Of Books and Writing

Well, hi there!

I’ve been off the radar for some days again due to ongoing various activities and projects which makes me realize “Hmm, I’ve been ‘busier’ now than when I was working the eight-hour shift. How come?”

It’s true what they say that taking control of your time and energy allows you to see more of what you’ve been stalling on for the past few years. Some even appear to you as if saying, “Hey, I need some repair here.” or “I need to get out of this drawer”. And here I am looking at my plate, thinking, “Okay, what needs priority?”.

I’m currently editing my grandfather’s bio that my dad wrote for his upcoming 97th birthday! Yep, you heard that number right. He’s turning a year older past the mortality age range in the Philippines and the best way to honor him is through a book. Way to go dad for thinking about the idea!

It’s just now that I began to appreciate editing. Man, it’s a challenging job! Apart from the perks of reading the story firsthand, it requires energy to focus and the ability to add sense to the written word.

With a tight two-week deadline from now, I’m nearly done editing but I have to sort photos next and finally discuss with our printing press of choice.

Apart from the editing job that I accepted, I’m also working on my own authorship (*wink*) which I hope to share soon. :-)

(c)

Travel stories will continue to form a major part of this blog, of course. I still have a lot of back stories from South East Asia while preparing for my next backpacking plan in the Philippines before this year ends. Coming soon!

 

Get Crafty: The Recycled Yellow Blouse

Do you have select pieces of clothing in your wardrobe that despite its age, you don’t want to dispose?

I have one that I really love. Unfortunately, due to mixing of laundry, it got stained and I never wore it again for so long.

2015-06-11 14.10.00
my favorite smeared yellow blouse

Now that I’m allotting time to forgotten projects, I revisited some of my long-stored possessions – which filled only a few boxes – and found my blouse again.

I decided to bring it back to life with some abracadabra.

Here are close-ups of the damages done to this once simple beauty.

2015-06-11 14.10.55
close up of that stain
2015-06-11 14.12.06
and look, additional ironing woes

I tried searching for Rit’s Dye locally but alas, I can’t find it. It was the dye used by Marisa Lynch, the inspirational craft lady behind http://www.newdressaday.com.

So, I resorted to these small packets of Venus Dye from the department store.

20150530_093955
magic sachets

Procedures:

  1. Fill a stainless pot with water, just enough to soak in the piece of clothing that you want to re-color. Heat the water to a boil.
  2. Add the dyes and salt, stirring it to mix the solution well in the boiling water. I used 4 packets of dye and 4 tablespoons of salt. The salt helps in making the solution stick well to the fabric.
  3. Soak the pre-wet clothing to the solution. Wetting the clothing before putting it in the colored water will even out the coloring job.
  4. Leave it for an hour. Rinse well until the rinsing water doesn’t show anymore color from the dyeing.

The result? A mustard-colored blouse – worn brightly on a Sunday afternoon!

2015-06-09 10.58.20
brighter yellow after dyeing

Glad to have this in my current wardrobe again. :-)

Border Crossings: Mae Sot to Myawaddy

Myanmar naturally went on my list of countries to visit when I was at the planning stage. I read tons of information on how to get there without flying as well as how to move forward and where to go first.

I figured there’s not much information online for Asians. Most of the blog posts I read were experiences of travelers coming from the West. I learned there’s not much difference actually but here’s a guide for those holding ASEAN passports.

Myanmar is slowly opening up to foreign tourism. Thus, overland border crossings are easier now than before. We crossed via the Mae Sot – Myawaddy border on a breeze. I believe this is the easiest overland crossing inward to Myanmar.

Border Schedule: The borders have extended their services from 5:30AM to 8:30PM as of January 2015. News on this can be read here.

Time Difference: Myanmar is 30 minutes behind its ASEAN neighbors so take note of this when going back to Thailand via this border crossing. For time zone differences among ASEAN countries with Philippine time as basis, click here.

How to Get There: From the Mae Sot public market, you can hire a tuk-tuk for THB 50/pax or ride a songthaew for THB 20/pax.

On the Thai Border:

truck entering the Thai border
truck exiting the Thai border

There are long queues on both borders but this is for Thai and Burmese locals. Foreigners can go directly to Window #4. Present your passport and departure card (including visas for non-ASEANs). The immigration officer will ask you where you’re heading in Myanmar and how many days you will be staying there. Your photo will be taken so be prepared to smile. Then, you’re stamped out of Thailand.

