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Month: February 2021

Cambodia Travel Tips

Cambodia Travel Tips

How to get to Cambodia?

On New Year’s Eve 2017, we had one of our shortest flights on the all-around-the-world trip – this was from Singapore to Siam Reap (Cambodia). But the difference between these two cities could not have been bigger. Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world. After it has been the country with the highest standard of living in South East Asia in 1970 and was also called the Switzerland of South East Asia. Follow us on our adventures in this lovely country and get top travel tips for Cambodia and it’s world-famous UNESCO world heritage sites.

Cambodia is a kingdom but the king is more representative. The current king Norodom Sihamoni lived from the age of nine in the Czech Republic to be educated in ballet dancing. He got a diploma in cinematography in Russia and North Korea – now we understand that our guide we had on our tour in North Korea has already been to Cambodia. Arriving at the airport a typical Cambodian taxi has picked us up:

Saskia Hohe arriving in Cambodia airport Taxi seam Reap - Cambodia Travel Tips

Our route through Cambodia

For the first time on our around the world trip we do not have a rental car to drive by ourselves since his is not possible in Cambodia. To explore Cambodia we have taken local buses or hired a Tuk Tuk driver or a private driver, e.g. to get to Preah Vihear Temple at the border to Thailand. Self driving is not allowed for tourists except renting motorcycles what we have done to explore areas around the cities.

Route through Cambodia by bus and private driver

In general, the buses are comfortable and a lot of other tourists are on the buses. However, it is better to sit quite in the back of the bus and not to watch the way the bus is driving to not get worried.

Overtaking despite a long queue of vehicles in front of the bus and passing other vehicles with a distance of just some centimeters is the normal way of driving in Cambodia and motorcycles and Tuk Tuks are honked away.

Traffic in Cambodia

The traffic in Cambodia is similar to other Asian countries and with all the traffic members like Tuk Tuks, motorcycles, bicycles and cars, quite chaotic and on each lane in both directions. In addition, sidewalks are rare and consequently also the pedestrians have to walk on the streets. Traffic lights are not common and therefore crossing the street as a pedestrian requires a portion of luck.

The locals seem not to like walking. Only tourists are on the streets and at every corner a Tuk Tuk driver offers to pick us up. Same with massage service which is besides restaurants one of the most seen business here. Therefore, we bought a shirt to avoid these annoying questions – but honestly it didn’t helped much.

Our travel tips for Cambodia

Angkor Wat (UNESCO) / Siem Reap

When thinking of Cambodia, the first thing that will come to one’s mind might be Angkor Wat which is also listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. The main temple is one of the biggest temple complex in the world. But the complete (and sort of mystic) Angkor region comprises more than 1,000 temples in an area of around 200 km². Angkor with its population of over 1 million people at the time when London was a small city was the religious, political and social center of the ancient Khmer empire. Despite some of the temples are damaged and destroyed the impressive and beautiful Khmer architecture from the 9th to 15th century is still visible.

The temples are based on Hinduism and dedicated to their gods. At the end of 13th century, the kings became Buddhists. With this change, there was no need to build such big temples anymore. This together with the relocation of the center to Phnom Phen due to the better possibilities for trading at the Mekong river lead to the leaving of Angkor. We haven’t expected so many tourists visiting Cambodia to see Angkor Wat….

Bayon

The 216 faces carved into every angle of the Bayon temple represent Buddha.

The terrace of the Elephant is about 350 m long and decorated with parading elephants. It was used for public ceremonies and as king’s ceremony hall.

Ta Prohm

The temple Ta Prohm is known from the movie Tomb Raider. The trees on the top of the temple show the power of the jungle.

We have spent two full days with our Tuk Tuk driver Mister Fi in Angkor. We are deeply impressed by the big area of beautiful temples. It is definitely one of the highlights on our trip so far. Here are some more pictures from other temples in Angkor:

Siem Reap

The city Siem Reap is close to Angkor and therefore a very touristic place with around 2.1 million people who have visited Angkor in 2015. There is a wide range of different restaurants serving traditional Khmer cuisine for 1 to 3 dollars per dish. Also the prices for drinks, especially beer and cocktail are quite cheap. A quarter liter draft beer for 0.50 dollars and cocktails for 1 dollar. But in addition, you can find a lot of touristic places like foot massage, beer halls and a lot of pubs in the respective pub street.

Cooking class in Siem Reap

Siem Reap’s center is the old market where we also went shopping for our cooking class we attended. Everybody was able to choose his starter and main course from the menu and we tried fried spring roles and the traditional Khmer dish Amok. Amok is a delicious kind of steam cooked curry served in a banana leaf. We have made this one with Tofu.

Temple of Preah Vihear (UNESCO)

We continued our temple tour to Preah Vihear in the North of Cambodia towards the border with Thailand. The huge Hindu temple was built between the 10th and 12th century on top of a hill. This UNESCO world heritage site is exceptional for the quality of its architecture, which is adapted to the natural environment and the religious function of the temple, as well as for the exceptional quality of its carved stone ornamentation.

The temple causes border conflicts with Thailand since both countries claim the temple is belonging to their territory. The temple comprises several buildings using the topography of the area with stairs and streets leading to the sanctuary on top of the hill where we had a view on Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.

To get to Preah Vihear, we have hired a private driver from Siem Reap to get directly to the temple area. It is definitely worth a day trip, and you have the site more or less just for yourself without tons of tourists.

Kompong Khleang

Cambodia’s country is dominated by the great lake Tonle Sap. This freshwater lake is connected via a river to the Mekong River and has several hundred species of fish. There are some touristic places around the lake and even going to the capital Phnom Phen is possible by boat across this lake. We decided to visit Kompong Khleang – the most remote place as well as the largest community with over 4,000 families. So we hired our Tuk-Tuk driver Mr. Fee again and drove all the way in his Tuk-Tuk what was a very windy experience.

In Kompong Khleang the time stands still. The place is untouched by the mass tourism from Angkor and Siam Reap despite being just 50 km away. As far as the eye could see, only  stilt houses and now during the dry season we were able to walk around in the village.

The closeness of the houses to the water varies according to the season. At the end of the wet season after continuous heavy rainfall the lake will rise so that the streets are only accessible via boat, the stilts of the houses are under water and the ladders to reach the house are not required anymore. In the dry season on the other hand the people have to descend several meters to reach the water. Seeing this truly authentic Cambodian life was a mind-boggling experience.

S21 in Phnom Phen

The Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot installed their government of Democratic Kampuchea in 1975 after the victory in the Cambodian civil war. The Khmer Rouge and its attempts to establish an agricultural communist state is remembered especially for orchestrating the Cambodian genocide taken place from 1975 until 1979 until they were removed from power by Vietnam. However, the military power of the Khmer Rouge organization was not broken. A long era of guerrilla war began including attacks in Siem Reap until the mids of 1990.

We have visited the Tuol-Sleng genocide museum in the capital Phnom Penh. This former school was used as torture prison by the Khmer Rouge. The prisoners were killed on the Killing Field of Choeung Ek outside of the capital.

Phnom Penh

Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh with a population of around 2 mn lies in the South of Cambodia at the Tonle Sap which is an inflow to the Mekong river. It seems that the difference between poor and rich people is quite big. Besides the Tuk Tuk and cyclo driver we have seen also a lot of big and expensive cars. During the Khmer Rouge regime the city was almost empty. At the time we were in Phnom Penh also Singapore’s president visited the capital. The Singapore flags (in one of the pictures) are due to his visit.

National museum

Phnom Penh’s national museum and the royal palace in the city are good examples of the Khmer architecture with its peaked roof and the golden color. The national museum hosts world’s largest collection of Khmer art and is the largest museum of cultural history.

Royal Palace

The royal palace was built in 1813 and consists of several smaller buildings like the throne room. Since the family of the king is still living in the palace some parts are closed for visitors but the open buildings are beautiful. One building is constructed in a French way since it was a present from Napoleon III to the Cambodian king. Also a small model of Angkor Wat is shown in one of the garden.

The silver pagoda lies in a separate area but directly adjacent to king’s palace. One could think of that the silver stupas are the pagoda but the name is derived from the floor that is covered with silver tiles. Inside a life-sized Buddha decorated with diamonds is located.

Buddhist meditation center

Near to our hotel we have visited the Buddhist meditation center and gave a silent meditation lesson a try:

Car wash in Cambodian style means involving as many persons as possible:

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Kampot

We have taken a local bus to Kampot. The city lies approximately 150 km from Phnom Penh in the South of Cambodia. Kampot is known for two things: old French colonial houses and the best pepper in the region which is also exported worldwide. And they even have an Olympia stadium. But we are unsure whether this really fits to the size required to Olympia and not to mention the missing seats).

After two weeks exploring Cambodia it is time to travel further to Vietnam. We enjoyed our time in Cambodia and hope that the country will further develop to overcome the poverty and to preserve their cultural Khmer heritage. Despite the Khmers had been to hell and back in their history the Khmers seem to have an unbreakable spirit with smilings.

