Cycling in Bagan

You know when you decide to go to a holiday destination, and you spend ages excitedly looking at pictures, only to arrive at the place and be disappointed because the pictures in the guides are of the only good sight in the place photographed from five different angles? Bagan is not like that. It's surreal. It's other-worldly. It is amazing.

Firstly, contrary to what some sources may tell you, it is relatively easy to get around Myanmar. The long haul buses are extremely comfortable and modern, and the wide highways are in impeccable condition. I got an overnight bus from Yangon up to Bagan, unexpectedly arriving early at 3:30AM. After initially facing the challenging prospect of finding accommodation at such an hour, the issue was quickly solved with the aid of some locals and I grabbed a couple of hours' kip before waking up to face Tuesday morning.

What better location to spend a Temple Tuesday than on the plains of Bagan, home to the ruins of over 2000 temples? Some date from almost a thousand years back. Regulation of how you explore these temples is lax, to say the least. You are supposed to purchase a $10 pass from the local authorities who 'might' bump into you at a ruin and ask to check it, but I never encountered any officials, which was fortunate as I wasn't particularly sure of where to buy the pass either.

An affable Argentinian lad I'd met on the bus and I hired some bicycles from our hotel, took a quick look at a map of the plain and headed out toward roughly where we supposed we'd begin seeing some ruins.

It wasn't long before we were in the midst of what seemed like dozens of temples, and slipping into full 'Tomb Raider' mode. As I mentioned above, regulation of how you see these sites is lax, so you can wander inside a deserted ruin, find a relatively stable looking staircase, and climb all over the roof to your little heart's content. 

Everywhere you look seems like another photo opportunity, and I ran my camera battery flat by the end of the day trying to capture everything. During the course of the day we lunched at a little village and were shown about by one of the locals, which is something I would highly, highly recommend, if not to see how an authentic Burmese village works then just to meet some of the beautiful hospitable people who inhabit this arid area.


Yangon, Myanmar (Burma)

I apologise that I haven't been able to update my blog while I was in Myanmar - the internet connection speeds there can make dial up look like a thing of the distant future -  so I will be playing catch up over the next few days updating you all on my journeys over there.

I left Bangkok's Don Mueang Airport two Fridays ago with some feeling of trepidation as we flew towards Myanmar. The Lonely Planet guidebook I have been referring to had warned about the still somewhat primitive nature of the country compared to the rest of South East Asia. "Bring all your cash you will need as there are no ATMs in the country," it said. No ATMs? At the thought of that I already felt like a big task was at hand for me.

What I found there was an interesting juxtaposition between the stalwart old regime and the progessive influence of the outside world that is rapidly entering. The Burmese people seem to be embracing these changes eagerly too. One of my new friends here excitedly told me that Visa had arrived last month. The young taxi driver that picked me up at the airport said the country had changed so quickly in the last two years and "I hope it will stay like this for good". 

Also, I was very blessed to meet some wonderful young monks here who showed me many sights around town and given me a glimpse into their lifestyle, which is so very different from my own. Their days start at 4AM and are filled with study, meditation but also lots of socialisation. They enjoy listening to Amy Winehouse, Westlife (!), Bon Jovi (!!) and even Justin Bieber. They love to practice their English with foreigners as they hope to travel the world, just like everybody else.

Below are pictures from the beautiful Shwedagon Paya, the enormous reclining Buddha at Chaukhtatgyi Temple and inside a hollow stupa at one of the other temples, as well as other photos from about town and with new friends.


Temple Tuesday: Grand Palace, Bangkok

Yesterday, for my Temple Tuesday pilgrimage, I got the underground MRT to Sala Daeng, the BTS Skytrain to Saphan Taksin, and then the ferry up the river to stop 8, just outside the old Grand Palace.

Everything seemed to JUST be working out for me - as I arrived at the enormous front gate they were just about to stop tourists entering for the day. The soldier on guard was pulling the gate shut when one of the other guards shouted "Quickly, get in! Get in!" I slipped through and made my way down to the ticket booth. The lady at the counter took one look at my travel shorts and said, "You will not be invited to enter. You are not in long pants. You must go up to the first door outside the gate and borrow something long. Have a ticket now first." She sold me my ticket (500 baht) and then said to the couple behind me "Sorry, we're closed for today. Come back tomorrow."

