Monthly Archives: March 2013

Saigon — The Beginning and End of our SE Asia

When we did our 3 week, 4 country whirlwind SE Asia tour in 2009, the place that we really fell in love with was Saigon. If we hadn’t loved Saigon as much as we might not have come back to SE Asia. I remember getting on the plane back then and thinking “I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I have to get back to this place.”

So we were incredibly excited to get to Saigon and fall back in love with Vietnam. Hanoi was really wonderful, but it was smaller and quainter than I would have liked and central Vietnam was…well, kind of boring. Saigon is a lot of things, but it is not boring. There is a constant buzz and energy about the place. Millions of motorbikes, streetside food carts, and constant pounding heat create a heady mix.

Still….something felt different. Was it us or Vietnam that had changed? Whereas in 2009 there was a constant sense of adventure (and perhaps a small amount of exotic danger), Saigon this time felt a bit more organized. There seemed to be a lot of order and rules, whereas in 2009 there was just an overriding sense of complete and total freedom. Yes, there are a million people on motos, but now they all stop at stoplights and EVERY person wears a helmet. Crossing the street in 2009 was always a close brush with death, but now we just sauntered across the road without even pausing. The trash was being collected regularly. There seemed to be fewer pop-up streetside restaurants. I cannot be sure what exactly is different — whether Saigon really has gotten a bit more “civilized” in the past 4 years or whether we just understand Vietnam better now and so standard “Vietnamese” things make more sense to us. Regardless, we still love Saigon. It’s still my favorite place in Vietnam and that time and place when we first met will always have a special place in my heart.

A typical Saigon street crossing. You can literally cross the street with your eyes closed. The bikes will just flow around you.

A typical Saigon street crossing. You can literally cross the street with your eyes closed. The bikes will just flow around you.

Some people dislike Saigon partially because they say that the people aren’t nice. That’s not really true, in my opinion. Saigon’s people are big city people. They don’t have time for you and they don’t suffer fools. People in the north seemed friendlier in general, and people in the tourist spots in central Vietnam, while shrewd, are more used to dealing with tourists. Saigon exists for Saigon, and not tourists so it can be hard to get under the surface. Here, like any big city, if you don’t take care of yourself no one will do it for you — this is particularly true for tourists. Vietnam is a place where you have to haggle and barter at pretty much EVERY financial transaction, and the Vietnamese will start every bargaining session at a ridiculously high price. You just have to come back at them aggressive and hard. (Bear in mind, these are the rules for white people. Vietnamese pay different prices for everything. It’s just how it works. Even if you speak fluent Vietnamese, if you are white, you pay more.) Our friend Rob from Burma lived in Vietnam for 5 years and he gave us an example of a typical (successful) bargaining session:

You: How much is this soup?

Vendor: Hmmm…for you? This soup….is….TEN MILLION DOLLARS.

You: NO! YOU WILL GIVE ME THIS SOUP FOR FREE. AND YOU WILL ALSO GIVE ME FREE GAS FOR MY MOTORBIKE.

Vendor: NO GAS. Soup….ONE HUNDRED DOLLARS. BEST PRICE.

You: 10 CENTS.

VENDOR: $10

You: $1 (at this point you start to walk away)

Vendor: Ahhhh, Ok! Ok! My friiiiiiend.

As you can imagine, some people tire of this game very quickly. Sometimes you just want a bottle of water and you don’t want to have to have this ridiculous back and forth just to get a fair price. Kat and I tried to buy a coconut from a guy and he pulled every trick in the book on us. We said we wanted one and refused to answer us when we asked (in Vietnamese) how much it cost. He just hacked it open and handed it to us. Then he named a ridiculously high price ($2.50) we said no and told him we’d pay no more than 75 cents. He said no no no repeatedly, so kat handed the coconut back to him and we began to walk away. He says “OKOKOK! and calls us back. I made the rookie error of not having exact change, so I handed him a large bill and he pulled the second trick of not handing me back the correct change. He handed me one bill, I stood there with my hand out and he slooowly pulled out another bill and handed it to me (still not enough) so I stood there again and then he claimed that we’d agreed on a DIFFERENT price. Kat impressed me at this point. She put the coconut down and literally GRABBED at the guy’s stack of money in his hand to get our proper change. This was the best thing she could have done. This man could tell we meant BUSINESS and he handed us the correct change, screaming the whole time how we got a better price than Vietnamese people get (which was 100% NOT true) and how terrible we were. Whatever. I got my coconut and I paid the right price. THAT how you roll in Saigon,

It took work, but we got our coconuts at a fair price. Victory never tasted so sweet.

It took work, but we got our coconuts at a fair price. Victory never tasted so sweet.

Of course, you aren’t here to listen to our haggling war stories. You’re here to look at pictures of soup. We’ve already written about pho and we had pho all over Vietnam, but the pho is quite different from north to south. Most people, I think, prefer northern pho, but not me. Southern pho is sweeter, more robust (and can also be ordered with meatballs in it!). Northern pho, more delicate and subtle. If you’ve had pho in America, you’ve almost certainly had southern pho.

Pho at Pho Hoa in Saigon, allegedly "the best" in the city, but surely that's subjective.

Pho at Pho Hoa in Saigon, allegedly “the best” in the city, but surely that’s subjective.

We ate things other than soup, of course! For a few nights we met up with our friend Chi who we met in 2009. Chi is originally from Hanoi but now lives in Saigon and showed us an amazing time, bringing us to really cool bars, clubs and restaurants as well as patiently enduring hours of “Ask a Vietnamese Girl” sessions. (Example: Chi, do you find it offensive when white people wear those traditional Vietnamese conical hats? No, but you guys look really stupid when you wear them.)

