Category Archives: Myanmar

Ridiculously stunning, captivating

Myanmar: An introduction to Southeast Asia

Aug 04, 2016

Eastward I went. Far, far eastward. Across the Atlantic. Passing over the UK. Past Western Europe, my last great adventure. Past Eastern Europe, an adventure for another day. Eventually to the Middle East, an area that has been growing in appreciation in my heart. Into the desert. The rich sands and haze of Qatar.

Aug 05, 2016

It had taken me 12 hours to get here from New York City. I wish I had something poignant to say about such a travel. The flight was beautifully uneventful. In a world where everything is taken for granted, I have few words. I just flew on a $300 million dollar piece of magic. An engineering marvel that would shatter your brain if you could fathom the intricacies of it all.

I watched Big Hero 6 off of a recommendation. That movie will give kids a false sense of inventing in a way that any Disney princess movie gives kids a false sense of love and life.

I watched Casablanca. It’s still rated as one of the best moves of all time and I had to see why. Classics are classics for a reason. I enjoyed this movie a lot more than I thought I would have. It’s a bit absurd, but it’s a bit beautiful.

I sat in the airport in Qatar for about three hours. The sun was setting when I left New York, and the sun was setting again here.

Onto another plane I went. Eastward still. Across India, until finally my destination approached. Myanmar. Or Burma as some people might still call it. Yes, they are the same place. No, Burma is not some island. For me, it’s the entry point and the introduction into Southeast Asia.

Aug 06, 2016

Beautifully complicated, Myanmar is a place that was pretty much off limits for travel only a few short years ago. It all started in 2007 with 100,000 monks. They weren’t happy. And when you manage to mobilize that many peaceful warriors, you are in for a fun time. Fighting in the streets. Revolution. The entire country was flipped upside down, just as I would be by visiting it.

Twenty-two hours. Somewhere around 9,000 miles of flying. Finally my adventure could begin.

The first stop was Yangon, the capital. I had arrived at about 6 AM in the morning. Saturday morning. I boarded my first flight in New York around 10 PM, on Thursday night. We all have Friday nights that we can’t remember, but in my case it feels like this day never existed.

Eventually I made it through customs, picked up some local currency and grabbed a taxi to my hotel. The city passes me by as the driver maneuvers through traffic, beeping at anyone he feels the right too. I think it’s a beautiful city with a lot of character. Some people would probably say it’s too gritty. I think it’s a very truthful place. Its presence would go on to charm me.

I check in early to the hotel. It’s the rainy season. Everyone seems to point this put to me. I want to go out and explore, as there seems to be a break in the weather. I decide to nap first which eventually leads to a long sleep. I wake up around 5 PM and decide to quickly get a move on to go check out what the town has to offer.

The weather ends up being fine for the night. There are some showers, but never anything more. I thought the rainy season would be a lot worse, but I think it really just makes you appreciate the fine weather. If you can’t enjoy life with bad weather, then feel free to be held back from a good time. Feel free to be miserable. Or move to San Diego or something.

The first stop is Shwedagon Pagoda. It’s a short walk from the hotel. I start walking on the sidewalks before I kind of realize they don’t exist and join the locals on the road. Cars have the right of way, but you kind of just use your brain and follow other people. You quickly get the feel for how to operate. In general when you’re in a new place, just follow along. It will get you to a point where you can start to think and make decisions for yourself.

The cloudiness of the night mixed with the fogging of my camera lens. My lens was sitting in an air-conditioned room. Out in the real world it gave me problems until it adapted to the temperature. I didn’t really notice it too much at the time of this picture. And I didn’t really mind. I was just absorbing everything on the walk. Even when I eventually go to the pagoda I didn’t really want to shoot pictures. The new sights had consumed me, and I gave into them.

The streets of Myanmar consumed me
The streets of Myanmar consumed me

There are lots of little stores and carts and setups of all different kinds. Many of the practices would be against many of the rules back home. Things are just different here. It seems to work well enough.

I passed about a dozen stray dogs on the walk over. They all look the same. Just a different color. They’re also really smart. They wait for cars and sprint across the road. They stay clear of people. They eat every single scrap of food that hasn’t been consumed. They kind of are like pigeons in New York or seagulls down the Jersey shore. They are just kind of there. Part of the scenery. They don’t really bother you. No one pays them any mind.

You can’t wear shoes to see this Shwedagon Pagoda. No socks either. You need long pants as well. Respect and whatnot. Walking the wet stone floor is another little indication that I am not home. This is how things are done out here.

The pagoda is breathtaking. Honestly. I went into this trip really wanting to shoot some good pictures. But the sights of the street have consumed me, and the beauty of the pagoda had rendered my photography skills useless. There are some incredible shots here, but I wasn’t able to capture them as I had wanted. I walked around in awe of the place. How different. How beautiful. As the cathedrals are to Western Europe, I feel so too will the temples of Southeast Asia be for me.

Ridiculously stunning, captivating
Ridiculously stunning, captivating

Even though it’s rainy season, there are a fair amount of people here, but its not overwhelming. There’s a mix of tourists and worshippers of all different levels. I thought this picture of these people lighting candles gave me an interesting perspective. Religion is kind of religion everywhere. In Myanmar you might be a Buddhist. Back in the states you might be Christian. So much of what vehemently believe in are truths or ideas that were given to us based on such unexplainable things like where we were born.

