A Travellerspoint blog

March 2011

A day in Burma

sunny 28 °C

I had planned to do a motorbike tour in the mountainous Shan province of eastern Burma, however when I got to Mae Sai, the Thai border town, my guide was drunk. I found out that he is unable to see his family who live in central Burma because the military government imposes strict travel restrictions within the country, applying to locals as well as foreigners. So depressed, this guy took to drinking. It was heart breaking to see and hear. This guy, once a respected and well recommended tour guide, had been reduced to a wreck by the policies of a paranoid dictatorship. It brought home the human impact, on a personal level.

Without a guide, foreigners are not allowed to travel independently in the Shan province. You are allowed to visit Tachileik, the border town on the Burmese side, however. Many people take advantage of this by doing a visa run to extend their Thai visa.

The bridge between the two countries. Flags change at the centre point. Burmese immigration rules are, as you can expect, pretty strict. Every visitor has to surrender their passport on arrival and get it back when they leave.

Tackileik market was much grittier than the one just over the river. People constantly try to sell you drugs, fake cigarettes, porn, pirate DVDs and clothes.

The ‘Golden Triangle,’ consisting of the area where the Thai, Burmese and Lao borders meet is one of the most notorious drug producing regions in the world. Poppies are grown mainly in Burma, smuggled over to Thailand and then distributed all over South East Asia and further afield.

A temple for Buddhist nuns. The few Burmese people I met were lovely. Here, a lady saw me looking at the building and welcomed me inside to show me around.

The girls were chanting and swaying together in a trance; it was quite hypnotic.

Further down the road I bumped into a woman and two children who thought the sight of me was hilarious. They were so sweet, smiling, waving and giggling. These people clearly don’t get to see many foreigners wandering around and many would stop and stare as I walked past, with looks of curiosity on their faces.

The hills and valleys around the town were so beautiful and tranquil. After half an hour or so I was out of the town and in the middle of a rural scene which probably hasn’t changed for hundreds of years.


Cool number plate.

Burma on the left; Thailand on the right.


Posted by AlTiffany2 06:51 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

The Land of Smiles

semi-overcast 31 °C

Following a ferry ride back to the Malay mainland, I boarded my first Thai sleeper train; this one would take me from Butterworth all the way to Bangkok. It stopped at the Malay/Thai border and, as hoped for, the lady exit-stamped my passport, writing a mere “via Singapore” next to it, to explain the lack of an entry stamp. After all that, it just goes to show how bureaucratic some borders can be, and also how simple they ought to be.

(Bottom right) The precious stamp!

Sunset in southern Thailand.

Thai sleeper trains are great. This journey took 22 hours but, in 2nd class AC was quite enjoyable. The lower berths are much wider than the upper ones and only cost 100 Baht (2 pounds) more. I forked out the extra. You get immaculate white, soft bedding, a fully flat bed, wider than an ordinary single bed, a big window and curtains to seal yourself in. The toilets aren’t great but, hey, you can’t have everything.

In the day time the seats fold up into two seats facing each other – very social.

Bangkok’s Hualumpong station is a very busy place, but it’s air conditioned and surprisingly stress free. When I first arrived there, everybody in the huge hall stood up. For me? No, for the national anthem, which is played everywhere in Thailand every day at 6 and 8 o’clock. Everybody stands up – they take it very seriously. The King of Thailand is viewed almost as a god. (Order of society: King, monks, teachers). I heard that anthem so many times, it got quite stuck in my head – it’s fairly catchy (well, as catchy as a national anthem in a foreign language can be).
One thing I hated about Bangkok was the money-grabbing opportunism which appears to be everywhere. Nowhere is this more so than in the gangs of tuktuk drivers who prowl around transport and tourist centres, looking for innocent, tired (and therefore weak) tourists. I had to really argue to get a fair price for my trip to the Khao San area, where I wanted to stay. But that wasn’t before telling a couple of drivers to (politely) get lost for quoting ridiculous figures ad refusing to budge. They prey on the weak – bloodsuckers.


Bangkok is a huge city and not an easy one to get around, especially if you’re unfamiliar with it. You can’t really walk great distances in the heat and humidity with lots of baggage, most maps have roads missing, very few street signs and bus timetables are even in Roman script and the one subway line seems to go away from the places you want to visit. Pretty frustrating. As you can probably tell, I wasn’t a great fan of the place. I imagine it’d be a cool place to live once you get to know it, but I wasn’t really captivated during my time there. It’s probably to do with the size of the place, you have to know where to look.

There is some great street food however – a meal of fried noodles, vegetables and spring rolls costs about 50p!