SAM_0280

Chi and some new friends of ours out at a club at 3 AM. Things get hazy after this point.

Chi also delights in expanding our culinary horizons. She took us to an AMAZING restaurant called Monsoon (Apparently Brad and Angelina ate there on their last trip to Saigon — but, sorry, no photos).  In 2009 she took us to eat goat brain hot pot (which Kat LOVED and still talks about), this time when we asked where we were going for dinner, she replied “Up to you! You want snails or frogs?!” I had a bad run in with some snails back in Paris when I was 13 (a doctor was called), so we chose frogs. “OH GOOD. I WAS SO HOPING YOU’D SAY FROGS!”

Every dish on the menu is made of frog. It was really, really delicious. Hate to say it but...tasted like chicken.

Every dish on the menu is made of frog. It was really, really delicious. Hate to say it but…tasted like chicken. Tiny, bony chicken.

As we’ve found, time and again, what makes a place special is its people and Chi makes Saigon a place where we always feel at home. When she comes to Philly, we’re gonna stuff her so full of cheesesteaks and roast pork sandwiches that she’ll forget all about goat brain and snail.

A little bit of Philly right in the heart of District 1 in Saigon.

A little bit of Philly right in the heart of District 1 in Saigon. Now where can I find some scrapple around here?

After 5 days in Saigon, we were ready to leave Vietnam. Vietnam is a place that in traveler circles evokes a lot of extreme emotion. People LOVE/HATE Vietnam SO MUCH. Kat and I? Well…we like Vietnam. I understand both sides of the argument, and both certainly have merits. We were also VERY excited (our mothers less so) about our next destination: SOUTH KOREA. After 4 months of 95 degree days, beaches and coconuts, it was time to bid farewell to SE Asia. We scrambled around Saigon to find winter coats (NOT EASY TO FIND in a place where it never drops below 90 degrees). Weather forecast for our arrival in Seoul: 28 degrees. Fahrenheit. Yeah. Things are gonna be different.

Central Vietnam: Screaming, Sandwiches, and Soviets

So Central Vietnam….is….uh…. ok? Hanoi was super fun and we love Saigon and the middle is just sort of…. not as cool.

From Hanoi, we took another overnight train (we are champions of the overnight train) to Hue (which rhymes with “gray” [or as the hilarious old Malaysian lady we met on Ha Long Bay called it, “Huey”]). We shared our cabin with a French couple on their honeymoon who managed to sleep from 7:30pm until our arrival at 8am. We were impressed with their ability to take Ambien while still in a a previous Ambien fog.

Hue is the old Imperial capitol of the Nguyen lords and felt very Chinese to us.  We explored the Imperial City.

new camera fun in Hue

new camera fun in Hue

It was neat! But, we just weren’t feeling it. It was cold and drizzly. We were tired.  We went home and had a nap and then spent a few hours wrestling with the crappy hotel wifi which put us both in  rather broody moods.

There was good food to be had in Hue, including Bun Bo Hue, a spicy noodle soup which was probably our favorite thing about Hue, all the sights included.

suprise! soup!

surprise! soup!

The hilarious granny who we ordered from in our broken, infantile Vietnamese was so tickled that we were so tall, and so white, and so dumb laughed at us with kindness when we ordered and hugged my arm in praise that we had chosen the right thing. Bun Bo Hue was awesome! Dave ate it with relish. So much in fact, that he was done, our affable granny  took a forcible handful of Dave’s now soup-filled belly and JIGGLED it forcibly with pride that he was a good eater and liked her soup.  Then our granny became our favorite thing about Hue and then as quickly as we arrived, we were gone.

We then took a bus ride to Hoi An which our hotel organized for us. We did not fit in the seats — our knees were crushed against the seat in front of us — and we winced every time our neighbors in front of us shifted their weight.

Hoi An was not what we were expecting. Our main deity, Anthony Bourdain, loves Hoi An. We walked the streets of the old city charmed by the architecture (it is a UNESCO heritage sight for architecture, after all) but mostly just sort of.. bored?

pretty but boring

pretty but boring

There are over 450 tailors in Hoi An but we weren’t getting clothes made. There are hundreds of restaurants but we enjoy eating on the street with the locals. We had seen all the pagodas, temples, and stupas we could already, thank you, and weren’t in the place to see any more. We ended up spending time on our cute balcony on our overpriced hotel room and then biking to the beach the next day where we had a fantastic meal of grilled squid, grilled scallops, rice and spring rolls for a real bust of our normal lunch budget: $12.

What redeemed Hoi An in our eyes (aside from the beach, which redeems just about everything [read down for our time in Nha Trang]) was this:

YUM

YUM

The best banh mi we ate in all of Vietnam. Trust us! We did some thorough market research and this was the je ne pas ultra of sandwiches. As a gal who likes a sandwich (it’s the Philly in me!) this was IT. The right balance of spice, the herbs, the pork, it was incredible.

Dave of course, had his with a fried egg on top.

DK going to TOWN

DK going to TOWN

He is all about excess  (his gastronomic motto is: more is more). We made pleasant small talk with an older Australian couple when I would have rather just savored it in silence — which I know many of you who know me in real life would find surprising given that I am not one for shutting up. It was rad.

After we were done with eating and avoiding touts for tailors/dvds/lanterns/massage/shoe shine/eat here/cold drink/coca colca we were done with Hoi An and set off for our journey to Nha Trang.

Dave was extra excited for Nha Trang because we would be celebrating Dave’s 31st birthday there. We splurged and cashed in points to stay at a 5 star resort which supplies bathrobes, a variety of in-room amenities, and a free cocktail hour with the management.

