It’s a holiday in Cambodia…

…as Jello Biafra put it back in 1980:

In brief, the following has happened since i returned from Burma to Bangkok in the end of February:

Marja flew to Bangkok so there’s 2 of us now.

Went to Kanchanaburi and Sankhlaburi for two weeks almost. Drove around with a Honda Dream, saw waterfalls with too little water, read books, etc. Marja worked.

Came back to Bangkok and saw some movies, spent time in Bangkoks posh malls, ate a mint / cookie dough ice cream with almond and mini marshmallow toppings plus cream fudge at Cream Fudge. Also ate sushi and some good Thai salads. Stayed in Chinatown, in the area where all the people taking car engines apart work and live. It is a lot nicer than Banglamphu.

Went to the bigger Ko Chang near Trat. It was very very different from what it was 6 years ago. The west coast (Lonely beach, Bailan beach, White sands,…) of the island is awful. And they are still building. However, Long Beach on the east coast is still nice and quiet. But if you want a quiet place go to the other Ko Chang near Ranong, it’s nicer.

A day in Trat and on to continuing my 10 month holiday in Cambodia. We took a moto (= honda Dream or similar + driver; we and our luggage fit nicely) from the border to Koh Kong. “Welcome to Cambodia! Here you can do anything you want,” said our driver on the way, trying to sell weed and everything else.

Koh Kong was quiet and dusty. With some crusty barang (Khmer for farang) sitting in bars. The next day we took a boat to Sihanoukville, a strange place, Costa del Kampuchea as a guide book puts it. A lot of people including those crusty barang again. The beaches near town are dirty. Otres beach a bit south from town is OK.

Kampot was nice and quiet. For some months the Bokor hill station was closed for tourists as the road up the hill is being renovated, but now it is possible to get there again – the price has gone up from 8 dollars to around 20 dollars, the difference consisting of course of bribes to the contractor redoing the road, the police, etc. A cool place in all senses, great views, eery old buildings and the air is cold.

Took moto from Kampot to Kep and a boat on to Koh Tonsay (rabbit island) near Kep likewise, a little like the Ko Chang near Ranong, but even less developed. Did nothing there. We only spent a day since we we’re tired of beaches.

On to Phnom Pen, a big city, but pleasant. Did the mandatory gore tour of Khmer rouge attrocities, the Tuol Sleng prison also known as S21 and some killing fields. Depressing places of course. The reamaining Khmer Rouge leaders are to be finally tried in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed During the Period of Democratic Kampuchea, but the news tell that this tribunal is out of money.

The garment industry is producing a lot in Phnom Pen. At the “Russian” market you can buy your H&M, Gap, Polo Ralph Lauren, Abercombie & Fitch, Tommy Hilfiger, Burberry, etc. gear very cheaply (shirts for 2-3 dollars). Some of the stuff even has the destination country’s price tags on (50$…70£).

A LOT of NGO offices in town. A part of the town seems to be known as NGO land. Hopefully they do something good with their dollars.

Lexus LX470 or RX330 seem to be the cars of choice if you can afford one. There are lots more motorbikes than cars of course, and old cars too, but still, a funny amount of those huge Lexuses. (Or is it Lexui?)

From Phnom Pen a bus to Battambang, which is a small place. Took a cooking class and made Amok, Lok Lak and sour soup. Very nice to cook after 7 months of no cooking.

On to Siem Reap. The town is not as bad as i’ve heard. There are no beggars (where are they?) and it is pretty quiet. We have just finished 3 days of seeing Angkor Wat and other very old ruins and they are very very nice. A lot nicer than Bagan i have to say. The season isn’t the greatest though, I think the ruins would look nicer in the rainy season. The moss and leaves would be greener.

Tomorrow on to Kompong Cham and elsewhere, should cross the Laotian border before the 3rd of April.

edit: photos added!

