Monday, 29 October 2007

Burmese Days Part 2

Burmese days and Burmese nights that melt flawlessly into each other in a brilliant sunset or sunrise. Waking up in a foreign land, going out and being greeted by the incongruity of it all, people selling bananas on the sidewalks, packed pick up trucks zooming by, mohinga being dished out for breakfast by roadside hawkers is really an amazing experience. And this is followed by finding breakfast, a process of wandering down the streets and tree lined boulevard until you see something that catches your fancy. The roadside breakfast is probably the most authentic of all, sitting down on those small plastic stools and sharing the company of locals.

The tea houses and restaurants are also interesting places to sit down over a bowl of Shan rice noodles/mohinga/rice with mixed dishes, not forgetting the customary pot of diluted Chinese tea. The best part of it, was not seeing a single other foreigner in these places tucked away in little alleys and backstreets. Finding them is often a satisfying experience, like the small 333 noodle shop recommended by Lonely Planet tucked in a small street behind the City Hall. Or that little Burmese BBQ in Chinatown, where we, once again, perched on small stools while dipping our sticks of porcine innards into a communal pot of boiling soup for it to cook, into the chili sauce bowl, and then into our mouths. And we were actually taught how to do this by a friendly Burmese gentleman who was enjoying his meal and the young couple who ran the BBQ. Travellers often derive great satisfaction in knowing that their paths are unique, their own, and i guess im no exception, and so often it is the experiences and times you share with the people there that make these experiences unique, and so different from that of a tourist. A nice quote i think i got from LP was that a backpacker is a collector of experiences, the tourist souvenirs. Cant have put it better.

Food aside, my first day in Burma was devoted to the two main Payas in Yangon, the Sule Paya and the unmistakable Shwe Dagon, visible even when driving into the city. Sule was my first exposure to Burma's many Payas. The main attraction was not the paya itself, an undoubtedly attractive golden spire forming an island in the middle of a crossroads, but rather the people at the paya and how they went about their daily lives, as opposed to tourist sites where everyone is in the industry, you get a pseudo culture and most of what they wanted was to make money off you. It was a genuine interaction and understanding of the Burmese culture, and how religion plays a major role in their daily lives.

What struck me most was the tranquility, as if life was pure and simple, unburdened and unencumbered by the trappings of material wealth or the pursuit of it, as it should be. The Burmese, are truly, despite the hardships they face and oppression, one of the most happy, caring and content people ive ever seen.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

KTM 640

Just needed a slight distraction from studying, so here we go. KTM 640 Adventure.

From the KTM site: "Wherever in the world strange continents, lonely desert expanses or wild jungle trails are explored - the KTM 640 Adventure is the ultimate, single-cylinder travel motorcycle. Directly descended from successful rally racing bikes, it is characterized by its low weight, agile chassis with long suspension travel and a robust LC4 engine."

Burmese Days Part 1

Arriving at Yangon's crummy airport was an experience it itself. The heat (no air-con, or it wasnt working), the immigration clearance at the VIP counter (just by virtue of having a foreign passport) and the crowd that gathered just to look at people coming out of the airplanes.

First experience of a cultural shock, compounded by the men in longyis gathered right outside the airport on the sandy carpark who crowded around you offering to change money and get you a taxi. The former i did at a bad rate - didn't know the rates for dollars to kyat (pronounced ch-yat) had just risen. Lost i reckon about 5 dollars. It did leave me a bad taste in the mouth, being hustled, and faced with the reality of travel in a foreign country. Admittedly i felt, then and throughout the ride into downtown Yangon, that was this what i had expected or wanted, as all first time backpackers do. Being warned by my driver against taking photographs of the guys in green longyi (traffic police), and generally anything that looks vaguely military/government did nothing to add to my enjoyment of the ride into Yangon. Doubts by then were really forming in my mind if i was misguided in embarking on this journy.

The doubts soon evaporated - the Burmese, really are the nicest people ever. I cannot even remember how many times people have offered their assistance willingly and with a smile, even though i was obviously the lost foreign tourist. Getting directions, being offered tea and meals at their own expense (which really moved me, given the hardship the Burmese people are facing), and even bringing me to their homes to meet their wives and children.

My main grievance is the insane and irritating camera fees - from 1 to 2 USD. They can spot you from a mile off when you whip out your camera, and then close in to sell you those small bookmark like tags to allow you to continue taking photos at major tourist sites.

