The royal boat that is the last boat in the parade

Myanmar (Burma)

Our next adventure was Myanmar (formerly Burma).   Because of the military dictatorship in the past, there weren’t many Western tourists here until the past few years, when Democratic elections began.  We wanted to see the rapidly developing new darling of Southeast Asia before it succumbs to Western tourism.

But we almost didn’t make it in the country, due to visa issues.  After booking flights a month or so ago, our plan was to get visas in Chiang Mai, by having the passports sent to Bangkok via courier.  When we arrived in Chiang Mai, the travel agents advised that we try the online eVisa instead.  From our research, the brand new online system had gotten good reviews and other travelers had gotten their visas within less than the promised five days.  We coughed up the $50 USD each for the online visas, but the day before our flight, the visas had not arrived.  At 5 pm the day before the flight (the fifth business day), our online status changed from “pending” to “approved” visas…but still no email with the official visa letter.  Because it was the weekend, we knew that we wouldn’t be able to get ahold of anyone from Myanmar immigration.

Then there was the issue of whether we boarded a flight to Myanmar without the visa.  We decided to take the flight from Chiang Rai to Bangkok, and try to convince the Air Asia attendants to let us on the flight to Yangon, Myanmar.   In Bangkok, they informed us that they wouldn’t let us on the flight without the approval letter, as someone in our situation had been sent back to Thailand at the Yangon airport a few days before.  Luckily, the email with the visa letter came through while we were standing at the Air Asia counter in Bangkok!  Saved by the email a few hours before our fight.  At least it was a happy end to a stressful part of our trip.

Arriving in Yangon, we were surprised that it felt more like a chaotic and dirty Indian city than a developing city in Southeast Asia.  Myanmar also has a hotel shortage, due to the recent backpacker influx, so the accommodation was not great for the price point.   However, the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon was amazing – 2000 years old, covered in gold leaf and topped with diamonds in a huge compound.   We met a girl from Colorado who is teaching English in Yangon on our flight, and met up with her for the pagoda and drinks!  However, we were sad to miss our friend Kyaw, who works in Myanmar.

Bagan was up next.   Reminiscent of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Bagan is covered with thousands of temples built by a civilization whose prime lasted ~200 years spanning the 11th and 12th century.   But unlike Angkor, the preservation, excavations, and renovations performed in the late 19th and 20th century were performed under a military government and often not historically accurate nor well done.   The cost of this was never obtaining UNESCO World Heritage status.   Nonetheless, there are over 3,000 temples, many large, many more small, and a dozen or so impressive and definitely worth a visit.

From Bagan we made our way to Kalaw, a backpacker friendly town at the top of a mountain pass, known for its hiking.   We found a great guide and enjoyed two day hikes in the surrounding mountains with him.

Inle lake, at the bottom of the mountains from Kalaw, is a small town and big lake that have been inhabited for thousands of years.   We took an all-day boat tour with an international crew we met the night before, and saw villages, temples, markets, tourist shops, and even a local festival parade, all along the lake and rivers.   Apparently over 100,000 people live on the lake – amazing!

We left just one full day in Mandalay, which we used to see the big sites.   The highlight is a palace at the center of a 2-km by 2-km moat in the middle of the city, leftover from the last emperor in the mid-1900’s, and Mandalay hill and surrounding temples on one of the moat’s corners.

Overall, we enjoyed the incredibly friendly faces in Myanmar, and it was interesting to see a country that is not Westernized or changed by tourism.   The people by far were the highlight.   They were so friendly, so warm and welcoming.   When you smile or give a little wave, in no other country do you receive back so many wide smiles and enthusiastic waves.

White Pagoda, Chiang Mai

Northern Thailand

After the culture shock of China, it was great to get back to comfortable Thailand.  We headed for a place that feels like home, because Jen taught English in Northern Thailand (Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai) in 2006.  And it might still be our favorite place.   We took a break from sightseeing and hung out, did some travel-planning, and enjoyed ourselves.  Chiang Mai has a wat (temple) on every corner in the old city,  vibrant night markets, and restaurants and spas the stuff of backpackers dreams.  Jon went mountain biking.  Oh, and did we mention there is a cat cafe?

We rested up for our next big adventure in Southeast Asia’s new darling, Myanmar.