We always felt safe and welcomed in Cambodia and not as a cash cow. Of course there were a lot of offers for Tuk tuks, tours, massages and restaurants but after saying ‘no’ one time, they didn’t offer their service again.

Departure to Vietnam

From Phnom Penh we took bus to Ho-Chi-Minh City in Vietnam. Despite the distance of just 230 km the bus was running for seven hours. The bus tour started with the collection of the passports. That is always a strange thing for us since we are not used to hand over our passports to other people. The whole process of crossing the Cambodian-Vietnam border was a nice experience.

Our passports was returned to us at the Cambodian border. The Cambodian visa and departure card was already removed from the passport and the departure stamps included. However, we had to pass the control again and return the passport afterwards back to the bus driver.

At Vietnam’s border, everybody queued at the visa control check point but without having the own passport. The whole pile of collected passports were brought to the control officers. He checked and stamped one passport after the other without seeing the respective person. After the passport has been checked, they were returned to the bus driver. That guy called out the name of the passport holder. Then we were allowed to cross the border.

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Cambodian Money

The Cambodian money consists again of big numbers: 1 Euro is equal to around 4,400 Khmer Riel. However, the most common currency is USD. It can be used everywhere – not only in hotels and restaurants but also on local markets. The local Khmer Riel is only used to pay the cents.

Security

According to the German ministry of foreign affairs security of personal belongings is an issue in the capital. Reading this we were surprised by the safes we found in some hotels. Just take the whole safe and carry it including the belongings away. 🙂

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Our recommendations for Cambodia

Travel guide

For Cambodia we have relied again to our favorite travel guide Stefan Loose. It covers most of our travel tips for Cambodia quite well:

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Packing List for Travelling light and easy

Packing List for Travelling light and easy

Packing list for travelling – how to travel light and efficient

During our travels we have recognized that travelling with a light backpack is one of the key drivers that makes trips more efficient. Therefore, we want to share our packing list for travelling with you.

Having a light backpack is also important when you are renting a car as we prefer to do it on our trips. We experienced that taking every evening the backpacks from the car into the guesthouse is annoying, especially when we hardly managed passing through the door and even harder to take the stairs up to the room. Therefore, we removed with each travel more and more items from our backpacks.

The essential items are listed here as an indication and guideline for you because we are sure that there is NO master packing list due to individual wishes especially in regards to clothes and technical equipment. Especially the technical equipment is still one of our personnel (and honestly big) discussion points when preparing the backpacks 🙂 We have added here also affiliate links for the products we are really using ourselves and are convinced of the added value and the quality.

Find a best-fit backpack!

The most important element of a comfortable travel is a well fitted backpack. We spent several hours in an outdoor shop to find the one backpack fitting the best to our backs. Do not forget to walk around in the shop with weights included. I am now using for five years the backpack from GREGORY Deva (60 liter) and Paul is carrying also a GREGORY Baltoro with 75 liter.

We are in general using two day backpacks whereas one is from Jack Wolfskin with separated sections to organize the items. In addition, we have a small bag for the camera. Previously, we have used the Salewa bag pack what was very convenient for our trips but this one did not had any special shelf for a notebook.

Packing & Wrapping

We are organizing and sorting all the items with laundry nets and basic bags. We are packing a whole cloth set for one or two days so that we do not need to take out all the items from the backpack and re-pack it every day completely:

Documents

The following documents are very useful for a trip (in some cases copies are sufficient):

  • Passport and local ID cards (original documents but also copies in case you do not want to show or hand-over your official passport or also in case of a theft)
  • Vaccination certificates (we always take only copies of our vaccination certificates)
  • Global health insurance (original letter / certificate and copy)
  • Local driver license
  • International driver license for travelling outside of Europe (please pay attention that the international driver license originated in Germany expires three years after origination and needs to be renewed)
  • Airplane / train tickets or pre-booked hotel confirmations (electronic versions are sufficient) but it is worth to have the address and telephone number of the first hotel at hand on a piece of paper so that the bus / taxi driver can contact the hotel to confirm the address / way
  • Telephone numbers to lock the credit cards in case of the fraudster

We have digital copies of all these documents in a secured area of Dropbox and Google drive.

Clothes

Clothes are a very individual topic. We try to minimize the clothes since laundry shops are all around the world available and are in general cheap. Depending on the climate zone we take clothes for maximal five days. Especially, functional trekking ware is perfect since they are drying very fast and you can also wash them overnight in the bathroom if needed.

Since I cannot live without going for a run, I am in general wearing my running shoes on our trips when not walking around with flipflops. Paul has special trekking shoes but they should be light and breathable to wear them in warmer as well as in colder areas.

There are three pieces of clothes we are always taking with us since they are so multifunctional and good for warm as well as cold weather:

  • Long-sleeve Merino shirt
  • Merino legging
  • Fleece jacket / pullover

Daily utensils & other items

Other useful items we have always with us are the following things (links to our products see below)

  • Light weight sleeping bag
  • Insect Shield Inlet von Cocoon (one in line and one in silk)
  • Mini Swiss set incl. needle, knife, scissor, tweezer, small screwdriver – this was a present from my former company and this is unbelievable helpful and so light (but please put it in your check-in luggage)
  • Money belt to carry larger amount of cash
  • In colder areas we take our sleeping back with us (especially when going camping)
  • Sunglasses
  • Thermos bottle (0.5 liter) and some small packages instant coffee (since we were not always happy with the local coffee)
  • Non-slip bathing shoes
  • Old credit cards as fakes for the wallet (in case of a robbery)
  • Pillow and neck pillow in one (non-inflatable) – yes, indeed, this pillow needs some space in our hand luggage but it is worth due to the comfort and I am using it also in the hotels on our trips
  • Travel clothes line

For colder areas we also take a sleeping bag with us. But since the backpack are already quite staffed with long clothes for us, the weight and the size of the sleeping bag were our important criteria. This is why we have chosen the following one since with its 1.3 kg it is quite light. The recommended temperature is about -9 degree Celsius what was sufficient for our purpose since we are using the sleeping bag in majority in not (sufficiently) heated guestrooms or the campervan.

Washbag

Our washbags are in general quite heavy but we have recognized that cosmetics are in other countries quite expensive. We have in general the following items in our washbag:

  • Toothbrush
  • Tooth paste
  • Day and night face cremes and light makeup
  • Deodorant stick
  • Shampoo
  • Comb
  • Makeup pads / humid face tissues
  • Shaver and shaving cream
  • Sun blocker
  • Hand disinfection tissues and gel
  • Sewing kits
  • Since we are wearing glasses, we always put some packs of contact lenses in our bag

We are not taking any soaps since in general soaps are available in the guesthouses.

Medicine

In general, the main medicine will be available in each country however it is always good to take some basic medicines for immediate intake:

Electronic equipment

Since we are blogging and working from abroad during our travels we might have a longer list of technical equipment:

  • Camera
  • Replacement battery for the camera
  • Several SD cards to save the photos
  • Acer Chromebook (Light Notebook) – Paul is using
  • Apple Ipad mini for me and ear phones
  • Mobile phones
  • Charger for all electronic equipment
  • Kindle Paperwhite
  • Solar Powerbank
  • Car charger
  • World adapter
  • Cable to contact camera to Chromebook and to iPad
  • Garmin for navigation
  • Batteries for Garmin

We have just bought last year a new Garmin for navigation since we are using it the whole time during our trips (when walking around and also for car navigation). We currently using Garmin eTrex Touch 25. This is now for us the first time with a touch display of the Garmin. But after the first three trips, we are very satisfied and it is easier to navigate compared to the small button we had with the Garmin eTrex 20. The handling of the Garmin are comparable between the different versions and the touch screens makes the zooming more comfortable.

 

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North Korea (DPRK) Travel Tips

North Korea (DPRK) Travel Tips

Can you really travel to North Korea?

This was maybe the most frequent question we have heard when we told anybody about our new travel plans. North Korea (or officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – DPRK) was always a dream for us since we wanted to know how this country really works and whether all the stories we hear in the Western world are true or rather fairy tales. Of course, you can not just book a flight and go to North Korea as for your usual holiday trip. To get you ready for our DPRK adventure, we will walk you through our North Korea travel tips.

We were looking for some agencies offering private tours. At the end we decided to go with Young Pioneers Tours since they were also flexible in regards of the tour program. However, we recognized during the trip that this was not just a simple warning but reality:

Due to the nature of travel/tourism in the DPRK, itineraries do not provide or imply a guarantee of the tour’s contents.

Since we are UNESCO World Heritage lovers it was a MUST to have all the listed and tentative in North Korea. The planning of our private trip was rather easy. Our dedicated colleagues from the tour operator were open to changes of the standard agenda and made every effort to adjust the agenda to accommodate with our wishes.

