Thursday, January 31, 2013

Holiday Surprise

Look what the Other Marie crocheted me! I didn't even know she could crochet.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Flying for Free

When you fly for free on a frequent flyer ticket, you pay in non-monetary ways.

You have to take what's available, and that might not necessarily be the least painful route, or even the route that makes any sense at all.

Plus, YOU are far more interested in getting the free ticket than anyone is in figuring out how to facilitate your itinerary. Only a few seats are available per flight to free flyers. Some guy in the call center doesn't want to hang out all day looking at weird options you cooked up before you fell asleep last night after learning the normal routes were all unavailable.

My Burma trip was almost impossible to book. I was traveling too close to the holidays, when everything is full. But because of my teaching schedule at SVA, I had to go at the same time as everyone else. This meant all flights were full and nothing was open to me as a free flyer. I worked out a nutty solution where there were still seats, but when I called the call center, I had to try a few times before I finally found someone with the patience and willingness to understand the route I'd pieced together.

My outbound flight was a little weird, but not too painful. I flew the slightly longer way around the world, via Paris to Bangkok to Burma. That was fine, or at least, no worse than anyone else's full transatlantic flight followed by more flying. I had a nice coffee in Paris while waiting. I dumped my winter sweater, had a great muffin and coffee in Bangkok, and headed on to Burma.

Sunday, January 06, 2013


New shoes!
I headed out of Bangkok on the afternoon of January 6. I had some spare time in the morning, so I bought some new shoes to replace the ones I'd left in the taxi, and I got another foot massage.

I was determined to get to the airport train by bus, just to see what the minimum cost would be. I did it, but on a Sunday, the buses just didn't run often enough. The wait was long. I wouldn't suggest this as an option unless you were really broke. The better choices are the tourist shuttle or a metered taxi to Phayathai with a switch there to the airport train.

Bus #59 runs from Ratchadamnoen Klang to Phayathai (13 baht). I was standing in the aisle, and my height was oddly a problem. I'm not all that tall, but I'm not all that short either, so I couldn't see out of the window to know where the bus was. I had to keep ducking down so as to not miss my stop.

(You can also take bus #556 to Makkasan, but I'm not sure where you'd catch it, so you'd have to ask at Tourist Information. The other option is to take the canal boat to Pratunam and catch the airport train there, but you'll want to be not carrying a lot of luggage for any of these options as you have lug you bag onto the bus or boat. The canal is the best option when coming from the airport during rush hour. A metered taxi is the best option from the airport on a Sunday or at night.) 

I switched to the airport train at Phayathai, and paid 45 baht for the local train to the airport. The express is 90 baht.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Zebra Quest 2013

I'd really overdone it my few days in Bangkok, so all I wanted to do was sit in the coffee shop all day, but I still had a few missions to accomplish.

So on Saturday morning, after my customary fruit and muesli slathered in yogurt, I headed up to cross the canal and wait at a bus stop. I wanted to go to Chatuchak Market to get some zebra T-shirts. 

I'd tried to do this on my last trip to Bangkok, but that had been during the floods, so the T-shirt stall had been shut. 

Plus, I wanted a ceramic zebra. I got smart this time though. I downloaded a photo of one so I could ask for help even without being able to speak Thai. 

The bus took me and about 20 other tourists to the market, but I jumped off early so that I didn't have to walk all the way back to the T-shirt stall, which is right above the Kamphaengphet metro. 

The T-shirt stall was open! I bought three zebra T-shirts, and then stumbled over a nice skirt place and a handbag place. 

I stopped for an iced coffee and then headed over to the part of the market where you can buy little ceramic animals. I mean really little, the size of your thumb, not the knee-high size I was looking for.

The Mystery of the Thai Zebra

I love the Thai zebra, which you can find as offerings at shrines around Bangkok. I first noticed them in 2011, and was mystified. I'm still mystified, but it's been explained to me that people like nice animals, like turtles and horses, and the zebra is a nice animal. 

I want one. No, I want twenty.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Reflexology and Dumplings

"What do you mean I can't post home my wooden monks from Burma?"

"No Buddha images," said the man at the post office.

"They're monks, not Buddha," I explained.

He shook his head and packed up all my other souvenirs. Fine, I thought, I'll just take them out in my luggage. I paid for my shipping and dropped my little monks off at my hotel. I'd known that could be a problem, but I'd been hoping to get away with it. The good news is that he'd been distracted by my monks and missed my Buddha paintings. So they were safely packed up and sent.

I headed downtown by canal boat and went up to Tan Telecom on the 4th floor of MBK. I had an old iPhone that didn't work, and Tan had fixed me up before for 1,000 baht.

Unfortunately, my iPhone chose that moment to work perfectly.

"What? It can't be working!" The guy stared at me a little mystified.

"But it does."


Thursday, January 03, 2013

Home to Bangkok

AirAsia left me at Bangkok's old airport. I hadn't been here in years, and was a little startled.

"How do we get to the train station?" A British couple asked me.

"Easy, there's a train stop, and the train goes directly to Hualamphong."

"Say that again so we can ask for the right destination?"

They were sorted. But me? I took a look at the long taxi line and went to the information desk.

"Is there a bus to Khao San Road?" In the old days, there'd been a direct airport bus. There'd been one from the new airport originally too, but when the commuter rail to downtown had been launched, that had been canceled. Which helped a bit, but it was actually tough to hail a taxi at the end of the line at Phaya Thai. I'd sorted out various approaches over the years but the best way to get from the new Bangkok airport to your destination if it's not on the rail line is to fly in on a Sunday morning when there's no traffic, and just get a taxi.