Worshippers at Shwedagon Pagoda
Worshippers at Shwedagon Pagoda

After walking about the pagoda I strolled off. I wanted to walk to the Chinatown area because there was supposed to be some good bbq on 19th street. I like walking when I’m in new places. It gives you a great perspective and time to look around and process the place. It let’s you discover new things about a place. It gives you some much needed exercise on the road. Unfortunately the walk was a bit uneventful. It was mostly along a wide road.

There are several streets and vendors all over the Chinatown area. 19th Street was alive with a mix of vendors, and places to sit down and grab some food and drink. It looks like this. It’s a reminder again that I’m so far away from home. This place has all of the essentials that you would want back home, but it just looks a bit different.

Streets of Yangon
Streets of Yangon

I settle for a location that is crowded. My plan for the trip is to sometimes reference reviews online, but often just find places that are crowded or look good and venture in. I don’t normally post pictures of menus or anything but I have to in this case. Both the drink menu and the food menu. Keep in mind when looking at these menus that $1 US dollar is equivalent to about 1200 Myanmar kyat. So yea, that gin and tonic or mojito you want is 75 cents.

Absurd prices
Absurd prices

Chicken wings are about $2.50. Beef kabobs for the same. Egg fried rice for a buck twenty. Stuff is pretty cheap here for sure.

Not bad at all
Not bad at all

I grab a Myanmar Black Shield stout. I wasn’t expected such a delicious stout to appear and certainly not for $1.75.

Pretty good stout
Pretty good stout

I ask for a table for 1 and was sat at a table of one Japanese guy who is living in Myanmar and three locals. Everyone at the table is very friendly. The Japanese gentleman strikes up conversation. He went to New York to try to make it in broadway several times. But he chose a life as a guitar instructor. The three guys from Myanmar were friendly. The one I spoke with the most gave me his card and told me to have the authorities call him if I got myself into trouble. I’m not sure how useful that will be, but he seems nice. He says I look like Jason Bourne and asks me if I’m on a secret mission. I laugh, I may be on a personal mission here for sure, but I doubt it will be as glamorous as Bourne’s. I hope parts of it can be as exciting though. He says Myanmar is a great place. I agree with what I’ve seen so far. He says everyone wants to talk to tourists but they are afraid their English isn’t good enough. I think that it’s a lot better than my understanding of the local language.

Dinner ends up going well. It gives me the obvious comfort that I will be able to find food and drink on this trip. Everyone has to eat and drink, so it should be obvious that it won’t be a problem to find such necessities. But I guess sometimes when you are planning a trip back in the comfort of your home you want to have that comfort that you will be able to both survive and enjoy it.

The walk back to the hotel is along a different road. It too mostly follows a major road. You pass some rats from time to time but they are nowhere near the size of the ones I once saw in New Orleans. At times I’m thinking it might be worth it to grab one of the many taxis that beeps at me or pulls up and asks me if I need a ride. But I’m happy to have the opportunity to explore.

I book the next night of the trip. A flight to and a hotel in Inle Lake. Sleep goes well but at about 5 in the morning I no longer can sleep. I flick the lights on to grab my computer to figure maybe I’ll go through some pictures. It’s at this point I’m tested for the first time with my accommodations. So far the hotel has been great. Everything is nice and clean and comfortable. So when I see a cockroach I have a decision. Be irrational and let it ruin my life, or accept that the world has bugs and carry on. How you approach bugs probably says a lot about who you are, and whether you would enjoy or hate a trip out here. I’m not entirely convinced these are worse than the silverfish we have at home, but they might be. As long as they’re not going to kill me with a slew of diseases like mosquiteos or be a nuisance like bed bugs (my luck will eventually run out with these), then I’m probably fine. I put a glass around it to let housekeeping handle it in the morning and snap a picture to present here so that you may find out what type of person you are lol.

Eww gross, haha not really
Eww gross, haha not really

Aug 07, 2016

Morning eventually comes and with it a stop for a breakfast dish I have heard is a must try it Yangon. Mohinga is a noodle soup made of fish stock. Add some cilantro, lemon, chili flakes, a slew of mystery spices and ingredients, and you have a bowl of magic. Couple that with chicken puff pastries that completely destroy anything I’ve ever gotten anywhere in my life. Imagine you’re eating a cloud. Add a cup of tea that has probably thousands of years of tinkering with the blend of ingredients. And a lychee soda because you may as well, and you have one of the most beautiful breakfasts of your life. Each bite a great experience in itself. An amazing meal in so many ways. And of course all for about $2 US dollar.

Breakfast and pillowy amazingness
Breakfast and pillowy amazingness

After breakfast I pack up my bag, then repack it because it doesn’t fit just right. I’m quickly figuring out the best way to pack this bag. I think I have it down. A quick taxi and I arrive back at the airport to catch an hour flight to Inle Lake. My journey includes a lot of these short flights. Apparently they are preferable to the disastrously long bus rides, which take you often uncomfortably the same distance in 8-12 hours. I’m sure I’ll figure out how to travel this area soon enough.

The flight to Inle Lake goes well. Again I have to check my bag. It seems like unless you go ultra light with something like a 22-liter pack, you will always have to check your bag, whether it’s on a flight or a bus ride.