Getting prepared for DPRK – Behavior training

We started our trip in Beijing where we met up with our agent from Young Pioneer Tours. Before letting us go on our trip to DPRK they advised us how to behave. Some highlights we still remember:

  • We strongly recommend bringing a gift for your North Korean guides and driver. The DPRK has very limited access to foreign products, e.g. local specialties, beauty products, cigarettes are all recommended (Koreans prefer Western/Japanese cigarettes to Chinese ones).
  • At certain places, especially statues of the leaders, you will often bow to show our respect according to the local customs. You will also have the opportunity to buy flowers but it is not expected.
  • Be nice to your Korean guides, listen to them and they will relax and let you do more.
  • We are not allowed to use the local currency in North Korea (much like Cuba) so we will be using hard currency (ie. EUR, USD, or Chinese RMB). RMB is the easiest to use.
  • You can take your digital cameras into the DPRK, but professional video cameras are not allowed. Please make sure there is no “GPS” printed on your camera. Your Korean guides will give you the ‘go ahead’ and the ‘no-no’ zones for taking photos – it is crucial to follow their requests.

And not to forget: the agent taught us how to bow and show respect and we had to repeat it several times until we were good to go.

But with this introduction we were best prepared to start our unforgettable trip.

Entering North Korea / DPRK

Departure in Beijing

We decided to take an advantageous way to enter the DPRK: by train from Beijing! In total this journey lasts 15 hours in comfortable night trains. The first train left Bejing in the evening and brought us overnight to the border to Dandong in the North of China.

Dandong

In Dandong we changed to a local North Korean train after passing the departure check from China. The train was completely booked by Korean people and we were with two Dutch the only tourists on this train. A big fun was the immigration in North Korea.

After passing the Chinese-Korean friendship bridge the train stopped and the train conductor collected the passports from every passenger and brought them to the immigration office. The immigration procedure took over an hour. Luckily, we were allowed to leave the train but however, not more than one meter from the train door. Looking forward to receiving our passports back and to continue our trip to the capital of North Korea Pyongyang.

Impressions from our first hours in the DPRK – taken from the train

Our itinerary in the DPRK

Travel route in DPRK North Korea

Daily life in DPRK

Despite having read a couple of books about the DPRK and of course about the poverty and the shortage in foods we did not know what to expect. Considering the fact that the guides will observe us and try to show us only the “nice” sides of North Korea, we did not really know what to think about this country: what was real, what was just because we are here now (e.g. the good mood in the orphanage and the good condition of the summer camp) and especially what do the people think? We did not try to talk to local people to not get them into trouble.

Moreover, after some days we tried to avoid talking so much about our thoughts after we have seen that our guides are writing a report every evening about the day. They told us that they rate the service quality of the attractions we have visited during the day – but we can imagine it was also about how the tourists behaved…

How to move around in DPRK / North Korea

Since we have booked a private tour, we had two English-speaking tour guides (one male, one female) and a driver. These three were our guides through the entire tour. The streets were fairly empty but due to the conditions of the highways that link the cities our van was not going more than 50 km/h.

Koryo Hotel

Arriving in Pyongyang at the train station, it was not hard for our guides to identify us as their tourists due to minimal number of foreigners in the train. We were happy arriving after 7 hours in a train with quite drunken Korean people. In addition, we were looking forward to getting to know the popular Koryo Hotel.

We can really recommend the Koryo Hotel – it was very clean and sufficient for the six nights we stayed in total here. Since it is not allowed to leave the hotel by yourself, the hotel also has a mini market with touristic food products like Nutella. We used to buy bottled water there.

Highlights to explore in Pyongyang

Ryugyŏng-Hotel

This impressive skyscraper is being built since 1987 and should have been with 330 meters the highest hotel in the world. At the time we were in DPRK the outside of the skyscraper was finished but it was said that there is nothing inside.

Ryugyŏng-Hotel DPRK Pyongyang North Korea

Main train station

The train station is especially at night a beautiful building. Every morning and evening the song “Where Are You, Dear General?” is blasted over a speakers at the station.

 

Grand People’s Study House

We spent the first two days in Pyongyang. The first item on our agenda was Grand People’s Study House. It is a library and academic center for adult learners. This grand building is built in the Korean style. From the balcony we had an impressive view over the central square with its governmental buildings.

Mansudae Grand Monument / Mansu Hill Grand Monument

On 9th September – the National Day in DPRK – we visited in the early morning the Grand Monument of the leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. These statues are maybe the best-known picture from DPRK. With a height of 20 meters the bronze statues are impressive. Here we had the first opportunity to show our learned bow.

Pyongyang Metro

Another highlight in Pyongyong is a ride with the metro. Korean people are very proud of their metro and the stations are very beautiful decorated – at least the three stations we were allowed to enter and to stop there. The metro trains are partly imported from East Berlin and we have seen still German signs inside. Above all, the metro seems to be a popular as a mobility because the metro during lunch time was crowded with Korean people.

Mass dance at the Arch of Triumph

The last stop was at the triumphal arch in Pyongyang. It is said to be the largest victory arch on the planet. This one celebrates the victory over the Japanese and the return of the general Kim Il Sung to his home town. In the park next to the triumphal arch

Juche Tower

On the other side of the River Taedong – opposite of the Grand People’s Study House – we have visited the Juche Tower. This tower was built for Kim Il Sung’s 70th birthday and it is with its 170 meter said to be the tallest made of stone in the world. The entrance of the tower contains many labels from supporter of the Juche Ideology and study groups. We have taken the elevator to the top and had an impressive view all over Pyongyang.

Korean War Museum & USS Pueblo

One point on our travel itinerary we were not able to cancel was the visit of the Korean War Museum and the USS Pueblo. The USS Pueblo is the only ship in the world that is still held by a foreign nation. USS Pueblo was captured in 1968 by North Korea.

Kumsusan Palace of the Sun / Mausoleum of the Great Leaders

In the mausoleum the embalmed bodies of Kim Il Sung ans Kim Jong Il are laid out. For this special visit we had to dress up formally by wearing a tie and dress shoes. As the other memorial places in the DPRK the Palace of the Sun is absolutely clean, without any power outages and with air-condition. Pictures are unfortunately not allowed inside and we had to undergo strict security checks. In the rooms with the embalmed bodies we had to bow three times for each leader – one time on the left side, the other time on the right side and at the end in front of their feet. The other rooms of the palace show the official car of the Great leader (it was a Mercedes) and the train in which they used to travel to China.

Pyongyang Fun Fair

North Korean love adventure and fun. Hence, they were very proud so show us their fun fair and we had to try it. We have experienced already in our first days in Pyongyang power blackouts. Therefore, it was hard for us not to image a blackout when sitting in one of the fun rides. One thing we will never forget was one attraction this was so wired to us that we have not even took any picture: we also had to visit a shooting range but instead of shooting at paperboards they offered us to shoot real chickens… To the surprise of our guides, we resolutely refused this.

Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)

Travelling to Kaesong was our first trip outside the capital Pyongyang. Roads are like in Soviet countries – several lanes in both directions. But with many holes and almost nobody on the streets. I guess that the van was not going faster than 30 km/h. The DMZ divides the Korean peninsula roughly in half and is approx. 250 kilometers long. This corridor between North and South Korea is about four kilometers but you can see the South Korean flag. Though the zone is demilitarized, the border beyond that strip is one of the most heavily militarized in the world. Before entering the DMZ we had to leave our van and to change to a military bus. Even our guides had to present their ID cards at this checkpoint. During the procedure of analyzing our passports, we used the chance to buy propaganda posters and postcards.

In front and behind the blue small barracks are buildings with terraces from each country. Inside the building on the North Korean side there is table that is also divided in a North and South part through the speaker cable. The photo with the soldiers was only possible because our guide gave him some cigarettes.

Kaesong

The city of Kaesong awaited us with a lot of high-rise living buildings. But Keasong also has something like an old town with traditional Korean houses and one part being the Kaesong Folklore Hotel.

Historic Monuments and Sites in Kaesong (UNESCO World Heritage)

The geomantic layout of the former capital city of Kaesong, its palaces, institutions and tomb complex, defensive walls and gates embody the political, cultural, philosophical and spiritual values of a crucial era in the region’s history. Situated in Kaesong city the site consists of twelve separate components, which together testify to the history and culture of the Koryo Dynasty from the 10th to 14th centuries. The site was added by UNESCO to the list of world heritage sites in 2013 for testifying the transition from Buddhism to neo-Confucianism in East Asia and to the assimilation of the cultural spiritual and political values of the states that existed prior to Korea’s unification under the Koryo Dynasty.

Sariwon

On our way to the beach in Nampo we stopped for an overnight in Sariwon. We walked up the hill in the local folk custom park and enjoyed the view from the mountain top pagoda.

