun, chew betelnut and smoke hand-rolled cheroots all day, burn trash on the side of the road, don’t seem to mind tepid refrigeration, do most everything by hand (including road work), and are happy to see tourists in their midst. I’ve never been stared at, prodded (mostly by women, thankfully), and photographed by locals the way we were there (of course some of that may have been helped by Steve’s impressively thick beard – we saw only a handful of locals with some scraggly facial hair). It was also funny to see very traditionally dressed Myanmar locals tucking cell phones into the waist of their longhiis and kids in remote areas playing handheld video games. So I don’t really agree that time has been forgotten in Myanmar. But it is a special place nonetheless.
Yangon was Rangoon to the British and it almost seems like not too many changes have been made to the city center since the imperialists left their capital in 1948. The infrastructure is in need of some repair and I can easily imagine how my friend Ryan fell through the sidewalk here. However, after seeing Mandalay and some other spots in Myanmar, Yangon appears to be the most well-developed of the cities – after all, it does have paved roads, stop lights, sidewalks, high-rises, and well-placed parks. Although much of the infrastructure is crumbling and blackouts are the norm (there was one most nights, and many places were prepared with generators), Yangon’s crumbling beauty makes it feel like a very special place.
Although some tourist have complained to us about the food, we were excited to have it given our love for Burma Superstar in SF. We had a lot of curries in our first couple of days, but Myanmar curries are pretty heavy and oily (not at all like the Thai curries I have become addicted to). So we decided to venture to the street venders in Chinatown (passing through a very colorful street produce market) for some whole grilled fish and skewers of squid and veggies. This simple meal was one of the best we had in Myanmar (the other being another whole grilled fish in Inle Lake). The fish comes with some amazingly tasty dipping sauces, and we learned that chopsticks are the best way to pick apart a whole fish (you can get all the meat). This feast along with enough beer to make us happy was also only $5 a person.
Overall the heat in Myanmar can be a bit oppressive. When we ventured to the Shwedagon Pagoda (the symbol of Myanmar), we were therefore grateful to have a very good English-speaking guide who did a heroic job keeping us in the shade during our visit. He told us about our birthday animals, which are determined by the day of the week you were born. I was born on a Friday, so my animal is a guinea pig. Given that there are dragons and tigers to choose from, I felt a bit gypped. But we nonetheless each took turns paying tribute to our animals and Buddha — pouring water over their statutes in our birthday corners around the pagoda. As honorary Buddhists for the day, our guide encouraged us to ring the big bell, three times, which notifies everyone that we had done a good deed for the day. Reportedly paying tribute to our birthday animals counted as a good deed!
One of the any things that is really interesting in Myanmar is the driving. Now although we saw plenty of kids a the wheel in Myanmar, foreigners are not allowed to drive or even rent motorbikes (although we could rent e-bikes, a weird loophole). But after seeing the driving there, I was totally fine with this restriction. Apparently after the Brits left, the government changed the rules so everyone is required to drive on the right side of the road – you know, to further distance the country from its colonial period. But the funny thing is most of the cars still have the wheel on the right side, even new cars (actually there is no standard, as it seems perfectly okay to have a car with the wheel on either side). To account for this difficulty (I mean the passenger can more easily see if it’s safe to pass on the left side when the driver is on the right side of the vehicle), Myanmar drivers use their horn. A LOT. From what I gathered, honking is required at least whenever (1) you approach an intersection without a traffic light (which is most intersections), (2) you are passing someone on the road (this applies even if the other vehicle is in the other lane of a multi-lane road, because you just never know when land lines won’t be followed), (3) you just want others to know you’re there, just because you do (we saw several drivers just honking intermittently), (4) you’re merging, or (5) you see any vehicle trying to enter the road and you don’t plan to yield (I never saw anyone yield). In the few times we had e-bikes or push bikes, I learned that a driver honking to pass was more the sign for “hold your line” versus “move to the right.” Once you get used to all the honking, it starts to make sense.
From Yangon we flew to Bagan (after hunting down the Air Mandalay office in Yangon to pay for the reserved tickets in U.S. cash – yes, they still only take brand new U.S. cash money for many payments in Myanmar). The town around Bagan is cute and very manageable. We got bikes from our hotel the first day and rode around a bit. We went to check out the big “new” (active) pagoda in town. Now most of the locals are super nice and helpful. So when one directed us where we could park our bikes, we didn’t think much of it. But then that nicety came with being led by the hand to their souvenir stalls inside, where we were basically forced to buy something.
