Cambodia (March 29, 2010)

After an epic, multi-modal journey we arrived over land to Cambodia (well actually, it wasn’t that bad but it was a taxi, plane, bus, taxi, tuk-tuk all day trip). And did accomplish the rare tri-national meal schedule with breakfast in Burma, lunch in Thailand, and dinner in Cambodia (for those of multinational diners you keeping score at home, Cambodia’s meal won this round--although to be fair, what Meg ordered for her Burmese breakfast was "finished" (like so many other meals on this trip) and lunch was at the Bangkok airport.)

Like any good tourist we started our time in Cambodia in Seam Reap with a visit to Angkor Wat. While Angkor Wat is touristy, it is one of those places (like the pyramids) that is justifiably famous. We had a great day biking from ruin to ruin so even among the package tour hordes it was possible to find some moments of relative solitude amongst temples overtaken by the jungle:

Considering that Siem Reap is the most touristy town in the country, it was actually a fairly pleasant and inexpensive place (we’ll take it over Agra every day of the week). While we were definitely templed out after 3 days in Siem Reap, we were sorry to leave behind the very nice $10 hotel room (with A/C, wifi, hot water, cable TV, a balcony, etc.) and great less than $10 dinners.  We were also lucky enough to visit the Angkor Wat Children's Hospital, an impressive facility that serves as a great model for involving the international community in local health issues. 

Then it was on to the next step on the Cambodian tourist trail with a few days in Phnom Penh. Despite what we’d heard about how dangerous it was, we found Phnom Penh to be a very pleasant city, where we’d actually think about living under the right circumstances (there seems to be something about national capitals in tourist countries that inspire people to say negative things about perfectly nice cities; but perhaps this is advantageous as we’ve  regularly arrived low expectations and been pleasantly surprised- see Nairobi and Vientiane as other examples).

Jed in Phnom Penh

For our final act, we decided it was time to get a little off the beaten path so went up to Cambodia’s northeast, where we spent several lovely days biking, hiking, and generally being stared at by the locals unused to seeing tourists. If you ever want to get a taste of what it might be like to be famous (though instead of people asking for your autograph they scream hello and/or ask you where you’re from, what your name is and how long you’ll be in the country to practice their English) we can recommend a trip to Ban Lung, Cambodia. 

Practicing English on Trung Island
The countless smiling faces we encountered were a sharp contrast to the reminders of the country's recent tragic history under the Khmer Rouge.  While Cambodia still faces many challenges, it was remarkable to witness the amount of hope and optimism that exists today. After many rounds of local children rapidly screaming “hello, goodbye, hello, goodbye”, we took the road (which had fortunately just been paved cutting the 10 hour trip in a pick up truck down to a comfortable hour in a mini-bus) to the Vietnam border. 

Burma (Myanmar) Part Three (March 28, 2010)

To continue with our commentary about our time in Burma, in this post we will focus on newspapers.  The most difficult part was deciding which material/pictures to choose--there were so many options....(all of the pictures below were taken of the official government newspaper)  

Newspapers

Burma is ruled by a military junta which employs strict censorship. While this means that the official newspaper is so slanted that even the people at The Onion couldn’t make up most of it (more on this later), it also means that foreign newspapers are officially banned. So there are black market newspaper vendors that stand on street corners (semi) covertly hawking foreign newspapers.  When we stopped to look at their selection they had a copy of a Singapore newspaper which was a week old. When we wondered if he had something more recent, the vendor proudly offered us a newspaper that was “very new”. It was yesterday’s International Herald Tribune. He also had a Time Magazine from 1994- proving that everything is relative.