Nampo

Orphanage visit

Nampo in the west of the DPRK due to being just 55 km away from Pyongyang is from strategic importance. We visited an orphanage in Nampo and brought a lot of gifts to the kids living here. We hope that the kids are so happy as it looks like and the toys and gifts we brought, could be really used by the kids. Of course, pictures of the Great Leaders are also hanging in each of the rooms in the orphanage.

Our driver had issues finding the orphanage. Therefore, while driving through the city we have taken some pictures.

West Sea Barrage

Nampo is also famous for the West Sea Barrage. This barrage with its 15 kilometers is an outstanding example of socialist construction. The barrage was built to keep the salty water of the west sea from the rendering parts of the Taedong river and the surrounding farmland. A little island is integrated into the barrage with a light house in the shape of an anchor.  Of course, guess what, a monument of the leader must also be located on this island.

 

Complex of Koguryo Tombs (UNESCO World Heritage)

Of course, one mandatory item on our itinerary was also the second listed UNESCO World Heritage of the DPRK: the Koguryo tombs. Several tombs from the later period of the Koguryo Kingdom are located in this area. These tombs are almost the only ones from that time. Some of them have walls paintings inside. However, entering one tombs costs 100 Euro per person. We refused to go inside and took pictures from the images the local guide has shown to us to get a better picture of how they looked inside.

Sparkling water production

We were allowed to visit a sparkling water production in North Korea. To ensure the cleanness, we were advised to wear work coats . You can see the whole production lane on our pictures.  The glass bottles were falling several times in the lanes and despite the sanitary principles our guides have taken the bottles out or ordered them with their hands.

 

Hamhung

Fertilizer Factory

Similar to the sparkling water factory in Nampo, we visited in Hamhung a factory that we built decades ago. However, this factory is still operating and produces fertilizer for the farmers – this is at least what they told us. In our travel guide we have read that the factories in Hamhung are also used for the production of chemical weapons. Impressive to us were these old machines and operating rooms to monitor the production process – like going back in time for more than a half decade.

Historical House of Ri Song Gye

Besides a walk through one of the parks in the city and the Tonghung hill we visited the historical home of the usurper of the Koryo dynasty and Ri dynasty founder. Hamhung also has the largest theater in the DPRK.

Wonsan

In Wonsan we visited a recently renovated holiday camp (Songdowan International Children’s Union camp). This really beautiful camp is used for the children of party’s people. Really impressive however, we haven’t seen any children here. Maybe nobody was there due to our visit outside the holiday season.

Mount Myohyang

Friendship Exhibition

One of our highlights of the tour was the friendship exhibition. In two huge buildings all presents the DPRK’s leaders have received from other people, governments and institutions are presented here. This should show to the people how popular the leader of the DPRK is in the world. Unfortunately, it is not allowed to take pictures inside. It is not possible to visit the whole exhibition due to the many presented and you have to choose two continents at maximum.

Buddhist temple (Pohyon Temple)

The Pohyan Temple is one of the largest Buddhist temples in DPRK. It was founded under the Koryo dynasty at the beginning of the 11th century.

Ryongmum Cavern

Ryongmum is a lime cavern in an area which belongs to Outer Myohyang. The cavern was formed for a long time by water-soluble lime underground and is illuminated very colorful that creates a wonderful atmosphere. It has two main caverns and tens of side caverns. The drip-drops from the ceiling created scores of multifarious sights.

Saskia Hohe in Ryongmum Cavern DPRK North Korea

Our Hotels in the DPRK

In Pyongyang we always stayed in the Koryo Hotel. The hotels outside from Pyongyang were completely fine and clean. Despite that we didn’t have power and fluent water in the rooms itself. We will never forget the hotel in Wonsan where my husband “borrowed” a towel from the hotel. After leaving the hotel room the service team directly checked our rooms. Detecting that one towel is missing we had long discussions and paid at the end 2 Euros. It almost evolved in an act of state – unbelievable since the towels in the hotels were all quite old.

Flying back to Beijing

The last adventure of our really impressive and unforgettable trip to North Korea / DPRK was how we got back to Beijing. Due to entering via train we decided for the quickest way to get back – the plane. Not sure how this has happened but I didn’t realize with which flight company we are flying: Koryo! The flight only lasts approx. 2 hours but I was not sure whether we will arrive in Beijing. We were the only tourists on the plane. When it was coming to complete the immigration for China on the plane, the Korean people asked me whether I could help them since it was in English and in Chinese.

Food and beverages in North Korea / DPRK

On top of our North Korea travel tips, we also want to share our food adventures with you. For our whole trip the meals were pre-arranged and we always had breakfast at the hotel and lunch as well dinner in some restaurants. We always received so much food we were not able to eat and it was really a pity sending it back having heard that people are starving.

Beverages

The traditional drink at DPRK is Soju – a kind of rice liquor. Our guides drank this during lunch and dinner. In addition, beer is very popular and only available in large bottles.

Korean Hotpot

We are really hotpot / fondue lovers and one of the first hotpots we were enjoying abroad was in Pyongyang. Everybody received his own pot so we have cooked the raw fish as long as possible.

Duck BBQ

Saskia Hohe Duch BBQ North Korea DPRK

Traditional Korean Pansangi

In Kaesong at Thongil Restaurant they served us traditional dishes in small bronze bowls (Pansangi). Besides Kimchi we tried different fermented vegetables and fried fish. In addition, Paul ordered a dog soup – I refused to try but he told me that it tastes like chicken.

Traditional Pansangi Korean dish in bronze bowls

Clam BBQ

At Nampo, our guides decided to have a BBQ in front of our bungalow. We do not know where they have found the clams but to have fire they have taken out petrol from our van and put over the clams. However, this was one of our best fish.

Pizza

One really strange experience was the dinner in an Italian Pizza restaurant in Pyongyang. It is said that the ingredients are imported directly from Italy and the cook is making the best pizzas. The specialty in this restaurant was chocolate pizza!! This was really special – cheese pizza with a kind of chocolate. But in this restaurant, real coke was served. The first time we have seen this in a restaurant in the DPRK.

Pizza restaurant Pyongyang DPRK North KOrea

Our recommendations

Travel guide

As a travel guide and excellent source for North Korea travel tips we can recommend the one from Trescher – our guides (despite pretending not to be able to speak German) looked through our travel guidebook. We have read before that not every travel guidebook is approved to take into the DPRK but with this one we did not had any issues:


Pre-reading

As mentioned, we have read a couple of books before booking the tour to get a kind of a feeling what to expect. Here are the ones we enjoyed reading:

              

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Uzbekistan Travel Tips

Uzbekistan Travel Tips

How we got to Uzbekistan

Our exploration of Uzbekistan started already at the check-in counter at the airport in Bangkok. We were quite early at the check-in counter since online check-in is not possible when flying with Uzbekistan Airways. Consequently, only a few people were in front of us in the queue in front of the check-in counter. However, the Uzbek people did not care if somebody is already queuing up. Consequently, they opened the barrier and pushed-in somewhere in the front. In addition, they got all of their friends to join them. But honestly, I am still wondering why I have accepted to travel with Uzbekistan Airways…

Read on to find our best Uzbekistan travel tips.

Getting a visa for Uzbekistan

It was very complex and time-consuming applying for the Uzbekistan visa. The reason is that the application is only possible by a maximum of six months before entering Uzbekistan. Since the embassy needs three weeks to get the visa, we collected all documents in Australia. After that we sent our second German passports by post to the Embassy of Uzbekistan in Singapore. This is definitively nothing what we prefer doing with our passports. During the Christmas time we luckily collected our passports in Singapore.

Arriving in Uzbekistan we had to claim all money we were carrying with us and it often happens that they want to see all the money. In case it doesn’t match with the amount declared a high fine will be applied. But since we arrived from Bangkok the inspectors seemed to be more interested in the purchases the Uzbek did.

Our route through Uzbekistan

Finally, we are again exploring a country with a rental car instead of using public transportation like we did now for three months in Southeast Asia. We have already missed stopping everywhere on the road to take pictures or to have a break in a beautiful environment. Stefan, a friend of us, is joining us for two weeks through Uzbeksitan on the following route.

Self driving route through Uzbekistan

Our experience of self-driving in Uzbekistan

We got a very convenient car – Chevrolet Captive that was a really nice one for three people with the luggage. Since self-driving is not so common in Uzbekistan, it took us some time to find and negotiate with a company on self-driving. If you are interested, this was our company: https://www.autoprokat.uz

We did not had any issues except for the ones self-inflicted (see our tire issue on our very last day). In addition, the guy handed over the car was very polite and with very good English skills.

Rental car Uzbekistan

Getting fuel in Uzbekistan

Getting fuel for the car was a challenge since gasoline stations are rare and only existent in larger cities. But also in the cities the only available gasoline is 80 Pb petrol. Experienced this we didn’t wonder anymore that our engine control light was already on when we received the quite new rental car. At least in the capital Tashkent we received an additional gasoline ingredient (produced in Germany) to increase the octane number by four so that we had 84 Pb petrol.

