Update: In Vientiane, Laos

Sabai Dee (hello) everyone. I'm now in Vientiane, Laos - the capital city.

I took an overnight train from Bangkok to Nong Khai (Thailand). The train reached Nong Khai at around 09:00, and then I took a tuk-tuk (rickshaw) to the Friendship Bridge border crossing between Thailand and Laos.

I got ripped-off by the Laotian officials who charged me US$42 for the visa-on-arrival. The actual price is US$35. Interestingly, the corrupt officials charge a different amount from everyone. I heard about a family that applied for the visa at the same time and each person was charged a different amount. Quite obviously, the difference between what they charge and the actual amount (US$35) goes in their pockets.

It is possible to bargain with the officials to bring the price down closer to US$35. I didn't know about this until it was too late. Anyway, one cannot risk offending the officials as one risks not getting the visa.

Anyway, the train from Bangkok was excellent. I had purchased a 2-tier A/C sleeper class ticket for around 750 Bahts. The sleeping area is private (with curtains) and clean linen. I slept well.

I'm going to spend 3-4 days in Vientiane before moving to Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage city.

From Luang Prabang, I plan to cross the border into northern Vietnam and make my way into the hill-town of Sapa. From Sapa, I plan to do a 3 days and 2 nights trek to Mt. Fansipan - known as the "Roof of Indochina" - it is the highest peak in the region.

Corrections (July 24th, 2009)

1) The fee for a visa on arrival for Canadians is US$42. So I didn't get ripped off by Lao officials on the Friendship Bridge.

2) Even though Mt. Fansipan (10,312 ft.) of Vietnam is dubbed the "Roof of Indochina", it is not the highest peak of the Indochina region. Indochina is another name for mainland Southeast Asia, which comprises of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Peninsular Malaysia. The highest peak of this region is Myanmar's Mt. Hkakabo Razi, which is 19,296 ft. high. Mt. Hkakabo Razi is the real "Roof of Indochina".

Update: Back in Bangkok

I had an early morning flight to Bangkok today. I'm missing Myanmar and its people already. I almost had a cultural shock when I saw Bangkok again; it is so modern in comparison.

Have You Ever...?

Have you ever been on a bus and not being absolutely sure where it is going? I was on a bus heading to see the "Golden Rock" - about 4.5 hours from Yangon/Rangoon. The bus route and number were in Burmese. Nobody on the bus spoke English. All the information on my ticket was in Burmese. All road signs and boards were in Burmese. It was a very frustrating experience. I had no choice but to use the Sun to figure out whether I was at least going in the right general direction!

Then later, I was on a over-crowded open-top truck with 50 people on board. The truck was taking us half-way up a mountain (the other half we had to climb). I couldn't believe the truck was able to climb the steep 45-degree slopes - and that too in heavy rains. I was sitting uncomfortably with my umbrella open; the guy next to me was huddled with a live chicken on his lap. That's what I call roughing it to the max - Burmese-style! It was one krrrazy experience. I'm sure one day I will remember that experience fondly when I'm sitting in my cubicle in front of a computer...

I also watched an Aamir Khan starrer Bollywood movie, Baazi, in a theatre in Rangoon. There are many old Hindi and Tamil movies playing in the theatres of Rangoon. There was even a preview for a year 2000 release movie. There should've been a 'winter storm warning' before entering the theatre. The balcony area had a/c running on full blast. Hell, it was windy in there. I was almost frost-bitten in my t-shirt and shorts.  Feeling numb, I left the theatre before the movie ended to escape the biting cold - and into the 30'C heat outside!

Interestingly, the last row of the theatre were expensive "booths" - for all the privacy-deprived love birds.  One of the booths was occupied by a burkha wearing woman and her boyfriend/husband - never judge a book by its cover!

Travel 101 for Indians: Bangkok, Thailand

- Cheapest places to stay in Bangkok are in and around Khao San Road. You will see more white people here than Thais, and more Thai prostitutes than regular Thais! Personally, I didn't like the area very much (it's very touristy). Hotel rates can be as low as 120 Bahts/night (share bathroom). I also stayed in some Thai neighbourhoods (eg. Saphan Khwai). However, accommodation there was more expensive (around 300-350 Bahts), but it was more enjoyable for me.

- Accommodation is so plentiful on Khao San Road that it is quite possible to just show up without any advance booking and get a room, even in the high-season.

- Note that Khao San area is not served by subway or the Skytrain. So, getting around might be difficult. It is, however, close to a riverboat-taxi station, which can get you near downtown cheaply.

- At ordinary restaurants, you can have a good meal for 30-50 Bahts.

- Always insist on using meters for taxis. Always negotiate a fare before getting in tuk-tuks (rickshaws).

- If it's too good to be true, then it usually is. Never accept a seemingly cheap tuk-tuk ride to a shopping mall or any where else; it is a scam.

- Also, stay away from buying any gems unless you really know your gems. Bangkok is famous for its gem scams.

- The entrance fee to the "must-see" tourist attraction of Bangkok - the Grand Palace - is too high (~350 Bahts). I skipped it. I'm not much into sightseeing though.

- Avoid coming to Bangkok via packaged tours (eg. Kesari Tours & Travels). It is very easy and cheap to go to Bangkok on your own. You don't need to book anything in advance.

