The first time we travel it is exhilirating. The second, exciting. The third, less exciting. And so it goes. I don’t know how it works for everyone else, but for me, the thrill of travel has been extinguished. I no longer find it exciting and no longer bother to plan for it. I do, however, still find it “interesting”. What I mean by this is that there now must be another purpose aside from just flitting around and seeing a bunch of stuff. There now has to be a purpose which must be linked to my interests or sense of curiosity. My recent trip to Myanmar (Burma) is a case in point. I wanted to go there to get the inside scoop on the polictical situation and how the people were living under these circumstances. A totally worthwhile excursion.
So many people have asked me if I “loved” Burma or if I had a great time. So when I answer “no”, people are shocked. Just because it wasn’t fun fun fun all the time, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t worthwhile. I’m just not going to get all giddy like a schoolgirl over travel any more.
In some ways, this is a little sad. I wish I still got excited by travel. Now, travel simply serves a purpose and I’m OK with that. What about you? Have you become a little numb to travel excitement?
As a bit of a Bali tragic, I do my best to tell anyone and everyone about this fantastic island set amongst 17,000 others in the Indonesian Archipelago. The main reason being that here in Australia, Bali has a very poor image – one of boozy tourists with no shirts on, making fools of themselves whilst destroying the local culture. There is no denying that this is the case in very small parts of Bali. And for those that enjoy this sort of relaxation, good for them. For most others, it’s unappealing and also very avoidable on a trip to Bali. There is so much to say about Bali that I’ve never attempted a blog post before – it’s too big. This time, I think I’ve got the perserverence to make it happen. So over the coming weeks, I’ll write a number of posts about the different areas of Bali, the food, the accommodation, the things to do. This should be fun.
Kuta, Legian & Seminyak
The main boozy shenanigans happens in Kuta and Legian. Move further up the beach to Seminyak and the booziness turns more expensive, hedonistic and snobby. If you’re into boozy nights, these are the places to head and there is fun to be had! But for me, it’s in small doses only.
When people from around the world (aside from Australia) think of Bali, they think of an exotic island with phenomenal people, volcanoes, verdant rice fields and a unique and mysterious culture. Ubud is the place that has all of these elements come together in a tourist-friendly environment. Yes, Ubud is tourist-central, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It does the tourist “thing” so well that whilst you get all the tourist creature comforts like hot water, western toilets, clean rooms and unbelievable food, you get a sense that behind the tourist veneer there is a fully functioning Balinese village(s) in operation. And this is true. You will often see ceremonies in full swing with processions, dancing and an assortment of cultural things going on at all times of the year.
A short walk in any direction from the centre of Ubud lands you in the middle of seemingly endless ricefields. Sometimes green, sometimes flooded, sometimes mid-harvest.
The East of Bali is visited predominantly by Europeans and hence is very seasonal in terms of visitor numbers. That is, outside of the European Summer, East Bali can seem dead. The main towns are Candi Dasa and Padang Bai although you could probably class Sidemen as part of this as well. Most people visit East Bali to be near the ocean and for a more authentic Balinese experience. The culture here is said to be more traditional than in other parts of the island, but that said, I only notice more poverty and perhaps this is what forces people to rely more heavily on their religion. Needless to say, the entire Eastern landscape is dominated by the 3000m+ (10,000ft) Gunung Agung. It is truly an awe inspiring site.
The North generally stretches from Amed to Lovina (and further West for some) and is a much drier part of the island than the South. Rice is much harder to grow here and you’ll therefore see other crops on the landscape such as corn (jagung) making for a totally different feel to the rest of the island. It can also be brutally hot in these parts adding to the more barren feel of the landscape.
The rest of the island, and I’m talking about a vast area, is relatively untouristed (Sanur excluded). It’s great to cruise around the empty roads on a motorbike (US$4/day) or car (US$10/day) and just explore. There are accommodation options in some of these areas catering to tourists and they generally offer a more relaxed and “authentic” experience, but this may be too much for a first time visitor that hasn’t seen the activity-dense hotspots of Kuta, Legian, Seminyak and Ubud.