But before we could get there, we had a 10- hour train ride ahead of us. We pooh-poohed the length of the ride to each other. After 12 hour bus rides in Burma and overnight trains what was a pleasant day ride with some of the most beautiful scenery in Central/South Vietnam?

We underestimated that we would be some of the few people in the car who were not making the long journey from Hanoi (maybe even the full 26 hours to Saigon), where our train departed, so our car smelled like failed attempts at a night’s sleep, fish sauce, and un-brushed teeth. Our seat was only really half connected to the floor so each rattle shook us to the point of wondering if our seat would collapse.

this is our face for the train

this is our face for the train

Then there was rude Granny. Rude granny was in the uniform of a pajama set, conical hat on her lap, a few missing teeth, and absolutely zero volume control. Even other Vietnamese passengers on the train were giving Granny the side-eye. She also needed to get comfortable while she yammered away with her (we presume) daughter and drank the local beer so she jammed her tiny foot in between the cushion of the bottom of my seat and the seat back.

So yes, a granny had her foot up my ass for 10 hours. What could I do? It’s rude to correct old people. I can’t expect in another country for the same standards of personal space when that doesn’t apply here.

Every time she sank her foot deeper into the seat or reshuffled her feet, I yelped. She’d cackle and take a swig of her 333 beer. I spent 9.5 hours harnessing my power animal. A penguin and a french bulldog with a cleft palate kept me from going to Vietnamese jail.

When we arrived in Nha Trang, we took a cab to our fancy resort, ordered expensive room service (a burger! a steak sandwich with blue cheese!) and promptly decided to not be in Vietnam for a day or two.

Dave turned 31!

SAM_0271

We laid on the beach (I am at my most tan since working outdoors every summer in high school. I bet I will regret this mightily in 10 years). We were on vacation! It was great! We went to the gym. We laid in the sun (Kat) and read in the shade (Dave). We had barbeque, seafood, and sushi!

Mostly though, we watched all the misbehaving Russians on the beach. We’ve marveled at the Russians before, but in Nha Trang, I think the Russians really let loose. Signs everywhere are in Russian. Everyone around you is Russian. It is a total mind game to think you are still in Vietnam. We don’t have any kind observations to share about the swim suits they chose to wear, the baffling age/attractiveness inequality among couples vacationing there, or their hilarious insistence on just speaking Russian to non-Russian speakers and then wondering what was wrong with you.

After 5 nights in luxury, we left  Nha Trang on a 40 minute flight instead of an 11-hour bus ride (with an American captain, no less!)  on Vietnam Airlines and then central Vietnam was just a memory, full of Russians, pork, people yelling, bellies jiggling and the slow rattle of a long train ride.

 

 

Ha Long Bay — Super Touristy, Super Fun

We broke up our time in Hanoi with a 2 day 1 night cruise in Ha Long Bay. This is one of the top tourist attractions in Vietnam and an absolute “must do.” As a result, every Vietnamese person and their mother runs a tour there or can connect you with a guy who knows a guy who has a boat who can show you around. There are literally hundreds of options at vastly different price points and it’s hard to know exactly what you’ll get.

To be honest, I was sort of “meh” on even going to Ha Long Bay. Yeah, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and supposed to be all amazing and whatever, but it just seemed SO touristy and that it might be one of those things that’s so hyped that even though it’s not bad, it feels like a bit of a let down. Also, there are so many horror stories about people paying for a “cruise” and being stuck on an awful boat that’s full of rats and awful food. This is Vietnam and if you’re not careful, you WILL be scammed. Hell, even if you ARE careful AND speak Vietnamese you’ll STILL get scammed. It’s just a part of traveling here.

This being the case, we decided to book a tour that was perhaps slightly above our price range but we wanted to guarantee that we’d have a good time.  It was definitely the right call because we had a really amazing experience.

The day starts early with an 8:30 am pick up at the hotel. You drive four hours due east to Ha Long City, which is in my mind one of the most awful places in Vietnam. It exists solely for awful hotels for Chinese tourists who, I guess, don’t want to drive to/from Hanoi to see Ha Long Bay. From there you get on a small boat, which takes you to your bigger boat where you stay the night. After some of the marine mis-adventures we’ve had on this trip (INDONESIA, I’M LOOKING IN YOUR DIRECTION) I was shocked that we were REQUIRED to put on lifejackets while on the smaller boat AND that the first thing we did on arrival to the big boat was to receive a safety briefing.

Mrs. Banh Mi playing it cool and staying safe

Mrs. Banh Mi playing it cool and staying safe

So, what is this Ha Long Bay thing, anyway? Well, “Ha Long” means “Descending Dragon.” We were told some crazy story about where this name came from (involving dragons from the sky or some other insane thing) but honestly I’ve forgotten. Basically, it’s a HUGE bay (like, unbelievably huge) full of these amazing rock formations. Your boat cruises along for a few hours through AMAZING scenery and then eventually drops anchor for the night. All the while you eat and drink with your fellow passengers.

There were about 15 of us on the boat. 4 Malaysian girls who were friends from university who were quite nice but mostly kept to themselves. A retired Malaysian couple who were HILARIOUS. They just talked and talked about everything and nothing and every so often the young Malaysian girls would roll their eyes about something they said. It was like they were embarrassed of their eccentric auntie and uncle. There were also several other couples (From England, Australia/Singapore, and Poland) in their 30’s who, like us, are doing long-term travel. We ended up really hitting it off with the English couple and spent the entire night drinking beers with them on the deck. They’re from Yorkshire in northern England (for “Downton Abbey” fans, the girl sounded EXACTLY like Daisy.) I really admire them. They had never left England and had just worked in their small town for a decade. One day they said “We’ve never seen the world. We need to go explore” and they just up and left. Very brave and admirable — particularly for people who had never traveled before!

