A Tale Of Two Continents
If you have followed our blog posts to date you will know already that we do crazy travel things. Sometimes these are driven by cost considerations; at other times by committing to different trips at different points in our schedule. The worst was seven flights to get us from London to Yangon at the end of 2016. This time it wasn’t quite so bad with only five flights to get us from Singapore to Turkey. Are we learning?
For the first part of this latest trip, we were headed to a semi-rural location outside of Fethiye to look after a dog called Opus while his owners were away. We had heard that Turkey’s Opal Coast is beautiful but had no appreciation of what we would find as we landed at Dalaman airport and drove along the coastline towards our destination. For the next week, we would enjoy living in an extremely comfortable house up in the hills overlooking the most beautiful scenery. We had everything set up perfectly for a relaxing yet fulfilling trip. Up the road, even walkable with Opus, was a small local town with everything we needed from a choice of multiple restaurants and bars, a bakery, small supermarket, to even a couple of barber shops.
Just one word of advice if, as a man and just as I did, you ever need to get a haircut in Turkey. Don’t be nervous when a big wax candle is lit and then slapped intermittently with the barber’s hand across your cheeks and ears. It’s actually quite an efficient way of burning off any residual hair and not some weird ritual that will leave you going up in flames. What great entertainment at just 10 Turkish Lira (under 3 US Dollars or Euros), lira for a haircut and fire show literally right in front of my eyes.
The amusing ordeal over, only 20 minutes drive down towards the coastline is a pretty much deserted beach called Akmaz. As well as great views it houses a beach restaurant serving the best Turkish breakfast. Our hosts had taken us there on our first morning before they left and subsequently going back there became an almost daily ritual. We had the valid excuse that Opus could exercise by running along the beach, but also we could not resist the feast. It seemed, too, that our small-framed German Shepherd rescue had already seduced the restaurant owners who would bring his morning snack along with our meal. After breakfast, more beach exercise for dog and humans alike. Then in the afternoons so many options: relaxing by the pool, reading, sightseeing (see below), walking in the woods, playing with Opus - life couldn’t have been much better for this relatively short stay one week stay.
There’s plenty in this area to keep a visitor busy and happy. Fethiye itself is a bustling town, with markets, multiple bars and restaurants, a waterfront, and all the other amenities you might expect of a place this size. The views out to the sea here are beautiful, but become magnificent when you head down the coast. Parts of the road are pretty elevated; they look out over a bright blue expanse of water with small islands scattered here and there. At other times you find yourself inland passing through pastures and woodland with green scenery all around you. We really enjoyed driving this route and, after about ninety minutes from Fethiye, we got to Kaş, a town that is over 1,600 years old. The Romans were here, the Greeks too, and now the Turks have reclaimed and enjoy this small and pretty waterfront town. Interestingly, as you look out to sea while sipping on a cocktail, right there in front of you just one mile away is the Greek island of Kastellorizo. Why, you ask yourself? Well, up until the Paris Peace Treaties of 1947, this and many other islands with predominantly Greek populations had been annexed by Italy and then occupied by Allied forces during WW2. After that, Greece managed to get it back despite its proximity to the Turkish mainland. There is so much history and also territorial conquests and change that have taken place in this region over the centuries - too much to even start to explain in this blog.
The Greeks did not have it all their own way though. They were less fortunate at Kayaköy. On another day we visited this deserted ghost village just five miles south of Fethiye on the mainland. It’s just a little eerie and remains almost exactly as it was left when finally abandoned in 1922 by its Greek population. Then there was our trip to Ölüdeniz, a small beach town just 30 minutes from Fethiye to eat, drink and watch more active folks paragliding from up high down onto the golden sands of the crescent shaped beach right in front of our eyes.
We were checking off daily the list of recommended places our homeowners had provided us, and a good selection it was to gain an appreciation of this part of the world. If you want beautiful scenery from snow capped mountains in the background to golden beaches along the coast and bright blue water beyond, this part of Turkey is definitely worth a visit. But after a little over a week that left us wanting to return some day in the future, it was time to head to Europe next, and to that great and grand former capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. We were off to Istanbul to truly sample one city straddling two continents.
If you go to Istanbul you have to visit the Sultan Ahmed Mosque often referred to as the Blue Mosque, built by Ahmed I at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Just avoid prayer times (unless going to pray, of course). Right next door is the beautiful Topkapi Palace and Museum. It was constructed after the fall of Constantinople in the fifteenth century as the main residence of the new rulers, the Ottoman sultans. From there you can walk down to the waterfront and cross the Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn, then wander along to Taksim Square. It is often thought of by locals as the center of the city, a place for celebration but also where various riots and protests have taken place over the years. Here you will find the Monument of the Republic built to commemorate and symbolize the beginning of the modern Turkish state in 1923.
