Pai, Thailand: the latest town to be ruined by backpackers

pai-thailand-sucks

Sitting in Pai, Thailand, I have a sense shame as a traveler by being associated with backpackers.  On the one hand, traveling breeds business opportunities and distributes money to places where there’s very little of either.  Backpackers have flocked to this town since Chiang Mai is more “touristy” nowadays, making Pai a busy little place.  On the other hand, the locals will start providing the things that sell to the tourists even if these things aren’t good for the people.  This can lead to situations like Pai where there’s weird perversions of culture.  It’s not the perversion of culture that has lead to the sex trade found more in Bangkok and Phuket, but Pai has been turned into a non-Thai town.  Backpackers complain about locations getting too westernized, so I was eager to see firsthand what all the fuss was about.

We’ve experienced this phenomenon in other cities as well such as Cusco, Peru and Cairns, Australia.

Locals are outnumbered by tourists

filled-bars-pai
The town is basically bar after bar filled with backpackers

White people, white people everywhere.

For locations that are supposedly off the beaten path, why are these backpacker towns so damn full of tourists?  Cusco was shocking in this way too, where the entire town could have been in middle America I probably wouldn’t have known any different.  So far, the most authentic places we’ve been on this round the world trip have been to the large cities.  In Lima, Bangkok, Buenos Aires, and Santiago it’s very easy to find local culture just by walking a few blocks away from any tourist attraction (you know you’re there when no one speaks English).  In Pai, even the street vendors understand English just fine, and many of the locals are fluent.

It’s hard to take backpackers seriously as people that get deep into the culture when this is the easiest town to travel yet.  If a local here doesn’t understand English, just ask one of the infinite tourists where or what something is.  Why did they come all this way if they just wanted to be with other westerners?

The food in this tiny Thai town isn’t Thai

Metal bar in Thailand
Because why wouldn’t there be a metal bar for Euros in a tiny Thai town? Obviously.

Breakfast in other countries tends to suck pretty bad.  In Pai, American breakfast is everywhere and often served all day.  The only place we could even find breakfast served in Bangkok was at McDonald’s, and that was to break up the monotony of eating hard boiled eggs every morning.  So I can understand that breakfast places would become popular in areas with a lot of western tourists.  I’ll give the backpackers a pass on supporting breakfast.  For the rest of it, no free pass.

European style cafes are everywhere.  There’s a reggae bar, a metal bar, and a dance bar all within a block or two of each other.  The popular restaurants are burger joints and Italian places.  There are even smoothie stands and street vendors selling pizza.  Oh, and there’s a god damn steak place here.  The entire country might have 100 cows total, and there’s a steak place in a small town in north Thailand.  The reviews for the steak restaurant are all terrible.  It’s not hard to know why: this isn’t their culture, and they don’t even have the beef to make good steak possible.

Basically there’s very little Thai food being served here, and that’s for an obvious reason: the backpackers don’t eat it.  These people travel halfway around the world just to eat food that’s available and better made back home.  You can’t make up something this stupid.

The WiFi is amazing here

Everywhere we go in Pai, the WiFi has been excellent and free.  And I mean excellent as in “excellent by US standards”.  By Thai standards we are in internet heaven.  Again, this didn’t just happen by accident.  We’ve been to several countries where the WiFi has been atrocious.  Good WiFi cropped up in Pai because people support places with good WiFi.  I’m not going to look down my nose at someone for wanting constant internet access.  I think it’s the greatest invention since the printing press and it should be considered a basic right for everyone, after things like clean drinking water/safe roads/police/etc.  But it’s really hard to believe that backpackers are striving for authentic experiences when this is yet another indicator they don’t engage with the culture itself.

tourists-renting-cycles
God I love seeing tourists rent bikes they’ve never driven in places they’ve never been. There’s a good amount of tourists limping and heavily bandaged in Pai from cycle accidents. Darwin award material.

Backpackers just want their own culture for bargain prices, and are using 3rd world labor to accomplish that

That’s probably the most cynical view of the situation and certainly not true for some backpackers, but it’s really hard to argue with when you see these backpacker towns.  Hostels are just dorms where backpackers can mingle with their own kind for next to nothing per night.  Sure they are meeting other travelers, but these places are overwhelmingly frequented by other westerners who look and act the same.  Same styles of bags, same tattoos/piercings, same hair styles, same clothes, go to the same places… for people who claim to be so counter-culture or anti-establishment, it looks like they have a prescribed uniform and rulebook that they follow to the letter.

