Monthly Archives: February 2013

Yangon — Burma’s not that hard, is it?

Kat and I spent so much mental energy preparing for our trip to Burma that we actually didn’t think much about what we’d DO there. We had no idea what to expect when we landed in Yangon and were a bit nervous. We needn’t have been. Yangon is a very unique city in SE Asia and it has some of the friendliest “city people” in the entire world.

The Yangon airport is small but modern. Clearing immigration was easy though they did give each and every passport a very good hard look. I tried my best to look like an “office manager.” I must have succeeded. We then changed two crisp $100 bills into 170,000 Kyat, which was delivered in two thick bricks of 1,000 kyat notes. They gave our bills a once over but didn’t go too crazy.

Our cab driver from the airport spoke excellent English (as most cab drivers in Yangon did) and we had a chat about our itinerary. He advised us that one day was enough in Yangon and that we should move on as quickly as possible – which is what most tourists do. I am pleased to report that he was wrong and we quite enjoyed our 3 days in Yangon.

It's not every city that uses a 2,000 year old paya as a traffic circle

It’s not every city that uses a 2,000 year old paya as a traffic circle

Let me get this out of the way here. Yangon was for many years known by the British name Rangoon. No, they do not have crab Rangoon here. They never have. It’s not a Burmese dish. I have no idea where the name comes from. Let’s move on.

In Yangon we stayed with our friend in his huge apartment just north of downtown. This was a really interesting place to stay because normally we would have stayed in the noisy, crowded downtown area. Instead we were in a shady tree-lined neighborhood filled largely with ex-pats and diplomats. I think If we’d stayed in a different part of the city we might have felt differently about it.

View of Shwedagon Pagoda from our friend's apartment. Not too shabby. Out of frame -- the pool a few floors down. This backpacker lifestyle can be ROUGH sometimes.

View of Shwedagon Pagoda from our friend’s apartment. Not too shabby. Out of frame — the pool a few floors down. This backpacker lifestyle can be ROUGH sometimes.

One downside of staying a bit out of downtown was that we had to pay a small fortune in cab fares. Yangon is juuuuust a bit too spread out to be walkable. Things would be 3-4 kilometers away from each other. Maybe you walk to one, but you have to cab to the next one and then cab home. The cabs only cost between $3-4 but they start adding up quickly. The cabs themselves are interesting — mostly Toyotas from the late 80’s. Also, while Myanmar drives on the same side of the road as the USA, most cars come from Japan, so the steering wheel is on the right side too. You don’t see many new cars because of international sanctions that have been levied against Myanmar for decades. Also unique to Yangon among Southeast Asian cities – very few motorbikes.

It was fascinating to walk around a modern city and see almost ZERO American cultural influence. There are no Starbucks, McDonald’s, 7-11’s or any western chain or business at all. Some people have cellphones, but not most people (There are “payphones” on the street, which are literally just office phones on a desk on the sidewalk – the man dials the number and hands you the phone). Some people were dressed in western style, but the vast majority of people (men and women, young and old alike) wear longyi which is basically a wrap skirt.

Despite being a major city, people in Yangon didn’t seem like “city people” (the type who even if they saw a flaming elephant tap-dancing and playing guitar on the head of a pin would shrug their shoulders and keep moving because they have places to be). They were friendly, warm and helpful (except one lady who we bought samosas from on the street – she was pretty mean, but woman made one kickass samosa).

One night downtown we stumbled upon a huge crowd of people seated on tiny little plastic stools blocking off an entire street. Hey, look! It’s people! And they’re doin’ stuff! Let’s go check it out. We stood around awkwardly for a while and eventually some guy just ran over to us with two (larger, white-person sized) stools. Just to be nice. What the crowd was waiting for was a pretty awesome dance troupe celebrating Chinese new year doing all kinds of acrobatic stuff while parading around a giant 20 foot long paper mache snake. People in the crowd were puzzled to see us, but there were countless smiles, shared laughs and waves from children.

People! Doin' stuff! That's gotta be interesting, right?

People! Doin’ stuff! That’s gotta be interesting, right?

Our travel agents are Burmese but they work out of the US Embassy in Yangon (where our friend also works) so we went to the embassy to pay them (in cash, in US dollars obvi). It may sound a bit corny, but when Kat and I saw the American flag flying above the embassy we both got a little emotional. I didn’t think it would affect me like that. We got even more emotional when our friend greeted us at the gate with a slice of true, homemade pecan pie that he’d won in a charity auction. Neither one of us really likes pecan pie, but it really and truly tasted like home. It was also hilarious to see all of the same government furniture and supplies that I left at my old job – it was like my desk had been recreated in Burma.

