It’s not been easy.

Spring is not a very hospitable season here. The tourist trail that is normally well-beaten in later months is just seeing a trickle of travelers. Supplies are low, the weather is rough and the tourist-friendly establishments are generally closed. In a way, its a good time to be here. The busy spots are quiet, the prices are a little lower. But the seasons here, across the vast, dry, empty plains, bring drastic changes. Right now, the otherwise green hills are brown. What precious little rain Mongolia sees has yet to come and the snow has only just begun to melt. The livestock have grown thin without fresh grass to eat and the people are waiting until summer arrives to slaughter them for meat. The horses, now mostly turned loose to survive on their own, are also weak. The country is still recovering from the hard winter.

Frozen Marsh Speck = Dog

I joined a small tour group of 6 organized by UB guesthouse rather than trying to make my own way as I normally do. There is no public transportation outside of Ulaanbator aside from a tiny length of train tracks in the center of the country. To get somewhere, there are few options: walk, ride a horse or camel, or buy a seat in a Russian van. For my first excursion, the tourist van looked like a good choice. The tour was headed for Khovsgol National Park, home of the great frozen Lake Khovsgol, with stops in Karakorum, the White Lakes and Moron. I planned to leave the group in Khovsgol and do an extended trip on horseback to the far north.

The line-up: Inge and Joan from Antwerp, Belgium, Basil and Flavie from Lioux, France and another Frenchman, Greg. And me.


This is not the long-overdue mass update that will cover my last days in Myanmar, final month+ in Bangkok, quick visit to Beijing, China and my first few days in Ulaanbatar, Mongolia. I’m just putting a quick note here to let you know that I’ll be out of touch for the next two weeks or so.

Tomorrow morning I’ll be leaving Ulaanbatar with a small group of travelers to visit Khovsgol lake in the north of Mongolia (6 days of travel). When I get to the lake, I’ll leave the group and hire a horse and guide to take me on a trek in the area around the lake for a few days, then return to Ulaanbatar via local van, which will take another couple days. I may have internet access in a couple places along the way, but its not likely.

When I return I’ll throw down the giant multi-volume update.

Until then, check out some photos from Beijing: Zhengjue Ignition


I landed in Beijing with a backpack full of clothes and a scrap of paper bearing the address of a guesthouse I found online. I knew my sister Sarah would be arriving soon, but we hadn’t set a solid time/place to meet up. I looked around for any fellow travelers who seemed to have a better idea of where they were going and met Noor from Amsterdam. She at least had an address written in Chinese - no one was able to read my english one - so I followed her onto a bus headed for the city center figuring that would be closer, at least, to my destination than the airport.

The bus did take us right where we wanted to go, but a nearby “friendly” rickshaw pilot convinced us otherwise. We paid him a small amount to take us to the hostel, but of course we didn’t get there before he showed us a “much better” one and a brief argument. At least we got a quick tour of central Beijing complete with hair-raising traffic maneuvers. Noor had arrived in Biejing after having already spent some time in Shanghai. Her Mandarin-Chinese vocabulary consists of “Hello,” Thank You,” and “Keep you eyes on the road,” all three of which get plenty of use.

The hostel turned out to be a massive YHA “tourist ghetto” style thing - hundreds of rooms, ok prices, no character whatsoever. It was good enough for a night, though, and I was tired so I took a room. Noor and I found a cheap, simple dinner at a late-night food place and I told her my story about just having left Bangkok that morning. I was feeling really down, of course, and it was nice to talk with someone who had been through the same situation before. I spent that week trying not to think about Bangkok, but i couldn’t help longing for warmer weather, Thai food and my friends. I did manage to reunite with Sarah the next morning at the Red Lantern Hostel. We moved into a double room and took to exploring the city, but unfortunately she soon developed a tooth ache. A trip to the hospital revealed an infection around her wisdom tooth. Since we had both boked tickets for the Beijing - Ulaanbator leg of the trans-siberian railway departing in just a few days, this threw off the current plan.

