Monthly Archives: November 2015

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Air Bagan or Air Mandalay? – Choosing a domestic airline in Myanmar

“Are you sure?”
“If you don’t book it now, I’ll change my mind!”
– Patrick checking for the umpteenth time that I was still keen on going to Myanmar.

That’s it, we were going. With one swift click, we sealed the deal on the second leg of our trip. Our confirmation and e-tickets promptly arrived in Patrick’s inbox. We would soon realise how much we took that for granted.

Having decided on our Myanmar itinerary – Yangon for three days, Bagan for two days and Mandalay for two days – our next debate was how we would travel between the three. Information on trains and buses seemed contradictory and given it was our very first visit to Myanmar and we have absolutely no idea what we’re in for, we decided to fly. Quicker, convenient and safer – we hoped.

Flying within Myanmar presented us with a choice of two airlines – Air Bagan or Mandalay. Patrick has a bit of a fear of flying, so his research into each airline was intense and thorough. Both airlines seemed to be privately owned, with very small fleets. Air Bagan has a fleet of five aircraft including one Fokker 100, two ATR 72 and two ATR 42; whilst Air Mandalay owns and operates three aircraft including two ATR 72 and one ATR 42.

Patrick quickly discovered that Air Bagan had links to the military junta and the U.S prohibits its citizens from dealing with the airline due to sanctions imposed by the U.S against the junta. Whilst safety records aren’t published freely, he spied an alarming amount of news reports about Air Bagan plane crashes.

Air Mandalay on the other hand read much better. We couldn’t find any mention of sanctions or links to the junta. There were less reports of Air Mandalay aircraft being involved in crashes (in fact, at April 2011, Air Mandalay had been operating for 16 years without incident – the only Myanmar airline to do so). Also worth noting for those trying to decide on an airline is Air Mandalay’s company profile in which the proudly and openly disclose the European standards their aircraft are maintained to, and that the fleet and maintenance hanger are inspected once a year by the Direction General de l’Aviation Civile (DGAC) of France. For us, the choice seemed obvious – Air Mandalay.

Booking with them was a whole other experience. Where we in the West can book and pay for an entire holidays in a few mouse clicks, it was rare to find a Myanmar company that has the ability to do this.

To book with Air Mandalay, we selected our desired flights (much the same as you would booking with Air Asia) and the dates we wanted to fly. Instead of being taken to the usual credit card details page, we were taken to a “Travel Booking Request Form”. Patrick filled out all of our details and clicked send. We were still unsure of what was happening. The page told us our request had been sent to Air Mandalay’s booking office and we would receive an email shortly. Sure enough, about an hour later Patrick received an email informing us our tickets had been reserved and instructing us that we would need to pay for and collect our tickets from Air Mandalay’s head office in Yangon.

What? No tickets in my inbox? Help! Whilst experiences like this are all part of the adventure, I would have felt a lot more comfortable if we had our tickets right away. Perhaps it is a symptom of my generation, or perhaps its my lack of travel-before-credit-cards-and-internet experience? All I know is e-tickets and the internet are the greatest invention known to mankind and I will never take them for granted again! I was tad terrified that they would lose our reservation, but was also slightly comforted by the knowledge that we are were the very first tourists to Myanmar and if it were too hard, nobody would bother.

On our arrival in Yangon, we asked our taxi driver to take us to Air Mandalay’s head office on the way to our hotel, so we could collect the tickets. We arrived at what could have been mistaken for an enormous white rendered house, and Patrick went in to pay and collect. After what seemed an extraordinary amount of time, John and I went to investigate (we had stayed with the taxi, basking in the heat and admiring this country we had come to be in). We found Patrick waiting patiently while the Air Mandalay staff hand wrote each of our air tickets. Hand written air tickets!

While Lonely Planet notes it is perfectly fine to book the tickets once you are on the ground in Yangon, I would argue that it is better to plan ahead and book/reserve your tickets online. Both airlines only run limited flights in the morning, as the hot air is too thin for the planes to take off later in the day. With the current tourist boom in the country, flights fill up quickly. If you are planning to fly on domestic airlines in Myanmar, save yourself a headache and book ahead. While we were picking up our tickets in Yangon, there were two backpackers trying to get on a flight the next day – already full, much to their dismay!

