What I Read: South East Asia 2017

House of Mirth, Edith Wharton.

House of Mirth in a Vang Vieng bedroom

Truthfully, I started House of Mirth in June 2016 but it remained half read until I stuffed it in my South East Asia hand luggage in January 2017.

Lead character Lily Bart is broke. Her rich friends and love of expensive things means she lives way beyond her means, and I can relate. She’s hot, and a bunch of men like her but since she’s broke and it’s the early 1900s she has to marry for money. That’s a task, considering at 29, she’s knocking on in age a bit (remember this is early 20th Century literature) and there’s an absolute bitch intent on ruining her life because she’s jealous and petty. Lily does a pretty good job of ruining her choices herself, but the question is if she redeems herself.

I like Wharton, 20th Century American lit and New York high society dramatics, so this was always going to be a hit. None of the characters are remotely likeable, which again is just American lit in general, but the stories are so compelling – even if the ending is unsurprising for the genre. It wasn’t too heavy to carry in a daybag and was an easy, enjoyable read.

Beloved, Toni Morrison

Beloved on a Koh Kut beach

If there’s any book I’ve been recommended most, it’s this. It was on all literature reading lists I have received over the past decade, lecturers recommended it, friends recommended it, probably even my friends’ pets. I dragged my heels, though. Any vaguely supernatural theme repels me immediately, and this was no exception. Then I got Beloved as a birthday gift. It too was packed for my travels.

Beloved is set in the late 1800s. Slavery is newly over, and the characters are still recovering from the scars of enduring such an atrocity. Many had escaped enslavement, including the lead character, Sethe. We learn early on that Sethe, based on a real woman, murdered one of her children. The toddler’s apparition haunts the family, its presence initially malicious but morphing into something quite indescribable as the years pass.

Despite finding supernatural fiction unreadably dire on the whole, I found this book so rich, complex and raw. It depicted with honesty the weight carried by slaves even after emancipation. The ghost of the toddler seemed to represent the trauma of surviving slavery, and as the horrors are retold, the spectre’s presence grows more gruesome.

Ghost babies are really not my thing, but Morrison writes so beautifully and with such lyricism. The topic is heavy and the book is often dark, but I read it as a beach read and the poetry in the words complimented the scenery. 4/5
Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray

This tome on an Inle Lake bus

I had never read this as I always found it too expensive to buy, but it was 75 baht in a Soi Rambuttri bookshop. I picked it over a history book, Grapes of Wrath and The Beautiful and The Damned. I’ll say it now, how stupid I was.

I like books that talk about how dreadful high society is and women the in 19th
and 20th Century. I had hopes. The set up is two girls, Amelia “Emmy” Sedley (dry, cries and blushes a lot, literally don’t care about her) and Rebecca “Becky” Sharp, who has a fiery, scheming personality. Her parents are dead so she has to find a rich man to marry of her own volition. Lots in there for me to identify with and like. The tale is 500ish pages of the trials of these women, Emmy never getting a personality and Becky scamming everyone and being wonderfully dreadful.

Becky’s awful excellence was not enough to keep me compelled. I left the book abandoned in Inle Lake after a frustrating ten hour bus journey where I tried, really tried to plough on with the book and found it all so unnecessary and irritating. I got to page 300 or so, then read the last few pages when everyone’s dying.

The book could be about 449 pages shorter if WMT didn’t go on random rambles – “reader, we all know what happened to Geraldine Smithwank! And Mrs if you’re reading this, do not take offense!” Unnecessary. 19th Century writers do it a lot, long unnecessary rambles (the Les Mis Paris sewers chapter for one dry example) but I have never found it so annoying. I’m on holiday, I don’t need my books pissing me off.

2/5 because it occasionally was readable and I managed to read most of it.
An Outline of American History

American History in a Bagan hotel garden

Another Khao San bookshop find. It was cheap and I’m interested in US History.

I think there’s no deception in the naming of this one. When they say ‘an outline’ they literally mean the briefest trace. Massive aspects of history were skimmed over, especially the darkest elements. Internment got a paragraph. It’s the kind of book you read in order to find out which aspects of history you want to learn about more. If I knew nothing of a subject, I learned a lot more, but if I had even slight prior knowledge I learned nothing – or even disagreed with its overly positive (deceptive) perspective.

It was alright. Better than Vanity Fair.


How The World Really Works, Noam Chomsky

How the World Really Works on a Koh Rong Beach

This was on my reading list for some time, then I came across it in a very good bookshop in Phnom Penh. The title and cover say it all – it almost functions as an exposé on how America works.
Chomsky was interviewed by David Barsamian on a range of topics, and the book was then compiled by Arthur Naiman. Topics covered range from American foreign policy to media, with a critical approach towards the American political system and corporate control.
I was glad to have read the US history book before this, as my background knowledge was more solid, but Chomsky’s book was both far more informative and transformative. The content will shock, anger and make you want to organise. Importantly, despite the last interviews taking place in 1998, Chomsky seems farsighted and in some places accurately describes future developments.
It’s a very good and informative book. Not an easy read, but very worthwhile.


UNFINISHED: Dr. Zhivago! Boris Pasternak

Dr Zhivago on a Vietnam sleeper train

I bought Zhivago before a seventeen hour sleeper train in Vietnam because the idea of seventeen hours sitting still filled me with dread. I bought a fat book to see me through the very end of the trip, and I had been craving some Russian lit since December.

What I didn’t consider is how much I love being asleep. For a good 14 of the seventeen hours that’s exactly how I passed the time. The rest of the time I was writing my blog and enjoying the beautiful views from the train window. I didn’t get a lot of reading time in the last week, so Zhivago will have to be finished in London!


Travelling When Black: South East Asia

Read about my Travelling When Black series here.

Krabi Town in Thailand broke me. It was the first and one of the only times I cried on the trip. I was tired, far too hot, weak and I had a long bus journey to Bangkok ahead of me. I was ready to cry.

Then we entered an air conditioned department store. The noise and busyness was overwhelming. As we strolled through the departments, I noticed a pattern. One girl would spot me, her jaw would drop, she’d turn to her colleagues and then after a second they’d all turn around and point and scream with laughter. It kept happening, again and again and so blatantly. Others would see me, look away and laugh to themselves.

“Do I have a sanitary towel stuck on my forehead? Is my ass on show? Have I shat myself? Honestly what the fuck is so funny?” I asked myself. I begged Alessio to leave the shop immediately. On the steps of the store and I sat and cried.

“I’d just, for once, like to travel and be Black in peace. Is that too much to ask?”

I began to get used to it. In Myanmar, staring and giggling became the norm. The first was a lady who discreetly slapped her husbands arm when she saw me and he looked at me with a dropped jaw. The practice of one person seeing me, telling their friends, then all of them turning around and laughing happened over and over again, in each new country. I was pointed at and stared at and glared at. Some women would frown if I smiled at them. Women and men pointed at me, and didn’t think to be discreet when I stared back – they just kept pointing and laughing. Once, I felt a tug on my hair as I walked because someone had grabbed a few braids to feel. On two occasions at tourist sites, older Asian male visitors took artistic photos of me with DSLR cameras without asking – once in Angkor Wat as I posed for my own pictures, and another in Hanoi by the lake. They looked at me very sheepishly, and I asked to at least see the pictures. “Thanks… I guess.” Unsolicited pictures were regular, and I often ranted “Are these people here to see the bloody temple or here to see me? Shall I stand here and start charging them?”
A young hiphop-loving Vietnamese new friend was bemused as two men took a photo.

