Transit at Chiang Mai

It was the realisation that I was walking on paved pedestrian walkways (oh how I have missed those) or maybe the sight of “Beware of scammers” posters replacing those that vividly say “Myanmar warmly welcomes tourists” which reminded me that I had cross the border to Chiang Mai, Thailand. Coming from Myanmar, Thailand was almost too tamed and easy. My immediate impression of Chiang Mai was that it was packed full of western travellers there for the quintessential ‘South East Asia’ experience, much like Bangkok.

Scenes of the noisy and loud backpacker crowds detracted the experience a bit, but with just one day there I’ve never had a chance with the city. Chiang Mai was a necessary transit to my eventual destination in Laos and Vietnam, suitably more exotic or interesting. But even with one day; compared to the crazy and rowdy Bangkok, I decided that I liked the classier Chiang Mai a lot more. My timing was superb- the streets of old city on every Sunday turned into an open extravaganza with indelible street Thai food, excellent shopping, and opportunity to people watch. During the day I walked around the old city exploring temples and relics, and when the heat gets too much, quick stops at one of the many chic cafes to replenish. Rather typical tourist stuff.

It was good chilling out, and it felt a bit like ‘returning to civilisation’ after the immensely surreal Myanmar. Some pictures:

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Street food of Hanoi

Hot, noisy, and crowd full of people who just don’t seem to like foreigners, Hanoi is not going to feature highly on my list of favourite places any time soon. But my trip to the capital city of Vietnam was still an enjoyable one if only because of its amazing food. I wouldn’t call myself a foodie, though I love trying local cuisine during my travels as a way of experiencing a country’s culture. Besides the ubiquitous phở, here are some of the best street food I’ve had in Hanoi.

1. Bia hơi

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Freshly brewed draft beer which is sold to the drop and replenish the very next day. Cheaper than water and found everywhere in Hanoi, Bia Hoi was my choiced beverage anywhere I go. Each Bia Hoi joint seems to be getting their supplies from different places so the quality varies widely. A few I’ve had was highly suspicious of adding too much water to the mix, but after a few rounds you won’t be too bothered!

2. Bánh cuốn

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Steamed rice rolls with either chicken or shrimp fillings served with plenty of fried shallots and fresh herbs, dipped in a sweet and tangy sauce. A staple in many Vietnamese restaurants outside of the country, so chances are this is not going to be something completely foreign to visitors who know their pho ga from pho bo.

3. Bún chả

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My absolute favourite food in Hanoi (had to walk several streets to find this place). Bun cha is a rice noodle dish served with barbecued pork patties and again, plenty of fresh herbs and vegetables. A meal in itself, the way to eat this is to dip the rice noodles in the concoction of clear sauce of meaty goodness- a leap of faith given how oily it looks. Salivating just thinking of it, this is easily my number one thing to have if I am crazy enough to visit Hanoi again.

4. Sữa chua

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As it turned out, Sua chua is actually Vietnamese for ‘Yogurt’, and not technically the name of this dish which i had mistaken it for (the store I had this had the term plastered everywhere). As I mulled over the vast variety of ingredients on display when attempting to make my order, i was pointed unceremoniously to one these little stools to take a seat- the owner will include everything. Last I count, there were yogurt, shaved ice, almond jelly, green tea flavoured jelly, jackfruit, little tapioca drops of various colour and many more. Desserts from around the world has something to learn.

5. Bánh gối and Nem cua bể

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Some fried savoury pastry thing that is stuffed with minced mushroom, crab meat and vermicelli. Whoever first came up with the idea of including vermicelli in stuffed pastry is a genius and deserve an award. These were crowd pleasers among the office workers where I had them.

6. Bánh tráng trộn

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A very surprise find, as I had just finish dinner before spotting a very big crowd of people having these on tiny stools by the roadside, before deciding that I too need to savour them. Banh trang tron is a tropical salad with shredded cuttlefish, peanuts, and a whole lot of miscellaneous things. It is probably akin to what Papaya salad is to Thailand or what Rojak is to Singapore.

7. Xôi xéo

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Any food that has two ‘X’es in its name deserves a second look. It’s a sticky rice dish with yellow bean paste and chicken shreds, this one I had was at a stall which seems to be engaged with a fierce rivalry with a neighbouring store. Again, as with many things in Vietnamese cuisine, the ingredient seems awkward on paper together, but somehow it works really well in reality. One of the best thing I have eaten.

