Thursday, 22 October 2009

First days in Padang

Two days ago Christie and I flew into Padang in Sumatra to see if we could offer any help to the earthquake relief effort. After a night in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) we got to Padang airport around 5pm Tuesday in the middle of a thunderstorm. The plane was only half full with Sumatran locals and a few Malaysian aid workers. After buying our visa on arrival, we passed through customs without incident into the waiting throng of taxi touts. Having not organised accommodation or even knowing if any was available (we'd brought a tent just in case), we took the offer of one guy to drive us in and find us a room.

The drive into town took about an hour, because the roads had flooded in places, and there were buses stranded and motor scooters trying to brave the foot-deep water. Most smaller buildings seemed intact, and there wasn't much sign of the disaster, which was unexpected. However as we got closer to town there was the occasional damaged house or shop. In the city itself, there was repeatedly the bizarre sight of several untouched buildings in a row, with a big government office or something just completely collapsed in the middle of them. West Sumatran roofs have a unique style (see pic below from our last trip), and we would see these sitting on the ground, cracked in half, with the rest of the building pancaked beneath.

It was dark and raining, so we couldn't see too much, and were more immediately interested in finding a room. After trying a few hotels we found one with a single room left, for much more than we'd normally pay but we weren't really in a bargaining position. When it stopped raining later, we headed out for a walk but didn't really see much more damage.

The next morning we met up Wendy, a Sumatran girl that Ben and I had met here in Padang last year. She had been working for Unicef, but was frustrated at the excessive bureaucracy and lack of action from the government, so had decided to help us to do something directly instead.

As we were riding to the bank to convert our donations to rupiah, I saw some of the real destruction in the rest of the city - collapsed schools, a hospital demolished and hotels reduced to rubble. Some still had dozens of bodies under them. These were the images they've been showing on the news, but the contrast to the other buildings somehow still standing was really bizarre. The city doesn't look like a war zone with rubble everywhere - although I'm sure a lot has been cleaned up in the three weeks since the quake - it seems almost normal, just with the odd building decimated.

As Wendy pointed out, the effect is far greater than just what we can see, since each building collapse means dozens or hundreds out of jobs, and with unusually high food prices it is harder for families to survive, even if their houses are still habitable.

Yesterday we took a minivan four hours east to Muara Labuh, with the idea to buy supplies at normal prices, much cheaper than in Padang. We saw many more damaged houses along the way, and in several places the road had been only recently cleared of landslides. The drive was up into the mountains outside of Padang, which were thick with jungle and refreshingly much cooler, sometimes foggy.

We stayed last night at a school that Wendy is setting up to teach English, and today she and a friend have gone to the market for us to purchase a big load of rice, condensed milk and laundry soap. If we'd gone ourselves, we would have been charged the foreigner price.

We're going to buy 250-300kg of rice and take it to an area called Pasaman, a few hours north of Padang. Using her aid agency contacts, Wendy has found that this area has received some aid, but not enough, and it has not been distributed effectively. Another option was to go and start a food kitchen at Lake Maninjau, which is a large lake
ringed by villages inside a volcano crater. However the logistics of a few of us carrying half a ton of food and supplies in by foot, and the dangers of mudslides and flooding was just too much. Apparently many people there have lost their houses completely - washed into the lake - and would really need the food, but we have to accept there are hundreds of villages that need assistance and we can't help everyone.

Thanks again to everyone that chipped with donations, you'll be happy to know that they are going straight into buying food and essentials as I type. We should be distributing them to villagers in the next couple of days, and I'll update when I can on how it's all going.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009


Smart: wearing one of those clear waterproof pouches around your neck during the massive water fight that is Laos New Year.

Dumb: putting your $1000 iPhone in it for everyone to see, in a country where the monthly income is about ten bucks.

Crime is low here, but if that idiot doesn't put it away, I'll steal it myself.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Asia Update #7 - Cambodia, Vietnam

This should be a fairly quick one, since I've been putting some stories on my blog which I'll just link to, so they're even easier to skip :)

First stop in Cambodia was Angkor Wat, which was impressive but not mind-blowing. After that was Battambang and the capital, Phnom Penh. There I saw the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge and the genocide museum (S-21), which was a thoroughly disturbing experience. It's so hard to believe that Pol Pot and the KR were still around only 30 years ago. Also unsettling is that when you ask a taxi driver to take you to the killing fields, he asks "Oh, you want to stop at the shooting range too? Fire an AK-47?", apparently missing the morbid irony. Although anything goes in Cambodia, for example, for US$200 you can fire off a rocket launcher. For another hundred bucks they'll even throw in a cow to use as a target.