Unfortunately, the weather for our cruise was not good. It was overcast the whole time and pretty cold for SE Asia (Probably about 60 degrees, which for us, being used to highs of 90 every day, felt RIDICULOUSLY cold.) Even so, the scenery was AMAZING and I cannot recommend Ha Long Bay enough. The pictures we took don’t really do it justice and I can only imagine what it’s like when the sun is shining.

View from the top deck

View from the top deck

You don’t spend the entire time on the boat. You also go exploring some of the small caves or climb up some of the karsts to get a nice view.

Look at us! We're on a tall thing with a nice  view behind us! Not pictured -- the eleventy billion other tourists jossling to take this exact same photo.

Look at us! We’re on a tall thing with a nice view behind us! Not pictured — the eleventy billion other tourists jostling to take this exact same photo.

You can also go to a totally artificial beach! Unfortunately it was WAY too cold to swim. That didn’t stop Kat from getting her beach jollies, though:

Kat showin' off that gangsta lean.

Kat showin’ off that gangsta lean.

We also went kayaking! What’s that? You don’t believe that we, largely non-athletic types, enjoyed some kind of outdoor sporting activity? You’re right to doubt me. I wouldn’t believe it either. Fortunately, I have photographic evidence of said event!

Getting around in this thing required teamwork. Or as Kat calls it "JUST DO WHAT I TELL YOU" work.

Getting around in this thing required teamwork. Or as Kat calls it “JUST DO WHAT I TELL YOU” work.

The kayaking was actually my favorite part of the whole thing. It was really fun paddling around because the bay is entirely calm and flat and we got to see some really great rock formations. We also saw some monkeys, which loyal readers will recall, are Kat’s sworn enemies. She saw them and exclaimed “Monkeys! Those little bastards!”

I would post more photos of the bay but unfortunately they really don’t do the place justice (the water and sky sort of look the same color in the photos because of how gray it was). You’ll just have to go and see it for yourself. Just make sure to avoid these guys:

"We don't like you either."

“No ones like us. We don’t care.”

 

Hanoi: Plot twist! We ate noodle soup!

We splurged on a flight on a real airline (Vietnam Airlines, not our normal budget carrier Air Asia) out of a real airport (Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, not the normal Don Muang Airport which is so. freaking.far.from.the.city) and said goodbye to Thailand. The day before and the day we left were bittersweet. We had figured out Thailand! We could order in restaurants! We knew how to do things! We were sad to leave but ready to move on. We hopped our flight after the world’s longest passport control line and were off on a quick flight to Hanoi. A 1.5 hour flight that included both wine and a full hot lunch, I AM LOOKING AT YOU AMERICAN CARRIERS.

We took the Vietnam Airlines shuttle to the city center – that is, we meant to but probably took an imposter—and walked to our hotel, the Golden Sun Palace Hotel which charmed the pants off us. Which made us care less when we were ripped off when buying train tickets a little.  We had a tiny room in the back with an even tinier window but it did small right (I’M LOOKING AT YOU THE REST OF ASIA) and everything was modern, very bright, and white. They had our fav international channels (BBC, CNN, Starworld and Nat Geo) and the bed was ridiculously comfortable. Sold! So we forgave them for selling us overpriced train tickets and pocketing the difference since they were so nice. FINE LADIES, YOU WIN THIS ROUND.

Hanoi also felt very European to us. Pretty architecture. Manicured gardens. Coffee and cafe culture.

Decorated for Tet

Decorated for Tet

Vespas!

i loved this one b/c it had a Louis Vuitton seat!

i loved this one b/c it had a “Louis Vuitton” seat!

We have a friend who grew up an Hanoi who armed us with about 10 recommendations for food, bev, and everything in between and we did our best to try each and every one of them. That’s sort of all we did aside from go shuffle by embalmed Ho Chi Minh in his mausoleum (no photos allowed) and  see the “Hanoi Hilton” Prison where John McCain was a prisoner.  Mostly we ate things. Shocker, I know, considering this blog should really be named “food porny pictures of soup around the world taken by average photographers with a point and shoot camera”.

Here’s what we ate that we loved:

Bun Cha

Delicious porky patties and bacon-y strips of fatty meat served with noodles, fresh greens and herbs, and gently pickled cucumber in a sweet broth. It was my jam.  Served with crab spring rolls, this was the greatest thing. Seriously. Ever.

bun cha for the WIN!

bun cha for the WIN!

We ate ours on Hang Gai in the Old Quarter

Banh Cuon

For some reason, I can never remember the name of this dish. Which is super sad because I loved it with my whole face. It’s thin, silky rice rolling paper stuffed with minced pork and topped with herb salad and fried shallots.

mmmmm! crunchies!

mmmmm! crunchies!

We ate ours on Hang Ga

Banh Mi

With a blog named like ours, you must know we ate four banh mi on our first day. Banh mi stuffed with pate, banh mi stuffed with omlette, banh mi stuffed with doner kebab meat (this one is for overweight middle schoolers after class and drunk backpackers after beers.

DK and his preshhusssssss

DK and his preshhusssssss

We made some friends with a few local drunk dudes after they took pity on our infantile Vietnamese while ordering our banh mi. They invited us to sit down and poured Dave 3 shots of local rice whiskey and invited us to share their delicious crab spring rolls. We had a hodge podge conversation of them pointing at rice and us saying “rice” in Vietnamese. Them pointing at  beer and us saying “beer” in Vietnamese. Then they wished us good luck in French (as you do) and we saw them later on a moterbike (yep — after all that rice vodka) and they waved at us like we were family. It made us love Hanoi.