AMAZING section of the wall, a few km's from the restored, touristy section - totally worth the hike!

China Cities, Walls and Warriors

After visiting the beautiful mountains in Southern China, we headed for the big cities.   On the way to Shanghai, we were once again saved by a kind, young Chinese person.  We had a quick connection between a bus and a train to China.  As we walked off the bus, we heard another, “do you need help?”  Our new friend, Deer, escorted us to the train station, offered to pay for the taxi fare, and even walked into the station with us to make sure we got on the train!  Another kind and helpful soul in China, during a stressful moment in transit.  With Deer’s help, we boarded the high-speed train and scooted to Shanghai at 304 km/hour.

Deer (as she said, "like the animal!") found us at the bus station in Changsha and helped us make the transfer - little did we know the North station is almost an hour from the West station (a testament of how BIG Chinese cities are), and we barely made our transfer.  Thanks, Deer!
Deer (as she said, “like the animal!”) found us at the bus station in Changsha and helped us make the transfer – little did we know the North station is almost an hour from the West station (a testament of how BIG Chinese cities are), and we barely made our train. Thanks, Deer!
High speed trains whiz through China, which boasts the most km's of high speed track in the world, by far.  It is impressive and makes getting around the massive country a relative breeze.
High speed trains whiz through China, which boasts the most km’s of high speed track in the world, by far. It is impressive and makes getting around the massive country a relative breeze.

In Shanghai, we strolled around the river for views of the skyscrapers and the colonial buildings.  Shanghai has some great museums with Chinese art and bronze work, and interesting colonial vestiges like as the French Concession, an area with beautiful tree-lined streets and Western boutiques.  We ate some delicious dumplings, but overall we were underwhelmed by Shanghai.

Next, we took an overnight train to Xi’an, the home of the famous terracotta warriors.   In contrast to international Shanghai, Xi’an itself is more of an authentic Chinese city.   Xi’an was the former capital of the Chinese empire under the influential Zhou, Qin, Han, Sui and Trang Dynasties.   The old city walls around Xi’an, dating from the 15th-16th century, are still intact.   But the main draw is of course the terracotta warriors, which are truly incredible.   In 246 BCE, Emperor Qin, at the age of 13, ordered the terracotta warriors made over the course of 40 years.  After the warriors were complete, he closed the doors of the tomb and buried the artists alive.  History forgot the warriors for about 2,200 years, until a farmer accidentally discovered the treasures in 1974 while digging a well.    There are hundreds of tombs at his burial site, but only four have been excavated.   When the warriors were unearthed in the 1970s, they originally were covered in paint, but the paint disappeared after a few minutes of exposure to air.  Because China still lacks the technology to unearth the treasures without damaging their integrity, they have put the excavations on hold until better technology is available.

After Xi’an, we were so excited to meet up with Jenn, a friend from home, in Beijing!  Jenn generously treated us to a gorgeous hotel, which was a very nice break from the budget hotels and hostels where we had been staying.  It was an even bigger treat to hang out with a friend from home, the first familiar face we’ve seen in over 3 months!  We toured all of the famous sites in Beijing, including the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and of course, the Great Wall.

The historical buildings were beautiful, but got repetitive, as the buildings all have generally the same architecture.   The Great Wall was pretty amazing, although we only got to see one section, including beautifully restored wall and unrestored wall.

We shared some great meals with Jenn in Beijing.  We loved the small but famous Peking Duck restaurant.   We also found an apparently popular hot pot restaurant which was an experience on its own:  the waiting room had a snack bar, masque painting, and a nail salon, and performers sang and danced while we dipped meat and vegetables into the boiling broth.  A bizarre and fun cultural experience!

A feel of tight authoritarian control permeated Beijing, more so than other areas of China we visited.  We crossed metal detectors and bag detectors several times per day – at least three metal detectors between the subway and the Forbidden City alone.   Several police vans and cameras were conspicuous in Tiananmen Square, as well as in other public areas.

