Monthly Recap: Month 9

Another great month! We’re really starting to feel like the end of the trip is coming and we’re feeling more and more rushed to get through everything that we wanted to do. It’s funny how you can plan to be traveling for almost a year, but still end up feeling like you don’t have enough time =) However, we did take time this month to meet up with Della’s parents again a couple of times. They decided to have a big trip for themselves and as we write this update, they’ve been out for about 5 weeks and plan about 2 more. We haven’t stayed together the whole time, but have sort of met up and parted as our schedules allowed. We saw a lot of great things and explored a lot of new places this month. Our only complaint is that it is hot season here in SE Asia and we are REALLY hot all the time. We only have about 2 more weeks in this part of the world before we fly again to explore different parts of Asia.

Here are our stats for this month.

Countries visited:  3 (Laos, Thailand, Vietnam)

Beds Slept In: 13 (We only stayed one night in two towns on the slow boat journey to Thailand and then we went quickly through a couple of places: Sukhothai and Ayuthaya)

UNESCO Heritage Sights Visited:  3 (Historic Town of Sukhothai and Associated Historic TownsHistoric City of AyutthayaHoi An Ancient Town) Total on RTW: 40

We traveled by 3 planes this month.

We traveled by 2 boats this month.

We traveled 5 long distance buses/minibuses.

We traveled by 2 trains this month.

Top Moments:

~ We had an amazing time interacting with elephants at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary outside of Chiang Mai!

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Runners Up for Top Moments:

We had a bit of a hard time coming up with this list, because for the first time we had slightly different opinions of what to choose!

~ At Kuang Si Waterfalls outside of Luang Prabang, we took in some amazing scenery, got to watch some cute moon bears play, and took a refreshing swim.

Eric's jump

~ Also in Chiang Mai, we took an excellent cooking class in which we learned all about how to each the different yummy Thai dishes that we love!

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~ In Mae Sot, we meandered through a lively market which brought back great memories of our time in Myanmar.

Lively colorful market

~ We struggled for a long time to choose a Thai beach to go to. We had seen some really neat pictures of white sand beaches with large limestone karsts in the distance and longtail boats near the shoreline, and hoped that we could find a scene like that. The island we chose, Ko Lanta, doesn’t have those characteristics, which was a bit disappointing… but some nearby islands do! The last stop of our snorkeling tour was at Ko Ngai, and when we pulled up to the white sand beach we realized we had found just what we were looking for!

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Items Missing, Broken, Discarded, or Added:

Discarded/Broken:

  1. Old toothbrushes
  2. Our large bottle of sunscreen that was new in January
  3. Our large bottle of bugspray that was new in January

Added:

  1. New toothbrushes
  2. New insect repellent

Packing Update:

We feel like we’re a bit of a broken record here: we’re still happy with the contents of our bags. In the hot, humid weather it would be nice to have more shirts, but it wouldn’t be worth carrying them. We’ve also found that we probably could live with fewer socks and underwear because it is quite tempting to rinse them out in the shower or sink often (almost every night). Still carrying unused cold weather gear, but it’s still in hold for Nepal. We haven’t used our tupperware very much here in Asia. We find we don’t pack our lunches very often as food is plentiful and cheap (and really good!)

Books Read: (Have you read any of these??)

Della has read UnSouled by Neal Shusterman (4), A Place Called Freedom by Ken Follett (3), The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (3)

Eric has read All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy (4), Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (4)

Eric and Della have BOTH read The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell (4), Saigon by Anthony Grey (5/4.5)

The rating system is for Della’s mom who is refusing to look at Goodreads. It is 1 to 5, 5 being the highest.