We ate it everywhere!

we be acting like we drunnnnnk

we be acting like we drunnnnnk

Pho

This is how jaded we are — we ate pho for like, 5 meals over the course of like 3 days and I wasn’t even blinking about how awesome that is.  Pho is like the creme de la creme of our noodle soup slurping addition.

phophopho

phophopho

We enjoyed pho on the street everywhere but the best was Pho Gia Truyen.

Bia Hoi

So, you don’t go to Hanoi without drinking Bia Hoi (fresh beer) which is mind-numbingly cheap and varied in its deliciousness. Bia Hoi will set you back anywhere from 3,000 – 6,000 dong (wait for it — 15 – 28 CENTS) and it can be awesome or sort of metallic. Who cares when it’s that cheap? Then you focus on the beer’s best quality: quantity.

We drank Bia Hoi on “bia hoi corner” where there are dueling shops serving beer. It’s mostly “same same”. You sit on impossibly tiny plastic stools that fit about an ass cheek and a half and rub elbows with a handful of Vietnamese, but mostly British 19-year-olds on their gap year all the while ignoring how huge this contraption makes your butt feel. HUGE AND NUMB.  Which is why you are drinking from a keg.

There is ONE joint is where the young Vietnamese go and Dave and I were determined to break in. When we sat down over there they gestured to go across the street like we didn’t belong. A bit deterred but not entirely we shouted our order to a different waitress in muddled Vietnamese and our beer arrived but we had to pay by the round. We stayed for two rounds and felt triumphant and also bullied so we left. We sulked across the street into our tourist beers and then abandoned caring.

We left Hanoi for two days to do a Ha Long Bay tour which was super fun and reminded us about what wusses we’ve become about temperatures. It was maybe 70 degrees and we were wearing ALL OF OUR CLOTHES. AND SHIVERING. It was awesome though. More on that next!

 

 

Mandalay — What’s in a name?

From Bagan we had another bumpy 7 hour bus ride to our final stop: Mandalay. This bus was PACKED. It had about 45 people in seats and then in the aisle there were jump seats with another 15 or so people (including 4 monks). The dude next to me alternated between laughing uncontrollably at a Burmese sitcom on the TV and falling asleep on my shoulder. Could have been worse: A few seats up a little kid vomited for the entire ride. Poor little guy seemed really sick and he sat on his dad’s lap the whole time. I tried to find some candy to give him but couldn’t find anything that didn’t seem like it would be a choking hazard. It’s debatable whether this ride or the Inle to Bagan ride was worse. This one was shorter and slightly less twisty-turny but Kat and I both had to pee SO BAD and there was no way to get to the driver to tell him to stop due to all the people in the aisle. I kept sane by looking at the monks and thinking that they also probably have to pee and that they were remembering that the urge to urinate is impermanent and thus so is this suffering. My suspicions were confirmed as when we got to a rest stop one monk bolted to the bathroom.

This is good advice if you are ever stuck on a Burmese bus and have a tiny bladder

This is good advice if you are ever stuck on a Burmese bus and have a tiny bladder

So, I didn’t know much about Mandalay. The name evokes some kind of oldey-timey romanticism due to Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Road to Mandalay” and due to fancy hotel and resort names like “Mandalay Bay.” Well, let me tell you about Mandalay – this place is a hot, dusty shithole. No way around it. It’s a big city lacking any charm or distinguishing characteristics. Like Indonesia, the sidewalks are deathtraps with random sinkholes that plummet down 10-15 feet into rivers of raw sewage. I also found the people in Mandalay to be a bit different than the people in Yangon. They seemed a bit more cosmopolitan but also less friendly. There were lots of stares and few smiles. Fortunately, we’d be spending minimal time in the city itself.

Kat showing us exactly what she thinks of Mandalay

Kat showing us exactly what she thinks of Mandalay

After some confusion (we had to place a call from the “payphone” at the bus station – meaning, a dude with a 1980’s office phone on a desk) we were met by our driver at the bus station. We were tired but he immediately whisked us away to do some sightseeing around Mandalay itself. It won’t surprise you what we saw: Temples, buddhas and monasteries.

You should know from our previous posts though that the real treasure of Burma is not the sights and the places (and definitely not the food) but its people. Our driver, Ko, (pronounced “Joe) was perhaps our favorite part of our time in Mandalay. He spoke excellent English, was incredibly funny and smart and we had a blast chatting with him for hours in the car. He was about our age and had a wife and a young son and it really seemed that he was as interested in us as we were in him. We told him the places we’d been and the places we were going and he said wistfully that “one day” he hopes to see the world. It was a subtle reminder of how repressed people still are in Burma and it certainly gave us a jolt to remember just how lucky we are to be taking this trip and for having been born in a free and prosperous country. Ko can speak 4 languages but is starved for information about the world outside Burma. It blew his mind to learn that, in America, there are different foods that are typically only eaten at breakfast. He wanted to know when “rainy season” was in America. He was stunned that it would take FIVE HOURS to fly across the country (“I thought New York to Los Angeles, maybe 2 hours!”) All that said, he’s already seen the new James Bond movie, his son spends hours playing Playstation 3 and he is a huge Arsenal fan. Being a driver for tourists is a pretty good job in Burma, but it was clear that he wanted more for his son (he is only seven but he already takes lessons outside of school in English, business, and computers). We didn’t talk explicitly about politics because doing so could get Ko into trouble, but we did dance around the issue a lot. Ko said we couldn’t go to certain places “because of the military. No good. Very bad.” He made references to things being “very very bad a few years ago” but he says “In past few years, things getting better.” You could hear in his voice how hopeful he is for the future but also a wariness that he might not get the country he wants for a long, long time, if ever. Whenever I think of Burma, I will always think of Ko and I’ll forever hope that he and his family are able to live the life that they dream of.