With magnificent mosques, their minarets pronouncing prayers throughout the day, lining both banks of the Bosphorus, the views of Istanbul from the ferry crossing from Europe to Asia and back again are spectacular. The European side seems more touristy with its famous palaces, mosques and other monuments, not to mention tourists themselves from all parts of the world. The Asian side gives the impression of being younger, more lively, more hip, more local. Next time we visit Istanbul - and we will - we should stay on this side of town and enjoy the local restaurants, bars, cafés and generally buzzing vibe.
Don’t forget to visit a local hammam for another of those seemingly torturous experiences that turn out to be great. With two strong, fat, hairy, toweled Turk men ready to scrub us clean on a marble slab that looked like an executioner’s table, I was lying there wondering which would be preferable: being beaten to death here, or burned alive at the barber shop back on the Opal Coast. As it turned out, I had never felt better when emerging again into the daylight of Asian Istanbul after my first Turkish hammam experience. It was time for a balık ekmek, the local fish sandwich available from any number of street vendors or stalls along either bank of the Bosphorus. Sorry McDonald’s, but it's got your Filet-O-Fish 1,000% beat.
And so came to an end our two weeks in Turkey. From dog sitting Opus the German Shepherd in a beautiful rural hillside location just minutes from the coast with the sun shining all day, to charging around one of the world’s largest and greatest cities with clouds and just a bit of rain, Turkey exceeded all our expectations. It left us yearning for more as got ready to head back to Singapore - via London, of course, just to add more flights - so that we could resume our Southeast Asia tour, the first chapter of which you can read about in our earlier Singapore blog post.
An island, city, and country all rolled into one. Singapore manages to pack all the features of a much larger country into just 277 square miles (719 square kilometers). Its reputation as an excellent travel and living destination is completely warranted. There is plenty to do on this little isle - countless museums, world-renowned resorts, numerous nature reserves and parks, beaches, theme parks, zoos, and world-class dining. Plus visiting is made easier because it has one of the world’s busiest and best airports and extensive, modern transit system.
Singapore’s reputation for being a strict and straightlaced country might turn some people off from visiting, but I think it’s been a bit exaggerated, and that this country is really a “can’t miss”. Singapore is a crossroad of eastern and western culture done right.
People also tend to get into their heads that Singapore is very expensive, and its listing as the world’s most expensive city doesn’t help. But this is mainly for people planning to live there as housing costs are sky-high. Yes, the country is a lot more expensive than other Southeast Asian Countries like Vietnam or Thailand, but you can still find great deals on food, clothing, and shopping and there are a lot of completely free things to do if you are trying to save money (just don’t try to buy a beer in a restaurant). So here is our Singapore guide broken down by your ideal budget level.
Backpacker / Thrifty
Singapore offers plenty for the thrifty traveler. For people from countries in the EU or places like Australia and the US, you will find the prices at the same level or even slightly cheaper than at home. So if you plan on visiting, budget accordingly. There are plenty of hostels in Singapore and while you won’t get a bed for $5/night like in other places, you still won’t break the budget either. Popular places are Beary Best! or Wink hostels. Another good option is a pod hotel if you’re not planning to spend your downtime indoors.
Getting around Singapore is so easy and surprisingly cheap even compared to places like Bangkok. The MRT system spans the island mostly by subway, but to some locations further out you will need a bus. Busses and trains come very often and the whole system is distance based so if you transfer from subway to bus you won’t be hit twice. You can even go all the way from and to the Airport making arrival and departure easy.
Your best food options will be the numerous hawker centers that dot the city. A Hawker center is basically a group of food stalls all combined under one big roof. They normally have a variety of cuisines and all the stalls are licensed and hygienic so you don’t have to worry. You can get almost anything your heart desires and for under S$5 you will walk away full. They often have cheaper beer here on par with the prices in the convenience stores or supermarkets. Most centers have at least one dedicated vegetarian stall so even if communication is tricky you can just ask them to pile up whatever’s is behind the counter without worry. You can also find stalls for other special diets too. The Telok Ayer Market Center downtown is a busy hawker center and has some unique options.
Your entertainment need not be a drain; in fact, the city has multiple options for free things to do throughout the day. Gardens By The Bay is a 101 hectare garden set in the center of the city, but it is so much more than that with numerous exhibits laid out amongst the beautiful plants. The main attraction for many people is the free nightly light and music show which brings out large crowds who find a space in the Supertree Grove to sprawl out and watch. There is also a hawker center located in the depths of the park for when you are hungry after the show. Continuing our garden theme, the Singapore Botanic Gardens is a must-do! It’s beautifully laid out, large, and admission is free. It’s a great way to spend an afternoon, if you want to see the National Orchid Garden, the Orchid being Singapore’s national flower, it’s just a S$5 admission.
