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.


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.

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.

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.

IMG_2761 (2)
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.

Pretty views of mountain countryside en route from Guilin to Zhangjiajie, via Huaihua.
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
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.

Late dinner at the Huaihua hotel restaurant – language was a barrier, so honestly we weren’t sure what some of the food was 🙂
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.
Delicious dinner at a Zhangjiajie City restaurant – we didn’t realize plates came “family style”, but we were happy to take leftovers home 🙂
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).