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THAILAND

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Here are a few thoughts about my two weeks in Thailand.

Bangkok – back to Bangkok, a city I have now visited five times yet still barely know. This time was the same, with a brief visit to a temple being the only real sightseeing done on our one night here. We stayed at the superb Shanghai Mansions in Chinatown – highly recommended for a splurge.

Chiang Mai – loved it, a real Thai city that, despite the large numbers of tourists, hasn’t been spoilt and doesn’t feel manufactured. We stayed at Rachamankha Flora House which was lovely. The owner is a funny, interesting guy who it was great to get to know. We did a succession of day trips from CM, including Doi Suthep (pretty good), Doi Inthanon (beautiful views but a bit annoying to keep being shepherded on and off buses), Tiger Kingdom (hmm, this is a difficult one – I enjoyed it more than my girlfriend did. It’s clearly a bit of a tourist trap, yet stroking a tiger is pretty cool), and finally an elephant centre where we fed, rode and washed our elephants, which was a wonderful experience. Despite staying for five nights / four days, we could have easily spent longer in CM, particularly as we felt very busy doing day trips each day. Food was fairly good, the highlight being Dash! Teak House, where we had superb sea bass in lime sauce, amazing flat Chinese noodles and the best cheesecake ever, with mango sauce. We also tried local delicacy kao soi – noodles in a curry-tinted broth, which was great. Finally we did a cooking course with Asia Scenic. We only did a half-day (evening) course, but for us this was the perfect amount of time, and a fun activity that also taught us how easy it is to make certain Thai foods.

Koh Kradan – after Chiang Mai we took a flight to Hat Yai, then a bus to Trang, a minivan to the pier and a boat to Koh Kradan. Kradan is a small, fairly undeveloped island within sight of its larger cousin Koh Muk. The food and drink weren’t great, but the beach was superb and relatively uncrowded. We stayed at Wally’s Paradise Lost inland, but after one night with copious frogs and other creepy crawlies we moved to a beach hut for only slightly more money. We spent a relaxing four days here. Compared to Koh Kut from last year, I’d say the beach was better but we missed the option of zipping round the island to different beaches on a scooter, which was a fun part of last year’s trip. Also the food was way better on Koh Kut.

Koh Lipe – from solitude to comfort in many ways, as Lipe is the new Koh Tao – a diving mecca with plenty of cocktail bars, beachside restaurants and, well, people. Yet as a contrast to Kradan it worked well, and we enjoyed the creature comforts here along with some superb food – crab curry, big juicy prawns, grilled fish, and some superb caipirinhas, a great way to end our trip. The beaches aren’t bad either!

Summary – You know what you’re getting with Thailand. You’re not an intrepid adventurer exploring less-visited corners of the world, but a traveller enjoying some rest and comfort, with cheap prices, great food and accommodation, and beautiful beaches. The two weeks here acted as a stark counterpoint to the more hardened travel of my next two weeks. Which is better? Neither. How can you compare stroking a tiger, riding an elephant and relaxing on a tropical beach to seeing the sun rise over temples and enduring an eight hour bus journey where you are offered umpteen examples of the kindness of strangers? Both have a place and both are great experiences.

BURMA (MYANMAR)

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I found Burma to be a fascinating country with distinct cultural traditions and outfits that make people especially photogenic (the wearing of sarongs, known as longyi, the wearing of facial markings called malakha, and the presence of many Buddhist monks). In fact it yielded some of my most satisfying photos from any of my trips in Asia (photography post to come!).

The country offers stunning sights, friendly, welcoming people and a lack of tourists compared to the rest of South East Asia (ignore the naysayers, it is NOT too late to visit Burma, and although there are quite a few tourists in Bagan and Inle, the country has not been ‘overrun’). On the other hand, I did not find food to be a particularly strong point, and although you could argue such restaurants are developed with only tourists in mind, the restaurants of Cambodia from my trip there last year were a lot better than anything I had in Burma (with the exception, perhaps, of the Burmese breakfast street food mohinga, a fish soup with noodles). Also, accommodation is expensive – not quite as expensive as I had been warned about, but certainly not good value for money compared to the rest of South East Asia, considering what you get.

Budget and money

I was travelling solo. My budget of $800 for two weeks was more than enough, and I ended up taking $195 home. In general, given the warnings about the expense of travelling in Burma and the scarcity of available accommodation, I was pleasantly surprised on both counts. I took pristine US dollars and ended up changing virtually all of them into kyat.

Places

My general rule in South East Asia is visit the beaches and countryside, escape the cities. The cities are busy, noisy and dirty, and I generally don’t enjoy staying in them. Yangon fit this mould, but also has the nicest pagoda I have seen in Asia – Shwedagon Paya, without a doubt the highlight of the city, and an oasis of calm amid the smoke and madness. I spent one night in the capital, doing a walking tour and seeing this pagoda – that was enough for me. Mandalay, on the other hand, I did not like at all, though the attractions here really  lie outside of the city limits. I only had time to visit U Bein Bridge (Amapura), and it seems like Mingun and Sagaing are also worth visits. U Bein Bridge was very busy but also great at sunset. I also did the Lonely Planet’s cycling tour of west Mandalay, which was enjoyable and did help me escape the traffic of the rest of the city.

Bagan was fantastic, a place to cycle amid picturesque temples and countryside. I saw some amazing sunrises and sunsets during my time here. The temples themselves are probably less interesting than those of Angkor Wat (Cambodia), but the general atmosphere/ambiance is more relaxing and enjoyable in my opinion. Tip: hire an ebike for 5,000 kyat!

