Six months or so through the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma & China
We overnight bussed back to Yangon. Admittedly, not the best overnight bus journey we've taken. Initially there was something wrong with the air conditioning unit, which meant numerous stops by the side of the road for a gaggle of men (some associated with the bus, many not) to stand around smoking and peering into the side of the bus. Annoyingly the bit of machinery associated with the air con was underneath our seats, so every time we stopped we had to get up, move all our stuff and stand around in the aisle waiting while the driver lifted up the floor and fiddled around with the machinery from above. Meanwhile the gaggle of men peering in from outside shouted instructions. A lot of water was poured in (?) and miraculously they got it working, we were on the road again! The wiggly and pot-holed roads and the south east asian comedy/variety shows played at full volume are now just par for the course, but this journey stood out for the sheer amount of vomiting. Maybe the Burmese are a particularly travel sick nation, but it seemed unprecedented to me, there was copious regurgitating on all sides. The only thing for it was to take a sleeping pill, put in our headphones to listen to more Desert Island Discs and pretend it wasn't happening. Which we did, quite successfully.
Finally in Yangon we were reunited with Naomi & Helen who had (wisely) decided to fly. We were keen to save a few dollars. Naomi described the flight as akin to landing in a shopping trolley, and then promptly posted this update on Facebook, freaking out both Helen's mum and my mum (who didn't know I'd 'cleverly' decided to take the bus). A final day pottering in Yangon included a last trip to one of our beloved tea houses (one of the highlights of Myanmar for me, you can keep your temples all I really want is Burmese tea with condensed milk). Also a trip for a drink in the rather swanky bar of The Strand Hotel, this is a Sarkies brothers'
hotel (like Raffles in Singapore and the E&O in Penang) and has been around since the late 19th century. I like to think Uncle George would have had a drink in the same bar, but Jo thinks he was probably on a budget.
A short flight and we were back in Bangkok, and doing the final preparations for our Chinese Visa application. Applying for a Chinese Visa from Thailand involves submitting as much paper as a university dissertation and almost as much work. We needed to submit; two forms (which included questions such as listing all major family members and their occupations, and listing every country you have visited in the last 12 months including exact dates of entry & exit), copies of all our flights into, out of and within China, evidence of accommodation bookings for every night we are to stay in China, a letter from our employer (recommending us and including our salary), recent bank statements (to prove we have enough money to visit), copies of our travel insurance, photocopies of our passport and finally photocopies of out current Thai Visa. Finally all the paperwork was ready and I headed out with Naomi & Helen for an awesome Thai massage at Wat Pho, they have a massage school at the temple. I was really tense worrying about applying for the visa the next day but the massage definitely helped, as did several passion fruit mojitos with dinner later.
Finally 'V' Day had arrived. We were up at the crack of dawn and arrived at the Chinese Visa office at 07:40, one hour and twenty minutes before it opened. The queue was already about 25 people long! We waited, within half an hour the queue was 80 people long and snaking round the corner to the main road, we were glad we'd arrived early. At 09.00 the doors opened and we were admitted in an orderly fashion. We all marched upstairs and as we entered the visa office were given a numbered ticket and told to join one of about six queues. The numbered tickets were rather like the ones you get at the cheese counter in some supermarkets, but seemed totally pointless as you weren't then called in numbered order, you just queued up and waited your turn. We hedged our bets and stood in separate queues. We were both about five applicants from the front, but as processing each applicant took about 15 minutes, we were still waiting for over an hour. The queues snaked back with at least 30 people and as the office closed at 11.00 I felt many were going to be disappointed.
As we waited we both got more and more tense, the visa officers were asking people all sorts of difficult questions about accommodation bookings, employment and why they had or had not got a certain bit of paper. Many were turned away. Finally at the front of the queue we submitted our papers, the officer sat behind a bank teller type screen with tinted glass and the only way to see or hear her was to bend down and talk through the tiny slit which you pushed your papers through. We were accusingly challenged about why we'd ticked 'unemployed' on
our forms but also submitted employment letters (from our previous employers). We tried to explain that we were travelling so currently not working etc. That was absolutely not good enough and we were asked several times what we did in 'our country' and told in no uncertain terms to write that on our forms. Which we did with slightly shaking hands. After a few more aggressive questions the lady finally barked that she would give us a 30 day visa, and we walked away with the enviable pink receipt, which means in four working days we can return to the office, pay our visa fee and hopefully get our visas. I still won't believe it until I actually see the visa attached to my passport, but it does look promising. We might actually be going to China...
Back to the Khao San Road for lunch and a well-earned beer to calm our rather frayed nerves!
The beers of Myanmar all taste pretty much the same. They are fizzy lagers served in 640ml bottle at either 5% or 6%. The big brands are Myanmar, Mandalay and Dagon. Myanmar dominates but I think Mandalay blue is my favourite. I really enjoyed numerous chilled beers all over Myanmar and it was probably a good thing I hadn't done any research in advance.
It's a difficult decision to go to a country where you strongly oppose the current regime or that county's policies. For example, Erin and I have been on holiday to places where being gay is illegal. Should we have stayed at home? Obviously we decided that Myanmar (or Burma) was a place we'd like to go but for many years Myanmar's national hero, Aung San Suu Kyi, was calling for a boycott on tourism, but less so recently. Does tourism in Myanmar simply fund the current corrupt government or does it, on balance, benefit the people who you meet and pay for goods and services? There is a section in the Myanmar Lonely Planet (Rough Guide have refused to produce a guide for the country) about how much of your money ends up in the governments hands. It's much better (percentage-wise at least) if you go as an independent traveller rather than on a group tour. There are a few 5USD or 10USD government fees for the main sites (Bagan and Inle for example) that we had to pay but these are pretty minimal. However, the guide doesn't explain that all the beer is brewed by companies that are more or less government/military owned and the one that wasn't, Mandalay, was recently forcibly taken over at gun point!
It seems that two military owned holding companies, Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEH) and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) have their fingers in all the pies. Every big business where money is being made ends up owned in some form by the country's elite military leaders.
I'm going to give the beer of Myanmar 5 out of 10. It was perfectly drinkable when chilled, positively refreshing and beery, reasonably affordable (a big bottle of beer was 2-3USD) but it loses a few points for its corrupt military connections. Drinking a chilled bottle of Myanmar or Mandalay now would leave a rather bitter taste.