Vietnam

October 18th, 2015 (Sunday)

In no-man’s-land!

When I went through Immigration in Myanmar, the lady at the counter had raised her eyebrows at the limited VISA stamp space I had in my passport. I did not think much about it or worry about it as a seal could always be put in some limited space, right?

WRONG!!!

At the Cambodian border, I was stamped out of the country with no fuss. We then went to the duty-free area for lunch. Then the bus ambles into the Vietnam border. The bus steward collected the passports from everyone. The idea was that he would take it to the Immigration counter, get it stamped, return it to us, and then help us through the security check and scan. When he brought back the passports, I could see that mine was in a unque position. Uh … Oh …

Then the bomb dropped. Vietnam Immigration will NOT stamp my passport as it does not have enough space.

What do I do now?
Why can’t they stamp in the in-between spaces?
Can I talk to the Immigration Officer directly?
Should I bribe?
Should I head back to Cambodia? But then VISA was single-entry! It should be fun explaining my predicament to a person who knows zero English …
Which city has the nearest Embassy/Consulate?
Will the remaining of my vacation be in this no-man’s land???

My mind was in a whirl.

I could see all my fellow bus passengers cross into Vietnam and get in the bus. I was stuck, neither here or there. I approached a couple of guards to enquire about options. No English signs anywhere and no one knows English either.

Anyone who has seen the movie “The Terminal” (Tom Hanks) can get a feeling of the situation πŸ˜‰

I was sure of one thing. If they want, there is definitely space to squeeze in a seal. In that case, are they angling for money? After approaching various counters and officers, it was clear. They want bribe.

The Giant Ibis bus steward had put me in touch with a guy who supposedly took care of “such problems”. This saviour came after 45min. My luxury bus had long gone. My co-passengers would sure be wondering what happened to the “DSLR guy”?

After some haggling and after paying 3 levels of bribes, voila, got the stamp! The officer, who clearly got a cut, made a show of serious review of the VISA stamp, for the benefit of everyone in the Immigration hall.

I had to take a junk bus, that too the spring-board-attached seat right at the back, to finally get to Ho Chi Minh City. From the final bus stop, it was a short enough walk to the hotel.

After dumping my bag in the room and a quick shower (Man! Did I deserve one …), I headed out for dinner. In Vietnam, most ATMs charge a “fee”. E.g. For 25 USD, around 2USD fees.

I had grilled shrimp, Pho and a beer for dinner. The waiter had to call his friend, who spoke English, to help with translation πŸ™‚

While walking back to hotel after dinner, I got to see a traffic cop ask a lady scooter driver to stop and she calmly dodged him and took off!

October 19th, 2015 (Monday)

Had to wake up early as my tour guy said pickup was at 7.05AM. Had a hurried breakfast. The guide Duc (pronounced “Dook”) came right at 7:05:00 AM!

The tour group consisted of your truly, a New Zealand couple (who already spent a week in Hanoi and were on the way to Cambodia), an Italian-Australian couple (Lawyer-Government-Employee and his NGO wife) and an Australian couple (who held US passports as well).

Some tit-bits from the tour and some random notes:

# Ho Chi Minh, considered Father of Vietnam, travelled a lot to learn Communism in depth.

# The French divided Vietnam in North/Central/South provinces, for easier rule. After Japanese occupation during WWII 1942-45, French returned. US backed Viet Minh fighters against the French. Viet Minh originally built Cu Chi Tunnels. But it was Viet Cong (Guerilla Communists in South Vietnam) who took the tunnels to a totally new level.

# Along with fighting South Vietnam, US Etc., Viet Cong did 20 years of digging!

# Vietnam flag is a red flag with yellow star. The Communist sickle/hammer flag is also present everywhere.

# Cu Chi Tunnels had 3 levels, all the way down to bunker levels. Viet Cong folks were relatively small and hence the tunnels were built to be very narrow.

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A model of the Cu Chi Tunnels, showing the various levels, the link to the river … Amazing.

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The map showing the various territories … Conflict areas, Safe zones, Villages Etc.

# Cu Chi Tunnels is on Highway 22, on way to Cambodia border. Cu Chi area gets around 1 Million visitors a year.

# The tunnels had hospital/kitchen/rest-area/wells and even a connection to Saigon river. The exhaust vents were covered with leaves to camofluge.