“This happens all the time? It’s because don’t see people like you a lot. Crazy.”

Pulling faces as a tourist takes a photo in Angkor

It wasn’t all bad. Youngsters in caps and sportswear always said hey and smiled. Tables of people would call to me and cheer when I said hello back. People called me beautiful. When I waved, or smiled at people who were staring, some would wave back and give a friendly smile. People asked me to meet their family. I took so many selfies with people who asked kindly, and they thanked me later. Often one girl would take a picture of me and her friend, then hesitantly look at me like a sad puppy as they walked off.

“Do you want a picture too?” I’d ask

“Yes! Oh, yes please! Thank you!”

“What is your name? Are you Vietnamese?”

Is this how it feels to be Beyoncé? Am I as nice to my fans as Lady Gaga?

My favourite was a young Burmese Muslim woman in Mandalay. She saw me and began giggling. When I waved back, she jumped up and down happily and buried her face in her friend’s shoulder.

Fans in Yangon

The nice treatment balanced out the bad and the upsetting. I knew the reactions were because they probably had never seen a black person before. Some maybe only knew of a few Western black people and pictured most to be tribal Africans. I don’t know, but I was certainly seen differently to the white European travellers who passed by without a second glance. I knew their behaviour was not coming from a place of hate, malevolence or racism. I knew it was curiosity, confusion, maybe excitement. But even the good and funny experiences were as tiring as the bad. I sometimes had a little sense of dread when leaving the hotel because of the weight of being so conspicuous. No matter how big or touristic the city, I was conspicuous. I was pointed at, stared at, glared at, laughed at, waved at and photographed.

I understand in Asia, white people are also “other”. I know white people also get stared at and pointed at. Overwhelmingly however, the majority of other Western travellers were white. It’s not rare. If I travelled to around 25 cities and saw a maximum of six other Black people in two months, you can imagine how regularly they see black people. I was the “other” other. If people were curious about Alessio, I was a damn exhibition.

In Inle Lake, Myanmar I was walking towards the pier. Alessio tapped me.
“You’ve made a friend.”

A black girl in a café was waving at me with a huge grin. By now Alessio was used to the Black solidarity smiles that happen every time we’re away.

Five minutes later, the girl caught up with us, out of breath.

“Hey! I just ran to catch up with you guys! I am SO happy to see you! I ran as soon as I saw you! Wait, do you speak English?”

Her name was Simone, and she was a solo female traveller. She had been travelling for only a week, and had cried every night. The staring, pointing and laughing had worn her down too. We agreed it was exhausting, and it felt so good to meet someone who understood. Then she said the keynote.

“It feels like you have to always be so nice and so polite because their entire opinion of black people rests on you, and it’s so tiring.” 

It was everything I knew but hadn’t yet put into words. I could see in her whole element she was sick of it – even moreso than I was. I could see how I also had it easier. She was alone. I was travelling with a white man. As regressively 1950s as it sounds, travelling with him made the weight so much lighter. The asking and answering of questions fell mostly to him. I walked closely by him. When people pointed, I held my head high and his hand tighter. It all said “I’m not that different – I’m with him”.

In Phnom Penh I took a stroll alone. I felt the difference. Without the protection of distant whiteness I was sneered at in a way I wasn’t the day before in the same city, and without distant maleness I was fair game. Curiosity, for that brief time, morphed into a meat market. When coincidence meant I ran into a friend from another city, a white girl, I let out my breath and laughed. I’m with her.

There was another, stranger aspect to my experience. I was sure some people, including Westerners, thought Alessio was paying for my company. It was confirmed when a local asked Alessio why, if yesterday he paid for a Cambodian girl, did he “choose” a different girl today? The fact he had seen Ale before was gas since we’d only just arrived in the city – but it reiterated what I had suspected and what other women of colour in relationships with white men had told me. Brown women and white men together meant money was involved, not love.

A drunk white man stumbled down Khao San Road, fondling and groping at the three Nigerian sex workers he had hired for the night. Some were older, but one girl looked my age. Her braided hair was tied up, just like mine. By chance, we had to wait in the lobby of the guesthouse-brothel-travel agency where they worked as cleaners by day. On the way to the toilet, I saw the same girl cleaning some plates and I smiled. She studied me for a few seconds and looked away. She later seductively winked at Alessio, and I understood everything.

We were not the same. Not to her. I had an expensive DSLR round my neck, writing in my travel journey about an experience costing an incomprehensible amount of money. I was Western, walking around with a white Western man who held my hand not my ass. She was an immigrant sex worker on one of Thailand’s most notorious, sleazy roads at night and cleaned toilets in a brothel for Thai sex workers by day. If I had any audacity to assume mutual solidarity, she soon taught me I had no right, and no idea. If other people didn’t see the difference, she certainly did and if I was having a hard time, she was having it harder.

In Sapa, Vietnam I explained the process of hair braiding to my tour guide. “Wowwwww! I saw one other girl like you before, last year! Wow… that’s so amazing. In Vietnam we have such thin hair, we never have curly hair like this. We can’t do hair like this. Can I put your hair by my face to see how it looks? I love it.” I heard her telling other Vietnamese women how they braid afro hair. When she held up nine fingers and pointed at me, to tell them it took nine hours to braid my hair, they all gasped “wow” in chorus. I smiled. That’s my favourite part of the story too, I thought.

The staring, the pointing, the tiresome weight. It makes it seem all bad.

Travelling in South East Asia whilst Black can be beautiful. I cannot overstate that enough. I can’t overstate how much you can take the curiosity in your stride. You start to shrug it off, wave, say hello back and by the end of the day you barely notice anything at all. You can have fun with it. Pull faces, blow kisses, wave as soon as the whole group turns around so they think you understand the language when really they’re just so obvious. Do whatever you need to do, until it’s part of the background and you can focus on being in a really beautiful part of the world.

And that’s exactly it. It’s a really beautiful part of the world. Remember that no one at all means any harm. Unlike some parts of the world where Blackness is unwelcome because it connotes badness and criminality, your skin here mostly is a fascinating novelty. As tiring as that can become, it’s not worth the days, hours, and minutes of incredible wonder you could miss out on if you only stuck to places where people were used to you.

About Travelling When Black

In case you missed it, I’m Black. My family is Caribbean, and my distant ancestors were West Africans brought to the Americas as slaves. I have lived in the UK all my life and dress like any reasonably normal twenty something Western girl. I wear my hair in long braids or big afros and rarely any other style. In big UK and Northwestern European (Paris, Barcelona, Amsterdam etc) cities, these facts are inconsequential. No one would take a second glance at me.

