Myanmar Highlights

Fishing on Inle Lake, Myanmar

In 2013 I visited South East Asia for the first time. I remember people asking what were my Myanmar highlights and it was impossible to narrow it down to one specific thing! The best answer I could come up with was ‘All of Myanmar’. It amazes me to realize that I have visited this beautiful, largely undiscovered country before the rest of the world got to it. The experiences and wonderment still feel fresh in my mind.

Take for example the morning that a small group of us did a little photo tour to an area just outside the downtown area of Yangon. We walked for about 15 minutes and were outside of the business district, watching the city wake up and begin bustling with locals preparing a small market. We were there before sunrise and saw the monks lining up for their morning rounds and collection. I’m really not sure who was more curious, them or us. It is so incredibly interesting to go to an area where tourists are so rare that they actually become an attraction in the place they’ve gone to visit. I’ll admit, I was a bit shy, not knowing how to approach or talk to the monks, but soon enough I came to understand that they were happy to see us and happy to practice their English skills.

I wandered around taking a few photographs and then one of the locals invited us in to the monastery to enjoy a local breakfast. A few minutes later the group of us were taking off our socks and shoes and following the kind man into a large dining area filled with locals. Barely with our bums in the seats, local men and women were coming out of the kitchen area with various dishes in hand and filling the table with typical breakfast consisting of rice, noodles, fish soup and then sweet sticky rice came along a little later. They filled our bowls and when we were done, they immediately appeared to fill them up again. They certainly didn’t want us to leave hungry. These were the community members who came together to cook food for the monks at this monastery, but the monks were all out on collection at the time. After we finished our meal, we were surprised as the locals gathered around and wanted their photos taken with us. It was only my second day in Myanmar and I was already learning that tourists were as much of an attraction as the attractions were to the tourists.

Yangon, Myanmar
Yangon, Myanmar

With an open mind, even the simplest of pleasures can turn out to be a highlight of the trip. I expected extreme poverty. After all it is one of the poorest countries in Asia. To my surprise, our overnight bus from Yangon to Mandalay was beautiful, high end and even had a hostess on board. It was comfortable, with reclining seats to a much better decline than standard buses. Each of us was given a thick warm, fuzzy blanket and a hostess was available for questions and assistance throughout the night. On top of that, the recently built divided highway was mostly smooth sailing and despite the rain, I didn’t feel fearful or uncomfortable at all throughout the night. I just laid back and slept.

Most of the tours that are offered to Burma / Myanmar, range from 12 – 17 days. Sadly, I was on a shortened version and had to pack as much as possible into only 10 spectacular days. Because of the shortened itinerary, we had only one full day to explore that wonders of beautiful Mandalay. Although the core of the city itself isn’t really a highlight, there are lots of beauties to enjoy on the outskirts. A few hours to half a day can be spent enjoying the beauty, history and culture of the ancient U Bein bridge in Amarapura. Just simply watching the way of life, traveling by boat across the lake and then returning by walking across the 1.2 km ancient teak wood bridge. Along the way you can stop and taste local delicacies, take in the spectacular views and meet a few new local friends selling souvenirs.

Snacks along the U Bein teak wood bridge
Snacks along the U Bein teak wood bridge

Don’t be put off though, despite the fact that they are there to make a living and sell their wares, I found the local kids particularly respectful, friendly and interesting. We only had about an hour to spend, which was far too rushed for this beautiful spot, but in that hour I managed to take a boat ride to the middle of the lake and then return on foot across the bridge. I met a young girl who walked back to the main land with me. We chatted about her family, her schooling and life on the lake. Her English was excellent, she was friendly and she didn’t ask me to buy anything until we were nearly back to the main land. It was at this time that I bargained with her a little and purchased two necklaces … one with jade elephants and the other with amber.

We spent the remainder of our day in Mandalay crossing the Irrawaddy river to Mingun, a small community with some big claims to fame. The tiny community hosts the world’s largest bell (over two tonnes of iron), the unfinished, Pahtodawgyi pagoda and the beautiful Hsinbyume pagoda. We spent a couple of hours wandering around, visiting the sites and dodging rain, which came and went in fits and spurts. Although the rain slowed us down a little as we waited for it to stop under the cover of a big leafy tree, it certainly didn’t ruin the experience and I wouldn’t change it for a second and replace it with a mass of tourists. I’d much rather travel in green season dodging a bit of rain than dodging hundreds of tourists. Having said that, it’ll be quite some time before Mingun sees hundreds of tourists at one time.

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Possibly the largest and best known attraction in Burma is the community of Bagan where they boast over 2100 pagodas, temples and structures in 42 square kilometers. The desert landscape dotted with structures of all shapes and sizes is absolutely spectacular. Take the time to see it at sunrise and sunset; it is truly spectacular. You can spend hours biking amongst the structures on dirt roads winding through ancient old Bagan. But, beware of the heat. Make sure you have sunscreen, lots of water and a hat to keep the sun off your face. Although the land is nearly flat, the heat adds it’s own challenges to your physical abilities. Stop often and discover as many of the structures as you can. Each one is unique and the art and architecture will amaze you time and time again.

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After enjoying the beauty of Bagan for a couple of days, we were off for a short visit to the Mt. Popa area. Mt. Popa is a volcano and an area that you can hike, but we simply passed over and twisted around the big mountain with a stop in the community to hear about the spiritual nats that are worshiped at the pagoda atop a mountain. Oh yes, and to meet the cheeky little Macque monkeys that scatter the town. If you have time, you can climb the 777 steps to the beautiful monastery at the top of the mountain, but beware as the monkeys live and play along the way, so I hear it is dirty and smelly.

