CURRENT LOCATION: Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar (Burma)
From Vang Vieng's beautiful caves and lazy river, we boarded a bus for a short four hour ride to the capital of Laos, Vientiane. Everyone we'd met on the road had warned us that Vientiane was rubbish, just another city, and told us that they couldn't wait to get out of there to see "real Laos". Right...
Not expecting much, the bus dropped us off (not at the bus station of course, but about 1km away from it, at a conveniently located cluster of tuk tuk drivers), and we started walking to our guesthouse. We may have mentioned this before, but it was hot. Again. And we were pretty peckish by this stage. After checking in at our guesthouse (which I was delighted to find was also home to at least 3 cats. They also had five dogs, but an unknowable number of them (they all looked exactly the same) barked and growled at me, so they got no pats), we went in search of lunch. At the end of the street, we discovered Ice Cream Garden. Sadly, we opted not to take them up on their specialty, instead enjoying a rare treat of rice and noodles. We spent the rest of the afternoon catching up on admin and making some plans, and enjoying a sneaky bit of air conditioning and some cheeky Wimbledon action.
The next morning we struck out in search of breakfast, and ended up at some crappy chain store style coffee store, eating decidedly average pastries and drinking iced mochas, thanking god it wasn't eggs. From there, we embarked on a walking tour. One of our favourite things to do in South East Asia has been to google walking tours, either created by other travellers, or sometimes local cultural or heritage groups. Often, you can find a great map and a walking outline for a day of pounding the pavements and seeing the sights. It saves us the effort of plotting a course that makes the most sense!
This walking tour began at Nam Phu Square, the main square in the city, surrounded by cheesy tourist restaurants. The fountain is only on at night, when it's lit up, so it wasn't much of a stop. From there we continued walking to the Presidential Palace, which looked stunning from the street, but isn't open to the public. Close to the palace was Haw Pha Kaew, a wat that contains a wonderful cultural museum, but as is becoming usual on our travels, it was under construction and covered in scaffolding. Luckily, our next stop was just around the corner - Wat Si Saket. It was here we discovered that everything in Vientiane closes between 12 and 1. We arrived at 12.03. Things were not shaping up well for our walking tour.
On the way to our next stop, we refuelled with some icy cold drinks. We found our way (eventually, after getting lost) to That Dam, a stupa set in the middle of a roundabout. We found ourselves some shade and hid from the incredible heat for a bit. I realise I'm not really selling Vientiane here, but the truth is, despite our tour not going as planned, it was a really enjoyable place to be. Sure, there wasn't really much to 'do', but it was super laid back, a pretty quiet city, and it was full of great architecture and interesting people. We were really enjoying waking around and soaking in the atmosphere.
After our brief respite from the scorching hot sun, we headed to our next spot, the COPE Visitor's Centre. This not-for-profit organisation is dedicated to supporting victims of unexploded ordnance, providing clinical mentoring and training programs for local staff in the manufacture of artificial limbs and related rehabilitation activities. It was yet another grim reminder of the realities of these incredibly destructive and indiscriminate weapons, which sadly, mostly affect children.
We found ourselves close to home, and as it was mid-afternoon and we were feeling a little dehydrated, we hid out in the air conditioning a little while before heading out to dinner. That night, we found ourselves getting very swept up in the excitement of Wimbledon, watching Dustin Brown take on Rafael Nadal and win! Well.... Zev watched it. I watched the first set, and then the insides of my eyelids. But it's the thought that counts. We were very sad to hear that our new favourite tennis player lost his next match, and won't be there to provide any more fireworks for the rest of the tournament - I guess Roger better wow us instead.
With our big plans for an early start thwarted by a tennis match finishing at 2am, we sluggishly dragged ourselves out of bed a little later than anticipated. Our first stop was to book our onward tickets from Vientiane. This was a rather complicated affair, involving overland travel from Vientiane to Bangkok, in order to make a flight from Bangkok to Yangon. More on that later.
From there, after a quick breakfast of course, we headed to the bus station to go to Buddha Park. This was our first public transport experience in Laos, and it was awesome! All the locals were very friendly and helpful (although many suggested we'd be more comfortable hiring a tuk tuk or a taxi - clearly they didn't see the moths fly out when we opened our wallets). The bus had air conditioning (thank god), and we grabbed some seats and settled in for the ride. The 45 minute, 17km ride took us to the border, where about 2/3 of the bus got off. We thought we were getting a sneak peek of what was to come, but as it turns out, we went to a different border. Again, more on that later.
