Welcome to Downunder and one sad farewell

Renting a car in Melbourne for Christmas - like a jackpot in the lottery

After a 7hr flight under arctic conditions due to air conditioning working on full volume (you COULD stop freezing if you rented a blanket for 3$...) we finally arrived in Melbourne and made it to Geelong, a city about 2 hrs away from the airport with the only rental car available in the whole district. Apparently, Christmas is a very popular time for Australians as well as tourists to go and to explore the countryside, so much so, that literally no cars were available in the whole area. Once we finally got our hands on a rental car for the next few days, our trip along the Great Ocean Road could commence. Driving west of Melbourne, we went through  the Great Otway National Park and the Otway Forest Park where you can find koalas in the wild, many vineyards and tropical forests, as well as many beautiful beaches. Our highlight of our first night in Australia was seeing the sunset at the 12 Apostles and the penguins living there which come back home every night 30 min after sunset. Funny enough they are called 12 Apostles even though it's definitely less than 12 stone pillars in the sea.


 

And the award to the most annoying fly goes to.....

the Australian Bush Fly! this type of fly prefers to really be 'in your face'.

It feeds on your saliva and other excrement so it really tries to get into your mouth, eyes, nose and open wounds-yummy! And usually, there are about 20 of them at least...something nobody warned us off. As a consequence, the idea of going on a hike was quickly thrown overboard and instead we made our way towards Warrnambool up the coast where we had a 16 bedroom dorm just for ourselves.

On Christmas Eve, we went to one of the local cheese farms and had a nice Christmas lunch, before we made our way back towards the city of Melbourne. Where we had an surprisingly good Armenian Christmas dinner.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Koalas, kangaroos and dolphins for Christmas

On Christmas day, we decided to go to Philipps Island where we managed to see koalas and kangaroos, and on top of that, on boxing day, we were lucky enough to snorkel with dolphins. In addition, we managed to meet up with two friends of mine, one from California and the other one from Germany. Both moved to Melbourne so of course we stopped and made a visit. Although many years had passed until we last saw each other, it felt like it had been just yesterday.  Melbourne itself is very similar to London and the hip area called fitzroy is equal to Camden, but overall, with all the excursions and meeting with friends, we didn't get to see that much of the city. Our impression was that there is plenty of delicious food available in Melbourne, from Chinese, over Thai, Lebanese and many more. Australia in general seemed to be rather expensive, food as well as accommodation so it is not necessarily the right decision for people on a budget.

New Years Eve fireworks in Sydney and one sad farewell

Right before New Year, we hopped on a bus towards Sydney to visit another friend and a former boss of mine. We were lucky enough to get a room in the heart of the city and decided to do a walking tour through the downtown area, as well as an Opera tour and a relaxing day at Manly Beach. For our final day of the year, we ended up going to Coogee Beach and walking along the coast direction Bondi. After that, we had lunch with our friend and managed to watch the Sydney fireworks from a prime location, with harbor bridge on our left and the opera on our right, rooftop terrace and live band included. This can be considered as the coolest firework both of us have ever seen and the best way to finish our trip together.

After just 3 hours of sleep, we started what would be our last little  journey together, at least on this trip, towards the Sydney Airport to say good bye. While Johannes made the decision to continue his adventure in Australia, I headed back to Asia to meet up with my mum.

Yangon- A City of 1000 Smells and our Getaway to the Beach

Let's hear it for two factor authentication

Yangon started with a rather unpleasant experience: Upon arrival, we managed to escape the evil taxi drivers and found a shared minibus which drove us almost directly to the hostel, but when we got off, we realized that Johannes was missing his mobile phone and even though he managed to catch up, by the time he found the bus at the final stop, his phone was gone and somebody must have taken it. The consequences of this was bigger than at first expected, as nowadays everything is linked to your mobile phone and we pretty much depend on it. So, making a transaction all of a sudden does not work so easily anymore, as the TAN are sent to your mobile. Also, opening your Gmail account tends to be a challenge because it will ask you to send a text to your phone if you log in from an unknown location, same for Paypal. So we ended up having to joggle money around in order to sort our finances.

On the circular train

Yangon was different from what we had experienced so far. On top of the thousand smells the city has to offer (especially in china town where everyone is cooking something close to the street and especially intestines are creating quite an intense fragrance), there was a constant heat in the concrete jungle which made one longer for a getaway to the beach. We had our accommodation in Chinatown and our room holds the record for the tiniest place we have been on this trip.  There were no windows, no space for your luggage and Johannes could reach all four corners of the room with his hands and feet at the same time by stretching out on the bed, THIS is how tiny it was.
As we were roaming the city in the scorching heat we once again saw the streets being covered in red spots pretty much everywhere you go. Those spots stem from the ubiquitous habit/addiction Myanmar's male population has... chewing betel nut. After they chew it for a while they just spit out a spate of red goo pretty much everywhere, indoors in  bus stations on the street out of car windows. This mix then slowly dries and colors the ground red - how pleasant.