# Viet Cong recycled US bombs for raw materials.

# Viet Cong were tough! 20 years of fighting, digging, building, getting bombed, rebuilding Etc.

# Just like in USA, the driver sits on the left and drive on the right side of the road.

# Reunification or Independence Palace: Nothing fancy. Mainly a museum for South Vietnam President. His office, dining room, bedroom, war room, bunker Etc. It was very crowded though, with tourists.

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Reunification Palace … Ho Chi Minh City.

# War Remnants Museum: An ode to Vietnam’s hatred for USA. Napalm, Agent Orange (Dioxin), Torture, Executions Etc.

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War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City. There were several displays of US Vietnam War equipment …

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Vietnam and Street-Vendors galore …

Quite disturbing …

# Street vendors are everywhere. And most of them have a lot of customers as well.

# Saw a lot of the consulates around. Just like their proximity in foreign policy, US and British consulates are right next to each other πŸ™‚

# Unlike in Myanmar and Cambodia, craze for US Dollars is not there in Vietnam. You can get by with Vietnam Dong (pronounced “Dom”) just fine.

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Communism & KFC? Oh well … πŸ˜‰

# Though the country preaches Communism a lot, it appears quite Capitalist as far as I can see.

October 20th, 2015 (Tuesday)

Other than taking care of my passport woes (Which forced me to cancel the 2-day Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi train plans), and some walking around HCMC, it was a light day.

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The Saigon City Hall … Such a magnificent building. All decked up at night …

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I did notice several Indian restaurants … This is one of them. Did not see any Indians around though …

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Saigon Opera House … The A O Show was well worth it.

I even took a siesta after lunch.

Based on Annie’s recommendation, I saw the A O Show today. It was awesome! A symphony of dancing, bamboos, baskets and culture.

October 21st, 2015 (Wednesday)

# Motorcycle taxi guys and shoe-shine guys harass you. If you are obviously a tourist, with dangling camera for example, you will have your own entourage πŸ˜‰

# Did a 4km (one way) walk in the humidity to visit the Museum of Vietnam History. It was just about okay. Small, but some decent exhibits, including a 19th century Vietnamese Mummy.

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Vietnam Museum of History … Not a big one. But some interesting displays all the same.

# French colonial buildings are everywhere. Looks beautiful … Example, City Hall, Opera House Etc.

# Did see some Indians on the road and also noticed a few Indian restaurants.

# Ho Chi Minh City in October is humid like crazy. Need to change T-shirts twice a day.

# I was adviced by Annie (Hotel Manager) to take Bus #152, which is the easiest way to the Ho Chi Minh City Airport. The bus driver pulled a fast one on me. He made a huge rukus when I got in (I was the 1st) and made me pay double the charge, by using some super-speed Vietnamese :-). Since the rates are ultra-nominal, I considered it my tip and moved on.

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My buddy Bus Driver πŸ™‚ Though the dude ripped me off, it was a small amount …

# Tan Son Nhat Domestic Terminal looks pretty hip and neat. Good job Vietnam!

Adios!

Cambodia – The Khmer Kingdom

Lately, my strategy when I travel to so-called “cash economy countries” is to use the airline paper bag (the one they give for throwing up :-)) for storing cash. These bags are lined with a material that makes it sturdy and good for such use. I do not carry a wallet when I travel (and keep my cards tucked away safely).

Charge outlet hunting is a hobby of mine and I guess other Internet-heavy travellers like me.

October 14th, 2015 (Wednesday)

Did I land in US? There is US Dollars everywhere! ATMs (!!), shops, restaurants Etc. They give change in USD, even for 100 dollar bills, for crying out loud. I was deternined to get hold of Cambodian Riels. I was the only dummy doing so and I sense the disgust in the lady’s face. Changed USDs at a very unfavorable rate and got some Riels.