Maybe I just gave backpackers too much credit

pai-thailand-sunset
The town had some charm to it now and then

My view of a backpacker was someone that blazed trails into unknown cultures that the rest of us could follow.  Someone that abandoned corporate culture back home to do something more meaningful than chase promotions.  Maybe some backpackers are like this.  It’s possible.

What I overwhelmingly see is a group of people who are failures back home who just want to get drunk every night and not actually experience the culture they’ve traveled so far to be surrounded by.  And when we get here and the locals think that all we want from them are burgers, beer, a room, and sex (all for incredibly cheap prices)… that makes me ashamed to be a traveler.  I came to Pai to experience small town Thai culture, only to find that the backpackers stomped it out and set up burger joints.

Hobbiton, New Zealand: Tourist Farm

Hobbit hole in Hobbiton, NZ

The Shire sets from Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies are available to visit in Matamata, New Zealand. It’s located on a farm and surrounded by other sheep and cow farms. The interesting part is the sign out front that says “Tourist Farm”. Because I don’t speak Kiwi (it’s English but it’s not English. That’s a bit of cricket, yeah?), I can’t really tell if they are trying to be funny or not. Whatever the case, the sign is pretty accurate: they grow tourists here.

Hobbit hole in Hobbiton, NZ
A typical hobbit-hole on the set.  They were even assigned to different characters from the film as their home even though it was never mentioned on-screen.

The tour is relatively well planned out. The guides give a lot of background information about the making of the films, the set, and the people that worked on it. Unfortunately for us, our guides were not great at their jobs. We had to edge closer to another group because their guide was far more informative than ours. The bus driver couldn’t seem to speak without getting horrible feedback through their microphone, so the bus ride vascillated between silence and screeching. What we were able to hear or get was pretty good.

full Hobbiton set
Here’s a look over the majority of the Hobbiton set. We are standing in the lower gardens looking up to the Party Tree (left) and Bag End, Bilbo’s house (middle farthest tree).

The Hobbit holes come in three sizes: 60%, 90%, and 100% scale. They use the smaller ones to make Gandalf look bigger when he’s in the Hobbits’ home. Fun fact: Gandalf bangs his head on the light in the home, but then smashes into the doorways’ beam as well. The first was in the script, but the second was not. Peter Jackson left it in because he thought it was funny. The normal sized homes were used with the Hobbits onscreen to make them seem normal size to them. It’s good to think that in a movie filled with CGI, they still use old fashioned movie making tricks.

hobbit hole from hobbit height
Hobbit hole, from Hobbit height!

The attention to detail was also on display. Clothes on the drying lines were changed daily to wear in natural walking paths from the home to the lines, so if the washing every came into the shot it would look as natural as possible. All of the wood around the Hobbit holes was chopped into Hobbit-sized pieces over the course of two months. It was someones’ full time job to chop wood. The wood was then aged with vinegar.

fake looking fish
We took this picture because these fish look incredibly fake… in person. Here they look pretty real. With a little lighting, they’d work just fine.
Hobbiton party tree
On the right is the Party Tree, named because it is where the large party takes place before Bilbo leaves the Shire. It was this tree that chose the location for the movie set. The producers flew over the country looking for a large tree as described in the books. They saw this tree, and went to talk to the owners of the farm.  Gandalf enters the shire in the movie from the corner in front of the row of hobbit holes.

Peter Jackson had many problems with trees around the area. First, the tree above Bag End (Bilbo’s Home) is fake. It is made with steel, foam, rubber bark, and 250K fake leaves. The Hobbit series was filmed after Lord of the Rings. This is a slight problem because in the LotR universe, the events of The Hobbit take place 60 years earlier. So they made the tree above Bag End to look a bit younger than it was in Lord of the Rings. Also in the books there are many references to Hobbits sitting underneath apple and plum trees. Well, Peter Jackson didn’t like the scale of these trees in relation to the hobbits so he dismantled them and pieced them back together in the size he wanted. In New Zealand, trees over a certain age or of a certain type cannot be removed. Here are NZ palm trees that were hidden with the leaves of other trees and/or cut out of the film. Middle Earth doesn’t have New Zealand palm trees, you know. And lastly, the party tree. This was what lead the team to pick this site for the set. It was spotted by helicopter, and then the crew went to find out who owned the land it was on. They soon struck a deal.