Inle Lake is about an hour taxi from the airport. I try to find someone to split the cab with since everyone is going to the same direction. After a couple minutes I partner up with a girl from Madrid. We bounce back and forth between talking in broken English and Spanish. This is her seventh trip to Southeast Asia, and likely will be her last. There are new adventures ahead for her. She’s thinking Cuba to play and learn music. Seems like a reasonable play.

I show her my itinerary and she says it’s impossible. She says it’s too fast and I should slow down the pace. I’m not entirely convinced but she offers a lot of other valuable information about my trails that lie ahead. She gives me a list of places to check out, most of which I’m already going to, and others that just couldn’t make the cut.

The drive to Nyaung Shwe, the main city near Inle Lake, is a beautiful one. The flight has brought me into a region that has some mountains and also so flat open areas. If you’re not careful you may run into a water buffalo. They are some pretty cool looking creatures.

The road to Inle Lake
The road to Inle Lake

We get to a checkpoint, which the girl assures me she read is legitimate, and we have to fork over 12,500 kyats for a one-week pass for the Inle zone. It’s in addition to the 12,500 we each end up paying to split the cab.

We finally get into town and end up going to a hotel she’s trying to stay at. She doesn’t like it for some reason so she asks the driver to take her to another one. The taxi driver tells her the one she wants is dirty and instead drives her to a place that he recommends. She doesn’t want to see it and so the taxi driver, who is a bit upset at this point, takes her to the other hotel she wants. It does look pretty dirty but she says she’ll stay there and figure it out. We wish each other safe travels.

The taxi driver finally can take me to my hotel. Hotel Brilliant. What a name I’m thinking. The taxi driver says it is a very nice hotel. It ends up being one of the favorite hotels I’ve ever stayed at. The service is really amazing. It has a resort vibe to it almost. I doubt I’ll ever stay at a better hotel for $32 US dollar. Even the rain has seemed to subside, and I’m greeted with a rainbow.

Views
Views

The only negative is that there is no wifi available. But it’s not a strike against the hotel. Rather the main internet connection to the town is broken. Apparently it has been for about four days. There’s only one working atm in the entire town.

Without internet access I have no idea where to head to for dinner. Or where and how I’m going to my next destination tomorrow. But I’m sure I’ll be able to figure it out. The hotel recommends a place named One Owl Grill. It’s an eight-minute bike ride to the center of downtown. The hotel let’s you borrow bikes for free. I haven’t exactly ridden too many bikes lately, just occasionally in Asbury, but I get back on my way. It’s dark out. I’m trying my best to drive a straight line and stick to the traffic pattern, which is to mostly do whatever you think you can get away with. It’s not too busy but I’m being passed my mopeds and taxis. I may have ran a red light in front of a group of police officers. I don’t hear anyone call for me to stop so I guess I’m in the clear. It’s a great feeling riding this bike. I’m in the middle of darkness passing stray dogs in some country halfway around the world that I mostly knew nothing about only a few short days ago when I was planning for this trip. The wind whips past me and the darkness allows me to blend in with all the other people. I feel in that moment like I belong. I’ve tricked the city under my mask of darkness and I’m no longer a Westerner. I just am. Entirely free of everything. No connection to my life 9,000 miles away. No connection to anything but the present moment.

I see the restaurant approach and I park the bike and head inside. There seems to be only tourists here, a group of twenty and thirty year olds. It’s a mix of backpackers and hippies, couples and groups. People seem to know each other a bit. For food I get a chicken fried rice with egg and some chicken and garlic skewers and grab a Mandalay and a Myanmar beer.

I watch the world pass before me. The chaotic scenes of town. The interactions of the tourists. It’s a beautiful night. The pace here is much more relaxed than in Yangon. Even the country dogs differ from the city dogs in the same way people do. They’re a lot more relaxed. They’re not as nose down and deliberate like the city dogs, who are probably off to some meeting that their project manager called to discuss the productivity of acquiring scraps from the various locations around the city.

The meal is nice and relaxing. It gives me confidence that I will be able to not just get through the itinerary, but to have enough time to enjoy the travels and time to be in the moment and enjoy the trip. Let us die young or let us live forever plays in the background at some point.

It seems about time to head out. The town has quieted down a bit. I somewhat want to hop on the bike and keep exploring but I decide to head back to the hotel with since I want to be up early to check out the lake. It’s probably the right call. Those two beers gave me the confidence to crank the bike into the sixth gear. I’m now keeping a steady pace with the mopeds. The eight-minute ride turns into about a four-minute ride. I pull into the hotel and there’s about three staff there to take the bike from me.

I head to my room to sleep. It goes well but I can’t sleep the best. At a certain point in the night I just wake up. For the last two nights I’ve brewed up a cup of coffee and got to work on some of the pictures I’ve been taking. I give one last late push for some more sleep before the alarm clock will ring.

Aug 08, 2016

In the morning I grab breakfast at the hotel. Less than $3 for a plate of delicious fruit, unlimited tea, four pieces of toast, two eggs, then another two eggs because I looked hungry, a slice of frittata, an almond cookie, there may have been more. I was stuffed though.

The hotel books a tour of the lake for me for 18,000 kyat. It includes a ride to and from the boat. The ride also is the person who told me about that one working atm, and stops along the ride so I can withdraw money. It also is a tour that is only for me. I thought I would be put in a group but it’s just me and my own private captain. He takes me to the sights of the lake and let’s me come and go at my own pace.

