Bangkok and Hanoi
9.8.14 - 9.14.14 93 °F
I purchased my plane ticket home a few weeks ago. I will be landing at JFK on November 13th, almost 4 months to the day after I left. If my math is correct (but it's certainly possible that it's not), the halfway point was sometime last night (between September 13 and 14). In those 61 days or so, I've traveled 15,615 miles through 14 countries (not including the US). I've traveled the most by airplane, more than 11,500 miles and the least by boat at 201 miles. I don't think I've fully absorbed what I have experienced in that time and I don't think that two months ago, on the eve of my departure, I could have imagined where I am now.
The next two months will involve a much smaller amount of countries visited, but I imagine there will still be a lot of traveling (hiking, driving, sailing, flying). I go to Ho Chi Minh City tomorrow afternoon where I'll be for two nights. Next I fly to Yangon, Myanmar for a night. After that I take an overnight bus to Bagan, Myanmar with a night there and then another overnight bus back to Yangon. I fly back to Bangkok on the 21st for a train to Chiang Mai where I'll be for two nights before returning to Bangkok. I fly to Australia on the September 26th where I'll be traveling with my friend Allen for about a month around Australia and New Zealand. I don't want to go to far in detail for my future plans so here's what has happened since my last update.
I landed in Bangkok at night on September 8th and I left in the afternoon on September 11th. My cousin Jamie met me at the airport and we took a taxi to his friend's apartment in the city (his is too small to fit two people). His friend, Aubin, was nice enough to let me stay at her apartment all three nights. Unfortunately she doesn't have AC, so it was sometimes difficult to sleep but the apartment is within walking distance of the elevated train which is useful for travelling around the city. The next day was mostly another planning/organizational day. I went to the post office to ship some souvenirs home, as they were taking up too much space in my bag. After that I spent several hours in a mall near the center of the city. Not only was in nice and air conditioned, but it also had free wifi (the apartment did not have wifi). I needed to plan my SE Asia segment. Instead of travelling to several countries for a short time (and buying lots of expensive plane tickets), I decided to focus on two countries, in addition to Thailand - Vietnam and Myanmar. Obviously Jamie didn't sit with me while I was on the Internet for most of the day so we met later for dinner at one of his favorite local places. Since he has more experience with Thai food, I let him order for me and I was not disappointed with any of the meals I've had with him. After dinner I headed back to the mall to finalize my plans for the next few weeks, including buying my plane tickets and reserving hotels. I also purchased my visa on arrival invitation letter for Vietnam. To get into Vietnam, you either need to go through a similar experience to what I did for my Indian visa - acquiring before you leave the US or you can buy a letter that says you're eligible for a visa on arrival from several companies online.
The priority for the next day was acquiring my visa for Myanmar. I had to go to the embassy early in the morning to drop off a form with my passport and some photos. I was a little nervous about leaving my passport there all day, but it was ready a few hours later. While I was waiting I explored that area of the city. I took a ferry up the Chao Praya, the river that flows through Bangkok to the Grand Palace. Unfortunately it was closed when I got there for a Buddhist festival (I think?). I could have gone in if I had long pants, but I was dressed for the debilitating humidity in shorts. On my way back to the ferry, I was cut off by a tuk tuk driver asking if I wanted a ride to see a nearby giant Buddha and then a visit to a tailor. I knew this was going to be a similar racket to the ones in India where the drivers get a kickback from whatever the tailor sells but I decided to go for the ride so my ferry journey wasn't a complete waste. The buddha was pretty cool and the tailor was exactly what I expected. I had joked with my brother about getting a suit after seeing the Top Gear hosts get some ridiculous ones in Vietnam. I was still reluctant because I have had a suit for several years and I have yet to wear it. The salesman, a pretty good English speaker, convinced me that I would wear his because it would fit me much better than what I had at home. I was sold and soon they were taking my measurements for pants, shirt, jacket and a tie all for $250. I had a choice of colors and materials, with some significant input from the sales guy, considering that I'm not the most fashion conscious person in the world. Soon their preparations were done and they told me to return later that evening.
When I got back to the dock, I saw the Grand Palace was now open. It is a very golden place, with some gems thrown in. This is one of those places that is better shown rather than written about.
There was a limited amount of time that the embassy was open for passport pickups so I hurried back there on a long boat with what looked and sounded like a truck engine. It was really fast (much faster than the ferry).
I returned to the tailor later that evening for the final fitting of my suit. The jacket wasn't fully ready yet; they were going to finalize it after they took those last measurements, but the shirt and pants were ready and I have to admit, they felt (and looked) pretty fantastic. Here's an idea of the colors:
After their fine adjustments they told me they could ship it home and it would be there in about a week to 10 days.
The next morning, before my flight, I had a bit of a hunt for a place to take passport photos and to print out my Vietnam letter, but I located a business near the Myanmar embassy (where I was the day before) that did both. Fortunately it was on the way to the airport and I made it on time. The flight to Hanoi was uneventful. It was a large plane, a Boeing 777 and it was at least half empty. There was only one person in front of me and several rows behind me and next to me were completely empty. I wish the flight was longer than 2 hours so I could have taken advantage of such a surplus of room.
I made it to my hotel that evening and had dinner at a local place that the hotel owner suggested. It was pretty good and I even surprised myself by managing to finish the meal using chopsticks and without asking for a fork. I still feel like there are an infinite number of tools that are better for eating rice than two sticks. The power went out multiple times during the meal, reminding me that I was not in the United States.
I spent the next day walking around Hanoi. I started at the Ho Chi Minh museum which was unfortunately closed the day I was there, but there were plenty of other things to see.
One of the places I wanted to see was Hoa Lo prison, also known as the Hanoi Hilton. It was originally constructed by the French, when Vietnam was a colony, for political prisoners, and then held Americans during the Vietnam war. It was a fascinating place, but it wasn't the most objective museum I've been too. At least it seemed to end with a re conciliatory tone.
John McCain's flight suit:
The manager of the hotel I was at suggested I take a cruise on Halong Bay while I was there and he just happened to have a company to recommend. How convenient! It actually was pretty nice because a bus picked me up at the hotel, along with other people at nearby hotels, and drove us all to the coast. After a 3.5 hour drive, we arrived at the harbor and took a small launch to our bigger boat. The brochure made it seem pretty nice, but I'll admit I was nervous when I first saw the exterior.
The worrying was for nothing after I saw the interior.
During this two day, one night excursion we also hiked in some caves on one of the 1900+ islands in the bay and kayaked at sunset.
I returned to my hotel in Hanoi this evening to make sure everything is ready for Ho Chi Minh tomorrow.