green dragon inn, hobbiton
Outside the Green Dragon Inn

The wildlife caused some headaches as well. Middle Earth doesn’t have native New Zealand wildlife. So there was a trained American Eagle and handler that were tasked with keeping the local birds and rodents away from the set. In the man-made pond, a crew of frogs took up shop. They were quite noisy and had to be removed from the pond. But since New Zealand is hippie country, someone actually housed the frogs in their bathtub during the day and put them back in the pond at night. HIPPIES!

bag end hobbiton
This is Bilbo’s house of Bag End. The tree above is made of foam, steel, and fake leaves.

The original set was actually made to be temporary. After the success of LotR, Kiwis came out to the farm to see the set. This tipped off the owners there was money to be made. So for The Hobbit, the sets were rebuilt and made more permanent. And since the first movies were such a success, barbed wire had to be put around the farms to insure curious fans didn’t sneak in. But now you are able to visit the Shire any time you’re in New Zealand, and maybe have Second Breakfast in their cafe.

Becoming a PADI Certified Diver while traveling

Alicia & John - Great Barrier Reef - GoPro underwater Selfie

Diving has become one of our favorite activities.  It’s actually not too hard to become a certified diver while on a trip!  Getting an Open Water diving certification can take between 2-4 days depending on how rigorous the course is and how much you want to cover.  Here’s what we experienced to become PADI Open Water divers.

We are PADI Certified Divers!

Cairns, Australia

We knew we wanted to do it in a more developed country.  While we love places like Thailand, they usually do not have very high safety standards.  Or any thought to safety at all.  As one Brit put it: “The Buddhists believe in fate, so they don’t plan things out.  If it’s meant to go badly, it will.  If it’s meant to go well, it will.”  That’s terrifying.  SCUBA diving does entail some risks, especially for those unfamiliar with it.  But good training in the beginning can go a long way towards keeping you safe and making sure your future dives are enjoyable as well.

diving-classroom-training

First up, there’s some book knowledge you need

I know, I know.  Who wants to be in a classroom on vacation?  But learning the theory behind what you’re doing can go a long way to making it more fun as well as much safer.  That’s what I really like about the diving community: it’s a safety culture first and foremost.  You’ll learn and practice safe diving over and over again.  By the time you get certified, you’ll be very comfortable with what to do if something goes wrong.

The dive shops that we’ve been to have been mostly staffed by younger people looking for a fun career in the sun.  There’s a lot of 20-somethings that are effectively guarding your life when underwater.  When I was in my 20’s, I wasn’t exactly the most responsible person out there nor did I have a ton of attention to detail.  And I still had a bit of the “live forever” mentality from my teenage years.  This is a really long winded way of saying: PAY ATTENTION TO THE SAFETY PART OF THE CLASSES.  While all of our divemasters have been outstanding, at heart they are still young adults who came to this life to party and night and swim during the day.  Don’t test their limits.  Expand yours.

pool-play-time

Pool play time!

After learning some theory about how to dive safely, it’s time to get in the water and practice some techniques in the kiddie pool.  It’s only mildly embarrassing that you signed up for SCUBA lessons and are using flippers in the shallow end.  Don’t worry, soon you get to the good stuff.

scuba-in-pool

Diving in the pool

Here’s where it starts to get good… and scary.  Sorry for no underwater pictures here, but they don’t allow the GoPro along while training.  I think this is fantastic as it keeps the focus on the training.

The scary part is necessary to learn how to deal with potentially dangerous situations.  They have you remove all of your gear and put it back on underwater.  Off goes the mask and your air.  You have to put them back on yourself.  There’s also the practice of running out of air and having to share your buddies air.  I’ve had my mask and regulator (mouth piece) kicked off underwater by another diver, so it certainly is important to learn these skills so you’re comfortable using them when off on your own.