photos from Wednesday, March 19th 2008
Trees Tree root poser 3 Trees and rubble headless lady Tree power 3 Tree root poser Tree root poser 2 Ruins Perky ass lion Tourguide Bokeh Garuda .... Sitting on a demons head Mr.Demon ... Buddha, 2 elephants and a Garuda
photos from Tuesday, March 18th 2008
Siem reap traffic Monks Dead tree 2 Tree power 2 Stump Green ruins Dancers Two trees Dead tree
photos from Monday, March 17th 2008
Poser Tree power Tree power 4 What it mostly looks like Two ladies Trees on ruins Bayon Ruins at sunrise Angkor sunrise 3 Angkor sunrise photographers Angkor wat Angkor at sunrise Angkor sunrise Flashlight traces
photos from Saturday, March 15th 2008
Wedding soup Fish and fish parts
photos from Friday, March 14th 2008
Battambang dog Sunset in Battambang
photos from Thursday, March 13th 2008
Traffic 3 Phnom penh 2
photos from Tuesday, March 11th 2008
Tourists and skulls Skulls Cell
photos from Monday, March 10th 2008
trishaw Phnom penh Traffic 2 Traffic Another market Market Khmer contraposto Toilet 1959
photos from Friday, March 7th 2008
Boatman Casino 7 Casino 6 Casino 5 Casino 4 Casino 2 Casino Casino Peek suicide cliff 2 Suicide cliff Post office Terveisiä Suomesta
photos from Thursday, March 6th 2008
Kampot
photos from Wednesday, March 5th 2008
South of Sihanoukville 2 South of Sihanoukville
photos from Tuesday, March 4th 2008
Sihanoukville
photos from Tuesday, February 19th 2008
Banana The engine part neighbourhood in Bangkok chinatown The engine part neighbourhood in Bangkok chinatown 2 Mall
photos from Monday, February 11th 2008
Bridge jumper

A month in Myanmar

I spent 26 days in Myanmar, 3.1.2008—29.1.2008. My route was pretty much the common tourist route:

3.1. AirAsia to Yangon
5.1. overnight bus to Nyaungschwe (Inle lake)
8.1. overnight bus Mandalay
11.1. bus to Hsipaw
13.1. bus Kyaukme
14-16.1. Trekking near Kyaukme
17.1. Bus to Mandalay
19.1. Boat to Bagan
22.1. overnight bus to Yangon
24.1. bus to Chaungtha beach
27.1. bus to Yangon
29.1. AirAsia to Bangkok

All in all a very pleasant trip. I felt very welcome.

The trip in short

I started in Yangon, the dusty and messy former capital. It’s quite a mix of people; lot of Indians and Chinese plus Burmans and other Burmese of course. Betel vendors everywhere and pavements red with spit. Many streets and buildings crumbling and people seem to have a thing for painting them in pastel colors, a bit like in Tirana, Albania (not quite that extravagantly though, see some old photos)

It is easy to spend a day walking around and talking to people as many stop to chat, mostly not about politics but some people are open (more on this below). Shwedagon pagoda is big and the the “other side” of Yangon river is interesting, swampy delta. I happened to be in town for Myanmar’s 60th independence day. It was curiously celebrated with small sports (relay running, football) events for kids all over the streets and alleys around town. Someone said there we’re some parades at the stadium, but this was a very closed event.

Long distance buses in Myanmar are OK, but the bus rides can be long. Sometimes the seats are too small for me, the backrest not reaching my neck. The longest ride was Yangon Nyanugshwe (Inle lake), and took about 20 hours. Others were shorter. At some routes some companies have half the bus for cargo and half for passengers, and these are slow as cargo is loaded and offloaded. So ask around for the best bus company. I didn’t try the trains, but i heard they are full and slow, but can be fun. They are government run though, so your money gos to the wrong place if you use them.

Inle lake is beautiful, see photos. I let a boatman take me on a “standard” full day cruise around the lake, which involves visiting a bit too many small workshops-with-a-souvenir-shop-attached (blacksmith, cheroot factory, lacquer ware factory, silversmith, parasol factory, etc.) But the lake is very nice so i wasn’t much annoyed. Quite a few tourists are around, but not nearly the numbers there is infrastructure for, as tourists have not come this year as they did before. At least 10 “wood fire pizza” joints in Nyaungshwe town, which is not very interesting. It’s very popular to go trekking between Inle and Kalaw, but i didn’t.

Mandalay is dusty, and again a mix of people. There’s not much interesting to see, apart from dusty streets and some temples. But people are friendly as usual, and like to talk, teahouses are everywhere and markets bustling. Mr. Slim at the main market, second floor, sells interesting Naga handicrafts. Not that i bought any but the stuff is worth seeing.

Hsipaw in northern Shan state gets a lot of tourists, but I didn’t like the place. Luckily on my way to Shipaw my bus stopped to offload goods in Kyaukme and a Palaung trekking guide came to chat. After spending a day in Hsipaw returned to Kyaukme, looked up the guide and the next day went trekking.

Kyaukme is a small but lively trading town, almost all the goods being from China. As we are in Shan state, Shan, who call themselves Dai (and are more or less the same people that are called Dai around Jinghong in China) are the biggest ethnic group. In addition to that there are Chinese, Burmans, Indians, Palaung and Nepalis (remnants of British army Gurkha soldiers’ and their families). The Indians are mostly muslims, and some of the Chinese too. Different flavors of christianity are also supported – there are many churches, as elsewhere in Myanmar.

