Here’s some more shots of life along the Mekong.
In far northern reaches of Thailand lies the infamous Golden Triangle. Here, the Ruak River empties into the Mekong, and the borders of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand meet, forming the centrepiece of one of the world’s biggest opium producing regions. In fact, until the 21st century, more than half of the world’s heroin came from the Golden Triangle.
Our visit to the Golden Triangle did not involve opium smugglers, but it did involve a questionably seaworthy boat and a tizzy by yours truly.
Small boat, big boat.
Part of our visit to the Golden Triangle was a trip on the Mekong River across to Donsao, a Laotian island on the river. I was fully prepared for shallow bottom long boats which Patrick and I had been on during a trip to Krabi. I wasn’t very fond of them, but at least this time, I knew what I was in for. Or so I thought.
The boat we got in was not so much a shallow bottom long boat, but more of a surf board with a whippersnipper engine for a motor. I instantly hit the brakes. “I don’t really feel comfortable getting in that” I told Patrick. He said I could wait behind, although hesitated before getting in the boat himself. “No, if I don’t go I’ll regret it” I said, and climbed in. We set off and as we picked up speed, waves washed in over the low sides and all over poor John in the front of the boat.
Big boats zipped by us and as we reached a particularly unsettling part of the river, the engine conked out. I wanted out, immediately. Yes, the river is shallow, but I cannot see the bottom and I don’t know what’s in it. I don’t care how shallow, deep, clear or dirty the water is, I want a bigger boat! We wheeled around and went back to shore for a bigger boat, thank goodness. Poor Ae was terribly apologetic, but I assured him I was okay and would be more comfortable with a bigger boat. We jumped into the boat I was expecting, a blue shallow bottom long boat, and headed off. Much better.
Our trip to Donsao was not a simple hop across the river. We zipped up to the point where all three borders met, in the middle of the Mekong. From there, we could see a large casino built on the Myanmar bank of the Mekong. Ae explained to us that one of the past generals of Myanmar had built it to help build business relationships with his buddies.
Welcome to Donsao, where you can buy anything!
I liked Donsao. I will get sneered at for saying that because “it’s not the real Laos”. Well, no it’s not. You don’t get a passport stamp when you arrive and you’re only allowed within a certain area. You pay a small fee of 30 baht per person once you arrive on the island, and are free to wander around the island’s market while your boat driver waits for you at the dock.
I quickly discovered Donsao was akin to my version of heaven. There were handbag vendors everywhere. Hundreds upon hundreds of handbags were laid out for display. Better quality knock offs than the ones you’ll find in Bangkok, these were the creme de la creme of knock of handbags. I, of course, had to buy three. Stop rolling your eyes. Nice, sturdy handbags that are big enough to carry all my stuff and don’t cost an arm and a leg are hard to come across. I took advantage of the situation, and Ae joked with me that I would sink the boat on the way back to Thailand.
You can buy nearly everything on Donsao. John and Pat picked up a Beer Lao each to accompany them on our walk, and I noticed a post box where you could post your Golden Triangle postcards so they would be Laos stamped. I bought three backpack patches (one for Laos, Thailand and Myanmar) and two scarves and Pat hunted through piles of t-shirts to find a different coloured Ralph Lauren polo than the other 29 he already owns. Ae picked a few carton of smokes and a few gifts for his wife and daughters.
One stall owner was intent on showing us her special wares; cobra and tiger whiskey. I kid you not. She also had bottles of scorpion whiskey for sale too. The cobra and tiger whiskeys were stored in enormous glass jars, and ladled out to game customers.
212 House of Opium
After we sped back to Thailand, we popped into 212 House of Opium. This cramped and small museum was absolutely fascinating. It was packed with displays and information about the history of opium trading in the area, as well as opium use, cultivation, ancient opium pipes and weights, rituals and beliefs, and development of laws against opium. It’s 50 baht each, which gets your ticket – a lovely postcard. Attached to the museum is a great little gift shop selling locally made souvenirs.
Most of Myanmar presented us with completely new experiences and challenges. Mandalay international airport was certainly no exception. Here are my tidbits of advice for those of you who might one day find themselves in Mandalay international airport.
Everything will happen in Myanmar time. Which is even slower than North Queensland time.
It took a good 20 minutes or more for our bags to make it from the plane to the terminal. The airline ground staff in Mandalay were by no means in a rush to do anything. Everything was done at a leisurely pace, with friendly chats along the way. I’m not the most patient person in the world, and I was super keen to get out of the airport and see Mandalay. But the staff were not lazy, just relaxed. A reminder that not everything needs to be done at lightning speed. The wait for our luggage provided me with a good opportunity to plonk down on the floor and scribble in my journal.