Because Mandalay sucks so hard, we instead visited some of the smaller towns outside of Mandalay, which each used to be a capital of Burma years ago. We saw the famous U Bein bridge (the longest teakwood bridge in the world at 1.2 km). We also went to a working monastery to see hundreds of monks (some as young as five years old) line up with their alms bowls to receive their one meal of the day. This was our absolute least favorite part of Burma. I hated it more than the crap food, more than the 10 hour ass-bruising bus rides. There were hundreds of monks lined up and to get their ONE MEAL of the day, they had to parade through a gauntlet of hundreds of old, white, package tourists shoving cameras in their faces, flashes popping off. These tourists (mostly French and German) had NO regard for the monks and showed them no respect and I was ashamed and horrified to be there. Many of the monks were novice monks as well, meaning that little kids had to go through this crowd of insane foreigners – it must have been really scary for them. One woman was even taking pictures of the monks bathing. If you are going to go to Burma PLEASE show the monks respect. During an uprising several years ago, several monks were killed by the government trying to protect fellow protestors. They deserve to be treated like more than window dressing for a cool photo.

Imagine if you had to deal with these idiot meatbags every morning just to get your breakfast.

Imagine if you had to deal with these idiot meatbags every morning just to get your breakfast.

For dinner, our driver pointed us to a really awesome barbecue restaurant somewhat similar to other places we’ve been. You go pick your sticks of stuff (Pork, tofu, pig ears, etc) and they grill up the sticks and bring them to you. It was a bit far from our hotel, so before he left, Ko arranged for us to get a ride on the back of the motorcycle of a waiter there. We needed two motos, so the waiter enlisted a buddy of his to help. I got on the back of the bike with the waiter and Kat with his friend and we zipped off. 10 minutes later we arrived at the hotel – or, rather, I arrived. Kat was nowhere to be seen. So we waited. The longer we waited, the more agitated my moto driver became. After 10 minutes, he motioned for me to wait and he zipped off. He returned five minutes later and asked me “Still no?” “Still no.” He was getting very upset. I have a feeling if you lose a white tourist entrusted to your care really bad things happen to you. I don’t want to know what was running through this guy’s mind, but this was not a good situation for him. He (and, really, I as well) were on the verge of panicking when Kat’s moto showed up. I never was worried about Kat being kidnapped or in any real danger (Burmese just don’t do that) but I was worried that they had been in an accident. Turns out that they’d just gotten lost (HOW they got lost I can’t figure out since Mandalay is on a numbered grid system). They drove around until a kind lady selling gasoline out of plastic water bottles on the side of the road had given them directions and even rode on her bike along with them until they got on the right path. Burmese people, man. They ALWAYS WANT TO HELP. When they arrived, Kat was laughing hysterically about how lost they had gotten. My motodriver and I did failed to see the humor. In fact, the my motodriver had some pretty harsh words for his friend (I imagine along the lines of “THIS ISN’T FUNNY, ASSHOLE!”) and zipped off.

We went back to the barbecue restaurant the next night and saw him again. The look on his face was priceless. “Oh LORD I thought I was free of you meatbags and you came BACK?!” He hid from us the whole time we were there. This presented a problem as we had no way to get home. There are NO taxis on the streets of Mandalay for reasons I cannot understand. There are, allegedly, mototaxis but unlike Thailand, they don’t wear uniforms so you have no way of knowing who is a mototaxi and who’s just a dude out for the night. So we stood on the corner awkwardly for about 15 minutes. Our hotel was about 2.5 miles away. We COULD walk but it would be rough going – along a highway at night, dodging the random sinkholes. Eventually, a trishaw driver stopped and offered us a ride. A trishaw is just a dude on the bike with a jumpseat on the side. The passengers sit back to back while the poor trishaw driver huffs and puffs (there’s only ONE gear on this bike) and eventually gets you home. We told him where we wanted to go and he hemmed and hawed a bit as it is a bit far, particularly for him to haul our two fat white asses. Kat offered him 3000 kyat (nearly $4), a preposterous sum of money as that would have gotten us a cab home. The driver, stunned by this offer, readily agreed and off we went. People stared and laughed at us as we slowly rolled through the dark, dusty streets of Mandalay. Kat and I laughed and laughed the whole way. When we finally got to our hotel, Kat snapped at me “You give this man A TIP!” So I gave him an extra 500 kyat on top of the already ridiculous 3000 kyat fare. The man smiled SO brightly and thanked us profusely. That guy earned it. I hope he was able to knock off work early for the night because of us and our fat white asses.

The next morning we went to the Mandalay airport for fly back to Bangkok. The Mandalay airport is a gleaming monument to what awful idiots the Burmese government are. The airport is an hour drive outside of the city, in the middle of NOWHERE. It was built about 12 years ago and is bright and shiny and new. The idea, apparently, was to use it to welcome all kinds of international visitors to Burma. This plan seems not to have worked and the airport is eerily quiet and empty. There are about 30 gates, but our flight was the ONLY flight due to depart. There are electronic screens that WOULD show arrivals and departures, but as there’s only ONE flight, the screens are dark. There are numerous corridors that in a normal airport would have shops and restaurants that are either totally empty or entirely closed off. The government spent millions of dollars on this thing and, meanwhile, people in their own country starve. The whole building is a monument to corruption, callousness and ineptitude.