Many places offer cheap traditional massages (which are great, until they start clicking your back) to work out the aches and pains of lugging a couple of rucksacks around the world. Several places have fish spas; you put your feet in big tanks full of small fish who dart around and nibble away all the rough, dead skin. It feels strange, tickles at first, but then is very pleasant, like a mild electric current or vibration.


In a couple of hours, this street flood to over a foot deep – pretty heavy monsoon rain.


Keen to leave Bangkok, I caught a sleeper train up to Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second city, in the mountainous north.


I found here to be far more pleasant. The people were friendlier, it’s easy to navigate by foot and much prettier than Bangkok’s smoggy sprawl of concrete.


There are many Buddhist temples (called Wats) here. This one is Wat Chedi Luang. The decorative detail is stunning, both inside and out.


The main pink brick Chedi was damaged in 1545 and is now crumbling, although still impressive, considering its age.


Many of these temples have a main building or shrine and are surrounded by smaller ones. Some advertise ‘monk chat,’ where one can talk to the monks in English.

Pad Thai street food vendor. Street food is great in Thailand – it’s super cheap and cooked freshly to order in front of you. I enjoyed sitting out on the pavement in the evening, eating local food with local people.

I rented a motorbike for a day and rode up into the mountains which surround Chiang Mai.


The road up Doi Suthep was extremely fun; winding, twisting and very steep with some very good views. It was also pleasantly cooler at higher elevations than in the valley.

Geckos. I didn’t really have anywhere in mind to go, just fancied exploring a little. There was a sign for a walk through the jungle which I spotted and decided to do.

This snake startled me a little. No idea what type it was but gave it a wide berth.

In one clearing there was what appeared to be a shrine with offerings next to a small cave. There are many different hill tribes in the north of Thailand whose peoples are animists, worshipping spirits of the natural world.

Vines and branches coil around one another.

Banana palms.

The ‘path’ was ambiguous and I strayed off it a few times.

They do love their King.


Chiang Mai’s Old City is a square, totally surrounded by a moat with several causeways.

My guesthouse.

Very intricate detail on all of the temples.

My traditional wooden room, and the gecko I shared it with.

Posted by AlTiffany2 06:48 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)


sunny 30 °C

I took a train from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, first travelling over the causeway connecting the city state with Malaysia and the rest of mainland Asia. The train passed through some really rural communities on the way north to KL, the capital city.


I found Kuala Lumpur to be an ideal mixture of order and chaos. There is an LRT monorail/subway which, when you figure out how to use it, is a good way to get around.

Malaysia is a (fairly liberal) Muslim country and many of the buildings are Arab inspired, such as this one, outside the main post office.

Chinatown market. Loads of street food.

The old train station – very Islamic looking.


I visited the National Mosque – a very peaceful, thoughtful place built in a pleasing modern, geometric style.

As there is a dress code in mosques, they give visitors robes to borrow.

The iconic, 490m high Petronas Towers.

Reflections in the water feature outside the KLCC.


The Menara KL Tower has a viewing deck at 276m and an elevator takes you there in about 50 seconds. Views of the city from up here are second to none.


See the camel below…

…And from the ground.


My guesthouse in KL, Asrama Step Inn, was a friendly one. The staff were really helpful and I met some great people there. One of the owners went out fishing one day and cooked a whole group of us a free dinner. A lovely gesture, whilst the catfish (!) he cooked wasn’t tasty, the rest of the feast was excellent.

Yellow watermelon – never had that before. It’s like a regular one but sweeter and more flavoursome.

The terrace – a great place to sit and socialise. The range of interesting people one meets whilst backpacking is outstanding. On this very terrace I got to know an Australian couple who were on their way to Europe for the first time and wanted tips, a Ukrainian guy who fought in the Soviet Red Army, a French guy who lives in Indonesia working as a dive instructor, a Canadian girl who has been traveling her whole life (doing tattoos for people to fund it) and many more. It’s a great way of gaining insights into other cultures and lifestyles, which gives you a whole different outlook on your own lifestyle and broadens your thinking.

The Australian couple and I decided to make a daytrip to the Batu Caves, just north of KL. These natural limestone caves contain Hindu shrines and there is a massive gold Buddha outside – the largest one outside of India.


Hundreds of monkeys swarmed around the steps leading to the caves; they nest up in holes in the cliff walls and come down to scavenge food from stupid tourists. One such person thought a good way to make a monkey leave her alone would be to throw it a piece of banana. It clearly hadn’t occurred to her that now the monkey saw her as a source of food and intensified its pestering. Some people can be a bit thick. And no, throwing it a piece of banana skin was never going to work – that just pissed it off.