Be aware of the power outages.
Because I wasn’t. Whilst sitting on the floor, writing and waiting for the luggage, the power went out plunging the arrivals hall into darkness. Cue a slight wave of panic. ‘What the hell? I can’t see! How am I supposed to see my bag on the carousel? How does the carousel run? Damnit, now the air conditioning doesn’t work and its hot.’ Don’t worry, the power will come back. Chances are the power has been out for a while and they needed to swap generators to run lights and other essential electrics (generators ran everything for the whole two days we were in Mandalay). More patience is required. A perhaps a palm leaf fan to combat the lack of air conditioning.
The airport is really dark anyway.
Probably because they have to use generators for power most of the time. You can see, but the light is definitely not that fantastic. It’s a bit like wearing sunglasses inside. Don’t drop anything small, like an earring, because it’s too dark to find it. But you don’t know the meaning of “dark arrivals hall” until the power goes out. That’s dark.
Be ready for the attack of the extremely helpful-to-the-point-of-hindering taxi touts.
Once we’d collected our bags, we made our way toward the exit and were accosted by taxi service touts who pounced on us like over enthusiastic puppies. All smiling, all friendly, all meaning well, they chattered and shouted over each other to us in broken English whilst grabbing at our suitcases and trying to steer us toward cars. I was far too tired and snappy to cope with this and it was not something I was expecting. I tried to distance myself from it and left the bargaining to John, who was cool as a cucumber. Consider this your warning – late nights and early mornings at your previous destinations will ensure your head is spinning by the time you get outside.
There is no such thing as “getting to the airport too early”.
The airport is a fair hike from town, and this after you’ve battled the crazy traffic to get onto the highway. Book a taxi the night before to pick you up from your hotel and drop you out there. We asked our driver from the day before to pick us up and he agreed to for a reasonable price.
Something else to take note of is the lack of departure boards – thank you, power outages. That’s right, no electronic departure boards to advise of departure gates and times. Getting to the airport extra early means you won’t have to stress about gates changing without your knowledge – ground staff will advise you in person.
Eat before you go.
This may have been a symptom of Thingyan approaching, but when we arrived at Mandalay international airport for our flight to Thailand, there were no restaurants, bars or snack stalls open. Admittedly, the airport is not exactly the busiest place on Earth so the lack of shops and eateries is understandable. There were a scattering of shops selling tourist trinkets, some of which will convert your kyat back to US dollars.
Keep your eyes open… you’ll be endlessly entertained.
Never have I been to an international airport where I have watched two men pick their way through six foot high grass to climb through a hole in the fence, and then stroll across the apron to a set of stairs leading to the terminal. No, I’m not kidding, I actually saw that happen.
All information in this post was correct at time of travel. Given the tourist boom that Myanmar is beginning to experience, it is possible that things have changed. Always do your research before you travel.
This was my favourite, my absolute must see. The U Bein Bridge.
This stunning teak bridge runs 1.2km across the Taungthaman Lake, making it the world’s longest teak footbridge. We didn’t visit at sunset or sunrise like 90% of the iconic photos show, but I plan to go back.
It was amazing to go there and be able to walk on it. I can now tick setting foot on the U Bein Bridge off my bucket list!
I must admit, I had high expectations for Mandalay. Everything that I’d read and seen told me it would be spectacular. Perhaps I got caught up in the romance of it. Whatever it was, it meant I was left slightly disappointed by Mandalay.
It was dirty and smoggy, very spread out, choked with traffic and overwhelmingly noisy. We were there two days and the power didn’t work once; generators ran continuously and some places were selective about what they powered from the generators. We were all exhausted by this point of our trip (and Pat and I ended up with a small bout of food poisoning from some dodgy milk) too, which added to our disappointment.
However, Mandalay has plenty to do. You really need more than two days there – we wrote a list of our “must sees” over beers and sun set gazing at the Shwe Taung Tan restuarant, which changed rapidly when we discovered there was a football game on the next day. We hired an air conditioned car and driver for the day for 45,000 kyat ($AUD50).
A truly amazing structure, even if the creaks are a little unsettling. The Shwenandaw Monastery was built by King Mindon in the 19th century and was once a part of the original Mandalay palace. After King Mindon died (allegedly inside this very monastery), King Thibaw had it moved from the palace to it’s current resting place. The original palace has since burned down and been hastily reconstructed. Shwenandaw Monastery is the only remaining piece of the original Mandalay Palace.
The entire monastery is made of teak wood and would have been completely covered with gold once upon a time. The intricate carvings are still there, although some are damaged. Women are not allowed within a certain section of the monastery, but we were free to take photos throughout the building.