After all of the pool work (sometimes these are done in the shallow parts of the ocean or lake instead of a pool), it’s off to the real fun: completing your certification in the open water!

dive boat australiaOn board the dive boat

The other nice thing about doing it in Australia is the wonderful accommodations.  This dive boat costs millions of dollars and drives itself by GPS.  Learning on a Thai longboat wouldn’t have been terrible, but in Australia there were so many staff members willing to help as well as space on board.  When learning something like diving that can be stressful, disorienting, and tiring, it’s good to have the little things taken care of.

underwater-certification

Getting your Open Water certification

Everything that you practiced in the pool, you do in the open water.  In the above picture, a class is gathering on an underwater frame before practicing their descent down the descend line.  Did I mention how amazing this boat was?

If you can do it in the pool, you can do it in the open water.  The Great Barrier Reef was a wonderful choice as there was no current to deal with.  When we were in Thailand getting certified on our Advanced Open Water, the current made some of the exercises much more difficult.

alicia double ok

Yay!  We’re certified!

Diving is a wonderful experience and we highly recommend it if you’re even slightly intrigued.  While the certification can cost a fair amount, subsequent dives can be very cheap.  In Thailand, each dive only cost $20!

We’ve gone on to get our Advanced Open water certification to dive deeper, we’ve done night dives, and even dove a wreck!  Diving is a wonderful life-long skill and I’m so glad we did it.

fish overload
Reefs are filled with marine life: it’s like swimming an aquarium!
wreck diving
Diving a wreck in Thailand: they had Western toilets down here, but not on the boat!
night diving coral
Several of us shining light on a coral while night diving

Dining with Hookers

dining-with-hookers

I travel to learn about myself and the rest of the world.  Sometimes I learn things that aren’t pictured on most travel brochures.  Like prostitution.  I’m going to admit straight up that I don’t have first hand experience with it, but we see it all around us when we travel.  Usually at dinner.  The guys will bring the working girls to eat before they presumably go somewhere more private.  And I just have one question: why is dining with hookers so common?

dining-with-hookers

How to spot it

It’s generally pretty easy as it almost always starts with white male and native female.  That can’t be the only factor because obviously people of different ethnicity get together all the time.  It becomes more likely when the two are pretty far apart in age and/or attractiveness.  The clincher is when there’s a language barrier.  A 50 year old eating with a 20 year old and neither are talking?  That’s not some old family friend coming to visit… (Bonus points if only he is eating)

The First Time We Saw It…

…was in Jamaica.  This was our first international trip together, and it wasn’t going smoothly on our first night there.  Everyone and their brother kept offering us drugs, our room was a shit-hole crawling with bugs and lizards, it was hot as hell even at 10 pm, and we were hungry.  Our cabbie took us to a run down place the locals frequented that had the most mediocre food I’ve ever eaten.  And then, sitting at the next table was an aging hippie with two girls that couldn’t have been older than 20.  Neither of the girls were eating, no one was talking, and he was not in any hurry.  All I could think was: Jesus this country is hell on earth… we have how many days left here?

It wouldn’t be the last time we saw Dining with Hookers.  We are in Thailand at the moment, and here they have made working girl dinners into an art form.  We are staying in the Sukhumvit area of Bangkok which is a trendy area for tourists to be.  We are a few BTS stations down from Nana plaza which is widely considered to be the hub of prostitution in the city.  Next to us is a collection of tents that is it’s own makeshift mall.  In typical Thai fashion, people set up their shops/bars/restaurants wherever there’s an open piece of cement.  Inside this tent-mall, the clientele is predominantly tourist.  The tables are usually some combination of white guy(s) and Thai girl(s).  There are Thai women dressed in what we’d call “clubbing gear” back home, just whiling away the evening looking at their cell phone or nothing in particular.  Eventually a guy will show up, and they’ll sit to have the ritualistic silent meal.

It got better!

A couple of days later in Jamaica we walked by the restaurant we’d visited on the first evening where we’d had such a bad experience.  One of the working girls we saw before was talking and laughing with a group of friends.  The drug dealers who are on the beach in Negril were playing a pick-up game of soccer.  It was very humanizing to see them this way.  If someone is in abject poverty or a real hopeless situation, it can seem like they are just doomed and you can get an overwhelming feeling of helplessness.  But seeing people enjoy the simple things in live was very uplifting.  I even mentally forgave one of the drug dealers for threatening my life the evening before.

tourist-information-full-service
In Thailand, many places you might not expect are “full service”.