Our next stop was a lovely lunch and visit to an elephant conservation camp. Hearing the story of how the organization started and how they have retired five or six elephants from the lumber industry to live peacefully and well taken care of until the end of their lives was inspirational. This organization has purchased these elephants, each of their handlers (Mahoot) and the Mahoot’s family. Not only have they given the elephants a respectful home, but also have created a community and schooling for the Mahoots and their families. We had the amazing opportunity to feed the elephants banana snacks and then help bathe them in the river. They are so large, yet so quiet and gentle. I stood mere inches from their mouths, which were big enough to swallow me whole, and I grinned ear to ear with excitement the entire time.

Last, but not least, we visited beautiful Inle Lake, which had different, yet incredible feel. As you can imagine, life on a lake is quite different from life on land. From the local market that we visited to the leg-rowing fisherman balancing on one leg on their flat boats, to the craft industry workshops – seeing the local way of life was eye-opening and incredible. And I bought two of the most beautiful hand-made fine silk scarves! We were a bit rushed as our trip was a condensed version, but we managed to see the highlights and even take in the largely undiscovered and quiet Indein where there was not another tourist to be seen amongst the many hundreds of stupas and structures. Magical is not a word strong enough to describe the experience.

Fishing on Inle Lake, Myanmar

At the end of the trip we asked if it was possible to visit an orphanage or monastery and arrangements were made for our last evening in Yangon. We made a donation to the orphanage and had a tour of where schooling takes place, where the children sleep and the communal areas. Then we had the amazing opportunity to dish out food as the young monks gathered for supper. Young boys as little as four years old walked up to the serving area perfectly mannered. If we gave them too much of something, they politely put a portion back. It was a great lesson in humility and understanding to only take what you need and leave the rest for someone else. Of course, the monks were allowed to come back for seconds, so no need to waste food! Take only what is needed and if they are still hungry come back for more.

It’s simple, every single activity, every single day was a highlight. There was something new, exciting and simply beautiful around every corner and I just couldn’t get enough. 10 days was a great overview and a taste for the amazing destination, but easily I could spend a month exploring just the nooks and crannies of the ‘tourist’ areas, not to mention the lesser visited areas. And, as tourism begins to grow, more and more areas will be open for exploration by foreigners. In my opinion, Myanmar is a destination to be visited now, before it explodes in popularity, and then visited again and again as the economy gets stronger and new areas open up. There’s nothing quite like seeing a destination that isn’t used to tourists and getting an authentic feel for the people, the culture, the food and the beauty without the corruption of the tourist traps. Go see this destination soon to get an authentic feeling for the country. Then, explore it again later as more destinations open up. You won’t be disappointed.

If you are interested in visiting Myanmar, please get in touch. I would love to help you plan your next adventure.

South East Asia – Chapter 19 – Lady I don't want your money.

*** I’m catching up on blogging & posting stories. They are a bit out of order and I’m not currently in Asia. This particular post was written while I was there though.

Today we arrived in Siem Reap at around 3pm. After a dip in the hotel pool, I headed out to explore a bit of the city. I followed the map to the market area, stopped for a cold smoothie at Blue Pumpkin and then wandered around a bit more. People were out and about doing chores, selling fruit or street food and massages were being offered everywhere. Not to mention the plethora of drivers trying to get you to take their tuk tuks.

After a wandering around for about an hour, I headed back on a slightly different route through the side streets.

A little girl, who was about eight years old, walked up to me and touched me on the arm.
“Lady, I don’t want your money” she said in a soft voice. I looked down at her and she was carrying her little sister who seemed to be about a year old.
“I just want some milk for my sista. Can you buy some milk?”

I never give children on the streets money and I rarely buy anything from them unless I really want it. I know it is a different way of life in other countries, but I don’t like that kids learn to beg for money from tourists because they assume we are rich and that their parents force them to do this. I am, however, more than happy to give a child or family food instead of money.

I agreed to buy the little girl milk.

She quickly took me by my hand and led me in the direction of the nearest grocery / convenience store which was about ½ a block away. Along the way she held my hand tight and helped me safely cross the street, assuming that because I was a tourist I wasn’t familiar with the crazy traffic and lack of driving laws. It was really cute that she was insistent that I not cross before her and that we do so safely.

As we got closer to the store, the girl explained that she wanted powdered milk … Similac, as it would last for a long time for her and her two sisters. Her English was really good for a child of her age. She obviously must be attending school for her English to be so good.

We walked into the store and she took me directly to the powdered milk section, pointing out the exact kind of Similac that her sisters needed (for 6 – 24 months). I asked her how much they cost and she didn’t know, so I took one to the counter and asked the staff. The can that she had pointed out was $23 US.

I turned to the little girl and sadly explained that it was too much and that I didn’t have that much money. (I only had a $20 bill on me) I asked if there were smaller cans, but there were not.

The little girl pleaded with me as I put it back, saying that it would feed them for three months and that it was not too expensive. I tried to explain to her that I didn’t have the money, but she did not seem to accept this answer.

“How much you have?” she asked.

I wasn’t going to play that game with her. They are taught well to try and get every penny from you. Nor was I going to take my wallet out and show her.

“I’m really sorry, but I don’t have enough. If they had a smaller can I would buy it for you, but they don’t.”

The little girl continued to argue and plead with me, so I began to leave the store. She grabbed my hand and forcefully pulled it, begging once again for me to buy it for her. When I firmly said no, that I could not, as I did not have enough money, we continued out of the store with her saying “Give me $5 then and I can find money from someone else to buy it.” (Not a bad suggestion from an eight year old, but I only had a $20 bill)

As I headed to cross the street, the girl grabbed on to my hand with all her strength, it actually hurt a little bit! She continued to plead with me. I continued to say no.