A slingshot from Bagan

My thoughts were momentarily interrupted by the abrupt stop of the enchanting sound of the hired pony cart. The driver hopped down from his seat, seemingly having found something. He picked up a wooden carved slingshot left on the ground (a child’s toy, he said), not an easy spot in these sandy vast plains. With a few swipes to clean off the dirt and sand, he proceeded to show me how it’s used with a few rocks he picked up. You can scare off dogs, see? He suggested I keep it as a souvenir. Sure, but my mind was still with the awe-inspiring sunset views of Bagan just moments earlier.

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The trip from Yangon to Bagan was a lot more difficult than I had anticipated. As internet bookings for air tickets are not available in this country, I approached a local air line agent only to discover that the official ticketing offices are closed during the weekends. Despite knowing that mine is no longer a business of theirs, the office manager had his entire team researched for options of my itinerary, sat me down with a warm cup of tea and carefully ensured that I knew what to do. It was but one of the many genuine moments of kindness I experienced from the local people.

My only bet was therefore to arrive at the airport early before the 6.20am flight and purchase the ticket directly from the desk. I arrived 2 hours in advance, lurked around the unopened airport doors just so to make sure that I would be the first in queue (I wasn’t- the locals’ ability to arrive late, flag their cash and cut queues should not be underestimated). I felt like I was on the Amazing Race.

Despite the troubles in getting there, Bagan is worth every bit of the effort. It is as spectacular as I imagined it would be.

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Bagan is an archaeological site in central Myanmar, spanning some 40 square kilometres. The grand plains are dotted with closed to 4,000 temples, many of which suffered from neglect, erosion, looting or are simply destroyed during earthquakes. Of those that remain standing (according to my guide, there are still more than 2,000 left), many were restored in a dodgy and un-historical manner (it is not uncommon to see some temples whose paint colour look somewhat different from the rest); and for that reason, unlike its more famous cousin the Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Bagan has not been included by Unesco as a world heritage site.

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The Bagan region is massive, and it will take weeks, maybe even months to explore every single one of the temples. Geographically, Bagan can be divided into 3 main areas: Nyaung U, Old Bagan and New Bagan. Most of the important temples are found at the region surrounding Old Bagan, while the other 2 areas offer better lodging and amenities.

The most famous temples include: Ananda Pahto– the most imposing and awe inspiring; Sulamani Pahto– said to be the prettiest; Thatbyinnyu Pahto– the tallest; and Dhammayangyi Pahto– the largest temple, a red colossus. At sunset, the pagodas of Pyathada and Shwesandaw will offer some unforgettable views, destined to be etched in its viewers’ memories.  Get contend with the presence of many other tourists and the sound of vendors selling 15 postcards at 3,000 Kyats at these prime spots, though.

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What makes Bagan such an incredibly romantic site is that apart from these famous temples, there are thousands other to explore, many abandoned and forgotten, but each seems to have its own secret story to tell. Hop on to a bike, rent a car, or hire a horse cart, and explore a piece of Bagan that seems worlds apart from the rest of civilisation. Get up close with the local people who have learnt the art of living among the ruins throughout the centuries, or observe the unassuming farmers guide his herds into the beautiful sunset. It will be moments like these which make Bagan most fulfilling.

I left after 3 days at this magical site, feeling that I could easily spend another few more. As for the slingshot, it sits firmly in my haversack. As a piece of Bagan I am bringing home, it’s indeed not too bad a souvenir at all.

The mystical land of Myanmar

In contrast to how the country seems to have stuck in a time warp, my urge to visit Myanmar was always akin to that of a ticking clock. Please don’t change Myanmar, a land so mysterious it still goes by 2 names, please don’t change. Whilst my trip has enjoyed the modern amenities of having ATMs at prime tourist spots, or official banks which would accept my USDs (my copy of Lonely Planet, which mustn’t have been terribly outdated, has suggested changing currencies only at the black market, for it is the only way to obtain the official exchange rate, paradoxically), or even sporadic internet which is observed to work best at 6-7am (don’t bother at night); nothing quite prepared me for this endlessly fascinating country which is fast changing. My initial plan to spend 4 nights in Myanmar was extended to five, before willfully resigning myself to eight. Other places can wait.

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All international travellers will arrive at Yangon, capital city in soul and spirit (the official capital city was moved to Naypyidaw a few years ago). Travelling within and out of the country is tricky, as land borders are largely closed to neighbouring countries. As I would be visiting Laos this trip, my only feasible option was to transit from Chiang Mai, Thailand, which isn’t the easiest of tasks either as there are only 2 flights each week from Yangon (one of which found to be sold out, leading to a last minute scrambling of itinerary), and oh, no internet booking. I have my flights reserved through phone with very careful annunciation of my name in English, alphabet-by-alphabet, but was told that tickets can be collected only at the airport, and with cash only. At the time of writing, I have no idea if the attendant messed up my request and if I will be making the flight.