Side note – On 25 December 2012, Air Bagan’s Fokker 100, flying from Yangon to Heho, crashed on a road after mistaking the road for the Heho Airport runway in heavy fog and striking powerlines on decent. Two people were killed, including one on the ground, and 11 people were injured, including two Australians, two Britons, two Americans and a Korean. That pretty much sold it for us – Air Mandalay!

Who did you fly with in Myanmar? Have the online booking facilities been updated since our venture into Myanmar in 2013? Drop me a comment below and let me know.

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Football in Bangkok – Muang Thong United v Bangkok Glass (or that time we got into a totally sold out stadium!)

“Yes, sir! Miss! Please!”
I clutched my camera as the crowd heaved and I was shoved toward the voice calling out to me. A ticket stub was pushed into my husband’s hands and we were ushered through the gate.

It was match day in Nonthaburi, Muang Thong United against Bangkok Glass, and SCG Stadium was sold out. As avid football fans ourselves, my husband and I thought we’d try to squeeze in a match on a trip to Bangkok. Patrick had found some details about the match on Twitter the week before, but we were not expecting it to be so popular or such chaos! We caught the BTS to Mo Chit station and, having failed to locate one of the stadium shuttle buses we had read about on Twitter, hailed a cab to take us the rest of the way. The driver did not speak a lot of English, but enthusiastically gave us the thumbs up when we mentioned Manchester United. Once we crawled our way through the traffic, we jumped out at SCG Stadium and were instantly blown away. It. Was. Packed.

Muangthong United supporters.

First thing was to find tickets. Patrick battled his way through the crowd to a small ticket booth near the main road. I was busy watching the locals. Singing, dancing, drumming. There were people selling match programs, scarves and jerseys. Singha and Chang beers were passed around and soft drinks were handed out. It all seemed like a huge, out of control party, with everyone wearing black and red jerseys. Patrick was not having much luck, as the girls at the ticket booth kept shaking their heads.
“Sold out!” they said.

Bitterly disappointed, we stood and watched the crowds swell while trying to work out what we should do. One of the girls from the ticket booth appeared and asked us to follow her friend, gesturing to a grinning man in a Muang Thong United jersey.
“Yes! You will go to the football! Follow me!” he shouted. Righto, Football Fairy Godmother.

I still don’t know where the ticket stubs came from, but I think they had already been checked by the gate staff – who waved us through happily as our Football Fairy Godmother lead us through the crowd. Inside the stadium the noise grew, as the supporters chanted and waved flags madly. Almost all the seats were filled with giggling, excited Thais.

Muangthong United players on the pitch.

“Here, you sit here! My friends will look after you!”
The Football Fairy Godmother pointed to the steps in the aisle at the northern end of the east stand and gestured to some Thais around us. Other Thais were sitting on the steps further up the stand and waved to us happily. This was obviously the “done thing”, so we followed suit and pulled up a spot on the steps. Every few minutes, more Thais elegantly picked their way between us and filled the steps behind. After about 15 minutes, the entire stand was packed; some Thais were squeezed three across in the narrow aisles! More people filed in and sat across the walk way at the bottom of the stand. The entire southern stand was occupied by “Ultra Muang Thong”, a very coordinated and loud group of supporters. The northern stand was occupied by “N Zone”, a rhythmically quick and noisy group lead by a few shirtless Thai men with Muang Thong scarves tied around their neck. Not to be outdone, the Bangkok Glass supporters took over part of the western stand, clad in green and waving enormous flags with carrots on them (no, I am not kidding – Bangkok Glass’ emblem features a white rabbit).

The match itself was equally dramatic. The crowd rose as one as Muang Thong players ran at goal, and howled with disappointment at each missed opportunity. The was much arm waving, and hand gesturing, as the locals questioned the referee’s decisions (or his parentage, my Thai swear words are not that good). The drumming, singing and flags did not stop for the whole match. The crowd booed as the opposition coach kicked water bottles onto the pitch as a decision went against his team, and his bench argued with the fourth official. Eventually, Bangkok Glass broke the deadlock and the ball swished into the back of the net. The crowd wailed collectively, as the away supporters celebrated wildly. Muang Thong United returned fire not long after, slotting home a penalty at the southern end. The stadium exploded with noise, as Thais and farangs alike celebrated.

