Thursday, May 31, 2012

Rangoon, finally in Burma

It was 4:30 am wake up for our taxi ride out to Bangkok airport; the driver drove at the speed of light so no delays there.  Then we got another time bonus when we talked to a fellow Western passenger in the check-in line and he took us with him to an unmarked check-in line – which was only possible because he could speak Thai.  So all in all an excellent start to the trip.

Arriving in Yangon it took 45 minutes & US$10 taxi ride to get to our hotel through rush hour traffic (returning was only 25 minutes and 7,000 kyat). The East hotel is directly opposite Traders Hotel which makes it a good reference point for directing taxi drivers.

Our run of good luck continued and we could check into our rooms at 8:30 am and then at 9:30 met with our travel agent to pay for our travel arrangements in shiny crisp USD 2 of which were rejected as they each had a light crease mark on them.

1st point of call was the Bogyoke market, still referred to by its European name Scott Market, mainly because this was the best place to change money.  We then spent an interesting 2.5 hours in the area.

Scott Market

Alongside the stalls selling everything from tourist gee-gaws to jewellery, there were the artisans and crafts people making the goods.

Stalls

We wandered into the local food court and were just about mown down with ladies waving their menu cards at us. We sat down and three ladies waved us with hand fans as we perused the menu. Two coffees were ordered and Andrew also opted for a couple of spring rolls. Our lady returned with 2 lovely cups of hot water and proceeded to open the Nescafé sachets - mmmm milky sweet instant coffees - its just like sitting at a sidewalk cafe in Paris - not. But the lady was fantastic, the spring rolls deemed excellent and we had a lovely time being stated at.

IMG_4917x1

Based on popular reports Burma is THE place to go this year and we were expecting to see truck loads of tourists. We haven't seen many at all and people still seem to think we have novelty value. Taxi drivers don't pester you with endless offers of ride but there are plenty of people offering to change money for you. Now the currency has been floated/pegged there is less advantage in taking the black market rates. Currently it is about 832 kyat to the US dollar, pre the float a few months back the official rate was 6 kyat to the $, so unofficial changes used to make sense.

Of course the change process is a typical developing world system. One girl takes your money and examines for marks, stains, creases etc. and refuses them if any of these are there. A second lady enters your passport details into a register. A 3rd lady checks the notes again and handwrites the transaction to another ledger (really she seems to be multitasking doing 2 processes). The fourth lady presents a form to be signed and finally the 5th lady counts out the cash. As Andrew says it is amazing the BNZ copes with a skeleton level of staff in comparison.

We opted for a 'safe' lunch at a westernized cafe beside the market. Dagon beer is OK, but Myanmar beer is good, almost as good as Beer Lao, but not quite.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Bed Bug Boy

We have just returned from an excellent trip to Burma.  I have lots of photos to edit and we have some blog posts to write. So we will start with the pity-post, the sympathy post.

I have a man with an unwanted souvenir from the trip.  Andrew was badly eaten by bed bugs in a hotel we stayed at for 2 nights.  The hotel room had twin beds, and as well as getting the bed with the view over the lake, he slept with the bed bugs. 

It sometimes takes a few days for the bites to emerge and we are watching an dinner map appear over most parts of his back and arms. The bugs bite, then move on, which is why pretty much why straight lines of red bumps appear.

(I have added some modesty underwear and cropped the arm pictures to keep this safe for family viewing!  He does not actually have any lavender underwear, and it unlikely he would wear the same underwear 3 days in a row))

The-back-track---modesty-
the developing arm

The bites are not dangerous in any way – just itchy and annoying.  So we have been applying calamine lotion and giving him baths in rolled oats infused water.  He is also currently composing an email to the hotel – which was a good hotel and certainly not cheap.

Calamine lotion
And don’t worry his irritability is only a little more than usual and he is eating and managing to consume beer and wine.  He will be OK. 

Although this may be hard to believe based on the posing he was doing today while we had coffee in town.  This is his “pretty boy, look sexy for the camera” look, perhaps the bites HAVE affected him?

Coffee time

And yes, he does get to read these posts before we post them  :-)

Update: Sunday Evening
STopped Calamine in preference for Oatmeal Baths - Rolled Oats in water.  It is the most effective at stopping the itching.  Downside:  He smells like porridge!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

World Famous in Sapa

Although Andrew had not sent out a press release advising he would be in Sapa, his fame seemed to have preceded him. 

In the market he was approached by a Vietnamese girl, wanting to have her photo taken with him

The approach
She was joined by her friend and they marvelled at his feet or sandals – or as Andrew likes to say – his shapely calves. Note the hat has been removed and the hair prepared for photographic glory.
The shoes

Then they are joined by 10 of their closest friends. 

Take particular note of the chap on the left hand side of the picture, just above the paparazzi.  Clasping his hands to his face, overawed by being so close to such an iconic figure as AJ

the group

Just another day for Andrew; stopping traffic and putting a smile on peoples faces. 

Stopping traffic

But it wasn’t only here that he was an adored figure.

In the ethnic market people wanted him to check their goods.

ethinic market blessing

Even to appear on postcards they could sell to other tourists

ethnic picture

He stopped to give the small children along the way a picture of him to put on the walls of their shack.

Picture of him

A free photo op with another of his adoring fans

another of his adoring fans

Before dinner he made the day of a little Hmong girl by shining his famous smile at her – she in turn was a little surprised

Suprise

Just another day travelling with the world famous AJ – probably sending off another press release to his editor via his iPad.

just another day You could literally feel the temperature rising on the journey from Sapa down to Lao Cai, it must have been a good 10 degrees warmer on the valley floor than it was up the mountain.  The train carriage was rather dilapidated but our room-mates were a pleasant couple from the Philippines. 