So that’s a little taster of Bali for now. I cannot emphasise the extent to which most people are captured by this place. Words such as “magic”, “heaven” and “paradise” are thrown about with such regularity that we must ignore them – nothing could be this good. But it is. The way I like to describe Bali is that I have a small pain in my stomach when I think back on all the fantastic experiences I have had there. A yearning to return again and again.
Naypyidaw. This is the capital city of Myanmar. A city that hardly anybody would be able to rattle off in a game of trivial pursuit. The reason being is that it’s a relatively new capital, the name is hard to spell (many variations) and pronounce and also the fact that there is nothing there except for the military junta’s bureaucracy. Most Embassies and High Commissions don’t even recognise it and have therefore kept their presence in the more suitable city of Yangon.
As I’ve stated more times that I care to remember, Myanmar’s roads are in the main terrible. Goat tracks. But there is one stunning exception to this. The Government has built a road from Yangon to Naypyidaw strectching over 300km – and it’s almost dead straight. They just simply ploughed this road straight North to the captial and spared no expense. It’s massive. It actually makes this part of any bus journey relatively easy. But when you see some of the poverty in the country, the extravagance of this road is bewildering.
If the road is bewildering, the actual capital blows the mind. It is spread over many kilometres, complete with its own Shwedagon Paya replica. Sprawling boulevards capable of handling Los Angeles style traffic volumes, luxurious manicured garden roundabouts protected by armed military personnel, enormous shopping complexes. It is just staggering to see. Especially when it is populated by a reported 20,000 people. The apparent cost of construction of the capital is US$500m. And every citizen that travels from Yangon to Mandalay has to witness this act of sheer lunacy. Everyone cranes their necks to get a better look at the extravagance and mouths hang open.
How can a Government afford such oppulence when the people are so poor? The people aren’t stupid and I think it just heightens their discontent with the current political situation.
Why the Relocation?
No one really knows why the Government moved to Naypyidaw. Rumours abound of the junta’s fear of a sea-bourne invasion of Yangon. I wouldn’t be surprised if this were true. But there could be countless reasons for the them to make the move and at the end of the day, no answer will seem rational. One thing we can be sure of is that a large amount of self-interest will be at the heart of the decision as is seemingly always the case with these sorts of things.
Naypyidaw is not a tourist destination. It is a source of deep resentment for the locals, however, and you can expect plenty of discussion around it.
(just quietly, every time I think of Naypyidaw, I can’t help but thinking of Canberra, Washington DC and Ottawa!)
There were plenty of military types with weapons in Naypyidaw and consequently I opted not to take photos. What a wimp! If you’ve been there, let me know what you think!
When travelling through South East Asia and probably other parts of the world, you meet all sorts of different travellers. You meet the package tourist, the flashpacker, the stinky backpacker, the know-it-all backpacker and also a bunch of “normal” backpackers. But there is a subset of these people that I am really interested in. It’s the stingy traveller. The type that will do anything to save a dollar. At times, I’m this person and it annoys me no end because in most cases it’s nonsensical.
I’m particularly frail when it comes to transport – taxis, tuk tuks, becaks, etc. I will tend to argue for extended periods of time, refuse countless offers of transport and even walk miles just to prove the point that I won’t be ripped off by a taxi driver. Ripped off, as in, not paying an extra 50 cents or a dollar over what I believe a reasonable price to be. And I base my pricing on the wages which I know the local populace are getting. Now, in the heat of battle, it all seems fair – why should a local person get an extra dollar for a short ride when the daily wage is $3? And from an economic perspective, it does make sense. There are farmers slogging their guts out in the ricefield for $3 in the beating sun, yet a taxi driver lounging under a tree all day waiting for a tourist to sting can make double that for a short ride. From a moral perspective, however, it’s probably not right to quibble over a dollar and from a convenience perspective, I’m certainly doing myself a disservice!