This is not the case almost anywhere else in the world. Positive or negative, being a black, Western, British young woman colours my experience of travel in a way which is, in my experience, worth talking about. It ranges from gawping in Budapest, glares in Greece, to white Americans realising they mistook me for African American and suddenly treating me much better when they realise I’m British.
For those who have never felt the need to google “is (country) safe for (race) people”, it may seem pointless and unnecessary in a dynamic and cosmopolitan world. For everyone else, race and the fear of racism is another weight to carry in our suitcase, and the reality is that we know once we step out of our bubble where people like us are ten a penny, we will be treated differently and that can get exhausting. For me, that has never been a reason to stop me from travelling but enough of a reason to prevent me from visiting certain parts of the world for my own safety.

That’s why I’m starting to write about my specific experiences when travelling. I feel so alone when I talk about these experiences – people who don’t get what it feels like to be ‘othered’ in a way much more significant to white travellers can be dismissive. I’ve been told that I get stares and pointing because I look cool, or they think I’m pretty, that I should take it as a compliment. My upset over poor treatment, of being served last and ignored is seen as dramatic. That racist hassling in Morocco “happens to everyone” so don’t worry. It’s isolating when no one recognises that travelling can be so tiresome when you’re not white but there’s a unique relief when people understand. When fellow travellers of colour can empathise.

I hope that by writing about my experiences, other brown travellers can feel less alone. Not only that but I hope my experiences will give an insight into what to expect for future travellers. There is a lot written for solo female travellers, and spatterings of information on travelling for LGBT travellers. I hope my Travelling When Black series can contribute to the information available for black and brown travellers.

Thailand/Cambodia Border Visas: I’ll Getcha Good

Or, how I managed to pay $30 and nothing more at the Thailand Aranyaprathet/Cambodia Poipet land border in 2017.
My initial plan was to fly down to Siem Reap from Luang Prabang, but the cost of flying rerouted my itinerary and I ended up crossing the border by land. Only by chance did I discover how tricky and scamtastic this border was, otherwise I would have found myself also paying 900 baht in addition to the visa fees to express process my visa.

At around 6PM before the day of travel, I turned up at Mo Chit/Northeastern Bus Station in Bangkok near the Chatuchak market. Motorcycle taxis in this are a bit pushy, but you can ignore them/pretend you don’t speak English. Once you enter the large bus station past the local bus carpark, you can either ask for the counter for buses to Cambodia or walk around until you find the one which says Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Tickets are 750 baht a person for a direct bus from Bangkok to Siem Reap, and they leave at 8AM or 9AM but you most often don’t get a choice – we didn’t. Your ticket will tell you the bay your coach departs from and your seat number. This bus is the government licensed through bus, no bus changes needed at the border.

The direct bus I took was not new or flashy like a Myanmar bus, but clean and air conditioned with big comfortable seats and plenty leg room. It leaves well on time and hands out the arrival cards when you leave. This, if you do your research, may be when the anxiety begins.

I did a lot of research. I heard everyone and their mother tries to rip off travellers to Cambodia from Thailand. I heard the bus will try to make you pay 900 baht extra for a VIP service, or $5 extra for a batch processing service, touts and hawkers will pickpocket as soon as you leave the bus and the journey will be one long game of dodge the bullet. Not only is my budget strict, but I also am loath to be ripped off. I was just scared I wouldn’t be gutsy enough to argue. So when my arrival card arrived, I was scared this necessary form would spiral into me sinking my savings into a scam.

The arrival card is essential and what you fill out on landing by plane. Whether you pay $30 or $300, it must be completed. It’s easier if you get the bus license plate before boarding so you can complete that section straight away. Keep the arrival card in your passport and ensure you also have ready and completed your departure card that was issued when you enter Thailand. The bus will also ask for passport information on a long form of everyone on the bus. Also complete this.

Two hours in, the bus conductor asks if you have a visa and arrives ready with forms. The girls in front queried this, and they asked for money to “process and photocopy” their passport, which they paid. I sleepily and politely told them I would do it at the border, and they accepted this and walked on. You are handed a lanyard with the number of the bus and some information. This helps you be identified as a member of the bus party.

At midday, you get a small box of warm, filling shrimp fried rice. There’s no water, so be sure to bring a drink. Within half an hour, you’re at Aranyaprathet. The conductor gives you firm instructions to stamp out of Thailand, follow only the official directions, say no to anyone who approaches you in the street, collect your visa, get stamped into Cambodia, then return to the bus.

In Aranyaprathet, it is easy to stick with those on your bus, especially the more clued up and ballsy ones. People will approach you with directions as soon as you leave, ignore them and don’t look at them. There is a sign and a queue. Join it and you will eventually be stamped out of Thailand. This process is simple if you have your departure card filled out completely and ready. Otherwise you will be sent to the back of the long queue to complete it.

Enter the double doors, descend the steps and again ignore people telling you “passport visa this way!” or any other bullshit. There are signs, and fences directing you where to walk and the touts in no way look official. By this time you may have lost sight of anyone else who is on your bus and be walking alone.

If you haven’t already sorted your visa you will need to head to the visa on arrival. For those who have a visa, it’s straight on ahead following the signs and fences. For those without, it’s a vague left turn into a no mans land of taxis and touts. No one approached me, and you see the official office building quite clearly.

Enter, take a form and bring your $30 and passport picture ready. There was no queue (Sunday 5th February) when I got there. A man will tell you it’s $30 plus 100 baht. There is an official sign, saying only $30 plus a scruffy hand written note on the desk saying +100 baht. This 100 baht is a bribe which goes to the pockets of the border control staff. If you don’t want to pay it, don’t. I did not want to pay it.

The dialogue went something like this. He points to a sign

Me: I’m sorry I don’t understand?

Man: 100 baht! And thirty dollar!

Me: Sir, I have $30 for the visa and no bahts

Man: Then you will pay $33 dollars

Me: No, my embassy said I do not pay 100 baht. It’s $30

Man: and 100 baht!

Me: No, my embassy said-

Man: Go over there

I nodded and happily walked back, loudly explaining (to no one in particular) there is no fee, only pay $30. A couple of people on my bus said there’s always a fee for something, 100 baht is not a lot. I told them it’s their choice.

Time to double team with a fellow determined soul, if you can. This came in the form of Alessio. The man asked for the bribe, and he simply said no and was told to wait with me. Another couple was moaning about having to pay, and told us we must pay something. At this point I nearly conceded, but I stayed firm for a minute longer. Then I calmly asked.

“Can I have a receipt for the 100 baht, for my embassy? Do you have a receipt? I will pay the extra if you give me a receipt.”

At this point, a man took Alessio and I aside, unhappy snatched our passports and $30 dollars only. They then left with the passports, took a few minutes and we got our visas without paying the bribe. We were in there for no more than ten minutes and kept waiting for no more than five.

Once you leave, you will see a sign saying arrivals in front of you. This is where you must queue again and get your arrivals card and passport stamped. Here, there are men waiting in the doorways to tell you something is wrong with your documents and you will not be let in if you don’t listen. Ignore them. We passed the bus on the way. After being stamped in, we peed for free in the nearby casino and boarded our bus.

A guy on the bus who did pay the bribe was further cheated out of $10. He required change, and they gave him the $10 in obviously fake notes and refused to acknowledge the note was fake. Which it clearly was. Lucky for us, we had exact change and a few spare dollars if they contested our notes. By the time they took our visa, I think they just wanted to get rid of us.