Make sure to catch up on all our monthly recaps: Monthly Recap 1, Monthly Recap 2, Monthly Recap 3,Monthly Recap 4, Monthly Recap 5, Monthly Recap 6, Monthly Recap 7, Monthly Recap 8

Making Links to Refugees from Myanmar in Mae Sot, Thailand

Most people only head to Mae Sot, Thailand for a visa run from Thailand or as a border crossing into Myanmar, but we had different reasons for heading to this border town. Mae Sot is located near some of the larger refugee camps on the Myanmar/Burma and Thailand border. Because such a large percentage of Della’s students are refugees from this area, we thought we would come see if we could make some connections that would help her better serve that population back home.

Originally (before we left home), Della had hoped to visit the camps herself. However, after a lot of unanswered emails, and research, it seemed unlikely. We had read that Mae Sot was a good place to meet NGO workers who might go in and out of the camps. We had hoped we could meet someone who worked in the camps who might be able to give Della a little bit more of an idea of what schooling for refugees might be like.

Unfortunately, we didn’t really succeed in our goals. However, we still really enjoyed our time in Mae Sot.

Where We Stayed

We found the excellent Pha Nu House in Lonely Planet and online. We booked via phone and were very happy with the place. It was a good location in town and the rooms were spacious, lovely, and had nice ensuite bathrooms. We really felt like we got a lot for our money.

What We Did

We had read a couple of blogs that mentioned hanging out with NGO workers at the “Canadian Bar” in town and at the Exppact Café. Unfortunately, when we arrived, we found out that the Exppact was closed. We had also heard about the BorderLine café and store which sold crafts made by refugees.

After an afternoon arrival, our first stop was to head to the Borderline. We enjoyed perusing the crafts, books, and documentaries about the situation in Burma. We chatted with one of the workers, asking if they had any information about schooling for refugees. She indicated that her boss would be there the next day and that we might be able to talk to him. We agreed to come back at 1 pm the next day.

Our next stop was the Krua Canadian restaurant in the main downtown area. This place is run by a Canadian immigrant and we had heard that it might be a good source for local information. We first started with drinks while we tried to decide if we would eat there. The wine was pretty cheap so we split a carafe with Peggy. The menu was a gigantic book, so we had a hard time deciding what to eat. We split a “Maesot” poutine for an appetizer and then for dinner we both got Mexican food since it had been a while! Eric got enchiladas and Della got a quesadilla.

We eventually talked with the owner and while he didn’t know much about education, he was able to give some general information about the camps. One of the more interesting things he mentioned was that he thinks the camps will be shutting down by the end of the year. He mentioned that because some of the world leaders (including President Obama) have given a sort of “all clear” relating to the current situation in Burma, that the money for the NGO support and camps is drying up. He didn’t know what might happen to all of the current refugees. He also told us that Thai school was out for the semester and he believed that the camps probably followed a similar schedule, so we began to doubt whether we would necessarily find someone currently working at the camp schools.

We headed home feeling slightly bummed that we hadn’t met anyone from the camps, but optimistic about our meeting at Borderline the next day.

The following morning, we headed out and went to the local market, which we had heard was quite lively. And that turned out to be true! It felt like we were back in Myanmar – almost everyone seemed to be from there, with lots of thanaka face paint and plenty of Muslim people. There were all sorts of food, clothes, and other goods. It stretched on for multiple blocks. At one point, we were excited to find a stall that sold Burmese/English dictionaries and some posters with Burmese/English letters. Della bought some! We went through some large market buildings and also down some small side streets. Finally we reached a point where it felt like it was ending so we turned around and made our way back through. We took a slightly different route to get out and thought we had found a dead end until we saw a local squeeze through a narrow alley to get back to the street! Overall, this was one of the more exciting street markets we have ever been to!

We then headed back to the Borderline. Unfortunately, the time we had been given was wrong and the boss had come by earlier that day so we missed him. We were bummed, but there wasn’t much we could do. Instead, Della struck up a conversation with one of the other workers who was, herself, a Karen refugee who had grown up in the camps. Della learned a bit more about the schools and the curriculum used, though not a lot that was hugely helpful. The most fun part of the encounter was when the woman agreed to help Della add to her new posters with Karen lettering. Now the posters have Burmese, Karen, and English. Della thinks her students back home will enjoy them! We bought a few souvenirs and then headed back to our hotel.