Gas stations are not well spread over Uzbekistan and even the rare gas stations do not guarantee that petrol is available. Once we queued at a gas station for twenty minutes when suddenly every car left since no more petrol was left over. Therefore, we had to search another gas station. In Southeast Asia the majority of cars were from Toyota but in Uzbekistan Chevrolet is the market leader.

Gas station in Uzbekistan

Interesting fueling of our car

The stations on our way only had propane or methane gas and so it seems that the majority of the cars are driving with gas. Consequently, the only way for us was buying gasoline at the black market. We learned that the private households selling gasoline have put colorful plastic bottles on the road. But we do not know what they have in their water bottles and put in our tank. The good news is that the car is still driving. However, the gasoline had every time a different color.

Road conditions

The main roads in Uzbekistan are in general in a good condition but smaller roads are more bumpy. Also very interesting bridges can be found in Uzbekistan. There were several controls by the police on our way through Uzbekistan. At the beginning of our tour we really didn’t adhere to the traffic rules since they were not really well signposted, especially speed limits. However, we guess that the police stopped us due to their curiosity seeing tourists driving on their own. Playing stupid and pretending to not understand the violation helped us and avoided any penalty. We have earned special prying eyes when I was driving the car with the two men (Paul and Stefan) sitting in the car but no policeman stopped me.

car Bridge in Uzbekistan
We were happy that we had a quite new rental car since there are a lot of old Ladas and Wolgas on the streets. Last time we have seen such old cars was on Cuba. Together with the old mud houses it felt like a journey in a time machine.

Our travel tips for Uzbekistan

How and where to get money in Uzbekistan – a VERY special experience 🙂

We started our exploration of Uzbekistan with changing money. The best way to do this in Uzbekistan is going to the market and not to withdraw from an ATM. Not sure whether we have at all seen an ATM… With “going to the market” we really mean a market stall where fruits and vegetables are sold and not a bank. All above, the black market rate is twice the official exchange rate.

We got ALL the money in 1,000 denomination bills what ended up with a heavy plastic bag full of money – like we were shopping on the market. The Uzbek 1,000 note is only worth about 15 cents. Consequently, paying with our 1,000 bills in the restaurants or fuel at the gas station is another story and especially very time-consuming counting the amount using only the small 1,000 Uzbek Soms bills. The Uzbek people are unbelievable fast in counting the money – for us it took us always several minutes…

Tashkent – the capital

We spent our first days in Uzbekistan in the capital Tashkent. An earthquake in 1966 destroyed many ancient buildings so that only a few buildings from the Soviet era can be found in Tashkent. The obvious signs from the Soviet era are large parks, wide roads and prefabricated high-rise houses. Moreover the Independence Square is crowned by a globe where formerly a huge Lenin statue was located. A short way from this place, additionally, the Timur Square is dominated by a statue of the adopted national hero on a horseback.

Metro in Tashkent

Wandering around in Tashkent, we have seen a lot of police on the streets. Consequently, it was hard for us to take pictures of the outside of the nice Soviet buildings and resulted several times in being stopped by the police, showing the pictures and – of course – deleting them. Moreover, Tashkent is very proud of its metro system and it is known for its Art Deco design but also here the police is present. Before going to the track, every bag is checked twice manually by the police. Unfortunately, It is against the law to take pictures from the metro station since the metro is considered as part of the strategic military infrastructure.

Samarkand – minus degrees and no heating

Registan

Samarkand is famous for the enormous Registan and listed by the UNESCO as an world heritage site (“Samarkand – Crossroad of Cultures“).  The Registan forms the center of the old town with three madrasa (Islamic college) facing each other. Each of the madrasa has a unique and colorful mosaic geometric design that shines in the sun. It was also the commercial heart of the town in the 14th century with six roads running through the square and a connection with Timur’s citadel.

Shah-i Zinda

Besides this amazing architecture, Samarkand has in addition several other mosques, madrasa and mausoleums – each breathtaking in its own way. Especially the Shah-i Zinda with its blue-and-turquoise tiled collection of mausoleums and tombs. In addition, the Bibi Khaoum mosque in Samarkand is one of the tallest in the world.

Gur-E-Amir mausoleum

The Gur-E-Amir mausoleum has wonderfully decorated rooms inside with gold and geometric corners. Above all, we spend some time inside the mausoleums just stunning and being impressed of the design from the 15th century. The mausoleum is the final resting place of Timur’s male descendants.

Bukhara – UNESCO & our favorite city in Uzbekistan

We thought we have seen the most impressive sites from Uzbekistan in Samarkand but Bukhara is even more breathtaking (at least it was to us). The Historic Center of Bukhara, a UNESCO world heritage site, looks like the time stood still here the last hundreds of years. It felt like we are really on the ancient silk roads and camels will come around the next corner. It does not have one impressive site like a Registan in Samarkand but the ensemble of the old city with the simple mud houses, the car free sandy roads and the many colorful madrassas have caught us immediately. We spent the evening when we arrived in Bukhara and one full day walking through the streets and visiting numerous madrassas and covered market halls that populate Bukhara.

The experience we made in Myanmar that locals are asking us for pictures with them remained in Uzbekistan. We were favorite photo models…

Khiva and its UNESCO inner town Itchan Kala

The last stop on the ancient Silk Road before entering the Persian desert was Khiva. Its historic city with its Islamic architecture is remarkably preserved between the ten meters high city walls and also here it seems the time has stopped. The inner town is a UNESCO site called Itchan Kala. Khiva with its mosques, madrassas, mausoleums and markets as well as narrow sandy alleyways is a lovely place to wander around. In addition, try to imagine how the life might have been at the time of the Silk Road.

We can not get enough of the beautiful turquoise colored tiles which decorate the monuments and are in big contrast to the dust and sand surrounding the buildings. The first monument that has caught our eyes was the comparatively short but colorful minaret. The most probable theory is that the architect promised that the tallest minaret will be built in Bukhara and not in Khiva.

Karakalpakstan – a special region we will never forget

From Khiva we continued our tour through desert and Uzbek steppe towards the autonomous region Karakalpakstan in western Uzbekistan. Karakalpakstan was formerly an autonomous region in Russia before becoming a part of Uzbekistan in 1936. The region is now mostly desert due to the exploitation of the Amu and Syr Daryl rivers mainly for the cotton production and that consequently caused dehydration of the Aral Sea. It is estimated that less than 10% of the original size of the Aral Sea remains. Karakalpakstan means translated “black hat” what was the name of the tribes.

Moynak 

Moynak is one of the big city in this region was half a century ago located at the shore of the Aral Sea and a proud fishing community. Today, the Aral Sea is more than 150 km away. Ships once floating in the sea are now standing and rusting in the dried out sea at the ship graveyard.

Termez – close to Afghan border and problems of finding a suitable hotel

Moynak and Nukus were the most western destinations on our tour. From here we drove back the complete route to Tashkent with some additional stops on our way for instance in Termez in the South of Uzbekistan.

Fayaz Tepe

Termez was a Buddhist center in the past and some ruins still remain. We visited Fayaz Tepe which consists of an old stupa and the ruins from a monastery. The ruins date back to the 2-3rd century. Long time ago that we have seen pagodas and stupas 😉

We are still not tired and in contrast we cannot get enough of the turquoise domes and colorful mosaics and therefore, the architecture and the decoration of the nearby mausoleum Sultan Saodat impressed us. In both, Fayaz Tepe and in the mausoleum, a local guide was waiting for tourists to explain the history. We were impressed by the enthusiasm both described the monuments and one gave us his address to send him the pictures via post we have taken with him.

Friendship Bridge

You might have heard about Termez as the base camp of the German army during the war in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union has built a bridge to get into Afghanistan and the same bridge was used by the Americans during the war. That bridge is ironically named Friendship Bridge. The border to Afghanistan is open and that’s the reason why we cannot show any pictures from the bridge.

Pictures from our route through Uzbekistan

On our route to Termez the landscape changed completely: colorful mountains and smooth hills were carrying us to our destination.

Shakhrisyabz – UNESCO & insider tip

On our route back to Samarkand and further to Tashkent we stopped in the UNESCO historic centre of Shakhrisyabz. This is the birthplace of Uzbekistan’s national hero Timur. The tombs and madrassas are smaller compared to those in Samarkand but not less beautiful.

Charvak 

Finally, on our last day in Uzbekistan we drove from Tashkent further to the Charvak lake. The Charvak lake lies in the North at the edge of the Tian Shan mountains. Due to the dry winter, the lake has less water than usual but an amazing blue color. The road to the lake was pretty good but driving around the lake resulted in a bumpy adventure. Getting around means around 100 km but after approximately half of the way, the road was blocked. Consequently we had to turn and take he same way back.