I was totally cleaned out (of like the $20 worth of cash I had on me). After having some jade rings forced on me, I made the mistake of asking about a puppet (puppetry is big in Myanmar, who knew?). After she wouldn’t be bargained down any lower, I indicated that I couldn’t go lower because I actually did not have any more money on me – making the point by pulling out my last $11 in bills. Now we were haggling over a 1,000 kyat ($1) price difference but she wouldn’t budge. When I tried to walk away she grabbed the money in an iron grip and wouldn’t let go. She simply would not let me end the transaction and walk away with my money. She asked me for something else to make up for the perceived $1 shortfall – my perfume, lipstick, something! When I said no way and offered her my Kleenex, she finally gave up and let me have the thing for $1 less. We had all been basically forced to buy something we didn’t really want or need. After that experience were all a bit wiser about the hard sell tactics (although we honestly never again met women that were that bad – they were the exception).
We otherwise did the requisite touring of only some of the many thousands of ancient pagodas in Bagan. Seeing both a sunrise and sunset, as required. We rented a horse cart to take us to see the sunset. We thought it was a genius idea – drive out to watch the sunset, grab some beers on the way, no problem! Well, when we bought beers, our driver bought whiskey. After he tried to take us to a closer pagoda to watch the sunset we did get him to take us to the recommended one, which was further out and of course which we had bargained for ahead of time. This required some more bargaining with the head of what we dubbed the horse cart mafia — all the horse carts seemed to want to take the tourists to the closest pagoda on the grounds that the big popular one was too crowded. We made it to the larger one, and it was honestly pretty crowded. Squeezing up the dark, narrow internal stone staircase was a bit scary, but it was worth the extra effort and crowd fighting. We were probably up on the pagoda for about 45 minutes, and when we returned our driver was clearly drunk. He ran the cart up the curb a few times and we were sure we’d go over. But our decision to end the ride was really made when he…let’s say…got a bit too chummy with me. Thankfully although this was our first horse cart ride while in Myanmar (we had three other horse cart rides after that one, it is a very common way to get around, actually), it was the only one with a drunk and inappropriate driver.
As I mentioned, we were allowed to rent e-bikes, which are basically just slower motor scooters, and that really helped with getting around in the heat of the day. After the horse cart incident, we decided to make our own way around for sunrise the next day. This also gave us the freedom to see old town Bagan at our own pace. We generally hid out at the hotel pool during the hottest parts of the day, grateful for a pool even though it seemed to come in lieu of good A/C in the room. The hotel also had a beer garden, where you could get $0.65 draft Myanmar beer. A cold lager is just perfect on a hot day!
After so much time lazing about on the beautiful beaches of Thailand, I was really ready for the excitement of a city. I flew from Phuket to Bangkok to meet up with my friend Ilene (who is taking a year off and is 8 months into her adventure) before we head to Myanmar. Our big to-do was to get our same-day visas for Myanmar. But we thankfully also had some time to explore the city.
I loved the vibrant energy of Bangkok! I’ve gathered from speaking to other foreigners that people either love or hate this city, so I wasn’t sure what kind of experience I’d have. Bangkok is obviously a big, crowded Asian city, and so I think the experience you have there depends a lot on when you go and where you stay. Going before it’s too hot is good. It was hot and damp (we got a few sprinkles), but honestly not as steamy as the islands or as bad as I had mentally prepared myself for. And being able to get around easily really helps. We stayed in a nice place on the river (thanks to Ilene using hotel points at the Hilton) so we were able to rely heavily on the river ferries and the skytrain to get around. Of course the sunset swims in the rooftop pool overlooking the river helped too.
Now the river is dirty – we saw plenty of dead fish and even a dead alligator-like creature floating about – but traveling by waterway adds a sense of adventure that no train, bus, or even tuk tuk can beat. And the Mae Nam Chao Phraya river cuts through a good portion of the city sites (including the old city) that we wanted to see. After so many warnings about the danger of traveling in the city right now, we avoided the areas where there were said to be political protests going on. The closest we got was seeing a large encampment out the skytrain window. But we were both glad we didn’t let the warnings stop us from seeing the city.
In the two-plus days we had in Bangkok, I felt like I got a decent sense of the city. We spent some time wandering around Chinatown, found a lively Sunday market, had a history lesson at the National Museum, climbed Wat Arun, had some great cocktails in a couple of trendy areas (thanks to some great suggestions from Ryan in Singapore), and had some good food. Of course we also spent a decent amount of time securing our visas and fresh U.S. dollars for Myanmar, but it really wasn’t much of a pain to get a same-day visa.
I really loved the street markets we wandered through – busy and a bit chaotic, navigating them takes a balance of patience and pushiness that takes a bit of practice. But before you know it, you’re bargaining with the best and slipping through the crowd with ease. And to me this experience is what makes Asia so much fun.