Another unfinished post written back in spring 2015. Finally I found the time to finish and upload it. Hope you’ll like it.
Seoul, Koreas capital is enormous. It feels very hard to give a good description, considering all the facettes of this booming city. I was based in Hongdae, a famous subculture district close to two important universities. Every evening, even during weekdays it’s absolutely no problem to hang out here until late at night, as most bars will be open and there are many street musicians around, entertaining their audience. It is also a good place to pick up some fried pork belly, a very famous Korean dish. Eating out in Korea is completely different from other Asian countries, as you will always get a lot of side dishes with your main dish for free. Those usually contain soup, vegetables, mostly pickled, and the famous Kim Chi! And refills for the side dishes are for free! Another different aspect is the use of metal chopsticks instead of wooden or plastic ones and long spoons for soup. Food in Korea is not as cheap as it is in Thailand for example, but it’s still a little cheaper than in Japan and usually a good value, except of course if you look for some very fancy places. Still, many famous restaurants are reasonably priced. And in some places you can even order free refills of the main dish – usually in those cases no meat.
Thanks to my Korean friend, I got a very great tour through Seoul including many famous districts and sights. And I figured, that Seoul offers huge possibilities. It’s a healthy mix of unesco-listed sites, skyscrapers, traditional markets, vast parks and riverside promenades. All connected by a very efficient public transport network of metro lines and buses. A single ride ticket is just about 1€ and you can transfer without any problem between all lines. Of course, for destinations on the opposite side of town, you may have to pay a little more, but the price will stay below 2€. The markets are awesome places to eat authentic Korean food. I recommend to go in the evenings, and of course, a fatty dish comes best side by side with Korean spirits! But, of course, everything else can also be combined with alcoholic beverages. Yes, there is a big drinking culture in Korea, best enjoyed by just joining in. At the Noryangjin fish market, of course they also had the hilarious looking Gaebool! There was no way, that I could not eat some Gaebool sashimi. And I have to say, it’s really good and doesn’t taste as its look might suggest.
People here are very different from Japanese and also from Chinese. Especially young Koreans are really easy going and not being too serious. But in general, people are really really helpful here. And also kind of surprised, seeing a foreigner loving their food and specialties. But as Korean pop culture, clothing and beauty products are famous all across Asia, you will find some of the biggest department stores in Seoul, constantly under siege by crowds of Chinese tourists. In some shopping areas, even most signs will be written in Chinese!
I like the fact, that Korea kept it’s identity over the centuries next to China and Japan. There was always huge bidirectional influence with both big neighbours, but still Korea remained unique! I wish, I could spend more time there!
After having crossed the infamous Thai-Cambodian border of Aranyaprathet & Poipet two times, a lot of people have asked how to get from Thailand to Cambodia and what would be the best way.
Well, if you intend to get to Siem Reap and the magnificent Angkor Wat, you could either fly or take the overland route. Flying is usually the more expensive but faster way to travel and most of us are used to immigration procedures connected to flying. Traveling overland, things stay the same in principal but sometimes might become a little tricky. Speaking generally, after arriving at a border checkpoint first you have to go through immigration and customs of the country you’re departing. Second you cross the no man’s land between the checkpoints. Finally, you will have to go through immigration and customs of the country you’re arriving. Customs experiences can differ from getting your bags scanned like at an airport over getting a piece of paper stamped to no customs checks at all. So, concerning customs inform yourself about the specific regulations on import of goods to be prepared. Also, get informed about visa policies of the country you wish to enter. Showing up at a border and being refused at immigration will ruin at least your day and may put your whole trip at risk.
Back to the infamous Thai-Cambodian border. If you decide not to take the plane, you will most likely end up here. You can take a bus or minivan from Bangkok or – as we did – the local train. The train departs Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong station at 5.55 am and will terminate at Aranyaprathet station some when between noon and 2pm. Depending on how long the delay will be. At terminus get off the train quickly and follow the locals to one of the truck-like Songthaews. On your way to the trucks ignore the tuktuk drivers and squeeze your way through them. The Songthaew costs 20 baht per person (April 2018). You will be dropped off at the border market in walking distance to immigration. Here is also your last chance to enjoy the benefits of 7-eleven for quite a while.