Then it was on to the beach coast of Cambodia at Sihanoukville for a few days of relaxation, then across to a remote border crossing into Vietnam.
After a quick stop in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) I moved on to Da Lat, in the Vietnamese highlands, which was a beautiful spot. It was much cooler than the coast, plus it was filled with pine trees and French-style buildings, as it was the resort town for the French colonists in Saigon.

After not meeting any Aussies for weeks, I found them all hiding in the Peace Cafe in Da Lat. I kept bumping into two of the guys, both cops from Melbourne, all the way up to Hue. I met a Canadian Filipino girl who convinced me to go canyoning with her (it didn't take much), and was one of the highlights of this whole trip. We had an amazing day abseiling off waterfalls, jumping off cliffs and sliding down rapids on our backs, and thanks to her waterproof camera we got some pretty good photos of it too.

Nha Trang was a bit disappointing, just another tourist beach. Hoi An was better, and had a great heritage-listed "Old Town" district. Next was Hue, where it was raining or overcast constantly. Here I wandered around the huge walled Imperial City, and went on a tour of Khe Sanh and the DMZ (demilitarised zone between north and south Vietnam). After deciding I'd have to come back later to properly see the north of the country, I cut across to Savannakhet in Laos instead.
Laos is good so far, I'll probably spent a few weeks here and then back to "home base" in Thailand. Meanwhile, keep an eye out on the blog for updates.

Monday, 23 March 2009


On my first day in Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City, or HCMC), I decided to go for a walk around to orientate myself. I thought I'd head over and check out the War Remnants Museum and the Reunification Palace (where the North Vietnamese tanks rammed through the gates in 1975, ending the war).

Waiting to cross the road not far from my hotel, a well-dressed Asian man next to me said hello and asked my name and where I was from (it's standard here, you get used to it, or have fun making up answers). Once he found out I lived in Melbourne he exclaimed that his sister was just about to move there to work as a nurse. We chatted for a minute, and he asked if I would come back to his place and meet her, and so she could find out more about the city. I didn't really want to, and said I was on the way to the War Museum, but that was fine, he lived right near there, so we organised to meet there when it closed at 5pm.

As I walked away, not five metres up the street, a motorcycle taxi driver who'd watched us chat (but not overheard), asked what we were talking about. He warned that I need to look out for Filipinos who say that they have a brother or sister moving to your city, and invite you back to their place. There, he said, they'll convince you to play a game and basically scam you out of your money. Since he'd pretty much guessed exactly what the guy had said, I thanked him and vowed to be long gone from the museum by closing time.

The museum itself was interesting, mainly just a collection of US Military vehicles, aircraft and weapons. There was also a large display on the horrific effects of the experimental Agent Orange defoliant, which the US dumped 80 million litres of on Vietnam.

On the way back, I stopped to rest and check out my photos in one of the nice parks around the city. Within minutes I was approached by a girl who wanted to practice her English, so we chatted for a while, and she told me she was Cambodian and worked for Amway. I feigned ignorance, and she told me all about how great it was, and to check it out when I get home (sure). She gave me her number and then invited me for coffee, but had to call a friend to meet us first. It was starting to look pretty dubious so I bailed on her too.

Stopping in another park on the way back, I was again accosted, this time by two uni girls wanting to practice English. We were eventually joined by a few guys who drifted over to show off how well they could speak it too. That encounter ended after half an hour without any suspicious propositions, but the lesson is if you ever want to meet any local girls, just go and sit in a park for two minutes and look white.

The next day I took a tour out to the Cu Chi Tunnels, which is an enormous network of tiny underground passages where the locals lived and fought against the Americans. The visit started with a brilliantly biased old propaganda video about the "crazy American devils" slaughtering the innocent locals, who wanted nothing but to live in peace but were forced to become "American-killing heroes".

There were a few displays of the nasty booby traps used in the tunnels - pits with spikes in the designed to trap your leg, tripwires with mines, etc - plus we got to crawl an uncomfortable 20 metres through a recreated tunnel (no doubt widened for westerners).