Muangthong United supporters.

After 90 minutes, Muang Thong United had slipped to their first defeat in an extraordinary number of matches – we appeared to be a bad luck curse. The singing and chanting continued well after the final whistle, as N Zone and the Bangkok Glass supporters chanted back and forth to each other. Ultra Muang Thong held their scarves aloft and gave rendition that sounded like a Thai version ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ (in all seriousness, I don’t know what the song was, but if you do, please drop me a comment below and clue me in!). As locals clambered down the stands and headed for the exits, they chattered excitedly –
“Miss, did you enjoy the game? It was very good! Sorry we did not win, today we tried very hard!”
I had thoroughly enjoyed the game – it was very good to watch, and the atmosphere was fantastic as neutral spectator. My husband declared himself a Muang Thong United supporter, and received many high fives and hand shakes.

Bangkok Glass supporters

Outside the stadium, we met our next challenge – getting back to Bangkok. We followed the crowd to the main road – aptly named “Popular Road” – and tried in vain to hail a cab. Traffic was at a crawl, and every available cab and mototaxi was occupied. Also mysteriously missing were the shuttles back to Mo Chit BTS station. After a while, and no more luck, we walked back toward the Novotel Bangkok Impact Hotel, about 10 minutes away. Here we thought we would be out of the traffic, and would have a better chance at flagging a cab to take us back to Rambuttri. It took another 10 minutes of trying to wave down an empty cab before we found a driver willing to pull over for us. There must be an easier way to get back to Bangkok, or at least Mo Chit BTS, from SCG Stadium – I am still convinced we were looking in the wrong spot. However, standing outside the Novotel did make it slightly easier to hail a cab.

Muangthong United supporters.

Football at SGC Stadium in Nonthaburi is a crazy, squeezy and noisy experience. I can guarantee you will have a great time – just go with the flow and let yourself get swept up in the hype. Book ahead though, you can buy tickets online from Thai Ticket Major. Tickets cost between 120 and 200 baht, depending what ticket level you purchase or where you want to sit in the stadium. Beer and street food is available around the outside of the stadium, and consumed by locals with reckless abandon.

(excuse the shaky camera word, it was tricky to film and wriggle out the way of people trying to climb down the steps!)

The details:

  • Muang Thong United plays out of SCG Stadium, in Nonthaburi. The stadium is about 30kms from Sukhumvit, Bangkok. Take the MRT to Chatuchak Park, or BTS to Mo Chit station. Then take a cab from there to SCG Stadium – on the meter, this should be about 150 baht.
  • Buy your tickets from Thai Ticket Major, or risk it being sold out once you arrive!
  • Beer here isn’t the cheapest, but you can buy it in huge quantities… bucket of Singha, anyone? There is also small food carts, soft drinks and water outside the stadium.
  • Getting home – try to jag a cab close to the stadium (you might even split a fare with some locals). If you are on your own, there are plenty of motorcycle taxis around. If you struggle, walk back toward to the Novotel so you are a bit further from the traffic and main rush of people. A taxi on the meter back to Sukhumvit is about 300 baht (it is a 30km trip after all!).

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Newbie’s Guide to Songkran in Chiang Mai

Thailand’s Songkran festival is a mad, three day long, country wide water fight that celebrates the ringing in of the Thai New Year. What started as scented water gently poured over Buddha statues and sprinkled over the heads of family member has morphed into a full-blown water war.

P1010960 Thais ride in the back of utes during Songkran.

The traditional aspect still occurs, in family homes and early morning at the temples, but for the rest of the day, it’s on for young and old. Songkran in Chiang Mai is a wonderful experience, where locals and tourists share smiles, hoses and food while wishing each other a happy new year. Held in April, Thai families pile into the back of utes (pick up trucks) and tuk tuks without their canopies and cruise around the old part of the city, following the moat. Some Thai youths and tourists dress up in costumes, donning masks and helmets, turning the streets around the city into a kind of strange Halloween parade. Locals will dump a bucket of cold water over your head, screech “Sawadee Pii Mai!” and apologise in the same breath. Taking part in the festival is some of the best fun you can have while travel, so here’s what you can expect at your first Songkran in Chiang Mai.