I love these textures and colors
I love these textures and colors

The lake is beautiful. Mountains on both sides. Wide and open in the middle. There’s a lot of commerce going on here. Traditional fisherman. Harvesting of various sea plants. The transportation of goods such as fruits and bags of what could be rice. Of course the transportation of the newest commercial venture which is the tourists themselves.

Fisherman at Inle Lake
Fisherman at Inle Lake

The tour takes you to a bunch of traditional workshops where you can see how local goods are made and you can purchase them afterwards. They show you how to make silver jewelry or the actual boats you see being used on the lake. If this was another part of the world this might feel scammy, but a lady trying to sell you a local scarf that is actually made in that country is being pretty honest. The goods for sale at these places are actually a pretty good quality.

These little fishies
These little fishies

They also have the ladies who wear the neck rings.

Do it for the gram
Do it for the gram

There’s a Buddhist temple on the lake. After seeing Shwedagon Pagoda I’m not really impressed. I mean sure it’s in the middle of a lake. But Shwedagon was awe inspiring and captivating. Shwedagon also had really clean floors. This temple I have to take my shoes off again. But they throw food around to let pigeons shit all over the place. I’m not sure why animals get a pass to be disrespectful, but I don’t make any of these rules.

Every picture with a boat in it
Every picture with a boat in it

Eventually we had back. I’m pretty beat from the sun and lack of food and water and the amount of stores we went into. When we get back my friend who dropped me off is there to pick me up. I ask him about heading to Bagan. He says it should be a good time to go. It might be muddy, but not too much rain.

When we get back to the hotel he orders me up some chicken fried rice with egg. The hotel staff brings me a fruit plate and they also bring over a large bottle of water. As I’m eating the hotel staff figures out how to get to Bagan and how I can book a hotel with the internet down.

Apparently there are no flights tonight, but they book a bus for 7 PM. It’s 18,000 and should take five and a half hours. It will give me an idea for how I feel about these bus trips compared to flying.

I finish my lunch. The hotel gets some kind of arrangement to get me a tablet that’s connected to the internet. I’m able to book my hotel for the night in Bagan. It’s sad to know that it won’t be another night at this gem of a hotel I’m currently at.

At this point it’s after 2 PM. I checked out before I went on the tour but the hotel let me keep my bag there. I know have to stick around until 7. I somewhat don’t want to head into town as I’m a bit tired. I guess the staff can see. One of the girls escorts me up to the top floor that I didn’t even know existed. She says I need to rest.

The view up here is beautiful. As I’m sitting she brings over a pillow and a mat to lay on. Seems pretty good. She also brings over a tray of these snacks, another bottle of water, and a full pot of tea, all complimentary. I enjoy that and end up napping off and on, waking to watch the clouds pass.

Relaxation
Relaxation

This relaxation time was amazing. It felt good that faced with some questions about how the trip would go that this is what would end up happening. It seems that there will be a lot of these pauses in the trip where there is time that must be passed. I hope they are all as enjoyable and amazing as this.

Seriously getting it in
Seriously getting it in

Eventually the time comes for the bus ride. But not before a dinner of chicken fried rice and these fried vegetable fritters from a restaurant right across the street. Those fritters were gorgeous. Excellent use of delicious ingredients.

Fried deliciousness
Fried deliciousness

A quick stop back at the hotel and the bus arrives. I say goodbye to about ten people that made my time there amazing. I’m actually a bit sad to part ways. I just want to take that hotel and its people with me.

A five and a half hour bus ride should put me at my destination at half past midnight. That’s not too bad. It should give me enough time to get a decent night of sleep before venturing out. This is my first time taking a bus in the area. I’ve heard a lot about them.

This bus is supposed to be a pretty decent one. When the hotel booked it for me they offered me the choice between the normal bus and some upgraded bus meant for important people. They strongly recommended the better bus because it had more conveniences.

The bus ride kind of goes as you would expect it to go. It’s raining out. The trip is across mountainous areas. The roads are small. It’s dark out and I wonder if they run a lot of busses late at night so you can’t see just how close to the edge of a cliff you are getting. The drivers around here drive. They pass other vehicles aggressively. They barrel into blind turns. Some of them beep a lot. But they get you were you have to go.

I spend the trip between some combination of sleeping and typing up part of this write-up. There’s a half hour break stop for food, at which I get some weird version of a Red Bull. There seem to be other breaks on the trip but I am not sure what they are for. The supposed five and a half hour drive extends long into the night.

It’s about three in the morning by the time we finally get to our destination. We arrive in Nyaung U and so I need to take a taxi to my hotel in New Bagan. The taxi ride ends up going well. It’s a lot faster than the slow pace of the bus. The taxi driver drops me off. I ask him if this is the right place because it doesn’t look like it. He assures me it is.

I go to check in and they can’t find my booking. I’m not at the right hotel. They are able to point me in the right direction and my gps should take me the rest of the way. I walk about 8 minutes in the darkness to my hotel. When I get to the location there is a different hotel in its place. I talk to security and eventually he walks me about a block and points out into the darkness as to where my destination will be.