She yanked on my hand and I stopped in my tracks as it honestly hurt and surprised me.
“I come with you to get more money.” She suggested.
I said “No, I’m sorry. I can’t. Will you be here tonight? Still on the street?”
“No. no. no. I won’t be here lata. Everyone says they will come back lata and no one ever does.”

Her English really was quite amazing for a young girl and she certainly knew how to shame you into helping her.

Still tightly gripping my hand, she again insisted on helping me cross the street. As I continued to walk away, she continued pleading with me, repeating everything that she had already said. Her new tactic though was to also pinch me to try and get my attention. She had let go of my hand after crossing the street but had begun pinching my arm and begging. In fact, she began to get very angry with me.

Getting increasingly annoyed at being pinched by a little girl and not wanting to cause a scene, I stopped and looked at her.

“Why won’t you help me? You said you would buy me milk.” She whined
“It is too expensive. I do not have enough money for it.”

She pinched my arm again to which I said “You were being nice and now you are not. I’m sorry, but I do not have the money and pinching isn’t helping.”

Finally, the little girl stopped pinching me. She didn’t stop whining and she let me go on my way.

I felt absolutely horrible about walking away. I truly had wanted to help the girl and her sisters. I had no idea how many tourists she convinced to do this on a regular basis, but buying them milk was so much better than giving them money.

So many tourists give into the pleading eyes of these children. I’m not at all saying it is wrong to help, but just how much money are you willing to give away and not know what it is being spent on or who the money is going to. These children learn their way around the streets and make a living for themselves and their families by begging on the streets from ‘rich’ people like you and I. What kind of life is this for a child?

I want to help them. Their pleading eyes cut through me too, but I try to see the bigger picture. Instead, I try to give them food or water. I try to support fair trade organizations or not for profits who teach or employ children and youth. There are so many ways to give back without giving money directly to a child.

In Cambodia alone, I’ve already eaten meals at two restaurants that support youth. Veyio Tonle and Friends, both in Phnom Penh. I also have purchased souvenirs and gifts from a couple of not for profit organizations, including Friends who have a great store with many recycled items, hand made by the children and youth that they support. You can also have a $3 – $5 manicure or pedicure at the Friends store and spa where youth are learning skills that can help them earn money.

The next time you travel, source out some reputable organizations to support, be strong and don’t give in to the children begging on the street. Rather, give back to an organization that teaches skills so that the children can earn a living and hopefully make a change to end the vicious poverty cycle that they currently live in.

Giving money to one or two children in the street may feed them for a day. Supporting a not for profit organization or charity may not help that same child, but it will help many children have a better life by gaining skills so that they do not have to live and beg on the streets.

South East Asia – Chapter 18 – One Day in Mandalay – Working Hands

After our overnight bus ride, we had a short time to freshen up and then we were back on the bus for our one-day adventure in Mandalay. Our guide told us that often tourists don’t like Mandalay because the city is spread out with no real ‘centre’ district. All of the attractions seem to be in different directions. It isn’t really a great city just to have a stroll in. Having said that, the attractions in the area are fantastic and I wouldn’t want to have missed Mandalay. In fact, if you are open minded and want to explore, I’m sure that 3-4 days would be time well spent in the city and surrounding area.

We headed off for a quick stop at a gold leaf workshop where the process was demonstrated and explained. On one side of the workshop, the men were hard at work pounding the materials to flatten them and increase their size. The methodical and melodic steady pounding of the metal would likely drive me crazy after any amount of time, but these folks work and sweat through it for hours every single day. On the other side of the workshop there were women busy laying gold leaf over various items that were for sale. This gold leaf is also used in most of the temples and pagodas throughout Myanmar.

Next stop was a silk weaving workshop where women were hard at work on their weaving looms. The amount of physical labour that these people do for mere dollars a day is absolutely astounding.

I believe in supporting not for profit organizations and the people that they assist, so I bought souvenir items at both of these locations, knowing that the money was going back into the community rather than being handed through several channels, such as a kid selling something at a market, to their parents, to their boss etc.

I enjoy buying items that I’ve seen the process behind and paying for an artisans work rather than buying souvenir items from a market where they have likely been mass-produced for pennies a day rather than dollars a day. I support fair labour where I can.

We also visited a weaving and marionette shop. I really wanted to bring marionettes home for my nieces, but they were large and made of wood, so I decided not to. I didn’t want to take the chance that they would be confiscated at the border. And they would be difficult to carry for the next two and a half weeks.

Besides the vast array of unique marionettes, the shop had all kinds of interesting ironworks, weaving and decorative wall art. Even such things as opium weights, animal skulls, and statues.

South East Asia – Chapter 16B – Astrology Reading

At the Shwedagon Pagoda, our local guide took us to see a lovely old man who did an astrology reading for us based solely on our date and year of birth. He did his math on an old-school chalk board and spoke only the local language.

Astrology Reading at Shwedagon Pagoda
Astrology Reading at Shwedagon Pagoda

As each one of us went in, our local guide took notes and then translated the reading for us. Some of the group were amazed by how accurate he was. I, however, felt that it didn’t work for me. You make your own judgement. Here’s what my date and year of birth had to say about me.

South East Asia – Chapter 8 – Masaman Curry

*written Aug 16th.

Still hanging out at the DMK airport with no internet. I fell asleep with my face buried in my luggage for a good 45 minutes at one point. When I woke up I was really confused. I had no idea where I was or if I had missed my check in … or if I had been snoring! No one seemed to be looking at me funny, so I decided I must have muffled my snores in my camera bag that I was laying on.

It was about 12:45pm local time and I was set to check in sometime between 1 and 1:30pm.

