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.
Yagon city hall surrounding a nice central park
Nicely restored colonial building on a another side of the central park
Much less love paid to the other side of the nicely restored colonial building – the car entryway now fenced off and a mere shadow of its former glory
Temples galore surrounding the main temple in Yangon
Tea shops are all over Myanmar – fun to get the tasty tea with snacks in the afternoon – this one at the train station… note the tiny chairs and tables, which are also used in Vietnam.
Monsoon-like downpour hit during the second half of our circle train ride (taking a train around the suburbs of Yangon has become a tourist thing to do)
Another decrepit colonial building in Yangon – this picture doesn’t show how run-down the building was – and amazingly people were inside, it was still being used (but for what, we rather not know)!
All women and nearly all men wear what they call a “Longi” vs. pants or shorts.
Typical Yangon downtown street
Yangon apartments along the downtown street
The apocalyptic train ticket booths – ticket doesn’t show how creepy it was. At least there’s a way to voice your complaints.
The main pagoda at night
Main pagoda with sun going down
The local train we were on was a bit nicer than this other train
Another pagoda – as our guidebook says “not every city has a 2,000 year-old structure as a traffic circle”
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 11thand 12thcentury. But unlike Angkor, the preservation, excavations, and renovations performed in the late 19thand 20thcentury 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.
When kids try to sell you stuff, make them jump for pictures instead!
Jen’s brilliant jumping distraction tactic in action again. We had a lot of fun, and the kids did too 🙂
The tallest pagoda in Bagan
Breakfast setting at our hotel – so nice to stay in fairly nice hotels that include breakfast for cheap!
Bagan temples EVERYWHERE – makes for really pretty landscape
“The crown jewel” of the Bagan temples – built towards the end of the peak of the civilization in the 13th century
The largest temple in Bagan – the inside halls were massive
Hotel pool with temple in the background – good way to cool during the HOT mid-day temps
Bagan temple close to the river that you used to be able to climb to the top level, but now closed off – bummer
Jen bought a longi for visiting temples – you have to cover shoulders and knees, so taking it on and off is best way to stay cool. Here local teens came over to help Jen put it on properly
Watching sunset from atop a temple
From our bus to hotel via a local taxi (i.e., the back of a pickup – it was actually really comfortable)
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.
Day 2 hike – looking down at Kalaw from a local temple, with Myanmar-style dragons
Day 1 hike, lunch spot
Our hiking guide dropping off origami presents at our hotel to compensate for taking a wrong turn in a tea plantation – he was awesome, so nice!
Central temple in Kalaw
Shan noodles – dish found throughout Myanmar but originated in the Shan states (Shan is an ethnic group of people, Kalaw is within the Shan states)
View from hiking
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!
Festival hall along Inle Lake
Traditional “long neck” woman – the rings are crazy heavy
Lucky to catch a festival for full moon – this one of many boats, each powered by a Inle lake village, that make-up a “parade of boats”
The royal boat that is the last boat in the parade
Myanmar venice – boats are used along the canals, no roads
“Leaping Cat” temple – with its namesake paying tribute to a statue
The boats that swarm Inle Lake, here waiting in the main town closest to the lake
Hot springs near the lake – nice 45 minute bike ride from town
Part of the festival, small, seemingly makeshift “parade” of 8 or so men and an elephant, going through town
The fish was so good – all this was less than $8
Home on the lake – a little boy poking his head through a window to check us out
We thought the town would be a lot cleaner, being touristy and close to the lake, but its downtown streets, especially after a rain storm here, are not too nice.
Myanmar vineyard – wines not amazing, but certainly good enough and views were great
Candles as part of the festival, a lot of homes and shops getting decked out like this
Vineyard with some workers leaving for the day
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.
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?
Mountain biking in Chiang Mai
Mountain biking in Chiang Mai
Hill farm while mountain biking in Chiang Mai
Sunday night market in Chiang Mai
Driveway to hotel (not ours :)) in Chiang Mai
Local Chiang Mai dish – so delicious!
Jon in Kitty Cafe heaven
Main wat in Chiang Mai
Saturday night market in Chiang Mai
Part of the mountain top complex of Jen’s favorite Thai wat (temple)
Chiang Mai Police station spirit house – every building in Thailand (including homes, hotels, restaurants) has a “spirit house”, this was a good one
BAGELS! First ones in 4 months – thank you to the Thai woman who worked in Aspen, lived in Denver, who owns and runs the shop with her two sisters!
Smile is #2
Hygiene and cuteness
Mom…. ???? No clue.
Statues outside the mountain top wat
Mountain top wat – Jen’s favorite Thai wat (or temple)
Muay Thai session – wholly moly that was a workout. Super fun too.
We rested up for our next big adventure in Southeast Asia’s new darling, Myanmar.
Our hotel was “Da Hug” in Chiang Rai – quirky and adorable
Posing with White Pagoda intricacies
White Pagoda, Chiang Mai
Clock tower, downtown Chiang Mai
Night market in Chiang Mai
Really cool cafe along the river in Chiang Mai
Inside one of the many, many wats visited in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai
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.
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.
Skyline around People’s Park
Building in Yuyuan
Garden in Yuyuan – lots of rocks, very pretty and cool
Cute Chinese man that paints with his fingers and hands in Tianzifang, cool (but touristy) artsy neighborhood in the French concession. We bought one of his pictures!
Pudong (new city) skyscrapers
The Bund skyline at night, from Pudong
View from our hotel. Residential high rises like these are in every city – crazy how many people live in these cities!!