Finally I get there. It’s 4:30 in the morning. The hotel is pretty lame in comparison to my last one. It’s not as nice. There’s even a couple mosquitos in the room that I have to kill before I am able to slide off to bed. It’s about 6 before I head off to sleep.

Aug 09, 2016

Morning comes quickly. I wake up after about two hours of sleep. I have to plan my tour of Bagan for the day and I also have to plan where I’ll be for the next day. Neither really gets done in time and checkout time comes before I can book either. The long bus ride, the short sleep, the constant being on the move, the lame hotel, and the difficulty in booking some of this trip kind of gets to me. I’m a bit bummed and starting to reconsider my trip and how I am going about it.

I go to check out and ask the hotel if there is a tour of Bagan that I can take. The manager guy suggests an electric scooter bike. I don’t know the area at all and I was kind of hoping for a bus tour or something but I decide to go for it. These two German guys hear my hesitation and tell me to do it. They’ve been here riding these things for four days and have said it’s a really great time. Seems like I can’t go wrong for 5,000 kyat.

I also ask about a bus ride to Mandalay for later in the night. The original plan was to spend the following day in Chiang Mai. The options for swinging into Chiang Mai are pretty bad. It’s looking like I’ll need a bus to Mandalay airport and a flight out to Bangkok and then start doing a large loop of my itinerary in reverse. We’ll see how it all goes. The hotel manager books me a bus for 8 PM at night, so I have eight hours to explore around on this scooter. I’m pretty excited. The hotel just answered two big questions that I had. Going forward I’ll be using the hotels to book things and listening to the advice of the hotel staff and locals.

The scooter ride is amazing. It has to be the best way to explore Bagan. I doubted the manager’s choice to use a scooter initially, but of course his recommendation is going to be better than anything I can think of. This is what he does for a living. This is where he lives. He knows what to do and where to do it in this area a lot better than I ever will.

The freedom and access that the bike gives you is great. You can drive along from place to place. You can move from temple to temple with ease. I was able to get it up to 67 kph at one point so the thing really moves. My progression from bicycle to scooter has been rapid. I wonder if I’ll ride anything more serious on this trip.

Zipping around on this thing is such a joyful experience. You have to be careful of the other people on the road and stick to the strict policy of stay to the right unless you are passing (something only Americans can’t do), but the drive is generally just awesome. You pass temple after temple for miles and miles and miles. Eventually you stop in to a couple. They are all so different.

Temples everywhere
Temples everywhere

A lot of the times you have these temples completely to yourself. There are thousands of them. At one point there were as many as 10,000 temples built in this area. It’s the craziest thing. The temples rise like anthills out of the ground. I took this picture by entering into one of the temples and climbing up these small stairs on the second level. There is a third level to this temple that you could access if you are really feeling adventurous. But there is a no sock and no shoe policy here as well, and the view gained didn’t seem to be worth the risk of tumbling to the ground.

Temples rise like anthills
Temples rise like anthills

It’s weird that even though the earth is reclaiming this structure that you have to remove your socks and shoes to view them. The process of always removing your socks and shoes in the area has made me want to start wearing shoes less in general. And while I don’t think that will actually happen when I get back home, there is definitely a freedom and connection to the world gained that is not there by the sensory depriving layers of socks and shoes.

Thought this was alright
Thought this was alright

And here’s a selfie because I need a pic of myself in here.

Travel beard starting out strong
Travel beard starting out strong

I drove further and further. Into shady sections of town. Making wrong turns and driving far into the countryside. Every temple you go into offers a new surprise.

Feeling like a video game
Feeling like a video game

Eventually I swung back into town to grab some food. As I’m pulling into the restaurant I tragically forget to turn the bike off and it jerks forward and falls down. Luckily I avoid any serious injury. But yea I was that guy. At a restaurant that faces the entire town. I knocked over a candle in the process leaving my shorts, shirt and arms covered in flammable liquid. Seems like a bad play. Some guy picks my bike up. The restaurant worker brings me to a sink to wash up. I’m sure they see worse stuff all the time from tourists, but it’s still a bit embarrassing to have it happen to you.

No worries though. I’m starving and need food and drink. I order a soda called a Code Zero and an iced coffee. I figure it will be nice to try some local soda I’ve never heard of. It ends up being just a Coke Zero and the menu had a spelling mistake. Oh well. Food is pretty delicious. Shrimp tempura, spring rolls, and a chicken and rice dish. I end up hopping on a wifi network to book my flight and hotel for Bangkok for the following day. I sit and watch the town pass by. It’s a busy area. It’s also the same area that I first got to the night before. It was almost completely dead at 4 in the morning, but it is alive and well at dinner time.

I swing out to a store to grab another of those Red Bulls and a large water before heading back to the hotel. I repack my bags and need to grab a change of clothes to get out of this dirty gear I currently have on. I use a body bath wipe to freshen up and throw on all new clothes. It’s the first time since I’ve started traveling that I have on all new clothes. I’ve been testing how long I can get away with wearing the same clothes and surprisingly I think I can manage for a decent time.

The bus for Mandalay eventually arrives. The shuttle picks me up at 8:30 PM and takes me to Nyaung U where the bus is scheduled to leave at 9:30. This bus ride is also supposed to arrive after five hours. It ends up only taking about four. It’s a smaller bus but I have two seats to myself and can manage to be reasonably comfortable. The plan on this bus ride is to sleep. I end up getting a couple hours.