Both my left arm and leg had completely gone numb from the way I had been sleeping. I nearly cried when my leg started to get feeling back. I couldn’t move it at all it hurt so bad. So, I sat wincing for a few minutes hoping that the blood would soon be flowing normally again. Once I was sure I could stand up without falling down, I had toward the check in gate and found a seat there.

At 1:30 I checked in and then made my way through passport clearance and on to the other side of the airport. AH! It is much nicer on this side. Newer, more comfortable, fewer people, nicer shops and restaurants.

I wandered down to see where my gate was (directly in front of Dairy Queen). Quickly looked at the DQ menu and then decided since I was in Thailand, I’d try something more Thai than Dairy Queen. On their menu though they have various types of hot dogs and Matcha green tea blizzards.

Instead, I went to a café where I could sit and have my first Thai meal. I ordered an ice cran-apple tea and masaman curry. It happens to be my favorite when I eat Thai at home, so I wanted to compare. It was ready within five minutes and I was drooling from the scent before it even hit my lips.

It is a fish sauce / curry broth with chicken, onions and a chunky vegetable. At home it is made with sweet potato. Here, I’m not sure what it was. It looked more like turnip, but didn’t taste like either sweet potato or turnip, so I’m not sure.

Served with rice, a fork and spoon, I mixed it in together and gobbled it up. It was a bit spicier than the masaman curry they make at home, but it was very good. The only part I didn’t like was that they left the skin on the chicken. I’m not a fan of slimy chicken skin in my soup, so I ate around it.

The meal cost me 291 Thai Baht. (about $10 US). At home it would be around $12 to $15 Canadian. Keep in mind though, it is pricier because it is at an airport.

$50 US = 1480 Thai Bhat (airport exchange)
$1 US = 30 Thai Bhat

I don’t think they feed me a meal on Air Asia, so my next meal (if I’m hungry) will be in Yangon.

South East Asia – Chapter 7 – Random Observations

A short little post about things I noticed during my transfer from Bangkok International Airport to Don Muang Airport. Totally random …

1. Bus drivers in Thailand are mainly female.
2. A lot of people where masks over their face while walking around at the airport or elsewhere. We
rarely see this at home, but it is commonplace here.
3. There is a Muslim praying room right beside where I am sitting in the DMK airport.
4. Bangkok (from the highway) looks like any other big city, with a few gold religious places or pagodas
sprinkled throughout the tall concrete jungle, mostly slightly on the outskirts of city centre
though.
5. People here don’t seem to smile or laugh much. Now, maybe that’s because I’ve only been at the
airport. Maybe it isn’t a happy place to work or be?
6. I feel very safe. I’m sitting in the airport with my laptop out and my luggage all beside me, but
other than keeping an eye on my surroundings, I haven’t see anything to make me think someone might
try to pick-pocket me or run away with my stuff. I’m sure walking down the street I would feel
differently.
7. I’ve seen more than a few white men with much younger Asian women.
8. The cleaning staff wear gloves all the time and pick garbage up with tongs of different sorts. I
haven’t seen any recycling bins to sort different items, but the cleaners seem to separate the
bottles and cans from the paper with their handy tongs.
9. I have yet to see any good looking Thai men. I’ve never really been attracted to Asian men, but I
assumed that once I arrived in the country and was surrounded by them that there would be a higher
volume and that would mean I’d see more, therefore find more of them attractive. Unfortunately, not
so far. Just a random observation, no I’m not looking to hook up!
10. The women wear the cutest outfits! So girly, frilly, light and feminine. I suspect most of them are
designer though and I probably wouldn’t do girly and frilly very well so I don’t think I’ll be
shopping for those outfits while I’m here. We’ll see when I return at the end of my trip.

South East Asia – Chapter 6 – DMK Airport

10:30am local time in Bangkok on August 16.
Sitting on the floor in the airport … questionable? Yes, it is.

Blah. That’s what I have to say about the Don Meuang Airport in Bangkok. Just Blah.

The free shuttle bus took about an hour between the two airports. We went from four lane highways to four lanes that the locals had made into five and six lanes. Sometimes we were trucking along at 80kms an hour, other times at a snails pace weaving in between cars.

The shuttle bus is old and tattered, but generally decently clean and they seemed to keep us safe throughout the traffic, which was my main concern.

I could see city centre in the distance with all of its high rises, but unfortunately the windows were screened with advertising so I couldn’t capture any even half-ass photos.

On arrival at DMK airport, I went to the hotel reservations desk with the idea that if I could rent a room at an airport hotel for ½ a day, at least I could shower, get cleaned up and not have to cart my luggage around.

There was no one at the Hotel desk.

I went to the information desk instead. They told me that the hotel is 15-20 minutes cab ride away. I decided I didn’t want to bother. I checked at a local tour desk but no one had any interest in taking me for a tour for just 2-3 hours. Here their price was $100 US. Um, no. I don’t want to spent $100 US on a tour for 2 hours when I’m sure I could get it much cheaper (if I could be bothered to try and negotiate with a taxi driver). However, after 24 hours in transit, I cannot be bothered.

So … off I went following the departures signs. At the top of the escalator (where I’m now carrying three backpacks), the sign says straight. Well, straight takes you into a wall, so I took a slight left and then a right down a long hallway. I knew I was going the wrong direction, but hadn’t seen any other option. At the end of the long hall, I found a lady who pointed me to the next floor up for departures. Maybe that sign with the arrow was saying “up” not “straight”.

Up another level I went to the departures gate. After asking several people where to go, I was directed to the International Departures Passport security clearance. I entered and a nice lady pointed me back out because I hadn’t even checked in yet. Well, I know that, but this is where people told me to go. She sent me out to the Air Asia desk. I put my checked bag through the security scan, they cleared it and I went to the counter. The girl looked at me like I had three heads. Eventually she told me that I can’t check in because my flight isn’t until 4:30pm. I will have to wait until 1:30 for check in.