Kuthodaw Paya is surrounded by 729 marble slabs, each housed in its own little white stupa. The slabs layout the complete 15 books of the Tripitaka. King Mindon once hired a team of 2400 monks to read the entire set out in a continuous relay. It took them 6 months to finish.
It’s quite difficult to gain an understand of the size of the complex from the ground. It sprawls out in all directions for what feels like miles! I was forever getting left behind by Patrick and John, because I got distracted by just about everything.
Everything was peaceful inside the walls of the paya. The pagoda itself glittered in the hot sun and we were sure to stick to the white marble path in an attempt to stop the soles of our feet burning. Monks and other worshippers wandered through the complex around us, leaving incense and green banana arrangements at planetary posts.
While we walked around the pagoda, local teenage girls and young monks came running up to us giggling and asking for photos. We obliged. This had me confused for the longest time, because we were really nothing special. Just foreigners, staring in open-mouthed awe at the glittering pagoda and the hundreds of small white stupas. When we met up with our Burmese friends Carlos and Shiba in Bangkok, they explained it to us. According to them, having your photo taken with foreigners in Myanmar is very exciting and something to brag about. People will often hang these photos on the wall of their houses so they can tell all their friends and visitors about the time they had their photo taken with the foreigners. Little bit humbling, I thought! There are now four monks and five teenage girls running around with our photos in Mandalay.
Mandalay Hill sticks out like a sore thumb on the Mandalay horizon. Several temples and monasteries are nestled amongst the scrub, with some of the most famous Mandalay temples perched on the top. Spectacularly lit at night, this 230m high hill is a thriving and busy place of worship and tourist markets.
We took our car up to the top, but you can walk up (if you, I recommend having your head read… the heat in Mandalay was immense, the last thing I’d want to do is climb a whole lot of stairs to the top of the hill). At the start of the main walkway up, two enormous lions stand either side of the walkway.
The view from the top was… hazy. But that was partly due to the time of year we were visiting (in April, farmers clear land by setting it alight; the smoke haze is very thick). You could imagine Mandalay sprawling out before you, in all its hustling and bustling glory.
At the very top of the hill, you must pay a small fee to be allowed to take photos. The very top of the hill is crowned by a large temple, and I am unsure whether the camera fee went to the temple or the government. I didn’t pay it and vowed to remember the view.
The markets near the temples at the top of the hill were a curious mix of local needs and tourist trinkets – all without the shouting touts that we’d grown accustom to in Bangkok. Some women were selling t-shirts, lacquerware and hats, while others were busy crouching over pots on the fire, stirring madly or chopping furiously. The scent of sandalwood incense mixed with the aroma of chillis and garlic, and women scalded children for running down the stairs or throwing rice at each other. As with all of Mandalay, the top of the hill was the same chaotic and noisy. You couldn’t escape the hubbub, even when you were on top of the hill.
Mahamuni Paya houses a four meter high golden Buddha statue, decorated with precious gems. Locals believe it to be nearly 2000 years old. However, Mahamuni Paya differs from other temples. Women are not allowed to touch the statue, or even pray inside the main hall. Men and women are separated, with women relegated to the sides and far back of the worship hall, and can only view the statue via television screens. Men prostrate themselves in front of the Buddha image and apply gold leaf to it. In fact, so much gold leaf has been applied over the years that the gold is six inches thick.
Mahamuni Paya is the cause of some controversy. Lord Buddha never taught segregation like this, and many women believe the time has come for equality.
I wasn’t too fussed with the Buddha statue – the segregation thing put me off a little bit. However, Mahamuni Paya houses six bronze statues that started their life in Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
Originally the spoils of war, these Khmer statues were taken from Angkor Wat to Ayutthaya by the Siamese in 1431. The Burmese invaded Ayutthaya in 1564, and took the statues back to Myanmar (then Burma). After a spate of internal wars, these six statues were brought to Mandalay. There were up to thirty statues at one point, but King Thibaw melted many down to cast cannons for his palace. These six are the only remaining statues today.
Locals believe the statues hold healing powers and by making offerings to the statues and rubbing their hands over the affected area on the statue, they will be cured.
Gold Pounder’s District
The famous gold leaf applied to so many of the Buddhist statues in Myanmar is pounded out by hand, here in Mandalay. It was a fascinating look at the industry, where men worked furiously, pounding the gold into gossamer thin sheets and women sliced and packed the gold leaf into neat packets with painstaking precision and patience.
The staff showed us around the workshop and explained the process to us. There are also lots of stunning gold souvenirs available – I bought a small “gold leaf”, an actual leaf coated with gold. We also left small tips in the bowls placed in front of the gold pounders.