Kalaw – a small town with hillside trekking. I did a one day trek to two tribal villages to the north of town. A nice place to relax, and also the starting point for many people’s 2/3 day trek to Inle. I did my one day trek with Sam’s Tours and it cost 10,000 kyat as it was just me and my guide. To get here from Bagan I took a 4am rickety old bus for 8 hours (the usual 7am bus was full, so in high season I recommend booking it in advance). I then took a train to Nyaungshwe which was an enjoyable experience. I had planned to try to get across and back from the Gokteik Viaduct in one day in north-eastern Burma, but after this 3 hour train was delayed by 1 ½ hours I decided not to take this risk!

Nyaungshwe (Inle) – I liked my day on Inle Lake a lot, although plenty of people I met complained about being taken to numerous ‘workshops’/shops, where people were making silver jewellery, fans, clothes, cigars etc. Although this is undoubtedly true, I didn’t feel too much pressure to buy. Having said that, my favourite spots on the lake were elsewhere – the fantastic pagodas / atmosphere at Indein / In Thein, and the quiet solitude you get by journeying down to a quieter, poorer village such as Thaung Tho, in the southern area of the lake. The standard one-day boat price is 15,000 kyat, although to visit Inthein and Thaung Tho as well I paid 22,000, definitely worth it as these were the highlights for me. Boatshares are possible but I decided 22,000 kyat (around £15 UK money) was fine for a day with a boat to myself so I could decide exactly where I wanted to go and how long to spend at each place. My other day in town was spent cycling round the lake, which was very enjoyable.

Pyin Oo Lwin – one of my favourite places, this small town has some brilliant colonial buildings and the fantastic national gardens. Only 2 – 3 hours away from Mandalay, it’s a lot more relaxing. Note for Kalaw, Inle and Pyin Oo Lwin – it got pretty cold at night! I only brought one hooded top, which probably wasn’t enough. For dinner in POL visit the Club Terrace – a fantastic colonial building.

Accommodation

Agga Guest House, Yangon – functional, booked on Agoda before I left. Fine for one night.

Eden Motel, Bagan – slightly worse than I had expected given positive internet comments, got a twin room for $22. However an interesting place to stay and Nyaung U certainly seemed more ‘authentic’ a place than Old or New Bagan (although also a bit more smoky and noisy!).

Golden Kalaw Inn, Kalaw – cheap ($12) and cheerful, with a shared balcony but basic room. Hit and miss hot water, but good wifi. Good place to stay to save cash and recharge batteries.

Mingalar Inn, Nyaungshwe – best place I stayed during my trip, stayed in room B1, one of the bamboo rooms between the truly budget options and the brand new deluxe rooms. Booked on Agoda beforehand. Friendly, helpful staff, best breakfast too with banana pancake, toast, jam and butter and omelette/fried eggs. Poor coffee though, although the standard of coffee in most of Burma is low and of the packet / instant variety.

Rich Queen Guesthouse, Mandalay – nice rooms but poor wifi, poor hot water and slightly clueless staff! $20 for a single room. The slightly spaced-out young chap at the desk can rent bikes for you and help with transport.

Cherry Hotel, Pyin Oo Lwin – amusing owner who offered me free beer when I got back at 9.30 pm. Room was fine but nothing special, good wifi but again poor hot water. $20 (stayed one night), near the Clock Tower in central POL.

Food

Eat street food! A lot of the ‘good’ restaurants (the ones I picked off TripAdvisor) make bland, generic Thai/Chinese food, not really what you come to Burma for (this was especially true in Nyaungshwe). Having said that, some of the authentic Burmese food I had was equally uninspiring (particularly the oily curries with numerous spicy side dishes), and I think it’s fair to say that food wasn’t one of the highlights of my trip. Recommendations, however, include ‘A Little Bit of Bagan’ in, err, Bagan, trying mohinga (fish soup) and Shan noodles in cafes too. Sweetened milky coffee in a basic café is something I really like, and available for around 300 kyat.

Other tips

• Learn some basic phrases in Burmese! People really appreciate this.

• Wake up for at least one sunrise in Bagan – and choose a temple where you can see the hot air balloons floating over the fields (I’ll post my photos in a separate post in due course). If, like me, you aren’t an early riser, do your one sunrise on the day you arrive by overnight bus – the timing worked out perfectly for me, arriving at 5am, dropping bags at hotel, and then off to see sunrise before climbing back into bed and sleeping from 8am – lunchtime.

• Night buses are a great way to save money. While my overnight buses from Yangon to Bagan and Nyaungshwe to Mandalay were pretty dull, the eight hour journey I took from Bagan to Kalaw, leaving at 4am, was both horrifying and one of the most interesting experiences of my trip, wedged as I was in the front of a rickety old van, the only tourist surrounded by loads of friendly Burmese and a driver playing loud Burmese pop music.

• Budget time to relax (if you HAVE the time) – I was in Burma for two weeks and went home more tired than expected. To be honest I think this is part of travelling, but if I had an extra week I probably wouldn’t have visited anywhere extra, just allowed myself more time in each place. In an effort to ‘see’ everything you have planned, don’t forget to allow time to take things in. Some of my favourite moments of the trip were cycling amid the temples of Bagan in the late afternoon, having seen the main ones and without a particular destination in mind, strolling round the national gardens in Pyin Oo Lwin, and speeding across Inle Lake after a day of sightseeing, enjoying the view.

This is a pretty rambling report and I’m sure I’ve missed a lot out, so if you have any questions feel free to ask!

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Find out more – visit “Trips and Projects” and “Notes” on www.stevenjamesmartin.com!

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