Refreshing Honesty

Livingthai.org (not safe for work!) is a fantastic website around the sex trade in Thailand, written by a purveyor.  In his own words, “a pimp”.  Warning: if you have strong moral objections against prostitution in any form, just don’t go there.  If you want to learn about a sub-culture you might have not known existed, it’s a fascinating read.  In many ways it’s a lot more honest than what goes on back in the US.  In between learning about the sex trade, you’ll see people struggling with racism, wanting to create a meaningful life, and building a community.  It’s a fun experience when after reading an article about the best brothels in Chiang Mai there’s an article on how to succeed in building your business.  Surreal.

Getting rid of the demons

I think it’s pretty easy to sympathize with the people who have sex for money.  Maybe they have no other choice or other options are even worse than selling their bodies for sex.  I don’t really know the situation.

Seeing the guys take them out for dinner reveals a less common thought: maybe it’s not even about the sex at all.  Maybe it’s just sheer loneliness.  I mean, these guys fly halfway around the world just to pay a girl to have dinner with them.  When the best option available is to travel thousands of miles just to pay someone to talk to you… It’s difficult to see the guys as sex tourists and easier to see them as social pariahs.

Watching the working girls operate is interesting: they have a method

The working girls typically operate from a few areas in Thailand, namely go-go bars and massage parlors.

Bar girls usually stand in front of the bar to drag in western guys and get them to buy the girls overpriced drinks.  Seriously, the drinks are like double anywhere else nearby.  As long as she has a drink in hand, she will talk to the guy.  It’s sometimes funny to overhear the guys not quite understand what is going on (“Dude, why won’t she talk to me if I don’t buy her a drink?”), like these guys have the most amazing lives that the Thai girls who barely speak English just have to hear about.  After a few drinks, the bar girl is free to negotiate with the guy regarding other services.

The massage parlors are everywhere in Thailand and they are actually more honest than the go-go bars.  If you want a massage for the listed price, that’s what you get.  If you want something else, that’s what you get.  Like the bars, the girls sit out front and offer massages and other services to passersby.  When I’m walking with Alicia, there are only offers of a massage.  When she isn’t with me, that’s when I hear offers for other “hands-on” activities.  On Phi Phi island, where there is a large backpacker presence, the working girls are even more forward.  They walk right up to the guys and grab their junk.  Even the most clueless guy can figure it out.  If he refuses, they even challenge his manhood: “Are you chicken?”.  You can see the wheels turning as he mulls it over while she has him firmly by the nuggets, thinking “1500 baht is like… $45… that’s less than taking a girl to the movies back home”.

I don’t know what to think anymore

Before the trip I would probably have come down on the sex trade much harder than I would now.  On the one hand, I certainly agree with one of our tour guides: “It’s bad for the Thai people.  The culture”.  On the other hand, seeing the clientele doing it out of severe social isolation makes it difficult to condemn them as well.

So now I just roll with it, politely letting the working girls know that I’m not interested so they can go grab the junk of the next guy.  And maybe, even have dinner with him.

Bagan, Myanmar: city of temples

bagan-myanmar-balloons

Bagan, Myanmar is known as the spiritual center of the country with it’s miles of pagodas and terrible food.  Fine, most people just think of the temples.  The Burmese have a saying that you’re not a real Burmese unless you’ve gone to Bagan.  It’s a location that attracts tourists from all over the region in addition to international travelers.

ruins-baganThe ruins were built in an explosion of religious fervor during 800 AD – 1200 AD.  There used to be over 13,000 temples in this region, but the number dwindled to around 1,300 recently due to the normal reasons: invading Mongols during the 12th century, earthquakes, protests, and general wear and tear.  The pagodas are still in use today.  Many of these have monks that live right next door and pray every day in them.  There’s a small community of monks that live behind the ruins above.

Going to see the sights in the old fashioned way

John Horse and Cart in BaganSure there are motorbikes and electric bikes available for rent everywhere, but it seems more fitting to ride behind a cart pulled by a horse to go and view thousand year old ruins.  Besides, the roads are quite sandy and traffic laws are more like traffic “suggestions”.  After seeing the litany of leg injuries that tourists had in Thailand from scooters, we decided this would be safer and charming.  Until the horse started peeing and some was splashing back.  That took away a tiny bit of the charm.

bagan-pagoda-close up

You may differ, but I like the fish-eye effect the go pro gives this pagoda when close up.  The area feels surreal in a way that’s hard to be captured by photography.  Well, at least with my limited skills.  There is great attention to detail in the stonework.  Engraved in this pagoda are various spirits, gods, and snakes.  To protect these sites, a government worker is assigned to them to make sure people don’t desecrate them.

steep climb pagoda
It’s a steep climb to the top, but the view is worth it!

miles of temples baganThe landscape is very similar to this: miles and miles of temples dotting the landscape.