We were hungry so we thought we’d try to get some food. An airport directory pointed us towards a “Restaurant and Café Zone” but when we go there, there were just empty storefronts save for one tiny room that had little tables and tiny plastic stools. In the back of the room were a bunch of pots on the floor holding curry and rice. A woman was washing dishes in a basin in the corner. This is a pretty standard scene for a Burmese streetside restaurant, but I was shocked and appalled to see it as the ONLY “restaurant” in the Mandalay International Airport. Still, I was hungry so we sat and ordered food. It wasn’t good (of course) AND I was feeling the effects of it for a few days afterwards – only the second time in 3 months that I’ve become ill from eating. We met up with a friend of ours who was on the same flight. I had some Kyat leftover that needed spending (the food was less than $1 per person) so we bought some beers (It was 11 AM in Burma but five o’clock somewhere in the world). The first round was something extortionate like 1500 kyat per can (about $2). After that we were running low on kyat but wanted more beer. Our friend Martin said, “Well, this is sort of a bullshit operation, so let’s see what we can do.” He got 3 more beers and told them that all we had left was $3 and we wanted all of them for that. The Burmese ladies sort of shrugged and took the money and that was that. I challenge you to find me another international airport where you can haggle down the price of your beer!

With that, we were set to depart. I buckled into my Air Asia seat. The guy next to me was Burmese. He had a new iphone and I just assumed that since he was actually able to leave Burma and because he had an expensive phone that he was a bad guy connected to the government. He was reading a tiny book that had a picture of Barack Obama on it. So I asked him what the book was about. He said it was about the President’s speech in Yangon a few months earlier and about US-Myanmar relations. I told him “That’s my President. We are so proud that he came to Myanmar.” He said “Oh! You’re American!” Then he pulled out his phone and, to my shock, showed me a ton of photos of him and his family in America – at Niagara Falls, on a trolley in San Francisco, in front of the White House. Then he showed me a photo of him with Aung San Suu Kyi and he was SO proud. I told him it must have been a great honor to meet her. He said he had hosted her recently when she came to Mandalay. I was pleased to know that he was a good guy! He then insisted on showing me a video on his phone. He had recorded Obama’s speech in Yangon with his phone by recording his TV with his iphone and he wanted me to watch it. I have to say, I was really, really proud to be American when he showed me the video and it made me feel so good to see my country and my president being a force for good in the world. I asked why he was going to Bangkok and he said something about going to hospitals for pharmaceutical something or other. I didn’t really understand, nor do I really understand how he is able to travel around the world and have money and somehow not be connected to the regime, but it was a really nice way to end our time in Burma.

If you are ever sad or worried, just remember -- Buddha's got you, boo.

If you are ever sad or worried, just remember — Buddha’s got you, boo.

NOTE — unfortunately, not too many photos of Mandalay because we (and by “we” I mean Kat) dropped our camera. Sad corollary to this: For a week the camera refused to turn on, so we bought an expensive new camera. Not TWO HOURS after we bought the new camera, the old camera miraculously came back to life. *SHAKES TINY FIST OF RAGE*

Bougie in Bagan

Bagan was on my bucket list for this trip, along with Chiang Rai, and they were two things I was pretty bossypants about seeing.

Kat in Bagan

Kat in Bagan

This meant, of course, a beastly bus ride. At 7am sharp a pickup truck with a mattress in it came to fetch us at our hotel and we crawled into the back of it. Then we got on the bus for a grueling nine hour ride. Let me tell you, the ride in the pickup truck was smoother than this bus ride. The next day our butts still hurt and we had to sit funny. My butt hurt laying in bed on my back. I do not wish that upon anyone. Or their tailbone.

However the bus ride was a distant memory by the time we got to Bagan.

Check out the VIEWWWWW!

Check out the VIEWWWWW!

We stayed in a lovely hotel,  Blue Bird, which was real luxury and an amazing value. One of the owners is french and the hotel served fresh, homemade yogurt with breakfast. I just about died.  For long-term travelers in Asia, dairy products are the ultimate luxury right behind water pressure, towels that don’t feel like sandpaper, and filtered coffee.  Even a pool is like, whatever, when there is DAIRY.

I loved Bagan so much. What’s to say about it?  It was gorgeous. Everywhere you looked were temples, pagodas, monasteries, and other holy buildings. You can hire a car, a bike, or a horse cart and take in the sights. Fully embracing our “Bougie in Burma” mantra, we went car. We had a hilarious driver who “spoke English” who made us laugh all the time because how we might say “Excuse me” or “sorry” to interject into a side conversation, he said “HELLO.” It wasn’t just a “hello?” IT WAS A COMMAND. HELLO.

We saw a ton of Buddhas:

Buddha being mindful

Buddha being mindful

Buddha!

Buddha!

 

superman Buddha!

superman Buddha!

 

We saw a ton of pagodas:

fancy gold one

fancy gold one- when the wind blew the chimes would ring which were amazing

pagodas!

pagodas!

pagodas!

pagodas!

pagodas!

pagodas!

 

 

We saw a ton of temples (and their guardian lion-dogs)

Dave enhancing the view

Dave enhancing the view

lion-dog!

lion-dog!

Temples!

Temples!

 

We made some merit, by pouring water over the Buddha associated with which day of the week you were born (Dave, a Thursday. Monday for me) once for every year you have been alive and one more for good luck.

Dave and Thursday Buddha bro-ing out

Dave and Thursday Buddha bro-ing out

Also, the old-fashioned way, MONEY!

