We debated calling this post, “Always fly Bangkok Airways” but thought that it might be a little too “salesy” and perhaps a bit bias, but seriously, always fly Bangkok Airways in Asia.
We arrived to our flight four hours early after taking the first bus out of Pai directly to the airport. In Asia, ‘direct’ when referring to transportation is always a relative term. Direct could mean anything from a couple minutes late, a detour lasting an extra hour or two or three hours later after dropping packages and people off in between your two destinations; so we gave ourselves extra time at the airport. In order to secure visas to get to Myanmar in the first place (the country only opened its borders in 2015) we had to book return trip tickets. We booked our tickets to Myanmar in March and with no preconceived ideas about the airlines we were booking on and picked the cheapest ticket at the time on Bangkok Airways. When we arrived to the airport to check in for our flight, the agent at the ticket counter handed back our seats and invited us to wait in the business lounge before our flight took off. Never to question a surprise in our favor we both said kob-khun ka (thank you in Thai) and walked away from the counter. As soon as we got out of earshot we both looked at each other and asked if the other one had accidentally booked us a business class ticket by accident months ago. Neither of us remembered doing so.
We arrived to our business class lounge to an awaiting stack of tea sandwiches, cookies, fast wi-fi, coffee, juice, mini-muffins and a lovely woman who explained that ALL PASSENGERS on Bangkok Airways get unlimited use of the lounge, regardless of what class they booked in. Without wanting to draw too much attention to our excitement, we started gathering a small plate of food from each of the stations. Neither one of us had tasted the nostalgia of a white bread ham and cheese sandwich in months since being in Asia. Before we knew it, Ross had eaten at least 20 tea sandwiches with no signs of slowing down, even after receiving some side eyed glances from the lounge’s host and scolding from Natalie. After finishing up a blog post on the free wi-fi we headed to the gate. We weren’t quite sure how the boarding procedures were supposed to work in Thailand so we waited until the departure time of the flight and kept double checking the screen to make sure we were at the right place. It looked like there weren’t people for the flight. Worried that we might be missing something, we struck up a conversation with the woman behind us who was a teacher in Myanmar. She let us know that the plane was delayed and that she wouldn’t be surprised if it cancelled. Shortly after the staff came out to the handful of people sitting at the gate and told us that we were delayed and that we could make our way back to the lounge, where the delicious ham and cheese sandwiches were waiting. As we surveyed the lounge, we noticed that all of the people on our flight were fellow backpackers (or at least our age). The sandwiches were going fast.
After about an hour in the lovely lounge of sandwiches we were greeted by two airline representatives who told us that our flight was cancelled but we would not only get a hotel room for the night but also a dining voucher and 2,400 Baht, about $74 USD each. We were all rescheduled on the next flight in the morning. It seemed like a win, win, win scenario. All of the backpackers were more than willing to accept our fate. Everyone was excited about the huge upgrade we would all shortly receive except a mother and a daughter who were furious about the decision to cancel the flight and proceeded to scream at the airline staff while the rest of us sat quietly behind her thinking about the soft beds we were going to sleep in that was going to be much better than any hostel that we had booked. Finally the staff was able to calm the woman (who was upset that she had traveled from Spain to come to Myanmar for a guided tour that started in the morning, even though we noticed that she was wearing the quintessential Thai souvenir of elephant pants) and we all piled into two mini buses to the Holiday Inn.
We now understand what Chingy (the rapper) might have been talking about when he wrote the song “Chillin’ at the Holiday Inn”, we would chill at this Holiday Inn anytime! The lobby was covered in immaculate marble and above us was a giant golden chandelier, we almost felt guilty with our shoes still on, given all of the temples we had explored barefoot. In total there were 12 backpackers and the upset mother and daughter so the plane the following day would only have 14 people on it. Since we all were on the same ‘shoestring backpacker boat’ we all agreed to meet up with our dining vouchers for dinner. The dinner was an all you could eat buffet of prime rib, steak, chicken roasts, mashed potatoes, fresh salads and even sushi, all of which Ross loaded plate after plate seemingly unhindered by his recent ham and cheese sandwich binge. We loaded up our plates and topped off our meal with ice cream and crepes. Our hotel room was easily double the size of any dorm room we had been in over the course of our entire trip and the water stayed hot the entire time we were in the shower. There was even a pillow menu for soft, medium, hard and in between. We were chillin’ in style. At dinner we commiserated with our new friends, including a nurse who lived in California, Stephanie.
The next morning, we all met in the lobby at 4AM for our new flight to Myanmar. The hotel had boxes of breakfast waiting for us and we soon discovered that there had been a miscommunication between the airline and the hotel on who was supposed to call our ride to the airport. After some confusion, one ten seater van pulled into the hotel valet. There was no way that all 14 of us and our luggage would fit into this van. Since no one wanted to be the last man standing, we all tried to find a way that this was going to work. We decided that if the small people sat two to a seat and we squeezed three in the front of the van like clowns getting into a VW that it might just work. It was the most packed van our driver had ever taken to the airport. Even though the flight was mainly empty seats, we were still treated to a meal on board because that is just what Bangkok Airways does (it is seriously the best airline in Asia). The day before our delay, the teacher had told us that the airport only opens up when planes arrive and immigration officers are only at their posts when they know there will be people to check. Due to this, the airport looked like a graveyard with a skeleton crew.