It’s not all spiritual harmony…

There’s “New Bagan” and “Old Bagan”.  The old city is near the waterfront and dead-center in the sprawl of pagodas.  In ’88-’89, the government told the citizens of the town that they had to move 4 miles to the south so that they could better preserve the pagodas (presumably).  Did the people get money for their trouble?  Nope.  The government just said: LEAVE.  So they did.  Asking the locals about it, there’s no complaining.  People aren’t really comfortable criticizing their government very much.  But New Bagan seems to be doing OK.  There’s even a large complex going up that will become the new center of town market.

The Burmese don’t have a lot

burmese-bamboo-homeThis is the inside of a Burmese home.  The walls are made from thatched bamboo, and the roof is either bamboo as well or made of sheet metal.  If I got a running start at the wall, I’m pretty sure I could take down the entire building.  The table is where the living room used to be a week before we got here.  This person had so much business that they needed to move next door and turn this building into a dedicated hosting space.

The average person in Myanmar makes $40 per month.  Please, for the love of god, don’t try and haggle for 50 cents.  Sure, if the cabbie is trying to charge you $5 on a $1.50 fare, that shouldn’t fly as they are just grossly taking advantage.  But when a vendor on the street charged me 300 kyat (30 cents) for a bottle of water that should be 100 kyat (10 cents), who cares.  Tourism has helped with money coming into the country, and the people running tours and classes have more of the modern accouterments such as smartphones and cars or motorbikes.

Abandon all hope when it comes to the food

burmese-food
One of our cooking classes. The milk curd (middle left) nor the tomato salad (middle right) are safe to eat though I did anyway to be polite. The chicken soup in the middle with the bamboo is just bland. The vegetable dish middle-right is just oily fried mushrooms and kale. And the two side dishes are loaded with fish paste and dried shrimp. Burmese food just isn’t our thing.

We’ve tried for weeks to find something that we enjoy in the Burmese cuisine, and just haven’t found anything.  For the first time on our trip, we are actively seeking out Western food instead of local.  After taking a cooking class in Bagan, a food tour in Yangon, and trying local restaurants or street food for every meal. While we did have some good food on the tour it was only accessible if you speak the language or had a guide with you – half of what we ate was not even listed on the menu. We give up.

There are a few big issues I have with the food:

  1. Fish sauce/paste – they put this on seemingly everything, and it gives the food a dead-fish smell that’s hard to ignore if you’re not used to it.  They do it in Thailand too, but both the spice and sweetness balances it out.  Burmese food isn’t spicy nor nearly as sweet, so even chicken dishes come out tasting like week old fish.
  2. Lack of protein – Being a poor country, meat is just hard to come by.  Thailand is the same way, but there you can have fried eggs a la carte to add protein to any meal.
  3. Dried shrimp – If the fish sauce wasn’t enough, they also add tiny dried shrimp to dishes just in case you actually taste something other than rotting seafood.
  4. It’s either all fried or dangerous – most things are fried in lots of peanut oil, giving the food a greasy taste and texture.  If it’s not fried, it’s likely not safe to eat since the water isn’t even safe for brushing your teeth.

End on a high note

bagan-myanmar-balloons

The highlight of our time in Bagan was certainly taking a sunrise hot air balloon ride over the fields of temples.  We went with Balloons over Bagan, a company that has been doing this since 1999.  When they started, they did 280 passengers with one balloon.  They’ve since grown and are on pace to have 20,000 passengers this year!  They are a wonderful organization and everything went off without a hitch.  They believe in giving back to the community, paying their crew higher wages than normal.  There were roughly 20 balloons in the air taking off just before sunrise, creating a pretty spectacular scene.

The hour long ride was pretty quiet as everyone was just in awe of the surroundings.  So instead of too much typing, here’s just a bunch of hot air balloon porn!

inflating balloon
I never put any thought into how these actually fly. So imagine my surprise when there will be that huge flame near our heads.  They gave us baseball caps to protect us from the ambient heat.