Dave wishing for a spectacular sunset

Dave wishing for a spectacular sunset

 

We were dusty, exhausted, and I loved every minute of it.

We watched sunset with our feet dangling over the side of a temple after climbing up some very tiny stairs lit with rapidly shrinking candles. It was romantic to see the whole of Bagan– over 50 km– of temples as far as the eye could see as the sky turned pink and purple.

pre-camera death

pre-camera death

To enhance the mood, Dave started doing that “I love to sound like a jaded long-term traveler” smug thing he does when his eyes glaze over and he just ranks places he’s been that are further plane rides than places you may have been on a plane. OR NOT!  He decided sunset in Bagan was not as climactic as being in Angkor Wat.

So, I told him to shut up.

Then the camera broke.

So much for making merit.

We were then mindful of the impermanence of both Dave’s smugness and my hot temper about the camera breaking and went to go drink beer.

being mindful of our faces

being mindful of our faces

 

 

 

Inle Lake; we were on a boat!

So after two days in Yangon where we were just getting the hang of feeling a bit like local celebrities, it was time for one part of the journey that we had been dreading since we left Thailand – the overnight bus where we’d stumble off at 4:30 at the morning into the darkness that is Kalaw. Kalaw is a town where many people begin their treks to Inle lake. Dave and I are not “let’s walk for 3 days to get to a place people” when a 3 hour car ride would suffice so we did not trek. Not even a little bit.

We had bought “VIP” bus tickets the day before and were dropped off in the INSANELY LARGE BUS STATION. Holy crap, it was like a mini city! We spotted our chariot and then we were a touch less worried about our transit. We ended up paying 25,000 kyat per person for the very nicest bus we could afford.

The bus, was the nicest bus I have ever been in, in any country. There were two seats on one side, and one across the aisle. There was a very lovely attendant lady to look after you. There were thick, clean blankets and your business class type seat reclined nearly the whole way. They showed Myanmar beauty pageants and we had croissants.

We were huge dummies and didn’t really sleep though. We were really concerned — most things we had read involving getting off at Kalaw were the bus barely coming to a full stop as it swung down a road and you dove off. We slept maybe 2 hours on the bus before it pulled up to Kalaw at 5am. The lights came on and it was clear that “hey, you white people, GET OUT”. If you want to book this yourselves look for a “Higer” express bus. It was worth the money.

We were greeted by a man with Dave’s name on a sign (my long-ass name was too complicated, which I do not begrudge them) and we hopped into the man’s car (a better name would be a “nap-mobile”) and drove off into the dark to Pindaya. I promptly fell asleep. We awoke to have a ritzy hotel breakfast as it was the only place open at 6am sharp. Then we were off to the Caves at Pindaya. In one cave temple there were 8,700 Buddhas. It did not disappoint.

We watched sunrise over the temple

The mist you see in all pictures of Myanmar is unreal

The mist you see in all pictures of Myanmar is unreal

and I snapped 400 pictures of Buddhas. This were to be the first 8,700 of the 4.67 MILLION Buddhas we would see in this beautiful country.

Buddhas!

Buddhas!

more Buddhas!

more Buddhas!

 

After the caves, which may have been my favorite thing ever, we fell asleep again and when we woke up we were bumping along an unpaved road. This — again — would be the first of many bumpy, unpaved roads in our future.

Finally we arrived at our hotel in Nyaung Shwe, which was nice enough but should have been $30/night and instead was $80/night.  The staff were very sweet though. Also there were avocados with breakfast. I ate many avocados in Myanmar as the food left something to be desired and avocados seemed to be a “thing”.

Nyaung Shwe was nothing special, in my opinion. There’s some OK food. I guess. We met some characters (including a lovely, kooky, lady named Hope who was (of course) an organic farmer from Denmark). We either were on the lake or drinking beer on our tiny hotel room porch.

Dave would like for me to confess to making a grave error. Our beer of choice in Myanmar was — shocker– Myanmar Beer. It is partially owned by the government but what isn’t? It’s practically the national drink. What kept us coming back was an American favorite , a gimmick! Under the bottle cap you could peel away a layer of plastic and each bottle cap would reveal whether or not you won: nothing, 200 kyat off your bill, 500 kyat off your bill, or a FREE BEER! Well, we won a free beer in Inle (you can tell because all others are in Myanmarese — 200 or 500 off looks like Burmese script spelling the word “glow worm” if you were reading Burmese as English. You will find yourself doing this when you cannot make sense of any signs around you and your brain is desperate to process things. However winning is easy.  You know you won a free one because it says “Myanmar”. The longer phrase means “thank you! you win nothing! Now buy another beer!”.

Anyway, I dropped our one “we won a free beer” bottlecap between the slats in our front porch. I know. I am terrible.

ANYWAY…..

On the lake we had our own private boat!

We were on a boat!

We were on a boat!

And took in the views.

PURDY!

PURDY!

 

We saw the famed fishermen of Inle lake perched on the tip of their boats with their legs wrapped around the oars.

my camera has a serious zoom

my camera has a serious zoom

i do not have this balance.

i do not have this balance.

We got a bit of government-approved for tourist sights of the villages where people build on top of the Lake, even farm on it!

Science!

Science!

And the best part, which should no be skipped, Indein Pagoda and the surrounding village, which were breathtaking.

From the top of our hill

From the top of our hill

pagodas! SO MANY!

pagodas! SO MANY!

We scampered up a small hill and were all alone with a small pagoda and took in the views and both felt in that moment, both very small, and very fortunate.

we were up here!

we were up here!