Back in Hanoi at 7am, looking a bit rough and unshaven (Andrew, not me) we re-energised with a cooked breakfast and ‘real’ coffee at Joma.  Then on to the hotel where luckily we could check in early. 
Hanoi was hot, very hot but being tourists we couldn’t spend all day in the cool of the hotel room so we poached along with the rest of the population.

Two things of note in this picture. Firstly, the custom built baby seat/metal frame in front of the driver.  We’ve seen lots of standing or held babies, but this was a new one on us.  And secondly, temperatures were heading toward 40 degrees and all three riders are so rugged up.

Hanoi baby seat

This chap seemed to be making the best of the heat and a bit of spare time

sleeping bike

We ate well and wandered a bit.  Andrew lost his old pair of sunglasses (karma for buying glasses the same as mine I say).  The next day we found a very pleasant restaurant beside the cathedral , called Marilyn, before hopping on the mini-bus back to the airport and the hop back to Vientiane.

hanoi

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Sapa

 
laocaiWe arrived in Lao Cai (a border crossing point into China) at 5:30am and needed to find a mini-bus to take us 1 hour up into the hills to the old French hill station of Sapa.  At 1600m it was a cool retreat from the relentless hot temperatures. 

We got slightly done on the price of the trip – but we are over that now.  The worst part was waiting the 40 minutes for all the seats on the mini-bus to be filled.

In Sapa town we had some breakfast, found our hotel and dropped our bags as we were way too early to check in.

Sapa

Andrew visited Sapa in 2000 and the changes since then have been exponential and not necessarily for the better. The scenery around the town is stunning and the ethnic tribes walking around in tribal dress are very interesting and tourists arrive in droves.  

mainly hmong 
Red Dzao and others

Sadly tourists have changed the social norms in the town and people try make their living by selling you trinkets, relentlessly.  It means children will forgo school and be sent to Sapa from the villages to earn money. Old women who traditionally would have looked after the small children walk to town to sell trinkets. There are street kids and this side of things is totally unappealing. To get the tourist dollar there are more Italian and western restaurants than there are Vietnamese restaurants.  And as seen below they ladies do follow the tourists - "shopping", "you buy from me", "looking", "you want" ....

Tourists being hounded

On the plus side with some research we managed to find some very good food, our (expensive) hotel room had a superb view of the hills, and the weather was sunny.

We ate well at the Natureview, Red Dzao & Sapa Rooms restaurants. 

It was Sunday and many villagers had come to town for church and the daily market.  In the town centre we watched the Hmong Boys having stilt walking competitions and a competitive game involving spinning tops and with rules we had zero understanding of.

Hmong boy games

We walked through the local village, Cat Cat.  Thankfully we went early about 7:30am and avoided all the ladies that trail the tourists around the route.

Sapa was a lovely setting, but very touristy and very busy.

Sapa busy

But that said, there were some lovely moments too

watching themselves

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Hot stepping our way around Hanoi

 
Saturday was my birthday and we had discussed no presents. We are coming back to NZ in early June and have enough stuff already to repatriate. So it was nice to receive a pair of Ray Ban sunglasses from the night market. Even more special was that Andrew splurged another $3 and bought himself exactly the same sun glasses. So sweet, we have identical glasses - he really is a special snowflake.

Glasses
A walk around the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum area and the West Lake before retracing our steps and heading all the way over to Koto – the training restaurant for disadvantaged kids.  We had been there last trip Koto Restaurant back in 2010,  And once again it did not disappoint.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Back into the heat of the day we walked back to the centre of town for some easy times and more liquid intake. I’m sure they didn’t bring more beer into town because we were there and were facing dehydration!
 drinks
Dinner was at the highly recommended Quan an Ngon.  Huge and bustling it is Vietnamese street food in an indoor/outdoor restaurant setting. We arrived early, not long after 6pm,  as we had our bags and the next stop was the train station for the overnight train to Sapa, and the place was almost full then.  There would have been easily 200 people outside and we were seated inside.  There was a good mix of locals and tourists enjoying the extensive menu and cheap prices.  The meal was excellent.  I’m not sure the local couple seated beside us were overjoyed at us peering at their dishes as they arrived or our fascination with their large omelette- like dish that the waitress cut up for them using scissors.

We got to the station and found our 4 bunk cabin.  Our travelling companions were a Vietnamese couple who spoke excellent English and we enjoyed talking to them before we all shut up shop and went to sleep.

Train to Sapa

Friday, May 4, 2012

Hello Hanoi

We decided a trip to Vietnam was a good idea and booked some flights.  Having made that commitment we then realised we were smack in the middle of 2 days of national holidays: 30th April –Reunification/Liberation holiday and 1st May – May Day holiday.  Actually we only realised this after we purchased overnight train tickets to the distant hill station town of Sapa, and then found the entire town was booked out.  It was a super feeling having non-refundable 12 hour train tickets to a remote destination, and nowhere to stay while there.  A wad of money for an expensive room that a travel agent found for us, sorted that problem and we could then focus the break away.

Liberation day

Being the intrepid travellers we are, we decided to take the minivan from Hanoi airport to the city. A half hour wait to fill the van, 17 of us filling every available seat and the created aisle seats and we were off. Stories abound about the scams pulled by Hanoi airport taxi drivers, so we were pleased the $2 per person solution worked like a charm.
 
Hanoi2

Presumably for safety reasons with the manic Hanoi traffic, Andrew wore his road-cone orange trousers (which he had purchased in Sri Lanka) out for dinner. Andrew always comments how comfortable these trousers are. Quote of the evening was at the night market when the said road-cone-orange-trouser-wearer tried on some quite bright red framed sun glasses " No, I don't think these are me - I don’t want to appear too flashy"

Hanoi Road Cone