It is restrictions like these which have made Myanmar so incredibly endearing. The local people are some of the friendliest I’ve ever met on my travels (and I have done many), many seemed almost humbled by your visits. It is here that you learn to cope, tolerate, appreciate the little things in life and take absolutely nothing for granted.

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Inland, there are still parts of the country not opened to tourists, the allowed regions forming the rough shape of a triangle encompassing places such as Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Lake Inle. Yangon, the main city is a bustling hub with all the flavours of a South East Asian city with an addicting laid back vibe minus the tourist hordes. It is what I imagine places such as Bangkok to be like before foreign visitors dominate the cityscape.  The city has several beautiful pagodas worth visiting, with the crown jewel undoubtedly being the Shwedagon Paya. I visited it during a Sunday night with a slight drizzle few hours before it closed. Walking along the marbled floor barefoot (shoes are not allowed) with few other visitors amidst the enchanting golden glitter of the pagodas was quite a surreal experience.

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Rather by chance, I hopped on to a ‘circle line’ train which services local people from Yangon to its suburbs, but has since in itself becomes a tourist attraction (it even has a tripadvisor page). It was a fascinating 3 hours ride costing next to nothing at 400 MMK ($0.40 USD) offering a glimpse into the lives of the Myanmar people, many of whom live in impoverished conditions along the railroads. I came across a local newspaper reporting that the government is currently accepting tenders to ring fence the circle line with brick works for security reasons, so such sights may soon become history. I wonder what will happen to the local people.

The rest of my time in Yangon was spent exploring its downtown absorbing its sight, scent and sound; where streets laid perpendicularly, and where everyone seemed to be selling something, from bolts and nuts to lacquerware to street food that looks dangerously delicious.

Like a lost sheep in front of a skilled herder, I am hopelessly drawn into the mystique of Myanmar. I can’t wait to see what lies ahead.

Last day, Athens

07.09.2013. Day 88.

I found my feet once again in Athens, where I spent one last night at the familiar hostel, drinking that last free shot of ouzo before ending the day with a few pints shared with other nameless travellers at the hostel bar. I was due for Istanbul the next day, my transit point before flying off back to Singapore. The 3 months sabbatical has come to an end.

Some of the most memorable things:

– Spending 2 weeks as a volunteer at the farms of Mount Pleasant and Bryn Pedol. I am humbled by the experience and the sheer hard work of farmers, and truly grateful to have met such wonderful and inspiring people in Austin and Zoe who treated me with the greatest hospitality. I wish for the opportunity to meet them again in my life.

– Climbing Pen Y Fan and Snowdon, the 2 tallest peaks of Wales

– Witnessing the Adratic coasts of Croatia, Montenegro and  Albania, as well as the Ioanian and Aegean waters of Greece. Some of these places are incredibly touristy, but the views are just out of the world.

– Travelling across the Balkans and began to form my personal ‘favourites’. The stories of Bosnia and Herzegovina touched me deeply, and Albania by its virtue of being so ‘roughed’ and ‘untouched’ gave me my best travel experiences. These are 2 of my favourite countries.

– Boarding a fully packed overnight 8 hours train from Brasov to Constanta, Romania with the expectation of it being a sleeper train, which of course as it turned out, wasn’t. While boarding a bus at Constanta, I was almost pick pocketed. I try to see each country I visit with an open mind, but Romania simply didn’t do too much for me.

– Entering the incredibly friendly Kosovo, before learning that its legal status as a ‘country’ has been contended by many others, including my own. I met some brilliant locals here who showed me to local liquor (Raki), and a fellow couchsurfer even brought me along to meet his friends. We spent the night at some of the coolest night spots, including an active train station turned bar at night. It was random, weird and brilliant. I can’t remember making my way back to my accommodation quite alright!

– The hilarity of bumping into the same people multiple times at different places. There was this fellow British lone traveller whom I met at least 4 times in Prishtina, Tirana, Berat and Gjirokaster. His was a story quite inspiring, of how he was working and saving hard at work, before being deceived by his boss and decided it wasn’t worth it and off he went travelling the world with his life savings. Mine, by contrast ‘Oh, I have 3 months between work and I just enjoy traveling alone‘ is far less. Despite multiple encounters, we made it a point to not travel together and see how many more times our paths will cross.