There’s not a ton to see or do in Yangon and the nightlife scene was a shock coming from Bangkok, the party capital of SE Asia. In Yangon, it’s hard to find dinner past 9 pm and the streets of downtown are pretty well deserted by 10 or 11 pm. The main thing that everyone comes to see is Shwedagon Pagoda, which is the holiest site in all of Myanmar.

Mrs. Banh Mi at Shwedagon. No mugging permitted in this photo because only Buddha is permitted to mug at this holy place.

Mrs. Banh Mi at Shwedagon. No mugging permitted in this photo because only Buddha is permitted to mug at this holy place.

In Burma we saw literally hundreds of not thousands of pagodas, temples, payas and stupas, but Shwedagon is pretty damn impressive. A giant stupa made out of gold which is said to house relics (usually hairs or teeth) of the four past Buddhas.  I found the pagodas and temples in Burma to be interesting in that while they were religious sites, they also seemed to act just as regular meeting places for Burmese people to hang out and chat and there was a ton of commerce going on inside them as well. This is an interesting contrast to Thailand as Burma is considered a much more devout nation than Thailand but I found the Thai religious sites to have a much more somber and holy ambiance to them.

Yangon’s downtown was hot and chaotic and basically every block on the main roads had an open air market spilling off the sidewalks into the streets. It was intense but fun. Still, after 3 days while we felt like we’d barely gotten to know the city, we felt like a trip to cooler, less hectic climes might be in order. So we bought bus tickets to our next destination and topic of our next post – Inle Lake.

Burma – Pre-trip prep and initial thoughts (ie – We are not Burma experts)

Some of my friends (and Kat) like to tease me that after I’ve been in a foreign land for any length of time over five minutes, that I will act as an “expert” on that place and claim to know everything there is to know. I think they’re ridiculous, of course, but I can say one thing with certainty – after a few days in Burma (or “Myanmar” as it is officially known) I am not an expert. I don’t think you can be. This is a place where you can observe very closely and still have no idea what’s really going on. It’s perplexing and in many ways indescribable, but I am really happy to be here.

Burma is experiencing a real moment right now. The quasi-military government is slowly engaging in a reform program, so instead of being REALLY bad guys, they’re not-as-bad-as-we-USED-to-be bad guys (Even as I type this the government is waging a mid-scale counterinsurgency against several ethnic hill tribes and many of Burma’s Muslims are locked up in camps). Most notably, they released Aung San Suu Kyi from years of house arrest and she now holds a seat in Parliament as the opposition leader. President Obama visited the country just a few months ago becoming the first U.S. President ever to visit Myanmar. Search for Burma tourism tips on the internet and you’ll be flooded with articles with the same basic message: Everything is changing in Burma and you need to come NOW before tourism ruins it forever.

This surging popularity has pros and cons for tourists. We’d heard horror stories about travelers planning on finding accommodation on arrival in each place and finding that there are literally NO rooms available in an entire city. There’s just so much demand and not enough supply. This also has led to skyrocketing costs on just about everything. If you see a price quoted in a 2012 guidebook for a hotel, it’s likely double that now.

Given competition for hotels at the major sites as well as the fact that the internet just baaarely works in Burma (“fast” internet is probably something like AOL from 1995 – you can check email but that’s about it), making it hard for us to plan ahead outside the country, Kat and I did something we have never done: we hired a travel agent (located inside Burma). Our travel agent helped us set up an itinerary, book hotels and work out logistics, including transfers to/from hotels, bus stations and airports. It’s a good thing we did. Our travel agent told us that we got, literally, one of the very last rooms available in Mandalay.

Still, we like to be independent travelers so we made some things clear to our travel agent. First, we’d be in charge of all our own meals, this allows us to keep costs down by not eating in tourist restaurants. Secondly, we would not travel at all internally by air. Burma’s domestic carriers have very old planes and suspect safety records. Tourists fly them all the time, but I think they are just accidents waiting to happen (in fact there was an Air Bagan crash just a few months ago that killed 4 people). Taking buses will keep costs down (A bus will cost $20 while a plane will cost $100), and a lot of money spent on air travel winds up in the hands of the government, which is something we are trying to keep to a minimum. The bus rides are long and bumpy (we’ve got 3 bus rides, 8-10 hours each) but they are safe(er) and ethical.