The best part of the tour was the shooting range, where you could fire off an M-16, AK-47 or M-60 machine gun, for the low, low price of US$1.50 per round (minimum 10). Waiting for your turn, you not only get deafened because of a shortage of earmuffs, but you also get hot shell casings ejected at you because there's nowhere else to stand. Once you do actually get some earmuffs, you realise they are actually just cheap headphones with the cord cut off, and accordingly do absolutely nothing to protect your hearing.

I tried to squeeze off one shot at a time for accuracy, but the dodgy buggers had it set on full auto even though the selector dial said semi auto. So in the fastest way to burn cash ever, your 15 bucks have disappeared downrange before you even notice.

An guy from Michigan who I'd been chatting with decided to shoot the M-60 belt-fed machine gun (think Animal Mother from Full Metal Jacket, although his glasses made him look more like Private Cowboy). To complete the image, he stripped off his T-shirt and slung an ammunition belt across his chest, Rambo style. He asked me to film him, but his ammo was gone before I could even hit record. Even so, he had the time of his life. At least I think he did, I couldn't actually hear anything he said for the next half an hour.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Vietnam, first impressions

Other backpackers have been telling me that Vietnam is a beautiful country, but were tired of getting hassled and ripped off by the locals. Well it didn't take me long to confirm that, I got scammed before I'd even gotten through the Vietnamese checkpoint at the border.

I was going from Kampot on the south coast of Cambodia into Vietnam via a recently-opened and very out of the way crossing near Ha Tien. I organised a minibus to the border, but after being told that Ha Tien city was a few miles past that, I agreed on an extra couple of dollars to get all the way to town. After we dropped off two Canadian Matts at Kep, I continued on by myself. They were actually the last foreigners I'd see for the next 24 hours.

About 15km before the border, they transferred me onto a motorbike taxi because the rest of the way was a rough dirt road. Amazing scenery though, with big salt fields (looks just like rice paddies with no rice), but I was too busy hanging on to take photos.

I passed through the basic tin-shed Cambodian checkpoint with no problems, and crossed the few hundred metres to the Vietnamese side. In comparison, this one was a nice shiny modern building. Before I went in, the bike guy points at the sign over the checkpoint says "OK, this Ha Tien, I leave you here". Err, what? I paid to get to town, not to a building in the middle of nowhere that happens to say Ha Tien. He said he'd take me for just a few more dollars, which I had already paid to his friend with the minibus.

After arguing for a few minutes, saying that the minibus guy was keeping his money and ripping us both off, I told him to call his friend and sort it out. He pretended to dial and held it up so I could hear a supposed busy message, but who knows what it was saying. He repeated this charade a few minutes later but eventually I gave up and went through immigration. On the other side he told me he couldn't cross into Vietnam (even though he already had, and had already offered to take me further), but had organised with his friend to take me for just one extra dollar. Since this was apparently the only place in Asia not swarming with motorbike taxis, I didn't have much choice.

This next motorbike guy didn't speak any English, but I'd made sure he knew I wanted to go to the bus terminal in town. We crossed through the city and over a large bridge, but I started to get suspect after we turned off that down a dirt road. Surely just a shortcut? My suspicions were confirmed when we stopped at the oddest bus terminal I'd seen - there were no hawkers, food stands, ticket booths, or... buses. In fact it was a vacant lot.

Then another friend comes over and tries to explain to me that the bus station moved last year from here to a place half an hour from the city (what the hell did you bring me here for then?!). However this new guy would take me there, for a small fee of course. I was sick of getting scammed by now but was stranded in an empty part of some town that wasn't even in the guide book. I talked the guy down to five bucks (it's a lot here!) and we got going again. On the way we passed a few groups of camouflaged soldiers with assault rifles and rocket launchers on exercises just by the road, that was pretty cool.

We ended up in the next town, Kien Luong, where he took me not to a bus station, but to a small place that had one minibus that was doing the 8-hour trip to Saigon at 6pm. I was too tired to argue at this point. After a very negative impression of Vietnam so far, it was redeemed by a really nice girl called Hom who lived at the minibus place (it was a family-run thing) and who wanted to make sure I was comfortable. She spoke no English but showed me where I could wash up and got me a cold drink. Later she noticed me falling asleep, and took me out the back of the workshop where they had a bamboo mat I could crash on, and she'd even made up a pile of delicious rice paper rolls which she insisted I keep eating every time I looked like stopping for breath. They have this really potent fish sauce they use for dipping here too, not the sissy stuff we get at home.