Walk the 1 kilometer Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge towards the Myanmar border.

foot power towards Myawaddy
foot power towards Myawaddy

Walk on the left side of the bridge and cross to the right side once in the Myanmar border towards the immigration office.

cross to the right towards the immigration office
cross to the right

On the Myanmar Border:

finally, Myanmar!
trucks also leave Myanmar for Thailand – a common daily sight

Enter the Immigration Office. The officer will ask you to fill up a form and have your photo taken. They will also ask where you’re going next in Myanmar and your length of stay.

Since we did overland crossing, we were given 15 days visa-free entry. According to Kach, the Filipina brown monkey of Two Monkeys Travel, she was given 30 days when she flew in so take note of your options when you want to visit Myanmar.

FYI: There’s a clever businessman inside the immigration office who is helpful in terms of getting what you need like money exchange, taxi, photocopy of passports and visas. He was helpful with getting us a better taxi than what we found but he didn’t give us the exact number of photocopies that we paid for. Note to self: don’t trust too much and check what you receive before leaving.

Money:

As mentioned in my previous post, if you’re holding US$ and would want to exchange it for kyats, do it in the Mae Sot border as they offer better exchange rates. Bring crisp US$ as well for accommodations and groceries. You can ask for the exchange rate first before paying US$ or MYK so you always win against conversions. :-)

ATMs are also available in Myawaddy should you want to withdraw MYK.

How to Move Onward to Myanmar:

Public buses are available until 10AM.

We arrived in the border around 9AM but due to the processing on both borders, we missed the bus. Good thing we met fellow backpackers in the immigration office and decided to share a taxi. They were bound for Mawlamyine before crossing to Yangon while we were bound for Hpa An towards Yangon. We eventually decided to go with them. Glad we did because (1) a taxi ride costs much for two, (2) we’d have two wait two more days in Myawaddy (think accommodation and food) for the next even day before we travel inland if we decided to pursue Hpa An, and (3) it was a challenge taking transport from Hpa An inland – we realized this when we traveled back to Myawaddy and had to stop by Hpa An, pay again to hop to another car due to scheming drivers.

We paid MYK 12,000 (~$12) each for a 5-passenger taxi ride. It seemed expensive at first but we realized it was fine after passing through several checkpoints where the drivers had to give money to officers every time.

Odd-Even Day Scheme:

An odd-even day scheme is being implemented in the border in relation to transportation.

Odd days: only vehicles from other parts of Myanmar towards Myawaddy are allowed to travel

Even days: only vehicles from Myawaddy to other parts of Myanmar are allowed to travel

This is done to prevent congestion and traffic due to the narrow roads connecting the border to other towns and cities within the country. However, since we have months with 31 days, there are two successive days with odd numbers. In this case, they adjust to follow the alternate day schedule (i.e. Jan. 31 – inland Myanmar to Myawaddy; Feb 1 – Myawaddy to inland Myanmar).

We traveled on December 28 (even day) on a private taxi via the arduous alternative route. That was quite an unforgettable adventure!

However, they were constructing a wider road (still dusty at that time) when we traveled back to the border which will soon provide two-way traffic; thus, eventually removing the odd-even day schedule.

Accommodation:

There are several, cheaper accommodations in Mae Sot compared to Myawaddy. We stayed in Baifern Guesthouse and Pumpkin Guesthouse before and after our trip to Myanmar.

Nomadasaurus offers some guide on accommodations in the Myanmar border.

Others:

  • Take note of the time difference when going back to Thailand from this border. Well, trip times usually don’t go as planned. We arrived in Myawaddy 30 minutes before closing time and we had to run the 1 kilometer friendship bridge to Thailand. Bell ringers!
  • There are no more tuk-tuks or songthaews late in the afternoon until border closing. Motos offer rides back to Mae Sot central depending on your agreement but sometimes, it’s hard to negotiate when it’s the only option you got. We paid THB 80 each.
  • Make 5 photocopies of your passport (and visas) before crossing the border. There are several checkpoints from Myawaddy going further inside to Myanmar and they would usually ask for passports. They have log books where they manually copy the details of each foreigner. To save time, you can just hand your photocopy and move on to the next stop. It isn’t consistent though on each stop as some don’t require checking of passports.