The flight landed at 9PM. At the immigration, the eldery lady was talking to herself in I assume Khmer, loudly, and a couple of times I asked “Excuse me?” and she looked at me as if I am the nut πŸ™‚ After getting a local Sim Card (voice and data) for 5USD (the guy at the counter was very helpful), I came out of Arrivals at around 10PM. Since my hotel was around 10Km from airport and I wanted to try the “motorcycle taxi”, I asked a few guys loitering around their bikes. All of them funnelled me to a taxi stand where they rip you off for 7-10 USD, where as Tuk-Tuk and motorcycle cost 1-3 USD (if you negotiate hard enough). This was a scam and I am sure the taxi guys make it “worth the while” of motorcycle guys. I walked out of the airport onto a quite dark and lonely Highway6. Also no motorcycles in sight. Finally, spent 5$ on a motorcycle-Tuk-Tuk and the guy took off in the “opposite direction” (as per my self-orientation). My risk radar went up and I revised all my Karate and Kung-Fu moves. Actually, no worries, the guy took me to the right Hotel ;-).

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Siem Reap International Airport … An airport just for Angkor Wat πŸ™‚

I need a clean room, hot shower, TV, WiFi and breakfast. When travelling alone, I try and spend ZERO on beautiful garden, beautiful pool, overpriced and non-ethnic restaurants, decorations Etc. I spent minimal time at the Hotel.

But Angkor Palace Resort is the kind of place I use for Family vacations, where more time is spent at the Hotel itself. Because the rates during this period was reasonable, I had booked here.I looked like a vagabond, sweaty and with facial hair. I got the welcome fit for a Khmer Emperor. Drinks, garland, some kind of music Etc.

During the flight to Siem Reap, I noticed it was 99% whites. It was almost as if I was in a Western country.

October 15th, 2015 (Thursday)

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Angkor Palace Resort & Spa … Very comfy, excellent breakfast buffet … Highly recommend the Hotel.

At 8AM, after a little wait at the lobby, my guide Wan showed up. He spoke excellent English and could do Aussie, American and British accents well :-). English/Khmer/French are taught in local high schools and that explains the language proficiency. He gave a heads-up about Ramayana/Mahabaratha influences on Angkor. As usual, KFC/McDonalds were around. He spoke a bit about the huge Tonle Sap lake(pronounced “Tholle Saap”). Our tour, a small.group tour, had 4 people. An Australian lady Michelle (Who loves Roller Derby!), Australian Greg who is married to a Filippino lady and Khmer Emperor George Attokaran ;-). Michelle had spent some time in Bengaluru/Bangalore and shared her experiences in India. Wan explained that there are state-run free children and maternal hospitals.

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The Small Group Angkor Tour … Australian, Australian-Filipino, Australian & Indian-American. Aussies love South-East Asia πŸ™‚

Some titbits from the tour:

# Angkor Wat has a moat all around it. Legend has it that it was filled with crocodiles in the past. Now, it is just fish. I hope this is true for I found children playing in the moat!

# It took 40 years to built Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the World.

# Angelina Jolie – Very famous in Cambodia! All due to Lara Croft – Tomb Raider. Especially, Ta Prohm Temple, many portions of which are recognizable from the movie.

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The majestic Angkor Wat … UNESCO World Heritage Site. The pride of Cambodia.

# I cannot believe this. Apparently, a Vietnamese private firm has leased Angkor Wat for 90 years! Talk about swindling Cambodian common man of the riches from his own heritage. No wonder I could sense some level of frustration with the Government.

# Many artifacts were stolen from Angkor Wat, over the years. Also, many statues are without heads (Stolen!)

#Angkor Thom, the capital of the Khmer Kingdom houses the Bayon Temple. King Jayavarman VII (the most famous of the Khmer Kings) built it.

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Bayon Temple, Angkor Thom, Siem Reap, Cambodia. Wherever you look, there is Buddha’s face.

# Angkor Wat is dedicated to Vishnu, the “Lord of the West”. Historians.use that to explain the main entrance pointing to West.

# Apparently, there is a law that no building can be taller than Angkor Wat.

# At Ta Prohm Temple, you can see the power of nature. The tall trees, whose roots destroy huge stones!

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One of the freakish tree roots …. Ta Prohm Temple (“Lara Croft – Tomb Raider”).

We had a nice lunch, with huge bottles of Cambodian beer, chatting about the places we have visited and our experiences in Cambodia.

After seeing Angkor Wat, Bayon Temple and Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm Temple, we were all “templed out” (Wan’s phrase :-). By 3PM, we were finished with the tour. As is the custom, I tipped the guide and the driver. They dropped me off at Pub Street. I spent the next 1-2hrs hunting for souvenirs amd buying takeout (Did not want to step out again, as heavy rains were looming). Postcards, Paintings, Curios Etc. were purchased. My backpack will start bulking up for sure … I then took a.motorcycle taxi back to the hotel. Just when we reached the hotel, the skies opened up.