Anyway we tried to have a conversation from the basic Vietnamese in the back of the guide book, which was fairly successful, considering. Mostly it was just her cracking up at my terrible pronunciation. Apparently one short word in Vietnamese can have up to half a dozen different meanings just based on the tonal inflection.

Once the bus finally got going, I was almost hopeful of having the whole thing to myself, but that was short-lived as it was soon packed with picked-up locals. One woman got very irate when her bag was dropped which contained a bottle of the aforementioned toxic fish sauce, which ended up all over the floor of the bus. The rest of the trip, and now my backpack which was sitting in it, smelled like an Asian fish market.

I met another nice local girl on the bus who spoke a tiny bit of English, but the bus was dark and I couldn't even use the Lonely Planet to translate this time. She gave me a few of her tamarinds and even bought me a bottle of green tea when we stopped, and was disappointed I didn't have a Vietnamese number yet. Though I'm not sure what she expected to do with it, since we could barely converse in person, let alone on the phone.

Anyway after far too long I was unceremoniously dumped near the backpacker area of Saigon at 2am with nowhere to stay. A cyclo driver offered to find me somewhere cheap, and drove me 100m up the road to a place that was shut, and then back again to where we started. Eventually I got a room and he wanted his money. I didn't have change, but he assured me he would get some as he ran off with twice what I owed him.

He never came back. I think I would have been more surprised if he did.

Thursday, 19 March 2009


Hands up those who knew that Cambodia has some great beaches? Yeah, me neither. Turns out it does, in the southwest corner from Koh Kong on the Gulf of Thailand, around to Kep near the Vietnamese border. I spent a few days in Sihanoukville which is about halfway between the two.

Apart from being thankfully much cooler than the rest of Cambodia, there are some really nice beaches around the area, and the further out of town you go the better they get. The southernmost beach, Otres, can only be reached by a dirt road and so is practically empty. There are small bars set up all along the sand where you can chill out with a drink but there's still hardly anyone there.

I met a few Swedish and Canadian guys who were staying at my guest house, the Green Gecko (best room you'll get for 4 bucks). They had fully adjusted to the hectic lifestyle of hanging out at the local bars, watching lightning storms while playing guitar on the beach, and drinking plenty of cheap booze. Speaking of which, the first night I was amazed to see on the menu a bucket of alcohol - a full bottle of whiskey, with red bull and coke - for US$6. Turns out even that's too much, because as the guys had discovered (several times), a 700ml local whiskey is only $1.50 and the mixers are about 50c each. Crazy.

So, given the circumstances, it's not surprising I came home three nights in a row after sunrise. Unfortunately, in the middle there I had a full day of scuba diving, so had to sit on a rolling boat for two hours after only two hours of sleep. Actually once I got in the water I felt pretty good. I thought I'd crash as soon as I got home, but the bucket came out again and it was all over for that idea.

On Tuesday, Canadian Matt and I hired a motorbike to go into town and get our Vietnamese visas. A few hundred metres up the road I realised the guy hadn't given me a helmet, and it was about that time that a cop jumped out and pulled us over. They'd set up a little checkpoint and were pulling over everyone without helmets, which is only just recently required by law. I had my Australian license on me but my international one was back in the hotel. The cop checked the number plate and shook his head, saying that the plates didn't match the bike and that this was a big problem. We asked if there was any "fine" we needed to pay but surprisingly he insisted that I walk back to the guest house for the registration papers while Matt waited there with the bike.

Well after walking the five minutes back to the guest house, the guy wouldn't give me the papers (or didn't have any), but handed me his card so the cop could call him. I also remembered to grab the helmet this time. As I walked back to the checkpoint, I saw several other tourists on bikes getting pulled over, and plenty of locals doing quick U-turns and speeding off as soon as they spotted it.

All this time Matt had been asking the cop if there was any way we could take care of this now, but was repeatedly refused. When I handed the policeman the business card and said I didn't have the papers, he didn't even call the number but told us again that this was a "big problem" and we could pay him now to take care of it. Considering the missing helmet, supposed wrong registration and incorrect license, we were both apprehensive about what figure he'd ask for.

