August 2006 Archives

Why Am I Going to Myanmar (Burma)?

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I picked up my passport at the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok today, with no problems. In a matter of hours, I will be on my way to Yangon. The whole visa process was really quite simple. If the Burmese government didn't want me to visit their country, they could have easily prevented it. This gives me hope that it will be a smooth trip.

Even though, as I mentioned, I have wanted to visit Myanmar for a long time, I never felt that it was the "right time" to go. Obviously there is a huge debate over whether or not tourists should visit. I did some research, and I have come down on the side of "should".

Why is this? I think it mostly boils down to the fact that I do not think that isolating "bad" countries is the answer. Although this seems to be the US foriegn policy, I don't think it has ever worked. Well, then again, perhaps the recent case of Libya is the only time that putting pressure on a country and on a leader has actually made the leader (appear) to change his heart. But it didn't work in Iraq. And 40 years after JFK, Castro is still in power in Cuba. It doesn't seem to be having any effect in North Korea either. Embargos and boycotts have almost always failed miserably. All they have done is made the people of the country more poor and made life more difficult for them.

So, I am going to Myanmar, not as a show of support for an "undemocratic" government (I use quotes because Myanmar is certainly not the only country in this category) but instead to support the people. And of course there is some selfish motives as well, as it seems like Burma has always had a very rich culture and history. I think it will absolutely fascinating.

But, in the end, I believe that real, sustainable change and progress comes from education, it comes from diversity, it comes from contact with people who are different from you. It does not come from boycotts. At the same time, I am a bit nervous about what I will find there. Wish me luck!

Over the past four years, I have visited most of the countries in Southeast Asia. One big omission from the visited list has been Myanmar. Although it sounds like a very interesting place, it is perhaps one of the most difficult countries to travel independently, for many reasons.

But after talking to a few people and doing some research, I have decided that my next visa run will be to Yangon. Needless to say I am very excited with the prospects.

So I spent this morning at the Myanmar embassy on Sathorn Road in Bangkok securing a visa for my trip. I arrived at the embassy around 9:30 AM, found the forms I am supposed to fill out, and took a number for the queue. They were serving #5 at the time, and I was #23, so I figured the wait wouldn't be too bad. Ten minutes passed and they moved on to #6. Ten minutes later we had moved to #7. Oh boy, I thought, 16 more people means 160 minutes, or almost three hours.

So I left.

After breakfast at Delifrance on Silom and a trip to Asia Books for a newspaper and a magazine, I was back at the visa waiting room, which was now working on #17. It was getting close to the one-hour noon lunch break, and I was sure that we wouldn't get to #23 in time. But they picked up the pace in the last hour and my number was called at 11:50.

I handed over the two forms I had filled out, two photos, and 810 baht (US$20). In return I was given a receipt and told to come back in two days. So all in all it was a fairly easy, painless process, other than the wait. Next time, I will be sure to be waiting at the door when it opens at 9:00 AM.

Here are some pictures of yesterday's trip down the Mae Klong Railway to the amazing railway-track market in Samut Songkram. (Click on any picture for a bigger version.)

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Here I am at the start of the journey at Wong Wien Yai station in Thonburi. Note the light blue shirts being worn in the background. They are commemorating the Queen's Birthday today.

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This river at Mahachai is very close to the Gulf of Thailand, and so there were many fishing boats like this one. I was also trying to take a picture of the birds who were standing on floating plants in the middle of the river.

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A look at the chaos of getting on and off the ferry across the river. And yes, you are allowed to bring your motorcycle on the ferry as well.

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The end of the line at Ban Laem station. The train shown here is waiting to take me to Mae Klong, Samut Songkram province.

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The first stop after Ban Laem station is at this temple, with a huge statute of the Chinese goddess Kuan Yin pouring water out of her vase. Her two acolytes, Long Nu and Shan Tsai, stand in front of her.

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When the train is not using them, the tracks become a foot path between the produce and seafood stalls. Be sure to wash those veggies when you get them home!

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Amazingly enough, these are the tracks that the Mae Klong train uses. When it's time to leave the station, the vendors hold back the overhead tarps to make room for the passing train.

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One of the tiny stations along the way is nothing more than a rain shelter. A dirt road leads from the tracks to the village.

Mae Klong Railway

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"I recommend taking the secret train to no where," my friend Kary confided to me yesterday over lunch on Silom. I guarantee you will be the only farang around. It's a great day trip to get out of the city."

I had heard of the secret train to no where, a.k.a. the Mae Klong Railway, before, but I had never had a chance to ride it. So today, to celebrate Thai Mother's Day, I journeyed from Bangkok to Mae Klong on this historic route.