Ten minutes later I was wearing a borrowed wrap skirt (200 baht deposit) and entering the Grand Palace grounds proper. 

I thought I had seen impressive buildings already in Asia but the gold stupas, glittering halls and amazing 18th century palace left me wandering about mouth agape. The old throne room (where no cameras were permitted) was truly impressive, with the throne seated under the four umbrellas the King was crowned beneath. 

Of course, when you travel solo, sometimes it's difficult to get a snap of yourself at these places but a lovely obliging soldier walking by was able to help out.

How to get a Myanmar (Burmese) visa

Before I dropped by the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok this morning I had read a lot of conflicting information online about what documents you need to get a Burmese visa and how the embassy office works. Here is what I did in order to get mine processed, which is obviously current at today's date.

The embassy is a short walk down from the Surasak BTS Skytrain station on the Silom Line. If you come from the direction of Sala Daeng and other stations back toward the National Stadium, use one of the exits that will put you on the RIGHT side of Sathon Road. Then walk BACK in the direction that the Skytrain came from along that side of the road (obviously if you come from the other direction on the Skytrain, get out on the LEFT side of Sathon Road and continue walking up the way the line runs). 

The Myanmar embassy is located on the corner of Sathon Road and a side street past a local Christian high school and 7/11. You will be able to easily spot the Burmese flag on the fence. Go down the street a few paces and there is a gate that has Visa Office (or something like that) printed above it. Instructions on how to get your visa are tacked here on the wall. 

However, if you want to be ahead of the game, these are the documents you will need prepared:
  • Visa application form: there are many conflicting forms available online. If you are in Bangkok, the easiest way to get the correct form is to continue walking past the embassy until you come to a little side lane with some shops in it. Down here is a copy shop where you can get a copy of the form for 5 baht, and fill it out at one of the little desks. There are even sample forms pre-filled and stuck to the desk so you know how to fill out all the sections. The owner will also photocopy your passport photo page for you for 3 baht. Hang onto this copy! Also note that for a tourist visa you are required to complete the section on the back page about your employment history.
  • Photocopy of your passport photo page
  • Two (2) passport photos of you: I had seen on some forms they require the photo to be 4cm x 6cm. When I actually was inside the embassy there were no specific size requirements listed, but it's better to be safe than sorry.
  • Copy of your airline tickets, and a booking slip for where you will be staying upon arrival: Look, I don't know how strict they are on these factors - I'd imagine that they are quite interested in knowing that you will definitely be leaving at the end of your visa period. It had been recommended to me that I prepare these documents anyway, and it certainly helped when I was talking to the lady at the counter that she could inspect my tickets and ask how quickly I wanted my visa prepared.
Glue one of your passport photos to the little square in the upper right hand corner of your form. Paperclip your other photo to the front of the form, and the passport photocopy to the back (again, if you go to the copy shop they have glue and paperclips laid out for you). 

The visa application hours are between 9:00am and 12:00pm. I arrived at about 8:50am and there was already a large queue up the street outside the gate. 

Line up, be patient. The queue will slowly progress toward Counter 4 inside (tourist visa applications). If you are missing an item you will be promptly told to go and get it by the friendly people at the counter. Otherwise, they will give your documents a quick once-over, hand you a queue number and tell you to wait for your number to be called at Counter 2.

Once you are called up to Counter 2 give the person all your documents, including airline tickets and hotel booking. The lady looked at my Air Asia booking and noted it was for Friday. "Do you want to pick up visa today or tomorrow?" Same day service about 1260 baht, next day about 1050 baht. A negligible saving. There is also a 'normal' service which is cheaper and takes a couple of days.

"Today is fine," I replied. 

"Okay, come and pick it up after 3:30 this afternoon," she said, taking the documents away.

And that was it! Pick up of visas is between 3:30 and 4:30 every day, so now I am just relaxing at the hostel and waiting to go and collect my passport. Then I'm off to Myanmar for 10 days! 

I hope this information is helpful to somebody! It seems the rules are constantly changing so it may not be current in six months' time - your best bet is to go scope out the embassy the day before, go get the documents and any help from the man in the copy shop if you need it. Otherwise, good luck!