One dollar.

Not believing our luck, we paid him and got the hell out of there as quick as we could, this time wearing the helmet.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Packing light

After travelling for six months with a regular-sized, 65 litre pack, I realised I didn't actually use half the stuff that I was lugging around. Ben had already moved to using a smaller pack, and kept on about how much better it was, but I didn't have another one to use. Before I set off alone to Cambodia though, I got myself a new one about half the size to see how it went. Turns out he's right, it's way better.

Firstly, you can carry it on anywhere, you no longer have to stick it under a bus or check it in on a plane, and it never has to leave your sight. Secondly, since it's not much bigger than a school bag, you don't feel like a backpacker, and don't stick out as much (well, no more than your average tall, blond, white guy in Asia). Plus you get envious looks from other backpackers as they come in from the heat, exhausted and sweaty from carrying their huge packs.

It's not like I only have the bare essentials either - I have two cameras (a compact and my new SLR-like) and two iPods on me (the Shuffle and the iPhone) plus the piles of cables, chargers and spare batteries that they require.

The first thing is to ditch the shoes. For someone with feet my size they seem to take up half my pack, and weigh far too much. Since you can wear thongs everywhere in Asia (even on treks and flights), they just aren't needed. Although I did bring a pair of socks for those air-conditioned overnight buses.

As for clothes, I've only got two pairs of shorts, one of which are also boardshorts, and the other are those zip-off khaki cargoes for when I need long pants. I've only got 3 t-shirts but you can buy more anywhere along the way. The biggest item is my microfleece jumper which you can't risk going without.

I've got a travel towel which I haven't needed much, and a silk sleep sheet which I haven't used on this part of the trip, but that's because I've been in guest houses most of the time. My rain jacket I swapped for a small plastic poncho but I haven't needed it yet. I left behind three-quarters of my toiletries, which you can buy anywhere along the way, and only took a minimal first aid kit.

I've got my small LED torch, which comes in handy for finding your way out of Indonesian jungles at night, climbing volcanoes before dawn or just looking through your pack on a dark bus. Although, if you pack your pack the same way every time, you can pretty much find anything you need in it by feel anyway. Little combination locks on the zips are essential, especially when traveling by yourself (thanks Claire, they're great!). Semi-hard cases for cameras, iPods and the like are needed so you don't cry when your bag gets dropped or crushed.

Sorry to sound like an Apple ad, but one of the best things I brought on this trip was the iPhone. You can get wireless in so many places now, and local SIM cards with data plans are so cheap, that you can access email and internet pretty much anywhere. The browser is great for checking timetables or Wikitravel, and the built-in Google Maps with location finder is a lifesaver. Not to mention the music, movies and games for long bus trips. Ben's been carrying a small laptop with him, but I can get most of the same stuff from something that weighs ten times less. The only problem with being online everywhere, is that people at home expect you to reply to emails even when you're somewhere in the Sumatran jungle!

Wednesday, 11 March 2009


Not much to say about Angkor Wat, the temples are pretty amazing and that, but I probably would have been more impressed if I hadn't seen the big temples in Java and the thousands of them in Burma. There's pictures here but they all kind of look a bit samey: Angkor Wat photos. Although hot, Siem Reap is a nice place, especially the Warehouse Bar where I spent half my time - hi Josh, Sony and Soda!

From Siem Reap I caught the boat across the enormous Tonle Sap flood lake, and up the river to Battambang, past miles of floating villages. In the wet season, this supposedly takes four hours, which would have been perfect. Being the dry season, and being that our boat broke down a dozen times, it took eleven hours.

Yesterday I hired a motorbike to explore the area around Battambang, firstly heading up north to see Wat Ek Phnom, a Buddhist temple and ancient ruins older than Angkor Wat. On the way back on a dirt road about half an hour from town, I got flat tire. I was out in the middle of nowhere with a broken bike, and probably no-one within ten miles that could speak English.

As I slowly rode my crippled bike towards town, the locals that I passed saw my predicament and all pointed further down the road. Eventually I arrived at a "garage", marked by a bicycle tire hanging from a post.