It’s a short walk to the Thai Immigration office (walk upstairs). After getting stamped out of Thailand you will walk through the no man’s land. A surreal place with casinos and people pushing goods on carts from one side to the other. Don’t react to anyone trying to sell or show you something or offering you a ride. They all want to scam you in one way or another. Walk straight on until you can cross to the right side of the street where you will find a small office where you can get your VOA. Fee is 30 USD but they might try to charge you more for not having a photo or so. Just weigh in if a photo is worth 5 USD. After getting your passport tossed back head on towards Cambodian immigration. This is usually, where the scam drivers will start talking to you and following you. Before being admitted to enter the kingdom of Cambodia you will have to fill out one more arrivals card and that’s it. Stow your passport securely and head on. Just around the corner is the “free shuttle bus” to the bus station waiting for you. Sounds good, but it’s an organised scam.
Let me tell you your options: a) enter the scam shuttle and get transported to a bus station run by a company that has an illegal monopoly in Poi Pet somewhere outside town where you will be seated in a minivan for at least 9 USD (that’s what I paid in 2012!) to get to Siem Reap. You will be dropped off outside of town where the tuktuk Mafia will earn it’s part (drive into town/to hotel 3 USD p.P. depending on your negotiation skills). You could walk, as it’s more or less just straight, but it’s a few kilometres.
b) take a taxi / private car. You will find tons of cars waiting for you past the roundabout down the main road. It’s usually better to walk a few metres before talking to someone. It’s the most convenient way and you can save cash and troubles, especially if you’re a group. A ride to Siem Reap should be 30 USD. I’ve read about 25$. I’ve tried to barter but couldn’t get the price below 30$, which was OK as we were three people (a Japanese traveller joined us on the train). The driver will go straight to any point in SR and even drop you off in multiple locations. Before the ride started I could watch the driver paying a bribe to a cop to get us going. Later he told me it is a 5$ bribe for him to take foreigners in his car.
c) I’ve read, there are regular non-monopoly buses between Poi Pet and Siem Reap / Battambang / Sisophon but they only depart in the morning, meaning you have to stay overnight in Poi Pet. That really didn’t appeal to us so we took the private car and where happy to spread our money to some locals who would need it more than some greedy touts.
Hopefully this will help to avoid being scammed and giving away your money to some greedy companies exploiting travellers.
Update: upon finishing this post I’ve read, that Thai railways announced it wants to continue its existing train line from Aranyaprathet station to Poipet station in Cambodia making it a border crossing train! Great news!
Moving eastwards from Rangoon felt like the right thing to do for us. After staying overnight in Mawlamyine we took a dirt cheap ordinary city line bus (no AC) for a two hour ride to Hpa-An, the capital of Karen state. The Karen fought against the Tatmadaw junta (central government regime) until they lay down their weapons a few years ago. On the bus we experienced again that as a foreigner you’re likely to be placed on the not so comfortable seats in the rear of the bus. Still, the drive was rewarding as we drove through beautiful landscapes and past limestone mountains. And I was lucky that the smelly stranger sitting next to me didn’t put his head to rest on my shoulder each time he fell asleep. At arriving in Hpa-An we could persuade the driver to drop us off about 2 km before the “bus terminal” as it was closer to our hotel. It felt so great to get off a bus without being attacked by hordes of drivers trying to get you in their taxi for the highest price possible.
First impressions are always important. And Hpa-An performed well. It was just about the place we were looking for after the business of Rangoon or the troubles of Mt. Kyaiktiyo. It was our last stop on our overland trip from Mandalay to Thailand. Set between limestone mountains around a huge lake on one side and the Thanlyin river on the other side of town. Especially the riverside boasts beautiful sunsets.
