Sunday, 31 August 2014

Myanmar - Just WOW! Part 1

With the prospect of starting my Post-Grad and the looming knee operation coming, my plan to head back to the UK was scuppered. My buddy Max mentioned he wanted to go to Burma. Well now, cheap flight there through Bangkok and the seed had been sown. Decision made Burma here we come.

First up research....Myanmar has only opened it's borders to us lot for about 3-4 years. There are bits and bobs out there but really only about the general here is my contribution.

First up, there was so much bullshit on the internet about how expensive it is. We over-budgeted and for the first time in a long time I came back to Korea with money still swooshing around my bag.  Yeee-hhaww.
The Myanmar currency is called Kyat (Chat). approx 1000Ky = $1).

Here's what we did

Tourists being tourists

Day 1-3: Yangon.

Our AirAsia flight from Bangkok had us land around 5pm. A small international airport, getting through immigration was easy. We only had carry on so with our bags on our backs we head to the currency exchange at the airport. Normally you don't get a great rate at the airport, but all the research suggests this is your best bet. You get the best rate on 50-100 new, crisp bills. You gotta be careful cause banks won't take older bills, especially if they are ripped. With a mix of a fat stack of Kyats and some crisp Benjamins we head out. Well, we walk three steps to an information booth. A lovely, polite young woman, full of smiles and with a great understanding of English informs us we can get a taxi for K8000 or K9000 if we want aircon. $3 each...quids in, that's fine, let's roll.

I had expected Yangon to be a little like Bangkok. Busy streets, high buildings everywhere, the hustle and bustle you kind of expect to find in a South-Eastern major city. Nope! Driving through from the airport, with an extremely helpful, informative and polite cabbie, you really don't get a sense of that organised chaos in Bangkok. You drive through and see a real mix of old colonial Burma and the new Myanmar that is up and coming.

Not really sure what to expect, I had booked a hostel (Sleep Inn) for the first night for the three of us. Nestled in China Town on 9th Street, it's a simple place with everything you need from a hostel. At $10 a night we were more than content, and we found ourselves in a room with two bunk beds. Clean and comfortable beds with a shared bathroom just down the corridor, again our expectations were exceeded.

First things On the corner of 9th street is what you'd describe as a meet up cafe. I always say that a busy restaurant is one you should check out. Hankering for some local food (courtesy of Anthony Bourdaine's hints and tips) we order some sweet tea and mohinga. Simple tables with red plastic chairs and a small menu (written partially in English) we order. The atmosphere of the place is all go. The adolescent staff shouting orders back to the 'kitchen', who are all cooking and making tea. We don't wait long for our first sample of what will be the start of our excellent culinary adventure around Myanmar. Time to pay....there weren't any prices on the menus so we were a touch worried. K2500. K7500 total for the three of us. Errr no, K2500 total. $2.50....for three meals. Who said this place was expensive.

We spent the most of our days walking around Yangon. The weather was fairly good to us. The overcast conditions kept the furnace like sun off the back of our necks and the sporadic rain kept the temperature to comfortable walking conditions. With no motorbikes/scooters allowed in Yangon you feel more at ease crossing the streets compared with Vietnam and Thailand. You just need to avoid the big muddy puddles and the old fellas spitting out their blood red beetlenut juices. The simple grid/block system allows you to navigate easily, and meander around the city taking in all their beautiful colonial buildings. 

Sule Pagoda

There is almost a 'postcard' picture everywhere you look. We hit up markets, India Town, some pagodas and the lakes. 

The highlight is the main pagoda, Shwedagon. It's as fabulous as it looks in a picture, but you don't get the sheer size of it. You need to make sure you have shorts/pants teh at least cover your knees. Singlets are frowned upon and you have to walk around barefoot. No socks. As a sight, people recommend to go at sunset. They whack the lights on and it imposes itself on the skyline. We went during the day (due to a slight miscommunication and some bad advice regarding the circle train) and although there are other people around it didn't feel too busy. As you walk around you can see where they have set up a staggering amount of LED lights around the majority of the shrines. One would almost go so far as to say they had gone OTT. Nevertheless, it's astonishing to think how this was created so long ago in such meticulous detail. A real highlight.

If you didn't want to go round Shwedagon in the evening then I'd recommend heading to the nearby lake in the evening. K2000 to get in you (damned white tax) but you get a cracking view, and it's a nice walk too. Head a little further (and another K300) you can sit down with a beer, get some sushi if you want and wait for sunset. Await to be dazzled when the pagoda lights go on.

View of Shwedagon from the Lake.
Really worth a look in the evening.

