2013 Trip to Burma, Thailand and Taiwan
This year, we began our trip in mid December. We left Toronto in the middle of a snow storm. That was the weekend of the first snow storm in the GTA. It started snowing in the middle of Saturday and stopped about noon on Sunday. My flight left on Saturday night and, Irena’s Sunday morning. We could not have timed it better to catch the peak of the snow fall. It also reminded me of why I stopped traveling overseas in December.
We started checking the airport website for cancellations on Saturday afternoon. There were board full of cancellations and delays by the evening. Then we realized that almost all of them were short-haul NA flights and some European flights. All Asian flights were landing and taking off. Then we saw my plane land. We figured then that there was a good chance that it would also leave. It did leave albeit 2 hrs behind schedule. It left the gate an hour late and wasted another hour on the ground getting de-iced and just loitering on the runway. I was so drowsy from Gravol and dozed off while waiting for the take-off and waking up only to find that we were still on the ground. It was taking so long that I started to wonder if we would even get to fly.
It is a Taiwanese airline quite popular among SE Asians as a better budget carrier. I chose it this time partly to visit Taipei and the surroundings. I usually fly this way with Korean airlines. I was very disappointed with EVA airlines. For me, once I am on the plane, there are only a few things I care about to make a good journey — the equipment and food. EVA sucks in both departments.
When you fly long distance a few times a year, you come to recognize older and newer planes. The airplanes were older Boeings. The video monitors had such wide viewing angles that I could watch one from 2 seats away. So everybody could see what everybody else was watching. There was a plus side to it though. I could sample different movies by just watching what my neighbors were watching simultaneously. The ultimate channel surfing. You don’t even have to click yourself. The headphone jacks were also old style with 2 mono jacks. So I could hear only on one side. The leg room was also smaller than the one on Korean airline.
The food was my biggest complaint about the whole experience. Of course, we could not blame the cabin crew for the menu. They hardly had anything to do with it. It was obviously manged by someone or some people with no interest or knowledge about food. It was totally tasteless and flavorless. It was edible but not eatable. It was an epitome of mediocrity. I sometimes request special foods when available out of curiosity and also because I like stronger flavors. I requested non-vegetarian Hindu food on one flight and seafood on the other. They forgot to give me special food in the first meal so I got to try out the standard one which was forgettable. Then came the snack time in the middle of the 15-hr flight. They now remembered to give me and other special-food lovers suspiciously similar looking sandwiches with different labels. Then came the second meal which was no less bland than the first but labeled as special meal. Apparently, anything could be special meal according to EVA Air. All you need was a label. I have had better meals on United.
The late departure almost made me miss the connection in Taipei. There was less than an hour to connect. That is never fun at an unfamiliar airport. The connecting flight was also delayed a bit giving us and the luggage enough time.
I had a slightly different experience with food on a following Air Asia flight from Bangkok to Rangoon. It was a very well-known budget airline in Asia. They fly cheap and give you nothing. You pay for everything you want on the plane. Since the flight is only about 1:20 hr, I usually don’t feel like having anything on it. But this time, excellent smell of food almost made me change my mind and eat something. I wish it were a longer flight just to eat.
Transit in Bangkok
I had about 6 hr of layover in Bangkok to change planes. I flew into the new airport and out of the old. I took a late departure to commute between 2 airports. As it turned out, I could have taken an earlier flight out. The free shuttle bus between the airport was quite efficient. I did not time it, but it felt like the trip took less than an hour. They drove mostly on the elevated expressway with no stops in between. There was even someone at both ends to load and unload your luggage! I found the usual hole in the wall staff cafeteria in the old airport. The menu selection was limited and space was small. However, there were a few restaurants with good menu and reasonable airport pricing for the travelers.
Mobile Phone in Thailand
I have had the same mobile phone # in Thailand for about 4 years. It costs me about $2 a year to keep that number. It happened because they made a mistake of selling me a prepaid sim card with a promise to keep the balance for a year! Since then, they have been employing regiments of computer programmers to kick me off the system to get the number back.
Until last year, I was able to top it up with a prepaid card over the web. This year, the new website would not let me do it any more. So, I figured I finally lost the number and wondered what deals were available these days. Then I turned on the phone on the shuttle bus. To my amazement, I still had the same number and even some minutes left. So I quickly topped it up with $2 and got it extended for another year!
After all the delays in both our itineraries, we arrived separately in Rangoon on schedule. My family and myself were able to pick up Irena when she arrived. We rested a couple of days to recover from jetlag before heading off to Inlay Lake in Shan State. To make the most of our visit, we ate as much local food as we could digest. My mom cooked many yummy dishes. My cousins cooked some and we also bought some. We tried to learn some recipes so we can reproduce at home. Food is one of reasons I come back here regularly.