Ballons over bagan sunrise square

truly amazing views from the hot air balloon at sunrise

sunrise over Bagan from hot air balloon

hot-air-balloon-over-baganWe’d get close enough to temples where you could reach out and touch them.

aerial-view-bagan-temples

Pagoda Close up Vetrical

alicia over bagan

 

 

Sydney, Australia: A chic cityscape

sydney-australia

Sydney, Australia has a good reputation among travelers as a “must go” destination but no one ever explains why.  Most Americans look at Australia and think Crocodile Dundee, Steve Irwin, or wild animals that will likely kill you.  We arrived in Sydney to find a vibrant and modern city, and managed not to have a dingo eat a baby.  We had no real expectations going in, so Sydney was a great surprise.

sydney-skyline

The city is well curated, with parks and and attractions for everyone throughout the city.  Not far from the place we were staying was: a collection of parks, the opera house, a botanical garden, and a block party being hosted by the government that weekend.  It’s a great walking city with several neighborhoods set up for casual strolls.

sydney-australia

The opera house is an iconic image of Sydney.  I’m not sure we ever saw an actual opera being held there, but it’s always a busy spot.  Lined alongside the harbor is a row of bars and restaurants that are popular with the working crowd for the evening’s happy hour.  Once the sun starts going down, the city comes alive with people getting off of work and trying to enjoy the last few hours of daylight.

bondi-beach-sydney-2

Bondi Beach is the popular local hangout on the weekends.  It’s mostly populated by very fit individuals to match the well manicured city.  It’s one of those beaches where you’d go if you wanted to be seen rather than have a relaxing time.  Crowded to the point where it’s hard to move, the beach still offers good people watching and the opportunity to work on that dark tan that many of the Aussies seem to cultivate.  It’s sometimes difficult to tell when you’re near a beach, because Aussies don’t wear a whole lot of clothing at any given time.  It is pretty darn hot down here.  We were even pretty surprised at what some women were wearing to work: very skimpy outfits, just to deal with the heat.  All these fit people made me feel quite fat and out of shape.  Oh, and super white.  I blinded a few people when I took off my shirt.

australia-alcohol-sucks

I do have one quibble with the country: their booze is completely sub-par.  Enjoying the local alcohols is something I like to do from country to country.  It’s often a deep part of their history and helps acclimate the taste buds to the local cuisine.  However, the beer in Australia SUCKS.  There’s no other word for it.  It is hands-down the worst of any country we’ve visited.  Take an American light beer (which people only drink because it’s fewer calories than regular beer), then instead of 4% alcohol give it 1-2%: that’s Australian beer.  Now, strong alcoholic content isn’t a sign of a good beer.  But when trying to make something like an IPA (which was made specifically because the high alcohol content allowed the beer to survive long voyages at sea) and give it 4% ABV, that’s just a joke.

sydney-waterfrontMost of the attractions are going to be along the waterfront.  It’s a great place to relax and watch the big ships go by while drinking some form of imported booze.  It seems to be a very active city.  By that, I mean that people are out and about quite a bit enjoying the town.  There are some places we’ve been to that are more for work and become dead once work hours are over.

kangaroo-fillet

The food in Sydney was very good, but not quite in the way we expected it to be.  When we asked our Airbnb host about real Australian food, he suggested things like Vegemite, meat pies, and kangaroo.  We’ve had the first two before, but not the third.  Vegemite is a weird yeast that is spread on toast.  They love it, but to us it was just terrible.  Meat pies seem to be common in most non-US places, so we’d already encountered those.  Think of a pot pie.  So on the last evening, we grilled some kangaroo on with vegetables.  The taste and texture reminded me of a flank steak, but what was evident was how I could really taste the cuteness of the kangaroo.  MMM, MMM, good.

Most of the food that we enjoyed while there tended to be Thai, Chinese, or Japanese cuisine rather than traditional Australian.

sea-lion-sydney-zooWe hit up the Sydney Zoo while in town, but not just for the zoo itself.  To get there, we had to take a ferry across the harbor where we were able to soak in the city while bobbing along.  The zoo was just a fun little diversion when we got to the other side.

alicia-stuffed-koala

 

 

Overall, Sydney is a wonderful place to visit.  It’s picturesque, easily accessible by walking around and using public transportation, and there’s plenty to do.  Just stay away from the Vegemite!