This, for me, is why you shouldn’t pay. 100 baht is not a lot in the scheme of things, but bribery, dishonesty and scheming is not okay. Even people who comply with the bribe are cheated any way they can. It gives Cambodia and Cambodians a bad reputation when the first view you get of the country is being ripped off. One bus of bribe paying tourists could pocket them 3,000 baht which IS a lot of money going to dishonest people, paid honestly by tourists who didn’t know better. That isn’t even including the money they refuse to give back in change. I don’t want to further fund con artists just because I can afford to. There are tourists who can afford to easily pay £1,000 scams, should they also be okay with this?

In the end, it’s your choice whether not paying the extra fees is worth it but it’s at least worth trying your luck. In doing so, I only waited five minutes and endured not a lot of hassle, and didn’t give extra money to people who conned nice guys out of $10. If you wish to avoid the border scams, my advice is this.

– Have everything ready. $30, documents, one passport photo all in one place. Keep any extra money separate, including 100 baht and $5 extra incase your resolve cracks.

– Find someone who is similarly minded so you have strength in numbers.

– Stick with your group as much as you can, take down your bus registration number and don’t speak to anyone else outside of the official buildings.

– When asked for the bribe, refer to your official embassy at home and ask for receipts for the bahts. When they send you away, don’t move far and badger them for a receipt. Talk loudly enough for them to worry about others overhearing, but never be rude. Remain polite and calm, but firm and loud. They will process you grumpily but within minutes on a quiet day.

– Have the exact money in dollars ONLY, crisp new notes and have a few notes for which you can exchange it. If you have to give more than $30, don’t expect change back.

– Finally, bring water. The food is filling, but they don’t provide water.

You’re Not A ‘Real Backpacker’ if…

Yeah yeah, you’re travelling with a backpack. So, you took some time away from home and maybe your job to travel in a location you always found intriguing. Whatever, you’re learning new things and doing new things.

But if your travels aren’t 100% pure, authentic and approved, are you REALLY travelling? Or are you just one of those much-maligned, supposedly superficial “tourists”? This test will help you find out!

My eyes are firmly rolling all the way back to London, as I lie in this bed in Hanoi. Because in case you haven’t guessed, I’m being sarcastic


You’re Not a ‘Real Backpacker’ If you…

1. Eat Western Food

Secret Pizza, Luang Prabang. Italian owned and snatching the title for one of the best pizzas I’ve eaten


When you travel, you’ll hear the words “well, I try to ONLY eat local”. Often said as you’re tucking into lasagne. There are those who seemingly eat so local, they’d rather starve than eat a rice dish from a town further than five minutes away because it’s not local enough. People get very pious about eating local and very sniffy about Westerners eating familiar food. For me, there’s a difference in refusing to try any local dishes because they’ll never match up to a Big Mac and fries, and eating Western and local when you want. I ate pasta when I wanted, and local food when I wanted. After being food poisoned, the familiarity of Western food was bliss, and sometimes knowing a Western portion would be bigger than a local dish compelled me to eat Western. Equally, in Cambodia and Vietnam, local dishes excited me so much they were all I wanted!

Additionally, eschewing a dish because it’s French is ridiculous – many countries have an international (read: colonial) history, many foreigners have emigrated and many local chefs also make exceptional international cuisine. In an effort to seem authentic, you may miss out on great food.

Real backpackers eat whatever they want.
 1b. Never order delivery

Sacré bleu! Yes kids. Even worse, we even got a Dominoes take out!!

To add to our travel sacrilege, we also ordered delivery. More than once. It’s often frustrating because after 45 hungry minutes, we would be told they cancelled our order. But delivery and restaurant dishes to go sure came in handy when Ale got food poisoning or when we were too tired after travel to trawl a new city at night for food (and there’s also a good movie on).

2. Go to Khao San Road (or other backpacker enclaves)

Yes, I travelled this far to go to Shagaluf

“Khao San Road is not the real Thailand!!”

If it’s in Thailand, it’s the ‘real Thailand’. It’s not all of Thailand, certainly not all of Bangkok, and only represents one side of a much larger, diverse and wonderful city – the same as Chinatown, Soi Nana, Soi Arab and Little India. You will see lots of white Westerners, drunk and behaving badly. You will be hassled by hawkers. You will not find it pretty. The rats and the sleaze scene put me off staying there, but I went for a stroll there to see it for myself, and have a dance. It is neither as fun nor as disgusting as they say, but for people starting out on their trips it’s a firm base to meet people, buy supplies and get your hair braided like a 12 year old European girl in Majorca.

3. Stay in hotels and nice guesthouses

“I’ve been locked outta heaven, for too loOOoOOong!”

Staying in dorms is nice for meeting people you’ll eventually love or hate. Places with a communal atmosphere lead to chatting with inspiring people. They’re also much cheaper. Here’s the thing though. If you’re travelling as a couple, you probably want to have sex or at least share a bed. If you’re with pals or even solo, you may want your own space. Booking a double room feels like a relief after sleeping in dorms. Tents offer privacy but a bed and large room feels delicious after four nights in a tent that shakes furiously in the wind. There’s also bathrooms. Showering off the city dirt for half an hour in a warm shower that you can call your own is incomparable. Not to mention the convenience late at night, or if your stomach is playing up!

4. Do anything on the beaten path

An authentic slice of Burmese working life for me and 80 other tourists a day

The proverbial beaten path. That well-trodden tourist path that makes you feel like everything is so done. Real travellers find the unfound, locations where there’s not a European for miles. Or something.

With the growth of tourism, a lot will be on the beaten path. I have been taken to places which feel tacky, where every stop is crafted for you to buy souvenirs, and you’ll see ten European nationals haggling for “local handicrafts”. There are often stops which involve visits to see people from local tribes. Presumably you shove your camera in the face of a woman who has been translocated from her village and feel like you’re shooting for the NatGeo, even if you know deep down it’s unethical.

It’s great to find somewhere you didn’t expect. It’s great to wonder and explore places yourself but find the balance. Recommendations and the bible of South East Asian travel, Travelfish shaped my trip immensely, but I also shared my recommendations. I went on touristy tours but I also walked for hours to see what cool things I could spontaneously find. I found some of the most interesting parts of big cities that way.

5. Travel for less than 16,000 months

Did we even get time to take off and land?

“Is that ALL?” was the most common thing I heard from people when asked how long I was staying in a location. Everyone seemingly planned to travel until the next millennium, spending at least a year in each location to “really get to know the place”. Whatever that entails.

Not everyone has the time, budget or inclination to stay travelling for extended periods of time. Those with more time are luckier, but not more authentic.

For people travelling for less time, we make the most of it as best we can, and do the most that we can in the time! In our case, it involved some sacrifices but almost everything we wanted to do, we did. For that which we did not, there’s the rest of our lives to revisit and reexplore!
And so?

Really, the answer is that there’s no way to be a “real backpacker”. Getting caught up in the quest for authenticity can mean missing out on things you really want to do, and forgetting what really matters – you’re here to be happy.

You’ll meet so many people, and unfortunately those who are self-righteous at home are self-righteous abroad. I rolled my eyes at their faux authority on countries they’d only been in for three weeks. How you see the workd is not important. What matters is being respectful, open-minded and enjoying yourself.