As far as saving a dollar goes, the same issues apply to accommodation. Sure, you can screw down prices to almost nothing, but if you spend an extra couple of dollars when travelling in SE Asia, you can really boost the quality of your digs. Moving from $4 to $6 can mean attached bathroom, better outlook, less noise and a generally more pleasant stay.
What about food? Many places in Asia are dirt cheap. $1 for a substantial meal. But occasionally, it’s nice to have an even nicer meal that might cost double. Yes, $2! I’ve met lots of people that will refuse to pay the extra dollar because it’s essentially a doubling of the expenses for the night. But come on… it’s an extra dollar. And for an extra dollar, it might mean an even more awesome meal than the dollar meal. More food, better produce and perhaps some meat that might otherwise be missing.
Some will argue on the flipside that the cheaper you travel, the longer you can travel. Spending $20 vs $22 per day means you get to travel for 10% longer. For some, this might be wise, but for me… I’m usually getting travel weary in the last 10% of my journey anyway and getting home a little earlier is no big deal – and I get a more pleasant experience while I’m at it. What’s your view on saving a dollar?
What an incredible place. Myanmar is right at the junction of Bangladesh, India and South East Asia and it shows this geographical uniqueness in its food, culture and people. I visited there in mid-March for three and a half weeks despite some people deeming travel to this country counter-productive and asserting that it was tantamount to handing foreign money directly to the military junta. Perhaps so. But also perhaps not.
The Military Government in Burma control the state in a much more subtle way than I was expecting before arriving in the country. There are few uniformed military personnel patrolling the streets, few uniformed police, very little visible Government presence at all. In fact, if you visited the country without a suspicious eye, you could be fooled into thinking that everything is just fine. And for the most part, it is. People have jobs, they work their farms, the markets operate well, most people are well-fed. But dig beneath the surface and an amazing level of subtle control exists. Informants and spies are apparently everywhere – but you wouldn’t know for sure forcing the populace to be on edge and paranoid. Everyone fears that everyone else is an informant, so no one is game to organise opposition, agitate or even just chat about events.
There are checkpoints throughout the country where the military check citizens’ ID cards. They don’t record anything – they just check. Seemingly there is no other reason than to let the populace know that they are not free to go about their business without big brother watching.
There are sometimes random searches of buses – plain-clothed men rifling through passengers’ luggage whilst timid citizens search for their ID cards hoping they won’t be spoken to. On a bus I caught, they simply rooted around in a few bits of luggage for 5 minutes in the middle of the night and then left the bus. Everyone on the bus sat to attention and were visibly uneasy.
The Revolting Burmese
Despite the paranoia of the populace, I felt they were desperate to share their stories with foreigners – this is in stark contrast to what the Lonely Planet guidebook had advised to be the case. I had gone to the country prepared for no discussion about the Government, but arrived shocked that so many people expressed their absolute discontent with the authorities. I sincerely felt that below the surface of a happy people there lurked the rumblings of revolution. In this regard, it is unsurprising that the monks rose up in 2007 and it would be unsurprising if a bigger proportion of the populace revolted in the next few years.
Is the Junta Propped Up?
One of the recurring themes whilst travelling through Burma was that Government officials only benefited to the extent that they do by selling the country’s resources to foreign nations. The main concern from citizens is over electricity (Burma is in blackout most of the time), mineral resources (oil, gas and gems) and wood. The accusations are that the major buyers of these resources is China and India. These two countries together make up over 30% of the world’s population and no other country is going to stand up to them in order to help the Burmese people. So the people themselves are going to be forced to take matters into their own hands – and this necessarily means much blood. Further, it means that China and India will have blood on their hands.
So there’s a brief and simplistic tourist view of how things are unfolding in Burma. The Junta will not give up power whilst they are allowed to rape the country of its wealth and the populace will be forced into violent revolution. A sorry state of affairs for the lovely Burmese people.