The official government paper, the New Light of Myanmar, is fascinating for many reasons. First, the slant and selection of the articles is so obvious as to be comical. For example, when we were in the country, the government was releasing the rules for next year’s “election” (which made front page news in the New York Times.) The front page articles for the New Light of Myanmar, however, were about important topics such as the government’s plan to create an electric car and, well, this headline speaks for itself:



 The anti-US bias is not very subtle:

Second, the level of journalism is rather basic (sort of a like a middle school class newspaper, to use the continuing theme of the school project to describe Myanmar). They are careful to pay attention to protocol issues (liking citing sources) while writing at a very basic level. For example, the source on many of the articles is “internet”:

 The forms of address are so formal as to be amusing; each issue has about 15 pictures of and/or references to the leaders of the junta with their full military and civilian titles (“Prime Minister General Thein Sein Meets with townselders…”). And the captions on the pictures are classic: “Prime Minister General Thein Sein cordially converses with local people of Peletwa”- this certainly does look cordial (for a military interrogation, that is):

Well this just speaks for itself, especially the contradiction below goals three and four:


Burma (Myanmar) Part Two (March 23, 2010)

Quick quiz before we start:  If you were a vendor, which of the bills below would you accept?
Money:

In our previous post we discussed some of the more confusing aspects of traveling in Burma.  Another confusing mishmash in Burma is the currency situation. In theory the official currency of the country is the Kyat. But most major purchases (hotels, plane tickets, etc.) must be made in US dollars. In fact, admission to major tourist sites (museums, temples, etc), many of which are controlled by the government, must be paid in dollars. We’ve seen this a few other places (mainly in the form of visa fees and airport departure taxes), but it is never a good sign about the economic stability of a country when the government doesn’t accept its own currency.

Add to this currency duality, the fact that there are no ATMs in the country and no one accepts credit cards and you’ve got a real currenccy mess. So not only must you have US dollars and Myanmaran Kyat  in your wallet at all times, but the only way to get Kyat is by exchanging US cash (welcome back to the 1960’s ATMs didn’t exist and you had to travel with a wad of cash).

Now that you’ve go this down, all you need is the exchange rate and your ready to go, right? Well yes, but the exchange also isn’t so easy. For example, as we often do before we arrive in a country we went to our favorite internet e-currency exchange sites (XE or Coinmill). But they were flummoxed by our query (Coinmill literally just turned up a blank when asked we tried to convent dollars to Kyat). Well the situation on the ground is equally confusing. The official government exchange rate is around 4 Kyat to the dollar. Banks offer purportedly offer an exchange rate of about 400 Kyat to the dollar. And the best rates on the street in Yangon are about 1000 Kyat to the dollar. So even if there were an ATM, you wouldn’t get too far taking out money at the official or bank exchange rate (since you’d be overpaying by 250 times the rate on the street).  The best exchange rate we found of course was at the airport upon departure where you could pay the US $10 departure tax in kyat at a rate of 1300 kyat to the dollar (guess who gets the money?!)

The money changers are also very fickle about which bills they will exchange. $100 bills get the best exchange rate, but they must be after 2006, can’t have a serial number prefix of HB, and must not be creased, bent, ripped, or stained. In fact, the ticket office at the National Museum nearly refused to accept a $20 from Meg because it had been folded in half in her wallet. The irony in this is that Kyat bills are the most soiled, ripped, and crumpled bills one could ever see. A 50 Kyat bill is little more than a greasy ball of scrap paper (which Meg pointed out to the National Museum ticket office when they were giving her trouble about her folded $20 bill—they responded that with the explanation that it was okay for their money to look like that, but not ours).   

Again, which of these bills would you accept?

Finally, when one finally has all this figured out and actually succeeds in getting some Kyat into their wallet (so, for example, you can buy a bottle of water since it is 112 degrees outside), you can’t close your wallet. The highest denomination Kyat bill is 1000 (which is worth about $1), which means even the most modest of currency exchanges fills the average wallet beyond capacity (for point of reference imagine putting 100 $1 bills in your wallet). On the bright side of this, you always have change to make a small purchase (at least in Kyat that is, getting change for large denomination dollar bills is a whole other story….).