Old City Walls Zhengjue Hutong

During the last couple days we had in Beijing I bought a new camera to finally replace the one I lost in Thailand - a Canon 400D. Sarah and I also visited the Beijing Glasses Center - the mecca of budget optometry. I bought two empty frames and had them fitted with prescription lenses for next to nothing. After we bought the glasses we started off walking randomly and eventually found ourselves in the company of an incredibly nice and helpful old Chinese gentleman. As he carefully explained the best way for us to get back to the guesthouse we were joined by another friendly Chinese guy and we all walked together to the bus stop. On the way Sarah and I decided to go instead for some Peking duck so our new friends recommended a place (which turned out to be the biggest, most famous Peking duck restaurant in China - the Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant) so we rode the bus there.

For about $16 we had an entire duck (number 362,224) to ourselves. It was the best duck I’ve ever had. We sat at the restaurant until they were closing up a couple hours later.

The next morning we woke at 5am, grumpy and tired, in order to get to the train station in time for our ride to Mongolia. Long story short: a stupid argument ensued and I ended up leaving alone for Ulaanbator. Hopefully Sarah and I can reconnect somewhere else along the way.

The train ride was lonely but comfortable. About 30 hours in total. I passed the time writing letters and sleeping - I had an entire 2-person cabin to myself since Sarah didn’t come along. We stopped at a few quiet stations on the Chinese side before a long stop at the Mongolian border. The bits of “civilisation” we passed were nothing more than a few dozen shacks clustered around a factory of kind. At the border I opted to wait the hour and a half inside the station and spend the rest of my Chinese Yuan at the shop there. I met another American traveler on the way back onto the train. Tressa was on the way back home after having spent the last 6 months in Mongolia and plenty of advice to share. She even gave me her pair of Mongolian boots (which turned out not to fit, but I passed them onto another traveler who was glad to have them).

When I arrived in UB, I took a room at the UB guesthouse (the default choice for new arrivals in Mongolia). I settled in and tried to withdraw some Mongolian cash with my card but was denied. Uh oh. I wrote some panicked emails and tried to call my bank… It took a couple days to sort out but I finally found out that it had been suspended due to “suspicous activity” ie, using it in 3 countries within a week. Thankfully, its all sorted now and I’m back in business.


After I returned to Bangkok I moved into a new single room in the same apartment building. The plan was to stay there for a month while I finished up some work and arranged my next travel plans, which is exactly what happened. For 5 weeks I slipped back into the blissful Bangkok rhythm of slow days, good food and occasionally loud nights. I worked only as much as I needed to and let the simple things fill up the rest of my time.

I had decided that after more than a year in and out of Thailand, it was time for me to pick up and continue traveling again. Since I want to eventually visit eastern Europe I chose to fly to Beijing, China and ride the famous trans-siberian railway all the way across Russia to Moscow. On the way I’ll stop in Mongolia and some destinations in Russia, taking around a month to make the journey, then either fly or continue overland to Sofia, Bulgaria where I can finally reunite with the great Gartholomew J. If I’m lucky I’ll also catch Mr. Joe McCraw who will end his own European tour there this month.

My sister will be joining me in Beijing and coming along to Europe, which I’m very excited about. I haven’t seen her since she visited Thailand about a year ago!

I had set up a really comfortable, easy life for myself in Bangkok so preparing to leave was hard. As the time of my exit approached, I started feeling depressed. During my last few days I tried to say goodbye to my friends and favorite places but it just made me question my decision to leave. It wasn’t until I arrived in Beijing that I was able to look at my situation from a new perspective and feel better again.

Leaving something you love behind is always difficult, but sometimes there is no other option if you want to explore the world. Bangkok will always be a plane ticket away, and I will be back again soon.


I caught a 4am bus to the town of Kalaw in southern Shan state. Kalaw has become a common stop on the backpacker trail as one of the best (and most openly permitted) areas to trek around Shan state. The most popular one is a three-day walk to Inle Lake, another one of Myanmar’s main tourist attractions, which is what I ended up doing.