Soon enough, we pulled up outside Buddha Park, and gratefully got ourselves a cold drink at the admission gate. Designed and built in 1958 by Luang Pu, a yogi-priest-shaman, Buddha Park contains sculptures he carved, merging Hindu and Buddhist philosophy and iconography. The result is unusual to say the least. The jewel in the Buddha Park crown is a massive sculpture at one end of the park, which (we're told) represents hell, earth, and heaven. The sculpture is about 15-20m tall, and shaped like an enormous pumpkin. You enter through a carved mouth, and the inside is split into three levels, each representing one of the levels of 'life' (ie hell, earth and heaven). The inside was covered in dust and full of cobwebs, with perilous staircases littered throughout. The centre of the pumpkin contained sculptures to let you know which level you were on. Once you made it to 'heaven', you could climb out on to the roof of the pumpkin for a panoramic view of the park.
Having had our fill of bizarre sculptures for the day, we piled back on to the bus to head back into town. We jumped off, made a pit stop at Ice Cream Garden (Zev stuck with rice, but this time I decided to sample the caramel toast bites with ice cream - amazing), and again took advantage of the air conditioning and Wimbledon coverage for the afternoon, before heading out for a decidedly average dinner.
Our last day in Vientiane started reasonably early - we needed to check out of our guest house, and head to the travel agency to store our bags until 3pm, when we were due to head to Thailand. With that accomplished, we set off to finish the walking tour we began on day 1. We started with the National Museum, which was slightly dated, but contained some interesting information about the various sites of archaeological significance in Laos. There was a large exhibit about the a Plain of Jars, so it was nice to see something familiar. Of course, the museum (like everything else) closed between 12 and 1, so we were unceremoniously kicked out at lunch time.
Luckily, we were very close to Patuxai, Vientiane's answer to the Arc de Triomphe. Officially called the Victory Monument, it was built in 1969 using cement donated by the U.S. intended for construction of a new airport. A plaque on the side explains it was never finished, and describes it as an eyesore. We thought it was very nice, and enjoyed the views from both the bottom and the top, after climbing up to look out over the city.
We then headed back to Wat Si Saket, knowing that it would be open this time. It is believed to be Vientiane's oldest surviving temple, built between 1819-1824. The temple itself is very beautiful, if a little run down. The walls are filled with little recesses, each one containing a Buddha figure. Sadly, they're all dusty and covered in cobwebs, but it's pretty remarkable either way.
We wandered back to the travel agency via the Laos National Culture Hall, a large and striking building whose purpose we couldn't determine. Gratefully, we arrived at the agency, found ourselves a fan, and enjoyed an ice cold lime soda while we waited for our epic journey to begin.
Our original plan had been to fly from Vientiane to Yangon. We looked at flights, and they were about $140NZD each. When we went to book them however, the total cost for our flight was going to be ~$700NZD!! Hello airline and airport taxes!! After some quick thinking on Zev's part, he figured out we could catch a shuttle from Vientiane to the border, then a train from the Laos border to the Thai border, and then an overnight train from the Thai border to Bangkok. From there, we could fly to Yangon for much cheaper. It sounds more complicated than it really is - the ticket we bought from the agent covered everything from Vientiane to Bangkok, and we booked our flights online. The only issue was that it was going to take us 28 hours of travel to get there!
Shortly after 3pm, our songthaew turned up. We all climbed in, and after a couple of stops, we started heading to the border. Quickly. And often on the wrong side of the road. The journey that took 35 minutes on the bus took 15 in the songthaew, and that's only because we hit roadworks.
As I said earlier, we didn't actually end up at the same border as the one we went to on the bus. A little further past it, we turned off the main road, and eventually pulled up at a train station. As our songthaew driver went off to sort out our train tickets, we dealt with 'immigration' - a booth that looked exactly like a train ticket booth, and was by far the least official looking thing I've ever seen. After paying our departure fee, and having 'USED' stamped over our visas, our songthaew driver found us and gave us our train tickets. This included both our ticket from the Thai border to the Laos border (which takes about 15 minutes), and our overnight ticket.
Our border to border train didn't leave for another hour and a half, so we made ourselves comfortable (or as comfortable as you can be when its 35° outside and there's no air movement and you know you're going to be wearing the same clothes for 36 hours) and waited. Happily, a kitten came around, so that kept me entertained for most of the time.
Bang on schedule we loaded onto the train and set off. A friendly train conductor came around and handed out the paperwork for Thai visa waivers, and we filled them out, realising this was our fourth time going into Thailand on this trip. Hopefully we weren't starting to look suspicious.
15 minutes later, we disembarked, cleared immigration, and Zev went off in search of dinner while I watched the bags. We still had another hour until our sleeper train left, but by the time Zev got back with the food, we were allowed to board the train. We decided to head in and get settled.
It was not at all like I was expecting. In Vietnam, our sleeper train had rooms, each with two sets of bunks. There was a door to the room, and if you wanted to sit, you had to sit on your bed.