Just getting to Burma here is a pain and I really wasn’t sure it would be worth it. The first issue is that you must get a visa to enter Myanmar. This is usually not a big deal, except Burma uses its visa process to try to weed out journalists, aid workers and other types who the government might find undesirable. The visa application requires you to fill out an employment history. This presented a problem for Kat and I – Human Rights Campaign and Department of Homeland Security would probably both raise some red flags with the Burmese consular officers, so we had to be…creative…with our work history. For the record, Kat has enjoyed a long successful career as a “party planner” and I am currently an “Office Manager” at an internet startup company. We hear that a few years ago, they used to be much more strict about denying visas, but from our experience, it seemed like they didn’t really care about politics and were just much more interested in collecting the fee and getting you out the door.

The second irritating issue about traveling to Burma is money management. There are no ATMs in the entire country and nowhere takes a credit card (I did see an ATM at the airport in Yangon – another sign of big changes coming to Burma – but it was unclear whether it was working) and so you need to bring your entire budget with you in cash – and if you run out of money, you can’t get more except through wire transfer (and I don’t think anyone under the age of 50 even knows how a wire transfer works). Oh, and another thing, you can’t get Kyat (Burmese currency) outside Burma, and they will only accept US Dollars for exchange. Ah, sorry, one last thing – they prefer $100 bills (you’ll get a worse exchange rate for smaller bills) and the bills have to be PRISTINE. They cannot have a fold, crease, mark, tear. We couldn’t carry our money in my wallet because it would bend the bills. So our last few days in Bangkok was spent going from bank to bank trying to change Thai baht for BRAND NEW $100 bills. When we changed some money at a Yangon hotel, the guy at the desk closely examined the bill, eventually deciding that he would accept it – but not before taking out an eraser and cleaning up some microscopic smudges on the border of the note. Why is it like this? I have no idea, but as a friend of ours said in response to this “Woah, so they only will accept brand new hundos? That’s pretty baller, Burma.”

Kat and I were pretty frustrated with all of this. The stress of the money and the visa, the stress of not being able to travel as independently as we like and having to map out our entire itinerary in advance. We at one point discussed bailing on Burma altogether – but I am SO GLAD WE DIDN’T.  There are lots of amazing tourist sites in Burma and I am excited to see them, but even after only a few days I know that I will forever have a spot in my heart for this place because of the kindness of the Burmese people. People here are genuinely excited that you are visiting their country and want you to feel welcome. Walking down the street you will be smiled and waved at by everyone from babies to grown men. Teenagers on buses will pass you and yell out “HELLO! HEY MAN! WHERE YOU FROM?!” In other countries in Southeast Asia, this is the beginning of a scam or an attempt to sell you something. Here in Burma, it’s just because people are excited to see a foreigner and want, just for one fleeting second, to make a connection with you. It’s heartwarming and wonderful and even though this place is WEIRD for a bunch of reasons, you never feel unwelcome or uneasy. People stare at you everywhere, but it’s just because they are curious and when you wave or smile at them, they’ll break out into a huge grin and wave back. If you say hello in Burmese (Min ga la ba!), this will cause an eruption of giggles. When we say we are Americans we invariably get the same response: “America great country! Mr. Obama! Very good! Very very good!”

One down side of Burma is for sure the food. It’s…brown. Food is either deep fried, covered in oil or both. It’s sort of an odd mélange of Chinese and Indian food without any of the personality of either one. One really unique and tasty dish is laphet thoke, which is a slightly spicy fermented tea leaf salad. It tastes almost like a light pesto. The local beer, Myanmar Beer, is actually quite good though. One of my favorite things about Burma, in fact, is that all bottles of Myanmar beer are themselves a bit of gambling. Under each bottle cap you have a chance of winning a free beer (or having the beer you’ve just drank taken off your bill if you are at a restaurant) or getting a 200 kyat discount (about 25 cents).

One last observation on what makes Burma a bit odd: All the tourists here are OLD. I mean, 60’s and 70’s Europeans on package tours. Burma is relatively expensive for SE Asia, hard to get to and definitely not a place to party. Because of this, you don’t get a lot of the 20-something gap year backpacker kids that are an inescapable virus throughout the rest of the region.

Still, while it’s wonderful to be here it’s frustrating too. You never know exactly what is going on. People still can’t really openly discuss politics without fear of government persecution. You never know exactly where your money is going – you try to make sure your money isn’t being spent at hotels or restaurants that have government connections, but you really can’t ever know for sure. People seem so joyful and happy, but this is a country with a painful history and people still are suffering today due to the government’s oppression. I’m happy to be here and I can’t wait for more of what Burma has to offer, but here more than anywhere else, I feel more like a tourist and less like a traveler. One thing’s for sure – I’m no expert.