19th Street BBQ

Now food. We spent every evening on 19th street. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. A street completely dedicated to small restaurants that bbq street food and serve beer. Simple and delicious. We certainly enjoyed a few Myanmar Beers (order draught beer...much cheaper at K600 a glass compared to the K1500 for a big bottle) and you are looking to spend about between K6000-K8000 per person. Our favourite spot was about 7 restaurants down on the left hand side opposite the Green Dragon. Excellent choices, but it doesn't really look like you can go wrong.

Mohinga....mmmm gooooood

Thank you off to Mandalay.

Day 4: Overnight bus Yangon - Mandalay

We grab a K9000 taxi to the bus station having pre-booked our VIP bus to Mandalay for K18,500. 830pm bus and about a 9 hour bus trip on what can only be described as the most amazing bus I've ever been on. Seats to rival business class and for those of you who have been on a Korean intercity bus will know how comfy these buses are....Now add in seatback tv's and comfy headphones, a snack box, water and a bus attendant. Great fun. They had the Rambo quadology (if that's a real word) on which made me chuckle.


 Day 5-6: Mandalay.

We go into Mandalay (Myanmar's second biggest city) aware of their civil unrest they have been having. Fighting between Muslims and Buddhists had meant a curfew of 10pm had been put into place. Subsequently this has been lifted.

What to do in Mandalay? Well, in Mandalay not a huge amount. There's the palace, which is nestled in the middle of the city and is surrounded by a moat. Quite impressive from the outside. After trying to get into it from two entrances and being rejected by signs saying "Foreigners not allowed to use this entrance!" we called it off for the morning cause the sun was starting to bake down on us and we were pretty knackered from the bus journey.  Apparently, us foreigners can only use one entrance. But further reading about it we decided that the K10, 000 entrance fee wasn't worth it. Chatting to people and reading reviews of the palace turned us off the idea.

A spot of lunch and time to go and explore the city. Scooters are allowed in Mandalay, so there was a little more of that hustle you get in Bnagkok, but the grid system still makes it easy to get around. We checked out some markets and attempted to head to the lake but the 40 degree heat put us off this also. I really wanted to check out the night market, but I believe the curfew put an end to this cause it wasn't there. Oops. Another delicious bite to eat and a quick stock up of some local rum, snacks and we head to the roof of the hostel. The next few hour are a touch blurry.....thanks Mandalay Rum :)

 Taxi service.

I was impressed with Mandalay Hill. At the top of this 240m hill lies a monastery and better than that some pretty spectacular views of the area. Now, you can walk up it.....those of you who know me know how I feel about stairs....but our cabbie advised us to take the shuttle up to the top and walk down. Smart fella. He also waited for us at the bottom of the hill to take us wherever we wanted. The shuttle is a pick-up that holds about 10 people and costs a mere K1000. All was going swimmingly until we here a loud bang and a violent stop that could only suggest a flat. After being blamed for it for being a fatty we have to walk the rest of the way. Fortunately we were almost at the top.

I was impressed with Mandalay Hill. At the top of this 240m hill lies a monastery and better than that some pretty spectacular views of the area. Now, you can walk up it.....those of you who know me know how I feel about stairs....but our cabbie advised us to take the shuttle up to the top and walk down. Smart fella. He also waited for us at the bottom of the hill to take us wherever we wanted. The shuttle is a pick-up that holds about 10 people and costs a mere K1000. All was going swimmingly until we here a loud bang and a violent stop that could only suggest a flat. After being blamed for it for being a fatty we have to walk the rest of the way. Fortunately we were almost at the top.

Mandalay Hill would be an epic place for some kind of horror movie. It's stunning as a place. And the main areas you go to offer breathtaking views and some real fine architecture and attention to detail. You have to pay a foreigner camera fee when you get to the main shrine with the panoramic views. K5000 I believe. For some reason no one asked me for any money so I managed to avoid this tax.

But what we discovered on our walk down was bizarre. Firstly, I would have to guess that there were thousands and thousands of stairs. So thank Buddha we didn't walk up. As you walk down there are shrines all along the way. Some are enormous....and completely empty. Some are miniature....and jam packed with people. Some look like they're in some kind of concrete warehouse packed with plastic chairs and there are some basic shrines made out of wood and look fairly rickety.  There are people splashed all along the stairs, some having a nap, some having a chat and some trying to sell you stuff. .But it always begged the question of why? why are you here? just having a chat up about 1500 stairs.  How did you get your scooter up here?

The final result is that Mandalay Hill is really worth a look. Onto Bagan though and this is what I was really looking forward to coming to Myanmar. Very excited.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

So many things that I can do in a day.

Last day of Semester.