October 16th, 2015 (Friday)

After a light breakfast (When I started out, I used to gorge on sausages amd other unhealthy stuff, end up bloated for the rest of the day. Nowadays I limit to Coffee, Bread, Egg, Fruits and Yogurt).

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After a day of heavy (read, “unhealthy”) breakfast, went light … Very light. Fruit Salad and Yogurt. Felt good …

I checked out at 8.15AM, such that I could reach Angkor National Museum, right as it opened at 8.30AM.

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Angkor National Museum … Batik paintings were nice. The 1000 Buddha room was amazing.

Some tit-bits from Angkor National Museum:

# 1000 Buddha Gallery: Claimed to be the largest collection in the World. Spanning 12th till 19th century. Lot of the statues were saved from various Cambodian temples and stored here. There are Buddhas made of wood, sandstone, metals Etc. Tiny to huge Buddas. 1000 of them!

# Mainly 3 periods: Pre-Angkorian (1st till 8th century), Angkorian (9th till 13th century), Post-Angkorian (14th till 20th century)

# Khmer civilozation is heavily influenced by Indian civilizations

# Brahmanism and Buddhism were the state religions

# Khmer art founded on Indian base: Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer.

# Angkor was the capital of Khmer Civilization

# Both the main types of Buddhism, Hinayana (One buddha, Strict) and Mahayana (Multiple Buddhas, Less strict) were practised here

# Jayavarman VII (1181-1218, just 37 yrs old at death!?) was Mahayana follower

# Suryavarman II (1113-1150) and Jayavarman VII areΒ  the 2 greatest Khmer kings. J7 built Angkor Thom, Bayon, Ta Phrom Etc. J7 was known as a builder and he had a very stable government. J7 made Khmer the greatest empire in South-East Asia. He built rest houses every 15ms and hospitals were alao built. J7 defeated Cham and ruled Champa region for 17 years. There are J7 statues all over country, in buildings, roadside Etc.

# After seeing local Batik paintings and how they are made, I had to buy one. Bought a very colorful one.

# Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the World, UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has had changes over the years, with each King adding to it. Lots of statues were donated to Angkor Wat.

# Angkor Thom was a very well-planned city by the standards 1000yr ago.

# India, with rich heritage and culture, has to learn from countries Cambodia on how to market, preserve and present. I have seen centuries old sites in India being used as Urinals. Hope the South East countries inspire India to showcase its wonders in a more tourist-friendly way.

# The museum also had a “Story from Stones section (Mainly inscriptions on.rocks), Khmer.costume gallery, Apsara gallery Etc.

With galleries, A to G, it offers quite a deep insight into Angkor amd Khmer details.

The bus from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh is run by Giant Ibis. Somewhat of a letdown after Myanmar JJ Express @-). But still,.with food, WiFi and charge outlets Etc. pretty good as well.

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Giant Ibis Bus Station, Siem Reap. Though not as luxurious as the Myanmar bus, good enough.

During the ride to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap, there were several breaks, restroom break and food break. At one of the restrooms, they had pineapple skins in the urinals. First I went “Who the heck dumped this here?!?”. Then I noticed it is in all πŸ™‚

Like in USA, driver sit on the left, and drive on the right side of the road.

I was sitting right in the front. It was photos galore. I also listened to music while working on the blog. In Sri Lanka, on the way to Sigiriya, a poor dog jumped in front of the van and got killed. It was a gruesome sight for the kids. Here, a dog jumped in front of the huge bus and somehow (!!!) miraculously escaped … All of us went “Ohhhhhhh …”.

The highway started and ended fine. Wide and smooth. But the middle portion was a nightmare (Due to construction). Still, the bus with its multiple axles, was smooth through the rough patches.

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The roads to Phnom Penh started off like this ….

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In between, due to construction, it was pretty bad …

The hotel was a short 2Km walk from Giant Ibis Station. I was swarmed by food vendors, Tuk-Tuks, Motorcycle Taxis Etc. I walked around, briskly, with my hand held up as if I was blessing everyone (Actually, was indicating “No”).