– Attempting to have my hair cut with absolutely no language ability at Skopje and Gjirokaster. At the latter, I made the local barber scribble prices on my note pad and it showed 2- 400 and 500 Albanian Leks. I opted for the former which resulted in me leaving the barber with a bald head. I didn’t have to have another hair cut after that

– In 90 days I did not make use of a single ride of taxi or GPS to make my way to anywhere. It is a very proud record.

The 3 months journey was long and at times, lonely and tiring, but when driven by the insatiable thirst to see more of this marvelous world, it was always exhilarating and harrowing.

Who knows when will be the next time I can do something like that again?

Travel list 2013

For 2012 list, see here.

Zagreb

1. Zagreb, Croatia (March 2013)

Ljubjana

2. Ljubljana, Slovenia (March 2013)

Krakow

3. Krakow, Poland (April 2013)

Warsaw

4. Warsaw, Poland (April 2013)

5. Wieliczka, Poland (April 2013)

Tallinn

6. Tallinn, Estonia (May 2013)

7. Helsinki, Finland (May 2013)

8. Riga, Latvia (May 2013)

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9. Trakai, Lithuania (May 2013)

10. Vilnius, Lithuania (May 2013)

11. Bergen, Norway (May 2013)

Flam

12. Flam, Norway (May 2013)

13. Brecon, Wales, UK (June 2013)

14. Builth Wells, Wales, UK (June 2013)

Burton

15. Burton-on-water, England, UK (June 2013)

16. Cheltenham, England, UK (June 2013)

Chipping

17. Chipping Campden, England, UK (June 2013)

18. Crickhowell, Wales, UK (June 2013)

19. Craven Arms, England, UK (June 2013)

garway hil

20. Garway, England, UK (June 2013)

21. Hereford, England, UK (June 2013)

22. Llandrindod Wells, Wales, UK (June 2013)

23. Ludlow, England, UK (June 2013)

24. Monmouth, Wales, UK (June 2013)

25. Moreton-in-marsh, England, UK (June 2013)

26. Stow-on-the-wold, England, UK (June 2013)

27. Bangor, Wales, UK (July 2013)

Betws

28. Betws Y Coed, Wales, UK (July 2013)

29. Caernarfon, Wales, UK (July 2013)

30. Cardiff, Wales, UK (July 2013)

31. Colwyn Bay, Wales, UK (July 2013)

32. Conway, Wales, UK (July 2013)

Snowdon 3

33. Llanberis, Wales, UK (July 2013)

34. Llandudno, Wales, UK (July 2013)

35. Llanfair PG, Wales, UK (July 2013)

36. Porthmadog, Wales, UK (July 2013)

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37. Rhayader, Wales, UK (July 2013)

38. Belgrade, Serbia (July 2013)

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39. Blagaj, Bosnia & Herzegovina (July 2013)

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40. Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina (July 2013)

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41. Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina (July 2013)

42. Sofia, Bulgaria (July 2013)

43. Varna, Bulgaria (July 2013)

1

44. Dubrovnik, Croatia (July 2013)

5

45. Brasov, Romania (July 2013)

46. Constanta, Romania (July 2013)

47. Sibiu, Romania (July 2013)

4

48. Timisoara, Romania (July 2013)

49. Prishtina, Kosovo (August 2013)

50. Prizren, Kosovo (August 2013)

5

51. Ohrid, Macedonia FYROM (August 2013)

52. Skopje, Macedonia FYROM (August 2013)

53. Kotor, Montenegro (August 2013)

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54. Perast, Montenegro (August 2013)

55. Sveti Stefan, Montenegro (August 2013)

56. Ulcinj, Montenegro (August 2013)

6

57. Berat, Albania (August 2013)

58. Butrint, Albania (August 2013)

2

59. Gjirokaster, Albania (August 2013)

3

60. Ksamil, Albania (August 2013)

61. Saranda, Albania (August 2013)

62. Shkoder, Albania (August 2013)

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63. Syri i Kalter, Albania (August 2013)

64. Tirana, Albania (August 2013)

Athens

65. Athens, Greece (August 2013)

66. Igoumenitsa, Greece (August 2013)

67. Ioannina, Greece (August 2013)

6

68. Kalambaka, Greece (August 2013)

1

69. Corfu, Greece(August 2013)

70. Trikala, Greece (August 2013)

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71. Paros, Greece (September 2013)

72. Naxos, Greece (September 2013)

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73. Santorini, Greece (September 2013)

74. Shanghai, PRC (November 2013)

75. Jiangyin, PRC (November 2013)

76. Jingjiang, PRC (November 2013)

77. Suzhou, PRC (November 2013)