Cruising on Inle Lake, Burma

The Burmese escape continues north where we find the beautiful Inle Lake.

Inle Lake is a shallow freshwater lake located in the Shan State of Myanmar and surrounded by the picturesque Shan Hills which cover parts of Burma, Thailand and the Chinese Yunnan province.

There is no direct railroad connection between Bagan and Inle Lake and this complicates and prolongs your journey if you want to travel by railroad. First, one would need to take the train from Bagan to Mandalay after which you would hop on the Mandalay to Yangon train and finally switch to the Thazi – Kalaw – Shwenyaung train. We did not have time for such detour and decided to derail and catch a bus from Bagan to Inle Lake. A bus ticket on the Bagan Min Thar Express goes for 11,000 kyat ($10) per person and you can ask to be picked up at your guesthouse at no extra charge. Departure from Bagan is daily around 7 PM and arrival is scheduled at 5 AM the next day.

In a country where the GDP per capital is barely $1,000, AC has become a peculiar status status symbol and this was no different on the Bagan – Inle Lake bus. Consequently, I was shivering all night, didn’t close an eye and was more than happy when the bus arrived at 3 AM, surprisingly two hours earlier than expected. Mind that, just as when arriving in Bagan, you are aggressively forced to buy tickets for the Inle Zone ($10) which you can avoid by claiming that your hotel already has bought the tickets for you.

The bus drops you off Shwenyaung Junction after which you can get to Nyaungshwe (or Nyaung Shwe), the main town next to Inle Lake, for about 1,000 kyat per person. It was surprisingly cold in the morning (Inle Lake has an elevation of 880 m) and a dense fog limited visibility to a few meters. Trash is getting burned alongside the streets and, together with slash-and-burn agriculture, produces an eye-watering smoke which made me cough in the early morning.

We stayed at the Gypsy Inn (on Strand Road) which offers doubles including breakfast for 20-25k kyat per night. The rooms are basic (but clean) and the breakfast features pancakes and fresh fruit.

Then the lake.

Inle Lake covers 116 square kilometers and is best explored by renting a boat including captain. You pay 20,000 kyat for an entire boat per day (I read you can bring prices down to 15,000 kyat). You can fill the boat with up to 5 people which makes it cheaper and we found two other persons to share the boat. Boats are made from wood and nowadays powered by a (loud) diesel engine. Traditional leg rowing has become obsolete and we only saw it once during our stay and it was a fake fisherman begging for money.

You should start your cruise early, say 8 AM, to experience the mystical fog which reminds of epic scenes of The Lord of the Rings. The captain will give you blankets to keep warm and slowly, once the morning fog has cleared, you will be able to witness Inle Lake in its full beauty. The all-consuming celestial blue of the lake and surrounding resplendent green rain forest make for excellent pictures.  You will also quickly exchange your blanket for an umbrella – it gets hot!

The captains make commissions from souvenirs you buy on and and around the lake. Except if you want to go on a shopping spree, explain your captain that you do NOT want to buy anything. I found it a bit sad to see that all markets on the lake were reselling Chinese-made souvenirs and overpriced clothes and jewelry. They did not seem to understand that most tourists are looking to experience real Burmese life and not something artificially created.

There are, however, plenty of things to see and sample on and around the lake. It was particularly interesting to see the floating garden agriculture which is yielding excellent fruit & veg. These gardens are little islands constructed of water hyacinth and mud kept together by long bamboo poles. They can be transported and are traded as they were regular farmland. Clearly, Inle Lake’s food was superior to the rest of Burma because of the abundance of fresh produce. We tried tasty salads of tea leaf, tomato and avocado. Also the fresh juices are superb, most notably the papaya-lime juice. A new combination with which I immediately fell in love with. Approved restaurants with reasonable prices are: Sin Yaw, Linn Htett, Evergreen and Sun Flower (take the grilled fish!).

In the evening, the setting sun reflects off the surface of the water and you can hear youngsters play Beatles songs covered in Burmese. Inle Lake needs to cope with an increasing amount of visitors and many of the markets and villages around the lake are purely set up for tourists and felt fake to me. However, it are the amazing views, “Hey Jude” in Burmese and the fresh food that make this trip a genuine escape.

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The best (and cheapest) way to get out of Inle Lake is songthaew for 1k kyat per person to the Shwenyaung Junction. The songthaews depart from a little station close to Mingalar Market and the last one departs around 4.30 PM. You can sit on the roof as I did.

