Archive for April, 2013

Myanmar First Impressions

Monday, April 29th, 2013

It’s dusty and hot; not the savage heat of Malaysia’s searing sun or the soupy, unrelenting swamp feel of Thailand. The heat is a parching, thirsty type of uncomfortableness. Sandalwood smeared locals go about their own business of the day and cope with copious tea or beer to battle the day. The sandalwood cream either purchased already in powder form or rubbed from a wood block and collected, is said to whiten skin and keep you cool. Tea shops or beer stations are the gathering places for men to chat, smoke and spew bloody mouthfuls of betel nut juice. You can see the fusion and influence of other cultures. The tea is undoubtedly Indian chai style; thick, sweet and milky. The food varies from a smashing of curries over noodles or fish paste infused sauces over rice: the Indian, Chinese, Cambodian and Thai presence obvious. The beer is light lager very similar to Vietnamese beer doi and can be sampled on tap everywhere for a few cents. Monks in maroon wrappings wander by only asking for food in the early mornings. A ritual to humble the spirit.

Yet, somehow Burma feels drastically different than from the other SE states. Wandering around in Rangoon without seeing any of the famed attractions like the towering Shwedagon Pagoda is interesting enough for even a few days. The small streets between the busy avenues are lined with life. You can drink a fresh-pressed, iced sugarcane juice on any corner to cool off or grab some fried spring rolls on the go. You could get a rip repaired in a pair of pants under the shade of the unfamiliar trees or have your fortune told. Betel nut singles are available for about 50 kyat for a fix or hit up a beer station for some draft. Hawkers have everything from books to new underwear beneath umbrellas and odors of fried everything mingle with dust. Seeing it is a totally organic experience, like being in the dust.

Only open to travelers for a few years, Burma is a place to visit before the backpacker trail winds this way and, it is still authentically Burma.

Banging Bangkok

Sunday, April 28th, 2013

Bangkok is truly a SE Asian capitol with dimensions: it’s not just about tourism or debauchery in Bangkok. As frenetic and packed with tuk-tuks as its reputation bodes, in actuality, it’s much calmer and easier on the eyes than Hanoi or even Phnom Phen. It’s got the lugubrious Khao San road for foreigners’ revelry, oozing with knock-off t-shirts and touts ready to pounce; Sukhumvit for the metropolitans speeding to work on the Skytrain; grungy “adult shows” and cowboy bars in the alleyways of Silom; Siam for shoppers of all social class from Giordano to Gucci; and a half dozen or so other districts with everything for everyone. One can find food stalls and open air drinking areas with large bottles of Leo beer being downed or clubs with black and tie requirements. There’s jazz bars with cocktails or wine sinks where dabblers of the local rock scene tune up for jam sessions. Coated in a thick veneer of Thai-ness, the city can welcome you or dramatically repulse you.

The main backpacker village around Khaosan Road is a hilarious, sort of pathetic place. Throughout all SE Asia, Khaosan was the original template for the budgeter. It undoubtedly began as a few flophouses with mats on the floor and bongos for the entertainment of toking and drinking hippies but but now has bled out into the surrounding neighborhood, infecting as it flowed. Droves of travelers in oversized, colorful baggies and tank tops, the unofficial SE Asia uniform, resembling road workers from the Thai countryside sweat and grin and stumble around in flip flops muttering how cheap it all is. The dank rooms, absolutely fed in fandom by The Hangover 2, aren’t really cheap anymore. What once cost 5 dollars, AC and hot showers, can cost 25 or more for the same room; they didn’t even change the sheets. The street fare even comes close to the food courts in the Siam Square shopping malls. Two or three blocks East, the costs return to status quo; out of ear and eyeshot of the dirty, white ilk laughing that a large bottle of Chang is 80 baht. The irony is whole milk thick. Staying with the other backpackers can cost you more than simply booking a budget place in another district. The proximity to the Grand Palace and Wat Pho (reclining Buddha) is the only useful part of staying near Khaosan. After visiting those, there is no point. Four hundred baht can get you a double room with AC and a shower and 80 baht can get you a beer in a decent bar. Why smolder in the heat with the mosquitoes? Because that’s what backpackers do?

All of the temple/stupa sites are good for visiting and mostly in one area near the kdjdjdjjdj river’s bank. The reclining Buddha in Wat Pho is the largest of its kind in the world and a site of national renown. The site is crowded, and the Buddha is awesome in proportions. There’s not much to say that a picture couldn’t answer, and after seeing dozens of Thai temples, it’s a bit played out. The Palace, neighbor to the Buddha, is a huge complex with all sorts of pointy monuments and homage giving effigies to the king. It actually costs about 20 bucks to go in, so I skipped it. It’s doubtful much about it will change in the next few years, so I’ll catch it next time. If you are lost about what to see, there are info booths all over that can give advise. It’s best to just wander around without direction if the area is easily walkable. Sample the real life of the people. By this method, we found Patonggo Ice Cream: a famous sweets shop that has been there since 1933. Ironically, it’s mentioned in Trip Advisor.

Bangkok’s mix of modern and old school Asia makes it a pleasant place to spend a few days.

Siem Reap

Sunday, April 28th, 2013

Siam is razed; siam has fallen; siam is conquered. Hardly a polite meaning considering the number of tourists that traverse the taxing border crossing from Thailand, Poipet to visit Angkor Wat. Siem Reap clearly falls under the category of love or hate; there is no middle ground. All areas of tourism are addressed, so you could bar hop on the Pub Street, get harassed for dodgy massages, drink beer in your hostel with expats that accidentally ended up here semi-permanently or do some hardcore, countryside travel. Check out the “fish massage” on the main drag for 1 dollar (includes a free beer). Coral fish eat the dead skin off the bottom of your feet.