Where We Ate

Our favorite meal was actually at the Borderline where they serve vegetarian Burmese food. For a drink Eric got Burmese iced tea with lime and Della got ginger juice. We shared a wide variety of dishes: ginger salad, pickled tea leaf salad, potato curry, fried noodles, Mandalay noodle salad and curried chickpeas. All were good.

 

For dinner we decided to try another Burmese restaurant we had seen listed on TripAdvisor called Wadee. This was in the other direction and about a 15 minute walk away. The menu was much less interesting unfortunately. We got mango smoothies for drinks, then Eric got a chicken curry and Della got a big plate of fried noodles (she even had some leftover).

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We also enjoyed the Krua Canadian listed above for something a little bit different.

Final Thoughts

We didn’t exactly meet our expectations of magically connecting with a teacher in the refugee camps, but we really ended up enjoying our travel there anyway. It was fun for us to relive, ever so briefly, our trip to Burma. We had a lovely place to stay, met a few nice people, and ate good food. The market was one for the most interesting we’ve ever encountered, so that was worth a lot.

 

Myanmar FAQs

When we were researching for our visit to Myanmar, we had a few questions that we wanted the latest answers to. So, in case anyone researching for their own trip has these same questions, we thought we’d make sure our answers were available!

How Did You Get Your Visas?

We had originally planned to get them at the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok during the few days we spent there before flying to Myanmar. However, we then heard about the new e-visa service being offered and decided that it might be simpler. We applied online while still in Denver, got a confirmation of payment within an hour, and then got our visas within three days, so it worked quite smoothly. The printed copy of the visa was accepted at the Mandalay airport without issues. From what we heard from other travelers, it would have been cheaper to get the visa in person in Bangkok ($20 vs $50 online), but it would also have taken up to 7 hours, so we think that was a good tradeoff.

Were You Able to Use the ATMs in Myanmar?

Yes! Although, we only ended up using them twice: once at the Mandalay Airport and once in downtown Mandalay at a bank. In both cases we used the ATMs from CB Bank. Both our Charles Schwab and Fidelity debit cards worked without issue. The ATM at the airport was a little scary though – it would randomly fail when giving the money. But we just tried again, and then it worked.

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The ATMs dispense only 5000s which is the equivalent of a $5 bill. You end up with a LARGE stack of cash!

 

Do You Call The Country Myanmar or Burma?

Back home in the US, we knew the country as Burma. But once we arrived in the country, it was clear that all of the locals we met referred to the country as Myanmar, so that is what we stuck with. We’re aware that there is a political angle to which name you choose to use, but we didn’t ever hear enough of a debate on that to take sides.

Can You Drink the Water?

No, not even the locals drink it. But every one of our accommodations actually had a freely available jug or bottles of spring water for their guests.

How Is the Internet Connection?

Everywhere we stayed had at least some Internet connection. Some places it was surprisingly fast (Bagan) while others it was frustratingly slow (Inle Lake). But we were almost always able to get a small connection.

Budget: Myanmar (Burma)

This is one of our Budget series of posts to give you an idea of how much we spent traveling around the world. Here we will look at Myanmar. Check our posts to see what kind of activities we did and where we stayed!

In Myanmar we used the kyat. We converted to US dollars using the current conversion rates at the time of our visit. It was approximately 1000 kyat to 1 dollars. Businesses used this as a flat rate, though the real rate at the time was more like 1,300 kyat to $1.

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Total Spent (18 days): $1304.72

Accommodation: $495.32

We stayed in a variety of accommodations: some hotels, some hostels, one dorm room. Everywhere we stayed included breakfast and drinkable water.

Activities: $202.59

Activities are quite affordable in Myanmar. We did several day tours, both in boats and cars. This included entrance and camera fees to all pagodas as well as a few museums. We also did a puppet show!

