Southeast Asia: Three Favorite Things

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I wouldn’t say that we’ve been *everywhere* in Southeast Asia, but over four separate visits, totaling five months spent in the region, we’ve seen and done a lot. At this point, we’ve been to nearly every Southeast Asian country (we’re only missing Brunei and East Timor.) So what did we like the best?

Three Favorite Cities

  1. Luang Prabang (Laos)
  2. Chiang Mai (Thailand)
  3. Yogyakarta (Indonesia)

Each of these cities has a laid-back, fun-loving atmosphere, and days spent here flew by. We tend towards the smaller cities; Bangkok and Jakarta are not among our favorites (though we love Kuala Lumpur and would choose that as number four.)

The Luang Prabang main drag

Three Favorite Places for Neat Architecture

  1. Bali (Indonesia)
  2. Singapore
  3. Yangon (Myanmar)

Balinese traditional architecture is a blend of different styles, and it is like nothing else in the world. I particularly admired the Hindu temples on Bali, but ordinary courtyard houses were also beautiful. Both Singapore and Yangon have some fabulous old British colonial buildings, as well as Hindu, Buddhist, Chinese, and (in Singapore) Malay-style architecture. The different neighborhoods were fascinating to walk around.

An old British building overlooking People's Park in Yangon

Ruins of the historical center of Sukhothai, the old capital of Thailand

Three Favorite Attractions

  1. Angkor Wat (Cambodia)
  2. Bagan (Myanmar)
  3. The old city of Sukhothai (Thailand)

Hmmm… these all turned out to be sites of ancient ruins. I guess you can tell where our interests lie?

Three Favorite Experiences

  1. Snorkeling in the Perhentian Islands (Malaysia)  The most fish I have ever seen in one place… plus turtles and sharks.
  2. Watching a water-puppet show (Hanoi, Vietnam)  So what if it’s touristy? It’s a really cool show.
  3. Touching a tiger (Chiang Mai, Thailand)  Do I have to explain the appeal of this one?

    Awww!

Three Favorite Foods

  1. Pad thai (Thailand)
  2. Adobo (Philippines)
  3. Banh mi (Vietnam; similar ones in Laos)

We tried making adobo when we got home... it was good, but not as good as on Boracay Island

Pad thai may be an obvious choice, but we never ever got tired of eating it. In the Philippines, each adobo we tried was better than the last. I don’t know how they do it. I asked one waitress about her restaurant’s version; she just shrugged and said “It’s Filipino food.” Which explains… nothing.

Runner-up: Roti canai (Malaysia and Singapore), which we ate for breakfast nearly every day in those countries.

Three Favorite Drinks

  1. Teh tarik (Malaysia, Singapore)
  2. Local coffee, sweetened with condensed milk (Vietnam, Laos)
  3. Watermelon shakes (anywhere there are backpackers)

Teh tarik… how can I explain teh tarik? It tastes like plain ol’ black tea with sugar and lots of milk (think Japanese milk tea) but the process of making it is special. Before serving, it is poured back and forth between two glasses several times, which makes the top nice and frothy, and in my opinion, makes the drink creamier.

Breakfast of champions: roti canai and teh tarik

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Myanmar is Where Buses Go to Retire

Due to the economic sanctions placed on it by the US and EU, Myanmar has to make do without many consumer goods. It does, however, have relations with many Asian countries, so based on what I saw, Myanmar isn’t hurting as much as the US government likes to think it is. For example, there are joint-venture hotels in Yangon (between the Myanmar government and investors from other countries.) All the Coke we drank in Myanmar was imported from Thailand. Myanmar is rich in natural resources, and the government makes a lot of money off of precious gems that are illegal to sell in Europe, but allowed in China.

The transportation system also depends on its Asian neighbors. The country doesn’t produce its own buses or cars, so every vehicle I saw was used, usually Japanese or the occasional Korean model. This is common in New Zealand and probably other countries as well, but the funniest thing about Myanmar buses is that they haven’t bothered to repaint them, so they still sport their Japanese paint jobs. I recognized quite a few of these buses, and tried to get as many pictures of them as possible.

Wow… if I ride this bus, I can get to the Radisson Hotel at Narita Airport? Sweet! (Aung Mingalar bus station, Yangon)

Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kitakyushu anymore… (Rest stop, on the road between Yangon and Mandalay)

Even Japan Railways (JR, the government-owned transportation system) sells buses to Myanmar. This one, unfortunately, looked like it had rammed into a building. (Aung Mingalar bus station, Yangon)

But best of all…

Our first evening in Yangon, we were walking around in the dark (no streetlamps in Myanmar) looking for a restaurant we had read about in the guidebook. We misread a sign, took a wrong turn, and started walking down 51st Street in Yangon. Up ahead, I saw something familiar…

“Hey Bob, this bus has the same colors as the Amagasaki city bus!”

“Yeah, it does!”

“Look, there’s some Japanese on it! It IS a Japanese bus.”