Another Highlight awaits you in the surrounding areas of Hpa-An and best way to explore is by motorbike. After having a relaxed day, we went south on our rented 125cc when we saw something on the plain in front of the mountain range we couldn’t really categorise in our heads. So we drove close and discovered the gravity denying Kyauk Ka Latt Pagoda. This place was rather special to us, as a lot of burmese approached us and made us feel very welcome and comfortable at this unique place in front of a dramatic scenery. On our way back into town we drove through a wonderful valley. We watched the sun set over the mountains.
The next day we explored the Saddan caves, a gigantic cave housing Buddha figures, stucco and hordes of bats. It’s a must-see when you’re in the area. Unfortunately we came on a weekend and many other visitors (locals and some foreigners) were at the place, too. The one good thing about all the visitors was that someone turned on the few lanterns inside the cave, so we didn’t had to hurt our feet or tripped as you have to be barefoot inside the sacred cave. This time we figured again, entrance fees have risen. The villages and towns we crossed on our way to and from the cave gave us another impression of rural life in Burma. But in a way this part of Burma felt different to us than the surroundings of Bagan, Mandalay or Pyin Oo Lwin. Maybe it’s the Karen people that make the difference.
To get back to the Thai border we arranged a shared minivan from our guesthouse. For the ride we needed roughly 4 hours including a flat tire which needed our assistance in changing the tire and keeping the car from sliding off the road. Immigration went quickly, except for we had to fill out the departure card again as our card issued at arrival was too small for the official at the booth. Still, everything went smoothly.
Our travel to Myanmar turned out to include a visit to the three most sacred Buddhist sites of the country. Those are the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, the Mahamuni Pagoda in Mandalay and the famous Golden Rock. A golden boulder topped by a Pagoda balancing over a cliff’s edge!
Locals believe, the rock is balanced on the cliff by a precisely positioned strand of Buddha’s hair in the Pagoda after the rock was taken from the bottom of the sea by a king with supernatural powers. Truth or myth, it’s still amazing. Unfortunately, only males are allowed to attach gold-leaf to the boulder to gain merit.
As it was more or less on our route from Rangoon towards Hpa-An and the Thai border we made the decision for a detour. One could reach Kinpun by train or bus changing in Kyaikto. Unintentionally we booked a bus that drove us directly to the town of Kinpun. From there it is an one hour ride uphill to the Pagoda on the back of a modified flatbed truck – and believe me, this is part of the attraction as it goes up and down and through hairpin bends with a dramatic scenery. All for 2,000 Ks one way only! Arriving on the top, it’s a ten minute walk to reach the Golden Rock. Entry Fee comes a bit hefty with 10,000 Ks per Person. But would you turn around if you’ve almost made it? In theory, you could enter with another foreigner’s used ticket as it is a day pass. At the mountaintop you will pass by hundreds of shops until you get to the temple’s entrance where you have to take off your shoes. Now, be careful of the scorching hot dark tiles. One thing we don’t understand about the Burmese is, why do they spit out their betel even inside temples. It’s not funny to step into it. Besides the Golden Rock there are pavilions and prayer halls. But to us, this wasn’t of importance. We went to the upper and lower terrace to get different angles of the Rock itself. One of the most impressive views was from between, where you can see it’s really balancing on the edge.
Even though we left Rangoon at 7am on the first bus we were in a rush to catch our onward bus from Kinpun. It turned out we missed our onward bus to Mawlamyine where we planned to stay for a night. We were driven from Kinpun to Kyaikto by the bus company to be seated in front of their make-shift office at the main road and told to sit down and wait. Nothing happened. After waiting for 30 minutes we got a little uneasy as dusk came. I started talking to a lot of people about our ticket to Mawlamyine as it was not really clear who was working with the company and who was just hanging around. At some point 90 minutes later a bus stopped driving towards Mawlamyine and partly to my interaction they took us on board after a short discussion between the transport company’s clerk and the bus driver. In the end, we were happy to sit on a comfortable bus with AC that drove us all the way to our destination. I think, the bus belonged to another company and the discussion was about whether they let us on board or not.