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From Shwenyaung you can either take a bus/minivan for 11k kyat per person (last one departing around 6 PM; picture above) or wait alongside the road on the T-junction for a songthaew to stop. For 3k kyat per person you can experience a very local ride to Thazi. The journay takes you through mountains and the stretch takes about 4 hours. The songthaew will also stop for a very local dinner which will only set you back 2k kyat per person! It will be late when you arrive in Thazi and you can spend the night in one of the two guesthouses with similar prices (20-25k kyat for a double) and inspiring names: Moonlight and Wonderful. Trains. There is absolutely nothing to do or see in Thazi and the town serves the purpose of transit town only. We found great (but fatty) snacks at the Power Cafe next to the main road.

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As previously mentioned, no central Burmese train ticket booking system exists which means that you cannot book tickets in advance. However, you can persuade the railroad clerk to call up the Mandalay railroad station (all trains going south to Yangon come from Mandalay) and inform whether there is a place on the sleeper train. If possible, try to hop on train number 6 which has sleepers and departs from Thazi at 5.45 PM and arrives next morning at 5 AM. We were out of luck and had to take the “4 Down” which did not have any sleepers unfortunately. An Upper Seat Ticket on the 4 Down goes for 7,350 kyat per person and departs at 7.49 PM to arrive the next morning at 8 AM in Yangon.

This brings us full circle.

This was the fourth post about travel in Burma. You can read part 1 to 3 here:

Burmese Days

The Bumpy Train Ride from Yangon to Bagan

Exploring Temples in Bagan, Burma

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Exploring temples in Bagan, Myanmar

Mingalabar! (Hello in Burmese.)

The rocky train ride from Yangon to Bagan came to an end around 11 in the morning. Not bad compared to the official arrival time of 9.30 AM given the state of the railroad network!

A large group of taxi men approached us like a swarm of flies discovering fresh meat. It was clear that they regarded the drowsy passengers coming off the train as well-filled ATMs. Their first quotes for the 30-minute stretch from the Bagan train station to Nyaung-U varied between 6,000 and 7,500 kyat per persona. Eventually we paid 3,000 kyat (about $3) per person which seemed reasonable. The town of Nyaung-U (also written Nyaung Oo or Nyaung U) is the best choice for budget travelers or tourists arriving by plane as it is closest to the airport. The alternative is New Bagan where accommodation is higher priced (more than $50 per night).

The taxis stop at a control post where you are forced to buy a ticket for The Bagan Archaeological Zone. The ticket costs $15 or 15 but I understood proceeds are not going to the maintenance or restoration of the ruins and hence once should try to avoid paying this entry fee. You can avoid paying the entrance fee by either jumping off the taxi and walking around the control post or claiming that your hotel has pre-booked your tickets (craft and print an official-looking email confirmation to back such claim). Nevertheless, our tickets were never checked at temples.

We stayed at Aung Mingalar Hotel ($45 per night for a double with AC) which I cannot recommend. The rooms were terribly outdated and full of mosquitoes, but the worst was the staff who had no intention at all to be friendly.

We were hungry and decided to join an American traveler for lunch at Weather Spoon’s Bagan Restaurant. The American appeared to be an MBA student at MIT and was boasting that he hadn’t been online for a day and that it felt amazing. However, he was now feverishly trying to access the restaurant’s WiFi but eventually had to give up, slightly disappointed. My impression is that many restaurants install a router but it is eventually just a network which is not connected to the Internet. The food at Weather Spoon tasted great: two people eat for about 10k kyat and I wholeheartedly recommend the burger, at 3900 kyat ($4) an excellent bite. During our journey, we found the Burmese food rather mediocre (not to say bad) and the burger stood out as the best meal I had during this Burmese escape. And that’s why we came back twice to eat more burgers. Also the juices are fresh and serve as a great refreshment after a day of driving around in the heat.

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Bagan features smaller temples which are very different from Angkor Wat in Cambodia. While Angkor Wat is the largest religious building in the world, Bagan has the highest concentration of religious buildings in the world. Bagan, formerly Pagan, was the capital of the Pagan Kingdom which controlled the Irrawaddy also written Ayeyarwady) valley and surroundings. The Empire went on a building spree between the 11th and 13th century which resulted in over 10,000 Buddhist structures.

The Pagan Empire felt in 1287 after repeated Mongol invasions but today still more than 2,000 temples, stupas and monasteries stand up and are spread out over an area of more than 100 square kilometer. Although Bagan has attracted an increasing amount of tourists over the last years, it never feels crowded and almost is deserted in the mornings.

So how to start this escape?

