My flight home was 20 hours total, including a two hour layover in Tokyo. I don’t sleep well on planes so it was a very long day, but then I finally arrived home in the USA. I was actually a little bit shocked. Everything is so clean, the roads are so wide and smooth, houses are so big and clean with their manicured lawns, and the cars are so new and shiny. Really we are so blessed to live in the United States where our standard of living is so high and we have so much freedom and an abundance of opportunities. It’s because of standards here that I’m even able to travel abroad for so long. It’s great to be back. I was also struck by how quiet it is. There are so few people out on the streets and the noise level is so low. I’ve had so many adventures, met a lot of great people, learned so much about new cultures, saw the effects of governments on their societies, and greatly expanded my perspective on the world. Next I’m off to Florida with my former college roommate to witness epic levels of nerdery at a Harry Potter convention. Should be an interesting time. After that I’m not sure what I’m going to be doing or where I’ll go. Time will tell.
We We took a 9 hour overnight bus from Yangon to Mandalay, Myanmar. Though it was hot and humid outside they cranked the air conditioning to a frigid meat locker temperature, making Marco extremely sick and the rest of us shivering. They also played an extremely loud Myanmar soap opera with horrible actors until midnight, then started really loud Myanmar pop music at 4am! Mandalay is a much more laid back city than Yangon, though it has a lot of scooter and bicycle traffic. The focus of the city is an enormous square area of land surrounded by a wall and a moat. Inside is the royal palace which has many pagodas and unique architecture, though it was built using forced labor so it’s a source of contention in the country. Surrounding the entrances are big red propaganda signs saying things like “we’ll crush any enemies that attempt to divide us.” Mandalay Hill is near the royal palace area and is the only hill in the pancake flat city. On it are Buddhist temples with magnificent views of the city. We rented bikes touring all the sites one day, then rented a “taxi” the next day which was a 1966 blue Mazda truck. Most vehicles are old here and emit plumes of exhaust, both because the government puts a huge tax on imported cars and also because of international sanctions on the country. The city streets are filled with monks in red robes, men walking in their longyis, women carrying trays and baskets on their heads, people pedaling bicycles and riding scooters, and buses overcrowded with people including many sitting on the roof. A couple other sites we visited: U Bein’s Bridge, which is a 1.2 kilometer wooden bridge that is filled with local foot traffic; Inwa, which is an island with several thatch hut villages and horse carts going down the dirt streets.
Next, the food: The food in Myanmar is very unique. Oftentimes the dishes are actually quite bland compared to Thailand and Cambodia. Their main specialty, however, is several different small dishes of spiced up beans, vegetables, and meats, all put in the center of the table and each person adding these to his own plate of white rice. These dishes are usually too odd for me, with many spicy or bitter spices. The prize for Myanmar food, however, goes to a Mandalay restaurant filled with locals right on the street. We sat down for dinner there and Arjan ordered Fried Vegetables. The dish came, he started eating, then his face looked disgusted: There was a huge cockroach in his food! Apparently it jumped in while they were cooking and fried itself in with his food. Yep, standards for cleanliness here are the lowest I’ve seen. Marco, who has been to India, says if you can handle Myanmar you can handle India for sure. What a place.
No pictures with this post again, since the internet in Myanmar has been extremely slow. This is also the only country I’ve been to where there is almost no wifi whatsoever. When I do use internet, I need a place with a proxy server to bypass the numerous websites blocked by the government.
I’m now in Yangon, Myanmar, once known as Rangoon, Burma, and it’s a completely different country from Thailand or Cambodia. As soon as we left the airport we were greeted by the cloudy and oppressively humid weather. As we took our taxi to the city center we realized how isolated this country is. The streets are filled with old jalopy cars that choke the air with black exhaust, since economic sanctions limit trade with other countries. Lots of people walk the streets, the men mostly wearing longyis which look like a sheet wrapped around the waste, and women wearing something similar. No one has a poncho here but everyone carries around an umbrella both for the sun and for the monsoon rains. The streets are lined with old British colonial buildings that are now crumbling and covered with a black layer of grime. The streets and sidewalks are wide but broken and filled with potholes. The downtown streets are crammed with people walking, women selling things from trays balanced on their heads, vendors sitting along the sidewalks, and old fashioned buses stuffing people in like sardines. At night there are almost no street lights so it’s very dark, even though there are a lot of people still out and about and it’s a big city, the largest in Myanmar. Yesterday we visited Yangon’s biggest attraction, the Shwedegon Paya. It’s a massive golden Buddhist shrine which is bell shaped at the bottom and narrowing into the spire at the top. A monk in an orange robe approached me and asked me several questions, then led me around showing me various rituals they perform here. I figured since he was a monk he wouldn’t try to solicit money from me, but after showing me around he followed me begging for money and not just a little bit. He wanted $30! We were also hassled for “donations” several other times throughout the day and if you don’t give they turn on you.
Now for the interesting part: I’m writing this from a high-end internet cafe that uses proxy servers to bypass government internet censorship. Gmail, hotmail, CNN, BBC, and many other sites are all blocked. The government here is a dictatorship with total control over the people, and they are very unpopular. Forced labor, political repression and imprisonment of oppisition, and corruption are all present. Over twenty years ago elections were held but power was not handed over the rightfully elected leadership, instead the rightfully elected democracy champions were imprisoned. The most famous of these is Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the democracy party (NLD) who spent some 20 years under house arrest. Yesterday we walked the streets to her house which was adorned with banners for her NLD party.