For information on our other SEA border crossings, you can check the links here. Nomadasaurus also provides details on this border crossing. You can read their related article on their website.

Behind The Scenes – What Happens Before the Beautiful Photos

  • Comment: “Great photos there!”
  • A friend likes a photo/ album you posted.
  • Comment: “I hope I could do what you do and go there too!”

These are just some of the uplifting feedback from friends and family when I shared photos and posts about our backpacking journey. I felt prouder about myself for the brave decision. And true enough, it was one of the BEST decisions ever.

But when I came back and told them it wasn’t as easy, that there were lots of pre-work involved behind all the snaps of scenic views and sweet smiles, they give startled looks with a surprised “really?”

To the aspiring backpacker, I don’t want to be the grinch but yes, travelling in your own terms involves a whole lot of sweating the small stuff. That’s besides living your life like a turtle for some months… or years.

my collection of maps from all around South East Asia
my collection of maps from all around South East Asia

By pre-work, I meant TONS OF RESEARCH: (1) setting the route, planning the itinerary, choosing the activities, reserving the best budget flights before the actual travel, and (2) reviewing #1 as you move along.

my excel planner sheets
my excel planner sheets

Planning before the actual flight involved a whole lot of time. It took me two months to arrange my to-do list, seek advice from friends and plan and prepare all the items I needed. Before that, I read travel articles to give me a flavour of what to expect.

useful articles from my wonderful friends based on their own travels
useful articles from my wonderful friends based on their own travels

The average time I spent researching while on the move was 1.5 hours.  Thankfully almost all of the places we stayed in had average internet connections. The Lonely Planet book given to me as a gift also helped a lot to compare with what are online besides being more useful when internet connection was slow.

Of course, if you’re on a tour group, the responsibility falls under the tour agency. You pay them to do the dirty work and you just enjoy the entire package. Luckily for the DIY traveller, she does everything!

My 1.5 hours may differ from other DIY travellers but I’m pretty sure we research on the same things. You hear a place from a fellow traveller and decide to check it out against what’s on your list. We’ve done this like visiting northern Laos instead of Vang Vieng upon chatting with a French couple we met in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Counting the days before going back home, we realized we had extra days so we decided to stay longer in Thailand. Problem was, it wasn’t part of our budget. The solution? We looked for volunteering opportunities. Change of plans really happens along the way. :-)

So what do we research about while on the move?

  1. All about the place

In order to have a high-level view of the place you’re visiting, it is good to read about a bit of a background. Some have only a few information, others have various links that you can visit.

  1. Attractions/ Activities

You want to visit a place because there’s something to see and/or do besides meeting fellow travelers and locals. What entices travelers is what the place can offer, whether a physical adventure or a laid-back atmosphere.

  1. Travel Time

You’ve set your route beforehand. You have planned days to stay in a particular place before moving on. Travel time is one important aspect in order to know how long it will take you to get from Town A to Town B. This is also helpful to help you estimate how much time you’ll need to start from Town A and what time you’ll arrive in Town B because it links to #4 and #5.

Tip: Usually, sleeper buses are the best way to go if travelling for more than 5 hours. This also saves you a night of accommodation.

  1. Transportation (Getting in, around and out)

We travelled most of the time by bus. We inquired from fellow travellers who have gone the route or how much they bought a bus ticket in a particular agency. We went around asking travel agencies for bus ticket prices. We also asked from our guesthouses since most accommodations offer ticket reservations for their guests. You would be surprised at the significant price differences.

Tip: Don’t buy at the very first travel agency or at your guesthouse immediately. It’s better to go around and compare to get the best price quote before shelling out money. Most bus agencies provide pick-up services for travelers.

If you’re travelling long-distance, there are cheap airline tickets that are comparable to a long-distance bus ticket. We used www.skyscanner.com for this.

  1. Accommodation

We usually compared the accommodations cited in Lonely Planet and online. I read feedback from fellow travellers about their experience in budget hostels or guesthouses in a particular town or city we’re moving to next. It is good to compare quality and cost.