Walking is difficult given the vast area of the site. Most travelers choose to rent bicycles or e-bikes (electric bicycles) but you can also move around by horse cart or taxi. There are also hot air balloon tours going for $300-400 pp which was above our entrepreneurial budget so we stuck to bicycles which cost 2,500 kyat ($2.5) per person per day.

We cycled over the sandy paths to the Shwesandaw Temple to witness a spectacular sunset. There is limited space at the top of the temple and it gets busy so you better arrive on time if you want to have a good view. We witnessed some amateur photographers aggressively claim their habitat from as early as 4 PM. At the bottom of the temple there are kids claiming they “collect foreign currencies”. It is a bit early for them to be a Forex trader and this is obviously just an alternative way of begging which you should avoid.

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The next morning we woke up at 6 AM and decided to rent an electric bicycle at our hotel and cruise to the temples to see the sunrise. The hotel asked 10,000 kyat ($10) per day for one e-bike and I said that was OK and we would rent one. However, when the receptionist realized we were two people, he rapidly updated the price to 13,000 kyat by claiming that sharing the e-bike increases the price. I looked at him and argued that this didn’t make sense at all but he kept repeating his new price. It was clear that he had more negotiation power given that the longer we would haggle, the more likely we would miss the sunrise. Eventually, I was fed up with him, took a pen and changed the 13,000 on the receipt to 10,000. Next, I threw a 10,000 note on the counter and took the keys without looking back. He looked confused and decided to take another sip of this coffee while mumbling something evil in Burmese.

The e-bike looked cheap but worked surprisingly well and soon we were speeding among hundreds of temples. It was December and Bagan was surprisingly cold in the morning and we were literally shivering on the bike.

Then the sun began its ascent. Slowly, a truly magnificent scene started in front of us. It started with animal noises. Next, tens of hot-air balloons slowly lifted up from the earth and gently pierced the mist drifting above the jungle. Mystic Buddhist chants completed the spectacle.

The rest of the day we visited the Tharabha Gate and a variety of temples: the Ananda Temple, Sulamani Temple, Htilominlo Temple, Thatbyinnyu Temple and Gawdawpalin Temple. Bagan most definitely deserves a visit during your next Myanmar tour – moreover, I would say it is among the best Myanmar has to offer!

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The Bumpy Train Ride from Yangon to Bagan

The curtains of the inexpensive guesthouse served an aesthetic purpose rather than a practical one: the first morning rays created a pastel shine in the room and gently lifted me out of bed.

Then it hit me. It was silent. Remarkably silent!

Yangon is thought to have between 5 and 6 million inhabitants, but Myanmar’s former capital was surprisingly silent in the morning. Although the largest city today, Myanmar’s capital is not Yangon. The military junta moved the capital from Yangon to the newly created city Naypyidaw in 2006. Most airlines, however, are serving Yangon and Mandalay mostly.

Yangon was formerly called Rangoon but its city center has not changed much since British colonial times. The tropical climate, however, is not particularly forgiving and most of the British colonial architecture is slowly decaying among a sea of wide avenues. The skyline is still unmarked by skyscrapers but one can spot the first billboards advertising future condos.

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Burmese breakfast symbolizes the state of its economy: scrambled eggs (every nation seems to have chickens), instant coffee (imported and served with way-too-much sugar), and bananas (grows about everywhere in Southeast Asia). Two pictures decorated the guesthouse’s room: a portrait depicting General (Bogyoke) Aung San who led the independence fight against the British, and Aung San Suu Kyi who received the Nobel Peace Prize after enduring 14 years of house arrest. Today, Aung San Suu Kyi’s house is to Yangon as the Anne Frank house is to Amsterdam.

There is not that much to see in Yangon. We visited the National Museum of Myanmar which offers an interesting introduction to the country and its troubled history, walked around Kandawgyi Lake and Nature Park where young Burmese hang out during weekends, and bought fresh fruits at Aung Sang Market.

We decided to skip the Shewadagon Pagoda and the surrounding People’s Square and Park as we had seen many pagodas before and preferred to spend the $8 entry fee on something more worthwhile.

Yangon serves as a hub to connect travelers to other parts of the country. Most travelers fly or take a bus from Yangon to the main destinations: Bagan, Mandalay, and Inle Lake. However, to me the transportation is an integral part of the journey and I find flying too modern. And I also really dislike bus travel in hot emerging countries. I never really understood why buses decide to freeze their passengers with glacial AC which is cold enough to store frozen shrimps. My experience learns that the AC usually only has two settings: broken or maximum. The latter kills every chance to get a good night’s sleep as ice slowly forms on your lips and you almost need to be careful not to fall asleep as you might never wake up again. There is only one explanation I can find for this odd behavior: the AC has have become some kind of status symbol. This could also explain why you need to prepare as if you were climbing Mount Everest when going to the movies in Asia: long pants, sweater, beanie, and gloves! On a more serious note, bus drivers seem to be in some constant race with each other and accidents often occur. Respecting road rules is an unknown concept in Southeast Asia.

The train, however, is slow, but gives you the opportunity to witness Burmese villages next to the tracks and travel in colonial style. The Man in Seat 61 describes the journey as a “bumpy ride” which is beyond any doubt an understatement. Theoretically, train 61 departs from Yangon at 4 PM and arrives in Bagan at 9.30 AM the next day. This sounded like a recipe for an excellent escape and the goal was to board the Yangon to Bagan train the same day.

Burmese trains are old. So are the tracks. And so is the Yangon railroad station.

No central train ticket booking system exists which means that you cannot book in advance. You need to go to the train station in person with your passport and buy the ticket after which the clerk writes down your details in a large book. The ticket booth is dressed up with a sign “Warmly Welcome & Take Care of Tourists” to pass for a modern building.

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There are some travel agents that can book your ticket in advance, but that would make the journey less exciting. And exciting it was: we eventually managed to buy the last two tickets of the “61 UP” 4 PM sleeper train the same day. The night berth ticket Yangon-Bagan costs 16,500 kyat or $16 per person which includes 3.60 kyat “life insurance”. The latter is less than 1 dollar cent and it remains unclear what it would cover.

The Yangon Central Railway Station is an explosion of smells and makes anarchy look respectable. Very respectable. The station serves multiple purposes including hotel (house?) and kitchen. Seemingly lifeless bodies cover the station’s platforms and improvised food stalls offer small snacks to hungry travelers. Hygiene standards are questionable and the station’s floors are covered with red stains. These stains are (luckily) not blood, but are caused by spitting when eating Kun-Ya. Kun-Ya is Burmese for Paan, the local “chewing gum” from Pakistan and India, and is sold from small stalls alongside the road. It is made by wrapping a betel leaf around ingredients such as lime, areca (betel) nuts, anise seeds and tobacco. Although very popular among Burmese, tooth decay and oral cancer are just some of the consequences caused by chewing Kun-Ya. The most visible, however, are red lips and red stains on the ground. In Myanmar, Hansel and Gretel would follow red stains instead of bread crumbs through the woods.

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To me, the train remained in a state of pure possibility until it eventually appeared at 4 in the afternoon. Surprisingly, the train stops very shortly and one needs to be ready to board the train swiftly. As a passenger trying to board the train, you are competing with bags of rice and other goods which are simultaneously loaded into the train, too. Think of it as the Burmese version of a 747 cargo plane.

The sleeper car consisted of a side corridor and 4-berth compartments. We found our compartment and were greeted by two Londoners sharing the journey with us.

Although reasonably clean, don’t expect the luxury of the Trans-Siberian express. You are provided with a pillow and thin blanket, and can order basic dishes from the crew. One dish goes for about 2,500 kyat and we paid 16,600 kyat or $16 for 2 fried rice, 2 fried vegetables, 1 omelette, 4 slices of bread, and 1 milk tea. Multiple vendors also try to sell you beer and you can expect someone to frequently pop in his head asking “Beer, beer, beer?” Simply closing your door helps in such scenario. You can also buy food when the train slowly passes villages as an entire ecosystem seems to have been build around the tracks.

The train journey can be best described as shaken, and stirred. As if designed to resemble an out-of-control, whole body vibration machine, Burmese trains are extremely bumpy and loud. We traveled during December and found the night also surprisingly cold. Although it warms up quickly in the morning, we were shivering at night and had to put on all the clothes we had –  two pants, two pair of socks and a scarf. I was literally jumping up and down on the thin mattress and, interestingly, I found out that sleeping on my left side is significantly more comfortable than on my right side. Put simply, it is an experience.

At 11 in the morning, after 19 wobbling hours, train 61 came to a screeching halt in Bagan. Still sleepy, we were harassed by taxi drivers who regarded us as walking sacks of cash. But that’s a story for the next post.

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Picking up on my previous post: there is an excellent, although old, documentary on Khun Sa, the Opium King. You can find it on YouTube in 6 parts (enable auto-play). It is clear that opium touched everyone’s life in Myanmar.

Burmese Days

“Beauty is meaningless until it is shared” George Orwell wrote in his novel Burmese days.

It is not only a good quote to start a blog post, but also true about Myanmar: it is a beautiful country which has mostly been in isolation until 2011. Moreover, I had the chance to share this escape with a friend and together we celebrated Christmas while exploring pagodas in Bagan, cruising over Inle Lake, and surviving a bumpy train journey. This blog post acts as an introduction to the country and lays the groundwork for all subsequent posts about Burma.

Orwell’s first novel is mostly based on observations he made when he was stationed as a police officer in Burma, today’s Myanmar, from 1922 to 1927. Burma was annexed by the British Empire when Mandalay had been conquered in 1885 during the Third Anglo-Burmese war. Under the British auspices, Burma became the wealthiest country in Southeast Asia and produced respectively 75% and 50% of the world’s teak and rice export.

The economic rise slowed down after Myanmar’s independence in 1948. However, it was only after the 1962 coup d’etat when Ne Win onboarded the country on his disastrous Burmese Way to Socialism throughout 60s, 70s, and 80s. U Nu, Myanmar’s previous and first prime minister, handed over power to Ne Win and was carefully placed under protective custody, which sounds like a cozy beach holiday. Ne Win’s master plan was to trade foreign influence for military, but in reality his military dictatorship isolated the country and impoverished its population as it was not able to benefit from global trade.

The military junta or officially the “State Peace and Development Council” was officially abolished in 2011 but its former members still heavily influence and control business and politics. The current government and military are also expected to play a major role in the country’s illegal drug trade as it is “too big” not to be noticed. Myanmar’s borders are so heavily militarized that a drug smuggler simply needs the government’s consent to get anything out (or in) of the country. As a consequence, Transparency International ranks Myanmar 156th out of 175 countries in their annual Corruption Perceptions Index.

Although Myanmar has taken its first steps to improve its diplomatic relationship and countries have decreased their trade sanctions against the country, every day’s life and business is still affected by poor policy making, generally low productivity, and a horribly outdated infrastructure. Major airports are being upgraded or expanded, but the roads and rails still date from colonial times. We witnessed road and rail works and can only conclude they yet have to see any heavy equipment: most of the work is done with simple tools and bare hands.

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Euromonitor International identified Myanmar as one of the 20 markets that will offer the most opportunities for global consumer goods companies. While traveling, we recognized this potential and saw that consumer spending is picking up across the country. A mix of Asian and Western consumer goods companies is percolating Myanmar, hoping to bank on the long closed-off country.

Food & Beverages

Instant coffee is ubiquitous and consumed with heaps of sugar and/or condensed milk. No Starbucks but a few coffee shops offering fresh espresso at a premium price exist – say 1,500-2,500 kyat or 1.5-2.5 dollar a cup. (The local currency is kyat (MMK) and 1 dollar is approximately 1,000 kyat as of December 2014.)

Dairy products are rare and we did not find any milk, butter or cheese. Ice cream and condensed milk were the closest to milk we got during our journey.

Whiskey and beer are very, very popular. Beer is drunk ice cold and Myanmar is the most widely advertised and sold beer. Other beers include Mandalay, Dagon, ABC, Andaman Gold and international brands such as Heineken and Carlsberg trying to tap the country. Similar to their Thai neighbors (and in turn, their Vietnamese neighbors), Burmese love whiskey. The clear market leader is Grand Royal which is promoted under the tagline “premium drinking water” and has had a partnership with Chelsea FC since 2012. Other whiskeys have inspiring names such as High Class and are sold alongside international brands as Jim Beam, Johnnie Walker, and Jack Daniels.

Soft drinks, of course. You got to mix the whiskey with something, no? Until 2012, Myanmar was off limits to Coca-Cola because of trade sanctions. In fact, it was one of the only three countries worldwide (with Cuba and North Korea) where people were not able to open happiness. In 2012, the floodgates opened to a thirsty market of close to 60 million people and today Coca-Cola is generally available in cans (1,000 kyat or 1 dollar) and bottles (300 kyat) throughout Myanmar. Although Coca-Cola competes with Pepsi and the local Star Cola, it is omnipresent in every little shop.

Tap water is not drinkable in Myanmar. Bottled water is produced locally using reverse osmosis and ozone treatment. It usually sells at 300 kyat a bottle and its producers brand it under original names such as Like (which includes the Facebook thumb on the bottle).

Dry goods and canned/preserved foods are generally imported from Thailand and it is easy to find a package of MAMA noodles in most shops.

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Health & Beauty

Inexpensive cosmetics brands as the Thai Mistine are heavily promoted next to other imported personal care products. Interestingly, hair gel seems especially popular among young men.

Cars and motorcycles

Mostly Japanese and Chinese motorcycles and run-down Japanese buses. Cars and taxis are mostly basic Toyotas. In December 2014 there was a huge BMW billboard in Yangon claiming “The world’s number one luxury car brand has arrived.”

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Entertainment

We saw only one movie theater in Yangon and it was showing almost exclusively Korean and Thai dramas.

Telecommunication

Traditionally, calls are made from little telephone stalls next to the main road. This is changing rapidly and Ooredoo and Telenor are aggressively advertising their mobile services to capture early adopters. Telenor operates in Thailand under the same logo but a different brand, DTAC. Huawei and Samsung billboards dot the cityscape and most mobile phones we saw were inexpensive Android devices. The latter can be key for online retail.

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Retail

Got to sell all those imported products! City Mart is the largest retailer in Myanmar but the country yet has to see widespread, Western-style (convenience) stores pop up. While in Bangkok you cannot walk a single block without encountering a 711, in Myanmar, most consumer goods are sold from hole-in-the-wall shops with no displayed prices. Bargaining is still OK here.

How will retail further develop in Myanmar?

Likely the country will see a similar evolution as in China or the rest of Southeast Asia: online retailers leapfrogging offline, brick-and-mortar retail. Skipping traditional retail has proven to be an attractive opportunity for e-commerce companies such as Alibaba in China or Lazada in Southeast Asia. Internet-powered, inexpensive mobile devices allow anyone to shop online from anywhere at anytime. The biggest hurdle is distribution, i.e. logistics. Getting goods to rural ares is a challenge but e-commerce companies have successfully tackled it in similar markets as Vietnam.

Internet and mobile are tectonic changes driving economic growth. You can expect an e-commerce gold rush in Myanmar.

Fast Food

Here, again, the situation is very different from Bangkok where a range of fast-food restaurants is present (most notably McDonalds). KFC is expected to open its first restaurant in 2015, but South Korean Lotteria is already there. This heavily reminds me of Vietnam’s fast food landscape as reported before.

Myanmar is a long-isolated nation that has quickly become the last economic frontier for Western brands in Southeast Asia. A bottle of Coca-Cola or Colgate toothpaste are tangible symbols of change and represent a gigantic opportunity: a population of 60 million people with middle class consumption expected to double by 2020.

Given that the GDP per capita is a little north of 1,000 dollar, the country must produce something – right? Let’s take a look.

Up to 50% of GDP consists of agriculture (rice), livestock, forestry (teak), and fisheries. The agricultural economy is thought to employ about 70% of the country. The most significant exports are in order of value: oil and gas, timber, beans and pulses, fish and seafood, clothing, and ore.

But Myanmar’s most lucrative export is not timber or oil. It is drugs.

Myanmar has a booming narcotics industry and its proceeds most probably exceed all other exports. Myanmar is the largest producer of methamphetamine and the second largest exporter of opium (heroin) after Afghanistan. Together with Laos and Thailand, Myanmar is part of the Golden Triangle: together with the Golden Crescent (Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran) the main opium-producing area.

More recently, opium bans have shifted production to meth. The meth is mixed with caffeine to make ya ba, literally translated horse drug as it was given to horses during hard work. Ya ba grew big across Southeast Asia and especially in Thailand it is popular. More than one billion pills cross the Myanmar-Thai border every year through the Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai Provinces of Thailand. Next, the drugs are smuggled to international markets with Bangkok and Hong Kong often acting as an international hub for export. Lately, more drugs are channeled to China because of the growing domestic demand.

Myanmar’s most notorious drug lord was Khun Sa, nicknamed the Opium King. During his 20-years tenure from 1974 to 1994, the Shan mountains in the north of Myanmar were dotted by his poppy fields and the share of heroin in the US coming from the Golden Triangle increased from 5 to 80%. The quality was best-in-class with a purity of 90%. Khun Sa was depicted in the movie American Gangster when Frank Lucas, played by Denzel Washington, travels to Myanmar to source heroin, which he branded as Blue Magic in the US. Frank got the economics totally right: “I sell a product that’s better than the competition at a price that’s less than the competition.”

Also on branding, Frank Lucas was spot on: “Brand names mean something, Nicky. Consumers rely on them to know what they’re getting. They know the company isn’t going to try to fool them with an inferior product. They buy a Ford, they know they’re gonna get a Ford. Not a fuckin’ Datsun. Blue Magic that’s a brand name; Like Pepsi, that’s a brand name. I stand behind it, I guarantee it. They know that even if they don’t know me any more than they know the chairman of General Mills.”

Khun Sa was a business man who was also inventive in his approach towards governments: he proposed both the US and Australian government to buy his opium production or he would offer it on the international narcotics markets. (They didn’t buy.) Moreover, research has revealed that the state-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) acted as a money laundering vehicle for Khun Sa.

Eventually the US put 2 million dollars on Khun’s head and he surrendered in Burma in 1996. Instead of being deported to the US, he was allowed to retire in Rangoon (now Yangon) with four wives and spend the rest of his life investing in real-estate and mining.

Justice always triumphs, right?!

Good Morning, Vietnam!

I found myself packed and ready to kick off again – ready, set, jet!

  • Spending more than 6 months in the same location seems impossible. The biggest risk is not taking any risk.
  • A simple twist of fate made me move to Vietnam end of 2013.
  • Vietnam is a former French colony which translates in excellent food, wide lanes, and colonial buildings.

Yeah it’s chaos, it’s clocks, it’s watermelons, it’s everything.

Welcome to Vietnam’s capital, Ho Chi Minh City where close to 10 million people crowd the streets on motorcycles and wear these typical conical hats.

Cars are (luckily) relatively rare and many are taxis. Except for a few buses, public transport has yet to be developed. This means you either move around by motorcycle or taxi. As for the latter, avoid scams by only hailing Vinasun or Mai Linh taxis. The trip from Tân Sơn Nhất Airport to the CBD should not set you back more than 200,000 VND or 7.5 EUR. From the airport, one can also take bus number 153 to Ben Thanh Market for as little as 5,000 VND or 0.20 EUR.

Vietnam is different from other Southeast Asian countries: most travelers will need an invitation letter before entering Vietnam. The letter can be used in turn to buy the visa on arrival (VOA) at the airport. Upon arrival, travelers pay at a booth and wait for the immigration police to stamp their passport. This can take hours. Literally. Paying a small bribe helps, but does not fix the problem longer-term. The right approach is to stand next to the booth and aggressively point to your passport (among the large stack) and say “My turn, my turn! Yes, yes, take that one!” It’s also wise to travel with some passport photos as you often require one in Asia. If you don’t have a picture, then an immigration officer will emerge from the booth and take a picture with a prehistoric camera. He will ask you 5 USD and obviously will never print or use the photo.

Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon and commonly abbreviated as HCMC, is located at the sea but no (clean) beaches are nearby. The beaches of Mui Ne are 4-5 hours away, but are unfortunately getting swamped with Russians who appreciate the cheap direct flights from Moscow and the lack of visa for former communist states (and the cheap drinks).

Even though the constant stream of motorcycles never stops, the city is surprisingly walkable and features several parks where locals play badminton and are kicking shuttlecock, a modified badminton shuttle kicked with the foot. The sport is called đá cầu (in China Jianzi) and is the national sport in Vietnam. Best places to play are Tao Dan Park and around Notre Dame Cathedral.

HCMC, is divided in districts, each subdivided in wards. It heavily reminds of Peter Jackson’s movie District 9. District 1 features most sightseeing spots and several high-end hotels and shops. However, the rest of Vietnam is still a poor country with a GDP per capita of less than 2,000 USD. People speak (very) limited English and, although generally safe, pick pocketing and bag snatching often occurs. Better not flash your latest gadget here.

No building stands out more as the Bitexco Financial Tower, 68 floors high. I managed to take the elevator until floor 44, only to realize there was no way back. Apparently there is little demand for the excessively priced office space and consequently most of the floors are empty. Hence, the building owner had not bothered finishing the elevator system and I had to take the fire exit stairs down. Anyhow, floor 44 offers spectacular views over HCMC.

Another must see is the War Remnants Museum where the almost 20-year long Vietnam War or Second Indochina War is carefully documented. The First Indochina War was fought between the Vietnamese and the French colonists, but the Second Indochina War was a true David-versus-Goliath war against the US. The war was fought in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, between 1955 to 1975. The US fought Vietnam’s Viet Cong during a long guerrilla war leading to millions of deaths and leaving numerous mine fields still killing people today. One can relive the war by visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels, a network of 250 km of tunnels and chamber, only 40 km from HCMC.

After WWII, the US feared a communist expansion in Southeast Asia directed by the Soviet Union. The so-called domino theory stipulated that if Vietnam would fall to communism, its surrounding countries such as Laos and Cambodia would fall as well. Hence the US invaded Vietnam. What followed was a long and deadly conflict which left Vietnam in ruins, even many decades after the war. With the help of Dow Chemical Company and Monsanto, the US used defoliants and herbicides in Vietnam to destroy vegetation and crops, depriving the Viet Cong of food and cover. The used chemical became infamous as Agent Orange and its dioxin still causes severe health problems today. The US eventually retreated its troops in 1975, a humiliating end to their Vietnam War. In the same year, the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia of which about 25% of its 8 million population was killed during a genocide under the auspices of Pol Pot, dubbed the Hitler of Cambodia. The Vietnamese would eventually defeat the Khmer Rouge in the Cambodian–Vietnamese War.

Communism is still well alive in Vietnam, but capitalism is quietly sneaking in. Vietnamese love their local coffee, but the first Starbucks was opened in February 2013. The first McDonald’s opened in February 2014 and hundreds of people lined up to get their first Big Mac and french fries. Yet another US invasion?

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Ayutthaya, Thailand’s ancient capital

Yes, the blog design went through a serious makeover, improving not only readability, but also letting images stand out more. As a few readers noted, I am still catching up on older escapes and adding them gradually. This post is about Ayutthaya, Thailand’s ancient capital, which I visited during September 2013.

  • Ayutthaya (or Ayudhya) is perfect for a day trip from Bangkok and easily reachable by train.
  • Tuk tuks are ubiquitous around the city, some originally decorated. However, cycling is convenient and a healthy and cheap alternative to get around.
  • There are several Unesco Heritage temples, palaces, and museums scattered around the city and worth a look.

In 1700, Ayutthaya was the largest city in the world with 1 million inhabitants and served as the trading hub of the world attracting merchants from both East and West. It was Siam’s second capital after Sukhothai and its grandeur abruptly ended when the Burmese army invaded Ayutthaya during the Burmese-Siamese war 1765-67. Although initially the 20,000 Burmese soldiers were outnumbered 3 to 1, a tactic pincer movement allowed them to surround the city forcing the Siamese to retreat within Ayutthaya’s gates and prepare for a long and tiresome battle they’d eventually lose.

The war lasted till March 1767 and included naval battles outside the city walls during the rainy season. Eventually, the Burmese dug tunnels and mined the city walls after which they invaded the city. What followed can only be described as a Quentin Tarrantino-style slaughter during which thousands were killed and the city was burned to the ground.

September is the wettest month in Thailand with an average monthly rainfall of above 300mm. One weekend predicted clear skies and I hopped on a train to Ayutthaya to witness the remains of the ancient capital myself. The city features multiple temples and monasteries, most getting gradually rebuilt. Entry fee to the temples varies, but is generally 50-75 baht.

I first visited Wat Phra Si Sanphet, the largest temple with impressive chedis topping the landscape. Next to it, Viharn Phra Mongkol Bopit hosts one of the largest (~12.5m high) bronze Buddha images in Thailand.

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Inside Viharn Phra Mongkol Bopit, people pray and are shaking containers with fortune sticks. This practice is called kau cim (or kau chim), aka Chinese fortune sticks. The way it works is that you shake until a stick jumps out of a bamboo container. All sticks are numbered and you search for your number on a board covered with post-it-looking messages. Once you find the matching post-it, you can start deciphering the often vague and sometimes negative message. A colleague picked up the following “You are in trouble and unhappy. You face obstacles and interruption. You might have to take the fall for other people’s mistakes. No luck, you have to be patient and see it with wisdom.” Mine was more positive!

thai ice cream

Outside the temple, men are selling ice cream made with a sorbetière, a traditional ice cream maker relying on traditional laws of thermodynamics. Interestingly, you can extract heat from a sugary liquid by melting ice and eventually turn liquid in ice cream.

Image source: Pinterest.

I found Wat Phra Mahathat the most interesting temple and resembling some of the ruins of Angkor Wat which I had visited previously. The image below shows a stone head entangled in roots coiling more like reptiles than plants. Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?

Wat Lokayasutharam or the temple of the reclining Buddha features, well, features a reclining Buddha draped in yellow sheets. Ten toes, check.

In front of Wat Phu Khao Thong, a golden pagoda, a collection of colorful statues of chickens (roosters) keeps guard. The meaning of these statues is not entirely clear. Online research gives a broad range of answers such as:

“Kinda like an advertisement to get the customers’ attention that particular restaurant has the best roasted chicken” (Yahoo! Answers always proves to be extremely useful!).

“The future King Naresuan was heavily into rooster fighting when he was a prisoner in Burma.”

The latter seems most obvious, but I am open to other wild theories, too.

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