Away from Mandalay

In the morning, I had breakfast in the top floor restaurant of Silver Swan before catching a shared taxi back out to the airport. The airport was nearly empty, though it had lots of room for growth.

"Just think," said a Spanish cyclist I met in the check-in line. "In a few years, all this will be full." He pointed to the empty halls.

"Maybe next year," I said. Burma had never had a tourism season like it was having.

Should we even be here, I wondered again. I'd done a decent job of patronizing local businesses, but I'd flown—taxes went to the illegitimate military junta government—and I'd paid for my visa. More importantly, was my mere presence a passive seal of approval of their plan to make incremental changes to lure in foreign dollars?

The answer is both yes and no. There's no reason to punish the Burmese people—they've already suffered quite enough. But at the same time, change might come slower now that this deal with the devil had been made. I'd done this as best I could.

And now it was time to fly "home" to Bangkok.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Road to Mandalay

The flight from Heho to Mandalay was much, much shorter than the taxi ride from the Mandalay airport to the Mandalay center.

I'd thought I might try to see the Moustache Brothers—though the show sounded more ethical than good—or maybe head to the street where gold leaf is applied to everything, but in the end, I ended up in a shared taxi (4,000 kyat) for two hours. The traffic in the center of Mandalay was that bad.

What a pit, I thought. I couldn't help it. Besides sitting in traffic, the air was thick and visible with toxins. Diesel, I imagine. As polluted as China had been the first time I'd been there. The inner city was dense, with long blocks. And even when I put away my luggage and went for a walk, first to the gold leaf district (where one shop was still open) and then randomly in search of something tasty to eat (I ended up at a street stall eating a rice dish I pointed at), Mandalay did not suddenly grow on me.

Though my hotel did. I was staying at a crumbling but pleasant place called Silver Swan. In the lobby, another tourist approached the reception desk while I was collecting my key.

Tourist: "Why doesn't the wi-fi work?"

Hotel clerk: "It doesn't work?"

Leaving Inle Lake

I awoke to the sounds of farts.

I’d been desperate for a hotel room. I shouldn’t complain about my little spot right off the dining room. Teakwood had given me a room when no one else would. Part of me wondered why they thought it would be a good idea to have open windows in bathrooms next to the dining room, and the other part of me chided myself for daring to complain when it was a miracle I had a roof over my head.

It’s like camping, I thought. Next to the latrine.

I went ahead and got out of bed. It was five AM, and that’s when the internet speeds are actually pretty good in Burma. I was able to upload some photos before the power cut out in the whole town of Nyaung Shwe, just after seven.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Appreciation for Now and a Eulogy for the Future

I hurried from the boat dock to Teakwood Guesthouse, to check in and see what kind of room I'd ended up with.

It was fine—a typical upper-end budget traveler room. One thing I didn't like was the bathroom being right off the dining area, with open windows at the top. It actually took me until morning to realize I should shut the bathroom door so I didn't have to be serenaded by a similar toilet across the hall from mine.

I'd read that the proprietor of Teakwood did the hard-sell on the guests—that's true, but her daughter was really sharp, and her husband was kind. I think the owner might just be misunderstood. She's really just a good businessperson. And I'm able to say simply no if I need to. But it was no Amazing Hotel, which was $72 a night to the $50 I was paying here.

Touring Inle Lake

"How can this trip last all day?" I wondered this to myself as the boat pilot zipped us out of the village of Thaung Tho, and headed us back to to the northern end of the lake ahead of the pack.

Oh, that's how, I realized after the umpteenth stop at a place that makes this-and-that. I'd be shown around to see how the weaving is done, how the cigars are made, how the parasol ends up a parasol, then escorted to the shop. I like stuff like this as it is actually interesting, but all was pretty far out of my price range since I'd spent all my money at the market at our first stop.

And it felt a little like the sort of thing you try to avoid in Egypt or India, the tuk-tuk trip where you visit carpet and papyrus shops. I'd rather just pay a fair fee for the boat trip than get a percentage of each purchase siphoned off as commission.

To the End of Inle Lake

I packed up and left the lovely Amazing Hotel on time. Fortunately, breakfast had started at six, so I didn't need to worry about going out onto the lake hungry.

The man who had stopped me to sell me the boat trip met me at the hotel entrance with his motorbike. He squished my luggage onto his motorbike—the right way, between his knees, not like that guy in Congo who made me wear the backpack—and zipped me over to Teakwood. I handed my locked bag to the owner, and then the motorbike rider dropped me off at the dock. He'd been in a hurry, telling me that we had to get to the market at Inle Lake's southern end before all the other tourists.

I was a little surprised as I hadn't realized the motorbike guy was a tout. I'd thought he actually had a boat, but no. I should have just gone straight to the pier instead, hired directly.

The boat driver motioned me into a long boat. I'd asked about shade, and there was shade. An umbrella.

The first person who works out to put a canopy over their boat is going to get a lot of tourist dollars, I thought.

We zoomed straight south. I'd slathered on a lot of sunscreen and the morning was still cool, so I enjoyed the sun for the moment.

Nyuangshwe is on a river that leads into the lake, so a few kilometers south, the inlet opened up into a misty lake full of fishermen.