- Bangkok is a very modern and Western-like city. If you want to see a Western-like city on the cheap, then Bangkok is for you. Rangoon/Yangon is more like my type of city.

- Bangkok is the most tourist-friendly city I've ever been too; there are tourist maps everywhere and all signs are in English.

- The Skytrain and subway are very easy to use and most convenient for tourists.

Observations from Myanmar (Burma)

Here are some of my random observations, facts and tidbits from traveling in Myanmar (Burma) in June 2009:

- Myanmar is a safe country to travel to despite what you might hear in the media.

- The Burmese people hate their government.
- There are no ATM machines in Myanmar or facilities to cash travelers cheques. Foreigners are forced to carry US dollars in cash.
- There's almost no crime, even in big cities. This is because there is not much disparity between the "haves" and "have nots"; only the government officials are rich.

- The official capital of Myanmar is no longer Rangoon/Yangon. It is Naypyidaw. But for all practical purposes, it is still Rangoon.
- Myanmar sleeps early; some shops/restaurants close at 20:00 and almost everything is shut down by 21:00.
- The Burmese are some of the most polite and helpful people I've ever met.

- Shwe is the most common last name in Myanmar.
- It is possible to spend no more than US$10-15 per day, including all meals and accommodation.
- I've traveled across the country and have yet to see anyone defecate or urinate in the open. Toilet facilities are found almost everywhere.
- The cities, towns and villages are clean and almost litter-free.
- The sidewalks are walkable; one doesn't have to worry much about falling in an open drain.
- Motorists obey traffic rules.
- There's garbage collection even in small towns.
- Expect to pay "foreigner" prices for most things (still it is cheap).
- Travel in Myanmar is Slow with a capital "S" and difficult. Bus route/number, road names/signs, information boards etc. are all in Burmese. Also, almost no one speaks English.

- Yangon's Northern Bus Terminal is the most confusing place I've ever been to anywhere in the world! There are hundreds of buses and no way to tell which one goes where - everything is in Burmese.
- Foreign visitors to this country (and there are very few) are almost revered.

- I've never seen so much greenery in my life before. This is because there is practically no development outside of the major cities.
- Everyone (men, women and children) wears a longyi. Did I say that a longyi looks sexy on a woman?
- Practically everything is made of wood.
- A mobile phone costs several hundred US dollars; and a SIM card costs around US$2000.
- Car ownership in Myanmar is probably less than 1 percent owing to the fact that the government purchases cars for US$1000-2000 from Japan, and sells them for US$20,000-60,000.

- If you see a luxury car on the street, then it is most likely owned by a government official.
- In the black market, US$1.00 = ~1,080 Myanmar Kyats (June 2009); the official rate was US$1.00 = ~6.50 Myanmar Kyats!
- Tea shops are everywhere in Myanmar (tea/coffee costs ~200 Kyats).

- Electricity supply is very sketchy. This is done intentionally by the government to keep "control" over the people. The goal is to keep them simple and uninformed.
- Many people (including children) in Myanmar have red teeth due to chewing paan (betal).
- Red spitting stains can be seen everywhere.

- I have seen more paan-walis (female betal sellers) than paan-walas (male betal sellers).
- Interestingly, despite being one of the poorest countries, there aren't any beggars in Myanmar, even in touristy places
- A young person has only three practical options in Myanmar: to become a monk, join the army or go out of the country for a better life.

- Most Burmese men drink alcohol in the evening. A bottle of whisky costs only 1,800 Kyats (~US$1.80). That's cheap even by Burmese standards.
- Total strangers often help women get on or off a bus or a pick-up truck without being accused of molesting her.

- Myanmar is pronounced as "Mee-yan-mar" and Kyat (their currency) is pronounced as "Chat".

- Kipling was right when he wrote, "this is Burma ... it is quite unlike any place you know about."

Burmese Days

'This is Burma,' wrote Kipling. 'It is quite unlike any place you know about.' He was right, and more than a centry later I felt the same way when I sat on the roof of a bus going through pot-holed mountainous roads. Oh, what an enjoyable experience that was.

I highly recommend everyone to visit Myanmar. The country is so beautiful and its people are some of the kindest and gentlest I've ever met. Tourists (and there are very few) are practically revered here.

I might come across as arrogant but Myanmar girls love me. I think they are very pretty. Their traditional dress is a longyi (for both men and women). I think a longyi looks very sexy on a woman. There's something to be said about 'beauty in simplicity'.

I'm currently near Inle lake and plan on staying here for 3 or 4 days. Then I head back to Rangoon (Yangon). I fly back to Bangkok on June 16th and take an overnight train to the Laos border the same day.

Interestingly, Yangon/Rangoon is no longer the capital city of Myanmar (Google it)!

PS: Internet here is frustratingly slow! There's a note (notice how the word 'message' is spelled) above the monitor that reads,'Before you send your massage. !You need to copy your massage! !Because of the (Shit) connection!"

Ex-con for Company Anyone?

I'm traveling with a 26-year-old American ex-convict in Myanmar, son of a retired millionaire ex-merchant ship Captain. The guy has been to jail in the US for a month or so on drug-peddling charges (i.e. selling pot). He certainly makes for an interesting company.

I'm currently in Bagan - a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The panoramic views of the site are simply amazing.

We traveled to Bagan sitting on the roof of a share-taxi jeep!