Due to this hassle, I would recommend others to only do it in a day when you’re ready to be stranded or have iron-cast nerves. Better to stay overnight in Kinpun, enjoy sunset or sunrise and continue your journey hassle free. Still, the Golden Rock is an awesome sight not to be missed.
Arriving in a huge city you’ve never been to before at night is never a good thing, especially when you arrive at a bus station somewhere as far outside of the city as the airport. Looking at the glancing eyes of hordes of taxi drivers waiting to pull off their deal of the week when they see western foreigners arrive. I really don’t like that feeling, as you are tired and exhausted from a long ride in a more or less comfortable seat with having enjoyed a more or less crazy sort of entertainment at an immense volume. Still, we made our way through hassling with the drivers unless we found one that took us downtown for a high but not crazy price. You can’t expect anyone to pay the full price for a taxi smelling of urine and dead cat, not even in Burma.
We were thrown out of the cab next to the side street of a main road in chinatown were we believed our hostel would be. Luckily, our faith didn’t misled us. First impression of Rangoon at night was, it’s huge and cramped. We walked up a narrow and super steep staircase straight up to the 3rd floor, where we found our small room. At least it had a window.
The next days we spent with exploring Rangoon. It’s in a way like other huge cities in southeast Asia but has its own twist and some Indian influence without a doubt. That steep staircase leading straight up to 3rd floor I mentioned earlier, it’s a normal thing in Rangoon. Some are inside a building, some are outside and some are in between buildings. You will find clean and really dirty and slimy ones and they seem like their way to cope with an architectural style that could be a Chinese version of Amsterdam in terms of narrow but tall buildings. It’s quite interesting looking up those narrow staircases from the road. Most look like dark holes at the entrance and change as they climb up higher. You will find markets, malls, restaurants, street food stalls and shops almost anywhere and traffic is one big congestion. Still you can feel and see this is the place where China meets India. Compared to Mandalay the city of Rangoon has got soul. Even though there aren’t as many teahouses and beer stations around they do have some streets where one bar is next to another and you can get loads of cheap seafood and barbecue. Still, some colonial buildings have survived and most of them are situated at the riverside like the main post office, embassies or The Strand, a classic Grand Hotel. Around the corner you will find people sleeping on the street… In cities like this, where you have rich and very poor next to each other and one can hardly imagine how unforgiving this hot and humid concrete city might be and how hard it must be to make a living here, if you don’t have anything.
We’ve made our way to the city’s most famous sight, the Shwedagon Pagoda. It’s the most important Buddhist pilgrimage site in Myanmar – the other most important ones being the Mahamuni Paya in Mandalay and the Golden Rock at Mt. Kyaiktyo. The Pagoda is situated on a hill and can be accessed from four sides, guarded by giant mystic lions. Once, you’ve passed them it’s time to get off your shoes. The way up is roofed and sided by tons of shops selling mostly Buddhist items or souvenirs. Fortunately the hawkers aren’t too aggressive, as this is more a site of national importance and foreigners are being left alone. Only when it comes to the entrance fees, which are collected at the top end of the stairway, as they are remarkably higher for foreigners (10000Ks pp) than for locals.
The Shwedagon Pagoda is a 99m tall, gold covered pagoda topped with gems. It’s truly impressive and due to its size you won’t see too many foreign tourists around. Also, locals will approach you and ask for a photo or stand beside you giggling.
Back to the city we made a detour to have a glance at the old colonial buildings before we took the ferry across the Yangon River to get to Dala. I’ve read on multiple guides that one should do this trip to get an impression of an ordinary lifestyle in Burma outside a big city. Getting across is more expensive for foreigners again and you are only allowed to cross the river with the ferry, but hey, you’ll get a free bottle of water with the tickets. You will see locals crossing the river with goods ranging from food to motorbikes to refrigerators on small, motorised boats. After arriving, we had to fight off the touts and (motor)bike drivers for not taking us on a guided trip around. Also the ticket agent of the ferry company tried to make a dollar out of us in the same way earlier. Dala is truly rural, although only divided by the Rangoon river from the former capital.