The drive to Inlay Lake took about 9 hours. Most of the drive was on the expressways in the planes. Then we climbed the mountains for about 3 hours to Kalaw where we stayed. In spite of pills, 3 of us still got motion-sick and we had to stop the car part way. My mom in the seventy’s did not have the same problem. She kept herself busy sipping coffee and munching on all kinds of junk food. Life is not fair!
We stayed at a cute place called Hill Top Villa. The spectacular views and bone-chilling temperatures greeted us. The resort consisted of many bungalows surrounded by well-manicured gardens. The sun-set view from the hotel was spectacular. It almost cured our motion-sickness.
The nights were cold. It was getting very close to freezing. The buildings were neither insulated nor heated. We barely survived the cold nights by hiding under many blankets and running the little space heater all night long. When we felt bad, we thought about the Tronies fighting the ice storm in the dark and we felt a little better. At least we had no biting arctic winds.
In the early morning, we saw the mist or low-lying clouds over the town below and the mountains far away behind. The breakfast would have been better under normal conditions I imagined. The folks running the restaurants set things up for a temperate climate. There were tables both inside and out on the open verandah. Food for buffet breakfast was all laid out on the tables on the verandah. That would have been fine on a warm day when it is nice to sit outside enjoying the sun and open air. Now all the food was cold sitting out there. Needless to say, most of us ate inside.
We spent the day visiting a few interesting sites on Inlay Lake, namely a pagoda, a textile shop and long-necked women. We rented one of the long wooden boats with a modified lawn-mower engine. You can raise the propeller out of the water very easily in those boats. They also go pretty fast. At the beginning, I felt they should have used normal outboard motors. However, after I saw them going over floating bamboos like nothing by raising the propeller a few times, maybe it was the right equipment for the job.
We saw many floating farms, stilt homes, shops and restaurants on the water as well as fishers in action. Would have been interesting to see the stilt homes being built. While going through these neighborhoods, we also saw some low-hanging overhead wires. Could not help wondering if they came down once in a while.
We had lunch at one of the restaurants in the middle of the lake. The food was excellent. We got to try some local cuisine. One dish was distinct and new to me. It was some kind of fresh-water white fish covered in a paste of turmeric, ginger and chili peppers, wrapped in some leaves and steamed. It was strong in flavor but quite tasty. The washrooms were equipped with flushing toilets! Floating farms were substantial in size and have been keeping a community alive. They grow tomatoes all year round and many other seasonal green vegetables.
We left the lake in the afternoon to return to the hotel. We made a slight detour to see a cave in a town called Pindaya. It was a nice little town with a lively town center. At the center, there were a small lake, some restaurants and hotels. If I ever make the trip again, I will remember to stay there. There was a pagoda and a cave on the side of a very steep mountain. I learned that a natural cave used to go all the way to Pagan. It was closed now of course after a short distance from the entrance. We got to Pindaya late due to many construction detours on the way. So we were unable to explore the cave entrance. We saw very interesting road construction work on the detours. They were building many little bridges to pass over ditches about 10 ft wide. We noticed a few bridges were being installed in a perfectly flat plane to pass over a man-made ditch. Some body was obviously bored. Maybe they should have installed the bridge first and then dig the ditch after.
We survived the return down-hill trip to Rangoon the next day by taking pills conscientiously and bugging the driver to take the bends very slowly until we reached the bottom of the mountains. Then we had brunch. The rest of the trip was fine.
As usual, we spent a few hours a day riding taxis around town. Sometimes, our cousins drove us around. Motoring around Rangoon is a feat on its own. There was no shortage of amusing things. Irena noticed there were many more new vehicles and over-pass bridges this time than her last visit 3 years ago. Someone said the old cars were sent to the recycling plant. Not sure if it was a joke. Apparently, zen driving style was very much still in vogue here. Drivers were still changing lanes and turning into solid flow of traffic. More than once, we would come to a T-junction and turned slowly left into the other solid flow of traffic like nothing happened. I had never seen it anywhere else in the world. I could never understand how they were doing it. Maybe Irena was helping the driver. When we made one of those left turns, I saw her closing her eyes with a frown and stretching her arms out front grabbing whatever was there and mumbling something. She looked as though she was reciting something and pushing away the cars to make room for ours. Somehow it seemed to work. I, on the other hand, was of no help to the driver. I kept myself busy watching the whole maneuver with intense morbid curiosity.