The secret line starts at a tiny station near the Wong Wien Yai traffic circle in Thonburi, across the river from Bangkok. There are no signs in English, so to find the station one must walk south from the traffic circle and peek down narrow alleyways until the tracks are visable. The open-air train leaves more or less every hour and one hour and 10 baht later, riders will find themselves at the other end of the line in Mahachai, Samut Sakhon province.

But the end of the line is not actually the end. Two hundred meters from the Mahachai train station is a river, which can be crossed on a ferry for 2 baht. On the other side of the river, 500 meters from the pier is another tiny train station, called Ban Laem. The trains leave Ban Laem four times a day and take riders an additional hour through the countryside to Mae Klong, Samut Songkram province. The cost for this trip is 10 baht as well.

To be honest, there's not a whole lot to see on these trips. But feeling the cool breeze blow in through the open train windows as we pass grey-water klong (canals), rice farms, salt marshes, palm tree jungles, tiny villages, and very active temples is worth the trip alone. Many people along the way use these trains to commute to the huge produce and seafood markets at each end, so it was fun just to sit back and watch them interact with each other.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the entire trip is at the very end. The tracks run make a tight squeeze through the middle of a market. The squeeze is so tight, in fact, that as the train approaches, the vendors have to pull back the tarps over their produce so the train can pass. Once the train is in the station, everything goes back to normal and the train tracks are nothing more than a narrow path between stalls.

So that was the gist of my day today -- always on the move as I made my way 70 kilometers west of Bangkok and back. From the start of the journey at Wong Wien Yai train station, my expenses for the all-day trip looked something like:

Train to Mahachai: 10 baht (25 cents)
Ferry across river: 2 baht (5 cents)
Mototaxi to train station: 10 baht (25 cents)
Noodle Soup and Pepsi: 28 baht (75 cents)
Train to Mae Klong: 10 baht (25 cents)

And then basically the same thing back, without the mototaxi, now that I knew where I was going.

Train to Baan Laem: 10 baht (25 cents)
Ferry across the River: 2 baht (5 cents)
Train to Wong Wien Yai: 10 baht (25 cents)

So that's a full-day trip to see "real-life" Thailand outside of Bangkok, for a total of 82 baht, or US$2.10. Now that is a great deal.

I have to admit though, I blew the idea of a cheap get-away out of the water when I had dinner in Mahachai before heading back to Bangkok. Kary also recommended an excellent air-con seafood restaurant at the ferry terminal. My amazingly delicious but relatively-speaking expensive black pepper shrimp set me back a whole 255 baht! (Almost US $7!)

So we'll call it a full-day trip with a great dinner for 10 bucks. Anyone want to join me next time?

Siam Ocean World at Siam Paragon

About a month ago, Piyawat and I visited Siam Ocean World at Siam Paragon. I guess I didn't have time to write about our experience then, so I will do so now and show a few pics of what we saw.

Siam Ocean World is billed as Southeast Asia's largest aquarium, but I have to say that I was a little disappointed with what I saw there. Many of the tanks are completely empty, and many of them are labeled incorrectly. Considering Thailand has such amazing coral reefs just off its coastline, you would think that they could do a better job at displaying the wonders of the ocean here in Bangkok.

But, it was still a worthwhile trip, especially since tickets were half-price the day that we went. There is still something beautiful and peaceful about watching big manta ray glide over your head. And no matter how many times I see a sea-horse or a tank full of undulating jellyfish, I will still find the diversity of marine life fascinating.

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A small seahorse with its
tail wrapped around coral
Piyawat in the tunnel with
stingrays swimming above
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These crabs were hugeBeautiful Starfish from Finding Nemo

Thailand Voice

Every now and then I search for interesting English-language blogs from Thai people, or from expats in Thailand. A lot of my university students have blogs, but they mostly write in Thai language. So for now I don't know if they are gossiping about me or not!

But this week I found a new site called Thailand Voice that claims that it is "Promoting the Best Blogs from Thailand", and right now there are a little over 100 blogs listed on their blogroll page.

The site is run by the famous (at least in the Thai Web World) Richard Barrow, who is also responsible for a huge list of other excellent websites about Thailand and Thai Language. The site is very interactive and you can sort the blogroll by different columns and can vote for your favorite blogs about Thailand. (Hint, hint... haha :)

In any case, Thailand Voice is a great site that deserves a look. If you want to learn more about life in Thailand, Richard's website is a great place to start.