It’s still interesting, though we’ve seen places like it earlier during our travel in Burma. Still, I think, if you arrive in Rangoon and don’t have much time, a trip to Dala will be rewarding. Just be prepared to see general waste and pollution everywhere, especially on the banks of the river. Myanmar in general has a huge problem with garbage and the average Burmese seems like he doesn’t care about pollution and proper waste disposal at all. I’m not even sure if anyone ever heard of recycling. And we’ve seen the municipal garbage collection driving trucks through the streets on several evenings during the week. Still people will litter everywhere, everytime. There is a lot of work to be done educating people about it.
Another thing I have to mention about Myanmar is child work. Children will work in many places throughout the country. Some will sell food as a hawker on a boat or at a bus station while a lot of children will work at tea houses. I’ve read a lot of blogs and some background information about this issue. While some will go to school and after school go to work to support their families, others don’t attend school at all and it feels bad to be served by a ten year old. It’s almost impossible to avoid being served by children if you want to experience a traditional tea house in Myanmar. Children in Myanmar are obliged by law to attend school until finishing 4th grade. Still I’ve found statistics stating that about 90% of all Burmese children attend an ordinary (either government or private run) school at all. But Myanmar and statistics is a topic on its own. I’ve read that some NGOs suspect the Burmese (military) government to aim at keeping the masses uneducated or at least poorly educated to remain in power. In the end I suggest everyone who is interested in this to search for some keywords and make up your own mind.
Crossing the highest and longest railway bridge in Myanmar was one thing I really wanted to do, as I’ve come to know about it. It was built in 1900 by an American company and by the time it was finished it was the largest railway bridge in the world. The single-track viaduct is still operational, even though it underwent major service in the 90s, it’s an exciting feeling to cross it in walking pace with the train leaning into the bend and hearing all the sounds that come from the bridge.
Getting across it is quite easy, you just have to get on the morning “up train” from Mandalay or Pyin Oo Lwin towards Lashio. I recommend doing it from Pyin Oo Lwin as it is a shaking ride all the way and starting in Mandalay means train departs at 4.00 am, departing Pyin Oo Lwin at 8.22 am arriving at the viaduct at 11:08 am. After crossing it, you can switch onto the “down train” at Nawngpeng. There you usually have about 30 minutes until the “down train” arrives. It will take you back where ever you want (Mandalay or Pyin Oo Lwin) and it takes roughly the same time to go back downhill. One way costs only about 2 USD in upper class, meaning you got your own seat and don’t sit on a hard bench. Ordinary class is about 70 Cents. The ride is quite picturesque but also really exhausting as the carriages are rocking back and forth, up and down and sideways. It’s crazy and could pose a problem for people with motion sickness.
As we arrived in Nawngpeng after crossing the Viaduct we went straught to the station master’s office and bought our tickets for the trip back to Pyin Oo Lwin. Then we had to wait about 20 minutes for the “down train” to arrive. We hopped on and drove back. Crossing the Viaduct twice was cool in a way as one can focus on taking photos or just enjoy the ride on one way.
After all, it is one amazing thing to do, but I would recommend you to plan it into your journey from Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw or vice versa. Personally I found the day trip variant rather exhausting and would have preferred to continue towards Hsipaw. You could easily travel up or down the hills and come back by bus what is much faster and more convenient. Also, if you do the trip all the way starting in Mandalay keep in mind that train leaves at 4am!