Outside the caves a traveling Yogi (Hindu holy man of very high religious status) was doing a ceremony surrounding a fire. He seemed to be burning offerings in the flames, and at one point practically lay in the fire. All of this was accompanied by almost hypnotic music and the three of us agreed afterwards that watching it sent us into a sort of trance. Whilst we didn’t really understand the spiritual meaning of the ritual, it certainly felt like something special.



After many goodbyes, I left KL and caught a night train to Butterworth, in north Malaysia. (A seat rather than a sleeper – not good.) From here I took the short ferry over to the island of Penang at about 6am. The sunrise painted the sky with many colours which were, in turn, reflected in the sea.

Georgetown, the capital of Penang, was a British settlement and has many examples of colonial architecture. One the other hand, nowadays the population is predominantly Chinese so there’s an interesting fusion of cultures.

Chinese temple.

Typical backstreet.

There were a few things I had wanted to see and do on the island – the main one being the walk up to Penang Hill, from where one can see the whole island and across to the mainland clearly. However, I became aware of what I thought, at the time, could have been a potentially serious problem.

When I caught the train from Singapore to Malaysia, I was given an ‘exit’ passport stamp from Singapore, but no ‘entry’ stamp from Malaysia. I thought that this would be OK if I explained the situation. But, an old, miserable, crusty British guy took great satisfaction in telling me that, without my entry being officially logged, I was travelling as an “illegal alien” in Malaysia and would be detained when I tried to leave the country. Worried, I took a bus to the airport to speak to an immigration officer, but nobody there could help me out. So, I resigned myself to the fact that I may have had to some explaining to do at the Thai border, and possibly some ‘fines’ (bribes) to pay too.
However, after some trawling through travel forums on the internet, I learned that other people had faced the same situation as me, doing the same route, and that, on the border, it’s not a problem when you come to leave. It’s only by train from Singapore to Malaysia that you don’t get an entry stamp… Something to do with disputed territory over the railway track. I do think that the immigration people should tell you this, rather than just leave you to worry. I wasted a whole day trying to sort out a problem which didn’t exist.
So, that old bloke at my guesthouse was just trying to spook me – and succeeded. Thanks, jerk.

After all that bother, when a Chinese guy staying at my guesthouse asked me if I wanted to go out for a drink, you can guess my answer!

Posted by AlTiffany2 05:50 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Destination South East Asia: Singapore

semi-overcast 31 °C

I found Singapore to be a strange place. One face of it is ultra-modern, sophisticated and wealthy, yet there are pockets of traditional chaotic character such as Little India, where I was staying. The city state really is a cultural melting pot; predominantly Chinese, although there are people here from all over Asia. The fact that there are four official languages – Mandarin, English, Malay and Tamil – illustrates this.

Sultan Mosque, in the Arab Quarter.


National Museum of Singapore.

These guys don’t mess about. There are quite a few of these signs around.

There are many green areas, and pockets of rainforest, on the island.

Downtown business district.

Travelling around the island is incredibly easy – the local transport is cheap and very efficient.

My local station on the MRT subway, Farrer Park. Rather nicer than the London Tube stations.

There are many strict rules in Singapore, for example: $500 fine for eating, drinking or chewing gum on the MRT, however this makes the place so pleasant and clean; there is hardly any litter anywhere.

The downtown CBD looks at its best at night.


Singapore Zoo is outstanding. Not a fan of animals being kept in zoos, I really enjoyed this one. Each enclosure is sensitively landscaped to be as close to the animals’ natural habitat as possible and the prime focus is conservation.

Tigers looking out for each other.

Moats are used rather than fences wherever possible – such as here, in the orang utan area.


This is definitely one of the park’s highlights. The park itself is built inside a rainforest and the orang utans are ‘free ranging’, so you can see them swinging in the trees above your head as you walk along the paths through the park.


Orang utans overhead.

Komodo dragon.


Posted by AlTiffany2 00:48 Archived in Singapore Comments (0)


sunny 36 °C

Perth was more of a stopover, rather than flying directly from Adelaide to South East Asia. Nonetheless, there were a few interesting things to see.

Jellyfish in the River Swan.

Heirisson Island, in the Swan, was a pleasant place to sit, think and view the city skyline.


There were a couple of kangaroos here too.



Fremantle, a small town just down the coast from Perth, made an excellent day trip. Perth’s local transport is so efficient and cheap. Mining has made Western Australia very wealthy and the cost of living is high, yet transport costs very little.


There was an artwork exhibition at Cottesloe beach.

Shoes made of sand.

Paper cranes on the right.

The Indian Ocean here was warm and it was a hot day.

A V8 motorbike – rather excessive, but pretty cool.


Posted by AlTiffany2 00:35 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

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