After amassing so many of the annoying little tags, i became that wee bit wiser and started to spot those guys with their little tags and ubiquitous safari jackets coming and tuck that camera away in my pockets until they passed or went to hassle another traveller. Another thing was the high entrance fees - barring the Shwe Dagon, which i felt was really worth it at 5USD, the other places were really extortionate in their entrance fees. The worst of the lot was Bago (Pegu)'s mini Buddha World at 10 USD for a few, new Buddhist statues and temples. Did manage however, at Kyaiktyo (the Golden Rock) to avoid the 10 dollars, a fortune to the poor backpacker, by pretending to be a local with the aid of my Burmese guide, a Christian Kayin named Soe/Saw (transliteration), made easier no doubt by my Asian heritage.

What really gnaws at me is that all this insance ticketing money (expensive by most standards) is going to fund the military regime and line Senior General Than Shwe's pockets while the ordinary Burmese struggle to feed themselves and their families. Which will inevitably evoke the longstanding debate of Burma: to go or not to go.

I'd say go, main reason being that the government can survive in isolation - it has other sources of revenue (natural resource exploitation is one), while the people, if isolated, suffer much more than the government (which i presume is, and can be very happy to be left alone, especially now with mounting international pressure). Tourism can be another source of revenue to them, and helps raise awareness of their cause. Just DO NOT be a package tourist, then you really are bankrolling the junta and supporting its atrocities. As an independent traveller, staying in guesthouses and locally run hostels, definitely do not cross out Burma from your itinery. And from what i could tell after just one night in Yangon, it was beyond beautiful. It was magical.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Burmese Days

Was flipping through best squares in the world (or some pictorial book like that), and saw the Shwe Dagon Paya. The familiar nagas staring back at me, the pongyis (traditional Burmese monks) walking around in saffron robes, the golden dome itself basking in the moonlight brough back memories of my days in Burma last year, it was as if all of an instance in that Popular bookshop i experienced Rangoon all over again, but for a fleeting moment.

The heat, the stultifying midday sun that soon gave way to a cool,breezy evening, the teashops, the Burmese people in longyi (sarongs) and thanaka (cosmetic made from grinding a certain tree bark), the masses of people, laughing, with brooms sweeping the floors of the Paya in the fading light, clockwise, in a ritual to sweep away the bad luck. The flood of memories soon interrupted by another browser at the travel section. Of which im quite a regular of - drop by when i have time to kill, just flip through the maps and tracing imaginary journeys with my fingers....

But that sudden jolt into bustling, colonial Rangoon and then back made me realise i should really start writing about my experiences and memories of the Golden Land before time eats away at them. There are memories that never fade, but to me, it is those small things that matter, like the Burmese who taught me how to do up a longyi, giving a life demonstration in an eatery in the middle of no where , or stopping by the road to Mandalay to relieve ourselves and have a group of passing Burmese laugh at us. We could have, on hindsight, chosen a more strategic spot rather than right beside the bloody highway i guess.

Factoring in Murphy's Law

Just finished putting my security packet for the trip together - bit of an Andy McNab/Nick Stone moment actually. Basically something waterproof and sealed that you bring along trips, hide somewhere secure and hope never to open. Mine contains:
  • Photocopies of cards, passport
  • Debit cards
  • Some spare cash
  • Contact numbers - embassy, home, insurance agent, bank etc

Absolutely essential for solo backpacking trips when your best mate is, well, yourself. A safety blanket, so to say, in case things fall apart.

And when they inevitably do, its worth noting that you travel to travel, for the journey itself and not the destination.


Normally i'd really enjoy outfitting, checking out the shops, getting the best deal for gear i need on my trip and generally reading up. But the coming exams have seriously put a dampener on it. Mixed feelings of anticipation (for the trip) and dread (first university exams) are hard enough to deal with. Kind of regret not going all out when i really had the time (around 8-9 months after the A levels)

So ive basically restricted myself (so far) to just flipping through my Lonely Planet and going through a mental checklist of things ill need for like the millionth time. Tough. And all interspersed within long and ungodly hours of poring through notes on marketing and Lacan/Freud...

13,842 km

13,842 km over 5 countries and travelling on.