The guy took my bike, and removed the inner tube without taking the back wheel off. He found the hole was an old split that had been badly patched. He ripped off the old patch and actually stitched the split with thread, then put it under a clamp with a hole in the middle. In this he lit a small fire to melt the new patch on. After about 20 minutes, he tested the new patch, but wasn't happy with it and ended up just swapping the whole inner tube.

During this time, his daughters arrived home from school, and were amazed to see a white guy at their house. They sat there the whole time with the rest of the family, watching me, gesturing about how I barely fit under the roof, and giggling to themselves. The only English that one of them knew was "what is your name".

All up, the guy spent the best part of an hour working on this tire, and I was worried how much it would be, since I didn't have much cash on me. I didn't have a lot to worry about, in the end he only asked for 3000 riel... 75 cents. Less than a dollar for an hour's work plus a new inner tube. I gave the guy two bucks and still felt like I ripped him off.

Later that afternoon, I rode southwest on a dusty dirt road to Phnom Sampeu, where there was a monastery, and some killing caves of the Khmer Rouge. I was met by the head monk who showed me around the temple, and the classrooms where they taught English to poor or orphaned kids. He even dragged me in front of a class to talk about myself with the students for 15 minutes. I donated a few bucks to the school, which I would later regret.

By now it was too late to climb up to the caves, but at dusk the many bats which inhabit them came out to feed. They streamed out of the cave by their thousands for almost an hour, and the monk told me the caves on the other side had even more bats.

As I went to head home, I discovered the headlight of my scooter didn't work, so I had to slowly make my way back along the unfinished dirt highway in the dark. To make things worse, every time a truck roared past it kicked up a thick cloud of dust which made seeing anything even more impossible. To top it off, I had barely any petrol left and was worried about running dry at any second.

Yet somehow I managed to make it back to the guesthouse for a well deserved beer (only 60 cents!) and a game of poker with a few of the ex-pats. I mentioned that I'd been out to see the monastery, and the owner of the bar, an Aussie, says "you didn't give any money to that head monk did you? He's a scammer, it's funded by the government and he keeps all the donations himself. How many monks have a $300 mobile phone?". Teach me for being altruistic.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Into Cambodia

Today I crossed the border into Cambodia at Poipet, about 5 hours east of Bangkok. The first weird thing was that it was hot and sunny on the Thai side, but after passing through immigration and emerging on to the Cambodian side, it had become dusty, dark and windy. Five minutes later it was raining hard. It felt like I'd just stepped through the wardrobe into Narnia.

Before you even get to the Cambodian post there are a few big casinos right on the border, the Thais love to come over for day trips just to gamble away their baht. Apparently they are even allowed to pop back over the border without having to go through immigration, just so they can get to the ATMs.

I split a cab with an Estonian couple I'd met from the bus - they only had one pack between them, and it was even smaller than mine! Anyway the taxi was only a few bucks more and it beat spending another five hours on a coach.

Stepping out of immigration, the road was unsealed and rough, which did not bode well for the long trip to Siem Reap. However past this, it turned into a nice sealed road, which looked like it had just been built. The road was dead straight almost the whole way, with the occasional kink every 50km or so, and with a modern concrete-post power line running alongside it (very nice compared to the tangled cable fire hazards in Thailand).

White Camry sedans seemed to be the weapon of choice, and we had a whole convoy of them going for a while there. More than once we had to brake hard to avoid hitting a bullock running across the road, usually with a flustered woman chasing after it waving a stick. The style of driving reminded me of Indonesia - fast, constantly on the horn, and usually on the wrong side of the road. Seemed he could have wired up his horn backwards so he'd only have to hit it when he didn't want to honk, to save some time.

After an hour and a half we came to a construction zone which went on for 20km, where they were still building the new road. Instead of blocking off half the road while they work on it, the Cambodians seem to just like building the whole thing at once, while traffic dodged in between the lumbering steamrollers, graders and trucks. It doesn't seem to slow them down though; our guy was doing 80 on the wrong side of the wet dirt road, swerving to avoid the bigger rocks. We passed a truck which had tipped over too, but unfortunately I was too busy scoffing wasabi peas to get my camera out.