Another obvious and constant restriction was the limitations on the internet.  Can’t visit Facebook.  Oh well, probably for the best.  No videos on Youtube.  Not the end of the world.   No Twitter.  No New York Times.  No NPR.  Pretty annoying.  NO GOOGLE?  That was the last straw.   How many times a day do you use Google?  We realized that for us, the answer is several times per day.   The feeling of being constricted in personal actions several times per day became unnerving, although we heard that there are easy ways to bypass the restrictions with a VPN.   Our guidebook estimates that up to 10% of all websites are blocked by the Chinese government at any time.

Overall, the time in China was eye-opening and fascinating, if uncomfortable at times.

View in one of the valleys in the park

China – Off the Tourist Path (a bit)

We actually have Pinterest to thank for our days in Southern China’s Zhangjiajie National Park.  Jen found photos of this place on Pinterest.  In spite of the Pinterest dreams, we never could manage to pronounce “Zhangjiajie” correctly, so we started calling it Jumanji instead.  So, I will continue to refer to it as Jumanji in this post.

During trip planning, we figured that we could try to get there from Guilin.  It didn’t look that far on a map, right?  Wrong.  Different province, and quite a distance between the two, especially when we discovered that the overnight tourist bus to Zhangjiajie, promised by several websites, did not exist.   We were at the bus station, coming to terms with this information when we were told that a bus leaving for another town where we could catch a train to Jumanji was leaving in ten minutes.  Without much thought and no great alternative, we jumped on the bus to avoid losing another travel day.   We boarded to a bus full of stares, as we were the only non-Chinese on the bus.

It was on this bus ride that we learned just how rustic toilets can get.  (A warning to our delicate readers: the next few sentences are definitely about toilets.)  We had already discovered that standard toilets in China are as follows: a squat toilet, BYO TP, which may or may not have a sink, which almost never has soap.  This includes toilets in nice areas.  The one exception were our toilets at the hotel.  (THANK GOODNESS.)   However, the squat toilets at the one stop on our locals-bus had the added bonus of lacking doors or walls between squatters, and only small bricks separating the holes in the ground.   Lovely!  I would rather go in the woods.

We rolled in a town called Huaihua around nightfall.  Unfortunately, the town was not even in our guidebook, and we had no access to internet to book accommodation after our quick decision.  Then there was the unfortunate fact that we don’t speak any Chinese – we had learned that few people speak English in outside of tourist areas of China, even at our hotels.  We had been getting around with a combination of help from our hotels and a translator application on the iPhone.

Stumbling off the bus to a street that was completely shut down at 7 pm, we were suddenly surrounded by a group of Chinese people who all seemed to want us to come with them.  We were feeling a bit overwhelmed when suddenly we heard a meek, “Hello, do you need help?”  A young Chinese couple had come to our rescue.  They guided us out of the excited mob and towards a hotel.  They even helped us check in, as no one at the hotel spoke any English.  Jen was so appreciative that she hugged the girl, who almost certainly did not appreciate the physical contact.  The hotel was actually pretty disgusting, but overall we were still happy to have been helped.

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Extremely grateful to our saviours in Huaihua, bringing us to a hotel after getting off a bus  in a Chinese city that sees almost zero tourists

We made it onto the train station the next day (On our own!  Victory!) and boarded a train for Jumanji.  It was on this train that we experienced the trash and other small kind acts from our fellow passengers mentioned in the last post.

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Pretty views of mountain countryside en route from Guilin to Zhangjiajie, via Huaihua.
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Along with the pretty views comes the not so pretty interior of the “hard seat” class – no trash cans, but people did come by to sweep up every so often
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Talking with some of the locals from Huaihua to Zhangjiajie was fun, here a young Huaihuan entrepreneur explained to Jon his business.

Jumanji was all that Pinterest promised it to be, and more.  Spires of karst limestone in deep valleys, including the spire that supposedly inspired the mountain in the movie Avatar.  We climbed up 3,878 steps (according to our guidebook) the first day, to incredible views of the formations in the valleys below.   We also soared through the spires on gondolas and watched the valley wall as we descended on a 335 meter glass elevator.

We walked around, and quickly learned what it must be like to be famous, because at least once an hour, Chinese people would request to take photos with us.  It would usually start with one group pose which would turn into many other arrangements with their extended friends and family.  Other times, folks nearby would see the photo session and want to have their own photo series with the random Western couple at the park that day.  Occasionally other Chinese people would randomly snap photos of us as they walked by: sometimes covertly, other times not.  A couple of times, we would request photos of the event as well, if we were feeling especially amused by our new-found paparazzi.   Although we have been asked to be in random photos before, the frequency of our paparazzi in Jumanji was astounding.