NOTE: No pics for now as we’re still in Burma and the internet is suh-looow. We look forward to uploading pictures of this beautiful and amazing place (and telling you more stories about the specific places we’ve been) once we return to lands of faster webbernets.

It’s black… It’s white…It’s not a Michael Jackson song — it’s Chiang Rai

White Temple

White Temple

I was insistent (Dave would say bossy) that we visit Chiang Rai while we were in Thailand. From the days when this here trip was but a twinkle in my airline miles account, I had been googling interesting things to see in Asia. I love me some modern art and I also, in a way, love me some Buddha. In some internet wormhole of daydreams on a Sunday morning between cups of coffee and all the things I *should* do I stumbled upon images of the White Temple in Chiang Rai and it zoomed to the top of my bucket list. Dave happily complied because it seemed neat and it was a thing to do. He is much more easily pleased in a way. So far each day we have a beer, eat some meat on a stick, enjoy some air conditioning, and logistics work out semi-decently he’s pretty tickled. He does have some underlying ennui as most Pisces tend to, but it is very easy to distract him with “moo ping” (i.e. pork on stick in Thai).

We were only in Chaing Rai 3 nights and 4 days and two of those days were travel days. One of those full days was already dedicated to luxuriating in the pool/grounds of the Le Meridien Chiang Rai where we had booked the night for 1,600 Starwood points and $30 USD. HOW CAN YOU NOT? We got upgraded, ate Western food, I got shockingly tan and there was an infinity pool. That does not count as Thai, not even a little (though it was awesome).

So — we had one full day to see the White Temple and its counterpart, the Dark Temple. So we were up and at them earlier than normal for a day of adventuring. We walked 2 km to the bus station from our guesthouse, grabbed a sandwich from a “local” bakery and then hopped on the public bus.

on the bus like a local

on the bus like a local

We did something peculiar here — we trusted Wikitravel. Wikitravel pointed us towards the right buses with the right fares. A kindly yet brisk lady who collected fares spoke the following words of English:

  • where you go
  • white temple
  • black temple
  • dog
  • walk down there

which were more helpful than the words we speak of Thai:

  • numbers 1 – 99
  • Pork
  • Chicken
  • thank you/please
  • me want
  • no worries

We got on the first bus, and then 30 minutes later were dropped off on the side of a highway which we darted across and then made our way to the White Temple.

Which did not disappoint.

amazing

The White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) is a modern Buddhist temple — construction began in 1997 and the artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat,  expects it will take until 2070 to complete his vision.  The whole temple is in a way an equal testament to his religious zeal and his ego.

cardboard cut out of the artist himself and me, mugging

cardboard cut out of the artist himself and me, mugging

The temple is ornate and all silver and white and gorgeous. On the inside where we couldn’t take pictures though I think is where the real powerful stuff was — frescoes of the modern world where Spiderman was saving people from the Twin Towers and materialism is the new god. Really amazing.

After we toured our way through the temple, Dave hilariously was like “let’s go check out the golden temple next!”. The “golden temple” were the bathrooms. I took a pose-y picture to commemorate our laughter.

the "golden temple" tee hee

the “golden temple” tee hee

 

The White temple was an amazingly impressive structure. Totally worth the trip and the hype. It was everything I wanted it to be and more:

DK and KSK proudly ignoring the "foreigners need a private guide" sign which was largely ignored

DK and KSK proudly ignoring the “foreigners need a private guide” sign

Amazing Buddhist imagery

guardians

guardians

Incredible detail work

You can see me taking the picture in the picture

You can see me taking the picture in the picture

Pretty, but

awesome dragon in the wall, right?

awesome dragon in the wall, right?

scary

skulls!

skulls!

After a restorative smoothie across the road, we darted across the highway again and flagged down a song taew which Chiang Rai (and Chiang Mai’s) public transit. Not glamorous, it is a pickup truck with benches along the back that operates as a shared taxi. It is cheap however — around 80 cents a ride for a decent haul — and you do get to mingle with locals who laugh at how formally you address them and how fat and big and white you are.

The song taew dropped us back at the bus station where we simply boarded another public bus to get to the Black temple. The same lady greeted us and this time she laughed at where we were going and put us on the right bus, collected the fare and when our stop came, pointed out which way we should go. Also, when a woman had a puppy asleep in her arms and Dave tried to call it “cute” the lady was quick to pipe up from riding along the open doorway to say “DOG!” and we chuckled. Yes! We are dog people! THAT DOG WAS TINY, ASLEEP, AND CUTE!