This is the place everyone thinks of when they hear Myanmar. Ancient & remote temples scattered across an area stretching as far as the eye can see. Pictures of hot air balloons hovering in the sky at sunrise, magical golden sunsets…
Bagan has it all including a calm atmosphere – which was a real pleasure to as after hectic Mandalay. We arrived by Minivan in Nyaung-Oo, the biggest town in the area, where we had to pay the obligatory zone fee of 25.000Ks pP (~15€). This fee is supposed to help in conservation of the area, but word is only 2% out of 10% (which is 0,2%!!! Equal to 3 Cents!!!) of the actual fee go into conservation projects, while most of the money (90%) goes straight into the hands of the government. As I carried an outdated guidebook with me and did some planning online, I found that most zone fees in Burma, not only the Bagan fee, are rising almost annually. But more on that later…
We changed for a pick-up truck that dropped us off in front of our hotel in New Bagan. It got dark pretty soon, so we just walked around sleepy New Bagan to find something to eat. We started exploring Bagan by ourselves riding an e-bike (actually an electric scooter), that we got for about 5000Ks per day. It’s a fun and easy way to get around, as the area is really huge and the scooter gives you freedom to discover Bagan by yourself. Still, if you’ve never ridden a scooter, be cautious as most of the roads are unpaved and become pretty sandy in parts. We’ve had so many moments were we visited those old temples and pagodas only by ourselves without even a hint of strangers being anywhere close. Of course, when visiting the bigger temples, there will always be other people.
We were in Bagan in mid-March 2018 and discovered that over the past months government authorities have locked most of the temples you could climb before. Bagan was famous for watching sunsets and sunrises from atop many of the temples or pagodas, as a lot do have some sort of balcony or upper floor you could enter via steps. In some places they’ve put up fences around the stupas, in others, they’ve out up iron cast gates or changed the locks. From what I’ve read, there used to be locals holding the keys to a specific temple. Those keyholders would unlock the doors for a little fee, but main reason was that someone kept an eye on visitors not to damage or deface the temple. This practice has vanished in 2018 completely. From what the vendors and locals told me, government officials moved in replacing the locks and putting up gates and fences to keep everyone outside for what they called “safety reasons”. Locals still are a little angry about the move, as some relied on the profits of “their” temple. But no one dared complaining too much. So, to find a nice viewing spot for sunrise or sunset you have to go exploring and I’ve found a couple of places, that were still open to climb. Unfortunately during sunset most of them will be crowded by hawkers trying to sell you stuff including little children selling postcards or just begging for money. Alternatively, officials advise one should visit the newly build observation tower for sunset and sunrise viewing. I didn’t go and seriously doubt it will be any good standing behind glass with hordes of tourists.
Still, sunrise and sunset are both amazing in their own way and the views of the temples scattered in the bush are one of a kind. But the state of most buildings in the area made my heart cry. Even though burmese government collects 25000ks from every foreign visitor you can see how little goes into conservation and restoration. Most major temples have been restored with financial support of other asian nations and there are reports that the ones restored by the Burmese were restored using wrong methods and materials also damaging the original structure further. Of course the temples are old but compared to other sights on the continent like Angkor Wat the temples of Bagan are in really bad state. Especially the temple’s interiors are uninspiring at most. A few murals have survived but a lot were badly overpainted, destroying the remnants of the original murals. Sure, this doesn’t apply to all temples, but it’s what you see mostly. The best murals we could find were at the Kyan Sittha Umin, a cave temple. But as mentioned above, there seems like no real interest in conservation. Instead making money is more important. Come on, they’ve even built a golf course inside the archaeological zone!
Last thing I have to mention are the huge amounts of household waste scattered between temples and on the sides of the roads. Sure, Myanmar is a developing country but that makes no excuse for dumping your trash in an archaeological zone of importance like this.
After all, I really enjoyed the temples of Bagan but the same time I felt anger and sadness rising in me cause of all the things mentioned above. It’s a two-faced place without a doubt and I can understand why it’s not part of the unesco world heritage, yet.
Note: information about use of the zone fee comes from the official fold-out map and flyer on Bagan published by Myanmar Tourism Federation in 2017, associated with the ministry of hotels & tourism and the ministry of religious affairs and culture which states “ALL INFORMATION IS CORRECT AT THE TIME OF PRINTING”