We had two other interesting cultural experiences in Jumanji – pushing grandmas and kids doing their business in public.  The first, pushing, usually involves shoulders etc in crowded areas, but in the particularly beautiful viewing platforms and while attempting to get on a bus, we experienced the two-hand push of grandmas.

The second, pooping kids, starts with holes in the crotch of small children, usually under the age of 4.  It’s common for children of this age to have the entire crotch of their pants open from front to back.  We learned what this was for when we saw children doing their business on the sidewalk, on the street, or wherever they had to go.  It could be into a bag, onto newspaper, or directly onto the ground, whether number one or number two.

We ended the time in Jumanji (alright, Zhangjjiajie National Park) amazed by both the views and the cultural experiences.

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Late dinner at the Huaihua hotel restaurant – language was a barrier, so honestly we weren’t sure what some of the food was :)
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Chinese breakfast served by an older gentleman in army fatigues each morning, who seemed to be yelling at us (no English of course), but had a heart of gold and became a highlight of our stay at our hotel in Zhangjiajie City.
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Delicious dinner at a Zhangjiajie City restaurant – we didn’t realize plates came “family style”, but we were happy to take leftovers home :)
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Lively street where our hotel was in Zhangjiajie City.

Now onto big city living, Chinese style – Shanghai and Beijing (with some 2,000 year-old warrior action thrown in-between).

Good shot of the rice terraces along the mountain side

China Mountains, Rivers, Valleys, and Terraces

At the time of writing this post, we are rolling through the Chinese countryside on a train.   Outside are pretty terraced rice fields with small hills rising between.  Inside, people are smoking cigarettes, spitting, (seemingly) yelling, and throwing all of their trash onto the ground, including peanut shells, wrappers, and plastic bottles.  However, our seat mates are friendly; one even bought water for us from outside the train at a stop!   Another practiced her English with us and gave us little moon cake snacks.  Such are the pleasures and difficulties of our time in China.

Jon and I had been in Southeast Asia for about 6 weeks at the time we entered China, plus the last 4 days spent in Hong Kong.  However, arriving in mainland China was still culture shock akin to a slap to the face…with a fermented fish.

We flew into Guilin, China, and pleasantly surprised to have no issues with Visa or arrivals whatsoever – we can probably thank the arrival at the small Guilin airport for this.  We were instantly attracted to the mountains surrounding the town, and eager to explore one of the top  tourist cities of China.   There was a night market that ran up and down the two streets that are hotel was on, which was cool, but other than that and a very artificial setup downtown with pretty lights all around the downtown lake.  Overall, the town of  Guilin was “meh,” but the surrounding scenery was gorgeous.

We did take a one day tour to “the Dragon Rice Terraces”, about a 3 hour bus ride from Guilin.   Situated deep in a river valley then rising up the sides of the mountains were centuries-old rice terraces.    Jon had a lot of fun hiking and exploring the trails and villages that winded throughout the terraces; Jen took the gondola due to an ankle injury.

We did have to endure the Chinese-style tour.  We quickly learned that this involved a Chinese tour guide speaking incredibly loudly for incredibly long stretches through a loudspeaker, in addition to being shuttled around like cattle.   Even the oft-used horn on the bus seemed to be at volumes many times the U.S. standard.   All volumes in China – speaking, phone calls, car horns, microphone, etc – seemed to be at much higher volumes than we are used to in the Western world.  Or, perhaps the rest of the world.  We learned our lesson…no more tours!

Our next stop was Yangshuo, which according to our guidebook is now often the preferred tourist city over Guilin.   To get there we took a “bamboo boat” river cruise down the Li River.  It was gorgeous scenery: the river is even featured on the back of the Chinese 20 Yuan bills!

Yangshuo was one of the highlights of China.   The “town” (which in China still means a population around 300,000) is surrounded by mountains and a river, and the central part of town is a pleasant place to stroll around and explore.   The lively walking street had it all: bars, restaurants, live music,  and even archery!