Charlie Brown's Mexican Cantina

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I have complained here many times of the lack of good Mexican (or at least Tex-Mex) restaurants in Thailand. But tonight I had another burrito craving, so I headed to Charlie Brown's Mexican Cantina on Sukhumvit Soi 11.

I had been there once before with my friend Mark, and at the time I gave it an "above average" rating. But that's not saying a whole lot in burrito-free-Bangkok.

But for some reason, tonight, I thought Charlie Brown's was the best place on the planet. Maybe it was because this time I was alone and I had time to admire the old license plates, car bumpers and antique beer can collection on the walls and the shiny hub caps on the ceiling. Or maybe it was the rockin' 80s tunes that were blasting from the excellent sound system. Or maybe it was the warm chips and fresh salsa that appeared on my table as soon as I sat down. Or maybe it was the fact that my burrito came out in five minutes and was delicious.

Or maybe it was that the margarita was... well, shall we say it had quite the kick!

I've mentioned before that I think Senior Pico's restaurant at the Rembrant Hotel is perhaps the best Mexican food in Thailand. And I still recommend it if you are looking for a romantic, upscale night on the town, complete with a groovy authentic Latin band.

But if you are looking for a funky, casual place where you can throw back some beers while listening to Pat Benatar and "Jack and Diane" and eating great Tex-Mex food, Charlie Brown's Cantina is your place.

So, that gives me only two choices for Mexican food in Bangkok, but they are great ones. No more complaining from me!

Sukothai Historical Park

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I have been wanting to visit the ancient city of Sukhothai for a long time, and today I finally had my chance. All in all, I was really glad that I went, but at first the people of Sukhothai gave me a bad impression. Since Sukhothai is a major tourist destination, the people there are much more willing to inflate prices and to take as much money from the tourists as possible. After having very relaxed visits to off-the-beaten-track places like Phitsanulok and Mae Sot, being seen as a walking ATM in Sukhothai came as an unpleasant surprise.

So please allow me to just get this off my chest first. Here are the ways in which I felt like I was being taken advantage of:

* I was the only farang to get out of the minivan at the bus station outside of town, and a songtaew driver insisted on charging 60 baht to take me into town. Compare that to the 10 baht I paid in Mae Sot for a greater distance just a few hours before.

* I wanted to rent a motorcycle. The hotel said that the cost was 300 baht per day. Ok, that's not too bad. But when the motorcycle showed up and the paperwork appeared, it was 300 baht for 6 hours. Not only is that price outrageous, but as I learned in Thai class last week, neung wan mee yi-sip see chuamong. (One day has twenty-four hours.)

* I was going to tour the ruins during the day so I wanted a late check-out. But even if I checked out at 3:00 PM, I would be charged for a full night's stay. As a point of comparison, in Phitsanulok last week I checked out of my hotel at 6:00 PM and was only charged a half-day, which is absolutely reasonable.

So I unfortunately headed to the ruins this morning in somewhat of a funk. But once I got there (12 KM ride for 20 baht, by the way) my stress melted away. I rented a small bicycle for 20 baht for the day and set off for a tour of the ruins.

Comparisons between Sukhothai and Ayutthaya are inevitable. At first glance they are similar: red brick ruins of temples and palaces, with stone Buddha images here and there. But the Sukhothai ruins are 200-300 years older than the ones in Ayutthaya. And the setting in Sukhothai is much more peaceful than in Ayutthaya, for it's away from "New Sukhothai" and is more like a countryside garden than say, a public park in the middle of a city.

So I ended up having a wonderful time biking around and enjoying the peace and quiet and the beauty of the ruins. It's a highly recommended trip. Just watch your wallet when you go!

The border crossing from Mae Sot, Thailand into the small town of Myawaddy, Myanmar went smoothly this morning. In fact, it was the easiest, cheapest, most relaxing Thailand border crossing I have ever done.

First of all, it's a relatively easy trip from Bangkok. You can take the overnight VIP bus to Mae Sot, step over the border when it opens at 6:30 AM, be on the bus to Bangkok at 9:00 AM, and back to good 'ol Krungthep 24 hours after you left.

Another great thing about this border is that there were hardly any foreigners there. (Although now that I am publicizing it here, that might change!) And since there were not many white faces, there also were not hordes of children begging for money as there are at other crossings. Also, the Myanmar "day-pass" only cost 500 baht (US$12), which is much better than the 1200-1500 baht that is charged to get a visa in Laos or Cambodia.

I had time to spare, so I ended up spending a couple of hours in Myawaddy, walking around and checking out the sites. At one point a twenty-something year old Burmese boy walked up to me and started chatting. His English wasn't very good, so when he ran out of things to say, he called his friend. Soon, I had two Burmese guys following me and chatting me up.