Dread leaving college and going to work for 2 weeks of leave per year... But what choice do i have. Loans have to be paid. After that ill probably quit, do my big overland trip and then decide again what i want to do with my life. Then again, hopefully journalism wont be too boring a job seeing thats going to be my major unless i prove to be an advertising genius (doubt so)....

Song of the Open Road

For those seeking inspiration to just drop the practical and utilitarian and follow their dreams and aspirations, to seek who they truly are, nothing epitomises freedom and independence more than Walt Whitman's Song of the Open Road.

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,

Healthy, free, the world before me,

The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,

Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,

Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,

Strong and content I travel the open road.

The earth, that is sufficient,

I do not want the constellations any nearer,

I know they are very well where they are,

I know they suffice for those who belong to them.

(Still here I carry my old delicious burdens,

I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me wherever I go,

I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them,

I am fill'd with them, and I will fill them in return.)

Friday, 26 October 2007

Laos in Nov/Dec 2007

Going to Laos soon. 1 more month or so.... Amazing. Look forward to being on the road again after a hiatus of almost a year. Will try to properly journal it (electronically) this time round.

Which brings me: i still have to document my recent travels in Burma and Cambodia - something to do in my spare time i guess. Now what i have are little scraps of paper that i scribble upon in my room over a drink looking out at the night (if im fortunate enough to get a view). Hmm... other things to do include planning a crazy/insane RTW that will take me overland from Singers to Calais in France before taking the chunnel to Britain, down the hippie highway, overland, and then a flight to the states, down highway 66, and then Hawaii and then Japan and overland back to Southeast Asia. Is it just me that when i look at the world map, i invariably trace a route up from Singers to Burma, India, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and up into Europe, and think, hey, thats actually not a very long road.

Also saving up (or trying to for the matter) for that KTM 640. (materialism and all.... but when i saw it i just couldn't resist.)


To start with, i wasn't inspired to travel. More deluded. With the mad consumerism and emphasis society places on producing and consuming, and the uniformity in the way people life their lives -2.4 kids, SUV, HDB flat/condominium in land scarce Singapore...

In short, i felt it just wasn't me. I started to question the system, the whole purpose of studying hard, going through the O, A levels, making it to university. I never questioned it, most people never, it was like it was a reality, a fact of life. But was it?

There is so much more to life than just studying, working and then retiring. I felt i wanted something different in my life, i felt i wasn't born to just produce, and consume, and amass material wealth, and die.

By chance, i picked up a copy of Rolf Pott's Vagabonding in a public library, and it was it then, that i decided, life is an open road, there is so much more we can do and explore in life - it is a journey, an epic of infinite opportunities and possibilities. Then i started reading on travel literature - having tea with the Bedouin in the desert, mushing through the Yukon, captivated me. This, i decided, was what i want to do, it was what i found joy and exuberance in. What i tell myself, is that in 60 years time, the stories i want to be telling was of how i found my own paradise in a beach off the coast of Burma, how i got lost in the mazy streets of Cairo and trekked all the way up Mt. Kinabalu to see the sun rise. Not how i bought my first BMW, or how i bought my first property and grew my portfolio. Although some people may derive pleasure in that. To each his own, i say. Im thankful ive found what i want to do, what i seek for in life.

Chasing Shadows Around the World

I started this blog to document my travels, chasing dreams and flitting shadows around the world, from the little alleyway in colonial Rangoon, litter strewn but beautiful nonetheless, to the Preah Rup in Cambodia, sitting all alone at the summit watching the late afternoon sun, feeling like im on top of the world, away from all the materialism and cycle of production and consumption. (That's Preah Rup above, in Jan 2007)

Sitting on the beach at night in Kompong Som, exploring the deserted but hauntingly beautiful Bokor Hill Station all come to mind, as i reminisce on what has happened in my 18 years of life. Its never too early, or late to travel. Pick up your baskpack, sling it over your shoulders, book a plane ticket to anywhere that catches your fancy... Now thats life, free as a backpacker, looking on out at the open roads ahead, the endless possibilities that await you.

I wanted to keep this journal of my wanderings to document my travels, firstly, and hopefully be able to provide some inspiration and help to others out there who are, backpackers, free spirits at heart, but just haven't made the decision to pack up and catch the next flight out. Never bothered with blogs before, but um... with all the stuff they teach us in college about Web 2.0 and the lot, i figured might as well start one where i could write down my musings and journal my travels, a collection of memories and experiences, and at the same time have some creative project to invest in while studying for college.