Language wise the situation is interesting: Shan is the language of choice for inter ethnic communication, unless there’s a burman involved, who might not speak Shan. Even the “silver” and “gold” Palaung subgroups speak Shan to each other as they cannot understand each other’s Palaung dialects. If someone doesn’t speak Shan then he surely must speak at least Chinese or Burmese. My guide spoke English, Palaung, Wa and Jingpaw (Kachin) in addition to those. Burmese is spoken with government officials of course.

There’s a market in the center of town, and even a big (old and crumbling) movie theater, with and Indian man tending his Italian Zedi projectors in the back, with a hat pulled deep to cover his ears in the chilly night. When i visited, only Burmese karaoke videos were shown on DVD, though.

For a day i went around on (the back of) a motorbike. The biggest industry in town is making “gold paper” which is mostly exported to China, and burned there in ancestral ceremonies. The paper is made of bamboo and covered in with a thin film of led, which is then painted with transparent yellow to look like gold. Burning that and inhaling the smoke isn’t probably too healthy.

Not many tourists come here. A group of teen girls (1 Nepali, 1 Chinese, 1 Shan and 2 Burmans.) chased me on motorbikes and was very eager to try their English with me. They gave me oranges and asked if i like Britney Spears. All spoke Chinese too but mine isn’t very good.

Trekking in the hills was good, except for the hazy weather, and the slow walking pace of Germans who came along. People are welcoming and scenery is nice. Mostly Palaung live in the mountains, growing tea and rice mostly.

Spent two and a half days cycling around the ruins and temples of Bagan, which are nice. Pictures below tell more. Too many souvenir sellers of course. Full moon was on so there was a temple festival one morning with a lot of monks getting offerings.

At Chaungtha beach burmese middle class goes on holiday; swimming and snorkeling fully clothed and so on. I had a bit of flu there on my 2 days there, so didn’t do much, except for eating some red snappers, barracudas, prawns, fish air sac salad and other delicacies.

Politics, etc.

No protests since the end of September 2007. Now, things seem to be calm, at least on the surface, so I really don’t know. Occasionally politics comes up in conversations. The opinions range from highly critical if not very analytic “fuck Than Shwe” to defensive “European liberal democracy is a foreign idea to us, we have our own thing.” Someone said that the things are OK, but there’s just too few people making decisions, so things are not efficient. (I heard the same point made in China, where someone said that the 9 members of the CCP politburo standing committee are not enough to run a country of 1.5 billion.)

Some of the eager talkers are probably some sort of informants for the regime, as they really try to ask opinions about burmese politics, without saying much themselves. Or maybe i was paranoid. Trishaw driver thought that the biggest problem facing the country and the biggest reason for the September protests is the price of fuel. Some in Shan state are very critical, still wanting independence or autonomy for the state. I got the impression that people there don’t trust the Burmans much.

Very often while talking to people i felt that the Burmese talker would like to say more, but seemed afraid, trying to wear a “you know, things are not good here” face with some murmurs. I of course wouldn’t ask, but just try to wear my “yeah, i know, try to hang in there” -face.

Most people are poor everywhere, that’s clear, but some are of course rich. There are department stores and supermarkets with everything in Yangon. At least the military is rich; see than Shwe’s daughters wedding on youtube.

There are tourists, but of course infrastructure for a lot more. Some working in the industry are quite desperate, souvenir sellers in Bagan and markets near Inle lake for example.

Should you go? I have voted with my feet of course. It seems most of the money will go to the people, not the government, unless you use trains, and expensive hotels & restaurants that have a 10% extra tax. And the people are definitely happy to see visitors.

Food

Shan food is good. Burman is often quite bland, except for the “national dish” Lahpet thouk tea leaf salad which is very tasty. Just about every guest house has an egg-toast-coffee breakfast included in the room price. Tea is good, if you like it very strong, with a lot of sugar and condensed milk. Teahouses are everywhere, and nice places to sit.