On our first month, we usually booked in advance online whether through a travel website or the accommodation’s website. www.agoda.com has the cheapest accommodations offered than any other travel website. We met seasoned backpackers along the way who taught us a thing or two about finding accommodation. Eventually, we tried and found it better than reserving online (unless there were really few details about the place online). Read tips below for more info.

Tips:

  • Location is very important and you want to stay central to save especially on transportation cost and to have more accessibility to food, transportation, activities, tourist spots, etc.
  • If you’re travelling for the first time, reserving online is the best option. But if you’ve gotten the “hang” of it, research about the backpacker strip location where cheaper accommodations are offered. Usually, they’re all lined up waiting for travelers to enter. Not all affordable accommodations are advertised online. You can walk along the strip upon arrival, walk-in, check out the amenities and select the best option. Walk-in questions would usually go like this:

a) How much for a fan/AC room/dorm for x number of persons?

If it’s way out of your budget, go to the next one. Don’t bother asking the rest of the questions here.

b) Can we check the room/dorm?

c) What are included in the price?

This usually includes amenities like shared/private baths, A/C or fan, hot/cold shower, free morning coffee or tea, breakfast inclusion, etc.

d) What is the check-out time?

You can leave your bag at the reception upon check-out and go around for a while if you’re just waiting for your ride to take you to another city or town.

e) If we stay for longer than a day or 2, can we get a discount for the room/dorm?

Yes, you can ask for discount! We were able to get discounts in Laos and Thailand and it was amazing. This is a travel tip we learned from a young French couple we met in Bagan.

f) Do you have a map of the city?

This is just an accessory question once you’ve chosen a guesthouse or hostel. Most have maps of the city or town. Thailand train stations also give free maps. This saves you from buying a map from a store. The internet is useful if you stay connected even if you’re outside and you still have long battery life.

  1. Distance of train stations or bus terminals to the city center or backpacker strip

This is very important because enterprising tuk-tuk drivers or locals usually overcharge especially if they know you’re a foreigner. If you know in advance that there are easier accesses, then you’ll have an edge. If there is no choice especially late in the afternoon, you can negotiate fares with xe oms (motos) or tuk-tuks but you need to be firm based on the distance covered.

Tip:

Not everytime will you find all answers online. Asking around is the best way to know. You can ask a local or a fellow traveler. We partnered with other backpackers, sharing cost of transportation to go to our destination.

Questions like “Are you also going to the city center?” and “Would you like to share a ride with us?” are good starting points. Once you’re boarded, sharing of travel stories usually commence.

  1. Currency exchange rate

If you’re crossing countries, you need to know the current exchange rates especially if you have US$ on hand to know the best buying rate for your money. If you’re holding an ATM, check the transaction charge of the bank ATM before withdrawing. That will also save you a few cash.

Tips:

  • Want to buy Myanmar Kyat? The Thai border of Mae Sot offers better FX rates than the Myanmar border of Myawaddiy. Exchange there instead of in Myanmar since most money changers have fixed rate of US$1 = 1,000 kyat vs. 1,050 kyat at the time we crossed. Also, it’s better to use crisp US$ than kyat when paying in hotels or groceries inside Myanmar because the FX rate is US$1 = 1,100 kyat.
  • Cambodia uses both US$ and KHR in business transactions. The Khmers don’t mind current FX rates. There is no point arguing. They use fixed exchange rates as US$1= KHR 4,000 for all except in marts where US$1 = KHR 4,100. Sometimes you would get a mix of US$ and KHR as change when buying food or groceries. I had difficulty adjusting to two accepted currencies.
  • Vietcom Bank in Vietnam offers the lowest transaction charge for ATM withdrawals by Cirrus card holders.
  1. Visa costs

I included this in the breakdown although Philippine passport holders don’t need visas in South East Asia. But others would need this and eventually, when I go to countries where I’d need visa, then it’s useful to know the requirements to obtain one.

Note:

  • Always consider cost for all these items. Best value for money should always be a priority of a budget traveler.
  • All advice applies to South East Asia but some may be applicable to other countries as well.

How about food? Why is it not part of the breakdown? Well, you can always find affordable and local, delicious food on the streets so not to worry much unless you have reservations.

Still want to backpack? Now, don’t get discouraged by the things I mentioned. It’s all part of the DIY package. It was actually fun and rewarding to do things on your own which you’ll eventually apply to other aspects in your life.