We figured that the best way of exploring the city would be by using the circular train. It is no only very very cheap, but it drives around the suburbs and the more rural areas of Yangon and is used by both tourists and locals. It drives among others right through a market with stalls lining up to the left and right straight up to the tracks almost touching the passing train.

Charging our Batteries at the Beach

After this, we got on a bus to Ngwe Saung and drove overnight the beach, where we arrived at 4am in the morning. As our accommodation was not ready, we decided to go and sleep at the beach until we could see the sunrise and so we did.



The Northern part of the village is rather touristy with several sellers and motortaxis, but once you get to the Southern part, where there are no restaurants, hardly any sellers and fewer people, relaxing is made easy. One can go snorkeling to the lovers island or just hang out at the beach. And Myanmar continues to amaze us with their beautiful sunsets. Other than splashing in the sea on tires and occasionally losing your bath suit while doing so, the activities were set at a minimum and the goal was charging our energy before continuing our journey.

An unforeseen twist of fate

Eventually, we made it back to Yangon after one of the more unpleasant bus journeys on this trip. Apart from being shock frosted - we were already used to that - it was also a really windy and at the same time terribly bumpy road that challenged our stomachs. The last day we had left in Yangon was planned for seeing the Shwedagon Pagoda, the religious center of Myanmar and the most opulent with 60tons of gold and 4000 Diamonds weighing 1800 carats covering stupa and tip. Because who needs welfare programs if you can just invest your money in building crazy churches.
On that occasion we also realized why some of the monks would wear orange cloth and others pink... it wasn't in fact monks but nuns who as well have their heads shaved clean. It takes a second look to realize that.

But before visiting the temple we had to prepare mentally for Christmas in a wonderful bamboo cottage right on the beach on a remote island in the sun... or so we thought. Upon checking the weather we realized that the Monsoon was not yet over or just about to hit again. The forecast for the following week was rain mixed with thunderstorms, possible flooding and warning for smaller and medium range boats to better stay in the harbor - So much for Christmas at the beach. An alternative had to be found and as the tropical rains were haunting not only the Philippines but also Indonesia and Malaysia, we had to broaden our search perimeter and ended up deciding between Sri Lanka or Australia for Christmas.

After careful consideration, we figured that Australia would be the more charming option as it was on both of our bucket list. On top of that, we would be able to visit friends in Melbourne and Sydney, whom we had not seen for years now. However, booking flights and online visa with the hardly working Internet in Myanmar was rather challenging and had ended up taking almost half a day of our precious time, but in the end, we got it all figured out and continued our journey from Myanmar to Kuala Lumpur just to prepare for our next trip to Australia.
And by preparing we obviously are referring to soaking in a rooftop infinity pool overlooking Malaysia capital right in front of the Petronas Towers. Nothing to add to that.



Bagan – City of thousand Pagodas

The early Bird... Catches the sunrise

Unlike in Ecuador, buses in Myanmar seem to be usually on time or even arriving early (could be that we were only lucky though). As a consequence, instead of arriving at 5am, we arrived at 3am in Bagan, right in the claws of the cruel taxi drivers just waiting to rip tired-out Backpackers off. We were highly overcharged and went to our hotel at 3:30am where they couldn't check us in early. Already drained and half frozen due to the long journey and 'well functioning' arctic air conditioning, we continued our journey with an e-bike towards the pagodas for watching the sunrise.
Funny fact: it is prohibited to drive normal motorbikes around Bagan anymore and rental has specialized in e-scooters due to the fact that foreigners were causing many accidents by driving too fast. They usually don't go any faster than 40 km/h, unless they are pimped (up to 60km/h) and sometimes there is no speed indicator at all! Like Indiana Jones, we explored the old part of Bagan by night, attempting to find a less crowded Pagoda to watch the sunrise from. We ended up on a small one where about 10 others joined- nothing in comparison to what seemed to be hundreds on the infamous Shwe San Daw Pagoda. There is no doubt about it that the latter is offering a better view as it has more levels, but if you prefer to have a romantic spot, this is not the one. The sunrise however was beautiful especially when the balloons started their flight over the temples which were still covered in mist.