With no hotel reservations in Myanmar, we hoped on a bus with the rest of the group and decided to press on to Kalaw (the destination we would leave for our trek to Inle Lake), an eight hour journey from Mandalay, where we landed. When we informed our bus driver of our plans, he told us that his best friend would take us to the bus station. Constantly hesitant to trust “best friends” due to scams and for fear of being ripped off we were skeptical but left with little choice. Our airport bus stopped at a dirt street corner and a man came up to the bus doors and told us to follow him. We did. He led us around a few corners to what looked like an abandoned parking lot full of dirt. There were a few mini buses parked nearby but the area did not resemble a bus station. Speaking no English but looking confident, he pointed to a boy that was a maximum age of 12. We assumed this was the area to buy our tickets. We walked up to him and said, “Kalaw?” For all we know we could have been saying hello in Burmese. He looked vaguely confident and repeated, “Kalaw” back to us and then asked for 50,000 Kyat (about $30 USD). We begrudgingly handed over the money with no other back up plan and hoped for the best. Before we knew it, we were rushed onto a mini-bus and our bags were thrown on the top of the luggage compartment. Also on our bus was a mother with her child, a monk and a half a dozen other locals (mainly men); we were the only tourists on our bus. We asked our seat mates as well if the bus was going to Kalaw. We would look at our new friends (for the next four hours) and say Kalaw, and they would repeat it back to us, just like the child laborer ticket taker. So far Myanmar proved to be the least English speaking country in our travels so far. Since this was not our first bus rodeo, Natalie went searching for water. We had also been warned by our teacher friend the day before that most Burmese people get violently car sick on buses. She walked up to an area near the ticket table and asked a lady for water, the woman stared back at her like she was speaking Cling On; she then walked over to the boy at the ticket table and asked again; she was met for a second time with blank stares (even after playing a one sided game of charades). Natalie walked back towards the bus defeated, a dog started to bark viciously at her. Frightened she looked at Ross for help and trying to stay calm was no longer an option. She ran and the dog ran after her. Thankfully the shop owner came out and quieted down the dog. Now safe on the bus, we had one final visitor, another young man who handed out small black trash bags to all of the riders, except us. Not quiet sure if we just looked like we could handle the bumps of Myanmar roads or if we just didn’t get the bags because we were tourists, we pantomimed that we would also like bags. The boy laughed and handed us two, along with our waters. We were not in Kansas (or in this instance, Thailand) anymore.
The roads in Myanmar have more potholes than paved sections so riding in a bus is like the Indian Jone’s ride at Disneyland. As we bumped our way through towns of varying sizes and listened as our fellow passengers started to vomit, our driver put on a familiar tune. Chords from System of the Down’s Chop Suey! began to echo through the van’s speakers. When the lyrics started we realized quickly that they were in Burmese. For the next two hours, the soundtrack looped American metal, rock and even country with Burmese lyrics. About 4.5 hours into the ride, we both looked at each other and realized the urge to pee was getting desperate. Finally when we both thought we might be filling our black barf bags with pee instead of puke, we asked the bus driver when he pulled into a gas station. To our sadness and surprise, he bluntly looked behind him and said, “no, soon”. We weren’t sure if that meant that no we were not stoping but would stop soon or if it simply meant not anytime soon. Thankfully about 10 minutes later we pulled into our lunch stop and he pointed in the direction of toilets. The doors to the bathroom were marked with a symbol that looked like a cursive mn and another that looked like a child drawing a penis (little did we know that the mn symbol was for men and the penis drawing was for ladies; all were squatty potties.
We arrived in Kalaw about three hours later and walked almost two miles uphill to our hotel (with AC, which ended up being ridiculous given that Kalaw is at elevation and therefore it is already chilly). We had heard that Myanmar was overall a very safe country but on our journey to our hotel, we quickly noticed that most houses had shattered glass or razor wire stuck in the tops on their walls to keep intruders out or at least swayed against breaking in. We settled in and ate at a traditional Burmese restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet. We ordered two dishes and ended up with about ten plates on our table along with Myanmar’s beer, aptly named Myanmar. We learned later that the various bowls and plates piled high with tea leaves, picketed veggies, chilis, fermented fish and other indescribable flavors and foods was known by tourists as Burmese roulette. Sometimes it works in your favor and other times, not so much. During our other two days in Kalaw, we explored the town, visited temples and monasteries, ate ice cream, booked our trek to Inle with Ever Smile Trekking, ate Shan noodles (a local specialty that we highly recommend) and visited the beautiful street markets selling everything from dried fish to porn DVDs.
On our last night in Kalaw, we made our way home after dinner (after a big Myanmar beer each) and were stopped going up the epic hill to our hotel by a man that we nicknamed “huggie”. Clearly he spotted us a mile away when he saw us coming up the hill. Once we got closer, he leaned over and yelled, “welcome to Myanmar! How do you like it here”. It was too late to detour so we engaged him. “It’s only our third day but so far so good,” as we came closer the smile on his face grew and we noticed that he had on an New York Yankee hat on. He started to tell us how much he loves American’s because we “tell it to him straight” and he told us all about working in NYC. After making up an excuse to leave the conversation he warned us to be careful in Myanmar and not to trust anyone (not realizing the irony of us stopping to chat to him, a stranger). After we managed to pull ourselves away from the conversation he gave us both huge hugs and said if he saw us anywhere in Kalaw, he would protect us! After a good nights sleep in our cozy hotel bed, we headed out for our trek to Inle Lake.