Another time, we were at a traffic light waiting to turn left. I saw the traffic lights for all other directions except ours. I asked the driver where the light was and he pointed at a big tree with lots of leaves over the intersection. The light was there hidden in the middle of all the big healthy green leaves! Nice.
One day, someone pointed to the policeman directing traffic at an intersection as the most hard-working policeman in the country. Later I heard the same story from other people. Apparently he worked very hard and did not take bribes which was even more surprising. It was quite common to hear the reverse story around here. Maybe there is hope in Burma.
Irena also got a taste of what it likes to live with doctors. We both got upset stomachs during the trip to Inlay. I recovered pretty quickly probably aided by more antibodies and rehydration salt even though I continued to struggle with my on-going indigestion. Irena was taking much longer. After a few days in Rangoon, my mother decided it was time to visit a physician cousin at her hospital. Irena insisted all the way there that she was fine and did not need to get checked out even though she looked half-dead. She probably thought she would get away with it. No such luck. As she was giving her usual “I am fine” speech, my cousin was going through her with a stethoscope. Actually, she got off easy. As I was getting checked out on the examination table and answering questions, someone was already pricking my finger and taking the blood!
After few days, we felt we recovered enough from the trip to squeeze in a quick visit to a city called Moulmein (Mawlamyine in Burmese). It is a coastal city in southern Burma. It is also the capital of Mon State which is an ethnic province. Some of my mother’s family came from there a few generations ago. I had always wanted to see it as I liked coastal cities. The drive there was on the flat plane along the base of mountains. There were lots of farms, coconut trees, palm trees, rubber plantations and fish drying farms along the way.
We went through many some areas that were frequented by ethnic rebels before the cease-fire. We visited a pagoda on the water about 1.5hr away from the town also. The pagoda is on the way to the Three Pagoda Pass near the Thai border. During the WWII, the Death Railway passed through the pass. There were many more pagodas in the area than in Rangoon.
Even though we could stay only one night, we were very glad that we visited Moulmein. I really connected with the city. We got the glimpse a laid-back town with a lazy water front dotted with yummy restaurants. Would have been very nice to stroll and eat there in the evening and watch the sun set. I also got to see again some of the nicest cousins I had not met for years. They fed us dinner and showed us around the homes and gardens of some relatives as well as paying for our hotel rooms. The gardens were full of all kinds of trees including pomelos and durians. We were wishing we could stay longer. Apparently the local cuisine was also a bit spicy and we dare not push our luck as we were recovering. I would have to go back there and spend more time to hang out with them and eat the local cuisine.
We headed back to Rangoon the next day. We spent a few more days in Rangoon, met a few more relatives, and left for Bangkok, Thailand.
When we arrived in Bangkok, the Bangkokians were busy getting ready to overthrow the government. We got the guided tour of the protest area on the day we arrived. We saw barricades, camping sites, canteens, medical and washing facilities. The whole area was very orderly, well organized and peaceful.
Various kinds of free food was available including vegetarian. Even though it was free, it was made with good quality and often organic materials and very tasty. I had the best tasting Khaoswe at a vegetarian canteen. I would love to get the recipe. It was that good. Khaoswe is a noodle soup typically made with chicken.
Apparently all these facilities were donated by people and businesses. Many people had been there for weeks and months. I don’t think they are going to pack up and leave any time soon. We were there in early Jan which was a few days before the Bangkok Shutdown.
There were reports of some shootings at night and we saw the bullet holes in the umbrella of a food seller.
Despite the political problems, life goes on in Bangkok for most part.
Then our Thai family friends took us out for a weekend of sightseeing outside Bangkok. We visited a famous beach resort city called Hua Hin and some historical sights on the way. Thanks to our friends we learned a lot about Thai history. Apparently many Bangkokians spend the weekends in Hua Hin and many Europeans retirees are living there. Thanks to our hosts, we got to enjoy lots of excellent local cuisine without taking chances.
After visiting just under a week, we had to say goodbye to Thailand and our family and friends. As always, we felt the stay was too short and we wished we could hang around quite a bit longer and sample more local food. I kind of wished that the protesters sped up the process and shut down the airports so I could not leave. How about a rehearsal shutdown?
Irena left for Toronto directly but I stayed 2 nights in Taipei, Taiwan for a quick visit. When you hear frozen Toronto is waiting for you, you do all you can to delay the inevitable.