Back out I went, but now what? I’m wandering around a tiny airport with all of my luggage and nothing to do. I can’t go for a walk outside, the shops on this level are minimal …

Best I could hope for was free internet. I found a free connection with Nok Wifi, you just have to provide your booking number. Unfortunately, mine doesn’t seem to work. Maybe because I’m still six hours before my flight? Or maybe this airport just has it out for me.

Well, I guess I’ll look for a place to charge my phone and laptop that are dying. After walking up and down the main area twice, I finally found a dodgey looking plug in that someone else had used to charge their cell phone. When he was done, I dug out my converter, looked at the pieces and plugged it in to the wall, just to have it fall back out. It’s too heavy and the plug in is pretty shotty looking.

Another look and I discovered that my two-prong cell charger would actually plug directly into it.

YAY! Thank goodness for yet another small pleasure.

Boo. Just in time for me to realize that I forgot my two-prong laptop charger. I only have my three-prong charger.

With my computer having already run out of battery power, I was super bummed. Here I was, all the way in Asia with intent of writing lots of blogs, saving and sending photo updates to everyone etc and my computer is dead with no way to charge it. Even the converter that I bought doesn’t accept three prong plugs. Well damn it.

Then, I decided just to give it a try in the dodgy plug in. Lo and behold, I’m sitting on the floor at the DMK airport charging both my cell phone and my computer … knock on wood, neither of them have blown up and the plug in isn’t sparking.

And folks … This is how I roll … That’s right … in white pants, sitting on the airport floor in a country I’ve never been too with my laptop and cell phone charging in dodgy plug ins. When you are traveling, sometimes you just don’t care how ridiculous you look or how uncomfortable you are….

I’ll take it though. I have nothing else to do except for sit and write at the moment. It’s getting close to lunch time here, but it’s too hard to take care of all of my luggage, plus order, pay and carry my lunch. So, I’m hanging out for another two and a half hours until I can check my luggage in. Then I’ll head through passport control, security and find some food on the other side of the gate. (or at least I hope I will).

Besides, who knows … this may be the last three-prong plug in that I find. And, if that’s the case I won’t be able to send photo updates and blogs. ACK! I doubt I’ll find a 2-prong Mac book pro plug-in while I’m in Myanmar, but if worst comes to worst, I’ll have a look for one when I get to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.

Here’s hoping I can keep my laptop up and running as long as possible!

Not to worry, I’ll still be able to send text and facebook updates via my cell phone whenever I have wifi service, so I won’t totally disappear!

Cross your fingers!

South East Asia – Chapter 5 – Long Haul

I left Halifax, on time at 11:45pm on Air Canada. I was seated in row 34 of about 40 in an aisle seat. I don’t know why but I was expecting the flight to be super long. It isn’t. It is only 4-5 hours depending on winds. I guess last time I flew to London was from New York when I went to Poland for the Coaltion for Kids project. That flight seemed much longer.

Touched down in London on August 15th at around 9am in Terminal three and was thrilled to know that I didn’t have to navigate various terminals as my Thai Airways flight was also set to leave from Terminal three. Thank goodness for small pleasures.

I sat around with hundreds of other people waiting for my gate to be populated on the big screen. That meant waiting from 9am when I arrived until 11:30am (15 minutes before boarding). I walked around a bit to try and give my poor ol’ bum a break from sitting, but I didn’t really go in any of the shops.

Air Canada had given us breakfast (egg omelette with mushrooms and bits of sausage & a fruit cup), so I wasn’t starving when I arrived, but by around 10:30 I decided I needed a bite to eat.

I went to a store called EAT and picked up a water, shop chips and a yogurt and granola parfait (yum!).

At pretty much exactly 11:30, our gate was announced and I headed down several long hallways to my gate. They checked us in and then we waited in an area that was completely closed in with windows. Not long though, we boarded about 10 minutes later.

As I was boarding, the first thing I noticed was a stair case INSIDE the airplane. Oh my! Seriously? Was I sitting on the top level? Um, no, of course not … but the thought crossed my mind.

I walked down past business class with their fancy stretch out cubbies to sleep in … past another full section of economy (or premium economy) all the way to row 64 (out of 70) where I grabbed my aisle seat and got settled.

Time to take my malarone pill for Malaria and an anxiety pill … mostly just to keep me asleep. At this point I really was quite relaxed.

I grabbed the bottle of water that I had just purchased and ….

IT EXPLODED! Sssssssss …. Spray … EEEK!

I closed it off quickly but not before it had managed to soak my pants and t-shirt and send a few droplets toward the passenger seated beside me and the kid on the other side of the aisle. The Thai hostess rushed to grab us each paper towel

How embarrassing!

Yup, England is one of the many places (unlike Canada) that regularly sells carbonated water. Yuck. I never even considered this when I picked the bottle up. Seriously! If you want water why do you want carbonation in it? It’s just not my thing. Anyway … now, it was my thing as I was wearing about a ¼ of the bottle.

I took my pills, apologized to the other water sprayed passengers and proceeded to try to sleep.

I really did sleep quite well on the plane, despite the three guys who were incredibly loud sitting behind me. Really, they were sitting with each other and still yelling. At least they were happy.

Take off was kind of cool. We seemed to taxi at high speed forever. I guess it’s necessary to lift one of these double decker planes off the ground. It was a bit bumpy on the way up, but nothing over the top and soon enough I was dosing off.

I awoke for our first snack about an hour into the trip. Sour cream pretzels and a drink. Liquor (within reason) is also free on these flights, but I didn’t partake. Last thing I need is to get hung over on all of these travels! And with my luck, one drink would have done it … or worse, I would have spilled it all over me!