Our very last day on our all around the world trip after eight months

Suddenly, we heard a whistling. Getting out of the car to check the tires has shown us the root cause: one of our tires was loosing air. In this situation, we remembered the words from our rental car company: “The car does not have any spare tire since you will not need it. The tires are unbreakable.” It seems the many holes on the streets and the gravel roads have killed one tire after our 4,000 km in Uzbekistan.

We stopped a car coming along the way to ask them whether they could take us to the next village to buy a new tire. The locals could not believe that a real Uzbek car does not have a spare tire. And they were right: they found one in the car! After changing the tire with their help, we continued our trip to the next auto service station. We experienced the Uzbek style handling a flat tire: repairing the flat tire within 15 minutes. And this for just converted 1,50 Euro.

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Myanmar (Burma) Travel Tips

Myanmar (Burma) Travel Tips

Welcome to our travel guide for globetrotters & UNESCO enthusiasts and discover top Myanmar (Burma) travel tips – the country of gilded pagodas, spirituality and hospitality.

Content

Tips for planning your journey

Our route through Myanmar (by bus and train)

Our Highlights in Myanmar

Mandalay
Bagan (UNESCO World Heritage)
Yangon
Pyay
Bago
Kinpun

Our recommendations

If you want to read more about the country, we can recommend you some books.

First and ever remaining impressions of Myanmar (Burma)

On the 16th February 2017, we arrived in Myanmar – our second to the last country on our round-the-world trip. The first thing we have recognized arriving in Myanmar is the extremely friendly people. Consequently, walking through the streets people offered their help to find what we are looking for. Unbelievable for us: without trying to sell us something or to lead us to their shops or restaurants. We need to get used to not directly rejecting their offers what we have ourselves adopted in the other Southeast Asian countries. In total, we could not imagine a better ending for these two months of being in Southeast Asia. We hope, the Burmese do not get upset of tourists and keep their openness and friendliness. Even monks are looking with an amazing open-mind for contacts with foreigners and took pictures of us or with us.

Together with its cultural highlights like astonishing Bagan and the pagodas in Bago and Yangon, Myanmar is really a unique country.

Our route through Myanmar

We arrived in Mandalay by plane from Bangkok. Unfortunately, self driving is not possible for tourists in Myanmar. Therefore, we have taken for the longer distances buses and trains. The buses and trains were in general all comfortable and very cheap. For example, we have taken a train from Yangon to Bago and paid around 30 cent for a a lower class ticket for the two hours drive which was written by hand. In addition, in the cities and towns we have always rented electric scooter and e-bikes to get around.

Conditions of the roads

However, we have read about the bad condition of the roads due to the small investments in the infrastructure after the colonial era. But we have not expected such bad roads. The journey lasted six hours for approx. 300 km from Mandalay to Yangon with “free massage” as we have been well shaken during the drive. This journey is currently the most shaky we had on our trip. Therefore, we are lucky that we could share this experience with Paul’s cousin Michael and his wife Katrin with whom we are traveling together in Myanmar for one week.

Countryside in Myanmar

The journey lead us through barren landscape and a lot of beggars along the route. This is the other side of the coin for the low tourism. Since 1962, the military is governing Myanmar with focus on the wealthiness of certain group of people. The population has to pay for this mismanagement and inability with poverty. Above all, the name Myanmar was introduced arbitrarily in 1989 by the government without involvement of the people.

Driving in Myanmar – on the left or right side?

Since Myanmar is a former British colony, we have expected a left-hand traffic. However, they are driving on the right hand side but the majority of the cars have their steering wheel on the right side. This is caused by a vision of the former dictator in the 1960’s. From one day to the next he changed from left to right-hand traffic in order to relieve from a British colonial relic. The actual reason was a fortune teller who said that the left side is bad. Due to the fact that many cars are imported from Thailand where the cars drive on the left side, the steering wheels are still on the right side.

This is only one story about the dictator’s superstition. Another one is that he introduced 45 and 90 Kyat bills and voided all others since the number nine was his lucky number. Consequently, this resulted in math exercises during shopping.

Our ultimate Myanmar (Burma) Travel Tips

Mandalay

Mandalay as the second largest city in Myanmar is Myanmar’s religious center with its many monasteries and monks. Moreover, Mandalay was the former royal capital before the British defeated the Upper Burma. The city was named after the Mandalay Hill that you should climb up to get breathtaking view of sunset or sunrise.

Myanmar is the first country where we are taking less pictures from the locals compared to the pictures the locals are taking of us or even ask us for pictures and selfies. We met a group of monks in one of the pagoda in Mandalay and every one wanted a pictures with us together.

Monks in Mandalay Myanmar
Gold Leaf Manufacturer

One gold leaf manufacturer next to another can be found in the 36th street. Small gold nuggets are transferred into extremely thin gold leaves through rhythmic hammering by well-trained men. Despite this hard work, it is a popular job because the gold leaves are used for higher purpose: it is used to stick on Buddha statues to earn points for the reincarnation. Some Buddhas are covered with so many gold leaves only that their shape is already gone.

Kuthodaw pagoda

The Kuthodaw pagoda consists of 729 small stupas containing each a marble board with stories about Buddha’s life and doctrines. This pagoda is also called the biggest book in the world and the construction lasted more than seven years. If someone would read every day for eight hours, he would need probably 450 days to read the whole book.

Royal Palace

The golden Royal Palace in Mandalay was built 1857 and contains more than 130 buildings. Since the king feared leaving his palace, a 55 meters high tower was built as the single possibility to watch the outside life. However, most parts of the palace were destroyed by the colonial power as well as during the war against the Japanese occupying forces. For the restoration, corrugated iron roofs and golden color instead of gold leaves were used.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Bagan

Bagan is one of the architectural highlight in Southeast Asia. But compared to Angkor, Bagan has still something magical and mysterious. There a no huge crowds of tourists and exploring the area is mainly possible by horse carts or electric bikes. Big buses are rare. And so it happened that we were completely alone visiting some temples. Pictures from Bagan temples and balloons are the most popular picture of Myanmar and one will have it in mind when thinking of Myanmar. Around 2,200 temples, pagodas and stupas are located in Bagan. Bagan was listed recently as UNESCO World heritage. The reason for this long waiting list was that Myanmar did not adhere to the specifications for historical landmarks and the restoration was done with cheap construction material not matching to the original one. In 2019, the UNESCO finally added Bagan to the list of cultural heritage sites.

Recommended horse cart tour

We started our exploration tour of Bagan with a traditional horse cart ride. For one full day we went from the most popular temples with a horse cart. Unbelievable, entering the temples and pagodas is only possible without shoes and socks. Walking around barefoot in these around 800 years old temples and pagodas was a challenge due to the sun heated stones as well as the many small stones and sand on the ground.

Sunset and sunrise in Bagan

For the sunset on the first day we have chosen a stupa where we could climb up to the third level with an amazing view over its temples and stupas scattered area. However, this spot is quite popular and so we were already climbing up the temple around 4.30 pm to get a good place for the sunset around 6 pm.

For the sunrise the next morning we have identified another temple off the beaten path with less tourists (maybe also due to the early sunrise at 5.45 am). It was astonishing when the balloons started and were flying over the temples. This view has more than paid off the early getting up.

Remote temples at Bagan

For the second and third day in Bagan we rented e-bikes to explore the more remote temples. E-bikes are (rather electronic scooter) a good idea in this dry and hot area of Myanmar. The temples with only one level at the ground floor are older compared to them with several levels. The main material was brick stones brought to Bagan by boat. All still existing buildings had religious purposes, the palaces and the houses of the kings have not survived the long time and especially the fights against the Mongols. Even after the period where Bagan was a royal city, Burmese kings donated bells and gold for the stupas and even two new temples were built in the 18th century. Uncountable are the Buddha statues in the temples in many different sizes and colors.

Mount Popa

We hired a private taxi to get from Bagan to Mount Popa for a half day. The reason for the private taxi was mainly due to time constraints and we wanted to enjoy another half day at least in Bagan. 787 steps lead to the top of the mountain but also here we had to walk barefoot. Another challenge were the many monkeys running and jumping around and their poops on the stairs. But the view from the top and the small temples were worth climbing up.

Pyay – non touristic place

A huge adventure was our trip to Pyay. From Yangon Pyay can be reached via bus (approx. seven hours drive). Sri Ksetra located just a few kilometres from Pyay is an ancient capital. Not many buildings have survived since the 9th century when the center was relocated towards Bagan. The Baw Baw Gyi Pagoda remained with its 43 meters tall stupa. The last king has taken some relics away and brought them to one of the pagodas in Bagan. To avoid further theft the ‘Grand Lady’ is watching the pagoda sitting on a swing. Devouts donate scarfs to the Grand Lady.