I had stopped over in Taipei many years ago. At the time, it was not easy to look up on the web how to get around in any particular city. The airline put me up at a hotel by the airport for one night for a layover. It was far away from the city and I never saw anything really. I remember thinking about venturing into the city, but got scared by all the Chinese-only signs at the bus terminal at the airport. Now I have become better at getting around in strange places. There are also more people speaking English. It is either that or I am becoming more enthusiastic about bugging strangers for help. This time I was also armed with a gps.
There was something about the money exchange at the airport. I always get annoyed when money changers charge a fixed commission. I also often forget to ask. It was one of those times I forgot to ask. Basically, there were 2 places you can change at the airport — the Bank of Taiwan and the other bank. They both charged a fixed commission. The Bank of Taiwan charged slightly less. There were also ATM machines. When I go back there again, I would definitely try the machines.
It was drizzling when I arrived in Taipei in the afternoon with some day light to spare. The Taoyuan International Airport is quite big, modern and well run. They also have a food court in the basement that sells local cuisine at local prices. The bus trip to the main train station down town took about an hour. It was dusk by then and the bus was driving on an elevated expressway into the city. I had been to big cities before. However, Taipei made quite an impression on me. It was massive. There were 2 layers of elevated highways coming into the city. Maybe one was toll-way. Then, there were quite a few high-rise buildings in the suburb that were big enough to house a village. I was amazed by how big everything was. The gps told me that the bus was heading in the right direction. I briefly wondered what to do if it wasn’t. It was raining when the bus arrived at the train station. I was lucky to have booked a hotel within a short walk from the station. Otherwise, it would have been a wet walk. I learned later that I could have walked underground from the train station to within a few meters of the hotel.
It was a YMCA hotel, very efficient and well managed. A very convenient place to stay for business travelers. Everything in the room worked. There was free hot and cold drinking water and even coin-op laundry for guests. It was in the middle of a very busy down town area full of shops and eateries if you can only speak chinese. There were also a few 7-11s near by in case you don’t speak chinese. I quickly learned something about eating in Taipei. They are not really setup for the tourists. Very few shops wrote anything in English.
The main train station and the underground malls were something else. I have been to the main stations in Berlin and St. Petersburg. But the Taipei station is not only bigger but also much nicer to hang out in. The bakeries and cafes on the ground floor look like those in a mall. There are kids and people of all ages eating and hanging out there as if they were in a mall. Then the entire second floor was all food courts. Most of them displayed plastic food samples of various menu items and with some English description. The prices are about the same as Toronto food court prices. After checking out the stores on the floor, I finally decided to take a chance. I assumed the plastic samples on display were only for illustration. I chose one noodle soup that I thought was the kind of thing I liked. Well, the food was right, but the size was not. I mean the display size was the real size! You think large Vietnamese noodle soups are too big?…haha. Lets just say I finished about a quarter of it.
Most of the time, the English menu did not say what meat was used. So I had to find a way to find that out. I wrote down on a piece of paper, chicken, beef, pork, seafood and asked the hotel receptionist to write the Chinese equivalent beside each. The next day, I used that to find out what meat was in the items I was interested. It worked out pretty well most of the time. Next time, I will bring pictures of chicken, cow, etc. on my phone. I also found out from some kids that tipping is not required in Taiwan at least for food. The local cuisine seems to constitute a lot of boiled stuff and some stir-fried stuff. Most of the items were not too spicy. There was also lots of vegan dishes. All in all, I would say that Taiwanese food should be gentle on the tummy.
The next day, I got a day pass to roam around the city. The pass is good for all the public transportation in the city including the cable car ride over the mountains. The weather was cool and windy. Many locals were wearing thick coats. City centers or downtown resembled any modern city including Toronto. The Taipei metro network was not as sophisticated as some European cities’. However, it was quite expansive, well maintained, clean and easy to use. The trains and stations were shiny. Also the station staff at the control booth usually spoke good English which was a big help. Most of the system was underground. I fortunately chose the line with some surface tracks. I find that skytrains and surface rail are a very good way to see a city. I saw some of the down town and some suburbs. Many downtown subway stations had underground malls around them. Those malls were very pleasant to hang out and full of cheap eats.
Most people of all ages I saw on the metro seemed to be busy and happy. Over all, I could not see why an average Taiwanese would want to immigrate to Canada! The weather cooperated that day. It was dry and very nice to walk around. In the evening, I found the electronics market near the university. The prices were not much better than discount stores in the US or Canada. I managed to find an adapter for my headphone to fit the jacks on old planes. That let me enjoy the movies on the last 15hr flight to Toronto.
The next day, I just walked around downtown near the hotel for half a day. Then after having lunch at the train station, I caught the bus to the airport. The return flight to Toronto was pretty routine.