We ended up at Hak’s House, a brisk 10 minutes away from the noise. For 10 dollars a night in one of the heaviest tourist areas of Cambodia, it was worth the extra exercise. To find it, go out of town and look for Build Bright road. Ask for Build Bright University on the lefthand side of the road and walk onwards for another 2 minutes; Hak’s is on the left. The room was decent sized and quite clean. Be sure to have a beer or two with Steve or his son William, two guys that live in Siem Reap. They have war stories of all sorts that are entertaining and informative. Free breakfast is included! You will need it to take on Angkor Wat.

For food, don’t waste your time on searching out places along the Pub Street or the Old Market (where most backpackers can be located). Head over to the Central Market and search out a place called Father’s Restaurant. The costs may be 50c or one dollar more for the same dishes in other places but don’t worry. Everything we ordered here was simply fantastic; it truly saved my falling opinion of Cambodian cuisine. It also enabled me to try the only truly famous/infamous Cambodian culinary creation: Prohok. It’s a preserved, salted, pureed fish paste. The dish is incredibly salty and pungent, akin to preserved tofu found in Vietnam and China, and usually taken by dipping sliced cucumber, carrots or mango and eaten as an appetizer. Father’s features an entree version of the snack fried a bit with some pork, coconut and light curry. Delicious. Required eating. His takes on western burgers and such are also successful but not as interesting.

When you decide to do some “temple-ing”, it’s best to first consider how dedicated you are to see ruins. The ticket prices for foreigners are not cheap and there are no acceptable places for food and drink inside the park. Angkor Wat is actually part of a 200 square kilometer national park; the iconic three towered image featured on Cambodian currency, also called Angkor Wat, is at the entrance of the park. It’s 20 dollars for one day, 40 for three days or 70 for a week; tickets are regularly checked inside the park, so don’t lose them. Tour masters have drawn out two routes that you can follow so you aren’t wandering haphazardly. The small circuit can be undertaken in 6 or 7 hours split between morning and afternoon. It features some of the most famous temples and sites of the compound. trkeekjflkjaklfdklfjkl The large circuit can also be completed in a similar amount of time, but it requires more legwork. sdfsdajflkdsfldsajlf;lsdajfas Maps of the routes can be found around town in travel agents or in your hostel. It’s better to make a deal with one tuk-tuk driver to take you around for the 1-3 days; 7 days are only for the hardcore temple runners. I heard a group of National Geographic photographers also spent only 2 days doing photo ops; good enough for me. Bargain 10 dollars for the small circuit and 12 for the large; it takes talking but it can be done. Twelve and 15 are the normal going rates. These rates include a return to town for midday rest and lunch. Be cautious: temple-fatigue is a common illness amongst inexperienced and seasoned travelers alike. Symptoms include annoyance at seeing old rocks and snapping at touts.

The State of Backpacking

Saturday, April 27th, 2013

The state of budget travel is dire. The more people that arrive and allow themselves to be ripped off and say “it’s only 5 dollars” makes it harder for everyone. This behavior encourages locals to raise prices, creating their own false economy, simply because they can. And, while yes, it’s only 5 dollars, why should anyone be deserving of that money without working for it. Instead of applying themselves in worthier pursuits, they buy a tuk-tuk and spend their days drinking beer and ripping off ignorant travelers. Is this a viable way to support a family? Or, they open a dingy guesthouse, fire hazard and cheat outsiders that way. When the tourism biz vacates the area because its become notorious for liars and cheats, i.e. India, what will those guys do? For the poor saps that pay 800+ baht for Thailand Khaosan Road’s filthy cells: a proper hotel room can be secured for that. Prices similar can get a superior room in the neighboring countries. In a poverty ridden countryside town in Cambodia, allow yourself to be taken for the good of the local economy; where people are rail thin and meat is luxury. Most of the Khaosan locals are not poor and have never been that poor. Many are home or business owners leeching money from the tourist trade under the guise of “poor us”. I promise you that they aren’t eating half a bowl of fried rice or a child’s share of noodles for dinner for 3 times what it should cost. It’s a pervasive problem. Don’t allow them to create their false economy. Never give an obese beggar handouts.

Psychology eventually will coin the phrase “backpacker prejudice”. When one objects or rebels against the backpacker norm, foregoing the tie-dye baggies, eyes roll and accusations of not understanding “the real” culture surface. In actuality, they are creating their own culture: absolutely galvanizing themselves from anything remotely endemic to the country’s culture. As the traveler in long, baggy pants sweating magnificently in the Chiang Mai 38C degree heat said, “these are Thai pants, they breathe” Anyone casually observing the native population could immediately conclude, no Thai person is wearing pants similar to those. Traditional when and where? Traditional pajamas? Funerary costume? Foreigners walking in longyi, the traditional wrap in Burma is a bit more acceptable and less unsightly; most locals still dress that way. Don’t walk through the middle of the financial district in Hanoi wearing the conical Vietnamese headgear for farmers. Would you walk down Wall Street wearing overalls barefoot? Such hats are not traditional in every Asian country, either. If you want to appear local, first observe what locals are wearing.

The days of common rooms, sharing notes and mapping out routes on paper are bygone. A new generation of tattooed/pierced lazy, Lonely Planet junkies with IPad minis that scorn interaction and helping each other are roaming the streets throughout SE Asia. LP is supposed to be a guide for ideas of what to do and general info, not a travel bible to be followed blindly. It’s certainly not the limitation as to what you are supposed to do in a new country. Is this breed of traveler that makes it worse for all. Their recklessness and brashness. I personally mourn for the loss of common room beers and long stories from the veterans that have been traveling to far flung destinations for decades. It’s just a bit colder outside than it was in year’s past.