The rest of the day consisted of relaxing and sleeping as both of us were suffering from lack of sleep due to getting up early every other day. On top of the voluntary early awakenings, there were also some involuntary ones, due to 'morning gymnastics' or 'prayers' which were blasted out of big speakerphones at around 4am or 5am- no need to set your alarm, indeed!
One of our highlights in Bagan was the hot air balloon flight. Although it is very expensive, it is worth the money. The Balloons are checked regularly and the pilots are usually from the UK or Australia with hundreds of hours of flight experience. Becoming a pilot in Bagan is particularly tough and people do fail on their practical test despite having years of practical experience, but the challenge is not the flight itself, it actually is the communication. Every morning 21 balloons are starting their journey at the same time and the pilot is busy not only with steering, but also with communicating with both, other pilots and the air traffic controllers. Balloons do fly only in the morning due to the hot weather in the afternoon, but this gives you the chance to see the sunrise from above. We were particularly lucky with a very nice pilot and a flight that lasted 1:15 hours instead the usual 45 min due to good weather conditions and an experienced pilot. Next to us was a girl from Myanmar who seemed to be very popular- it turns out that she is a famous singer and calls herself 'Popo'. After hesitating a little, we decided to enlighten her on what the word 'popo' actually means in German (for all non-Germans: it means 'ass' but a cute word for it). She laughed a little when she found out but we guess she didn't mind too much. After our flight we went back to our hotel and ended up exploring some other temples- with Dhammayangyi being one of the Most unique ones in the sense that it is inhabited by bats which can be seen and heard while being inside. Many of the temples are unique in their own way- some have painted walls, some have interesting architecture, several levels one can climb on, hidden passages, different type of Buddha statues, so one doesn't get bored.

We heard from another traveler about a hidden pagoda which is usually empty at sunrise due to the fact that the stairway to the upper deck is difficult to find. In order to avoid pointless driving around in the dark prior to the sunrise,  we checked the location out beforehand and asked the guard of the temple if it would be locked or not. The guard said he would leave it open and indeed, when we came the next morning, we could easily get into the pagoda and enjoy our view all by ourselves while the sun came up and the balloons made their way towards the temples. 

Buy, eat and stay local!

When traveling to Bagan, every tourist has to pay 25000 Kyat (about 20$) for a 5 day ticket permission to enter the archeological zone. Theoretically, that sounds like a good idea as the temples need to undergo restoration once in a while, especially after the earthquake that shook the ground in August 2016 and destroyed several pagodas. However, turns out that 90% of the admission goes directly to the Government (and it is not really transparent what happens with the money), 8% go towards the Tourism foundation to promote Myanmar in other countries and to attract more and more tourists and only 2% is invested into restoration with the consequence of set up donation boxes at some of the temples.
NONE of that money is invested in the infrastructure or local projects, nothing goes to the people of Bagan which is especially bad after some of them were 'relocated' from old Bagan to a newer area to give space to luxury hotels. Locals rely on their handcrafts, postcards and souvenirs being bought, as well as on their food being eaten at the restaurants and their house being used for accommodation (rather than big hotels). The best idea is probably to eat out at different places and to shop ones souvenirs at different families. We found out that every family/seller has their fix spots and take care of 'their entrances', they also have to pay a certain amount of rent for their display location which many people don't know about.

Mount 'Poo-Poo':
A nightmare for OCD, a free monkey-porn show and the choice of where to go next

We spontaneously decided to go to Mount Popa, an extinguished volcano with a monastery on top called Tuyin Taung and a beautiful sunset spot. After having found out that taking an e-scooter wouldn't have been a good option as it would die half way, we decided to share a cab. The cab driver left later than expected, wanted to drop us off at a sugar cane factory which we kindly refused as we wanted to make it to the pagoda before it got dark and arrived there on the bumpiest road we have encountered, ready for sunset. The good news: Mount Popa is very well located and just beautiful to watch. There are, however, hundreds of monkeys which are taking advantage of the alms given by locals in the shape of fruits and food. The fact that one can meet hundreds of hyper energetic monkeys who can steal your camera, money, or other objects in itself is less disturbing than the reason why we think it should be named Mount Poo-Poo.
As with every pagoda, temple, monastery or shrine, one needs to take their shoes of before entering the pagoda and prior to climbing hundreds of steps towards the top. Taking the shoes off as well as covering shoulders and knees are a sign of respect, so here you go, of course we want to be respectful, so we do as they say. Everything is good until you see the amount of shit smeared on the stairs, the monkey pee puddles on the floor. Some of the shit was smeared, indicating that an unlucky person stepped into it with his bare feet. Some of the monkey turds were still intact, waiting for a poor victim to become one with the brown piles. And sometimes, you could see a mix of poo and pee- nothing for the faint hearted! I still find it difficult to understand how I could possibly show my respect to Buddha by walking up these stairs, with my feet covered in poo and pee, which I drag along the red carpet towards the statue and his shrine in order to say my prayers- this does not make any sense to me!

 

 

The idea of watching the sunset from the top of the mountain was thrown out of the window within seconds when we realized that we would have to walk down along poo street in the dark-no way! While climbing up poo street, which can be very difficult when tip-toeing the hundreds of stairs in order to avoid the size of the surface which can be contaminated' with poo, we managed to enjoy the view, the beautiful sea and the monkeys making out and having sex at this holy place, until we reached the top (after having passed about 15 donation boxes, by the way), just to find out that the pagoda was not sooo beautiful after all and continuing our decent towards the taxi.