After checking in and depositing my backpack, I ventured out in search of food. The hotel is right next to Royal Palace. There, right in front of “Royal” security, a guy was peeing near a well-groomed tree. Maybe he was sending a message to the Government πŸ˜‰

I noticed this street vendor whose stall was swarming with locals. I saw her grill some meat and I recognized the dried meat I had seen in Siem Reap. I ordered 3$ worth and ended up with 0.50$ worth (They recognize a non-local, They have eyes :-). It was a good thing for I just could not eat it.

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The “chewing gum” … πŸ™‚ I just could not finish it.

During the trip to Phnom Penh, right through the countryside, there were houses on stilts. This apparently is common in the country, due to threat of floods.

October 17th, 2015 (Saturday)

Mekong river is the lifeline of Cambodia. It has the 2nd largest wetlands in Asia (after Bangladesh and Brahmaputra) and is 2nd only to Amazon in biodiversity. One can take river cruise along Mekong river to Siem Reap!

“Cyclo” == Motorcycle Taxi πŸ™‚ Sounds like X-Men.

Daro, my guide moved to Phnom Penh in 2009, leaving his parents in their village near Thai border. It is a 9hr bus ride to his village. He had come to Phnom Penh for education and better propects. Daro stays with his Uncle who also has been a tour guide for 15yrs. Daro was born in 1992 and his Father is a policeman. His one sister is married and is a homemaker. His Uncle is his mentor, and his ambition it to make tourism his firm career. His Uncle’s family loves to watch Hindi movies :-). Daro’s family being in the village, were saved from Pol Pot regime. But his Grand-Father who was a member of former government was killed. His Father now works as a policeman.

Some titbits from the Tour:

# Pol Pot, who was against cities amd modernity, made Phnom Penh a ghost city, by destroyed hospitals, stupas, temples Etc. He also drove everyone to the countryside.

# Phnom Penh has 3M people.

# There are “democratic” elections every 5yrs, which is a one party (Cambodia People’s Party). Current Primeminister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge regime member, is friendly with Vietnam.

# Around 50% of the population is less than 20, years old!

# Pol Pot was so paranoid, he killed even his own regime members. Mahatma.Gandhi would have loved this guy …

# Hun Sen has a huge.palace like house, actually multiple ones. Hail Communism!

# There is only me on the Tour! Personal guided tour. Alright! πŸ™‚

# Tuol Sleng: From school to Prison S21. There was VIP Prison A (For former government folks). There was also mass detention rooms.

# Kampuchea is the preffered local name for Cambodia …

# France ruled IndoChina, Laos/Vietnam/Cambodia for around 90 years …

# Vietnam attacked Pol Pot for 2 reasons: Mekong/Saigon area threat and also the sheer atrocities.

# Just before Pol Pot and his cronies fled Phnom Penh , though they wanted to kill all prisoners, 26 were left. 14 of them died horrible deaths, captured in grizzly photographs by Vietnamese journalists. 12 escaped, 7 adults and 5 children.

# I met the 2 surviving adults, from the original 7. They run their own charities and come to Tuol Sleng daily. 4 of the 5 children are alive and in their 40s.

# Around 388 killing.fields and 150+ prisons. Pol Pot was a busy guy.

# A former Math teacher became leader of prison, (” Duch” was his name). He was tried for genocide later on …

# Most of Khmer Rouge regime came back and joined the new government.

# The Khmer Rouge was so good ar brainwashing young teenage soldiers that they killed their own families.

# Women had to cut their hair short, in the prison.

# The Killing Fields was marketed as the “New Home” by the regime. How sad!

# The adult survivor, who is now 85 years old, was a mechanic. While Khmer Rouge was torturing him, he kept saying that he was just an ordinary mechanic. Finally, they asked him to repair a broken typewriter to prove his skills. If he failed, that was it for him and his family. Luckily, for him, he did fix it. His whole family, unfortunately, did not make it.

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A site of atrocious cruelty … Choeung Ek Genocidal Center. Stomach-churning …

Some titbits from Choueng Ek (The “Killing Fields”):

# The heavy rains brings out The skeltons buried in the mud … Hence the killing pits are cordoned off …

# Trucks were used to transport prisoners to the “New Home”

# Khmer Rouge did not believe in wasting bullets. Life is less valuable than bullets! Hence most of the prisoners were beaten to death using sharp objects or rods

# There were 4 years of killing fields in Cambodia ..

# Of the many horror stories I heard, here is one: Khmer Rouge played loud music to drown the moans and cries of the dying prisoners …

# Got to know another important use of sugar palm, outside of basket, rope, fan, furniture Etc. As a tool to slit throats … (The rough edges)

# People who work for the government are rich and own fancy cars …

# Once we took the ferry to Mekong island, I got a feel for the countryside feel. Most of the folks were in the city, working. Almost 80% of Cambodians are farmers.