Alcohol: $28.65

Overall, beer is quite reasonably priced in Myanmar. You can normally get a large bottle of beer for under $2. We also visited a winery and had a couple of glasses of wine!

Food: $170.95

Food was wonderfully inexpensive in Myanmar. You could get a good meal with drink for under $10. You can also do it even cheaper if you are a little braver than we are: if you ate street food from stalls then it would be even more affordable. We didn’t as almost every person we met who had was sick. Though, we did hear of one friend recently who had no problems!

Miscellaneous: $40.02

This included a several souvenirs, several bathroom fees, a laundry, and a few exchange transactions.

Transportation: $267.19

This included a variety of taxis and buses. The biggest cost was a boat ride from Mandalay to Bagan which was $80!

Visas: $100

We purchased visas online prior to arriving using the new online purchase tool for tourist visas. It was more expensive than it would have been in person in Bangkok, but a fraction of the time.

This divides out to $72.48/day which is under our $100/day budget. It is not as low as we were hoping for time in Asia, though we knew Myanmar would not be the cheapest country in Asia due to the visa fees and the relatively high cost of accommodation. 

Saying So Long to Myanmar in Yangon

Our final stop on our trip through Myanmar was its largest city (and former capital), Yangon. We had initially only planned to spend a couple of our last days in the country in this city, using it as a base for a trip to the “Golden Rock,” but in the end we decided to just spend all of the time exploring the different things the city had to offer.

Getting There

The main option to get to Yangon from Inle Lake was an overnight bus. We had to choose between the “normal” and “VIP” class buses, and we went with the VIP option with the hope that it would make sleeping easier. The seats were quite large, and had a good recline feature and a footrest. We also got a snack box and a toothbrush to use at one of the rest breaks. During the first part of the trip, they played music videos and one movie on the overhead tv, but for most of the journey the cabin was pretty dark and quiet. It really was quite comfortable,  but even so, we didn’t actually end up getting too much sleep, so after checking into our accommodations in Yangon at 7 AM, we took a nice long nap.

Where We Stayed

Finding a cheap but well-reviewed place in Yangon turned out to be quite a challenge, as there were many cheap places but almost all with average ratings. In the end we found the Hninn Si Budget Inn and ended up generally enjoying our stay. We had a small double room with a shared bathroom down the hall. The rate included breakfast, although it was the least interesting of any breakfast we had in Myanmar. The staff was very kind and helped us with transportation a few times.

Our room at Hninn Si

Our room at Hninn Si

What We Did

Explore Downtown Yangon – The city has a lot of interesting sights to see in its downtown core, a lot of it left over from when the city was called Rangoon and functioned as the capital of the country during the colonial occupation by Britain. We ended up exploring this area twice: the first on our own using a self-guided walking tour in Lonely Planet, and the second time on a free walking tour led by Free Yangon Walks. The highlights included the Sule Paya – a large pagoda which now sits in the middle of a traffic circle, Mahabandoola Garden – a very pleasant park where we relaxed in the shade and made conversation with locals wanting to practice their English, and many examples of colonial-era buildings, from the City Hall to old banks to the fancy Strand Hotel.

Even more interesting that the architecture was just observing life on the streets of this bustling city. There were food vendors of all sorts, and many people making new packs of the betel nut concotion that a good chunk of the population chews (the effect is supposedly similar to chewing tobacco). There were also vendors selling everything from SIM cards to clothes to even a large selection of used books, including many random English-language textbooks. We were also fascinated to observe the bus system: buses of all ages and conditions would go up and down the street, pausing briefly where a worker (usually a young male) would holler out the back (presumably announcing the destination) while pushing people off and pulling them on. We never worked up the nerve to get on one of these!