The journey to Kalaw/Inle Lake by bus is excruciating. From every direction, it requires a bus journey of more than 9 hours. From Yangon it is in the realms of 12 hours and this may or may not including a change of transport in the small town of Meiktila at around 3:30am! The journey from Meiktila, through Thazi and up the hill is 5 hours of largely unpaved road that in the dry season becomes a dust bowl. And as most buses keep their windows and doors open, the colour of your skin changes to a dark brown and your lungs become clogged with the parched Earth. Yes, it is a hell. But on the bright side, Kalaw and Inle Lake are an excellent place to spend a week or so just relaxing and catching up with fellow travellers and sharing a yarn – and the trekking is memorable.
Kalaw is a nice place to rest for a few days after being completely broken by the state of the road to there. There isn’t much to see or do, except for perhaps the local cave with thousands of Buddhas. This was quite good and receives very little tourist traffic. We got the impression that most people stayed in Kalaw for just one night and started trekking the next day.
Most people Trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake and this seems to be the most sensible option given that the road from Kalaw to Inle Lake is also treacherous. Most people take the 3 day/2 night trekking option which generally provides for one night’s accommodation in a villager’s house and one night’s accommodation in a monastery.
For most people, the first day of trekking is quite strenuous because it is uphill for almost the whole day. But despite its difficult nature, there are plenty of rest breaks and total trekking time doesn’t exceed 5 hours. At the end of the day, the harshness is quickly forgotten. The second and third days are much easier and probably a little shorter.
Accommodation on the trek is basic, toilet facilities are clean, but very Asian (but better than almost all roadside toilets at home) and washing oneself is simply a scrub of the face and underarms because of the very public nature of the wash facilities. Costs vary from trek to trek, but we can recommend Sam’s Trekking service located at Sam’s Cafe. He’ll almost never have more than 4 in a group (we were 2) unlike some others that were trying to get us onto a group of 7!
Baggage can be sent ahead to your chosen guesthouse at Inle Lake for 3000 kyat, you are not required to carry your own bedding and the food provided on the trip is ample and of a great standard. You must trek!
Despite the charm of the Lake, the best reason to visit this area is to relax and chat with people about anything and everything. We spent 4 days here just sitting on the balcony of the fantastic Aquarius Inn – one of my favourite guesthouses anywhere.
Most people stay in Nyuang Shwe which is a good kilometre from the lake in the dry season and go on adventures from there. One day we cycled to some caves and then a winery (!), the other days we read endlessly and chatted about travel, sports and the meaning of life. Some people insist on seeing the sites of the lake, but almost universally they report that apart from the lake itself, the other activities are not good (such as the jumping cats).
So Inle Lake is really about relaxation and it is a fantastic place for this.
Despite the relaxed atmosphere of Kalaw and Inle Lake, they really serve as bookends to trekking through remote villages. I would seriously question visiting either of these places if trekking wasn’t part of the itinerary as the logistics of travel may just be too punishing. But then again, what else are you going to do in Myanmar except visit places at the end of treacherous roads? Does Myanmar sound exciting yet?
Whenever I travel, I always hear the same lines trotted out about how “best” to travel. One in particular that grates with me is the one about ditching the Lonely Planet or Travel Fish guide and relying on fellow travellers and/or locals to provide advice on where to go and what to do. Now, I know there is this romantic notion that travel can only be authentic if you’re mixing it up in the squalor of the slums of Rio de Janeiro or the forbidden areas of Burma, but the reality is that unless you’re a masochist it’s awful. The food is awful, the hygiene is awful, the accommodation is awful and you may very well fear for your life. Now, some people do call that “living”, but I don’t.
So that’s the extreme version of ditching the guidebook and getting stuck into a destination in an *cringe* authentic way. What about if we keep the guidebook in our pocket and don’t venture beyond what it recommends? Surely that means we’re not *cringe* authentic? Well let’s run an itinerary in Cambodia and see if it works.