This here encapsulated why we love the Thai people. Here, you are in on the joke with them. How hilarious is it that you are grown and have money and are stupid here? I know, right?  Other places, everyone laughs at how different you are. Here you smile along because — yeah– it’s HILARIOUS. I probably just said “niece feather triangle” instead of “iced coffee, two” so you just have to laugh. Dave saying “cute” was probably heard as “blerglegaidfnaf” and she was like, “hey dumb dumb – it’s a dog– relax”.  Then, we all laugh because YES!

Again, the bus dropped us off along the highway and we walked 500 meters to the Black temple. Ok, ran because I had to pee REALLY bad. We bought some special Chiang Rai pineapples — they are about the size of a large peach– and enjoyed them and they fortified us to walk the grounds of the temple. BTW a kilo of them were 40 baht, or $1.30. #winning

ominous, no?

ominous, no?

Dave didn’t love this one as much. He was like, “Ok,  I get it. Things are grotesque. To live is to suffer and to die. Ok. Suffering. Got it. “. I loved it.

main temple building with snake skins, horn chairs, and scariness

main temple building with snake skins, horn chairs, and scariness

 

scary horn chairs

scary horn chairs

 

this building looked like a big bug to me

this building looked like a big bug to me

The artist who created this place, Thawan Duchanee, is the teacher of the artist who created the White temple. Their work is similar in that they focus on religious iconography and purpose, but otherwise that seems to be it. The Black temple is actually a series of around 40 buildings which look like one room houses. Some look like living rooms. Some like dining rooms. Some like bedrooms. Some like tiny temples. The focus however is carnal. Nearly all materials are physical — either rocks or wood– or worse yet, animal skins, tusks and other parts. The whole place gave me the heebie-jeebies in a “isn’t this BRILLIANT” kind of way. The scariest temples even had rocks as the footpath so you felt uneasy walking on uneven terrain as you see freaky stuff.

Like this

scary horn chairs and rows of conch shells

scary horn chairs and rows of conch shells

and this

angry locks!

angry locks!

AND THIS!!!!

yep - dead alligator and scary horn chairs

yep – dead alligator and scary horn chairs

After this action packed day, we darted across our last highway, hailed our last song taew, and had lunch at 4pm. We walked 2 km home,  went for a swim at our guesthouse, drank a beer and then walked the 2km back into town to eat a huge dinner.

All photos are on our flickr page in our Chiang Rai album: www.flickr.com/photos/banhmiandyou

All in all, we walked over 11 kilometers, had charming experiences, and saw some pretty amazing modern religious art. We came, we saw, we gathered new subconscious fodder for nightmares, and we conquered.

 

 

 

And there was much squealing: a day at Elephant Nature Park

As DK says, "elephunks!"

As DK says, “elephunks!”

So I’m just gonna put it right out there — we petted elephants and we liked it. A whole bunch. I’m sure I spent most of the day talking about two octaves above where I normally do. That is, when I wasn’t worried that an elephant would step on me. I probably devoted about 5 full waking hours of my life actively worrying that I was going to have an elephant step on me and squish my foot. There were children running around this place and 30-year-old-me was nervous about having a cartoonish pancake foot. WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME.

We made reservations online with Elephant Nature Park after researching where the most humane elephant sights might be seen in Chiang Mai. There are loads of places where they do tricks and see shows and I had the feeling that might rub us the wrong way and also — Trip Advisor said to go so we had to. No choice.  Also,  we didn’t want to spend $500 which would have been easy. For a 5,000 Thai baht total (~$160 USD) donation to the reserve, we had a pass for a day which included transport, lunch, and countless photo ops.

(it should not surprise you that our camera died about 2/3 of the way through the day, then, as Murphy’s law would dictate)

We were picked up at 8:30 am and in an hour were at the Park. We were shown both a safety video in the bus as well as a short documentary about the park’s work. The safety video told us to be ready to run at a moment’s notice. I wondered how I would run with flat, pancake foot. I could hop?

lunch for 2 elephants

fruit for all

When we arrived we got right down to feeding the elephants lunch from the safety of a raised platform. Lunch was bunches of bananas, watermelon and pineapple. I  forgot about my future calamity and shamelessly elbowed people out of the way to feed the youngest elephant who was about four years old. Elephants feel strange — their hair is long and bristly. Their skin is one inch thick and boy does it feel that way. Their eyes are kind and understanding.  I began to think, maybe,  no elephant would WANT to step on my foot.

the both like lunch!

the both like lunch!

not pictured: 3 children she shoved out of the way

not pictured: 3 children she shoved out of the way

Then, we went to go meet NaVann — the 3 month-old-baby elephant and used

O.M.G!!