Next up, supper. We had our choice of two lovely dishes. I chose the rice, vegetables and green curry chicken. Even the beans and carrots were especially good. YUM! (but yikes it was hot!) I was nearly crying by the time I got water to me and even then I had to ask for three glasses. I loved it though. Super yummy! So was the dessert cheesecake to go along with it.

Then they walked around and gave everyone a hot cloth to wash their face. Wow, did that feel nice. Too hot to hold initially but it cooled quickly and was certainly refreshing.

Then I tried to watch the movie Side Effects. I got about ½ way or maybe 3/4s through and then, well, I drifted off to sleep. I tried twice more to pick up and start where I left off and both times I fell back asleep. Not because the movie wasn’t good … I think the pills were just keeping me in dazed mode.

I was awake for about an hour a bit later in the flight and listened to some music and watched a couple of tv shows.

Back to sleep and then when I woke up there was a sandwich on the seat for me! I certainly wasn’t going to go hungry on the flight.

I tried the sandwich, but it wasn’t my favorite. I think it might have been tuna / salmon and maybe chicken? I’m not really sure. I took a couple of bites, but that was it. Besides, I wasn’t really that hungry.

Next up, about two hours before landing (flying over Burma at this point) it was breakfast time! Local time in Thailand was about 3:45am. I decided to get the quiche with mushrooms and bacon. Yum! Let me tell you, I certainly had no issues with this airplane food. It’s better than what I cook at home.

And then, all of a sudden, we are starting our descent! I couldn’t believe it. Despite the fact that I was uncomfortable, tired and my tailbone really really hurt, the flight really hadn’t been too bad. The service was excellent, the staff were super friendly and there was just a little bit of added space between your knees and the chair in front of you.

I’m so excited that they are a star alliance partner. I’ll choose to fly with them whenever I can. (Unlike United who I will avoid whenever I can!).

Our descent was uneventful (thankfully). I starred out the window and saw the lights of Bangkok as it was still completely dark. What a large and beautiful city in the dark. I asked my seat mate to take a photo with my phone. Not sure it’s very good, but it’s a memory just the same. Touch down was a piece of cake and then out through the airport was easy peasy.

Signs everywhere were in Thai and English, so no trouble to navigate the airport. This was one of my biggest concerns and it wasn’t necessary.

Next up, immigration … no problem.

Baggage pick up … no problem! By the time I was through immigration my bag was already rolling toward me on the conveyor belt, perfectly in tact in the large air Canada plastic bag.

Phew! One stress after another, just completely disappearing and I can feel myself getting closer to relaxing.

I went to a tour desk to see if I could get a city tour from 7 or 8am until 1pm, starting at the BKK airport, going through the city and then dropping me off at 1pm at the DMK airport. The nice man went through the entire city with all of the things I could stop and see, including China town where I could stop and eat if I wanted. Then he told me 4000 Thai Bhat. That’s approximately $200 US. That was an immediate no for me.

I found my way (after asking several staff) to the free shuttle to DMK and I’m about to board it now. Once I’m at DMK I’ll look into storing my luggage and taking a bus or train somewhere for a few hours. If not, I’ll sleep or use internet or find myself some yummy thai food for lunch!

South East Asia – Chapter 3 – Air Asia

After being rebooked twice (United to Air Canada and then United rebooked me to a different Air Canada), I was all set to depart Halifax at 11:45pm on August 14th. Not soooo bad after the rotten morning I had when United originally told me I couldn’t leave Halifax until Friday.

After getting the International flight sorted, I was still left to sort out my connections. I’d be landing in Bangkok at 6:05am on August 16th at the Bangkok (BKK) airport and would need to transfer to the DMK airport about an hour away to catch my flight to Yangon, Myanmar. This, would pose a problem. I would be landing at the same time that I should be checking in for my flight at the other airport. This was just not going to work.

I tried to call Air Asia, but there was no answer. There was a message in Thai and then click. No English. Not that I’m surprised, but a little disappointed. Then, I discovered that they were closed for the day because it was after 9pm in Thailand. Hmmm … now what. I started looking through the website to figure out if I could change my tickets … after a bit I found the change penalties (1100 Thai Baht), but those are only if you cancel / change with more than 48 hours notice. Unfortunately I was less than 48 hours away. Now what?

I found @askairasia and I asked them. But, I didn’t get a response right away.

I found instructions in ‘help’ on how to manage my booking and make a change. I figured it was worth a try, so I tried, but no go … the computer knew I was under 48 hours until departure.

I called the insurance company back and confirmed that I did in fact have coverage for this flight as it was due to a cancelled flight by United … and then by Air Canada. They informed me that I did, for up to $1000 for change fees or new flights.

I asked if I could start the claim right away, because I had all the documents I needed. They advised that the claim form had been emailed to me and that I can’t start it until I have the claim form. Not seeing it in my inbox, I advised her. She told me it could take up to 24 hours. Really? How often now-a-days does email take 24 hours? (By the way, it’s now been 22 hours and it has not yet arrived in my inbox …)

There was no way for me to cancel my original Air Asia flights online (because of the 48 hour restriction) and the office wasn’t open. So, I went ahead and bought a completely new round trip ticket from Bangkok to Yangon for August 16th at 4:30pm instead of my original one at 7:15am. Total damage? About $250, which the insurance company should pay back.