You’ll learn to appreciate travel more once you take control of everything. Just like the bride who organizes everything with the help of her friends before the wedding day, you’ll feel more fulfilled because you involved yourself in the entire process.

Happy planning!

The Best and Worst of South East Asia

Here’s a “he said/she said” travel post that I and my brother talked about while camping in Chiang Rai. Bonfire chats sure create deep conversations :-)

It may have been two months since we came back from backpacking but there are just so many memories that we can’t help but reminisce.

Excepting Singapore, otherwise it will fall on most “Best” categories, here are our picks for the best & worst in South East Asia.

You can read further about our adventures by clicking on the links throughout this post.

What are your best and worst travel memories? Share it with us via the comments section.

Accommodation

Angel

Mike

Best Duan Tuy or Strawberry Hotel in Mui Ne, Vietnam ($4/pax/night) – triple A/C room with clean amenities, good wifi, cable TV, helpful & friendly staff, convenient location

Starbright Hotel in Chiang Rai, Thailand ($6/night negotiated from $7.50) – single fan room with shared gender bathrooms, good wifi and clean amenities, helpful & friendly staff, convenient location

Starbright Hotel Single Room – price aside, it has great ambiance, BEAUTIFUL receptionists, fragrant soap, good location (easy access to the market and other places), and easily one of the best services we experienced
Worst 30/4 Guesthouse – I’m super fine with basic amenities but really, this guesthouse had the dirtiest, unmaintained rooms with echo walls giving no privacy from neighbour rooms & uncomfortable reception 30/4 Guesthouse  – that’s the guesthouse where I felt unsafest and most uncomfortable
Strawberry Hotel
Strawberry Hotel. Mui Ne, Vietnam
reception area of Starbright Hotel
reception area of Starbright Hotel. Chiang Rai, Thailand

Ride

Angel

Mike

Best Bus ride from Bagan to Yangon after the new year – A/C bus with the most comfortable seats, pillows & blankets provided for the night ride Same
Worst Train ride from Hanoi to Hue  Same

Roads

Angel

Mike

Best Thailand – made for the easiest rides from one place to another Agree
Worst Myanmar – very dusty from the border entry until Bagan. Specifically, the road from Myawaddiy to Mawlamyine

* 2nd runner up on the worst roads was the road from Udomxai to Luang Prabang, Laos. Hope they finish paving before the rainy season; otherwise, potential mudslides and dangerous travels.

potential landslide
work in progress. road from Udomxai to Luang Prabang, Laos

Food

Angel

Mike

Best Thai – delicious, creative, wide range and variety Thai
Worst Myint – name according to the waitress who served it in Tachileik; the vegetable with a weird aftertaste and different smell (durian-ish) mixed in vegetable soups, noodles or just as a plain side dish sold in Thailand and Tachileik, Myanmar That weird Chinese dumpling in Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand
Mike's worst food - chive dumplings
Mike’s worst food
that orange vegetable
mine’s that orange vegetable

Personal Faves

Angel: 

  • Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam’s Banh Mi
  • Laos’ all-natural fruit shakes
  • Vietnam’s street pho

Mike

  • Laos’ Banh Mi
  • Savannakhet noodle soup (because of the big serving & unlimited peanut side dish hehe)

Town/City

Angel

Mike

Best Tham Kong Lo, Laos – magical & mysterious Battambang, Cambodia
Worst Lao Bao, Vietnam Lao Bao, Vietnam – because of our bad experience in that border town

Vieng Pukka, Laos – because there was nothing to see there

Music

Angel

Mike

Best Burmese music (modern and upbeat) Burmese music (modern)
Worst Khmer, Laotian, Vietnamese – the local music coupled with the music videos
  •   Burmese music (old or classic)
  • Khmer music (not because of the tune, but the theme/story – same plot with the cheating girl and the heartbroken guy composing a heartbreak song)
  • Vietnamese music (specifically the traditional CD played during the entire bus ride going to the Hatien border towards Cambodia)
New Year's Eve celebration in Yangon. Onstage is whom they refer to as the "Justin Bieber" of Myanmar
New Year’s Eve Celebration in Yangon. Onstage is the “Justin Bieber” of Myanmar. big fanbase!
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