On the bus I had made friends with two fellow travelers, Eileen and Verena. When I saw them again over dinner we decided to all go on the trek together. Before the evening was through we had also managed to recruit two more: Greg and Malika, a french couple at the start of a year-long round-the-world trip.

The hike took us through several Palaung villages. We slept at one the first night and got to witness a funeral wake, which seemed like nothing more than an excuse for a few dozen guys to get together and gamble. Our guide, Chi, lost some money but Verena managed to win a couple thousand kyat.

Kalaw Trek to Indein

The second night we slept in a hillside monastery. We enjoyed some Burmese rum Chi had purchased on the way over a great dinner - the best Burmese food I had during my time in the country was on this trek, thanks to our personal chef who hiked along with us. The young monks chanted for a couple hours in the evening as the sun went down… and then started up again at 5am. Chi had a fierce hangover from the rum and Verena suffered some severe exhaustion from the dry, dusty heat so we limped the final leg of the trip to Indein. From there we caught a boat across the lake to our guesthouse.

Inle seems like a place worth staying for a few days, but sadly my time in Myanmar is up. Using the end of my 30-day visa, I will have just enough time to make the 20-hour bus ride back to Yangon and catch my flight home to Bangkok.

And so I left.

[Sorry this post is crap. I have a lot of catching up to do on the journal entries. Move along…]


A new thrill for you masochistic travelers out there: the tourist buses of Myanmar! After a wonderful sleepless 16-hour bounce-a-thon, I got off the bus at Nyuang-U, the backpacker-zone of Bagan at 4am. A decent room at the InnWa guest house was soon booked, a small breakfast quickly eaten, and a horse-cart hired for the entire day.

My trusty driver took me around to nearly two dozen major pagodas and temples across the north and south plains, ending with a picturesque sunset at a small unnamed 2-story temple on the south plain. I managed to stay awake long enough to sample some of Bagan’s regional tourist-specialty-food: pizza! (not bad, actually) and then slept like a sunburned baby for 12 hours.

The scene in Bagan is very similar to that in Angkor, Cambodia: its hot, dusty, full of tourists and home to some truly amazing ancient temples. Most of the structures in Bagan are about 1,000 years old although new pagodas and temples are still being built to this day - one key difference between Bagan and Angkor. Since Bagan continues to be an “active” religious site, the traditional methods of constructing and maintaining the temples have not been lost. Thanks to some help from UNESCO and a lot of tourist-industry dollars, many of the temples around are in great shape.

I rented a bicycle the next day and lazily pedaled around, revisiting some temples and checking out new ones. Bagan has over 4,400 temples and pagodas - the largest and most spectacular of them are frequented by a steady stream of tourists but there are literally thousands left that rarely see a visitor. Most of these less popular sites stay locked throughout the year, so to get inside you must locate the “keymaster,” which often turns into an adventure in itself. I made a point of visiting as many smaller “neglected” temples as possible.

In a book about Myanma art and architecture that I had recently finished reading (a gift from Pui), I learned about the legend of the “16 dreams of King Kosala.” It describes the horrible visions of a Burmese king which he had interpreted to predict the downfall of his empire sometime during the 12th century. I also learned that a mural depicting these visions can be found somewhere in or near Bagan. As I explored the temples, I asked around among the keymasters and souvenir vendors. After many tries, I learned that such a set of paintings exist in an unnamed temple near Salay, a small town about 3 hours’ drive from Bagan.

I was determined to get there. Salay is not too frequently visited by tourists, although it has a set of attractions including some more Bagan-era pagodas, a large active monastery and a museum. The only way for foreigners to (easily) get there is by taxi, and the best price I could find after heavy searching was $25. I knew that it would be an expensive day, but I was on a mission…

I told the driver that I wanted to visit temple #99 which is about 7km past Salay. He gave a groan and refused, saying that the roads are no good past Salay. Not to be deterred so easily, I got help from my guest house and phoned up a monastery near the temple and asked them about the road. “Just fine,” they said. With some gentle coaxing I got the driver to sign on to the mission under the condition that he be allowed to take along his two sisters.