They seemed intent on showing me around the town, but they weren't pushy about it at all. In fact, if they had been, I would have told them to get lost (in a nice way, of course). But they were very nice, and besides, I figured it would be good to get the local perspective.

They took me to the village market where all kinds of clothes, household goods, and vegetables were for sale. Then the boys took me to the main temple in town, which was actually quite impressive. It was still raining at this point, so even though they wanted to show me a few other things, I decided to head back to the border.

On the way back, though, we stopped in a small cafe for a taste of Myanmar beer. And yes, even though it was 8:30 AM at this point, the beer really hit the spot. After all, I had pretty much been awake all night on the over night bus! It took me a bit of negotiating to convince the boys to drink one with me, but eventually they agreed. (Does that make me a bad person?) The beer wasn't terrible, but it definitely wasn't one of my favorites. But considering the three draft beers cost us a total of 50 baht (US$1.25), I can't really complain.

After crossing the bridge over the Moei River back into Thailand, getting the right stamps, and taking a 10-baht songtaew to downtown Mae Sot, I was in a minivan to the famous tourist town of Sukothai. The 4 hour drive through the mountains of Tak was very beautiful. The air was cool and foggy as we passed through various hilltribe villages and highway-stand markets. I'd like to make it back this way to explore more someday.

But for now I am in Sukothai, which some call the "first capital of Thailand". My plan is to stay in here tonight, checking out the historic ruins tomorrow morning, and then back to Bangkok tomorrow night.

Visa Run to Mae Sot, Tak Province

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I left Bangkok on another visa run last night around 9:30 PM, on an overnight bus to Mae Sot, Tak Province on Thailand's western border with Burma. Even though I was on the VIP bus with plenty of legroom, I was unable to sleep much. I couldn't of gotten more than four hours of fitful sleep when we were awoken at 4:30 AM at a Thai police checkout where everyone had to show either their passport, their Thai ID card, or their Thai visitation papers (for the Burmese). A few unlucky souls apparently didn't have the right paperwork, and they and their luggage were promptly removed from the bus. I guess the police decided that this farang didn't pose a threat to national security for now, so I was allowed to continue on my journey.

We pulled into the tiny Mae Sot bus station around 5:00 AM. I was prepared for the usual tout onslaught, but it surprisingly wasn't terribly fierce. When I was offered an 80-baht (US$2) motorcycle taxi ride to the Burmese border 10 KM away, I didn't even try to bargain. After all, it was cheaper than the going rate in Bangkok.

As we walked to the motorcycle, I realized that it was raining slightly, and the mountain air was much cooler than steamy Bangkok. The female motorcycle driver handed me a helmet and poncho and we were off. The roads were completely empty, so my driver drove at an impressive clip. Her helmet had a face visor, while mine did not, so she was probably unaware that I rode most of the way with my eyes closed to keep out the stinging rain drops. Needless to say it was one of the coldest motorcycle rides I've ever had. At one point, I thought to myself that it could have been snowing out and I wouldn't have been colder. But of course that's a silly idea, and besides, why on earth was I complaining about being cool in Thailand?

The bridge over the Moei River into Burma doesn't open until 6:30 AM, so the motorcycle lady was kind enough to drop me off at the only open restaurant in town. And by open I mean that the lights are on and the Burmese staff is preparing the food for the day, but I am the only customer. In fact, it looks like the staff and I are the only ones awake for miles around. But in spite of the early hour, the staff is busy around me. Huge billows of smoke come from coal that was just lit in front of the restaurant. A young girl fishes hard boiled eggs out of a large pot. A Burmese boy in a light blue yongi (sarong) mops the floor.

The restaurant is in a typical open-air Chinese shophouse, with a noodle soup and stir-fry station out front by the road. The chairs are the common red plastic ones, but the tables are solid wood. I'm sure that means that this restaurant is high-class for this part of the country. Along one long wall is a glass case full of ceramic figurines for sale: Chinese gods, Chinese boys sitting on dragons, Chinese girls holding huge fish, and wise old Chinese men. And then, right in the middle, looking very out of place, are a few figurines that make up a Norman Rockwell-esque schoolhouse scene and a couple of spitting images of the Sun Maid raisin girl with a handful of grapes.

Finally, my kai jiaw muu sap (egg omelet with ground pork) arrives. And so I sit and eat and watch the flurry of activity around me, and I wait for the sun to rise and the border to open so that I can complete my monthly duty.

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This page is an archive of entries from August 2006 listed from newest to oldest.

July 2006 is the previous archive.

September 2006 is the next archive.

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