Fly into Siem Reap, catch a tuk-tuk to your guidebook-recommended guesthouse costing $10 per night. Accommodation is not too flash, but there are no cockroaches, bed bugs and an edible breakfast is included. You spend the next 3 days visiting the sites of Angkor by local tuk-tuk seeing lots of other tourists along the way, but also having many moments of complete isolation and silence (it’s that sort of place). The next day, you burn off to Phnom Penh by local bus and stay in another guesthouse for $20 per night. You hire a tuk-tuk for a couple of the days and visit many of the sites either memorialising or paying respect to the millions killed in the Khmer Rouge genocide. At night, you choose to eat at Romdeng (NGO-run, restaurant-quality cambodian restaurant) where you might snack on a fried tarantula. Hang on, I’m hearing you… The fried tarantula cannot be authentic because it wasn’t cooked in a market or a roadside stall – it was cooked in a hygenic kitchen! Anyway, back to the itinerary… The rest of the South is pretty much the same… Take some local transport, stay in some cheap guesthouses, meet a bunch of tourists, some NGOs doing good stuff, a bunch of locals going about their daily business, eat some great food (both local and not!) and lounge around in hammocks.
So this is what the guidebooks generally advise us to do. They make the task of rolling into a town easier by having reviewed some accommodation, some eating options and the local attractions. Aside from that, what else are you going to do when travelling around? Sure, you can venture to towns that are hardly touched by tourism and there is some merit in this. But the problem is that the facilities are of a local standard and are quite often austere, unhygienic, unpleasant and downright depressing. The interaction with locals you get in that town might counterbalance your depressing living arrangements, but for how long is this sustainable? Yes, this is where the sensible and happy medium comes into play.
Putting away the guidebook entirely is 1) Foolhardy and 2) likely to have you missing some of the best parts of a place. Never putting away the guidebook and refusing to interact with locals is going to 1) allow you to have a good experience and 2) miss a bunch of cool stuff that might just be beyond the boundaries of the guidebook. Somewhere in the middle, we can still meet some local people doing some pretty ordinary things like tilling the fields and feeding cattle, but also see all the best stuff the country has to offer as guided by our trusty Lonely Planets and Travel Fish(es).
At the end of the day, everyone has a different style of travelling and none is right or wrong. But this elitism that is growing in backpacker circles about what is authentic travel and what is not is frustrating. Just because you’re shitting in a pit in the ground and I’m shitting in a porcelain bowl, doesn’t mean that you’re more authentic. It just means you’re a stingy bastard.
Most people enter Myanmar (Burma) through the Yangon Airport and proceed to a local guesthouse to settle into the country and find their bearings. It’s immediately after exiting the Airport that you realise that Myanmar is locked in a different time to the rest of the world and that travel here is going to be more difficult than most SE Asian destinations.
The roads of Yangon are rickety, ramshackle affairs giving a feel of neglect and austerity. But these roads, the poorly constructed buildings and the vast array of businesses plying their trade on the streets give the town a character that I’ve never experienced anywhere else. There is charm amongst the poverty that makes Yangon not too unpleasant to hang around for a few days.
The main attractions are all listed in the guidebooks, as are the guesthouses and restaurants and these are pretty much on the mark. We stayed at Motherland Inn 2 and despite its location, we loved our experience there. Better yet was the fact that they seem to have a free bus from the airport for anyone wishing to inspect their rooms – a saving of $7.
A good place to gain information on buses, trains and other Burma-specific travel information is the MTT counter at the train station. This Government-run service asks for no money and is happy to hand out maps, book tickets and give out free up-to-date information about the country. We found this service necessary as the first move out of Yangon proved to the most difficult logistically.
Travel to Bago can be done by Bus or Train. The train journey is longer than the bus journey, but is an activity in itself. The journey takes 2 hours and costs $2 for ordinary class tickets. We booked a day in advance and I would recommend this journey as a great way of seeing the countryside.
There are trishaw drivers waiting at Bago train station to take you to all the sites. We had worried about where we would store our luggage, but the drivers insisted on carrying it with us on the trishaw to all the sites.
The Bago sites generally revolve around the religious and as such you will see a bunch of pagodas and a big snake at a monastery. The activities can be completed on a day trip and there really is no need to stay for the night.