In a world where the majority could never visit abroad or even travel around their country, you made it here. So, forget about what you feel you “should” do, and do what you want to do!

Back to Basics on Coconut Beach, Koh Rong

I was prepared to not like Sihanoukville, but unlike Bangkok or Mandalay, I was never proven wrong. From what I saw of my brief time on Serendipity Beach, it was just a party beach resort for Westerners. It didn’t differ much from European resorts like Magaluf, the difference only being the tuk tuks.

 In fact, even after sitting in a beach bar for a few hours, the music never once became good and I didn’t see any dancing or much fun. I also didn’t like much the atmosphere and felt a lot on guard. We were insulted for ignoring a man trying to get us into his club, and the leery attitude of certain men really made me happy to be only staying one evening. Maybe I missed some real gem of Sihanoukville, but what I saw didn’t appeal.

Although I concede it looks nice here…

I was very glad to escape to the white sand and clear shores of Koh Rong. After mentally debating between the larger island and its sibling Samloem, a question of price and an irresistible name settled the decision to stay at Coconut Beach on Koh Rong.

First impressions are never wrong

I can’t say a lot about my stay. The intention was to treat it like a second Koh Kut, hire a bike perhaps and venture round. What we actually did was virtually nothing.

Our day would begin like this. We’d wake naturally, glad for the lack of an alarm. We’d take a leisurely breakfast in our bungalow’s restaurant. We’d stroll down to the beach, armed with our free water and coconut oil. 

Do bear in mind that the stroll to the beach was all of five seconds.

Perhaps we’d read on a hammock

Dig an obnoxious hole

Or play on the large lilo floats provided. But mostly we just lazed with a book. We’d then head to one of the other bungalow restaurants for lunch – we could choose from three places to eat. The second had (very unreliable phone hotspot) wifi and the third had a bigger menu. We’d eat some local dish, drink juice, coffee or cocktails and read some more

And then as the sun began to set, which wasn’t too impressive from our position as we got the sunrise, we’d head back to our bungalow restaurant to eat, play board games and make wishes on Chinese Lanterns.

Only on the final day did we move our ass and walk the couple of kilometres to the local village. It’s a small fishing village over the hill where there’s a small seafood restaurant, some places to buy fruit and meet the people who live in the village. A few of the kids were fascinated to touch my braids, but one girl after a long inspection was not a fan. We went twice, once in the day for a coffee, and again for the sunset, which is very lovely from that side of the island.

Mostly, we were just very lazy. After six very busy and frantic weeks we had begun to rise at 8am or earlier naturally. Our agendas were packed full, and I began to feel a sense of guilt and waste if we had even a lazy afternoon. Being in Coconut Beach allowed us to really relax. 

The wifi is so sparse that it’s not worth using. Only one bungalow has access via a mobile hotspot. We used it to take care of a few issues back home, then returned to our books. Coconut Beach Bungalows also provides board games for old school entertainment which was great fun and got us chatting over dinner. 

I am particularly bad at Connect 4, but bilingual Scrabble was more successful.

 For the time we were there, we didn’t have that impulse to update or check social media, it was quite freeing.

Additionally, although there are the options of bungalows, we opted for a tent. We stayed in one in Koh Kut and aside from being awoken by the wind and an ant army invasion on the last day, it was enjoyable. Here, the experience was ten times better. The tents are elevated from the beach on stilts. They’re spacious, and your luggage is kept in a locked room so there’s plenty room to stretch on the large soft mattresses. My only issue was that the toilets were a little way away, meaning any night time visits were a bit of a trek on a full and desperate bladder (as all night loo visits are!) Staying in a tent near the sea and the camp fire really helped with the relaxing, basic vibe.

It’s also a great place to try Khmer food. We saw the cooks peeling vegetables and preparing fish every morning, and every dish was delicious and tasted fresh. Even the bread was home baked, and unbelievably the fries were great too! Two dishes I tried were the Khmer Amok. This is the national dish of Cambodia: baked fish with lemongrass, coconut and chilli with steamed rice. It’s creamy and flavoursome with a little bit of heat.

I also tried the lok lak. In fact, I tried it twice because the first was so delicious but I also forgot to take a picture until I had half eaten it!

Lok lak is a stir fried meat dish, served on onions and sliced tomatoes with rice.

I read that Khmer food is a little underdeveloped in comparison with Thai food, when you compare flavours and so on. I still found these dishes so delicious and definitely still complex. I also tried a seafood spaghetti which was also wonderful, and the fish very fresh having come from the nearby fishing village. 

The food, the simplicity and the beauty of Koh Rong made me love it beyond expectation. I thought I would make comparisons to Koh Kut due to proximity, but they are both outstanding in entirely separate ways. 

Although different beaches will offer different experiences, Coconut Beach is secluded simplicity. I can highly recommend Coconut Beach bungalows. The staff are friendly, eager to get to know you, they provide so many things for your stay including daily bottles of water and coconut oil for the sun and insects, and sheet changes in the tent. The atmosphere is nice and calm, with reggae played near the fire in the evening. The service is exceptional, and the food is phenomenal.

As I said of Koh Kut – Coconut Beach is not for those wanting to get wasted on a party beach. I welcomed the full moon with a lantern and a game of Jenga. If you want to relax and slow the pace of life right down, if you need to unwind after a packed South East Asia itinerary of doing something every day – this is the ideal place. Your body and your mind will thank you for it.

Vibrant Siem Reap

The fiasco of the Thailand/Cambodia border is so well-documented and notorious it’s known as Scambodia. After passing through unscathed, paying no more or less than $30, it was a welcome surprise that the tuk tuk to our guesthouse was free.

Siem Reap seemed unpromising at first. It looked like the tourist stopovers in Myanmar such as New Bagan and Nyaung Shwe. As we neared the river, the town came into its own.

 The first thing that caught our eye is the Preah Promeath pagoda. Coming from Myanmar we were a little pagoda’d out, but this one was pristine and intricately decorated. The pagodas of Cambodia seem to really be my favourite in terms of design and style.

We headed from there to the old market. I had sadly managed to lose my flip flops in our short stop in Bangkok. They were £1 from Forever 21 and the best, most solid and comfortable flip flops I had owned. I was gutted, but haggled down a pair of fake Havaianas. Not realising the hypocrisy, as I wore my fake sandals, I pointed to a $5 Gucci bag and proselytised on the pointlessness of buying fake designer. If, like me, you’re a hypocrite or you just like a suspiciously cheap and creatively designed pair of Nikes (think, the tick placed upside down) then the Old Market is great. Some of the maxi dresses and hippie pants are nicer than I’ve seen elsewhere.

We found a Costa, and relishing the chance for coffee without sweetened condensed milk, Alessio took a drink and I checked wifi in anticipation of our visit to Angkor Wat the next day. This is when we learned the price had risen from $20 to $37. We began to question whether we should visit. When we factored in the cost of getting there too, we almost entirely decided against it.

It was also in Costa that I recalled there was a “Pub Street”. I had heard how much of a crazy party city Siem Reap was. Although not much of a partier, and definitely not a key part of my travels, I was interested to check out nice bars and eats in the area.