Today is the last day of term and even though we had to do a 'curriculum' based lesson. I decided to bring in my little uke and bust out a new song. 

I'd love to say I wrote the song but I found it off, which is every Korean public school teachers lifeline for resources, materials and lesson plans. I changed it a little here and there, but I have to thank thejohnnyteacher. It was good fun.

This is my current favourite 5th grade class. They are by far the best class when it comes to singing anything.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Summer is coming.....

Summer is well and truly on it's way to Korea. What better way than to spend a long weekend than a camping trip with your buddies. Children's Day and Buddha's birthday fell on a Monday and Tuesday receptively, allowing us a solid 4 day break away from snotty, yucky, over bearing, wonderful little kids. I love them but a long break away is always nice....and in theory you get to recharge your batteries. 

With the organisational integrity of the French military we got ourselves together to just about get the bus down to Busan....(cause all the trains had sold out). A cheeky meet and greet involving a couple of beers, we spend one night in a traditional love motel....3 to a bed. The lucky trio was myself Dan and Tim. Koreans are pretty small, generally speaking, but us three managed to fit nicely in this huge bed.

My tent is that teeny weeny green one in the middle of the photo. Found it on a website and it was pretty cheap. It said it  would fit 2-3 people. hmmmm...2-3 Korean people. I was supposed to be in there with my two love motel buddies. Fortunately, Tim could stay somewhere else. I was stuck with little Dan. Who is chasing the frisbee in the photo below. We just about fit...but my head and feet were almost busting through the walls. This is by far a One Chubb tent.

My efforts to kick Dan out on the second night were thwarted by the fact he snuck in there whilst I was away. This little munchkin of a kid snores worse than a 70 year old fat man that had been smoking for 60 years with a bad cold. He woke up with some black eyes.

Up early and our destination is a little island down at the south of Korea called Namhae. A beautiful little spot and a real mecca for camping enthusiasts. So it was no surprise to find all the camping spots just off the beach taken.

Rallying the troops we figure out a spot pretty close to the beach....we named it the spider sanctuary.....for obvious reasons. Zip up our tents chaps unless you want some unwanted guests in the night.

Frisbees and beers in hand we head to a pretty quiet beach. You sort of see a look in the locals eye when 20 foreigners show up and pitch up next to you. Hopefully we can keep the stereotypes down to a minimum this weekend.

Bonfires (eventually after the fun police buggered off), fireworks, a beer or two and goods time were had by all.

The weekend was spent exploring the area around our beach, frisbee time, a couple of beers (cough cough) and blagging lifts around the place cause there wasn't a taxi to be seen in this tiny little place.

I could make a fortune opening a little restaurant and operating a taxi service on this beach. Millions I tell you....Millions.

There's also a strange little village nearby that we checked out on our way back to Daejeon. A German village. Back in the day teh Korean government and the German government had an agreement to allow a lot of medical students to study in Germany. Then they realised that they all stayed in Germany. So they built a German village to try and entice all the Korean Germans to come back and retire in this little area. 

A funny place, inundated with tourists looking at unfamiliar architecture and looking for wurst and German beer. I'd lose my mind if I were a resident there. Your home is essentially a tourist attraction that is fair game to photo and in some cases enter. get off my lawn!!

We had our sausage and a little walk around the area and then headed back to Daejeon....and truth be told I think we all needed another holiday by the end of it. All that...ermmm...sunshine , BBQ's  and occasional beer.

Thank you Children's Day and happy birthday Buddha for an excellent little adventure. Looking forward to our next camping trip....but Dan can sleep anywhere else!!!

Monday, 31 March 2014

Seoul Flea Market.....and a nice breakfast!

Took a little trip up to Seoul post's a pain in the ass but if I need to buy clothes or shoes I need to mission up from Daejeon. Dan came up with me cause he was gonna order his bike. 

While he was faffing around I stumbled across a huge flea market. I was nice to potter around there for about an hour. All kinds of things there from giant garden ornaments to third or fourth hand phone battery chargers. Booze shops, hiking shops, tool shops and tucked in the corner was a little sex toy booth. For such a conservative country as Korea I was completely taken aback by it. People generally scooted through a little quicker when they were near the booth. Oh Korea. 

On Sunday I went to an amazing little place that is a British inspired brunch/coffee shop. Millionaire shortbread, scones, lemon curd, red onion chutney to name but a few of the delicacies they have there. And the Korean lady that works there, who i presume is the owner, has the most interesting English accent. Always a little surprising hearing an English accent from a Korean person.  This is the closest thing to a full English as you're gonna get here in Korea....think they're going to get to know me very well.