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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Bangkok--->Koh Chang

Recollections of this morning...The V.I.P. bus (ooooooooh fancyyyy) took longer than expected, and was tardy from the very start. A motorbike had picked me up and dropped me off at the roundabout, where 10 or so other passengers were already impatiently waiting. Normally, it's a 6 hour journey from a Bangkok to Trat Province. Today was clearly my lucky day because the voyage ended up taking 8 hours. The female bus attendant apologized to me about good ol' Bangkok traffic. When we arrived at Centerpoint Ferry Pier, every single passenger ferociously hurled themselves off the bus, and shoved in front of everyone else to grab their luggage, and more shoving with a little added elbowing ensued, as we approached the ferry ticket counter. Were we not all boarding the same large ferry, headed for the same island? What is the difference in a matter of minutes? Sheesh! Somehow, common courtesy and manners were conveniently misplaced when the crowd had been festering on a coach for too long?! The shuttle from the coach to the pier was packed to the brim, with not even half a vacant seat. As such, I took made my own standing spot next to one of the rails, and dangled precariously, half inside, and half outside of the vehicle, with my arm wrapped tightly around the rail. A young boy, of about 9 or 10 years of age, with a shaggy, grown out rice bowl haircut, and large, black rimmed spectacles, stood up and gave me his seat. His mother beamed at my protests and chuckled with an ever-so-slight, charming French drawl to her English, "He's just trying to be a gentleman." I think she had a lot to do with that. Well done, mom. 

 In the interim, my backpack had mysteriously tumbled off the shuttle, unbeknownst to me. I exited the shuttle and stared at the empty cargo area of the shuttle with a look of puzzled bewilderment. The girl from the ticket counter was riding towards the pier on her motorbike, and from afar, I could see my white pack hanging from her left arm. My hero! Again!

Monday, July 1, 2013

Friday, June 28, 2013 Part 2 of The Myanmar Blue And White Local Bus Chronicles, Pathein via Ngwe Saung



Our guesthouse receptionist flagged down some motorbike taxis for us, one for me, and one for Chris. Zigzagging is an understatement for the amount of rapid movement necessary to maneuver through the town toward  Pathein bus station.  It had been raining on and off, and the streets were slick and slushy. Each time we splashed through muddy brown puddles, my feet and ankles were christened by a spray of watery muck. The bus station, just like every other bus station we'd been to in Myanmar, was an unmarked, large dirt field, lined on both sides by vendor shacks. The shacks always offer the exact same items; snacks that appear to be several months past their expiration date, fat, stumpy bananas, various soft drinks, bottled water, facial tissue, Myanmar smokes, and individually wrapped,  heavily scented wet wipes. Today the dirt field had been transformed into a viscous and uneven mire mound, by the ever present rain, and as we gingerly made our way across the mud field, over to the passenger waiting area, I almost lost a flip flop in the sludge. Another day, another blue and white bus. This voyage only took about 2 hours, along a narrow, one-laned,  snake-like road, up some hills, through the rainforest, and several rice paddies, all the while, Myanmar pop music blasts from a portable speaker in the front of the bus. The 20 something male passenger behind me coughs, and hawks loogies out of the window the entire way.  I knew I shouldn't have bothered to wash my hair. From a distance, the rice fields resembled vibrant green patchwork quilts, dotted with light brown embroidery. We finally caught a glimpse of the much anticipated coastline, blue-slate coloured water, against a candescent white sky. Knowing full well that it's monsoon season, we were, nevertheless, relentless in our pursuits to find a way to Ngwe Saung Beach, if only to experience a Myanmar beach. We had inquired about a bus from Yangon to the coastline, but were informed by several ticket agents that buses to the beach don't operate in the rainy season. It took us 3 towns, 3 buses,  3 moto-wagons, and 2 motorbikes, to get here. We hopped off the bus at an unmarked bus stop, and were taken to a resort by yet another set of motorbike taxis. The sun came out to taunt us for a bit, and drenched the crashing dark blue-gray waves with sparkling silver.  The long stretch of beach with powder-fine,  light caramel coloured sand, was nothing short of majestic, and virtually empty, save for a handful of local fisherman casting their nets, their wet clothes whipping around them in the gusty wind, water up to their knees. Mid afternoon, the white clouds took on a light gray lining, the gray eventually graduating to a deep, dark, charcoal, until the entire sky became the color of soot. And then there was rain. It's easy to appreciate the beach on a sunny day, but the ocean on a rainy day is just as beautiful, in it's own right. Writing on the deck of our beach bungalow, completely sprawled out on a large wooden chair, just a few hundred meters from the pounding, massive waves, to the soundtrack of the deep, throaty, roar of the wind...It doesn't get much better than this.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Bagan--->Pyay--->Patthein