Pub Street is lit up in neon, and it’s a strip of bars offering Happy Hour cocktail deals, familiar Western and Asian dishes and dotted with street food vendors and tuk tuks at each end. Although this could seem like a nightmare, especially for those familiar with Khao San Road – but actually it seemed quite tame, clean and pleasant at 8pm. There’s a quieter and darker road nearby with a few bars with a nice vibe, including a reggae bar. It seemed to have a nice vibe around dinner time, and there’s a quadrant around it with more bars and restaurants.

On the opposite side of the river, the Kings Road seemed to have some upscale options, echoing the road of a similar name in London. Made in Cambodia Market sells traditional goods made by locals, and there’s also a Hard Rock Cafe. Further down Street 26 is a French patisserie ideal for breakfasts but we found the Croque Monsieur a little stale.

Siem Reap also has a lot of supermarkets with an ideal amount of food for making up picnics for the day jaunt to Angkor Wat. Pharmacies are plentiful, as well as launderettes.

By the end, Siem Reap clearly felt like the relaxed city with the buzzing vibe I wanted from Luang Prabang. I felt like Siem Reap was the resort for younger backpackers who want riverside vibrance, whereas Luang Prabang existed to slow life down for those with the unlimited food budget to really enjoy the cafe culture.

Bagan is Fairytale Landscapes and Hawkers

It was Bagan that firmly set Myanmar on the itinerary. Bagan, with its magical temples stretching into the distance. Its sunrises, sunsets and twenty five thousand kyat entrance fee.

We chose New Bagan as our base for no real reason other than liking Bagan Central Hotel. And for good reason – it’s beautiful. 

Nearby we found a place to eat for the night, a quiet restaurant north of the popular and pricey 7 Sisters. The service is great, with the young waiter asking how everything is every few minutes.

Like all our first days, we explored. We hired an e-bike – one bike between two costed 10,000 which felt like a con because one bike for one person was 6,000.

We opened Maps.Me and Travelfish, marking out a few interesting sites with the plan to explore on the way. Within minutes the slowness of the bike put Alessio in a mood. Then, busybody tourists who told him to remove his shoes whilst he was removing them further annoyed him. 

“I’m trying with these wholesome thoughts, baby – but these people fucking bother me.” He said, referencing his latest read on calm minds and nirvana.

A modern temple with loud, jarring music and a reclining Buddha failed to calm him. Touts had set up there and a mere glance at some hippie pants had them chasing you to your e-bike with a pair, yelling “good price for you!”

“Keep a calm mind.” I reminded him.

We headed to more temples just outside New Bagan. They were certainly beautiful, but the treat was being able to find ones where there was no one else. Not even someone selling a ubiquitous elephant painting. Or a kind tour guide who showed you around… then for the honour, tried to get you into his lacquerware store. 

“I wondered why you were ignoring him.” Ale said, once we finally shook him off. “I just thought he was kind.”

“No one’s just kind.”

A few meters up the road, we took a steep climb up a stupa. Finally, we had found the Bagan we came for. Our irritations melted away, and the magic unfolded before us.

Free of irritation and unwholesome thoughts, Alessio took the e-bike off-road. We shuddered down the sandy road, painful plants scratching our legs until the bike coughed us up by the river.

 Our e-bike promptly flicked down to 30%. The more we battled the sand, the lower the power went, and by the time we fought our way back to a sealed road, the bike was flicking between 0-10%. Still, we deluded ourselves that we could make it to the Shwezigon Pagoda. I wanted to see the Berlin style architecture of the entrance.

What I didn’t realise is how many “helpful” guides there were, offering to show us the way in.

“Where are you going? The entrance is here!” Alessio yelled, as I kept walking.

“Trust me.” I said, ignoring everyone showing us the way in.

Soon, he understood.

No one is just kind. Those entrances were lined with shops, where you’d be hassled to buy. Find the nearest way in to the pagoda to avoid the souvenir sellers.

The pagoda itself is fine. The majesty of the ruins are more impressive, and my experience in Myanmar pagodas is constantly tainted by people who want to take pictures of me. One couple were giggling and following me, until the guy stuck his selfie stick in my face. I replied no thank you, and walked off. It’s about the principle, and he had a selfie stick. 

Another thing to note about these pagodas is there are usually four entrances and exits. For whatever reason, the entrances and exits are always what Ale wants to “explore”. Hmmmm…

Our bike managed to get us all the way to the other base for tourist Nyaung U. We took a lunch there, where I cemented my love for the complementary nuts. The food was edible, and the Lazio dish amatriciana makes its way to many menus in Bagan under various names – Maticiana, Matriciana and more.

When we left, we realised the bike was slowing to a stop. We had at least six kilometres left to go, but the power was so near death that  bicycles and pedestrians were speeding past.

“It’d be easier without your weight.” Alessio said. I chose to take this without offense, and gracefully climbed off the bike. Even I was walking faster than the bike. Even with my weight.

“When we get back, I’m going to ask for the money back for this piece of shit! They said eight hours, forty kilometres but we didn’t manage that at all! I hate e-bikes. I’m going to say something. I bet they do this to con us. I will never rent another e-bike. I’d rather walk. I’m going to ask for the money back.” Alessio ranted. He paused, then added. “Probably when they ask, I’ll say ‘yes, everything was great, thanks!”

The route is mostly downhill, and with a brief stop at the old city gate to walk around and let the bike recover, we managed to make it home.

“Everything fine?” The woman asked, as we returned the key.

“Yes!” We replied. “Do you rent for the sunrise tomorrow?”

The famous Bagan sunrise. It required a bit of subterfuge on our part. We hired one bike for one person, and set the alarms at 4am. I sneaked out the hotel first and waited in the dark on a corner. The cockerels were crowing, a monk was chanting, and the air was freezing. Finally, Alessio arrived with the bike ready to go, and we rode to Lawkaoushang Pagoda. If the night air wasn’t already cold enough, we had to remove our shoes and socks before the climb up to the highest platform of the pagoda. A little orienteering showed us where the sun would rise, and photographers had already set their tripods ready. One small coach group joined us, then we had to wait.

An hour passed and the sky was just as dark. More people joined the platform until it was impossibly full – when people began filtering on to platforms below and the blocked off platforms above.

After over two hours, the skies began to change. The magical Bagan skyline lay out in front of us, with the changing colours above. With the passing minutes, the colours became richer and richer. 

Then the money shot – the famous hot air balloons began to rise. At first two. 

It felt like a concession. I had expected none. Cynical and British, I thought the very day I’d choose to see a Bagan sunrise would be the day no one would take a balloon ride. Therefore two made me smile.

Suddenly, more began to burst upwards until the skies were full of balloons. 

The red sun poked from behind the horizon, stretching upwards into the sky. The balloons floated towards it like a magnet, and the crowds cheered. It was truly magical.

Once the balloons had mostly passed, we climbed back down and the hawkers were at the ready, and unwilling to take no for an answer.

“Where are you from?” A street book seller asked

“Italy.” Alessio replied.

Without missing a single beat, she whipped out a book – Giorni In Burmania. It was almost as if she had a book at the ready for any language you threw at her. The street hawkers here really do hear ‘no’ as a challenge.