The number one question people asked us about Golden Rock is whether it is worth it. There were rumours swirling all throughout Myanmar that Golden Rock is hopeless and not worth the hassle. But we only met one other person that had been there and they enjoyed it! We decided to go anyway despite the runaway rumour mill and enjoyed ourselves.
The truck ride and trek to the top were fun. The rock itself was Golden… And that’s about it really. But if you travel to every destination expecting the Grand Canyon, you are always going to be disappointed and we accepted the rock for what it was and got the hell back down the mountain and out of the heat. All in all, it was worth the effort.
Been to Burma? Want to go? I’d love to know your motivation!
After recently travelling through Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) with a friend of mine, I felt compelled to write about my experience. It was one of the most intriguing places I have ever visited and over the coming weeks I’ll be providing more detail about the political situation there, some of the sites and perhaps some photos of this nexus between India and South East Asia. Truly fascinating.
Lost in Time
When first arriving in Myanmar, the first thing you notice is that there are a lot of old vehicles driving the streets. Particularly buses. It’s the first indication you get that this place is stuck in some sort of weird sanction-imposed, poverty-induced time warp! As you travel further and further into the countryside, you begin to see many more ox and cart arrangements straight from 3000 years ago and comparatively very few horses. Motorised cultivation seems to be light years away which is astounding because this method of agriculture is widespread even in what many people would class as a poorer nation, Laos. The number of times you find yourself saying “old school” in Myanmar is amazing.
Much of the tourist transport in Myanmar is the same method as the locals use. That is, coaches and mini-buses. Because the roads in the most part are very poor, it takes a long time to travel from place to place and it means that visiting the main tourist destinations in the country will require at least three overnight coach journeys which can be horrendous. Worse still, arrival times of coaches after these journeys is quite often between 3am and 5am, so you can arrive at a guesthouse absolutely shattered from a bus journey, but still have to wait for a room to become available. (It’s all part of the oppression)
Cost of Living
The local currency in Myanmar is the non-convertible Kyat (pronounced chee-at). It means that it is almost impossible to buy or sell Kyat outside of Myanmar. Furthermore, there are no ATMs within Myanmar to access your money from. So you are forced to carry as much US Dollars as you will need for your entire stay with you at all times and then try and exchange it on the black market. The black market is in full swing in Myanmar, so guesthouses will routinely exchange money for you at reasonable rates.
Once you have your Kyat, living expenses within the country are generally very low. Most meals were averaging $1.50-$2 plus drinks. This average was based on us eating what we wanted and not trying to resort to the cheapest item on the menu. If you did that, you could get away with less than $1 for every meal. Also, breakfast is seemingly always included in room prices meaning another saving on meals. And accommodation costs are ridiculously low for the quality provided! Most rooms were about $6 per person for the better quality varieties. Some rooms were as little as $3-$4 per night.
All in all, when including the cost of transport, food, accommodation, some tourist access fees and miscellaneous expenses, I spent about US$20 per day. CHEAP!
Internet is inexpensive and available fairly widely in Myanmar, but it is apparently heavily monitored by the authorities and many sites are simply blocked. So there can be some issues accessing email accounts such as hotmail – I wouldn’t go there expecting to be able to email freely.
Myanmar is a hot place. I visited in March/April and the temperatures were regularly above 40C (104F) with less humidity in the North than the South. These temperatures really take their toll on your body when walking around town. But more importantly, at night some rooms can be unbearably hot! So air conditioning in some places is a wise investment, even if the electricity supply is erratic.
Myanmar is a tough country. It wears you down. Many travellers I met in Myanmar compared it to India, but felt that India was much more in your face whereas Myanmar wore you down more. Perhaps its the oppressed national psyche which imparts itself on visitors leading to more depressed feelings – a negativity which you can’t put your finger on. Whatever the case, Myanmar is a country definitely worth visiting as an interesting look at how a country in a unique geographical location copes with the lunacy of a despotic regime.