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Our bus to Pyay arrived in the alloted time, 8 hours and some change. We were taken to Smile Hotel in a converted moto-wagon, but alas, there were no vacancies. We surveilled Myat Loging Guesthouse next (that's actually how it was spelled.) The owners got out of bed to show us a room, a severely outdated and moldy smelling room, that is.  The price was lowered as I was making my exit, and it was getting late, so we decided to suck it up and spend a night there, flaky, moldy wallpaper, astroturf carpet with burn marks, and all. It was reminiscent of someone's eccentric auntie's house circa 1970, with a relic of a television set to prove it. The power kept cutting in and out, and we found out later that the entire city of Pyay turns it's electricity off twice a day, and the more affluent businesses have generators as supplements. We had asked the guesthouse owner about bus tickets to Chaung Tha, and he sleepily and vaguely mentioned that the buses from Pyay to Chaung Tha depart several times daily, but when we went to inquire again during regular business hours, he told us 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. were the only time slots available. 6 p.m. was already sold out for that day, which meant spending another night in mildewy room 103. Thankfully the a/c was crisp and cool (when the power was on)...The shared bathroom at the end of the hall creeped me out a bit, especially since there was a hospital neighbouring the guesthouse. As I burrowed myself under the covers, I kept hearing intermittent knocking?! Needless to say, I didn't manage to sleep well, and our transfer service to Pyay bus terminal was scheduled for 5:30 a.m. It took us under 20 minutes to get there, in the makeshift moto-wagon that definitely had no shocks, and made my boobs hurt. We waited 40 minutes for no good reason, batting off flies, and locals who spat out squirts of red betel juice however they saw fit. When our bus finally pulled up, it was the run down, blue and white, non airconditioned bus we had jeered at earlier, the aisles lined with sacks, produce, and more than slightly scented with last week's produce. There were 2 rows of narrow seats, and we sat behind 2 young monks. The seat cushions were made of pvc, and I slid around in every direction, trying to get comfortable, but to no avail. There were no floorboards, so my left leg swang, while my right leg was either hunched up, or laid out, depending on whether there was someone sitting in the aisle to my right or not, and there was a very real tetanus threat from all the rusty, protruding metal. We had been promised a/c, and 6 hours of travel time; our journey ended up being a little under 13 hours, in a bus that was basically old sheet metal glued together, which just happened to have an engine, that stopped every 5-15 minutes, to pick up locals, drop off locals, pick up packages, drop off motorbikes (oh yes, there were 2 motorbikes in the cargo space), and/or stop in the middle of the road to chat up their colleagues. Not to mention, the driver of the bus would pay attention to everything but the road, with one hand on the massive steering wheel, and the other dangling a cigarette out the window. We only hydroplaned once, so I guess all's well that ends well? P.S. We're not very happy with the owner of Myat Guesthouse. 