This time our bike got us back to the hostel where we rested until our taxi to Mount Popa. Mostly we chose it as something to do, although it did seem beautiful.

I left my phone at the hotel, meaning the 700+ steps to the top of the mountain wouldn’t get counted on my Pacer pedometer app. I also took no photos on my phone. From afar, the mount seems magical, but close it resembles any temple with many steps.

You also must do war with the macaques, the hungry, thirsty, thieving monkeys local to the temple. They tend to pee and crap all the way up the steps, and the cleaners will request a donation for the cleaning but aren’t very persistent. Scared of the monkeys after one scratched me as it tried to remove my skirt, we didn’t stay at the top for long. Maybe if we had taken the rabies jab we would be more willing! The sunset from the peak did seem very beautiful, and the Alto-Aldige Italians (who we mistook for Dutch or Germans!) told us it was stunning.

Instead we stayed by the village and watched village life. The macaques did battle with local stray dogs and stole bananas from fruit sellers, fruit sellers gossiped and chatted, older women complained about the rice they had just bought, and the babies fed the macaques.

In the evening, we walked a little further to the popular Natheinka restaurant – a French and Burmese fusion. It was supposed to be New Bagan’s underrated star, with a trained chef to shout about. When we arrived it didn’t seem promising: dirty table cloths and nearly an hour wait. Nearby, a table of international backpackers probably from Ostello Bello bored us with their proclamations. 

“You get SO MUCH input when you travel, how could a relationship ever compare to this?”

“Yes! I would never love a man as much as I love travel.”

My cold and sore throat symptoms brought on by the pollution worsened as I listened.

“When I went to a Japanese restaurant in Portugal, I was so surprised they didn’t speak any English! It’s so weird.”

My food arrived before I could use my fork for other purposes.

I ordered fish, and Alessio took the popular honey and coriander pork. Our doubts were assuaged. The fish was delicious and succulent, but the honey coriander pork is probably up there with Bagan’s best dishes. After we cleaned the plate of the sweet, peppery sauce, the chef came to apologise for the wait. However unpromising the restaurant looks, the food is more than worth it.

The meal neatly completed our time in Bagan. It is Myanmar’s biggest selling point and the ruins and sunrises speak for themselves. Going with too high an expectation will leave you disappointed, but it is magic not to be missed. Although the locals are friendly, tourism has made way for pushy, scammy touts. You’ll be ripped off, but keep your wits about you and you can minimise it. 

Bagan is as beautiful and fantastic as it seems. There is the potential to be underwhelmed, but if you explore with no agenda and no expectations, you’ll leave feeling more than satisfied.

Slowing Life Down in Inle Lake

When I met my blonde haired, blue eyed best friend and she told me she was part Burmese, I was skeptical. I remained unconvinced until I met her great-Grandma, by which time I had to concede. When I was planning my trip to South East Asia, the beautiful landscapes of Myanmar further convinced me to visit my friend’s homeland and make the most of my time there. “Since it’s Brooke’s heritage” I told myself. In Inle Lake, this justified all manner of new and unexpected things.

My ride is here

The bus there is a notable mention. However treacherous ten hours on a Myanmar bus may sound, you are given free food, blankets, water and movies. Famous express lives up to its name and drops you right in Nyaung Shwe.
Nyaung Shwe is the universal drop off point for tourists, where we eat, stay and mingle. There are a number of restaurants and drinking holes, as well as places to buy tickets and tours. It’s also the place where you pay the $10 entrance fee to the lake. The town doesn’t say a lot for itself – the attraction is the lake, but on the first night we ate some fairly decent food at the underrated Asiatico.

It’s French owned and fautlessly decorated, with an 80s soundtrack and pretty annoying tourist patrons. My favourites were the Italians who sat down, perused the menu and asked the nationality of the chef. He’s French. We heard them then say to each other “Una pizza, assolutamente no.” and leave. Although I have no qualms with eating Western, and do it frequently, I find it arrogant to believe the only people who can cook enjoyable food, or dare I say enjoyable pizza, are your own kind. But it’s their loss, the pizza was great – verified by my own Italian pizza-lover, who was also shocked by this behaviour.

You’re also welcome to smoke inside, just don’t expect anyone to appreciate it.

Those women soon left

By daylight we were ready to explore and the best way to explore independently is by bike. 

Remember the saying “you never forget how to ride a bike”?

I’m not too sure. I certainly never forget my first experience without stabilisers. My Mum held the back of my seat as I rode, then I turned around to realise she had let go and I was riding alone. I began screaming. I am even less co-ordinated now than I was then. I have also never ridden on roads – especially not roads where I am contending with trucks, lazy dogs, ox carts and a highway code which consists only of horn honking.

The five kilometers to Maing Thauk were horrific. I climbed off the bike and pushed it in a strop, and was appeased only by a walk through the village scenery. 

A local woman offered to row us through the village for twenty minutes. We got a snippet of village life and how in these waterside villages, everything revolves around the water. 

Youngsters learn to row from the time they can walk.

Once it was done, she began pushing for another boat trip, this time further. We began by saying we’d think about it, but her reluctance to let us leave the village meant we had to be firm.

We took our cycles and rode back north, stopping at the Red Mountain Vineyard. Here, for 5000 kyats you can sample two whites and two reds. The wines are accompanied by bread and real cheese!

For various reasons I don’t drink, but since I was in Myanmar, I tried the two white wines. The second white wine was the favourite – but I was most happy to eat thick slices of real cheese! 

And the views really are spectacular!

Beer goggles?

After the wine tasting, we took a lunch at the vineyard restaurant. The food is European-Asian fusion, and very good.

The ride back to Nyaung Shwe thankfully was a lot easier!

We stopped in the town and saw a fellow Black girl in the bar. Her experiences in Myanmar had been similar to mine – constant attention, staring and giggling and we both agreed it could become exhausting. She had spent the whole last evening crying. Although no one was unkind, it was tiresome to go out to eat and be watched the whole time, or constantly talked about, pointed to and photograph. Fame hurts, ya know?

After our chat, we found a local boatman who could take us out on the lake the next day. I tried to specify that we didn’t want to see tourist sites, we wanted to see villages and he said yes, but I’m not sure he understood completely.

All the same, we took a 6:30am breakfast at the hotel in advance of our 7:30am start on the boat. The walk to the pier is cold, but not as cold as when the boat starts moving. The old tatty blankets don’t even begin to help.

Our sailor was kind enough to slow down if I was taking photos, and the fishermen on the lake were real fishermen, not the ones who head out just for tips. 

We headed out to the first of a few disappointing touristic stops. The floating gardens was okay but not impressive in January when nothing is growing.

 We then drove down to a village market and the stupas. It was interesting to see and walk around the fruit markets where they’re selling to locals, but we avoided the tourist geared souvenirs section. 

There’s a hill with many stupas and it was pretty good to look at this.

From here he took us to a silk factory. I was surprised to find this interesting despite how tourist focused it was. You see the processes of the silk, lotus and cotton making. You are pressed to buy garments in their shop, but we just tipped the guide instead.

Next was a cigar factory, where they make the cheroot cigars. 

“You smoke?” The lady asked.

“I do.” Alessio replied.