He piloted his taxi like a cruise missile along the narrow rocky roads until we arrived in Salay. Some locals pointed us to the monastery I had phoned earlier, and I walked in to ask about the elusive temple #99. I asked the first guy I saw, and he turned around and asked someone who in turn asked someone, etc etc etc. By them time my “guide” approached me with the keys to number 99, he was flanked with 7 smiling friends. Each of them reached out to me with an open hand.

“OK You can pay me and I take you temple please,” the keymaster said.

“Great, how much do you want?”

“He is middlemen,” he answered, sweeping a finger in front of all 7 friends. They all laughed.

“Yes, middlemen. What does that mean?”

“Him 50 kyat, him 100 kyat, him 150 kyat, him 200 kyat, him 250 kyat, him 300 kyat, him 350 kyat. Middlemen, middlemen, understand?”

I ended up paying a total of 2,000 kyat (about $1.30) to be escorted about 2km down a dusty trail to the temple.

I expected it to be small and full of bats. It was. But I also expected a lot more of the paintings. I’ll post the photos shortly so you can share my disappointment. For now I’ll just say I have no idea how anyone can see anything in the tiny black and white blobs that I found on those walls. Oh well. As they say, its the journey.

I spent one more day in Bagan, caught another spectacular sunset and then decided to head east, back into southern Shan state to Kalaw for some trekking.


Considering the nightmarish bus ride that it avoided, the flight was smooth and pleasant. We were deposited at Yangon’s domestic terminal - the dingy disorganized half of the airport that I knew had to exist somewhere… To (belatedly) celebrate Valentines day, I had booked a room at the lush Kandawgyi Palace Hotel. It turned out to be really nice: a great location overlooking Kandawgyi Lake and all the luxury fixings. We made the mistake of having dinner at the attached Chinese restaurant, however, instead of the highly recommended French one. And what a mistake it was…

After giving a sad farewell to Pui in the morning, I lapsed into the worst bout of food poisoning yet. I checked out late, leaving the bathroom, err, not exactly as I found it. Sorry guys.

So the plan was to take advantage of the hotel’s special service of withdrawing cash using my credit card since I was out of cash at this point, but it turned out that this service doesn’t exist. Feeling too ill to handle the situation, I paid the bill, used the last scrap of my cash to get a very cheap room in a guesthouse downtown, and lost another day to sweaty fever nightmares.

Thankfully, I managed to get it sorted the next day. For future reference: the Sedona Hotel can withdraw cash from your Visa or Mastercard through a Singaporean account for a reasonable percentage fee. The sickness started to fade and I was ready to get moving again so I booked a bus ticket to Bagan, and a one-way flight back to Bangkok from Yangon for March 1st.

Also for future reference: The noodles at 999 Shan Noodle stand near Sule Pagoda are really good. And they won’t make you sick!


Upon our arrival in Mandalay it was decided that the only way for Pui to catch her flight back to Bangkok on time was to book a flight to Yangon the following day. So we did. I got two tickets on Air Bagan, using up almost all of the cash I had left. It was a quiet Valentines day in dusty Mandalay…

Before hitting the airport in the morning we managed to visit the famous Mahatmuni Paya. No women allowed close to the Buddha! There was yet another novitation ceremony underway - ‘tis the season apparently.


The train finally showed up in Mandalay. We climbed into our sleeper car to settle in for the estimated 24-hours to Myitkyina and met our roommates: Kyaw Lay and friends. Kyaw Lay (“Jo Lee”) introduced himself as an employee of Myanmar Railways and then asked if it was alright for his 2 friends to share the 4-person room with me and Pui all the way to Myitkyina. I said OK, but the conductor soon came around and there was much heated discussion (in Burmese, of course) about it. In the end, Pui and I shared the room with just Kyaw Lay for most of the time.