Total time to sort out all of these issues: 7 hours

August 13th
– Check in to United through to getting off the phone with them – 2.5 hours

August 14th
– Check in for Air Canada flight (6:50am) – find out it was cancelled – 15 minutes
– Call to United – 1 hour
– Call to my manager at The Adventure Travel Company – 5 minutes
– Call to insurance company – 30 minutes
– Collecting proof of cancelled flights from Air Canada – 5 minutes
– Collecting proof of cancelled flights from United – 5 minutes
– United Staff member finding me good new connecting flights without me even asking – 10 minutes
– Waiting at United counter for my new ticket to be issued and printed old school as a paper ticket – 30 minutes.
– Sorting out Air Asia flights including their slow website (not normally, just yesterday) – 1 hour
– Calling credit card company because my payment wouldn’t work – 15 minutes
– Contacting Tucan Travel to re-arrange my airport transfer on arrival in Yangon – 5 minutes

Problems started at about 9pm on Tuesday evening. I didn’t have them fully finalized until nearly 2pm the next day. That’s a lot of pain in the butt.

Now, has this ever happened to you?
Two really strong points of advice …

1. Buy good Travel insurance for trip cancellation, interruption & medical. My insurance cost me about $90, but before I even left Halifax it paid for itself as they will reimburse me for the $250 for the Air Asia flight I had to rebook. Plus, I still have coverage if any other issues arise throughout the trip or on my return.

2. Book your travel through a travel agent. Unfortunately it didn’t help me much as I AM the travel agent, so I still had to do all my own work. But, if you have a travel agent, they can help you find better routings for cancelled flights so that you don’t have to believe that it is impossible to leave the Halifax airport and get rebooked two days later. Your travel agent will also have access to agent lines to get through the queues slightly faster at the airlines and access to more options than the standard person whose flight needs to be rebooked. This also means you can go about your day doing other things instead of sitting on hold with the airline. If you are in another country when any of this takes place, you make the call to your travel agent and then you don’t have to worry about wasting your cell phone battery power while on hold or making long distance, international phone calls or paying for wifi to research everything. Oh yeah … and that means that you can go home (hotel or airport bench) and sleep while the travel agent that you hired and paid does the work to get you sorted out. Doesn’t that sound like a good deal? When people wonder why travel agents are worth it and why they charge booking fees? This is just one example of many. I would gladly have left this all in the hands of a travel agent for a booking fee of ($50 – $60 – which insurance would probably cover), just to not have to wait on hold for all of that time and to get the right options first.

Air Asia did actually get back to me on twitter, but it was early this morning (during their work hours), so unfortunately it was to late and I had already rebooked my flights.

South East Asia – Chapter 2 – Air Canada Flight Cancelled

I woke up at the pleasant hour of 4:45am on August 14th. I guess my body felt four hours of sleep was sufficient! Maybe it was preparing for the crossing of the date line a little early.

Around 6am I headed to my sister’s house as she was going to drive me to the airport. Along the way I see a road sign that says something about construction on Blue water Road. I don’t think too much of it as Blue water road is off Hammonds Plains Road and I’m not heading that way.

I drive about five kms and see that Kearney Lake road is completely closed to traffic … Right at Blue Water Road. Who knew?!

So, I turned around, headed back out to the highway and down Hammonds Plains Road, finally arriving at my sister’s at close to 6:30 (it should only have taken 10-15 minutes!)

Jump forward to the airport … I grab all of my stuff, double check for my phone and my passport and then head inside, while sissy is on her way back home.

I go to the kiosk to print my baggage tags, but it can’t find my confirmation number. I tried three times, searching by confirmation number, flight number and date of travel. No luck. Finally I asked one of the Air Canada staff and informed me that the flight was cancelled and to see the ladies at the counter.

The lady at the counter told me the flight was cancelled due to weather. High winds and fog had prevented the plane from landing the evening before so it was not coming, therefore the flight was cancelled. I asked her to help me get rerouted, but I already knew the answer.

Her: I’m really sorry, but this ticket is issued with United Airlines, so they have to do all those changes for you. You’ll have to call them.

… Did you just feel my heart break?

I headed to the benches, unloaded my backpacks and hit redial on the United number that was in my phone from the night prior.

Oh, hello Mr. Automated Man! I see your hearing didn’t improve overnight …

Him: What is your departure city?
Me: Halifax.
Him: I’m sorry, could you say that again?
Me: Halifax.
Him: I’m sorry, but I’m having trouble understanding you. Could you try one more time?
Me: HAL…. I … FAAAAAXXXXX
Him: I’m sorry. Let’s try this another way. Please say your last name.
Me: Tucker
Him: Are you Donald?
Me: No.

… You see where this is going right?

Eventually Automated Man got tired of me and put me through to a person. No wait time! Great!

I explained to the lady the situation and she began looking for new flights for me. I won’t go through all of the long boring details, but after some sighing and grumbling, she informed me that she couldn’t get me out of Halifax today at all. All flights were booked. I asked about an upgrade to business or first class to get me on one of the flights. Of course, they can’t do that because it’s not the same class of service (cheap flight) that I originally booked. I went through a bunch of options with her and tried to get her to look at flights to other places, but she was stuck on flights to Toronto and the fact that they were all sold out. She informed me I simply could not get out of Halifax today.

She went on to tell me that the next flights she could find were on Friday morning, putting me in Bangkok on the 17th. I explained that I would miss connecting flights and part of my tour. Was United going to do anything about any of that?

Her: I can’t answer that for you. I’m in reservations, you would have to talk to the customer care department for that.

Eventually I got tired of asking her to search other routes because she just kept telling me everything was full. I understood that everyone on the Halifax morning flights had been rebooked and that most flights were full, but I was increasingly annoyed that she wouldn’t consider putting me in a higher class of service to keep me on track rather than making me wait two days to leave and miss my connections / beginning of my tour.

Finally, I gave up.

I asked her to book the flights for Friday that she had suggested and then to transfer me to the customer care department.