Another thing about this country is the currency. They use both US dollars and their local currency, the kyat. There are no ATMs anywhere in the country and almost no one accepts credit cards so we’re carrying all of our cash for the entire stay. We heard reports that all US dollars had to be crisp like new, so we spent a long time trying to get crisp new US dollars before coming here. When we got here we were blown away. They don’t accept any US dollars with the slightest tear, mark, stamp, or even a fold. It has to be prestine. Also, the official government exhange rate is about 6.5 kyat per dollar, but this is FAR below market value so we had to exchange our money on the “black market” (meaning on the street) where they give you about 750-800 kyat per dollar. Unfortunately Marco exchange $100 for kyat on the street yesterday and they performed some sort of sleight of hand that none of us saw and he ended up getting only 48,000 kyat for $100 instead of the 80,000 he was suppose to get. He got ripped off. We went back looking for the guys but they were long gone. Fortunately we did exchange most of our money with better honest money changers, you just have to be careful.
After a great time in Cambodia, Marco, Arjan, and I took the bus from Siem Reap back to Bangkok, Thailand. We spent four full days in the city getting some things planned out and seeing some of the city that we didn’t see last time. We went to the Siam Square area twice which is the commercial center of Bangkok filled with modern western style shopping malls. We also went to the cinema which is quite an experience in Bangkok. The cinema was luxury with couches, dim lighting, suited employees. Before the movie started everyone in the theater had to stand as images of the king played to music. They love their king, or propaganda, or both. We saw Pirates of the Caribbean 4 on a huge IMAX screen in 3D. The sound was really loud but it was great. They also like their air conditioning set to frigid in Southeast Asia, especially in malls and theaters.The main reason we’re in Bangkok for so long is to get a travel visa to Burma (Myanmar). We went to the embassy and filled out an application. We attached our visa photos which had an almost white background, but the extremely rude and short tempered official wouldn’t accept them. He threw our applications back at us shouting, “White background! Photo white background!” So we had to go get new photos with a more white background before they’d accept our applications. Just because you’re part of one of the most repressive military regimes on earth doesn’t mean you have to be rude! Fortunately two days later we were approved for visas, so we’re off to Burma!
After the boat ride along the river we arrived at Siem Reap, the most wealthy looking city in Cambodia we’ve seen. It’s still not wealthy, but the influx of tourists to see nearby Angkor Wat has transformed the city into a modern destination with French architecture and a lively street atmosphere. We looked for a while for a triple room and finally found one, though it stank like gasoline. We took it anyways since the manager said the smell would air out in an hour since they just cleaned the floors with gasoline, but several hours later when we came back to the room the stench was unbearable so we just left and got a different room. Arjan got a haircut in town which the hair cutters seemed to be amused by since they laughed a lot and a local even passed by and took a picture. In town we had to try another Cambodian food, frog. It was surprisingly good, tasting a lot like chicken, though the thought of having a frog in your mouth is not very appetizing. We then spent three full days exploring the ruins at Angkor. The ruins are almost a thousand years old and are still incredibly impressive with their stone pinnacles, carvings, and massive scale. The most impressive of them all is Angkor Wat, a huge temple surrounded by an enormous moat. As you walk through the first stone entrance you’re hit with the beauty and grandeur of this amazing temple complex. There are also several other temples that are amazing in scale and design. Two of the days we rented local bicycles to get around to the different ruins. During that time we got rained on a couple times, got chased by a dog through a rice field, and met an old local couple who have never left Cambodia in their entire lives but say their daughter lives in the US and is married to a close relative of the Clintons. They were very hospitable also, giving us a free coconut and letting us shelter in their house from the rain.
Arjan, Marco, and I took the six hour bus ride from Phnom Penh to Battambang through the flat impoverished countryside. The whole country between any cities seems to be filled with huge open rice fields with white cows grazing and shacks here and there. The bus stopped for a pit stop as usual where food sellers come to make money. This time they were selling delicious cricket type insects, dried fish, and other mystery meats covered in flies. Part way through our journey the bus broke down and everyone got out to squat next to the road waiting for it to be fixed. We were surprised, it seems like this must be somewhat common and they had it fixed within 15 minutes. We then got to Battambang which is Cambodia’s second largest city, but really it’s must less hectic than Phnom Penh. It’s filled with French influenced architecture and as with other cities in Cambodia it’s roads are filled with potholes. We rented motorbikes for the day here which was a little on the crazy side. For one, no one has insurance here for motorbikes so we were taking a risk. Second, there seem to be almost no traffic rules. People generally drive on the right side of the road but only generally. People really drive on either side and just go where ever they want. The only rule seems to be to try not to hit anyone. We went into the countryside which was beautiful with lime green rice fields. The roads were a bit of a pain sometimes with the potholes, but some were paved and very nice. We went to a couple temples up on mountain tops, and also to the killing cave – where the Khmer Rouge killed several thousand people and the skulls still sit as a testament to the horrors. The drive overall was a great way to see this unique character filled country.
To get to Siem Reap we took a 7 hour boat ride through a small brown muddy river. This boat ride is hailed as the best in the country and it lived up to it’s reputation. The landscape was beautiful, passing lush green agriculture land, shacks on the river banks with locals washing clothes in the river, swinging in hammocks, and kids running up to the banks waving and yelling hello. Our boat almost got stuck in a sea of green leafed plants as we got to shallow parts of the river, but the locals expect this and were there to help push us along. We then got to Siem Reap Province, a true land of contrasts. Siem Reap is the number one tourist destination in the country since it’s the starting point for Angkor Wat. As a result the city is one of the more wealthy and modern in Cambodia with loads of tourists, but surrounding the city and in the countryside are some of the poorest areas in the entire country. More to come on the impressive ruins at Angkor Wat.