O.M.G!!

both functional feet to run ahead. I quickly forsake the bond I felt earlier with the four-year-old I had fed and promptly (sorry, Mom) LOST. MY. SHIT. No nicer way to describe it.  Apparently everyone regresses to the point that they have to remind people to follow a good kindergarten rule and keep their hands to themselves as seen by the signs they had up. I WISH I COULD HAVE PET HIM. IT WOULD HAVE GIVEN ME IMMENSE PLEASURE, INDEED.

we quote this all the time. Like "that pork on a stick will give me immense pleasure".

we quote this all the time. Like “that pork on a stick will give me immense pleasure”.

If meeting the baby elephant was the sword in my side, it was twisted by seeing all of the elephants who were injured in the park. Many were blind — all the flashing lights from working the tourist circuit left many of them with cataracts.  Some had broken hips leaving them limping for the rest of their lives due to cruel

has a broken leg AND broken hip from cruel breeding practices.

this poor thing 😦

breeding practices. Some were robbed of their tusks and had mouth injuries.   But you have to think that they are at least somewhere happy and comfortable and are able to roam mostly free with their ele-phriends so perhaps not so bad.

After I returned to earth,  we ate a delicious vegetarian lunch ourselves and then it was bath time. We walked with the elephants down to the river and tossed water on them with buckets and rubbed the mud off them. This was where I was like “HERE IT COMES, PANCAKE FOOT!” but — shocker — I still have them both.

elephunk gets clean

elephunk gets clean

that she makes in all pictures "wwwwhhhaaaattttt!!" (ie the non duck face face)

that she makes in all pictures “wwwwhhhaaaattttt!!” (ie the non-duck face face)

After we fed them again and took 400 pictures (well, 23 and then the camera died) we learned about Thailand’s delicate history with its national animal. In  Thailand, using elephants for logging was banned in 1989, and left many

elephants out of work. Their masters (elephants are incredibly intelligent and emotionally intuitive) needed them to make money so many turned to tourism. Elephants live nearly as long as humans do (around 70 years) so It’s a vicious cycle for domesticated elephants — tourism keeps them from being abandoned, but tourism keeps up the demand for more to be bred for cruel practices. You’d never know that so many elephants are suffering by the sheer number of elephant crap hanging around this country. It’s like a bald eagle + the baby Jesus they are so revered. Later, in Chiang Rai, we saw elephants walking down the street “begging” with their owners and that made me wimper into my dinner. So now I’m some sort of animal person? WHAT?   Twenty years ago or so there were 100,000 elephants in the wild and now there are barely 15,000.  The government only protects those wild elephants but those who have been forcibly domesticated or born into captivity have the same rights as the delicious pig (yummy! porky!) we ate for dinner with rice.  Then we saw how poachers steal elephants and inhumanely tame by physically abus

ing them which was really difficult to watch. Then we were thanked for our donation which helps them buy more elephants to save them and have them enjoy retirement. That made me want to give more and…. OH. I SEE WHAT THEY’VE DONE THERE. USED MY OWN TRICKS AGAINST MYSELF.

:(

😦

#fundraising

 

 

 

 

 

(ps you can donate here: http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/howyoucanhelp.htm)

All of our pictures can be found on our flickr page–go and have a look.  Yes, there are a disproportionately high number of the baby. Whatever.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/banhmiandyou/

Don't tell Dave  -- we are adopting him?

Don’t tell Dave — we are adopting him?!

Chiang Mai: Thailand for White People

Would you like to visit Thailand but are worried about the language barrier, not liking the food or just worried about finding things too unfamiliar and scary? Don’t worry! There exists a place just for you: Chiang Mai!

Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second largest city and is located a 14 hour train ride (or 80 minute flight) north of Bangkok. We’d spent a LOT of time in Bangkok and while we like the city, we were ready to see other parts of Thailand and to get out of Bangkok’s constant chaos. We love traveling by train (I do anyway, Kat’s learning to like it, particularly since she conquered the squat toilet on the train) and it’s much cheaper anyway. We booked 2nd class sleeper berths and we departed at about 6 pm.