Her: You can reach the customer care department online at … (and she spewed out an address)
Me: Oh. Actually, can’t you transfer me there once you’ve booked my flights?
Her: No. I’m sorry. They don’t have a phone number to transfer you to. You’ll have to contact them online.
Me: Did I just hear you correctly? Your customer care department does not have a phone number?
Her: Yes, that’s correct ma’am.
Me: And, if I don’t have access to a computer at this time?
Her: Well, Ma’am, you’ll have to wait until you do. That is the only way to contact them.
Me: Really? It is called the Customer Care department and they have no phones?
Her: Well, yes, they do have phones, but not a number for the public.
Me: Ok. ok. Please book the tickets for Friday morning and I will contact your Customer Care Department online.

Eventually after holding, the tickets got fixed up. The confirmation stayed the same and once again, I was done an hour long conversation with United Airlines.

By this time, I figured I could call my manager at the Adventure Travel Company and maybe not wake him up. He’d help me!

After all, if I was in front of a computer with access to the flights, I would have been able to look for my own routing and I’m sure that I would find that I could actually get out of Halifax today. But, it wasn’t worth arguing over as I wasn’t getting anywhere.

My manager told me he’d look in to it as soon as he got to work. Phew! I had complete faith he’d find me a great option. I would hang tight at the airport for a bit just in case there was another option leaving relatively soon.

In the meantime, I called my favourite (& only) sister to put her on standby that she may have to come back and retrieve me from the airport.

Then, more phone calls. It was time to get an insurance claim started. Based on being rebooked on a Friday flight, I was going to miss my already paid for connecting flight in Asia from Bangkok to Yangon. I was going to miss out on my airport transfer, a night’s hotel and most importantly, the beginning of my tour in Yangon. If I couldn’t get to Yangon by the afternoon of the 17th, then I would need to catch up in another part of Burma, missing a couple days of the tour and trying to navigate Burma on my own. Not looking forward to that part at all.

When the insurance lady answered it sounded like I had just woken her up!

I explained the situation and that I had been rebooked, but I would be incurring expenses to catch up to my tour which I would now be late getting to. She explained to me that I only had $1000 to use toward flights (no hotels, no tours, nothing else, just flights). This didn’t make sense to me as my policy was for $5000. She kept telling me I could rebook flights and use up to $1000. After asking her to repeat it a couple of times and different ways, she put me on hold. Then she came back and told me the same thing again. So, I guess it was up to me to ask it a different way so she would give me a different answer.

Me: Ok, so if all my policy covers is $1000 for flights, what is the other $4000 of the $5000 for?
She came back with the same spiel about being able to use $1000 for flights. UG!
Me: And, the $4000 of other coverage? What is it for?
Her: Not for your flights.
Me: Ok. So, if I’m reprotected on a flight on Friday. I do not need to book a new flight to Asia as the airline has that covered. Do I have coverage for changing my connecting flight in Europe.
Her: Yes. I told you. $1000.
Me: Ok. I understand that there is $1000 for flights. So, what about the tour and the transfers / hotels etc that I am not using. Is there any reimbursement for those?
Her: No. Not for this reason.
Me: What reason is that?
Her: Cancelled flights. If they were delayed, yes, but not if they were cancelled.
(This still doesn’t make sense to me)
Me: Ok, so because of the delays, if I use my $1000 to rebook flights into Yangon and then my tour has departed and I need to catch up to that tour by bus, is that covered?
Her: Yes.
I never did find out if that comes out of the $1000 or not …
Me: Ok. Could you please start a claim for me as I will be rebooking my Asia flights and may need some other things straightened out. So, I might as well start the process now.

After also digging to find out exactly what information I needed in order to submit my claim (official notices from both airlines that the flights had been cancelled and why … as well as receipt for my new flights), I asked for the claim number, for email confirmation and got off the phone.

I asked my sister to come back and get me as I wasn’t overly hopeful any more for getting out of Halifax today. And, I was cranky.

While I waited for my ride, I went to the Air Canada desk and got confirmation of the flight cancellation. I then went to the United desk and did the same.

The United staff member, Colleen, asked me to wait a moment, but didn’t say why.
Her: Why is it that you aren’t just going on the Halifax to London flight with Air Canada tonight and then in to Bangkok the next day?
Me (with huge bright eyes): Really? That’s an option? The United call centre told me I couldn’t leave Halifax today.
Her: Let me just double check to make sure we can do this.

In the mean time, my manager was texting me saying he had found that same option. So, I let him know that United was working on it.

A few minutes and a couple of phone calls later, she said that it was AOK, but she would have to print me an old school paper ticket, not an e-ticket. Several of them struggled light heartedly over trying to get the paper ticket to work (it’s been MANY years since they had to do those) and then finally handed me my new tickets with explicit instructions not to lose them as they were like cash. Ok. Got it.

I thanked her profusely. I wasn’t expecting her to even try to find anything for me and she found me a much better option, much earlier and no cost to me. How could I not be happy with that?

So, I left the airport at around 9:15am (after arriving at 6:45am) and went back to my sisters to get my car for the day. I now didn’t need to be at the airport until 8:30pm tonight. YAY!

Despite the chaos and poor customer service throughout the day with United Airlines, Colleen was super helpful without being asked. In the end, I got better connections, I’m not transiting through the US and I’ll be flying with Air Canada and Thai Airways (one of the best in the business!)

To top it all off, I’m traveling on a true Around the World ticket where I will be crossing both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans in my travels, one on my way there and one on the way home. I guess it is my new claim to fame.

The chaos did not end there though! I was still going to miss my connecting flight in Bangkok to Yangon and had to get that taken care of so I wouldn’t be trying to figure it out in Bangkok.