“Where to now?” I asked my friend Robyn as time ticked closer to our annual world travel endeavor. We had conquered Central and South America as well as Eastern Europe, so we desired for something a bit more out of our comfort zone: Asia. Stepping away from Western-influenced lifestyle and languages that we can somewhat maneuver, Asia became the next region on our list for travel.
Southeast Asia continues to be popular among budget-conscious tourists, a region with rich culture, faith and history that won’t wipe out your savings account. We were a bit late in planning this trip, so as usual, we pulled up Google Maps on our laptops, and began to do some light research on the region to determine our route. This trip took a bit more planning than previous trips due to weather patterns, as part of the region suffers from monthly monsoons at different times throughout the year. We ultimately decided to focus on northern Indochina, including a somewhat linear trip beginning in Myanmar (Burma) and moving east through Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.
Before the Trip
Through conversation with co-workers, friends and strangers, we collectively gathered that the region was certainly worth the long trip across the Pacific. Again, the suggested time to visit was Jan-April, however, our itch to travel could not wait that long, so we tracked flight prices closely on Google Flights up to a month before the trip.
One day I noticed the round-trip cost had basically dropped by 50%, so Robyn and I rushed to book our round trip flights from November 5-20. Similar to last year’s trip to the Balkans, a bit of research was required to learn the do’s and don’ts of Indochina travel. Due to infrastructure challenges, varying driving laws and potential chaotic traffic, we steered away from doing any driving during this trip, which worked out nicely. We ended up booking regional flights hopping from one country to another.
Traveling to multiple countries also meant multiple currencies: Myanmar (Burmese kyat), Thailand (Thai bahts), Laos (Lao kip), and Vietnam (Vietnamese dong). The exchange rates for each were drastically different, requiring a shift in mindset when negotiating in each country. Current exchange rates for each:
– $1 USD = 1,360 Burmese kyat
– $1 USD = 8,100 Lao kip
– $1 USD = 35 Thai baht
– $1 USD = 22,500 Vietnamese dong
Searching for lodging accommodations was not as fruitful on Airbnb as was the Balkans, however, we did find a nice Airbnb in Laos that overlooked the Mekong River. For Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, we booked hotels to take advantage of a) taxi services b) free breakfasts and c) security.
Finally, most connect the region with struggles of identity, peace and stability. We all know the U.S. involvement in Vietnam during the war. Myanmar used to be called Burma and Thailand used to be called Siam. Two of the countries, Laos and Vietnam, are ruled by Communist regime. While the region has room to grow and exceed, it is well beyond the stereotypes labeled by outsiders.
November 5, 2016 – The Longest Flight of My Life
After work on Friday, Robyn and I packed up and headed to Chicago O’Hare airport for our midnight departure to Taipei, Taiwan. We had booked a flight on EVA Airlines, which had just expanded to offer flights to and from Chicago a couple days prior. My long legs shivered at the thought of a 16-hour non-stop trek across the Pacific. As terrible as it sounds, it wasn’t THAT bad, broken up by several on-demand movies and periods of forced sleep.
November 6, 2016 – Pitstops in Taiwan and Thailand
After arriving in Taipei at 4 a.m. local time, the airport looked asleep much like my brain. Through a maze of security, we made our way to our gate to station before our next (luckily shorter) connecting flight to Bangkok. Was it my brain that was still asleep and dreaming or were the gates decorated in a wonderland? Our “gate” was Hello Kitty theme, kicking off stereotype #1 for Asia. I must say that it breaks up the monotony of airports; other “themes” included movie theatre, gardens, aviation, and the future. Until the next flight, we looked around for an open cafe while locals pointed and stared at the awesome height of Robyn and me.
The four-hour flight to Bangkok included yet another meal. I sat next to a nice Thai woman who was meeting her sons there to experience her home country. She talked about the recent death of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej on October 13, a man who reigned for 70 years. 70 YEARS! To say the least, there was an evident sadness to the country dressed in black. From airport magazines, to airport kiosks, to wifi-connection websites, the King’s legacy was remembered in all forms.