Nowhere is safe from Kat's mugging, not even the top bunk of a Thai train.

Nowhere is safe from Kat’s mugging, not even the top bunk of a Thai train.

The train was quite comfortable and we both got a decent night of sleep. We had the top two beds while the bottom two beds in our berth were filled by two gregarious mid-40’s thai women who were quite nice until they decided to have their morning gossip session at around 6 am. The first thing we noticed about Chiang Mai was how much less humid it is than Bangkok. The weather was delightful – about 70 degrees at night and mid 80’s during the day.

This guy was our neighbor for our first two days in Chiang Mai. It gets “cold” at night so lots of dogs here wear sweaters. He was a great pug – super surly about being pet but even MORE surly when I STOPPED petting him.

This guy was our neighbor for our first two days in Chiang Mai. It gets “cold” at night so lots of dogs wear sweaters. He was a great pug – super surly about being touched but even MORE surly when I STOPPED petting him.

I know my introductory paragraph made it sound like we didn’t’ like Chiang Mai, but we did. You just have to accept it for what it is. It’s FULL of “farangs” (westerners) and the entire town seems to exist solely for tourism. Every storefront is either a travel agent, tour operator, western restaurant, or girly beer bar for the (sadly) thriving sex tourism industry. Every sign is in English. It’s Thailand but it doesn’t feel particularly Thai.

There are more authentic parts of the city. One of Thailand’s most prestigious university’s is in Chiang Mai and Kat and I went out there one day. It was like any other college campus – hip young Thai’s walking around, chic coffee shops and bars and restaurants. Chiang Mai’s old town is surrounded by a giant moat that runs around the entirety of the center of the city. Inside those walls it’s like a different world. If you want hamburgers and burritos washed down with Heineken while you watch soccer or rugby, you can have that all day and all night and never hear a word of Thai. Honestly, after 4 weeks of Thailand, the idea of a burrito sounded pretty good to us, so a day or two of “not-Thailand” was pretty ok, but I wouldn’t want to stay there long term.

Chiang Mai has dozens of "wats" (temples). Here I am at one of them. Photographer Kat's direction for this photo was "Dave, look at the dragon! Consider him..."

Chiang Mai has dozens of “wats” (temples). Here I am at one of them. Photographer Kat’s direction for this photo was “Dave, look at the dragon! Consider him…”

We originally thought we’d want to stay in Chiang Mai for about a month – rent an apartment and take a breather from traveling. We decided against this for several reasons: First, we realized we didn’t want to stay in Chiang Mai that long. Secondly, as it was high season, literally EVERY PLACE we called/emailed/faxed/smoke-signaled was booked to capacity. We thought we were really screwed and were talking about leaving Chiang Mai after only 2 days because we couldn’t find anywhere to stay. Luckily, one of the places that had told us he was booked, wrote back to tell us that he had a studio apartment available for 6 nights outside the old city. Sounded GREAT to us.

We loved our little apartment. It had a balcony and a small kitchen and for 6 days we felt like we had a HOME. We spent a lot of time in Chiang Mai just luxuriating in living like normal people. We found a grocery store nearby and stocked our fridge and for the first time in two months were able to cook our own meals. We enjoyed living outside of the touristy old city. Not to say even our neighborhood was authentically thai (in fact, there seemed to be more Israelis than Thais) but it seemed more like a place for ex-pat locals than backpackers passing through.

The one thing we DID find that was authentically Thai in Chiang Mai was our Khao Soi restaurant. Bear with me here. I know, it’s another thousand words extolling the virtues of a soup. WHY ARE YOU TWO IDIOTS SO EXCITED ABOUT SOUP ALL THE DAMN TIME? Believe me, I’m as surprised as the rest of you. Khao Soi, Wikipedia will tell you, is “a soup-like dish made with a mix of deep-fried crispy egg noodles and boiled egg noodles, pickled cabbage, shallots, lime, ground chillies fried in oil, and meat in a curry-like sauce containing coconut milk.” It’s a specialty of Chiang Mai and we were looking for the best place to get it. This is a hotly debated topic on the internet and there doesn’t appear to be ONE place that is recognized as best.

Khao Soi. Another picture of soup. Deal with it.

Khao Soi. Another picture of soup. Deal with it.