Best of all, Yangshuo is the perfect place to bike around.   We took off from our hotel just outside town, biked through town, crossing rivers and valleys leading outside of town to a mountain hike.   On the way back, we followed the Yilong river, which winds among the mountains and back rounds end up back in town.  One of the best (road) bike rides ever!

The karst limestone mountains around Guilin and Yangshou were stunning, despite the culture shock.  We headed for more mountain views in Zhangjiajie, China!

iew from walk on Victoria's Peak

I <3 HK

Hong Kong was a great break from the less developed countries that we’ve been in for several months now.   It is like Manhattan plopped onto Hawaii, with New York prices to match.  For that reason, we were very lucky to be hosted by the generous Ray and Sally Helfer, friends of Jon’s parents in Massachusetts.   He works in finance and has been working in Hong Kong for the past four years.   It was fascinating to hear about life and politics from someone who has been living there, including how much money there is, who has it, and how.

It’s amazing that 7 million people live together in such a small area.  Hong Kong is made up of several islands, two major ones, and almost all of the population lives along the coasts.  There are so many people, but unlike the large Southeast Asian cities like Bangkok, Hanoi and Saigon, there is much more structure – as Ray put it, “ordered chaos”.   There are stoplights and traffic rules, and people and vehicles actually obey them.  At least in non-tourist areas…

On the tram up to Victoria Peak for views of the city, we experienced our first Chinese pushing incident: right in front of us, people started aggressively pushing each other (and us) to get onto the tram.  We stayed back, but a fight almost broke out, and people were blocking anyone from entering that door of the tram!

Inland from the coasts are beautiful mountains and meadows, which Hong Kong has developed into some great recreational trails.  We hiked “Dragon’s Back”, one of the more scenic hikes.  It was gorgeous.   Best yet, the 3.5 hour hike ends at a beach.

Interestingly, while we were in Hong Kong, the “Occupy Hong Kong” conflict was gaining steam.  When Hong Kong was transferred to China in 1997, China promised elections in Hong Kong, but apparently the details of the promised elections are vague.  While Hong Kong is getting to vote in elections, the Communist Party in Beijing has decided that they will pick the candidates.  Protesters in Hong Kong, lead by students and professors, demand meaningful elections through their “Occupy” movement, promising to obstruct business as usual in Hong Kong. We didn’t directly see a protest, but we saw signs around town and articles in the newspaper. We will definitely monitor the outcome of this situation.

Overall, we loved the combination of city life, hiking and beaches that Hong Kong offers.  We hope to be back!  Now onto actual chaos…mainland China.

View from the outside of the cave we visited, 100s of feet above the water in a cool inlet

Northern Vietnam

From Nga Trang, we headed up the coast on overnight buses, first to Hoi An, then to Hanoi.   The bus was a sleeper bus, meaning no seats, just “beds” (big enough, but not very big – pretty much fully reclined, thin recliner bunk beds lining the sides of the bus, then one row down the middle) .

Hanoi is very similar to the hustle and bustle, crowds and whizzing motorbikes of Saigon, but boasts a “touristy” area that is much more beautiful and pleasant to spend time in.   The center of this area is a beautiful lake, with interwoven streets lined with shops, restaurants, and street vendos.   Just next door is The French Quarter, where most French lived during the colonial period before (the much revered) Ho Chi Minh lead the Vietnamese to run them out in the 50’s.   We enjoyed the fanciest meal of our trip there, in a nice French-Vietnamese restaurant, in celebration of our 2 year anniversary.

We were lucky to celebrate again on our Halong Bay overnight boat cruise, where apparently our hotel concierge had informed the boat company of our special day, and surprised us with a cake!  It was fun to celebrate again, especially with our eight boat mates.

We also had a fun night on the town the following night in Hanoi with a Kiwi couple living in Australia.  We are looking forward to seeing them again in Melbourne!

Hoi An was a much more quiet, quaint town in comparison to Hanoi and Saigon.   The main part of town was clearly built and centered around tourism, and seemed to have some good money pumping in, as all the buildings and streets were very pretty, well built and maintained. In addition to getting tailored suits made there, we took a day trip to a nearby island, enjoyed some incredible snorkeling and time relaxing on a beautiful white, sandy, remote island beach.

Jon & Jen's Excellent Adventures

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