Ride the Yangon Circle Line – Yangon only has one commuter rail line: the Yangon Circle Line, which makes a slow loop around the city and its surrounding residential areas. Since it is a loop and costs so little ($0.50 per person), it has become a popular tourist activity. Some reviews made it sound pretty hectic, but we actually found the three-hour ride to be quite relaxing. Maybe it’s because we went on a weekend during the middle of the day; there was never too much of a crowd. We were quite interested to see life outside the train, including lively markets at some of the larger stops. Also, we enjoyed watching some of the people who hopped on the train midway through use the rest of the train ride to change their large collection of produce into sellable bundles.

Shwedagon Paya – Many people consider this to be the most important Buddhist site in all of Myanmar. We planned our visit to have us arrive by sunset since the color was supposed to be the best then. The temple complex includes many smaller shrines, but the highlight is the massive central stupa. Unfortunately, a lot of it was covered in bamboo scaffolding during our visit (although you could argue that the scaffolding itself is interesting to look at). The entrance fee was the most expensive of any payas we visited in Myanmar, although we were happy that we got a detailed map with labeled narration for many of the smaller shrines.

Botataung Paya – Much smaller than Shwedagon, but Lonely Planet recommended it, and it was just a few minutes’ walk from our guesthouse, so we checked it out. We went on a Sunday, so it was busy with worshipers coming and going. The most unique feature was that we could actually walk inside the large stupa – in all other cases this was closed to the public. This one had a maze-like interior with walls gilded with gold and a few different relics, including a few hairs of Buddha that we had to get in a line to see.

National Museum – We spent an afternoon exploring this large museum dedicated to Myanmar’s history and culture. There were many different exhibits scattered over the five floors, including displays on royal artifacts, fossils, traditional arts and crafts and the different cultures within the Myanmar. We felt the most interesting exhibit was the Lion Throne, one of the eight such thrones used by the king for ceremonial purposes (which looks more like a door). We weren’t even allowed to take cameras into the museum, so we don’t have any pictures of the interior.

The National Museum

The National Museum

Kandawgyi Lake – We spent an afternoon in this park just to the east of Shwedagon Paya. The boardwalk on the southern edge provided scenic views, but some of the boards could have used some serious repair! It was pretty hot and sunny, so we followed the lead of the young local couples we saw and found a spot in the shade to relax and enjoy the view.

People’s Park – This was one of our highlights in the latest monthly update!

Where We Ate

The most interesting places to eat would have been the different street food stalls all over the place, but we had met enough fellow travelers who reported getting food poisoning that we decided to stick to restaurants. In doing this, we discovered that in most cases, especially near our guesthouse, the restaurants were more expensive in Yangon than they were in other parts of the country. At the Malaysian place across the street we both just got fried rice since everything else was twice what we had been paying for entrees elsewhere, and then at a Chinese/Shan place down the street Eric was downright shocked when the bill came and his dish was $7 (we had been paying in the neighborhood of $2-$3 in other places).

We did find some nice cheap restaurants elsewhere in the city with the help of Lonely Planet. The first was Aung Thukha near the Shwedagon Paya. This was one of the standard curry places where you chose a main meat and got to enjoy it with a soup, rice, and vegetable side dishes. Della got a pork curry and Eric went with catfish.

Catfish curry plus all of the sides

Catfish curry plus all of the sides

Near the National Museum we ate at Feel Restaurant. The menu was quite overwhelming, with 20 pages of choices, and none of the descriptions in English. We both pointed at pictures that looked good and hoped for the best. Della ended up with a noodle dish and Eric ended up with a soup with the consistency of egg drop soup with a meat that tasted like chicken. We crossed our fingers as the bill came, and were very pleasantly surprised that each dish was only $2!

Final Thoughts

We think it was the right decision to spend our last five days all in Yangon. There were plenty of things to do, and we enjoyed getting to explore the city at a leisurely pace instead of rushing between sights. The city was also a great way to get a good last glimpse of the people and culture of Myanmar. As we flew out of Yangon, we were a little sad to say goodbye!