Which beach to go next?

Once back in Bagan, we decided that we were ready to explore the beaches of Myanmar which were supposed to be beautiful and untouched, but which ones should we go to? While Ngapali is supposed to be the number one beach, prices for accommodation are sky-rocketing with more than 100$ per night. On top of that, the only feasible way of getting there is by plane (bad safety records and high prices for airplane tickets...). Our second and probably most favorite option would have been the south of Myanmar or the Mergui Archipelago which is supposed to be truly untouched and breathtaking, close to the border to Malaysia. Unfortunately, this would also have involved flying to the South and - on top of that- hiring a tour guide as the islands cannot be entered independently. If we had not had planned to go to the Philippines for 3 weeks, this would actually have been an option but we lacked time and money so we settled for Nwge Saung- a beach in the proximity of Yangon. Now we had to make a decision on the mode of transportation we wanted to take. While we were favoring the train as it is supposed to be a 'unique experience', bad reviews and horror stories of derailed trains made us choose the overnight bus again.  

Longyis, Thanaka and Cultural Experiences @ Inle Lake

Our first flight experience in Myanmar and getting to know the culture

Myanmar, although it has opened the borders to tourists recently, is still a country with economical and social instability. In several areas , recently in the Northern part close to China, are political riots. Furthermore, some minorities have been and still are chased and persecuted by the government and the guerilla groups don't contribute to creating a stable country. This in combination with flooding and very bad roads can make traveling via land uncomfortable or even impossible. Foreigners are not allowed to drive cars or motorbikes and the international as well as the German license is not accepted. For some areas, guides are needed and a special authorization needs to be given by the Government.

We planned on traveling via land from the border of Thailand to Inle lake, but we found out that this was not an option as many roads from the border to the lake are closed for foreigners. We ended up booking a flight to Heho, the closest airport to Inle lake. Myanmar has terrible safety records, especially along the coast, but our experience was pleasant. We arrived at our check in and while in Germany there are computers waiting for you to feed them with data and to spit out the ticket, in Myanmar everything is still done manually. When you enter the check in hall you feel more like you are on a fair with little pop up stalls. Some of the slogans ('You fly safe with us' ) are not contributing towards higher credibility. The scale looks like the ordinary scale on a farmers market back in the 70s and the check in is done manually, one can just simply look for their handwritten name, point on it....and the check in is completed;). After that, everybody gets a sticker similar to members of a guided tour and once the plane arrives, a guy comes in to announce that the plane is ready for boarding (don't expect any English, this was done in local language!) Everybody who has flown with Ryanair before will find the boarding procedure similar, as one has to walk towards the cabin, while you can see your luggage being dragged along in the dirt and hopefully put into your airplane. The flight itself was beautiful and the pastry that we got tasted very similar to pastry from back home in Germany- The best we have had on this trip so far. Most of the flights run in a circle , operating at different airports one after the other. After landing, we waited for people to depart the plane but nobody got off, so we also remained seated but found out eventually that it was our stop and managed to leave the aircraft before the plane commenced his flight to another destination.

We met a guy from Chile, shared a cab with him and ended up staying at the same affordable hostel as he did, even without reservation. In Myanmar, many hotels are run by the government, meaning that locals hardly benefit from the tourists if it weren't for restaurants and souvenirs. In addition, at Inle as well as at Bagan, tourists have to pay a certain entrance fee which is supposed to help preserve the area but most of it ends up in government's pockets anyway. This is why it is indicated to eat out at several places, ideally ones which are family run and to sleep in private guest houses rather than hotels owned by the state, as this helps to spread the money among different people.

Despite several warnings that Myanmar would be 'very touristy' and especially packed in December, we did not book in advance and were lucky enough to find affordable accommodation pretty much everywhere we went. While we heard before that food would also be expensive, we have to say that we disagree. It was easy to get a decent dish in the range of 0,70$-3$ which is totally alright.
When we arrived at Inle, the country just continued to amaze us. People are beautiful inside and out and many cultural habits were easy to be explored due Myanmar's authenticity. Longyis, a typical attire for men and women which look like a long skirt are worn everywhere instead of jeans or modern style dresses and help to keep the legs cool during the hot summer heat as well as to keep the mosquitoes away. The fabric is usually produced within the country and it is either cotton or silk, not a cheap, unhealthy polyester mix. Men wear shirts on top and women beautiful blouses which match perfectly. Many women have beautifully long hair even below their waist and butts, are very slender and good looking. Maybe their secret lies in the bark tree paste they put on their faces named Thanaka. It is used as a sun blocker and very good against oily skin. In addition, it keeps mosquitoes away and acts like a facial mask which you wear all day (like an all day Spa-amazing). We don't do marketing for Thanaka and no we are not being paid for it, but there are no doubts that this is a part of their secret. On top of that, food portions are ridiculously small so one has not to worry about the perfect beach body;) To top it all off, people in Myanmar are incredibly friendly and helpful and this is what makes them beautiful inside and out (except the taxi drivers which are as evil as everywhere else).