I didn’t get any photos of this place, but if you thought the car horns of Yangon were noisy, wait until you get near the jade polishers at the jade market. This dirty, pokey open air market makes for an intriguing visit.
Some stalls sell dirty great hunks of raw jade, whilst others will cut slices or chunks off for you. Along one side, jade shops flourish, selling polished jade jewellery. Shop owners laze on collapsing couches, smoking cheroots through PVC bongs (not even kidding!) and watching shop assistants play an odd version of backgammon.
I bought a small jade buddha pendant, which they threaded on to a cord for me to wear.
Some sections of the “walkway” – again, you are sharing this space with speeding scooters and motorbikes – become boggy from the water used to wash the jade as it is polished. Watch where you step, or you’ll end up sinking to your knees in smelly mud!
I received my once-every-so-often email newsletter from Lonely Planet today, with a link to an article called “The essential guide to travelling to Myanmar/Burma“.
Now, I love Lonely Planet. I use their guidebooks when I travel and plan my travels, I use them as a reference guide, for their maps and their handy language books. However, in the article I noticed some information that I found to be false when we travelled to Myanmar in April. The information regarding safety and hotel availability is correct. You are safe – very safe! – and hotels do fill up quickly. It is highly recommended to book early, or risk being stressed out on your trip (do not want). Cash availability and domestic flights however is a bit different. I would like to offer our experiences in Myanmar as a bit of compare and contrast.
Budget and money
The Lonely Planet article, published on April 4, states that “in January 2013, KBZ and CB banks opened international ATMs throughout Burma. These accept both Visa and Mastercard, and charge a fee of 5000 kyat”. KBZ and CB banks have indeed opened more ATMs through Myanmar, but very few were Visa or Mastercard compatible. We tried a few (for testing purposes) and had no luck. It didn’t recognise our cards and gave them straight back. Other travellers we encountered had experienced the same. Do not rely on ATMs in Myanmar. This is correct as at April 2013.
Cash is definitely the way to go until ATMs are a bit more common and reliable. Myanmar is such a safe place that I had no concerns about carrying our cash with me during our trip. We took new, clean flat US dollars (stored in my oversized travel wallet to keep them flat. John stored his in a book) printed post 2006. We did a budget, and allowed extra – in case of emergency. Better to be looking at it, than looking for it. Upon arrival in Yangon from Singapore, we exchanged the USD for local kyat at the exchange counter inside the terminal. On 31 March 2013, we received an exchange rate of 876 kyat to the US dollar. There were no problems with exchange; it was a painless exercise, even if a little slow. Everyone works on Myanmar time there.
It is possible to change your kyat back to US dollars too. We also changed our kyat back to US dollars when leaving Myanmar, which was not as fruitless as first thought. Leaving Mandalay International Airport, we received an exchange rate of about 835 kyat to the US dollar (once in Thailand, we exchanged the USD for Thai baht to top up our wallets).
Euro was also featured on the exchange boards, however, I cannot confirm whether it is widely accepted. Err on the side of caution and take US dollars.
Domestic flights within Myanmar
The Lonely Planet article also states that “it is cheaper and easier to book domestic flights once you are in Burma”. Not so. We booked/reserved our domestic flight tickets months before we left Australia. I posted earlier explaining the complicated booking process. When we went to pick up our tickets from the Air Mandalay office, three other foreigners were in there trying to arrange flights from Yangon to Bagan. They obviously had not booked and there was nothing available for at least another fortnight. Domestic flights are run on small planes and there are few flights each day. These fill up quickly. Save yourself the hassle and arrange tickets before you go. Do not leave it until the last minute.
Apart from those few errors, the article is correct. The roads are rough, but if you’ve driven on the Bruce Highway it won’t be anything new. There were state areas closed off to tourists, such as Kachin state and parts of Rakhine and Shan states. Information about closed areas is far easier to come across once you are on the ground in Myanmar. Credit cards are still a foreign concept to most places except some hotels. Female travellers are very safe. And the locals will fall over themselves to be welcoming and friendly.
Get there and see it now, before mass tourism changes it all. After all, not being able to rely on a credit card or a 7/11 is all part of the adventure!
This sauce was served everywhere, with everything! Some versions came as above, with chunky bits of garlic and chilli floating in soy sauce, while others where a little thicker and the garlic and chilli was ground up. Its fiery, but delicious. I couldn’t eat much of it, however. Too hot!
1 bottle of Soy Sauce
Chillis (some had green chilli and others had red)
Garlic bulb – chopped.
Combine all ingredients. Allow to soak for a while. The longer the better. Serve with everything.
Be endlessly entertained by foreigners who shovel chillis and garlic into their mouths.