I could have spent a day in Mandalay and took a flight the following day but decided I’d rather just move on to another location. This meant that I wasn’t going to use a hotel for this night and was instead going to try to get enough hours of sleep on the bus and at the airport. This ends up working out well. There is no one at the airport but it is open. I get here around 2:15 AM after a taxi from the bus station. I sleep for a while and spend some time charging up my gear and working on this write-up.

I am going to be taking a flight in a bit to Bangkok. I will be leaving Myanmar behind. Myanmar was a tremendous introduction to Southeast Asia. It definitely provided many challenges, but also offered much to see and experience. I had a great time visiting the country. There are great people here and great times to be had. I guess its legacy with me will always be that it was my first in Southeast Asia. I am not sure I will ever make it back to Myanmar, but if I did I would be happy to explore some more.

Next up is Bangkok. But with these busses and flights and everything else I will have to see where the road will take me. For certain I am having a blast, but also I think I will be happy to return home when I have seen and experienced what I came for.

Backpacking: Southeast Asia Itinerary

The time has come to travel again. I was aiming for a trip towards the end of the summer but for some reason wasn’t feeling motivated to figure out where to head to or to make travel plans. Thankfully that has changed. Travel is and has been one of the best things in my life for a few years now. It’s opened up my view of the world. It’s allowed me to connect to and understand different people from both my country and from the world. It’s allowed me to see some of the most amazing things that both nature and humanity have been able to create. I need travel. I need to see the world. It’s something that I have to have in my life. So if there’s ever a time I don’t want to be making travel plans, it is worrisome for me. It’s an indication that some part of me is broken. I’m glad that the desire is back, and I can’t wait to get back on the road.

I have a somewhat rare chance to be able to do whatever I want to do with my life. For months now there have been no restrictions on what I’ve been able to do. I haven’t enforced any rules for myself and I’ve stepped into areas that I was not able to explore previously. I’ve been able to live exactly as I have wanted and have been able to openly feel and explore the world. It’s been great. Time like this is somewhat rare, but an effort should be made to obtain it if you can find a way to do so. With having so much time to myself I knew that I wanted to go through with some big travel plans.

My top five lists of travel destinations in no particular order are:

  • Southeast Asia
  • Eastern Europe
  • Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand
  • India
  • Southern Africa

When I travel I like to visit a lot of places in a short period of time. I like to road trip around and bounce from place to place. There are few better places in the world for me than being on the road, or the water, or in the air traveling to some new destination that I have always wanted to go to but have never been to before. These five destinations provide plenty of earth, water, and sky for me to explore. They are all places I have never been to but want to go to at some point in my life. I’m not really sure where the desires come to for some of them. I definitely want to see the entire world, but these five are preferences that I want to see first.

Initially when looking at this list, there was no place where I wanted to go to more than any other. So I needed to work through some sort of process to figure out where my adventure would be. One thing that I usually do when I travel is check up on current events. The first place I usually start is the U.S. Department of State’s International Travel’s list of alerts and warnings. The U.S. will “issue a Travel Alert for short-term events they think you should know about when planning travel to a country… and a Travel Warning when they want you to consider very carefully whether you should go to a country at all.” I wouldn’t use this list exclusively to determine if a location is safe or not safe to travel to, but it’s a pretty good start.

There are currently some interesting alerts and warnings on this list. For example there is a Travel Alert for the entire continent of Europe. That’s something that to me seems insane. Specifically France is listed for the European Soccer Championship and the Tour de France cycling race. Poland is listed for the Catholic Church’s World Youth Day event, which is expected to draw up to 2.5 million visitors to Krakow. There’s no other specific countries European countries listed under this travel alert but the U.S. had decided to group the rest of Europe in as a general alert.

The Philippines Travel Warning was another thing that I was not familiar with. It applies mostly to the Sulu Sea area and is there due to the high threat of attacks and kidnapping of international travelers.

The list of alerts and warnings and the state of the world is constantly changing, so this information will be out of date within a few days, but the point is that it would be somewhat irresponsible to head out to a location without knowing a bit of the risks associated with the journey. I wouldn’t let most of these alerts or warnings keep you from traveling but you should be smart about the environment to limit your risks.

I laid down the 42 alerts and warnings listed at this time on to a map. I used the online tool from Maploco if you have an interest in generating a similar map. It’s pretty remarkable what is listed here as either an alert or a warning. Again this map is not definitive. It includes areas that I don’t feel should be on here and it does not include other areas that it probably should. For example you are probably fine touring around the vineyards of Bordeaux or the Alps of Switzerland although there technically is an alert for these areas. You also might want to consider Rio if you will be in the area during the Olympics. Research the area you are going to for current events and be smart and keep an eye out when you head to new locations. Don’t be paranoid, but be safe.

Travel alerts and warnings
Travel alerts and warnings

Most of my top 5 came up as places that were safe to travel to. Eastern Europe I guess is technically under alert. Sure the eastern areas of Ukraine around Donetsk and Luhansk are certainly pretty dangerous. Violent clashes there have led to over 9,000 deaths. A portion of the Philippines is under warning. While eastern Ukraine and the southern part of the Philippines are likely to be off limits for me personally, most of my top 5 is still feasible.