Quicker than expected, we arrived in Siem Reap (only two and half hours instead of five! It was worth those extra few bucks), where we were met by dozens of big, very expensive-looking hotels. I guess the Angkor Wat package tourists have to sleep somewhere too. By the way, who was it at Lonely Planet who had the bright idea of marking the US$750-a-night hotel as "Our Pick"? Is this why their guide books are so expensive??

Saturday, 28 February 2009

Asia Update, umm... #6? - Thailand, Burma

Well it's been bloody ages since the last update, but luckily most of what we've been up to in the last three months can be summed up in only a few words: beaching, boozing and bumming around. After Malaysia, we headed straight to the resort island of Phuket in Thailand, where we stayed for six weeks with Sergey, a Russian friend we met near the start of our trip. Living next door to us in Chalong were a bunch of funny, party-hard Swedish guys, more of which seemed to appear every week, and who certainly kept us entertained.

As you may be able to gather from the photos, we didn't get up to a whole lot in Phuket, where whole weeks seemed to disappear before you realised it. A typical day consisted of sleeping until midday, going to gorgeous Naiharn beach for the afternoon, a sauna and massage, and then partying with the Swedes in Patong until the wee hours. Patong is the biggest nightspot in Phuket, and it's main drag Bangla Road is home to a few night clubs, pubs, gogo bars, and laneways with dozens of tiny drinking spots. The whole place is packed with tourists, Thai girls and ladyboys, and around there pretty much anything goes.

In mid-December we took a break from the hard life, and crossed Thailand to the island of Ko Pha Ngan, home of the infamous Full Moon Party. About 20,000 ravers make the monthly pilgrimage here for the dance festival on the beach, which goes all night and well on into the next day. Some even manage to keep going until the following evening. We'd travelled from neighbouring Ko Samui just for the night, and ended up crashing on the beach.

The only other thing I did in Phuket were a few boat day trips - twice to a local sea gypsy island, and another with the Swedish guys on their boat, where out of two dozen people I was the only non-Swede. Just for a change, these trips mostly consisted of hanging out on island beaches and drinking.

Eventually in mid-January we decided it was time to get back on the road, and so we flew across to Burma (Myanmar) for a few weeks. It's an incredible country, with very friendly people, thousands of amazing temples with far too many Buddha statues, and an oppressive military junta (which I've written more about the antics of here). In Rangoon (Yangon) we saw the massive Shwedagon Pagoda, a 100m high stupa covered in 50 tons of gold. Around Mandalay we visited four ancient cities, with colossal crumbling temples, a kilometre-long teak bridge, and the world's largest intact bell. Near Monya we saw a 30-story standing Buddha, a temple holding over half a million Buddha statues, and were invited to a Burmese wedding. In Bagan we were overwhelmed by the thousands of temples in every direction, just out in the middle of fields. From Kalaw we trekked for three days, visited local villages, attended another wedding, and slept in a monastery. We finished at stunning Inle Lake, with it's floating gardens and entire villages on stilts over the water.

Burma was a lot different than I'd expected, and much better than I'd imagined, even despite their dire political situation.

After Burma, we headed back to our home base of Phuket, where Ben has gotten himself engaged to a Russian girl. I've since gone by myself back to Bangkok, en route to Cambodia for a few weeks.

I'll try to send out these updates a little more consistently in future, but at least no-one can complain I'm inundating them with emails. I've updated the map so you can see where we've been, and finally got all the photos uploaded. The next month should be interesting, as I've never backpacked alone before, so will let you know how it goes!

Wednesday, 18 February 2009


Ben and I recently spent three weeks in Burma, which was certainly different to any of the other countries we've been to here in Asia. Probably the main reason behind these differences is the bizarre and seemingly arbitrary behaviour of the Burmese government. As you may know, Burma has a military dictatorship. In 1990, the opposition party won the election in a landslide, but they were then outlawed by the government, and their leader is still under house arrest today.

Surprisingly, we saw very little military presence anywhere on the streets, but they certainly made themselves felt in other ways.


There are no ATMs in Burma, no banks for foreigners, and no-one accepts travellers cheques or credit cards (due to international trade restrictions). This means before you go, you have to withdraw and carry with you all the money you will need for your whole trip. As you can imagine, for a month-long holiday that can be quite a bit - Ben and I took US$1600 in cash!