We had a small layover until our flight to Yangon, Myanmar. The bus ride from the gate to the airplane was so hazy and humid that it was almost unbearable. The hour-long flight to Yangon included yet ANOTHER meal on the plane. Can you imagine U.S. flight attendants trying to get everyone fed on an hour-long flight? Imagine flying from Kansas City to Chicago and getting meal and drink service. The service was incredible, and the attendants even checked with Robyn (vegetarian) and me (gluten-free) before serving the meals.
Approaching the security checkpoint in Yangon seemed a bit militaristic, with the immigration officials dressed in dark brown military suits and hats. Locals wore traditional cloth wrapped around their legs called longyi. A successful immigration and baggage retrieval had us in a cab off to the city. Traffic was pretty congested. Our cab driver had a makeshift video screen in the center of his dash, including a pimped out light show through any crevice in his car’s dashboard. I was quite confused by the car – the steering wheel was on the right side of the car (similar to UK), however, traffic drives on the right (similar to U.S.). Boy, did that make our decision to not drive a smart move!
Our hotel (Hotel Accord) was situated on a side street right north of a large park. After reaching the 3rd floor and looking out our window, it was put into perspective where we were. The view from our room was third-world country-esque, dominated by a run-down apartment building that looked like a moldy, paint-chipped rainbow. Our room was quite small but doable. The shower situation was a first – the shower is right when you walk into the bathroom with no enclosures, so when you take a shower, literally everything gets wet, including the toilet, sink, door, etc. Makes good use of space I suppose. Following 20+ hours of consecutive flying, any kind of shower was welcome.
November 7, 2016 – Mesmerized by the Shwedagon Pagoda
Breakfast at the hotel was incredible – great selection of fresh juices, noodles, fruit, bread and coffee. I wore my high-water pants rolled up to look like Euro pants (aka capris) for the day, preparing to enter sacred monuments where knees must be covered. I also wore flip-flops for easy removal when entering these temples.
The weather was sunny but quite uncomfortably humid for us Chicagoans. We also quickly realized that the word “pedestrian” is not part of the Burmese language, as there were little to no crosswalks or right-of-way for those on foot. We pressed our luck and ran across the street when we saw an opening. I guess this is what they meant by ‘survival of the fittest’ in biology class?
We headed toward the giant pagoda, walking past beautiful Theingottara Park, with perfectly pruned bushes, colorful flowers and a pond. Dealing with the heat, we stopped at a gas station to grab a drink and some cigarettes. The total bill for two drinks, a pack of cigarettes and a lighter cost the equivalent of 50 cents. Incredible.
We could see the pagoda from miles away, its gold shiny top peaking through the city’s skyline. The intricacies of the surrounding buildings’ roofs, walls and colors were something we had never seen before. Nearly everything seemed important to pleasing higher deities, all seen in the details of architecture. We took off our flip-flops and walked barefoot (required) up several floors of stairs to get to the pagoda grounds. I remember first getting sight at the pagoda – this thing was MASSIVE. The bright, beaming sun shone down on the pagoda, reflecting in our eyes like snow does when the sun meets it. This pagoda has been at the center of Burmese Buddhism for more than 2,500 years and contains relics of the previous four Buddhas. At 345 feet tall, it dominates Yangon’s skyline.
Little did we know, this was an experience, not just a monument. To the left and right were smaller pagodas, wats (small temples), Buddha statues, relics and palm trees. There is a walkway all around the large pagoda, a real 360 experience. We were approached by several tour guides, however, we wanted to get a look at the grounds ourselves first. One man came up to us and was really friendly. We noticed that there were several Buddhas surrounding the pagoda, where people lighted incense and poured water on the statues. The man explained the rationale – there were seven of these statues around the pagoda, one for each day of the week. Your day of the week is based on the day of the week in which you were born. Do I remember what day of the week I was born in 1989? Maybe my mom does. Luckily this guide had a book listing birthdays. Sunday it is! I approached the Sunday Buddha, poured a special amount of water on each one of the Buddha’s heads, and then went over to a big gong to bang it three times. Robyn was born on a different day of the week and followed a similar ritual for her Buddha. Throughout the grounds, you encounter monks, and we even saw one walking on the sides of the big pagoda! Note that it is not respectful to walk on the shadow of a monk.