Now that safety is confirmed, I need to look at some other aspect to cut down my list to an individual destination. One place I can remove from that list is Eastern Europe. I recently saw a large portion of Western Europe two years ago. Eastern Europe, while extremely different, is too similar of a destination for me. It’s not challenging enough to me at this point in my life. I want something more difficult. I want something that will change my worldview and push me as a person.

For the same reason I can get rid of the Hawaii, Australia, and New Zealand trip. That also would be a tremendous trip. But the difficulty level associated with this trip is not much. It seems too easy and not rewarding enough. How challenging can it be for me to be relaxing on the beaches of Waikiki, spending time in Sydney, or bouncing about the Milford Sound? That’s all stuff I’d love to do someday, but it won’t be my first choice for this trip.

That leaves me three locations that I might want to travel to at this time. Southeast Asia, India, and Southern Africa. All three of these locations are going to shatter my worldview. They are going to challenge me. I am going to grow from the experience of traveling around these places.

At this point I’m going to read about other people’s trips to these areas. I’m going to try to assemble a list of things I want to see or do in each location. If this sounds like a lot of work to you, it’s probably because it is. It’s just the way I like to travel. I don’t mind the work and research because in doing so I am learning about the world and learning about myself. Any time spent on travel in any way, even these planning stages, has always paid dividends in my life.

The plan is to spend about a month and a half or two months traveling. I’m not sure why that number but it just feels right based on past travel, the time I have available, and the things that I want to see on this trip. Anything less probably wouldn’t gain me the experience I am looking for and anything more would probably conflict with things that I want to do after this travel is over.

After some time looking into my remaining locations I decide on Southeast Asia. I chose it mostly because it’s a popular traveler location. The path is fairly worn. The areas have been tested and tried. I’m not pioneering anything by going on this trip, but it allows me the right mix of seeing a totally new part of the world while still doing it in a safe and comfortable way. Sure every travel blogger and instagrammer has been here and taken all of the cliche shots way before me. But for me this trip is pretty much exactly what I want. It seems like a natural progression from my Western Europe trip.

I also really really want to eat the food that I’ve seen so much of on television from this area. Soups and noodles and mystery meat street food. And the sights. Epic historic buildings and locations that I haven’t even heard about yet. Cultures that I have no experience in. Beautiful beaches. Nature that I can’t find anywhere else. I suppose this would have been the same for the Southern African region or the entire country of India, but I just am a bit more interested in Southeast Asia at the moment. It’s been a thought on the backdrop of my subconscious for a long time.

So where am I even going? How do I get around from place to place? How long am I going for? Do I have time to squeeze in a bit of Hawaii, New Zealand, and Australia since it’s on the way? Will I be able to swing further up the coast into China, South Korea, and Japan? Time to plan out this itinerary.

The way I went about building an itinerary is to start with googling “best places to visit in Southeast Asia”. From there I took the first two pages and parsed through the results, assigning a ranking to each location and country based on how many times it showed up on a list and how high it scored on the list. This is a process I think I want to automate when I get back as it is very valuable. I basically have no clue about where to go in Southeast Asia outside of some general ideas. But by parsing through Google results I am able to assemble the knowledge of many professionals which gives me a good idea to start with. By using the average knowledge of various experts you quickly have access to very useful information even though you are clueless on a topic.

For example the countries that showed up the most are shown below. Note that results like China and Japan and India show up. Sure they are not part of Southeast Asia, but within the first two pages of Google results there were articles for “Best Destinations in Asia” and “10 Best Places to Visit in Asia” etc. Personally I don’t mind these results showing up. The ranking algorithm I used keeps them towards the bottom of the list. I think there is an advantage to keeping these false positives in the list of results. It gives me ideas for where the trip can extend to. The 11th and 12th results for best places to visit in Southeast Asia return China and Japan. Even without knowing the geographical location of these two countries, this list suggests I may want to look into them to see if they fit into my trip itinerary. These false positives provide suggestions to better my trip in ways I may not have initially considered. I am pretty happy with this list. It is hard to argue against Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia as three of the best countries to visit in Southeast Asia.

Southeast Asia country rankings
Southeast Asia country rankings

Likewise I went through and parsed out and ranked the specific locations. In order to do this I had to make some decisions as to how to cluster the data. I mostly tried to keep these location results at a city level although sometime it dips down into the individual attraction level. I am kind of more interested in the general city or province level of granularity because from there another Google search can easily return the top things to do in that location. I am pretty happy with these results using rough algorithms and clustering. But eventually I would want to improve on them if I do ever automate this process. Again these results are just ideas and suggestions for someone who is clueless on the area. I think they ended up being rather useful. It’s hard to argue against the beaches of Bali, the ruins of Angkor, and the city of Singapore as being some of the best things to see in Southeast Asia.

Southeast Asia location rankings
Southeast Asia location rankings

I previously used a similar process to this to come up with a list of books to read, without having any knowledge of these books. Obviously the power of being able to assemble such information automatically without having to have any knowledge of the subject is extremely powerful. It certainly is the way that search results are heading. Eventually you will be able to tell Google “give me an itinerary for a month and a half to Southeast Asia” and it will give it to you. Until then we have to struggle through with a lot of manual data collection, parsing, and interpreting.