Burma (Myanmar) Part One (March 20, 2010)

Note: We found during our time in Burma we had A LOT to comment about.  Below is our first installment, focusing on being a foreigner and getting around the country:

Being a foreigner in Burma

            The Burmese government seems to not quite know what to do with foreigners.  On the one hand it is economically beneficial to have a large amount of tourism.  On they other hand, they like to keep things under wraps.  Therefore, they seem to have looked for a middle ground.  They make the process of obtaining a visa difficult enough to cause several headaches, but not too difficult as to keep us out.  Once in the country, they allow us to visit certain places but not others.  At times, this distinction seems very arbitrary— we were walking in the center on Yangon and came across this sign:  

  The following day, we walked out to the river where several small boats were ferrying locals across the river.  Jed asked if we could go for a ride on the boat, only to be told “no foreigners allowed on the boat.”  They also seem to have decided not to be the least bit embarrassed about exploiting us for our money.  Most sites are free for Burmese citizens but foreigners are charged.  While we have found this to be the case at major attractions in other countries, here they advertise it loudly: 

  Interesting enough, many of the locals we encountered seemed very upset by this (as the money goes directly to the government) and on more than one occasion either helped us find an alternative entrance to a site (avoiding the fee) or recommended we skip a site where a fee was charged and instead visit a different one.

Transportation

Cars: 

Upon walking out of the airport, it might seem perfectly normal. When we got in the cab, it seemed the same since we’d just come from Thailand and Burma had been a British colony. That is, the cab was a right hand drive vehicle. This is often one of the first things we notice when we arrive in a country: which side of the road they drive on. Often we figure this out by necessity- as trying to get into the driver’s seat usually seems a little odd to the cab driver. It is also a matter particularly of personal safety since you need to know which way to look when crossing the street (though Meg did manage to make it safely through all of India looking the wrong way at every crosswalk).

 So when we got into the cab at the Yangon airport, Jed noted aloud that the steering wheel was on the righthand side of the cab. Meg replied that she thought that Myanmar was actually a left hand drive country. It turns out that we were both correct: many of the cars have the steering wheel on the right but  the rules of the road are lefthand drive (just like the US). Apparently, one of the members of the military Junta that rules the country (which is officially called the “  “) decided one day that the country should change to driving on the other side of the road.  While Burmese drivers seem to be doing fine (we haven’t witnessed any accidents on the road) it has led to a peculiar mix of vehicles. About half of the cars have the steering wheel on the right and the other half on the left. This makes matters confusing when, for example, trying to negotiate a fare with a prospective cab driver- you never know which side of the cab to walk to in  order to speak to the driver. Combine this confusion with a government that has limited trade relations and the country’s car fleet looks the result of a bizarre classified ad: “Vehicles wanted: any make, model, or type of car purchased without regard to condition or driving standard(?)”  

Roads:

Taking the bus from Mandalay to Inle Lake (which for reference is taking the bus from the 2nd biggest city in the country to probably the biggest single tourist attraction in the country) was quite an experience. Forget the usual bus breakdown stuff which often happens (and happened twice on this trip but they were only short breakdowns, so no big deal), the road was unique in the annals of terribleness. Essentially, it was a bumpy, one lane, dirt, logging road. Even if the road was vacant the maximum speed a bus could travel on it wasn’t more than 25 miles per hour without rattling to pieces (perhaps related to the bus breaking down twice?). But add in hundreds of buses and trucks, traveling in opposite directions, and the bus never got up to more than about 15 miles per hour before it had to pull over into the woods to let an oncoming vehicle pass.

We were trying to figure out why this road was so bad, given that it was clearly a major route and that some the other roads we had been on in Myanmar weren’t nearly as bad. The only good hypothesis we could come up with was that the government had created a school project. Perhaps the “design and build a road” classroom contest was meant to reach some sort of educational goal but perhaps there are better methods of road construction than “ok kids, you have 2 months and all the relevant heavy equipment, good luck with that highway”. And the fact that the contest was seemingly won by a 6th grade class might be an explanation for the very unfortunate experience that was our bus ride. In sum, it probably isn’t a surprise that this 200 mile journey took nearly 14 hours. 

