Bangkok is the center of the sweltering Southeast Asia universe and all roads lead to Bangkok. However, the roads leading from Bangkok go to some pretty cool places. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to go to the Thai beaches this trip and it killed me because I was in Thailand during the full moon and was unable to get down to Ko Phangan for the legendary full moon party. Don’t feel too bad for me as I have been before and will hopefully go again sometime but it let me have time to check out the capital cities of Vientiane, Yangon and Kuala Lumpur. Here is a brief write-up on each of them.
I’ll be honest, I expected very little from Vientiane as most people I have spoken to say how lame it is and there is really no reason to go there. I have to disagree, I really liked Vientiane. It was never my intention to go there but the flights from Bangkok to Luang Prabang were ridiculously priced at over $500 for some strange reason. Even the Vientiane flights were nearly $300. So I went in the back door by flying Air Asia for like $20 from Bangers to Udan Thani which is 30 minutes from the Thai/Lao friendship bridge over the mighty Mekong River. After the taxis on each side of the border, it cost me $25 to get to Vientiane and another $20 to stay in a really nice place called the Intercity Hotel, right on the Mekong and across from all the little riverside cafes.
The city itself is as laid back as you can imagine. For instance, if you want a tuk tuk to bring you somewhere, you have to seek them out if they aren’t sleeping in their tuk tuk. One driver actually was passed out in a little hammock he installed in the back of his tuk tuk. I thought that was brilliant and definitely would’ve hired him had he not been sleeping. Another great example of how laid back Laos is comes from the Myanmar embassy again but this time in Vientiane as I was trying to avoid the hassles associated with Bangkok-no such luck.
I showed up at the embassy the moment it opened in the morning to try to phenagle a same day visa as I can usually be pretty persuasive with these bureaucrat types from third world nations. But when I showed up, I was greeted by a very nice woman who said they could not give me a visa in less than three days because they were very busy. I looked behind her and saw that including her there were four people in the office and two of which were completely passed out asleep. I said what are you busy doing? She said they have many visa applications and I asked where they were because I didn’t see any passports on the counter where the visa window was. She scoffed and shrugged in a please just leave me alone manner.
I kindly asked to speak to her boss as surely a few kips would solve this problem. She pointed to the boss who was drooling all over himself at his desk and she said she didn’t want to disturb him. Now I am trying to not laugh but still be forceful as I would really like to get this done in laid back Laos and not have to deal with Bangkok and the lunacy that goes along with that city. Long story short, she was starting to get upset and seemed to be scared shitless of her boss for whatever reason and she was so nice and little that I just said forget it and went to tour the city and as I posted previously got the visa in BKK. For future reference for anyone, for Myanmar either get your visa at home or do the day trip route across the Thai land borders as the expats do for visa runs when their Thai stay is about to expire because they will issue your visas at the spot for a few Baht.
The rest of Vientiane is very pleasant. There are a lot of French crumbling mansions and lovely tree lined streets. You almost forget you’re in SE Asia. The best sight is Pha That Luang and as you see in the picture up top, it’s a lovely Buddhist stupa and the most sacred sight in Laos. It resembles the Shwedagon Paya in Yangon as well-just smaller. After my tuk tuk sightseeing tour of the city I just went back to the hotel and chilled on the Mekong (above) and had a few Beer Lao’s which is a great beer by the way. I think I remember seeing them in France actually but not anywhere else, except Thailand but definitely give it a try if you see it.
Yangon, Myanmar (Burma)
After all my issues with the visa and with the flights I finally arrived in Yangon to a massive monsoon that really mucked up my time there which was very short anyway because of the crappy way the flights eventually broke down although it did save me like $400. Additionally, I had to carry my backpack (15kg) for several hours as there was no checked baggage area and I couldn’t check in for my flight, which made for a sweaty and heavy few hours.
The highlight of Yangon is certainly the Shwedagon Paya which is the defining image of Yangon and a symbol of the Burmese identity as you can see in the picture which I did not take because my pictures are really ugly because of the weather! Sunrise and sunset, as with most sights in SE Asia are the best time to view the stupa.
Honestly, other than that I don’t have much to say about Burma except that I was happy to get out because after the stupa there is nothing else to see or really do in Yangon. I really wish I had more time and next time I will certainly make it up to Bagan in the north of the country where the famous temples are and also to Mandalay which is supposed to be nice. Next time!
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
To me, Kuala Lumpur or KL, will always symbolize my thirst to start traveling the world. When I was a junior in college studying abroad in London I was watching the Commonwealth Games on TV and they were being hosted by Malaysia, a country I had barely ever heard of at the time. They showed around the city and the brand spanking new Petronas Towers looked incredible. I thought it was the most exotic place I had ever seen. So I went there later that year and that was my first real traveling adventure. 10 years later I returned to KL and to my delight everything they were building in 1999 seemed to be finished and the city was polished and pretty darn nice.
The towers are still awesome and they don’t even look real. They are no longer the world’s tallest building but they are still second behind Taipei 101. The rest of the city is wealthy from the oil and technology revenues that fit this new Asian Tiger so well. The city teems with motorbikes, awesome restaurants, food stalls and bars that make it a very pleasant place to be despite the searing heat that is almost always over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
I was in KL only one night and stayed in the city center within easy walking distance to all the major sights and I even had a chance to go out for a bit with some Aussies I met to the great backpacker retreat called Reggae Bar. They didn’t play much reggae but the energy was great and I didn’t stay out long as I was exhausted but I hadn’t been out much this trip so it was nice to play some pool and have a beer.
I am now in the Sultanate of Brunei and headed to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah in an hour or so. Borneo is a cool place made up of four distinct areas of which I will be visiting each of them. There will be little sleep and I just finally booked my ticket to Papua New Guinea and beyond and think I may have actually found a competent travel agent to help me with my South Pacific travels so I am excited and hopeful. Aussies are the best bet for the Pacific and I probably should have started with them…more on that to come once I see that everything works out. Also, I will post on Borneo once I have completed the four regions of Brunei, Sabah, Sarawak and Kalimantan. By the way, it’s hot in Borneo-really hot!