# Got to see and eat some new fruits: Persimon, Long kong, Canonball Etc.

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Parsimon Fruit … Daro shared some with me.

# 90% of folks are Buddhist in Cambodia. There are thousands of temples and monks …

# Pol Pot’s army not all bad. Some did save lives. The soldiers had no choice. If they refuse, they themselves will be killed.

# During Khmer Rouge times, education was a sureshot ticket to death. By destroying all non-Farmer stuff, Khmer Rouge did take Cambodia back several decades.

# Cambodia allegedly sells a lot of trees and other assets to Vietnam and China.

# Cambodians love rice! Jasmine rice.is a favorite ….

# English is 2nd language here. Though Primary/Secondary do not have English, Highschool does have English.

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The round-table discussion with Daro and the lady at the Silk Farm …

# The Silk Farm in Mekong Island: The farm house was buil in 1993. There was a flood in 2011 and the stilt house helped at that time. The island is very expensive nowadays. The whole family lives in the silk farm. We spent time discussing World Affairs and Education.

# Daro is so excited about KFC, McDonalds, Dominos, Starbucks Etc. When he hears of some brand present in India, but not in Cambodia, he was all upset. I tried educating him about junk food …

October 18th, 2015 (Sun)

Only after I took a Moto Tuk-Tuk to Giant Ibis bus station, I remembered that I had requested hotel pickup! πŸ™‚

Onward, to Vietnam …

Adios!

Myanmar – Day4

Though the rains have cooled up the place, Myanmar is typically hot and humid, so I am told.

Though locals do understand and speak a bit of English, some of the intended jokes fly over my head and I just laughed because I did not want to be rude. I hope they were not calling me a fool and I was proving it by laughing at it ;-). (I am writing this while waiting for my flight in Yangon). Burmese folks were helpful in general. Life is obviously tough for the majority in Myanmar.

A quick thought on plastic: Mark my words … There will come a time when all our pristine sights are awash with plastic waste. Cleaning it around the clock is NOT the solution. We all have to stop trashing in the first place. For example, the train food vendor was throwing away (through the window) a plastic bag a minute!

Bagan – In case you are not aware, is the largest and densest concentration of Buddhist temples in the World, most of them from 11th century period.

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Bagan Archaeological Museum … I really enjoyed the visit here. The best part was the lack of crowds.

Bagan Archieological Museum: I really enjoyed my 2hr there. Stone carvings, depictions of village life, Bagan palace miniatures, Bagan village miniatures, ancient paintings, Buddha statues galore, Bagan weapons, ancient stone inscriptions, 50+ hair style displays, Bagan tradional dresses, Bagan area paintings, toddy palm details (how they use all parts of the palm), Bagan brick making details, Bagan village life, Bagnlan love for dance and music, Bagan empire maps, various temple miniatures and history, Bagan dam building techniques, Golden and Silver Buddha statues (in ultra safe enclosures πŸ™‚ Etc. The staff was very helpful. No photos were allowed inside. The museum was very well maintained except for an area where there was a roof leak (Hmmm … Considering the rains over the past few days).

While standing on the top of Shwesandaw temple and I was looking around, I got a feeling that I had stumbled into the “Baahubali” set :-). The entire landscape was filled with a sea of Buddhist temples, of varying sizes.

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Green and Brown … Temples galore. The view from Shwesandaw Temple.

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Another view from Shwesandaw Temple …

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Panoramic picture … Shwesandaw Temple.

I came across no coins in Myanmar. It was only notes of the following denominations (Kyat): 5000/1000/500/200/100/50. There is 10000 Kyat which I saw but did not ask for as carrying smaller change is best.

In Bagan, the Ayeryarwadi river was and is an obvious lifeline for the locals. You can actually take a 8hr boat ride from Mandalay to Bagan. The Archeological Museum did mention a lot about the river.