Now i’m back in Bangkok.

photos from Monday, January 28th 2008
hindu temple Yangon teashop Yangon street food 2 Yangon people 3 chemistry Yangon people green and purple Yangon people 2 Yangon people Yangon street book sellers Yangon buildings Yangon street food blue building The Bombay Burma press
photos from Friday, January 25th 2008
restaurant by Chaungtha beach
photos from Wednesday, January 23rd 2008
Yangon street and teashops
photos from Tuesday, January 22nd 2008
it it got peanuts and some kyat, hmmm... a rather arrogant tourist a snack novices monks and some audience novices under flowers monks taking photos of monks waiting for donations boys and girls
photos from Monday, January 21st 2008
a tourist taking a leak Bagan
photos from Sunday, January 20th 2008
moon over Bagan 3 watching the sunset moon over Bagan 2 Bagan moon over Bagan Bagan pagoda buddha pagoda old paintings a red buddha cleaning a buddha image pagodas at Bagan Shwezigon pagoda
photos from Saturday, January 19th 2008
Moon over irrawaddy 2 the sun has set near Bagan towards the sunset a boatman Moon over irrawaddy 1 shadow A burmese guide napping loading a ship tourists on their way to Bagan british bridge Sagaing measuring depth sunrise at Irrawaddy river the sun is about to rise behind the Irrawaddy bank
photos from Friday, January 18th 2008
the longest teak bridge fishermen a pair of monks on a bridge
photos from Wednesday, January 16th 2008
a little monastery on a hilltop
photos from Tuesday, January 15th 2008
monks switzerland or myanmar?
photos from Monday, January 14th 2008
sunset in the hills 3 sunset in the hills 2 my foot in sunset sunset in the hills hydroelectric power for a village hill rice paddies harvested green tea
photos from Saturday, January 12th 2008
a river at Hsipaw a mosque in Hsipaw Hsipaw
photos from Thursday, January 10th 2008
Mandalay streets statues scriptures engraved on marble monks demolishing a fence
photos from Wednesday, January 9th 2008
a statue under construcion heavy load
photos from Monday, January 7th 2008
inle lake fishermen 7 inle lake fishermen 6 villagers a man and a child green eyes on the boat i feel like indiana jones stupas pagoda inle lake three blacksmiths, feels like home villagers parking lot 2 market on the southwestern shore of Inle lake parking lot gilded barge inle lake scenery inle lake fishermen 6 inle lake fishermen 5 inle lake fishermen 4 inle lake fishermen 3 inle lake fishermen 2 inle lake fishermen 1 my foot
photos from Friday, January 4th 2008
shwedagon pagoda 5 shwedagon pagoda 4 shwedagon pagoda 3 shwedagon pagoda 2 shwedagon pagoda 1 getting off the ferry 2 getting off the ferry waiting for the ferry a gilded monk( renovation swampy living near Yangon off the the Irrawaddy ferry 2 off the the Irrawaddy ferry buddhas feet offerings reclining buddha with nice eyes kids in Yangon on independence day shamanistic healing

Reading about Burma on Ko Chang

Spent 10 days on Ko Chang off the Andaman coast near Ranong. (So this is not the big Ko Chang near Cambodia.) Very pleasant and little developed place: simple bungalows, nice quiet beaches and not too many people.

Read some books about Burma and didn’t do much else.

Burmese Days is George Orwell’s first novel, set in Kyauktada, modeled after Katha, a small town in Sagaing division in northern Burma, where Orwell serverd as a policeman for the Imperial Police. The imperial administration wasn’t doing too well according to the book.

Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin (a pseudonym) is a combination of travel writing and something like literary criticism: about life in Burma(‘s teashops), Orwell and how his experience in Burma shaped his views on totaliarism, and how the current SPDC military government is a prime example of what is described in his later Nineteen Eighty-Four. Interesting and well written.

From the Land of Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo-Thwe is an autobiography of a Padaung tribesman who grows up happily in a small town in Kayah state,  studies in a seminary to become a priest but changes to major in English in Mandalay university, becomes a guerilla fighter after 8.8.88, and in the end graduates from Cambridge university. This one is really good too.

I felt i had to read something by Aung San Suu Kyi too so, i read the 1991 collection Freedom from fear. She is very good. 

Restless souls by Phil Thornthon is about Mae Sot and surrounding areas on the Thai-Burma border and the situation of the Karen, who (the Karen National Union) are among the last not to have signed a peace treaty with SPDC or some of it’s predessors. They have been fighting since 1949. In addition to very grimy descriptions of atrocities by the Tatmadaw and the life of refugees and migrant workers, it includes interviews with the late Bo Mya, and is a good reminder that not everyone agrees with Aung San Suu Kyi on Burmas future as one free country.

But all in all the situation in Burma is a very big mess. Starting tomorrow i’ll see for my self. Not quite sure if i’ll be able to write anything here during the next four weeks.

photos from Thursday, December 27th 2007
Ian a man in sunset sunset at ko chang (andaman coast)
photos from Sunday, December 23rd 2007
the view from my hammock black and white beach goods to ko chang goods to ko chang (andaman coast)
photos from Friday, December 21st 2007
sunset seen from my hammock