After laying out these Southeast Asian locations on a map, I made an initial route and timeline. From there I saw that I might have some more time available in my travel. I decided to look into Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii. I ended up googling “best places to visit in Australia” and parsed through results and made a potential route for this area. Same with New Zealand and Hawaii. At the moment I am leaving these destinations as audibles for the trip. The ease of these locations may provide a nice contrast to some of the more difficult travel that I will be on.

This entire itinerary is open to how I am feeling at that time. I booked a one-way ticket to Myanmar. I have nothing else booked. I looked into travel and it look like I’ll be taking a lot of flights. I hear the flights are the best option but there are overnight buses and buses that you can sleep on that I may try out as they provide a great look at the country scenery. My trip is definitely extremely aggressive, so I may remove some of these destinations. I may spend more or less time in certain areas. I will book flights, buses, hotels, and attractions as I go. And I will take a one-way flight back home when I am ready.

SOUTHEAST ASIA:
4-Aug NYC
5-Aug Flying
6-Aug Yangon, Myanmar
7-Aug Inle Lake, Myanmar
8-Aug Bagan, Myanmar
9-Aug Mandalay, Myanmar
10-Aug Chiang Mai, Thailand
11-Aug Chiang Rai, Thailand
12-Aug Luang Prabang, Laos
13-Aug Luang Prabang, Laos
14-Aug Hanoi, Vietnam
15-Aug Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
16-Aug Hoi An, Vietnam
17-Aug Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
18-Aug Phnom Penh, Cambodia
19-Aug Angkor, Cambodia
20-Aug Bangkok, Thailand
21-Aug Ko Pha Ngan, Thailand
22-Aug Ko Phi Phi, Thailand
23-Aug Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
24-Aug Singapore, Singapore
25-Aug Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, Java, Indonesia
26-Aug Bali, Indonesia
27-Aug Komodo National Park, Indonesia

AUSTRALIA:
28-Aug Sydney, Australia
29-Aug Sydney, Australia
30-Aug Melbourne, Australia
31-Aug Great Ocean Road, Australia
1-Sep Adelaide, Australia
2-Sep Uluru, Australia
3-Sep Uluru, Australia
4-Sep Uluru, Australia
5-Sep Cairns, Australia
6-Sep Cairns, Australia
7-Sep Great Barrier Reef, Australia
8-Sep Gold Coast, Australia
9-Sep Gold Coast, Australia

NEW ZEALAND:
10-Sep Christchurch, New Zealand
11-Sep Aoraki/Mount Cook, New Zealand
12-Sep Milford Sound, New Zealand
13-Sep Queenstown, New Zealand
14-Sep Punakaiki Coast, New Zealand
15-Sep Lake Taupo, New Zealand
16-Sep Lake Taupo, New Zealand
17-Sep Rotorua, New Zealand
18-Sep Waitomo, New Zealand
19-Sep Bay of Islands, New Zealand
20-Sep Auckland, New Zealand

HAWAII:
21-Sep Hawaii, Hawaii
22-Sep Hawaii, Hawaii
23-Sep Maui, Hawaii
24-Sep Oahu, Hawaii
25-Sep Kauai, Hawaii
26-Sep NYC

Where I might be
Where I might be

Once the itinerary was planned it was time to get vaccinations and visas. I would recommend getting these done as early as is possible. If you definitely know the countries and style of traveling you are doing then definitely get these vaccinations done first. Vaccinations can take months to get done. Visas may take weeks. Obviously these things are critically important. I would recommend the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for vaccinations needed for each country. Is Zika prevalent? Do I need the typhoid vaccination? Is the yellow fever vaccination required to enter the country? Etc. You’ll find the answers at that site.

Same with the visas. If you don’t take care of this stuff you may not be able to visit a country. Or worse, you may be arrested, deported, etc. during your travels. Make sure you research this from an official source as these requirements change. I would recommend the Department of State’s travel page. How many passport pages so I need? Is a visa a required? Can I get the visa in person in the country or do I have to get it before I leave the US? Are there any entry/exit requirements I should be aware or? Any events that I should be aware of when traveling there? You’ll find it all there.

As far as packing I’m going to be backpacking. I’m pretty excited about this. I’ll be using some of the gear that I picked up for hiking but also a lot of other stuff I have lying around the house. I wasn’t sure that I would be able to fit everything inside of my pack, but after watching some YouTube videos I became pretty confident that I would be able to. Some people travel for a really long amount of time with a really small pack (18L!) and only like two quick drying shirts, two underwear, and two socks and just wash them every day in a sink. I kind of want a bit more comfort than that so I’ll be going with about a dozen of each. The environment is pretty hot and casual and a complete downpour depending on the country so it shouldn’t be too difficult to keep the clothes light and compact. It’s also nice that I don’t have to pack my tent, sleeping bag, food, etc. like I would if I was hiking. There should be plenty of room in the pack for everything I need, and it should all fit as a carry-on.

So that’s about it. Can’t wait to get out there. If anyone is interested in joining up for any part of this trip feel free to reach out. I won’t be available on text or phone for the next two months but will have WhatsApp, Facebook and Messenger, Google Hangouts, email, Snapchat, Twitter, and this site during times when I grab Wi-Fi. I don’t believe I’ll be rocking a phone plan because Verizon doesn’t offer service in some of those countries and I don’t feel like grabbing a new SIM card every time I cross borders. It will be nice to unplug and go see the world.