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Ayeryarwadi River … The lifeline for the ancient Bagan area.

As in a lot of countries, US Dollar is very powerful in this part of the World. Any shop will take USD, though you are at their mercy for the exchange rate :-). The notes have to be pristine. Tear, markings Etc. are No-No. I got landed up with a 20USD note which had a violet marking. When I paid off my taxi guy after he dropped me off at the overnight return bus station, I tried to slip him the bill, along with other notes. The dude went away and then returned 30min later, claiming he is unable to exchange it. I had to pay him 100 INR to have him grudgingly keep the 20$ bill. My total payment to him was in Myanmar Kyat + US Dollar + Indian Rupee. Global economy!

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Colourful Myanmar currency …

I saw very few Indians while in Myanmar. One was a businessman in the Bagan hotel. Rest were 3-4 folks in the Yangon airport. I cannot see why more folks are not coming over. The many places of Myanmar I have not been to (mountains, lakes, beaches Etc.) should keep it on par with other South-East countries.

We reached outskirts of Yangon by 5.30AM. Me and a Swiss couple shared a taxi from the highway to the airport. They were on their way to Thailand and Indonesia.

Souvenirs: At Bagan, I bought some sand paintings. The vendor and his family (wife/children) were so eager and having read that common man does not get to make much money in a controlled system (that is still opening up), I did not have the heart to “bargain”. I liked the paintings, the prices sounded reasonable and I just went for it. From the child, I bought a set of postcards. Later on, I also bought some gems from a store in town.

And now to the next country, which is … Cambodia.

Adios!

Myanmar – Day3

The bus started right on time, at 8PM. And the bus, oh man! I must admit I do not have much long-haul bus travel experience internationally. But this blew my mind.

1. Impeccably clean interiors
2. On seat entertainment, movies, songs, games Etc.
3. Food service
4. Hostesses
5. Almost full recline seat
6. Blankets and water
7. Multi-axle smooth ride (Roads are not the greatest)

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The luxury bus to Bagan … JJ Express. Just wish they had more English movie selections.

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TV/Movie, Water, Blanket, Recline Seat … All set πŸ™‚

Earlier, I had asked a gentleman what he was wearing and he confirmed it was Longyi πŸ™‚ Mallus, good ol’ Lungi.

Like in USA, people drive on right side of the road, but sit on right as well. Hmmm … Guess it depends on the car manufacturers.

Hey Indian Government, I got a solution for the severe drought several parts of India are reeling from. Invite me there! Man, what a rainy day in Bagan. Must be some kind of rainfall record 😦 Well, life goes on …

After haggling, settled on a taxi guy Mount Popa trip and local Bagan sights.

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Palm products … Sweets, Palm Toddy, Palm Liquor Etc.

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Taung Kalat Monastery. On a volcanic plug … Amazing location.

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Taung Kalat Monastery. The damn rains!

The drive to Mount popa takes around 1.25 hours. It was pretty scenic. Saw a lot of Buddhist Monks and even gave a ride to 3 of them. Tuang Kalat is actually what is called a “volcanic plug” and is sheer-sided. It is 730 odd meters above sea level.

I took a siesta after a heavy Myanmar Buffet. There were some 20+ dishes. Fish, Pork, Beef, Chicken, Vegetables, Pickles Etc. Some of the preparations, I liked, especially the vegeterian ones. I could not eat much of the meat as I did not like the taste that much. For dessert, they gave some jaggery-based sweet.

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The lunch spread … Could not finish it all.

At 4PM, we restarted and visited Ananda Pahto, Shwezigon Paya, Thatbyinnyu Temple Etc.

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Panoramic view of Ananda Pahto …

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One of the 4 main Buddha statues in Ananda Pahto Temple …

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Panoramic view of Shwezigon Pagoda … Bagan, Myanmar.

For dinner, I went to a nearby watering hole. Chatted with Vietnamese tourists and an American dude from Arizona. We exchanged stories of our travels and he gave me tips for Mongolia.

Dinner was spectacular (Maybe the 7% alcohol Beer helped :-). The mix of the dishes were spot on.

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The chicken dinner … Maybe it was the tiredness after a long day, maybe it was the beer, but man, the food was awesome …

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What made the food awesome? πŸ™‚

Thus ends another day …

Adios!