We made it to Patthein.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Yangon--->Innlay

Yangon, Day 2
We actually made it to breakfast this morn, which was included with our room rate. It was very pleasant, stir fried thin rice noodles with veggies and garlic, a flat banana fritter, and a side of passion fruit, along with "birthday" instant coffee, and tea. With breakfast in our bellies, we set off on an expedition: Kan Daw Gyi Lake, then, Shwe Dagon Pagoda. The morning started out cloudy and overcast, but the sun soon poked it's head. Lake entry fee for foreigners: $2 We had already made it about halfway across the wooden bridge over Kan Daw Gyi Lake before the sun's rays started pounding down on us, and had to stop and buy water from the only vendor we saw. Small bottle of water, 600 kyat. I guzzled mine and disposed of the empty plastic bottle in one of the small black trash bins that were located all along the wooden bridge. Across the lake was a large, immensely ostentatious palace, that was in the shape of a boat. The lake and surrounding areas were very peaceful, and even though the body of water looked small on out map, it turned out to be a nice long, leisurely walk, with some shade offered from nearby trees. From Kan Daw Gyi Lake, it didn't take us very long to walk to Shwe Dagon Pagoda, across the road, up the slope, up up up the steps, a donation to the shoe check girl, a 5100 kyat pagoda entry fee, a 10,000 kyat deposit to borrow a top that covered my shoulders & a long skirt to cover my legs, and finally, we entered the pagoda. All I've got to say is WOW. I've been to countless places of religious worship in my travels, and my lifetime, but Shwe Dagon Pagoda took my breath away. The gold gilded stupa, visible from miles away, was massive, surrounded by a veritable "village" of smaller shrines. The sky was relatively clear and made for a beautiful blue backdrop against the ornate roof tops. 
We hailed a cab in front of the Pagoda back to 32nd Street (2,000 kyat), and walked around for a long while, in search of a decent looking place to have lunch. I saw a red awning from a distance, and it turned out to be a Cafe offering a nice mix of western and asian dishes, as well as a coffee menu, but no wifi. After lunch we asked our server about a bus to Ngapali on the western coast of Myanmar, and she thought we were inquiring where the local bus stop was. After clarifying, she physically walked us a few doors over to a bus ticket kiosk, but the next ride to Ngapali was Friday, 6 days from now. Hmm. We wandered into an actual travel agency, just as they were closing up, and the man who was walking out of there told us that during rainy season, there isn't much transportstion to the coast, and shook his head at me as i entertained the idea of renting a car. After much aimless wandering, we found a lady at the top 32nd Street who sold bus tickets. She too, told us that no buses run to the coast in the wet season, and helped us in selecting a destination. Tomorrow afternoon, we will be on an overnight bus to Innlay, bus fare: 15,000 kyat (about $15) Alleged travel time: 12 hours
Being that neither one of us has ever heard of Innlay before, we thought it'd be an interesting stop. 