Pristine Sunrise over Inle Lake

We rented a boat for sunrise until sunset with three other people and while the driver hardly understood any English, we had a blast. We watched the Intha fishermen balance their way along the river in their little boats with their unique fishing and one-legged rowing technique, went to a small floating village, saw floating gardens and were dropped of at silver smith, a weaving factory and an umbrella production, all of it done manually which added a little aftertaste of promotional trips in Germany called 'Kaffeefahrten'.



Of course the people would have loved you to buy something but were never pushy. I think all of us would have preferred a little more independent tour but this is where the boats bring you to. While the promotional tours can be annoying to some, it is partly understandable. Unfortunately, a lot of the money (flights, archeological entry tickets, accommodation and booking via a tour operator) the tourists leave behind goes directly to the Government so the local people rely on souvenirs, handcrafts, local services and restaurants. Now, one can decide for themselves if 30$ for a handwoven and sewn dress is too much or not. Taking into consideration that they work for a month on certain pieces, I highly doubt that. But as long as they are not pushy, we can cope with it.

The problem with many backpackers is sometimes the ambiguous mindset. While they 'care' about the environment and the people, and while they 'feel bad' that the workers do not earn a lot of money and have difficulties to bring home food for the family every day (the average income in Myanmar is said to be about 100$ a month, but of course it differs depending on the region and the job), some of them still negotiate like crazy and some don't think about giving tips for a service provided, even if they would do so in their home country without hesitation. Some others are happy about having saved 500kyat which is about 0,30$, but 30 cents mean nothing for us but half a meal for the people here in Myanmar. The tourists are shaping the behavior of the locals and the other way around, so finding a middle way (negotiating just a little but not getting ripped off neither, watching your budget but preferably staying at privately owned places even if they might be slightly more expensive) is the key.

Tour de Inle

Another good way of exploring the lake is by bike. We passed Khaung Daing. a village known for its tofu production. and the hot springs, which tend to be overcrowded and packed with Chinese or Myanmar tourists groups arriving in tourist buses. Back on the east side of the river, you can pass sugar cane plantations and vineyards as well as some monasteries. One of our highlights was a small cave near a monastery with several Buddhas inside called Htet Eain Gu cave. We were literally the only people there other than the monk escorting us and showing us the way with his flashlight. Being in the cave was a nice escape from the heat outside, but walking (shoe less) into a cave with Buddha statues and shrines everywhere but pitch darkness once you have entered the chambers further inside the cave is an unusual experience. The monks come here for peaceful meditation and say their prayers in the dark. Johannes suggestion to turn our flashlight off and to remain in the cave for 10 min without any source of light was democratically rejected by the other members of the group (thank God!).

Another great experience was the sunset from the forest monastery which gives you a great view over the area. However, the bikes in Inle Lake (at least the ones we saw) did not have lights so we ended up riding our bike back in the pitch dark and in a hurry to make sure that we would reach our accommodation before the arrival of our overnight bus to Bagan. So we do not recommend you to do a 60km bike ride with a sunset view on the day of your departure, unless you love the adrenaline rush and the thought of having to drive in the dark and having to wave bye bye to your bus towards your next destination.
Lucky for us, we really wanted to get our bus so we drove 'Tour de France like' and even swallowed some flies occasionally, we made it back just in time for a shower and some watermelon and off we went on our first overnight bus in Myanmar!

Several Maes – Mae-Chan, -Salong, -Sai. Welcome to Tea Lovers Paradise

Now we know why it's called off the beaten path

Getting To Mae Salong was rather adventurous as there was no direct way and opinions differentiated on how to get there. Unluckily for us, the receptionist at our travel destination spoke hardly any English which is a huge disadvantage if you don't only want to organize a tour through the tea plantation but also find out the way of how to get there from Chiang Mai.
Luckily for us though, our hostel receptionist was extraordinary helpful and managed find the bus schedule, but also to book the tickets and called about 5 times the Mae Salong hotel receptionist to clarify on how to get there. In the end we got told that we would have to get a ticket to the border city in Thailand called Mae Sai, but we would have to get off somewhere in the middle of nowhere at a junction, where we would have to hail a bhat bus to bring us to Mae Chan to spend the rest of the evening. Schedules usually don't exist and bus drivers drive when they wish- difficult to comprehend for a German soul 😉
Turns out, this highly elaborated agenda was not 100% accurate after all. Once we reached the train station, we met a French couple who heard about another route for getting to Mae Salong, so confusion was all around and it didn't help that the drivers English was plain basic. In the end, we were lucky and dropped off in the center of Mae Chan were we seemed to be the only tourists around. Everybody was extremely helpful, even more so than in Chang Mai or Bangkok maybe because they were not fed up with tourists. Eventually we found our accommodation or rather the accommodation found us (news of backpackers arriving in town traveled fast) and went out to grab something to eat but the streets were dead but we ended up in a bar with nice music and a very cool vibe. Other than 3 foreigners who seemed to the working at the local language institute, we were the only ones - what a feeling!

