When we set out on this adventure back in November, visiting Myanmar had never crossed my mind. I am embarrassed to say that I didn’t even know how close we would be to it — it borders both Thailand and Laos — and I barely knew that it used to be called Burma. But as we began meeting other travelers, the most common advice we got was that we absolutely had to go visit Myanmar because it was just opening to tourism, it is one of the last places you could go to “get off the beaten track,” and that the people are incredible and not yet tainted or jaded by mass tourism.
Well, we’ve made it! We arrived in Yangon (formerly Rangoon) on March 22nd, and we will be here for 25 days before heading to Nepal. So far, we’ve visited Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay, and are currently in Pyin Oo Lwin. We’re only a week into the country, but these are some quick thoughts on what we’ve found so far.
After playing the Big Phat Phnom Penh Hat ultimate tournament, I had three days before I needed to be in Bangkok to catch a flight to Boracay for yet another tournament. Two days would be filled with bus rides, which always take longer than expected in Cambodia, and the middle day would be spent in and around Siem Reap, seeing the many ruins of Angkor Wat, Baphuon, Bayon, and Ta Prohm. Lisa had rented a tuk-tuk for the day and managed to hit both sunrise and sunset at Angkor Wat, filling the rest of the day with additional ruins along the big and small loops. I knew that I would probably burn out faster on temple sight-seeing and instead opted to rent a bicycle in town and go at my own pace.
Water buffalo, rivers, buddha statues, and dusty roads… all in one shot; not staged.
We weren’t supposed to make it to Boracay; we’d already been to the Philippines in November and didn’t want to loop back when there’s so much else to see, and the cost of getting to and playing in the tournament on a touristy island was way out of our budget. But we did it anyway, and it was one of the greatest times of my entire life. #sorryimnotsorry
ultimate friends jumping on puka beach, boracay, philippines
Sadly, not all events are fit for public consumption and online perpetuity, so this is a PG-13 version of our week in Boracay.
I caught a tin boat with Shea and Sylvia (friends I’d met who work on Koh Rong) from Koh Rong Samloem to Koh Rong so that I could catch the ferry to Sihanoukville at 9am and then a bus that would get me to Phnom Penh in time for the PP hat tournament party that evening. This being Cambodia, time estimates are always wildly off and never rooted in fact, and our ride that was supposed to pick us up at 8am radioed us at 8:20 to say they were on their way.
Shea grimaced and asked, “How set are you on making that 9am boat…?”
Twenty minutes later, the little tub arrives, and we throw our things in. Catching my ferry is gonna be close.
Well, it finally happened, I got taken by a scam in Southeast Asia. And not just the everyday “charging a tourist more than it should actually cost” situation that I get taken for literally every day. Before coming on the trip, I had steeled myself against the probability that I was going to have to be ultra-alert and resistant to scams and over-paying at every turn. I had encountered situations like that before in the Middle East and assumed it would be similar here based on reading about fast taxi meters in Vietnam or any number of other scams that travelers have to be wary of. I also had the memory of my friend Adil’s story — his bus in Thailand had been potentially gassed and robbed (at any rate, passengers woke up and had all of their valuables missing).
I spent the first six weeks in Philippines and Vietnam reading up on what to expect to pay at places, constantly negotiating and staying on my toes. Sure, I avoided some of the typical over-pricing, like the time we managed to pay the local rate on the bus from Da Nang to Hoi An, and also secured that rate for some fellow travelers. But in the end, none of the more serious scams had hit us. We never experienced any taxis with funky or broken meters and most people seemed very trustworthy, while at the same time being ruthless negotiators.
I needed a ride to the Wat Tam Wua Forest Monastery for my meditation retreat. Just the day before, the woman who ran the guest house I was staying at, Boot*, had given me a motorbike tour of Mae Hong Son province. While I enjoyed the day, I knew I had been ripped off, but I had been too tired and unwilling to attempt to negotiate a better price when I arranged the trip.
So when she offered me a ride to the monastery, I was determined not to let her get the best of me again. I bargained harder than I ever have before, and I finally got her down to 450 baht ($14) from 900 baht ($28). I absolutely hate haggling, but I was still proud of my “achievement” (I was still probably paying too much).
Panorama of Long Beach on the backside of Koh Rong Island, Cambodia
After more than a week of non-stop movement and never sleeping in the same place more than one night, we reached Koh Rong Island, Cambodia. We had shot straight down from Laos in desperate need of some rest and relaxation — a vacation from our vacation.
I had heard about the Elephant Conservation Center in Sayaboury, Laos from Cara, a friend we had traveled with for a few weeks. Volunteering at this center had been one of the highlights of her trip and she strongly recommended it. While reading up on it I came across the annual Laos Elephant Festival that was going to be held in Sayaboury on February 17-19. Since the conservation center was a little pricey, and this festival had been started by them, I thought it sounded like a great alternative and something we were fortunate enough to be in Laos at the right time to see! They forecast over 80,000 people and 60+ elephants — and for a town of only 16,000 people this should be quite the show!
Elephants decorated for opening ceremonies and headed for a snack before the show.
We spent a whopping twelve days in Laos. Even with six months to spend in Southeast Asia, we found ourselves running out of time. There simply isn’t enough time to see everything we want to, and this regrettably meant that Laos and Cambodia got short-changed. We met a German couple who had already spent 4 weeks in Laos last year, were in the middle of a 6 week trip this year, and still had only seen a tiny portion of Laos! I will have to make it back one day, though 10 weeks seems extreme.
We walked into Laos from Thailand across one of the Thai-Laos Friendship bridges. We found out later that this is illegal — you are supposed to cross via bus or vehicle — but no one seemed to notice or care that we had used our feet. At customs, I met a friendly Laotian man, Q*, who lived in Las Vegas for most of the year. On the basis of my Vietnamese heritage, he gave us a quick lift into Vientiane, the capital city.