First night in Yangon

The shower in our $30 per night guesthouse, dispenses room temperature water, which shocked me even though I was forewarned. It took a nice long shower for me to feel even remotely clean...Yangon is not the tidiest of cities, and that's being pretty generous. I don't know if it's a cultural thing, but so far we've been here for all of 6 hours, and all I've seen is rubbish piled on top of rubbish, and after the rain, especially, it's not such a pretty sight. The pavements are all uneven, with potholes, and could be disastrous if one weren't paying attention. The backs of our legs were splotched with black marks from walking through puddles. The cars and buses drive frantically, and come out of nowhere. Pedestrians definitely don't have the right of way. There are all sorts of street vendors: food, produce, dried goods, clothing, etc. On every street corner, there was a stand with green, heart shaped leaves, a white powdery paste, and various herbs in the middle. I do believe they chew the leaves. There was also a fried chicken stand, with various cuts of the bird, and the outsides were cooked, but the middle parts were raw. Men and women alike wear a sarong like bottom, which is the traditional garb, but a lot of people also wear modern clothes. The people dress kind of like their city looks: traditional with bits of modern day influences scattered about.  Surrounding our guesthouse are a golden pagoda, a catholic cathedral, and a mosque. The majority of older buildings have floor to ceiling wooden paneled doors, which remind me of the older buildings in Luang Prabang. Most of the buildings in Yangon are brightly painted every color of the rainbow. I was told by another traveler, a boisterous Puerto Rican, to walk up to the 19th Street and check out the cafes there, so we had dinner at Kôsan Cafe on 19th Street, in Chinatown, and it wasn't bad, contrary to my prior experiences with Burmese cuisine. And I enjoyed Myanmar lager more than any other beer i've tried in southeast asia. Mixed nuts, cauliflower salad, ramen (of the instant variety) noodles with chicken, corn, and egg, sauteed pork, steamed rice, honey toast with sauteed bananas, and icecream, a mojito, and 2 large beers cost 13100 kyat (about $14). I found it odd how strangely the icecream was scooped...After dinner, we tried to find a cool bar to have another drink, but there didn't seem to be much nightlife, so we ended up at Singapore Food Junction, which looked to be a collection of cafes, and where I ended up having to use the restroom. The restrooms in Yangon, starting at the airport, have all been squatters. The only western style toilet i've seen is the one at our guesthouse! Wifi seems to be few and far between, and even our guesthouse doesn't offer it. I'm thinking this could be good for me; to just disconnect from the world for the duration of this trip. I regret not having brought a book to read, but i guess this'll be a good time to write. I had a lot of fun reverting back to childhood at Alibaba Arcade in the Singapore Food Junction. I didn't know it walking in, but the Arcade is also a poor man's casino, and we played a bit of Roulette, after a super fun motorbike race!! Wowo. Burmese people seem to be very friendly and helpful thus far, and extremely happy to see tourists in their country. Our cab driver from the airport spoke excellent English, and pointed out all the sights we should see along the way, along with giving us pointers on how to efficiently budget our money. Cab ride from Yangon Airport to Downtown Yangon was roughly 20 km, and cost $10. So far, so good.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Thursday, June 6, 2013, the journey from Koh Phangan to Koh Tao, Thailand

Transfer service to Thongsala ferry port in Ban Tai, in the southern portion of Koh Phangan arrived promptly at 9:50 a.m. and turned out to be the resort owner's pops. Transportation was a silver pickup truck converted into a สองแถว, or song taew, literally translated to "2 rows". The 2 foreigners were put in the back of the pickup truck along the 2 rows, with only a roof to guard them from the elements, while I had the fortune of sitting next to pops, up front, with crisp & cool a/c, and had the great pleasure of chatting him up on the lumpy bumpy ride to the pier. The voyage in a covered vehicle was no less rugged than the motorbike ride in the opposite direction; it was akin to riding a small, three legged pony most of the way, albeit there was now sheet metal surrounding me, and airbags. Pops told me there had been one too many fatal accidents involving foreigners on motorbikes, and pointed out the altars and flowers on the side of the road where the corpses had been found, as evidence. He told me that almost every day, there was a fallen foreigner and motorbike in the gravel, and that the island should open a first aid stand on the treacherous and ever winding mountain pass. Pops and his family have been running their resort in the northeastern part of the island for many generations, and he's clearly seen, first hand, all of the Koh Phangan shenanigans. He mentioned how the local police officers go undercover and lure in unknowing foreigners and sell them drugs, then promptly arrest them. Oh silly tourists, don't you know, psychedelics ++ can be found at any bar on Had Rin. I think if you're foolish enough to be duped by a Thai police officer, you actually should spent the night in lala land. I think it's already pretty well known how corrupt the justice system on Koh Phangan is anyhow, so it came as no surprise to me to hear confirmation from a local elder. He also went on to warn me of motorbike rental shops and how they scam customers into thinking damage was done to their rented bikes, and then demanding payment for alleged repairs. Or even worse, parked rented bikes are stolen BY the rental places, and then reported missing, so that the renter has no choice but to pay for the stolen bike! Pops warned me not to get on a motorbike to my hotel on Koh Tao (my next destination) because the roads on that island are even worse than on Koh Phangan, and he couldn't believe I made it on one to his resort in the first place. Duly noted. Thanks pops!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Random rants whilst island hopping...