The next day we continued our journey and tried to find the bus stop, with people pointing us to many different directions, again. Eventually we met a lovely lady working for the tourism foundation. She was waiting for her bus which comes every hour but didn't show up. I asked her 'what is your boss going to say if you come one our late?' - she replied' not much, I will just text him - like it's a usual procedure. We quickly found a bhat bus heading towards Mae Salong and ended up having a great conversation with a fellow traveler who used to work in South Sudan for doctors without borders - she described it as nerve wracking , having to fear for your life constantly, which was seconded by another girl we met who worked there as well for the same institution. After having an approx. 5 Thai minutes break (= 30 German minutes) we continued our journey and eventually reached to Mae Salong, a tea lover's paradise.

Mae Salong: its transformation from Opium hub to a tea lover's paradise

Mae Salong is a very special village and while it is now focusing on growing tea, it used to be in the center of the opium drug trafficking due to its favorable location between Myanmar and Laos. Nowadays, it enjoys a reputation of having the best tea of Thailand, mainly producing Oolong which is very popular in China . An additional interesting aspect of this small village is it's cultural diversity and history of migration. There are mostly Chinese living in Mae Salong which becomes evident as soon as one enters the street with Chinese writings everywhere and Chinese dishes.
The 'lost army' of China and the hill tribes in Mae Salong

At the conclusion of the Chinese Civial War in 1949, some warriors of the anti-communist forces KMT refused to surrender and the troops fought their way out of Yunnan in South-Western China, ending up living in Myanmar. Under international pressure, part of the troops had to return, but some sought political asylum in Northern Thailand and fought for the Thai against communists in return for a granted citizenship.
Of course they brought their traditions along, but on top of that, there are several villages or quarters in Mae Salong where Akha, Yao, Lisu, Lahu, Longneck and other tribes live. Some of them have opened their gates for tourism and are welcoming tourists in exchange for selling souvenirs. Cultural tourism is an often discussed topic in tourism studies and it can either be interpreted as human zoos or as an option of preserving the local traditions and having an income at the same time by doing so. While on the one hand offering hill tribe tours can have the effect of 'putting up a show' and can end up in people being forced to stay in the tribal village or to act a certain way in order to attract tourists, on the other hand, many of the tribes migrated from other areas (such as the long necks from Myanmar) as refugees and have not been granted citizenship. Without being legally recognized as Thai's citizen, they are not allowed to work, neither to go to school and this is also valid for their kids. So as a matter of fact, they are left with few possibilities to work and no education (which is why you will see many kids on the street duing the day selling souvenirs). We didn't end up going to 'see the tribes', but there is no right nor wrong and one should do whatever they feel comfortable with.

Instead, as true tea addicts, we spent one entire day sampling different types of tea from several tea shops along the street (for free, by the way!) until our body couldn't handle it any longer. Thanks to our 'tea ceremony course' sponsored by some of our friends on my last birthday, we totally looked like experts knowing that the small tall cup is for smelling the tea 🙂 Then we ended up walking along the tea fields and relaxing, enjoying the scenery and a brief moment of pre-christmas spirit with advent candles and Poinsettia out in the wild at 30°, before continuing our way towards the border crossing with Myanmar.

Another post office visit...

All the good tea, tea cups, sweets and other souvenirs ended up causing additional weight and as we learned from our South America experience, we knew that sending post from Thailand might be cheap whereas Myanmar probably not. In total, we had been to 4 post offices in 4 different countries and we could probably write a book just about post offices around the world. We planned on sending another package including Christmas postcards home from Mae Sai, the city bordering to Myanmar. There were different opinions on how to get to Mae Sai and the locals where not sure about the departure time, neither the color of the bus or the bus stop. On top of that, some pointed us towards the left, some towards the right. Tourism office is not particular useful in Mae Salong, unless you speak Chinese-so no luck there neither. Eventually we found our way towards Mae Sai with a stop in Mae Chan. Totally exhausted after arrival in Mae Sai, we continued walking towards a post office, but it turns out that post offices are closed on the king's birthday- very interesting.
Luckily for us, there was another post office directly at the border and we ended up trying to figure out how to ship our stuff towards Germany. After some long discussions with the post clerks (usually they need a Thai address in case the delivery doesn't reach it's destination so that it can be send back) and eventually, 2 hours later, we were postcard- and souvenir free and walked towards the border with Myanmar.