I think I took nearly 200 photos of my time at the pagoda, each few feet providing a different angle of the gold structure and surroundings. The top of the structure is adorned with more than 5,000 diamonds and 2,000 rubies! Several halls provide a fortress-like enclosure around the pagoda, some with reclining Buddhas (looks much like me during a winter weekend in Chicago), some with what we called “Vegas Buddhas” lit up with cheap neon lights, and a spool-work area with women making textiles using manual contraptions.
It suddenly started to downpour rain. The Sunday Buddha probably got a look into my life and called for help. Luckily we had plenty of shelters to choose from, so I went inside one of the temples to meditate, a daily practice I had begun a couple of months prior to the trip. Others were praying or giving offerings to Buddha.
After some of the rain had moved on, we went to Thwaysay Lake nearby to see large colorful fish in the water. The slick stone steps had Robyn and I slipping in our flip-flops and falling on our asses. We collected ourselves and walked toward downtown through more parks (Kandawgyi), the Yangon Zoo, and the train station. Downtown Yangon looked a bit colonial with stacked buildings and narrow streets that make alleys in the U.S. look like four-lane highways. We ate at 999 Shan Noodle House, where I ordered rice noodles with chicken and some tofu. (9 is my favorite number, so I was going all-in on the luck/spirit/god situation). The cuisine was quite oily but delicious. Our total bill for both of us pigging out was $4.
After lunch we went to visit another pagoda (Sule) and then Monument Park. We sat at the bottom of the Independence Monument for a rest – people came up to us asking to take a photo with us, likely due to our extremely good looks :). The rest of the afternoon was spent walking through downtown Yangon. Streets were filled with markets and packed with junk. Similar to what we saw in Peru, each street/area sold similar items. Think of it like Target – aisle 4 is cleaning products, aisle 8 is kitchen supplies, etc. In this case, the aisles are streets. At times, it was hard to walk around due to congestion of people, but we also had to watch our heads because awnings were lower than usual.
Besides the longyi leg cover-up attire, two things stood out as unique for Myanmar. First, people would chew this tobacco-like leaf and spit out a red substance onto the ground. This is called kwun-ya, made from betel vine leaf, betel nut, slaked lime and tobacco. Throughout the city, you can find splotches of red spit lining the walkways. Second, I noticed a dust-like substance on the faces of the dark-complected citizens, sometimes appearing like a poor application of rouge and other times painted on like the State Fair vendor. This is called thanaka, a yellowish-white paste made from ground bark. It is known to be a cooling and sunblock agent to deal with the heat.
We walked back home and saw some old abandoned colonial houses. I’m not sure if these remain from old British rule or maybe from former leaders. We wanted to see the Schwedagon Pagoda at dusk, so we returned to take some photos of a different hue. It was much busier at night. We stopped to grab some noodles for dinner, and then walked home in the dark. Whenever I travel, I pick up directions quite well, luckily leading us back to the right place.
November 8, 2016 – Going Local at Scott Market
The day began with another great breakfast. We had wanted to visit the downtown market the day before, but it is closed on Monday’s, so we planned a trip this day to find some goods. It was a beautiful morning; still sunny but more of a breeze. Scott Market is situated right north of downtown Yangon. To get there, we had figured out the best route to walk from our previous day’s routes, given that pedestrians really have no rights.
The market had textiles, jewelry, fabrics, woodwork, handicrafts and food. I bought a red and black woven blanket that I’m covered up in as I type this. Intrigued by the thanaka facial paste, I bought a slice of bark and a stone slab. Maybe I will use it during sand volleyball season? We quickly wrapped up and headed back to our hotel to head to the airport. The Yangon airport was super nice, a huge contrast to its downtown. The 1 hour flight in the propeller plane included, you guessed it, meal service.
Myanmar just really began allowing tourists to enter the country in 2012, so it’s pretty new to the outside world. While it’s not as heralded as Thailand or Vietnam, my short time in Yangon was spiritual, peaceful and calming. The natives were quiet, neutral in-nature, likely surprised by tourists (or by two 6 foot+ Westerners) walking its streets. I can’t say enough about the Shwedagon Pagoda, an underrated attraction that made our visit to Myanmar a memorable occasion and experience.
[See my next posts to learn more about Thailand, Laos and Vietnam]