People’s Park, fountain outside the Shanghai museum
View of Pudong from the Bund
Nice walkway along the Bund
View of Pudong from the Bund
The Power Station, former industrial buildings turned art galleries – just like our “RiNo” neighborhood in Denver 🙂
Dim Sum in the French Concession – yum!
Subway in Shanghai – typical scene anytime around rush hour
Dumpling factory – this from a food court in a mall (throughout China, food courts in malls have some of the best food)
Colonial elegance in Shanghai, in the famous hotel on the Bund
Colonial bank ceiling on the Bund
Ancient Chinese bronze masterpiece at the Shanghai Museum
Chinese Porcelain at the Shanghai Museum
Really cool paintings at the Shanghai Museum
Displays of all the ethnic groups in China at the Shanghai Museum
Old town Shanghai
Frogs ready for purchase and consumption in Old Town, Shanghai
We had to get this shot – Chinese toddlers very often had crotchless pants… practical for sure, but hard to get used to!
Model of Shanghai at the Urban Planning Museum – crazy big city!!
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.
Main excavation pit – aircraft hanger size – huge!
We are terracotta warriors.
“The lucky one” – of all 8,000 warriors, the only one to be fully intact!!
The farmer who found the site in the 70’s – there to sign books, very cool!
Also unearthed at a nearby tomb for the emperor – chariot made of all bronze – amazing artistry.
Near the touristy square of Xi’an city
The main pagoda in Xi’an
Xi’an museum overrun with tour groups…
Xi’an city walls – they surround the old town
Muslim Quarter of Xi’an – probably the coolest area of the city
Looks like amazing yellow cake, but actually not that tasty rice instead!
The terracotta army in one of the rows up close
Rows and rows, thousands and thousands in the army
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 wall from a lookout tower
After walking a few km’s, you can hit the unrestored section
AMAZING section of the wall, a few km’s from the restored, touristy section – totally worth the hike!
Unrestored section climbing up and over a steep section of a mountain
Unrestored section – navigating around some of it can get tricky
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.
Inside the Forbidden City
Every buildings’ roof had these processions – the length of each signifies the building’s importance
Pano inside the main section of the Forbidden City
Main building of the Forbidden City
Lions like this guard many of the buildings in the Forbidden City
Park next to the hill outside the Forbidden City
Park next to the hill outside the Forbidden City, with a white pagoda on top of its hill
Park next to the hill outside the Forbidden City
Temple of Heaven pagoda
Temple of Heaven pagoda inside
Opera house in the Summer Palace
Confucius statue at the Emperial College
Lama temple – HUUUGE standing buddha inside
Lots of security outside of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City was
Forbidden City from the hill
Jenn and Jen at the park next to the hill outside of the Forbidden City
Jenn and Jon at the Summer palace
HUUUGE standing buddha inside the Lama temple – it was over 8 stories high (and had a Guinness book of World Records plaque outside of it – Google it to find out more :))
Nice touch to a subway station
Hot pot dinner – yummy and so fun!!
Jenn bought a fan from a cool shop on a “hutong” – old alleyway that they converted to cool artsy neighborhoods with boutique shops
The acrobatics show was impressive – especially the final act here, 7 motorcycles got into this cage at one time!!
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.
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.
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.
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.
A zillion steps to climb to get to the top – luckily we took the cablecar down.
Descending in the cable car – amazing views. Youtube has a guy in a squirrel suit zipping by the mountains and cable cars – nuts!
One of many Chinese tourists asking for pictures with us – fun to feel like celebreties!
Bridge over a valley very, very, very far below.
Zhangjiajie – it really does look like a more jagged, green Grand Canyon in spots
Zhangjiajie – The Chinese Grand Canyon
Taking the elevator down the cliffs was really cool
Pano looking up at a set of mountains from the bottom of the elevator
(a very tall) Chinese pagoda structure at one of the entrances to the park
Mountain “needles” all throughout the valley!
We couldn’t find someone to take our picture in the heart locket 🙂
One of the more elaborate spreads at one of many many food stands within the park
After walking down 1000’s (literally close to 2 km of mostly steps), it was nice to take the tourist train down the rest of the way
View in one of the valleys in the park
Walk along the river that cuts through the park
Along the river that cuts through the park – – seeing the mountains first from above looking down, then from below looking up, was cool
View at one of the entrances to the park
Another view at the same entrance to the park
Looking down the valley after our first hike up – the view was worth it
Jen at one of the many lookouts along a 2.5 km loop at the top of the park
View while going up another set of cable cars
“Locks of love” at the “Greatest Natural Bridge” within the park
“Avatar Mountain” – James Cameron says his inspiration was from somewhere else, the Chinese don’t buy it and insist its from here 🙂
View looking across the valley, near “Avatar Mountain”
Alongside one of the trails, evidence of the 1000’s and 1000’s of visitors that come through the park each day
View of the third tram in the park – we took a bus to the top of this one
Pano of the biggest and nicest McDonald’s we’ve ever seen, in the mountains of a Chinese National Park
Snapshot of a man keeping cool – everywhere we went in China you can find men with shirts rolled-up, takes some getting used to
Taking a “sedan” – don’t see how you can’t feel bad having people lug you around, especially given how steep and long the steps along the “trails” get
Monkeys! Love to dive-bomb for loose food and drinks – we learned from our Thai monkey run-in
Monky momma and baby!
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.
Now onto big city living, Chinese style – Shanghai and Beijing (with some 2,000 year-old warrior action thrown in-between).