Entering Myanmar by Land and flying to Inle Lake

This would be our first border-crossing by foot in Asia, after having crossed th Colombian-Ecuadorian border in South America. We expected long queues and maybe some difficulties but the border crossing was very easy I guess mainly due to our European passports.
We ended up having a chat with the people handing out a visa, got beauty tips from one of the girls there and found out that in Myanmar, people don't have family names. On top of that, many are named after the day they were born (monday, tuesday,...), so many people are called the same names 🙂 We finished our first cultural excursion by realizing that men also wear 'skirts' and women use a strange 'paint' for their face called thannakka.
In general, first impression of Myanmar was very depressing, with beggars everywhere around the border, and people in worn off clothes. The only consistency that was visible throughout our whole trip was the taxi mafia which seems to exist in every country in this world with the aim of ripping you off. However, this was soon forgotten once we met the friendly staff of our hotel and we hoped, that this friendliness would be kept through our Myanmar adventure.

On the next day after enjoying a warm shower for a change and a lazy day in the hotel room we made our way to the airport. Which can be at best described as basic. Hand written passenger lists, manual scales for the luggage and airline slogans that fail their original purpose

Worrying that it is necessary to emphasize that, after all Myanmar has slightly less than one fatal airplane accident a year. But after boarding the second hand propeller plain from some Italian airline and enjoying some surprisingly good pastry we safely landed in Inle Lake in time for the sunset.

Northern Thailand – Chiang Mai and the Elephants

Arriving in Chiang Mai

Once in Chiang Mai, we decided to take a day off and to use it for planning our trip further. We ended up changing our schedule a little bit and booked an excursion to an elephant sanctuary the next morning with an overnight stay, simply because we didn't want to spend too much time on the road and getting to the sanctuary would take us about 2 hrs roughly- one way.
Main mode of transportation in Thailand is usually by buses called songthaew or bhat buses, or sometimes referred to as rot si daeng- different terminologies usually describing exactly the same kind of vehicle. The songthaew takes its name from the two bench seats fixed along either side of the back of the pick up truck. Additionally, a roof is fitted over the rear of the vehicle, where more passengers sit or luggage is stored. No wonder that Thailand has almost 10 times higher death rate through car crashes than Germany. The buses are too full, no seat belts are available, streets are too bad and drivers are too crazy - definitely a busy time for your guardian angel.

Two days and one night among the grey giants

After a bumpy two hour ride in the back of a truck (of course no seat belt required) we eventually made it to the elephant sanctuary and spend a day being taught about differences between the African and Indian elephants, their habits, we got to feed them, bath them both in water and in mud, but not to ride them as this harms their back.

 

It is a truly amazing sight to swim side by side with those giants under a waterfall and the initial fear that one of them was drowning vanished quickly after seeing the tip of its trunk peaking out.

Why to avoid riding camps?

This is a rather easy one to answer. Although elephants are big, their body is not made for carrying 150kg for 8 hours, 7 days a week. Elephants have been used for agriculture back in the days when no other option was available. However, they eat easily 200kg of food per day, so buying an elephant is not cheap (20.000-200.000 dollars) and 'running costs' are neither. Also, when seeing elephant in the wild, one notices, that they are wild creatures indeed and no way on earth would you walk up to them to give them a kiss on the trunk. Hell no! So, consequently, in order to make them 'suitable' for riding camps, they need to be "trained" ...a lot. And training includes a ridiculously amount of punishment, making them obedient by using force, whips and sticks, until their spirit is broken. Nowadays, 80% of the elephants in Thailand are used for the circus, for riding camps or logging meaning that they are not so well off.