The Burmese have their own currency of course - the kyat (K) - but no-one really trusts it. You can't trade kyat on foreign exchange markets, and everyone there prefers to deal in US dollars for anything but small purchases, even though it's illegal for locals to possess US currency without a license.

So for small change, you need to convert USD to K, which you have to do on the black market. This is because the "official" exchange rate is about 6K per US dollar, but on the street you can get over 1000K per dollar - almost a two hundred times better rate!

The reason why no-one really wants kyat is because on several occasions in the past, the government has suddenly declared that certain notes (eg the 100K note) are no longer legal tender. This doesn't mean you could exchange them for new notes, it means all those notes were instantly worthless (you can see why no-one wants to keep their savings in kyat!). They also introduced strange new denominations like 35, 45, 75 and 90K notes.

Today the biggest denomination you can get is 1000K, equivalent to a mere US$1. Actually these are the only notes being printed any more, because the smaller ones (eg 100K, equal to one dime) cost more to produce than they are actually worth. They are still in circulation, but are so old they they're hard to read and practically falling apart.

Apparently this situation is better than it used to be - until 2003, foreigners had to change at least US$200 into FECs (Foreign Exchange Certificates), basically the government equivalent of Disney Dollars. Of course that money went straight in the government's pockets, which you can mostly avoid doing these days.


It's normal for foreigners to get treated differently in Asia (see: "tourist price") but on top of this, Burma has a bunch of extra laws that only apply to us.
  • We can only stay in government-registered hotels. Each place you stay will take down your full passport and visa details and report this to the authorities, so they know exactly where you are and where you're going all the time.
  • Foreigners are not allowed to drive cars, if you hire a car you have to get a driver with it.
  • Much of the country is off-limit to foreigners, and other areas you must apply for a special visa to enter. This includes a lot of the roads to border crossings, so you need to fly to the border to cross overland. Some of the borders are actually one-way, so you can enter, but can't leave the country the same way.
  • Foreigners are not allowed in the capital city, Naypyidaw. Our trekking guide suggested this was because the Burmese were obtaining nuclear technology from the Indians and were paranoid about future invasion by the US. He says this is also why in 2005 they moved the capital from Rangoon to the more mountainous, easily defended area.
  • Tourists can't buy a mobile phone SIM in Burma, and even for locals it's prohibitively expensive (several thousand USD).


As could be expected under a military regime, all media outlets are either government owned, or have to go through government censors. Even the internet access is restricted, albeit inconsistently and almost randomly. For example, most news sites are unaffected yet some (eg are blocked. Wikipedia and Google are fine, even articles critical of the local government. Access to most blog sites is unfettered, but is not available. Flickr is OK, but Picasa Web albums is not. Gmail and Yahoo Mail are blocked, but can easily be accessed by using their secure or mobile versions.

Regardless, most of the internet cafes have proxies set up to circumvent these restrictions on request.


Blackouts are not just a common occurance in Burma, they are a daily scheduled event. Even in Rangoon and Mandalay, two of the biggest cities, the power goes out for most of the day. Hotels and offices all have big generators out the front, so there are thousands of these spewing out unneeded noise and air pollution constantly. Usually the "scheduled hours" for electricity are just bizarre, like 11pm to 6am, when most people are asleep anyway. Even during these hours, blackouts are common. Apparently Naypyidaw is the only city which has 24 hour electricity.

It is quite an experience to ride down a main city road at night with no street lights though, with only the headlights of the occasional car glowing through the thick, fog-like dust.


Apart from flying, moving around between cities in Burma is a slow and painful experience. Because of the terrible state of most roads, even a short 100km journey can take 3 or 4 hours by bus. The local buses are usually packed full, although this doesn't stop them from trying to pick up more people along the way. They are certainly not designed for people over 6" either - once I had to buy two tickets and sit sideways just to fit in the seat.

Although we didn't catch any, the trains are apparently even slower than buses. Most of them seem to only average a glacial 25 kph.

Strangely, although they drive on the right, most of the cars in Burma are right-hand drive. At some point the government must have changed from driving on the left, in their tradition of making unnecessary changes for the sake of it.

Despite sounding like a bumbling and ineffective government, the Burmese military junta has a history of extreme corruption and violent repression. It is far more concerned with making billions by selling out it's country's natural resources to China and India than with the welfare of it's people. More people need to learn about what's happening over there if there is ever going to be a chance to fix it.