  • Stalls and shops throughout the city sell all sorts of water pistols and soakers, as well as small waterproof pouches that can be worn around the neck. I bought one and stashed some baht in it each day. It’s also a good idea to invest in a good waterproof camera (or waterproof case) and leave the phones and tablets in your room.

P1010982 We found these to be the best weapons!

  • You will amass a small arsenal of water pistols, buckets and super soakers throughout the festival. Some will last the distance, others won’t last until your second refill. The best “weapons” we found were made of straight PVC pipe, sucked water up by dragging the handle backward and unloaded very quickly by pushing the handle forward again. They were handy for reaching the kids on the other side of the street.
  • Shops and stalls will plonk big buckets of water out the front and refill them through the day. You should purchase a water gun or bucket if you want to use this water. Their families and children will be playing here as well, which makes for some lovely fun and photos with them. Add to the hilarity by purchasing one of the enormous blocks of ice from one of the vendors who ride around the city. Dump it in the buckets and hear the shrieking increase twofold. You will see kids swimming in the old city moat too, having a wonderful time.
  • In addition to water, you might find yourself splattered with a white chalky paste or even coloured water. Thus it goes without saying – don’t wear clothes that you don’t want to toss at the end of the festival. They could end up stained, torn or endlessly smelly despite the six washes. The footpaths are slippery too, so non-slip shoes are a great idea. Amongst all the fun and water, it is easy to forget hats and sunscreen, and we saw a lot of people paying the price for spending all day in the sun. Use good, waterproof sunscreen like Nivea or Banana Boat to avoid looking like a cooked lobster by the end of the day.
  • You can choose to stay in one spot and wait for people and cars to parade past you, or join the parade and see what else happening. A lot of Thai companies put up temporary stages, bring in DJs and promo girls, and contribute to the party. Bangkok Airways and Air Asia had stages near the Tha Phae Gate in 2013, with water guns and foam machines swamping the party-goers below. Thai celebrities also make an appearance… and end up just as wet as everyone else.

P1020124 One of the great kids we met during Songkran festivities.

  • When taking aim at tuk tuks and scooters zooming past, be sure not to throw water in the driver’s face. Play safe. Smaller children may also throw their hands up in surrender and ask you not to throw water on them – try flicking a little bit of water at them instead. Let’s face it, no-one really likes an earful of water.
  • Street food is everywhere during Songkran! Sure, the cart owners might be busy spraying the kids when you arrive, but will quickly whip up some som tam and khao neow for you in no time. Fruit carts, itim khanom pang (ice cream sandwhich) carts and fair floss vendors make their way around the city as well, if you’re looking for something sweet. Some restaurants will be open too, with staff taking turns between serving patrons and squirting passers-by. We found a small pop-up stall outside the Top North Hotel, called Toast. They served us local and western snacks, beer, water and coffee until our hearts were content. The owner’s brother was on holidays from Brisbane (our home town!) and was happy to spend many hours chatting with us about life in Thailand.

P1010863 The best ice cream sandwich!

  • Something else that is everywhere during Songkran – booze! The Thais really let their hair down during this festival, and the booze flows freely. Every 7/11 and almost every street vendor will have icy cold beers for purchase. Some locals may even offer to share theirs with you, but watch out for the locally brewed rum… you could wind up with a splitting headache the next day.
  • During Songkran in Chiang Mai, once the sun goes down, the water bombing stops. Water weary warriors can head out for dinner and drinks, and dry out a little. The night markets were busy with locals and tourists enjoying street food and some shopping. Some people unfortunately continued throwing water in the dark, which made it dangerous for drivers and pedestrians, but they were few and far between. This was very different to Bangkok, where the water fights seemed to run for 24 hours.

P1020128 Thais love to dress up for Songkran too!

Other countries in South East Asia have similar festivals at this time of year too – next on the list is Thingyan in Myanmar, celebrating Burmese New Year! Different areas of Thailand have different customs when it comes to Songkran. Some areas focus more on the white chalk mixture, and while we were on our tour in the Chiang Rai region before Songkran, some kids started early and threw water at our tour car as we went past. Songkran is such great fun, and I will definitely be going back!