Are elephant sanctuaries an alternative?
Yes and No!
Tourists (except Chinese ones apparently) have realized that riding elephants is cruel so more and more companies are popping up offering an alternative tour without the riding option. Instead, one can feed and pet them and give them mud baths. The way sanctuary camps work is by buying or renting off elephants from riding camps and private owners. By renting them rather than buying, it is guaranteed that the former owner doesn't run off to get new elephants in order to sell them to more sanctuaries and to make a business out of it. Instead, they are given a regular income by monthly payments for the elephant rent and they don't have to worry about feeding them. Sanctuaries take tortured elephants from former riding camps which offers them a better life, obviously, than they had before. But nevertheless, in most cases, they are chained up at night for a few hours. Elephants need hardly any sleep (4 hrs a day), so the trainers need to stay alert all the time. This is the reason given to us when asked why they are chained at night. 'The trainers need some rest and in order to prevent them from running through the crops and eating everything that was supposed to be provided to the locals'. So while this is better than their previous life, no chains would be the best there is no doubt about that.
Is there another option?
Fact is: The elephants you can find in Thailand nowadays are pretty much domesticated and have been tortured at a certain point in their life. Even if one wanted to send them back to the jungle, they would most likely not survive or fight each other because of scarcity of food. Even if they were survival heroes, there still wouldn't be enough jungle for the elephants especially with humans involved using it for agriculture purposes. So setting them free would be challenging. Likewise, having a gated elephant park similar to zoo facilities would be a problem in the end as elephants don't like borders and thus migrate to new areas, which they cannot do if it is fenced. So, as bad as it sounds, there seems not to be a much better option for now or at least nothing that we can think of, at least not for the current generation of elephants. Sanctuaries seem to be an alright option, even if not ideal and a little bit less interaction would be better, but then again I am not an elephant, so I don't know.
Our conclusion
Elephants are majestic creatures and interesting to watch. every experience is different and unique as every elephant acts differently each day- we got to be at 3 different camps and we liked the camp we started at the most. Visiting a camp is not cheap, but that is also understandable once you realize where they get the elephants from and how much it costs to maintain the area. Whereas this was definitely a magical experience, it doesn't even come close to our snorkel trip with wild sea lions in Galapagos.
On another note, Johannes managed to see some shooting stars (again)- his score now is 20:2- while he is running out of wishes, I am really struggling to see any and my 2 shooting stars were only from the corner of an eye, barely counting as such 🙁

Karen people in Thailand

While on this trip we found out that many (especially Christian ) people come to Thailand as refugees due to the Myanmar Government's persecution of some minority groups. As a consequence, many Karen people crossed the border and are now illegaly in Thailand. Because they are not registered, they cannot go to school, get an education or do a qualified job. This will also be their children's destiny as they as will not be registered here, meaning that their options are limited and many of them focus on selling souvenirs or weaving. One of the most famous Karen groups- the famous longneck- gain money by letting tourists enter their homes. However, a lot of this money remains with the tour operators and hardly gets passed on to the Karen villages, unlike their souvenirs and weaving. It has been reported that while some Karen people enjoy staying in their village, others are pushed not to go to the big city in order to guarantee the flow of tourists coming to the Karen villages (if you would see longneck in the city you wouldn't pay money for a tour to a village, would you!?). We decided not to visit the longneck village and to go a little bit off the beaten track by attempting to find our way to Mae Salong- the most famous tea region in Thailand- by using local transport.
Same procedure as every day- getting up at 4am

Sunrise Monastery

On our last day, we decided to get up early and to try to hail a bhat bus, which like in every country seems to be one big mafia. We planned on going to a temple on top of a mountain about 45 min away from the city and speculated on a beautiful sunrise and the prayers of the monks in the early morning, followed by a trip to the tunnels of the Wat Umong temple. After having had two mafia bus driver trying to rip us off, we finally found a bus that would take us for a reasonably amount of money- little did we know that he would throw us out at the outskirts of the city, next to a bus stop, but buses started departing only 2 hours later. Of course, he was speculating on us changing our mind and hiring him, but we refused to continue with him any further. Eventually we found another driver who drove us up the mountain and while the sunrise was covered in smog, it was nice anyways. On our way back, we managed to hail up an UBER cab which just recently started operating in Chiang Mai- so if you want to avoid the rip off of the taxi mafia, take UBER, it works in many countries and is just as safe. In general, it seems as the bus/taxi mafia rip off is worse in Asia than in South America.

One night in Bangkok

As mentioned before, we had a change of plans and ended up in Bangkok. I had a minor issue with my backpack and now another complaint to handle with (after IBERIA and Lufthansa now comes Jetstar), but we arrived safe and sound. We were a little bit hesitant towards Bangkok and felt like our energy was drowned because of Ha-Noisy (An official nickname given to Hanoi), so starting our trip in Thailand with another big city was not ideal.

We had booked a bike tour in the night in the hope of avoiding big crowds which turned out to be  a good decision as the majority of the sights were empty. Surprisingly so, the city is a nice mix between modern and traditional, there is less honking going on and the people seem nicer than in Vietnam. In order to avoid scams by the taxi drivers who try to screw you over whenever they can, we decided to use UBER- reliable, safe and friendly!

Before leaving the busy capital of Thailand on a sleeper train to the North, we only visited a few more sights during the day such as Chinatown and the old city center. The train that we took takes 14 hrs to Chiang Mai and although there was no AC, the temperature was pleasant. Sleeping on the upper bench is very much a torture, but sleeping on the lower bed is comfortable and you get to be woken up by the sunrise hitting your face. Johannes was a Gentleman and allowed me to sleep on the lower bed, which I am very grateful for. At noon, we finally arrived Chiang Mai, surprisingly enough without any noteworthy delay (who even cares about an hour 🙂

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