After a month in Thailand, I have a list of hallmarks that I know indicate a good restaurant. Is it a hole in the wall that looks something like a rundown auto garage? Does it serve no more than 2-3 different dishes? Is there an angry granny preparing the food up front? Is it full of Thai people (preferably police officers or moto-taxi drivers) eating  at all hours of the day? If you hit at least 3 of these, you’re nearly guaranteed a good meal. The Khao Soi place we discovered by accident on our way to the supermarket hit all four. The angry granny ONLY makes Khao Soi. That’s it. When we sat down, they didn’t even take our order. We just sat down and 2 minutes later two bowls of soup appeared in front of us with no prompting from us at all. I’ll spare you from writing out in full all the inappropriate noises and comments that we made upon tasting this soup. Just know that we ate at this restaurant three times. We’ve ordered Khao Soi in Bangkok and it just isn’t the same. This restaurant with no name will forever be a happy place in our memories.

Many people come to Chiang Mai as a base for trekking out into the mountains of northern Thailand – particularly to see “Hill tribes.” To me, this is the absolute worst of tourism. You’re taken to see these indigenous people out in their homes in the mountains. Let’s call it what it is: a people zoo. Would you like it if people tromped through your living room and gawked at you doing “traditional” activities? This is a hotly debated topic and I don’t want to get into it too much here, but it’s the sort of thing that isn’t for us and I’ll leave it at that. Bangkok is a big, big city and it exists for itself. Tourists are there in droves, but tourists don’t control Bangkok. Ultimately, it felt a bit too much like Chiang Mai exists solely to provide tourists the sort of touristy crap that we really hate. There’s a real heart and soul to Chiang Mai but you’ve got to try really hard to find it.

One thing that was on Kat’s bucket list for this trip was to hold a baby animal. So, we haven’t done that yet. But something we DID get to do in Chiang Mai was play with elephants. Yes. I have pet, fed, bathed and loved all over several elephants. But we’ll get to that in our next post. TEASER.

Where would you go if you could go anywhere in the world?

As Kat wrote in her “2 Months of Travel” post, we’ve been thinking a lot about what we want to get out of this trip and what truly makes us happy. We don’t want to lock ourselves into going to places we aren’t particularly interested in just because “you just HAVE to do it.” So, with that in mind, we’ve made some very VERY big changes to our itinerary.

When we first imagined this trip years ago, we wanted to explore more of SE Asia, a place we’d been for a brief period and really enjoyed. It made sense because it was also cheap and we could stretch our dollar. Now that we’ve been here for two months, we’re still excited about exploring but we also have an appreciation that the world is a big place — too big for us to focus on just one part. Do we REALLY want to spend a month in Laos and Cambodia, or was that just on the itinerary because, well, we’re HERE so we might as well?

We talked about this over beers (Chang for Kat, Leo for me) while resetting a bit in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We came to the conclusion that the places on our itinerary should be ones included in the answer to the question “If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?” Because now, RIGHT NOW, is possibly the only time in our lives where we can go wherever we want. We have no limitations and nothing is stopping us but ourselves (and a limited budget, of course).

SO, we’ve mapped out a new itinerary with new and exciting destinations. We have one more week in Thailand before heading to Burma for two weeks (more on that in a future post) and then to Vietnam for 2-3 weeks. After that we’ll head to South Korea for about a week followed by 3 weeks-ish in Japan. This is all somewhat up in the air and dates are approximate. What is absolutely set in stone is that on April 23 we have one way tickets from Osaka, Japan to……ISTANBUL, TURKEY.

Kat and I spent 10 days in Turkey in 2011 and it is truly one of our favorite places in the world. We were sad we couldn’t spend more time exploring the country and we’re really excited to be going back. After Turkey, we hope to spend a month or so visiting dear friends (and loyal banhmiandyou readers!) in Amsterdam and London. I desperately want to explore more of England and Scotland, so we’ll be doing a bit of that and neither of us has been to Barcelona, so we’ll fit that into the itinerary somehow.

We hope to go from Europe to Argentina in early June and spend 6 weeks or so in Argentina and Chile before finally coming back home.

After two months on the road, we hit a bit of a rough spot and we feel reinvigorated by our new plans. We cannot wait to go to there and to share there with all 30 of you.

Dollars, rupiah, ringgit, baht

I’ve been updating our country budget pages (which you can access through the “Budget” tab on our main page) BUT in case you don’t access our site that way, here are links to them directly:

https://banhmiandyou.wordpress.com/budget/singapore-2/

https://banhmiandyou.wordpress.com/budget/indonesia-budget/

https://banhmiandyou.wordpress.com/budget/malaysia-budget/

Will we come in on-budget for Thailand? Currently all signs pointing to no (You want to pet a humanely treated elephant, you have to PAY), but we’re working on it!