Pyu (Pyay) Ancient Cities – UNESCO World Heritage Site

To get to the area of the ancient capital in Pyay we have rented a motorcycle directly at the hotel since we arrived quite late with the bus from Yangon. Besides issues starting the motorcycle, changing the gears felt like riding a horse. Paved roads are not really existing in Pyay and so we had to cross sandy roads – sometimes with so many sands that we had trouble to not fall down – with wild dogs everywhere around. Due to the late afternoon we only stopped for some minutes at each pagoda to avoid driving during darkness through this countryside. We have the impression that not many tourists visit this site since we haven’t met anybody else and the choice of hotels is very limited. And why did we do all of this? For extend our lovely bucket list of UNESCO sites.

Bago

Bago is just 80 km from Yangon and so we decided to take a train to get there. Our train didn’t had windows and also the door was not closing during the journey but due to the low speed of the train it was perfect. The train station looks like an original heritage from the colonial era.

Taking the train from Yangon to Bago revealed a side of Myanmar that we haven’t seen before: the extreme poverty of the Burmese people and the non-existence of a waste management system.

No other city in Myanmar has such a density of religious sites like it is the case in Bago. We rented e-bikes to visit the pagodas in this non-touristic city. It seems that e-bikes are not common in Bago since the locals were surprisingly looking at us. To confuse them even more, when passing slow motorcycles we started pedaling as much as possible despite the electric engine.

Saskia Hohe ebike Bago Myanmar BurmaFour Buddhas in Bago

In the South of Bago four sitting Buddhas are located. Of course there are many Buddha statues in Myanmar and one is bigger, more beautiful or more golden like the other but these Kyaikpun Buddhas are special. They are sitting back to back and looking into the four cardinal points. The one looking to the North is the current Buddha Gautama and the other three are his predecessors. The statues are originally from the 15th century but have been restored in the last years with brilliant fingernails, white skin and deep red lips.

Shwethalyaung Pagode

The reclining Buddha inside the Shwethalyaung Pagode is with its length of more than 50 meters one of the largest Buddhas in the world. This position symbolizes Buddha shortly before his death. This Buddha was standing outside but to protect him, a roof construction (inconvenient for pictures) was built.

reclining Buddha inside the Shwethalyaung Pagode Bago Myanmar Burma

Directly next to the Shwethalyaung Pagoda lies another huge Buddha statue – but this time, in the open air. This Buddha was built around ten years ago. Since there are no big trees around to provide shade, our feet were grilled walking around barefoot on these green tiles.

Shwemawdaw Pagoda

The Shwemawdaw Pagoda has the highest stupa of Myanmar and was restored several times due to earthquakes. And every time the pagoda was getting bigger and more beautiful. The once fallen down top of the pagoda has now been integrated into the structure in a way to remind of this occurrence.

Kinpun

The Golden Rock in Kinpun is one of the most important Buddhist sanctuary in Myanmar. The rock is only held tight by Buddha’s one hair that is positioned inside the golden stupa on top of the rock. To get up on the mountain you can either walk three hours or take a truck for 40 minutes. A truck starts when the benches on the loading area are more than full (approximately 40 people). Going up the around 700 meters is fine due to the ascent but for going down we have kept the fingers crossed that the breaks will make it.

Yangon

We spent our last two days in Myanmar in Yangon. Yangon was Myanmar’s capital until 2006 when the army declared surprisingly the newly founded city Nay Pyi Taw as the new capital. However, the new capital is located in a region that is still closed for foreigners.

Shwedagon pagode

The Shwedagon pagode in Yangon is one highlight of our trip so that we spent a lot of time there to see the sunrise and the sunset. It is said that the pagoda is around 2,500 years old. The stupa is around 100 meters high and with the gold leaves on it, the stupa weights around 150 tons whereof around ten tons are pure gold. Every third year, the gold is taken away and the stupa gets completely new gold. The umbrella on top has several thousands of diamonds and little bells.

Sule Pagode

What you should not miss in Yangon is the visit of the downtown area. We have taken a bus from the Shwedagon Pagoda to the city center. In the middle of a roundabout, there is another beautiful golden pagoda (Sule Pagoda).

Colonial houses

Yangon’s second face consists of respectable colonial houses. The majority of the houses were built at the beginning of the 20th century. Despite the tendency to modernize Yangon, the locals renovate the ancient houses on a regular basis. Still in use is the baby blue City House with Yangon’s government and the post office. In the latter we have learned that the post office for parcels is only open 2.5 hours per day – despite many employees have been around four hours after the official closure.

Myanmar from another time

The man on the picture looks like from another time. We found him sitting in front of a house with this old typewriter. What an impressive end of the really stunning visit of Myanmar. Highly recommended to visit Myanmar to all of you.

Colonial area Yangon Myanmar Burma

Thanaka paste

You might have seen a bright crème in the Burmese’s face and may ask yourself: what is this that they put on their face? This is Thanaka paste – the most widely used skin lotion in Myanmar. The Thanaka tree grows mostly in the sandy regions of Central Myanmar and needs about 30 years to be harvested. The locals use Thanaka as a protection against the sun. Moreover, the paste lightens the skin and many say that it is the secret for their anti-aging.

Our book recommendations

 

Travel Guides

As a English guidebook we have made good experience with the Lonely Planet Myanmar (Burma) guide. It has a good overview of country highlights, some maps and useful accommodation tips.

Novels

The following novels have we either read by our own or they have been recommended to us.

Burmese Days – George Orwell: Orwell draws on his years of experience in India to tell this story of the waning days of British imperialism. A handful of Englishmen living in a settlement in Burma congregate in the European Club, drink whiskey, and argue over an impending order to admit a token Asian.
The Art of Hearing Herat Beats –  Jan-Philipp Sendker: When a successful New York lawyer suddenly disappears without a trace, neither his wife nor his daughter Julia has any idea where he might be…until they find a love letter he wrote many years ago, to a Burmese woman they have never heard of. Intent on solving the mystery and coming to terms with her father’s past, Julia decides to travel to the village where the woman lived. There she uncovers a tale of unimaginable hardship, resilience, and passion. It will reaffirm the reader’s belief in the power of love to move mountains.
The Long Path to Wisdom –  Jan-Philipp Sendker: These moving stories speak to the rich mythology of the diverse peoples of Burma, the spirituality of humankind, and the profound social impact of Buddhist thought. Some are so strange he couldn’t classify them or identify a familiar moral, while others reminded him of the fairy tales of his childhood. Except that here monkeys, tigers, elephants, and crocodiles inhabited the fantastic lands instead of hedgehogs, donkeys, or geese. Their morals resemble those of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen, illustrating how all cultures draw on a universal wisdom to create their myths.
Saving Fish from Drowning – Amy Tan: San Francisco art patron Bibi Chen has planned a journey of the senses along the famed Burma Road for eleven lucky friends. But after her mysterious death, Bibi watches aghast from her ghostly perch as the travelers veer off her itinerary and embark on a trail paved with cultural gaffes and tribal curses, Buddhist illusions and romantic desires. On Christmas morning, the tourists cruise across a misty lake and disappear.

Further reading

Myanmar (Burma): Temples of Bagan  – David Raezer: We have read this book by ourselves during the visit of Bagan. Bagan, the ancient Buddhist capital in central Myanmar (Burma) that thrived from 850-1300, is one of the most magnificent and inspiring sites in Southeast Asia. It is yours to uncover.
The River of Lost Footsteps – Thant Myint-U: How is interested in Burma’s history and political system, should not miss this book. hant Myint-U tells the story of modern Burma, and the story of his own family, in an interwoven narrative that is by turns lyrical, dramatic, and deeply affecting. Through his prominent family’s stories and those of others, he portrays Burma’s rise and decline in the modern world. From the time of Portuguese pirates and renegade Mughal princes through a sixty-year civil war that continues today―the longest-running war anywhere in the world.
Freedom from fear- Aung San Suu Kyi: Aung San Suu Kyi is the most popular person of Burma. How wants to read more about her life as opposition politician and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate should read this biography of the Swedish journalist Jesper Bengtsson.

 

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Thailand Travel Tips

Thailand Travel Tips

Arriving in Thailand by slowboat (Mekong River)

We have integrated Thailand in our all around the world trip during the refinement of the route in order to have a more convenient transfer from Laos to Myanmar. Arriving in the North of Thailand via boat from Laos, a 24 hours long journey to get from Chiang Mai to Bangkok started. Since the direct bus to a central train station in Chiang Mai was already booked out, we had to take an alternative route. Therefore, we had to take a local bus to Chiang Rai in the West of Thailand and then to take a more touristic bus to Chiang Mai. Read on to get some of our travel tips for Thailand.

The day didn’t start promising. The ordered Tuk Tuk was not showing up at all. In addition, no other Tuk Tuks were available on the road due to the early morning. Thanks to our hotel for taking us to the bus station on time. Amazing but the local bus was driving the around 90 km in 2.5 hours but arrived exactly on time. And this despite taking up passengers at every corner. We were lucky catching the pre-booked connecting bus to Chiang Mai.