Somewhere along the way we had realized that due to all the delays, we would not have enough time to visit Myitkyina and so we had better get off the train at Katha instead; only, the train doesn’t stop directly at Katha…

Between studying my large fold-out map and trying to ask Kyaw Lay about how to get there, we finally figured out that we have to get off the train at Naba. Of course we figured this out just after we rolled past Naba. An hour later, we disembarked at Mohyin and met a Belgian traveler who had made the same mistake about 6 hours earlier and was still stuck in Mohyin. At first, we were told by everyone that we must wait for the train running the other way to return us to Naba where we would then need to take a pick-up to Katha. No one could tell us how long it would take. Then, suddenly, we were offered the option of taking a K1500 bus that was to leave in an hour and arrive in Katha after 6 hours on the road. All 3 of us went for it. The “bus” turned out to be a local truck full of cabbage and lots of people - our “seat” was a small spot on the roof above the driver - but it did arrive in Katha just after sundown, as promised.

After a quick survey of the hotel options (3 identical hotels right next to eachother: shared bathrooms with no running water, limited electricity) we took a room and walked around a bit. Although larger than I had expected, Katha is a small town on the Ayayerwaddy river that became an important spot for teak wood production during the British occupation. Its small claim to fame among travelers is that it was once the home of a young Eric Blair, AKA George Orwell, and is the setting of his book Burmese Days. Although the book is fictional, its descriptions of Katha (then known as Kyauktada) are accurate. So accurate, in fact, that in order to release the book for the first time in England, the name of the town had to be changed to Mandalay and some details altered. Copies of Burmese Days (Orwell’s other two famous books, 1984 and Animal Farm are curiously banned in Myanmar) are sold all along the tourist trail in Myanmar and I had just finished reading it myself, as well as a book I had brought along called Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin - a recent travelogue in which the author recounts a year spent retracing the footsteps of George Orwell in Burma. Apart from this disctinction, Katha is just another pleasant river town - a nice stop to break up the long boat ride between Myitkyina and Mandalay.

Because of Pui’s schedule, needed to start the long journey back to Yangon as soon as we arrived in Katha. The plan was to take the 2-day boat down to Mandalay, so first thing in the morning we hit the local IWT (Inland Water Transport) office. Boat schedules in Myanmar, like so much else, are utterly unpredictable. The IWT guy informed us that the boat would leave tomorrow. In the late afternoon, at whatever o’clock. Since the only other feasible option for getting back to Mandalay (aside from repeating the 24-hour train journey) was the bus, we chose to take the risk of assuming a very tight schedule by waiting another day for the boat…

With an extra day and a half left to kill, we took to exploring the town. We hired a horse-cart for the afternoon to take us around the main sights in the area: several pagodas, temples, a golf course and a large orphanage. At the orphanage we were given a brief tour - and received celebrity-level attention from the kids - then were invited to kneel down before the headmaster and receive a bunch of bananas in return for our small cash donation. We spent the remainder of our time wandering about, and at one point befriended a funny local character named U Than Wein who took us around to some of the old landmarks mentioned in Burmese Days (including the old European Club which features a tennis court still in use by some locals). Than Wein explained that he is the son of the former police chief of Katha - quite interesting because that was Orwell’s title during the British days (he was stationed in Katha for the end of his service in Burma). Our conversion stumbled along in broken English, but I was able to figure out that Than Wein’s father would have been the first Burmese police chief of Katha after England pulled out of the country!

The boat finally did arrive and we opted for the much more expensive cabin-class ticket rather than freeze during the cold nights on the deck. It turned out to be a good choice. The 2-day trip down the river was scenic and peaceful, punctuated by a few frenzied stops at small villages along the way. The boat sat anchored during the nights apparently because the water level is too low to risk becoming stuck on an unseen sandbar in the dark.


Back to Mandalay on a bus full of pineapples and sacks of beans… the only way to the north open to foreigners requires going through Mandalay in the middle of the country, so reaching our destination of Myitkyina will be a 36 hour + affair. Traveling anywhere in Myanmar requires the patience of a saint. Our original plan, hatched just before departing [omitted], would see us getting back to Mandalay in time to catch the 1:50pm train to Myitkyina (a 24 hour ride). Of course the bus arrived late and I’m sitting here scribbling in my notebook at the train station after having spent another day in Mandalay, waiting for our train, which is expected to be more than 6 hours late. Patience…