Koh Chang and first impressions of Thailand

We've finally made it to Thailand! Okay, so we arrived early Friday morning in Chumphon on the train from Malaysia (and kudos to the Thai/Malay train authorities for their very comfortable sleeper trains, highly recommended). Therefore my first moments wandering around in Thailand were at 4AM. We then got the bus for a couple of hours down to Ranong, had a lift on the back of some motorbike taxis to the jetty, and hopped on a long tail boat out to Koh Chang.

On arrival on the island we acquired a cute little bungalow down the end of the main beach. The name of the place where we stayed eludes me, but the food is AMAZING. Sometimes I have very vivid daydreams about food I wish I could eat. The food there I think will be fondly on my mind from now on. 

The island is an idyllic quiet holiday place that seems to have a tourist population made up of mostly... you guessed it, Germans. One minimart we stopped by had two clocks behind the counter set on Thai and German times. I overheard someone on the boat mention a restaurant where the menu was written in German.

I stayed on Koh Chang for two days before I parted ways from my travel tour manager. Although not as acrimonious a split as say, Simon & Garfunkel's or The Beatles', history may record our separation as due to 'artistic differences'. Actually, I have made the journey up to Bangkok (where I am at the time of writing) in order to obtain a Burmese visa whilst young Tom does some much needed work on his tan. If you look at a map you'll see that Ranong and Koh Chang sit right on the Thai/Myanmar border and you can actually see Myanmar on the boat ride out, so it's slightly frustrating for me that I had to get the 10-hour bus ride up to Bangkok to even hope to enter the country*. Anyway, that's travel and politics for you.

*(You can cross the border here but it's limited to a day only, as far as I'm aware.)

I know a lot of friends and acquaintances have already been to Thailand, so I will share a few quick first time impressions for those of you that haven't yet made the journey:
  • The people are very friendly and helpful.
  • The number of English speakers compared to Malaysia is definitely not as prevalent.This has already made for interesting times.
  • The food is awesome and cheap.
  • The countryside is beautiful.
  • It's not as hot as Malaysia and Singapore, thank goodness.
  • They really revere their King here - I counted 118 roadside images of him on the bus ride from Ranong before I lost interest and fell asleep.


Wanderings in Penang

As I mentioned in my previous post, we have spent our last few days in Malaysia in Penang. The inner city of George Town, where we have been staying, is UNESCO World Heritage listed just like Melaka, and similarly is full of remnants of colonial times.

The charming little lanes and alleys here are added to by lovely street art that seems to pop out at you at random. And the street stalls are in absolute abundance, I think even if you lived here your whole life you wouldn't have a hope of sampling all the food on offer. I will now take this opportunity to declare my most true and fervent love for chicken rice, which I will miss most sincerely when I return back to steak/sausage-loving Australia.

Temple Tuesday: the Penang bonanza

The past few days I have spent with an irritating head cold that has left me feeling boiling hot and less enthusiastic for getting out and about in the sun here on the island of Penang. I had thought I had escaped the illness my travel tour manager contracted whilst we were in Singapore but was ambushed while recovering from a "quick" trip to the pub to watch the football. Oh well, these things happen to even the very best of us.

This Temple Tuesday, in the pangs of sickness I visited a Chinese ancestral temple and marvelled briefly at the beautiful woodwork and paintings before my camera's battery chose that highly convenient moment to die and I left sweaty and scowling. 

However, earlier in the week I visited the Thai and Burmese Buddhist temples here. Both are the height of religious grandeur - the Thai temple features an enormous reclining Buddha as well as many ornate story paintings about the life of Gautama Buddha himself. Visiting temples and churches always instills a quiet feeling inside me but that was further magnified when walking through the rows of funeral urns behind the Buddha. It was quite sad to look at the young people's plaques especially. I guess it's the same in any cemetery or crematorium - perhaps I was feeling especially reflective that day.

Directly across the road the Burmese temple sprawls over a large property with beautifully maintained grounds. Inside the main building is a statue of Buddha as tall as the reclining one is long (but stupid me forgot to upload a picture of that!). There are some lovely statues about but one that did puzzle me was of a rather hideous little woman. If anyone can illuminate the significance of her that would be grand.

The Thai temple:


The Burmese temple:
Those tortoise-releasing scallywags have obviously been up to no bloody good again!

As a bonus for those of you of the Christian persuasion, here is the oldest Anglican church in South East Asia - St George's: