Sunday, January 27, 2013

Yangon, Myanmar

Tim:  We arrived in Yangon at 8 AM after two flights, one from Bali to Kuala Lumpur then another on to Yangon. We had some difficulty trying to get a visa for Myanmar and eventually settled on a pre-arranged visa on arrival that required us to spend an additional 50 USD each to get. As promised a tour agent met us at the visa on arrival desk and helped us with the paperwork. We had our visas within 10 minutes.

We got in a cab for the 20 km ride into the city. It cost us a little less than 10 USD. We had booked our first night stay at the Eden Palace Hotel in the North of the city. We were exhausted by our travels that included a middle of the night layover in Kuala Lumpur and we immediately took a nap once we arrived.
Our friend Justin and his girlfriend Ciara arrived just a few hours after us from Bangkok. We met in the lobby at 1:30 PM and took a cab into the middle of the city into the Chinatown area. We were all hungry and we found a street side restaurant that served seafood and Myanmar draft beer. We spent several hours here before we moved to a roof top bar that was recommended by our Lonely Planet guide book.

We enjoyed a few more beers and played a few card games. The roof top bar, Zero Bar, put on a Burmese fashion show. I guess that is what you would call it. There were about 10 ladies that first took turns singing karaoke songs. Some of the ladies were not so good at karaoke. Then they began a cat walk show that was choreographed to have several women walk from the line up at the same time. After a song was over, all of the ladies would go in the back and change dresses before continuing a similar presentation for the next song. The choreographing was very different as none of the ladies danced. They would just strut to the front of the cat walk then return to the lineup. At first maybe the two ladies on the outside would walk to the front, then two from the inside, etc… Between the four of us we decided that this was the Burmese version of a dinner entertainment variety show. Everything was good until all of the ladies left the stage and a lone female midget came to the stage in a tube top like dress and did a sexy dance on a pole near the front of the stage. At this point we were quite confused as the whole evening had been quite conservative with the women singing karaoke, changing dresses, and walking down the cat walk. Then came the sexy dancing midget on a pole. I think we are all confused about they show.

At 9:30 PM we were all ready for bed. We took the elevator back to the ground floor to find a taxi to take us back to our hotel. We did not bring a business card, and all we knew was the name of our hotel. Turns out our hotel is not very well known. The first cab did not understand anything we were saying. A second cab after some discussion and talking to bystanders on the side of the road, said he knew where our hotel was. Turns out he did not. The taxi driver took us to several other hotels only to have us tell him that it was the wrong hotel. Eventually, we went in search of wifi so that I could pull up the address from my iphone. The random hotel we stopped at let us use there wifi but it was incredibly slow. The hotel clerk was able to find the address in a phone book before I could pull it up on my phone. The same taxi driver finally got us to our hotel almost an hour later. The cost was the same for us, because all of the taxis work on a pre-agreed amount.

The next day we had the complimentary breakfast at our hotel which was actually quite good. Next we got in a cab and went in search of a more reasonably priced hotel. After looking at three options and not being satisfied, Amber and Ciara sat with our backpacks at a street side tea shop while Justin and I walked around looking for more hotels. We settled on the first place we had looked at. The price was 20 USD per night for a double room with a shared bathroom. Our version of the guide book was published only about one year ago, but the prices listed for hotels seemed to be very out of date. Tourism is increasing significantly every year here. In 2011 there were only about 300,000 tourist visitors where 2011 brought 500,000 and 2012 was set to have even more. This has led to a shortage of hotels and increased prices. We found that within just one year hotel prices had jumped on average 75 percent from what our guide book stated.

We decided to visit the Shawdagon Pagoda, Yangon’s number one attraction at sunset and stay until it got dark. The site was beautiful and is the most important Buddhist pilgrimage site in all of Myanmar. It is a beautifully gold gilded stupa standing more than 300 feet tall on a small hill. At night the Shawdagon gleams brilliantly. Apparently, the stupa is covered in actual gold. A royal queen had donated her weight in gold, and not to be outdone her son donated twice his weight and the weight of his wife’s in gold. We spent two hours at the pagoda. At times we just found a place to sit an gaze at the beauty of it.

On another day in Yangon, we followed a walking tour that was recommended in our guide book. This included another golden stupa that stands in the in the heart of the city in the middle of a roundabout. It is from this point that the British had based their gridded streets from so the citing has the standard 1st through 56th streets. During our tour we stopped in for an Indian style strawberry lassie (yogurt shake). It was very different from any lassie that I had had before. The yogurt was very firm almost like a soft cheese, and the drink was quite chunky. Although the texture was different it tasted good. For dinner we ate an Southern Indian restaurant that only served biryani. I have never liked biryani that much the few times I have had it, but the biryani here was the best I had ever had. It was served with mouth watery chicken that fell of the bone. We like this place so much that we came back twice during out three day stay in Yangon.  

We tried uploading photos, but the internet connection is too slow for it. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Bali, Indonesia, Round Two

Amber:  The trip from Sengiggi Beach, Lombok, to Neusa Dua, Bali, cost Tim and I $15.00 each.  As we took this cheap option, as opposed to the far more expensive $45 for the fast boat, we had a lovely boat ride on the local car ferry.  We took three different mini bus shuttles to get to the ferry port from Sengiggi Beach.  My bag at one point was strapped to the top of the van by a piece of string, which tied around the entire top of the car through the vehicles open passenger windows.  Despite the shuttle from Senggigi to the ferry, we arrived early. We boarded the big, rusty boat that had a very strong smell of diesel fuel. We went in search of seating on the upper passenger deck.  The boat looked very crowded as far as available deck space, so when we were offered a crew crew room for $5.00, we accepted.  It was a hot day, but inside the tiny room was hotter.  I could tell it was going to be a long ride.  We had been quoted four to six hours.  Love how precise things can be in Indonesia! 

After the long bus shuttle, I needed to use the restroom.  It had to have been over 100' in the bathroom.  The three stalls were occupied.  For a long time.  When one finally became available, I was drenched in sweat.  And the restrooms were squatter style.  Perfect.  I could just imagine how wonderful it was going to be while we crossed the sea in the rolling swell.  I returned to the room to find Tim sprawled out on the floor on a tiny mattress, catching as much air as he could from the weakly spinning fan.  We finally were underway at about twelve thirty.  We went out to scope out the landscape as it slowly went by, but returned to our room quickly as there was no lock for our door.  A woman was crouched outside in the hallway.  Tim later went to the restroom and found a pile of vomit where she had been crouched. 

We arrived at Padang Bai, Bali in just under four hours.  We didn't get to the dock, however, until almost six hours as there seemed to be more ferry's in a que to unload than there was dock space.  So, our boat just sat in idle for two hours waiting its turn.  None of the locals seemed the least bit concerned.  It appears this is fairly common.  Once it was our turn, we unloaded and were herded to our shuttle into Kuta.  Once we arrived, it was dark and sprinkling.  As the cab ride to Nusa Dua was about eight dollars, one way, Tim and I decided we should just rent a motor scooter for our whole time in Nusa Dua, giving us more freedom.  After dinner at a little back alley restaurant, we booked a scooter for $4.50 a day.  We shoved my bag in front of Tim on the bike, and loaded his bag up with our two small back packs (holding our computers, cameras, etc), tightened that onto me, and we were off.  Me clinging to Tim. 

Bali is so relaxing!  We enjoyed our pool, the beach and riding our motor scooter into Kuta.  One day we drove to Tanah Lot, a beautiful Buddhist temple on the West cost of Bali.  It was a beautiful, hot sunny day and it was fun to wade through the surf to the little island temple.

 We finally got to try some muscat coffee on one of our last days on Indonesia.  It was tasty, but neither of us would say it was the best coffee we had ever tasted.  There was a little coffee stand, complete with three muscats, at the temple, and it was going for $2.50 a glass.  We heard that it went for over $20 a cup, so were happy to have the 'discounted' price.  Probably was also the 'discounted' coffee, not 100% muscat digested, but it was a fun little place and now we've had poop coffee.

Senggigi Beach, Lombok

Amber:  We joined Gunther, the seedy owner of our guest house, a young, rather unkempt  Russian woman (that he hit on constantly, to no avail), and a few of his local employees on the local boat from Gili T over to Lombok.  The boat was long and narrow and very full.  As we boarded, Gunther suggested we sit on the bow.It was a bit windy, so there was some chop, but the sun was shining and it looked better up there than in the hot, stuffy, cramped cabin.  The boat ride was nice, we followed the three Gili's in to shore, getting only a little wet from the spray.  The Russian woman sprawled out up on the cabin roof and I was afraid she would roll off the top, but she managed to stay put.  As it turns out, she had been on Gili T for seven months on a previous trip, and had just returned and had been there for a month more with no definite plans for leaving.  From what we could tell, that had been eight months of doing drugs, sitting on her porch, and watching movies.  It seemed a little like a waste of eight months. 
We arrived at the Senggigi Beach Sheraton after accepting a ride from Gunther and co, for a small fee.  It ended up costing us $7 for the both of us to get from Gili T to our hotel, not a bad price!  The Sheraton was one of the original 5 star hotels in Senggigi Beach, so, while it was nice, it was a little more run down than some of our other 5 star hotels we've stayed at so far.  I think we will have stayed 22 free nights at 5 star hotels, this trip alone, all thanks to Tim's credit card point scheming.  It was still pretty darn posh, and did have a beautiful pool that was a stones throw away from the ocean.  No complaints. 
One of our friends, Rico, has spent a lot of time in Indonesia.  His friend, Reny, met up with us with her (new) boyfriend for some drinks and sushi at Happy Bar, the local hot spot for live music.  It was a fun little restaurant, the cover band was good, and the sushi was enjoyable.  We actually went back a second night and ate the sushi again.  It was fun to hear stories about Rico from Reny. 
Our stay at Senggigi Beach was very mellow.  We enjoyed our pool and beach time, listened to Pimsleur Spanish, worked out every morning at the gym, and went for a walk through the small beach town.  We rented a motor scooter to visit a water fall.  Air Terjun Tiu Pupas was about an hour away by motor scooter.  We rented the bike for $5.00 and headed north.  We had to pull over on the side of the road to apply sun screen as the haze had burned off and the sun was really hot.  We are just south of the Equator, after all.   We got some great views of the Gili's as we drove along the coast.  It was fun to be back on a bike.  We only rented one to save on gas money and on the actual rental.  So, we saved at least seven dollars!  Aside from two small mud slides that we had to slow down to maneuver over, the roads are very nice on Lombok.  They wind up and over hills, giving great views of the beaches and palm tree covered valleys. 

We were lead/herded by a bunch of local children up to the waterfall.  They were really cute, about six to eight years old, but it was just a short walk through the jungle, so their 'assistance' wasn't needed.  They had branched off from a much larger group of children that were following four Western tourists when we arrived, and chattered around us as we made our way up the valley.  The waterfall was pretty, but a little muddy.  It is about 30 m high, and runs only in the wet season.  It was nice and cool in the valley.  When we were done taking a few photos, we were approached by a man, telling us we needed to sign a guest book and pay a donation.  Pretty certain it padded the insides of his pocket, Tim gave him the equivalent of a dollar and we returned to our scooter.  The kids followed us back to where the bike was parked, and the demands of "give me money" started.  Tim asked them "why should I give you money?"  He finally gave them a small bill, about .20, and we were on our way. 

As Tim and I had been in Indonesia for almost a month, we decided it was time for a little spa love.  We walked into Sengiggi Beach and found a place that did haircuts for $3 and pedicures for about $4.50.  What a steel!  And they had two lady's available, so we were good to go.  As my feet got scrubbed on, I noticed Tim's face had gone stoic.  He wasn't talking.  He finally said something when his hair dresser spun him around to inspect his haircut.  A large amount of Tim's black hair was in a pile around his chair.  His head, however, looked like something had gone terribly wrong.  He tried to point at places that she had missed.  He had a huge chunk missing right in front, but then his sides were really long, and she had tried combing the longer pieces over the missing chunk.  It looked awful!  He told her she had to do more.  I did my best not to laugh.  I failed miserably.  Finally, he gave up and told her she had to stop.  It was just getting worse.  We payed for a not so great pedicure, and an even worse haircut and marched home.  I tried to help cut Tim's hair, but his Mom was a hairdresser at one point, so he is used to professional assistance when it comes to hair cuts.  Even at home!  He took over, and after another hour, his hair looked... acceptable. But 100 times better than what she had done.

Gili Trawanagan Part 2: New Year's

Tim:  The time just flies in Gil Trawanagan. Of anywhere we have ventured to this trip over 12 different countries, we stayed the longest in Gili T (8 days). Gili T is a big destination for New Year's as the island has a reputation as a party destination.

It was interesting to watch the number of foreigners in Gili T significantly increase as New Year's Eve approached. For the first three days at our bungalow, 1 of 9 bungalows at this property, we were the only customers. It wasn't until the 29th that we saw the bungalows start to fill up. We were getting a good deal at $20 USD per night and we were happy to stay here until January 2nd when we planned to leave for Lombok. We were notified the morning of the 30th that all of the bungalows were reserved for New Year's Eve and that we would have to move out the next morning by 10:00 am. This came to us as a shock as even then all of the bungalows were not full.

We spent the afternoon walking around looking for a new place to stay for the following evening. Everywhere was completely full. Of the forty or so places we checked, two said they possibly had a room for the following evening, but the price was $40 - 85 USD per night. We walked around for more than an hour and decided that we would just have to try again in the morning after we checked out.

We did find a place eventually. We stayed at a home-stay for $35 USD per night. The home-stay had just seven rooms. It seemed to be a close crowd with most of the guests sitting outside on the small porches. Next to us was an older hippie couple from the San Juan Islands who were smoking marijuana from a 1.5L plastic water bottle. Turns out the long term guests across the way for us were local drug dealers. We watched them prepare marijuana joints in preparation for the evening's celebrations. The owner of the guest house was a middle aged Austrian man who had spent much of his life in Australia. He was partying with most of the guests. Apparently it was the Indonesian manager's birthday and we offered cups of Sangria when we returned from the beach.

In another one of the rooms were two ladies in there mid to late 20s. One was from Russia and one was from Germany. The Russian girl appeared to be very sick when we first arrived as she was crying about a sore throat even as she continued to smoke cigarettes. We had a very interesting crowd, but everyone was in good spirits and we enjoyed ourselves.

For New Year's Eve, Amber and I walked out to the main road along the beach on the east coast of the small island. We ate dinner at the night market again. We topped off our fried noodles with chicken and egg and spring rolls with a chocolate pancake.

We drank a few Bintang beers, and sat on the beach to watch the surf in the moonlight. For New Year's many locals come over to Gili Trawanagan from the neighboring Lombok. By midnight they number of locals had increased 10 fold from the day before. Where there are often more foreigners than locals on the small island, now there were significantly more locals. Most just come over on a boat for the night and do not have a place to sleep. Many of the locals just sleep directly on the beach or wherever they can find a place. We saw one family of six with four young children just sitting on a straw match four meters from the main road. It was interesting to see all of the locals who brought their children to the party. And it was a party! There were likely more than 10,000 people along the main stretch of road that usually is host to not more than 500 people.

At midnight we saw many amazing fireworks shows. Many of the bars and restaurants along the beach purchase a pallet of fireworks. These are similar to the smaller fireworks that we can by in the USA that have a bunch of cardboard pipes and shoot off fireworks one after the other. These pallets were covered in more than 100 mortars. You only had to light it once and then a firework display would go off for several minutes. Amber and I were sitting so close on one occasion that we were covered with firework ash as they exploded above our heads. Once that display was over we just had to walk down the beach a few hundred meters to another great firework display. From the beach we could see Gili Air and Gili Meno Islands close by with Lombok off in the distance. Everywhere we looked we could see fireworks going off. It was a really awesome experience and our New Year's was one of the most memorable we have ever had.

We are in Myanmar now, and the internet connection is usually very very slow, so adding pictures is difficult.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Gili Trawanagan: Part 1

Tim:  After our rather unpleasant travel experience across Java, we were ready for relaxation and beach time. We took a fast boat from the island of Bali to the very small island of Gili Trawanagan off the coast of Lombok. Gili T as it is called is one of three very small islands in close proximity to eachother. Gili T is the largest of the three islands and has the most tourist infrastructure. The boat journey took about two hours, and smelled of diesel fuel inside the enclosed cabin.

We had booked a place to stay in Gili T because we had heard rumors that the island is totally booked approaching New Year's eve. We arrived to find that the place that we had book for 37 USD per night was full and they had not honored the online reservation. We were not too disappointed as we had already been offered rooms at a much cheaper price. After 45 minutes of walking around in the heat, we settled on a newly constructed bungalow away from the beach for 20 USD per night with an outdoor bathroom and breakfast included.

Our first full day in Gili T we booked a snorkeling tour. It only cost 11 USD per person for the boat which made visited four different sights and included lunch. The first snorkeling spot we saw a medium sized sea turtle and many beautiful fish and coral. The snorkeling and diving in Gili T is amazing. We enjoyed a full day of snorkeling and liked it so much that we booked another snorkeling tour with the same company later on during our stay. We saw many more sea turtles, a shark, a giant puffer fish, smaller puffer fish, a lion fish, and a host of other tropical fish.

We went for a walk around the entire island. It took us about two hours following the beach most of the way. We also went for a couple of jogs as well. The jog took about 45 minutes. The eastern side of the island is the most populated with most of the hotels and restaurants. The other sides of the island have a few hotels scattered around.

Towards the Northwest end of the island, there is a good surfing spot. We went and watched the mostly local crowd catch the waves.

On our third day we signed up for a single dive. The price for diving is fixed on the island between all of the dive companies. 37 USD per dive. The weather was quite windy when we went out. The boat driver did not want to drive out to the sight we were scheduled to visit, but after the other two divers on our boat insisted, we ventured out further to Shark Point. Shark Point is the most popular dive sight of the Gili Islands. Obviously, because you have the best chance of spotting reef sharks.

We had to back roll off of the side of the boat. Most of the local boats have outriggers to help with stability in rough weather. The outriggers were only six feet or so from the side of the boat. In the rough weather getting hit in the head by the outrigger once you popped up after the initial back roll into the water was a serious concern. We managed to all enter the water safely. There were a total of five of us that dove at Shark Point: two Australians, our Swedish dive leader, and the two of us.

We had an awesome dive. There was a possibility that the current was going to be very strong. It turned out to be very nice. The current pulled us along slowly and we did not really even need to kick to move along. We saw three sharks, more sea turtles than I can remember to count, giant groupers, sea snakes, puffer fish, and swarms of other beautiful fish.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Nusa Dua, Bali and on to Gili T

Amber:  After our two days of pretty much non stop bus travel, we arrived at the Courtyard Marriott in Nusa Dua, the rich people haven of Southern Bali.  The taxi ride from Kuta towards Nusa Dua became more and more sterile; huge resorts, surrounded by beautiful tropical trees, manicured lawns and swimming pools replaced the budget lodging, street food and bustle.  We felt a tiny bit silly, having dropped Mel and Kyle, our fellow travelers, in the shabby yet lively budget region of Kuta, only to proceed to a portion of Bali that normally would be way out of our price range.  But, being as we were staying there on points, thus, completely for free, we were happy to take advantage of the clean sheets, huge king sized bed, air con, and hot water shower (and bath!!).  It was about six am when we were finally settled into our room.  It was heaven to take a hot shower and crawl into bed.
We woke up mid afternoon and went down to our pool and enjoyed the last of the sun.  Food and beverage were not provided as part of our free stay, and being as breakfast started at $20 each, we assumed dinner would run a little steeper.  We opted to take a taxi back into Kuta in search of more reasonably priced food.  The taxi driver warned us that as it was the holiday season, traffic would be horrible and he would do his best to get us as close to the center of town, but we would be better off to walk once we reached the outskirts.  After an hour in the taxi, we were happy to hop out and carry on, on foot, into Kuta.  We found some dinner, walked through the many shops that line Kuta's streets, and made our way to the ocean.  Finally, after being in Indonesia for over a week, we found the ocean.  It was so nice to be able to walk along the beach, barefoot, and enjoy the surf and sand. 
After walking along the beach for about an hour or so, we decided to head back to our hotel.  We stopped in a IndoMart and grabbed several packages of Cup O Noodles and bottles of water before haling a cab.  The traffic had thinned considerably, and we made it home in a fraction of the time it took us to go into Kuta. 
The next morning, we woke up, had some Cup O Noodles and coffee for breakfast, compliments of our electric tea pot provided in our room, and took the hotel shuttle to our private hotel beach.  We received huge, fluffy beach towels upon the arrival of 'our' beach, and were escorted to beach chairs.  It appeared we were the only Marriott guests ambitious enough to venture away from the hotel pool and find the beach as we had our pick of beach chairs.  After applying sunscreen, we settled in for a very rough day of watching the locals surf, sun bathing, listening to some Pimsleur Spanish, and swimming.  I may have forgotten to turn over a few times, as Tim decided it was time to go when we realized my front may have not gotten enough sun screen and perhaps too much sun.  We enjoyed more noodles for dinner (we are so cheap!), and listened to a local high school choir sing Christmas carols.  It was, after all, Christmas Eve in Bali. 

Christmas day we woke up and took off for Gili Trawagan.  After doing research for hours the night before, we had finally booked a room via Kayak and gotten a package tour from Kuta direct to the tiny island paradise. We had read on line that Gili T was completely booked up for the holidays, so we were thankful to find a place for $37 a night.  We had heard amazing things about the Gili's, a group of three tiny islands that were car and motor scooter free.  It sounded perfect for us, and with the promise of beautiful beaches, wonderful diving, snorkeling and surfing, complete with a fun bar scene, it sounded like a perfect place for the two of us to enjoy our holidays.  The bus ride north was painless, and our fast boat across from Bali to Gili T was under two hours.  The cabin reeked of gas, and when the passengers complained about it, the crew went around and sprayed air freshener!  Interesting.  Once we started moving, the fumes cleared out a bit, and we saw porpoises, flying fish and far off whale spouts on our way.
So far in our travels, Koh Tao, Thailand has been pretty much my favorite spot. I wish all my family and friends could see it there!  With me, of course.  Well, Gili T definitely gave it a run for it's money!!  When we arrived on Gili T, there was no dock in sight.  The boat simply nosed its bow up to the beach, and passengers and luggage were unloaded.  We took off our flip flops and waded through the turquoise water up the sandy beach.  It was beautiful!