Myanmar – Day2

Was amazed at the smart phone penetation in Yangon. Rickshaw drivers, vegetable vendors Etc. were also using huge smart phones.

Noticed a lot of the ladies having a kind of face paint. It is actually some extract from tree bark, to protect from insects and also as a sunscreen.

During my walk to Yangon Railway Station, I saw a lot of Nuns. Good ol’ Vatican doing good job in Myanmar, a country with 90%+ Buddhists πŸ˜‰

Here, men and women wear a kind of Kerala style lungi. Not kidding!

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Myanmar “lungyi” … Men and Women wear it.

During the 3hr loop train around Yangon and suburbs,.there was one stop for 30min, in a market area. I noticed this boy, who is mute, doing a lot of mischief. But all vendors doted on him, fed him snacks, played with him. It was nice to see … The boy was having a blast.

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The boy I am referring to is the one in red shorts …

Once I was done with the loop train, I took a cab to pick up my bag from the hotel and hurry to ….

Shwedagon Pagoda!

The main tourist attraction of Yangon. 2600 years old. Maintained by generations of Kings and even during British Colonial times. 112m tall spire, the top is encrusted with diamonds, rubies Etc. Very well maintained, crowded, well, golden, golden, golden …

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Shwedagon Pagoda … The pride of Yangon.

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Panoramic view of Shwedagon Pagoda … Yangon, Burma.

It started raining cats and dogs at around 3.30PM and I had to scratch the plans for Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda. Would have to cover it after I return from Bagan.

After a one hour cab ride, during which I took a cat nap, I reached Aung Mangalar Bus Station. Name sounds fancy, and that is about it. Buses are fancy though …

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Aung Mangalar Bus Station … A sea of buses.

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One of the luxury buses at Aung Mangalar Bus Station …

Then I saw these guys playing the game, similar to volleyball, but only with legs. Man, the game looks tough. And the dudes were playing in quite heavy rains!

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Sepak takraw … (As Srivatsan points out) … It was interesting to watch.

Adios!

Myanmar – Day1

Among the options I researched, Air Asia was the most optimal (Timing and Cost). I was surprised to note that Air Asia has managed to move out of the dog house (the old LCCT) at Kuala Lumpur into the pretty fine KLIA2, which seemed almost on par with KLIA.

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KLIA2 >> LCTT πŸ™‚ Air Asia moves out of the junkyard …

At the food court, got reacquainted with one of my favorite dishes, Curry Noodles. The mix of curry, chicken, tofu, noodles and all the spices. Had half a mind to have two πŸ˜‰

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Curry Noodles. With loads of chilli and hot sauce … Just the way I like it πŸ˜‰

Unlike the good ol’ “get down and walk” scheme of LCCT, KLIA2 has flight tunnels/walkways. In terms of connectivity, cost and service, Air Asia is the best for South East Asia. Since there are many more countries to explore in this region, I will be seeing a lot of KLIA, I guess.

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No more walking on the tarmac (LCTT) … KLIA2 is pretty big.

I am typing this in my flight from Kuala Lumpur to Yangon. I am amazed at the number of Aussies in the flight. I guess it is probably due to Air Asia’s connectivity to Australia (Perth/Sydney/Etc.).

I noticed a surreal sight the moment the plane touched down on the runway. The local Burmese dudes sitting next to me and several others made a mad rush to the exit door. I am not kidding, the moment the wheels touched the runway :-). The flight attendant had to chase them down and force them to sit till the plane reached the gate. It was hilarious. I know Indians are known to jump the gun w.r.r queues Etc. But this …

Though small, Yangon International Airport is a pretty fine airport. Immigration, with the eVISA, was a breeze, though they did point out that I am about to run out of passport pages.

Though I tried ATMs of some 5-6 banks, I.couldnt locate one with no surcharges 😦

Then came the fun part … Haggling with cab guys. Momentarily, I felt like a Rock Star swarmed by fans. In reality it was cab guys swarming me πŸ˜‰ After some back and forth, settled on one guy who ultimately begged me for extra from the agreed upon price. Finally I thought what the heck and paid him.

The entire 16Km trip, he was trying various calls, arguing with someone in Burmese. Traffic was not that bad and though it was raining, made it to the hotel in good time. On the way, saw some lighted Pagodas … Can’t wait.

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The cab guy trying to do some kind of prayer …

Adios!