This train looked like a normal train, except the seats were in pairs, two on each side of the aisle, facing each other. These two seats folded down to make the bottom bunk, and a hatch opened up above to create the top bunk. We scoffed our dinner in the seats, and eventually we started rattling away. Soon after we started moving, the train attendant came through and started making the seats into bunks with ruthless efficiency. Each bed had a topper pad which he covered with a new sheet, a pillow with a fresh pillow case, and a blanket sealed in a plastic bag. Zev and I said goodnight and climbed up into our top bunks. Just as we did, our two lower neighbours got on, so we were just in the nick of time.
Our bunks had curtains, so I took the opportunity to change into my pyjamas. Even after 5 months on the road, my hygiene standards haven't slipped so far that I could spend 36 hours in the same clothes, INCLUDING sleeping in them. We had been warned that the top bunk could get pretty nippy, so I had my silk sleeping bag liner, which I slipped into under my blanket. I was toasty and warm, even having to remove my socks shortly after. We spent a few minutes pulling faces at each other over the curtains, before snuggling in for dream time.
It was actually really cool, and felt a bit like camping. The motion of the train and the clacking of the rails was very relaxing. I put in my headphones and put on a podcast (I've been listening to Undisclosed for those of you who have listened to Serial. It's not as well made as Serial, and certainly has some biases, but the information they uncover is fascinating. Definitely worth a listen). The only downside was that they left the light on in the carriage. Luckily, I have my scarf/sarong thing, which I put over my eyes and was out like a light.
I woke up a few times during the night, usually as my podcast finished and the noise of the train woke me. Once I cued up the next one, I dropped right back off to sleep.
I woke up at 5.30am to the sounds of bunks being disassembled, and a quick look at the map told me we were nearly in Bangkok. I quickly changed (although I must still have been half asleep, because I put my shorts on over my pyjama shorts, and then spent 5 minutes frantically searching for my lost pyjama shorts, checking in my bag twice, in my sleeping bag liner twice, on the floor twice... I even checked that I wasn't still wearing them once, and thought I wasn't.), woke Zev, and vacated the bunk so the train attendant could fold it away again.
40 or so minutes later, we rumbled into Hualumphong Train Station.
Breakfast was an underwhelming assortment of pastries, and then we were back on the train going an hour back in the direction we'd just come from, to get to the airport. We didn't realise our train went straight past it, and we could have got off there. Sadly, we slept through the stop. Never to mind - it was 8.20am, and our flight wasn't until 4.20pm, so we had a bit of time up our sleeves.
Once we arrived at the airport, we had a 4 hour wait until check in opened, so we strategically parked ourselves next to a power point and made use of the free wifi. I now fear that my NZ passport might get revoked, because I went in search of lunch a bought a chicken pie. Then I dropped it. Here's hoping they let me back in.
Eventually we were able to check in, and go through immigration. Where we got to wait for another 3 hours. We managed to find time to sneak in some cheeseburgers though, phew.
The flight was a quick one, only an hour and 10 minutes, and we had finally made it to Myanmar. Our bags came out quickly, we exchanged some cash, and grabbed a cab. It should have been a 15-20 minute ride to the hostel. Sadly, the weather and traffic made us think that maybe the flight had taken a wrong turn and delivered us to Auckland. We were so close, but SO FAR!
The drivers over here are mental. They speed, drive down the wrong side of the road, cut each other off... None of that is new of course, but unlike in the rest of South East Asia, Myanmar seems a little road-ragey... So we'll see how that goes. One other bizzare thing is that all the cars are right hand drives, but they drive on the right hand side of the road. Even the buses have doors that open on the left, depositing passengers into traffic. Apparently, as a British colony, Myanmar drove on the left until 1970, when the ruler of the country at the time, General Ne Win, ordered everyone to start driving on the right hand side of the road, on the advice of a wizard. I have no idea how true that is, but a fantastic story regardless.
An hour later, we pulled up outside our guest house. I excitedly grabbed my bag and ran inside, mostly to get out of the way. Zev walked in. "I don't think this is where we're staying.". This was beginning to get ridiculous.
Yep. There were four branches of the hostel we were staying at, and we were at a different one, two blocks away. Luckily, the super helpful young guy there grabbed a couple of umbrellas (the rain was torrential), and walked us the two blocks to the right one.
We were finally FINALLY here!! We checked in, dropped our bags, and headed out for dinner, knowing once we showered we would be too lazy to move. We ventured out in the downpour with our raincoats on, big smiles on our faces, matching the faces of all the locals that we walked past. We popped into a small roadside restaurant and had a delicious dinner for $2.60. Amazing. If this is how Myanmar starts, I can't wait to see what's next!
As an aside, we'll get into the Burma/Myanmar debate, and the history of the country in a later blog post. Right now, it's bed time.
Lots of love,
S & Z
(Original post date: 6th July 2015)