Arrived there, we had to hurry up to buy tickets for the night train to Bangkok. The reason for the hurry was because a pre-booking of the train tickets is unfortunately not possible. Therefore, the tickets are sold following first come, first serve. In total, we had a very lucky day.

Night train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok

The night train to Bangkok was luxury since we have booked the first class. In the first class we had our own compartment with beds.

Bangkok

Arriving in the early morning in Bangkok we were well rested and started immediately with our exploration tour. We made the whole tour by foot but of course it is possible to take a tuk-tuk or some buses. There are plenty of it at very low costs.

Grand Palace

Bangkok’s most important landmark is the Grand Palace consisting of more than 100 buildings from different architectural styles. The Grand Palace includes a Buddhist temple with an emerald Buddha statue. We have not expected to udergo such high security measures. In order to get into the area of the Palace we had to hold our passports in front of us and into the camera.

Thailand’s king died in October 2016 and the one year mourning period is still ongoing what we have not only recognized through the many people dressed in black at the entrance of the Grand Palace but also through the many pictures of the king with black colored draperies – even the first screen at the ATM shows the king’s portrait.

Grand Palace, Bangkok

Pho Temple (close to Grand Palace) and Arun Temple

Bangkok has around 400 Buddhist temples but after nine weeks in Asia, we are getting tired of visiting temples and all the Buddha statues. So we have decided to only visit two of them. The Pho temple close to the Grand Palace includes a huge covered with gold leaves reclining Buddha. On the other side of the river, the temple Arun is located. The pagodas look amazing due to the all over decoration with colored glass stones.

Ayutthaya

On our second day in Bangkok we took a train to visit the ancient capital Ayutthaya. The historic city of Ayutthaya which was founded around 1350 is one of Thailand’s UNESCO world heritage site. Ayutthaya lies around 60 km outside of Bangkok. The ordinary train needs 90 minutes. But the price is unbeatable: 50 cents per person. Okay, it is the price for a third class ticket but there are normal seats (no wooden boards) and without air condition since the windows remain open during the journey.

On our way back we caught a train that runs 120 minutes and consequently costs even less: 35 cents 😉 All trains we have taken were on time but in case it would not have been the case, we would have taken the chance to go to the hairdresser which is directly located at the beginning of the track.

Arrived in Ayutthaya we rented bicycles to explore the huge area with ruins of Thailand’s ancient capital. Ayutthaya was founded in 1350 and along with a long history of violence Ayutthaya was overthrown by the Burmese army in the mid of 1700. It is said that the gem and gold can be now seen in the pagoda in Yangon what we will explore further in the next next two weeks visiting Myanmar.

Saskia Hohe in Ayutthaya - Thailand Travel Tips

Ayutthaya Temple

Probably the most popular relic of Ayutthaya is the head of Buddha wrapped within the tree roots. Its Buddha can be found in Wat Phra Mahathat temple. The Buddha statue was destroyed and the head fell to the ground and tree roots grew around it.

The largest temple in Ayutthaya is Wat Phra Si Sanphet with its three distinctive stupas.

Wat Phra Si Sanphet Ayutthaya Thailand
Outside the center of the temples lies Wat Yai Chai Mang Khon with rows of Buddhas and a giant reclining Buddha dropped in safran colored robes.

Our book recommendations

Since we were visiting several countries from the golden triangle, we have bought a combined travel guide for this region which also holds good travel tips for Thailand.

If you want to get more into the Thai society, you should read Monsoon Country by the Nobel Prize-nominated author Pira Sudham:

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Laos Travel Tips

Laos Travel Tips

How to get to Laos from Vietnam

We arrived in Laos after a short flight from Hanoi. We initially planned to take a bus to cross the border between Vietnam and Laos but due to Tet celebration in Vietnam, no travel agency was able to arrange the respective bus tickets.

Vientiane

The capital Vientiane with a population of approx. 320,000 is relatively small and most sights are reachable within a short walk from the city center. Vientiane contains many Buddhist temples all over the city center. Monks in orange robe can be seen the whole day walking through Vientiane’s streets.

The Buddhist stupa of That Luang is one of the most famous in Laos. The golden stupa is about 45 meters tall and was originally built in 1566.

The memorial monument Patuxai was constructed between 1957 and 1968. The architecture reminds of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris but the design incorporates typical Lao motifs. We had a nice view on Vientiane from the top of this building.

Buddha Park near the Thailand Boarder

After a one hour drive with a local bus, we reached a park with a big collection of Buddhist and Hindu sculptures. This park was built in 1958 by a priest. The park is very close to the border with Thailand. After the priest fled to Thailand due to repercussions, he built a similar park in Thailand – also very close to the border so that both parks are just a few kilometers apart from each other.

Our impressions about Laos and bus service

Laos is a very relaxing country: the people are all very friendly to us (probably due to less tourism), the prices for buses, excursions and other things like laundry are the same all over one city and the traffic is very unstressed with a convenient number of cars and motorcycles and even Tuk Tuks are rare. We were very surprised seeing a car stopping at the cross walk. Never have seen this in any Asian country before. Especially compared to Laos’ neighbors Vietnam and Cambodia, we do not feel rushed by the traffic and also honks are not used here. However, the bus system is chaotic apart from the prices that are exactly the same in all travel agencies. We have booked a touristic bus to go to the mountains in a ten hour journey but ended up in a local bus. This bus pick up people from the street and stopped at almost every small market. And we have experienced that Asians can’t stand twisting rides on rather bad roads in a bus. We were the only tourists on this bus and have created a little mess: We have recognized this as the guy sitting in the last row was screaming since he got wet and didn’t know what it was. Then the girl in the first row also started to scream. First, we thought that this could be our glass beer bottle stored in the top tray that broke due to the turbulences in the bus. But it looked like water and so we didn’t worried further. The driver’s assistant started wiping up the package tray and searched for the root cause. But this was no reason for the driver to stop driving and so the assistant was jumping in the bus due to the bad condition of the roads. He found one bag with a lot of water in it and asked in Lao who the owner of this bag is. Unbelievable, but this was really our bag but we were looking outside the window and pretended not to understand the issue… 🙂

Phonsavan

Arrived in the mountains in Phonsavan we were happy about the moderate temperature (only around 22 degrees Celsius – compared to the 33 degrees Celsius we have for six weeks now) due to being 1,100 meters above sea level. One of the main sights in this area is the Plain of Jars. We were surprised seeing so many tourists up there, so it seems more people are attracted by this fascinating mysterious sight. The Plain of Jars is an archaeological landscape with thousands of stone jars scattered around the valleys. They have been there for thousands of years, grouped together in clusters and their purpose is still a mystery. Similar jars have also been discovered in India and Malaysia. The jars in Laos can be dated back to the Iron Age. Many of them were destroyed in the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s where Americans bombed this area as part of their attacks on Vietnam. Only three jar sites are open for visitors due to the many unexploded bombs that are still be found in this area. The big question is: For what were the jars used? The most common theories are the following: 1. Jars were used for collection the rain water for travelers during the monsoon season to cater for the dry season. 2. Jars were used to brew rice wine and beer by giants or 3. Jars were used for funerals. The latter one is the most widely accepted theory since human bones have been discovered at the jar sites. We have rented a motorcycle to visit all three sites. Site 1 is just a short drive from Phonsavan. This is with around 300 jars the most visited site. The jars vary in size and range from half a meter until around three meters. The heaviest jar weights around six tones.

Jar site 2 offers a smaller amount of jars on hills on two sides of the adventurous road we had to take to get there. One of the jar had tree roots growing out of it and it reminded us of the power of the nature we have already seen at Angkor with the temples surrounded by trees.

Jar site 3 is just a small ride away from Jar site 2. To get to the jars we had to cross rice fields up a small hill. This site was the most impressive for us due to the many good maintained jars in a rather small area.

You might think that we are crazy spending one day visiting stone jars but we really enjoyed the driving around by our own and stopping everywhere and at every time to walk around and to take pictures. To get from Phonsavan to Luang Prabang we took again a mini bus. It was very comfortable but the seats in the middle are interesting on these bumbling roads.Bus driving in Laos

Luang Prabang

Until we arrived in Luang Prabang we thought Laos is “okay” but not a highlight of our trip. But Luang Prabang changed completely our mind and we think that Luang Prabang is one of the most fascinating city in Southeast Asia with its ancient charm of the French colonial houses and the many Lao monasteries at every corner of the city as well as the astonished monks’ morning ceremony. We have not imagined such kind of a city from a poor country, however you cannot really call it city since it is rather a small town. The French impact is still visible in the streets with the nice cafes (incl free WiFi) and the smell of fresh baguette and croissants. From our point of view, we can confirm that Luang Prabang is indeed “the jewel of Indochina” and it complies with this pretty big title.