“And it even has the entrance in the front and the exit in the back!” (Most Japanese buses work the opposite way, boarding in the back, but Amagasaki city buses board in the front.)

“Wait a second….”

“WTF??? It IS an Amagasaki bus!”

“Why does it say “Myanmar Customs” on the front?”

“I don’t know…. Maybe we shouldn’t hang out here.”

“Bob, go stand by it so I can take a picture, and prove we saw it!”

“No! I don’t want to get in trouble!” (It is illegal in Myanmar to take photos of certain things.)

“No one’s looking!”

Bob promised we’d go back during daylight hours to get a better photo of the Amagasaki city bus, but we never did. I wonder which route it ran? We found another one near another government building. If only Amagasaki knew where their buses were now….

Introducing Myanmar

“This is Burma, and it is quite unlike any other land you know about.” -Rudyard Kipling

There are no 7-11s here. Most people, both men and women, wear skirt-like longyi instead of trousers. Cheroots (a kind of Indian mini-cigar) are more popular than cigarettes. Women paint their faces with light yellow-colored makeup, emphasizing their cheeks with big round circles. People still chew betel nuts and spit on the street, the spray the color of blood. It is indeed unlike any other land I know about.

Downtown Yangon with Sule Pagoda in the distance

Myanmar was not on our original itinerary, but a Canadian man we met in Indonesia recommended it wholeheartedly. He had visited a few years ago with his daughter and loved it. As if to seal the deal, he mentioned that AirAsia, a popular budget airline, flies to Yangon. I had thought that flights might cost about $200 round-trip from Bangkok- not too bad, but a little pricey for Southeast Asia- but on AirAsia, they are as low as $50 round trip.

Why did we have to fly, anyway? It’s right next to Thailand, isn’t it? Yes, but the border area is unstable. There is on-and-off internal fighting in Myanmar, between the government and ethnic minority rebels, in the eastern part of the country, near the border with Thailand. There are also certain places where overland travel is off-limits to foreigners, as decreed by the government. So while there are a few border crossings, most of them are only open for day-trippers (used mainly by merchants selling goods on either side of the border, or foreigners renewing their Thai visas) and the few that are open, might as well not be, because foreigners can only get so far before reaching an “off-limits” zone and having to hop on a plane. The main areas of interest to visitors are primarily in the center of the country, and these areas are very far from the fighting and any accompanying nastiness. So the best bet, as of now anyway, is to enter by air.

In the past, the leader of the Burmese pro-democracy party, Aung San Suu Kyi, has encouraged a total tourism boycott. This was in response to the government’s “Visit Myanmar Year” project in 1996, in which forced labor was used to construct roads and airstrips to ready the country for what it hoped would be an influx of visitors. (Less than 200,000 came.) And that’s just one episode. Every day, human rights abuses are rampant, people lack basic freedoms such as free speech, and next year marks 50 years under military rule. Nothing appears to be changing, despite recent “elections.” Yet Aung San Suu Kyi has changed her position. The reason is, she says, because she’s realized that foreign tourists can be a boon to Myanmar, if they avoid government-owned hotels, transport, and restaurants in favor of privately-owned businesses. Myanmar has one of the lowest per capita GDPs in the world, and they desperately need the money that tourism can bring. While every business must pay federal taxes, an independent tourist can make sure 85-90% of their spending goes in the pockets of ordinary people. Based on our experience, this is really not hard to do. Private businesses make up the bulk of businesses in Myanmar, especially at the budget end of the spectrum.

The other benefit tourism can bring is awareness. The Burmese we met were always keen to ask about foreign countries and likewise encouraged us to tell our friends and families about Myanmar. Several people told me “come back next year” and “bring your mother, father, sister, brother.” If there was ever a citizenry that should not be judged by its government, it is the Burmese. In contrast to the government’s secrecy, the people we met were very open and talkative. They are hopeful that they will see real democracy soon, and anxious for support of the international community. They watch the news- everyone we met was very interested in politics- and one man wanted to talk to me about what was happening in Libya. He was heartened by the decision to implement the no-fly zone, and he suggested to me (in total seriousness) that perhaps the US could invade Myanmar next, to help the people overthrow the military junta.

One of my friends told me that Myanmar is very high on his list of  “places to never go.” I understand the sentiment, because it seems like it would be a difficult place to travel, that it might be dangerous for a capitalist devil Westerner, or that it would just be too sad to visit a country where the people lack so much. However, I told him to reconsider his list. Myanmar is full of surprises. It’s safe, easygoing, and we encountered no problems with government officials.  Everything we ate was delicious. The temples are incredible and the ruins of Bagan rival Angkor Wat. Best of all are the Burmese people. They are poor, but the most generous I’ve ever met. We, who have comparatively huge bank accounts, were given gifts and treated to several meals, with no expectation of reciprocation. Whenever we were lost, people went out of their way to help us find the right bus or even walk us to where we wanted to go. It’s a fantastic place to visit and I would encourage anyone to go. And bring your mother, father, sister, brother.

Me in front of Htilominlo, one of the temples of Bagan