Planes:

After our bus experience, we decided that it might be a good idea to a different tack on the next leg of our journey. So first, we decided to try flying as that would surely be speedy. After learning that there were daily flights from Inle Lake to Bagan, we thought that this would be a fairly simple trip to book for the coming Thursday. Unfortunately, as multiple travel agents told us (a travel agent, you say? Why yes, no online booking around here) while there is a flight scheduled for Thursday there isn’t actually any flight leaving on Thursday. Hmmmm…. Well on to plan B, how about if we rent some motorcycles to drive north to the next town instead of going to Bagan? This seemed like it would be fine since one tour operator was advertising motos for rent. So we asked him if we could rent the motos to drive to this town. Unfortunately, no, he said, we couldn’t take the motorcycle to that town it was too dangerous. “Too dangerous,” we asked “why?” “Well,” he replied “not too dangerous for you, too dangerous for me, the government does not permit tourists to ride motorcycles to the north of here and if they find out that I rented you bikes then big trouble for me”. Well, I guess we’ll just take the local pick up truck to the town instead, it is only 60 kilometers so that shouldn’t take long…. 

When we finally succeeded in getting on a domestic flight (that was both scheduled to leave and was actually leaving), we had to fly out of the way back to Mandalay first to get to Yangon (turns out that a 14 hour bus ride is a 45-minute flight, even on a Yangon Airways prop plane).  Aside from arriving in Yangon much later than we thought (we should have suspected that flight arrival times were fluid when everyone we asked hazarded a different guess as to what time the flight arrived in Yangon), the trip was smooth. Then we got off the plane and went to claim our baggage.  The first thing we noticed was the stark contrast between the international terminal (comparable to those of many capital cities we have been in) and the domestic terminal (a very run down small single room that served as the gate for all arrivals and departures, transportation, greetings, etc.)  We looked around for the baggage claim but soon realized that the process consisted of walking out onto the runway, retrieving your bag from the cart near the plane, and walking back (or you could, of course, pay one of the many willing young porters to do it for you.)  It was like no other baggage claim we have ever seen.

Thailand (February 28)

 Before leaving on our around-the-world trip, Thailand was one of the places that we were most excited about visiting. In fact, at our nation-themed wedding reception we put ourselves at the Thailand table. Admittedly, much of this excitement was due to Meg’s love of Thai food, but we were also looking forward to beautiful scenery, nice people and good weather in “the land of smiles”.

In regard to almost all of the above, Thailand did not disappoint. The weather was excellent, the people were very nice, the scenery was stunning and the food was great, especially for the price.

In the end, however, the it wasn’t the parts of Thailand that everyone raves about (the beautiful beaches) that we most liked, it was the cities and towns that are often nothing more than transportation hubs for the sun-worshipping Euros (along with Aussies, Europeans constituted most of the tourists we saw in Thailand) that we liked the most. Whether it was the border town of Hat Yai, Trang (which is the jumping off point for many of the islands far south), or Prachuap Khiri Khan (on the little visited central coast), or Nakhon Ratchasima (a northern transport hub), we liked the towns that are probably on few pre-arranged itineraries. For us, these little slices of life represented some of the real Thailand, where people just go about their life rather than being overrun by foreign tourists. A true pleasure of ordinary Thai life is an evening stroll past the temples, markets, and stores where Thais are going about nightly routine before heading off for a bargain feast at the local night market.


Now all of this isn’t to say that Thailand doesn’t have some truly stunning coastal scenery that is a justified attraction for mass tourism. The islands we visited in the south were probably some of the most naturally beautiful places we’ve ever visited. Soaring limestone islands with perfect blue water and soft sand beaches aren’t a bad place to pass a few days even if they are more crowded than you might wish. 

Overall, while we were astounded at the beauty of the southern islands, it was our rental car road trip to the northeast that really made Thailand one of the highlights of our entire trip (even factoring in getting stuck in the sand and a speeding ticket—fortunately even those are cheap in Thailand!)