  I had intended to wake up at 5 a.m. and catch the sunrise, but failed miserably! Thongtapan Resort has the most comfy bed I've ever had the pleasure of sleeping in, in Asia. It's almost as comfy as the bed I gave away when I decided to become a nomad last July. Yawn...another leisurely awakening...my cottage is several hundred meters up the mountain, which makes hurrying virtually impossible, for fear of plummeting to my death. Granite does not make for a soft landing, by any standards. And quite frankly, I'm done hurrying, period. I went in search of The Yoga Studio, which is located near the neighbouring beach, Had Thong Nai Pan Yai. Didn't make it very far, as my stomach was yelling angrily at me. It was clearly time for a much awaited lunch. The Star Hut provided stellar service, a delicious meal of flash fried garlic pepper soft shell crab, and stir fried morning glory with tons of fresh garlic, fish sauce, and a healthy dose of red and green chilies. Yum! Revived, I set back on my yoga studio quest. Sigh, didn't make it very far as I spotted a place called "Better Than Sex". I'm not gunnna lie, the name did catch my attention, but it was the coffee drinks that drew me in. It's kind of a mission to find an espresso machine anywhere here. Like a few of the buildings on Koh Phangan, Better Than Sex (which is a pizza joint) is built right into the large granite boulders that surround the island. It's really a majestic sight for sore eyes! After my cappucino break, I set out once more, to find the yoga studio, and lo and behold, a fresh fruit shake stand! Call me perpetually distracted...A mango and pineapple shake please! I watched as the fruit was freshly sliced into the blender, along with some ice, hold the simple syrup! As I sipped on my fruit shake, the girl behind the stand and I chatted. As well as her fruit shake empire, she also holds cooking classes, and asked if i could translate some words from Thai to English for her. Some thai vegetables really don't have an English translation, as far as I know, especially the herbs. And the English call cilantro, coriander, which are 2 different things in America! Basil and Holy Basil? Um...Confusing, much? By the by, I never made it to the yoga place, which was another 30 minutes walking, past the fork, up the hill, through the forest. Next time!  :) For the rest of the afternoon I frolicked up and down the beach, and kept my peanut M&M's away from one of the resort pups. Dogs aren't allowed to have chocolate, silly!

  My only standing chore is doing my laundry. Those of you that have been on the road with me have seen me and chuckled: I take a plastic bag, that hopefully doesn't have any holes in it, throw the dirty laundry in, along with some water, and biodegradable surfactant. I prefer the brand "Essence", which leaves my clothes smelling amazing. The laundry gets to soak for at least 10 minutes and then I rub the clothes together as best as I can, wring 'em out, and then it's time for a rinse. Then another wring. With any luck, whichever guesthouse I'm staying at, has provided a clothes line and pins, or a rack of some sort, and the clothes get to hang there until dry. If you're wondering why I don't just send my clothes out to be laundered, sometimes there simply isn't laundry service in the sticks, and the few times I have sent my clothes out to be washed, they came back smelling moldy, and/or with detergent stains, or some articles of clothing were missing OR I had gained a few pieces of someone else's laundry! Yikes! Travel tip: The water that comes out of taps on most Southeast Asian islands is reconstituted, and looks like clear water that has had a splash of tea mixed in, in case you were wondering. 

  Sometimes I miss having a washer and dryer, a car, and other things that facilitate every day living. But if you asked me to choose between having those luxuries, and parting with the life rejuvenating experiences I've had on my journey thus far, well, I think we all know the answer to that one. Live in love. There is no other way.