“No nicotine.”

She handed him a lit cigar, then promptly handed another lit cigar to me.

When in Myanmar.

Smoking seemed to come easily to me, and the anise cigars were light, smooth and sweet. After one puff and left my smoking career behind.

Alessio wanted to buy one cigar for the express purpose of annoying people in Pub Asiatico, but the woman refused to sell anything but the 12,000+ box and stopped engaging with us when it was clear she wasn’t going to make a big sale.

We left, feeling a bit like we had missed out with our lake experience. The tours seemed tailored to making commissions off tourist purchases, with all stops being packed with tourists. I think the way to get the best experience out of the lakes is to really try and tailor-make where you stop, avoiding the tourist traps.

In the evening, after a weary and irritable bickering session, we returned to Pub Asiatico. 

We had tried Golden Kite the day before, which has far better reviews, but lacked the atmosphere and food quality of Asiatico. My esteem for the place was solidified by the amazing gratin I had. Assolutamente no, un cazzo – the French chef, his amazing taste for decor and the brilliant food made Pub Asiatico my Inle Lake highlight.

You are beautiful, in every single way

Our time in Inle Lake came to an end at that point and in honesty, I did feel a bit empty afterwards. Much like Luang Prabang, it felt like the tourism focus had drained the city of most of its charm. It still had charm aplenty – the vineyard and Maing Thauk were lovely. If you can have a tailor made tour, research where you want to see. Don’t bother with the tourist traps – they’re interesting but will leave you feeling like your Inle experience is lacking. Our first day redeemed the second – so the trick is definitely to get on your own agenda! And don’t miss the vineyard!

Inle money shot

A Stint in Yangon

Myanmar was going to be different, and I knew it from the airport.

The queue at the Yangon airport border was long and slow, made worse only by an American girl who did not once stop talking. I had had enough, and went to the bathroom.

A lady with a face painted with beige clay welcomed me to the bathroom, pointed me to the cubicle, greeted me on exit and showed me where the soap and hand dryers are.

“Er, thanks.” I said.

This was just the start. We checked in and walked to the nearest money exchange to convert some of our dollars to kyats. No less than five young people stood around to greet us and welcome us to the bank. Every few minutes they checked if we were okay as they checked our dollars. We were led up some stairs, in silence and bare foot. There, they showed us a wad of Burmese notes.

“Where are you from, Sir?”

“Italy and London”

“Wow, sir. Our machine doesn’t work today, so I will count these notes for you.”

He began to count over 250,000 kyats in increments of five.

“It’s really fine!”

“Thank you, sir. Thirty five, forty, forty five, fifty”

We sat there with shy smiles.

“Two hundred forty, two hundred forty five, two hundred fifty.” He showed us the calculation on his calculator. “Welcome to our bank, sir.”

We stuffed the notes into our old beaten wallets, thanked them and then replaced our shoes.

“I’m not sure who they think we are.” I said

“Yeah! We quit our jobs to go travelling, they work in banks…”

“I just hope they don’t see how dirty our feet are”

“Sir.” The young guy said, leaving his office. “Is everything okay?”

It wasn’t just the service that was vastly different in Myanmar. It seemed everyone was eager to greet us. Unlike the smaller, but more tourist geared cities like Inle and Bagan, the people of the bigger cities hadn’t yet been hardened to mass tourism. For now, they were still excited to see us. And as for me, a Western Black girl with braids… I had a time of it.

By the first four hours I began to play a game. Someone would spot me, stare in bewilderment, I’d count three seconds when they turned to tell their friends and on three the whole group would turn, gasp and/or giggle. This would be an ongoing theme, I soon came to realise.

The first evening in Yangon, we walked through Chinatown which was still celebrating the New Year. Chinatown was as busy, loud and chaotic as the one in Bangkok. The sweet stink of durian wafted from the sellers who chopped it up on the roadside.

By chance we ended up at the Sule Pagoda. It’s a couple metres down from Chinatown, and the second most well-known of the Yangon golden stupas.

Within minutes, a monk attached himself to us and began teaching us about the rituals, symbolisms and practices in Buddhist temples. Shrines were labeled with days of the week. One could shower the shrine corresponding to your day of birth, making prayers and wishes. I was skeptical but enjoyed learning about these rites. 

Lo and behold, at the end, his “friend” spoke to us about an orphanage he owns and pushed us for money. Whether it’s a scam, we don’t know – but if you do give, give cautiously and be firm as he will push for more and more money. A reason not to keep a lot of money on you!

Since we arrived late, it was all we had time for on the first day. On day two, we walked northwards to the drug elimination museum. It is MASSIVE.

Myanmar is part of the “Golden Triangle”, which also includes Thailand and Laos. This triangle is a hotbed of drug production and trafficking, and the museum aims to inform and crack down on drug production and use in Myanmar. Mainly by reminding locals that drugs are a “foreigner thing” and terrifying the shit out of them with scary music and scenes. There are drug specimen, with reminders of their impacts.

As much as the museum may seem extreme and we may take it lightly as Westerners – drug use can really ravage poor countries like Myanmar. The museum is a bit far, and certainly not a must do, but if you have the time, it’s worth a visit. They charge entrance, plus a fee to take pictures inside which we didn’t pay.

On our walk back, we headed to the Shwedagon Pagoda. This is one of Yangon’s most popular sites. 

It’s main focal point is the golden stupa, with many other Buddhas around it to visit. 

The second biggest focal point, apparently, was me. Before I even entered, a man pushed his camera in my face and snapped a photo. I was pissed off, so when more girls tried it, I glared at them and said “No.” Everyone seemed to be staring and pointing to the extreme where I couldn’t enjoy the museum – it was exhausting to not be able to explore (or sleep) like the other Western tourists were.

Luckily, by the end people began asking for photos and selfies and I was more than happy to oblige for some real fans – in one case asking for a picture in return. I didn’t mind being asked, it was flattering. I didn’t even mind two sweet female monks who waved at us all the way from the pagoda to the cultural centre where we ate. None of them spoke much English but just a gesture was fine. To me, it’s rude to put your camera in someones face.

We walked home via the People’s Park, which has a fair, waterpark and lots of greenery. It left us tired and sweaty, so we took an early night ready for the ten hour bus to Inle Lake the next day. 

For us, Yangon seemed to be a little introduction. It didn’t charm me like Mandalay, but it also doesn’t have the mass appeal of Inle or Bagan. What Yangon does well is introduce you to Myanmar. The service, the people, the pace of life. The smoke and pollution means people are constantly coughing and hacking, and tobacco chewing lends itself to a lot of spitting. A lot. 

What fascinated me most was the tradition of thanaka. Many of the women paint their faces with beige clays extracted from bark. It is a Burmese beauty ritual, protecting the skin from the harsh sun, keeping it fresh and young. Thanaka is also ubiquitous, yet I had never heard of it. I found it amazing to see a beauty tradition which had been preserved and untainted by Western beauty standards.

My brief time in Yangon felt like an introduction to a vast country, in which tourism is still in its infancy. Although many warn that the longer you leave it, the more Myanmar will become over-commercialised and lose its charm, I think the charm of the cities and the people is intrinsic. But don’t leave it too long, as the country is lovely.