While on the West Coast if you’re looking for something a little more off-beat you should visit Haw Par Villa. The villa was built by the Tiger Balm family fortune and can not easily be described, it just has to be seen. There are numerous life-size sculptures dedicated to Chinese morality, folklore, mythology, and many other scary/interesting/obscure things. If you don’t have lots of time to visit just hit the “10 Courts of Hell” a tunnel which has dioramas depicting the punishments that await sinners in hell (personally my favorite is the “Hill of Knives”). Just maybe leave the children outside for this one.
Surprisingly for a country that is almost completely urban, it’s the green spaces and parks that are the best attractions. The many many parks, are impeccably kept and are some of the best in the world. West Coast Park, appropriately named for its location on the West Coast, is one of the great ones. Its 50 hectares contain numerous walking trails, bbq pits, camping plots, a jungle walk, and a great view of the coastal ports. We stayed on the West Coast overlooking the park while house sitting and spent many hours here walking Pablo And Blake up and down the paths to the huge dog run at the south end of the park.
If you need some beach time Singapore is a little lacking but you can still find a nice man-made beach on the east coast. East Coast Park is the largest park in Singapore and in addition to its man-made beach it has a famous seafood center (the best place for Chili Crab), skatepark, and camping areas.
Mid-level / Flashpacker
For travelers a little less concerned about cost but who still want to get the most for their money, Singapore is a perfect stop. In addition to everything we mentioned in the Backpacker/Thrifty section, which you should visit no matter what your budget, there are some more options if you have a little more cash to spend.
The Singapore Zoo is a place to see exhibits of exotic species in gorgeous green setting. Prepare for a long hot day as you need a long visit to truly experience it. Don’t skip any of the shows, even if you think you won’t like them, as they are very well done. Most importantly the animals look happy and healthy which is always nice to see. The zoo compound also has two other parks, the River Safari and Night Safari. They are under separate tickets but absolutely worth the price of admission as they expand on the exhibits of the Zoo but also offer their own specialties. For shopping needs try the markets in Chinatown (souvenir central) or the shops of Arab Street (pashminas and rugs abound). In Chinatown, the temples are normally packed with tourists but the most popular is the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple which is exactly what it sounds like. Near Arab Street, take a guided tour around the Sultan Mosque and for an interesting lunch try the Deer Murtabak at Singapore Zam Zam. It’s a culinary treat you can only find in Singapore.
After a long day out hit Holland Village. Self-described as “Singapore’s Bohemian Enclave”, it is the place to be for dining and drinking. A mix of visitors and locals crowd the bars that stretch out into the street and chow down at the hawker center. For some really good ice cream cross under the road and get a cone at Sunday Folks.
If Holland Village is too far out for you, then you can always hit Clarke Quay just north of Chinatown. On the banks of the Singapore River, this place explodes with crowds at night shuffling in and out of dance clubs, karaoke bars, and restaurants. The price of alcohol might throw you for a loop, but even if you just enjoy the river view and people watching it’s a good time.
If you are ready to splurge then there is no better place to do it than Singapore. With a mall on every corner (sometimes two) you will find plenty of places to spend your hard earned dollars.
For your lodging, Singapore has got you covered. The hotels here are top notch and not to be missed. The famous Raffles Hotel is the haunt of writers and celebrities (Ava Gardner, Rudyard Kipling, Noel Coward, John Wayne to name a few) and you can stay just like them in their eponymous suites. The Fullerton Hotel in the historical Fullerton Building offers travelers design, comfort, and location all in one. But the most recently built and well-known hotel is, of course, the Marina Bay Sands which contains in its grounds an opulent shopping mall, glitzy casino, bars and dining establishments, and a magnificent rooftop infinity pool. Exclusivity is the name of the game at Marina Bay Sands. The Conrad Centennial is highly rated 5-star hotel that won’t leave you completely bankrupt. It’s luxurious, but not obscene, and offers a great breakfast buffet, quick access to shops, and if you’re lucky, the best view of the Fountain of Wealth. The hotel is under the Hilton banner so great for those wanting to use or collect Hilton Hhonors points.
Get lost in shopping heaven as malls intertwine in Downtown Singapore. Whether it’s Raffles Place, Bugis, Suntec, or the numerous malls and shops on Orchard Road you should have no trouble finding your favorite branded stores next to boutique shops, fun restaurants, and even the occasional movie theater. Large, bright, clean, and excessively air conditioned, Singapore does malls right.
If you’re looking more to relax and have fun with the family then head to Sentosa Island. Sentosa is a man-made and reclaimed island off of Singapore whose raison d'être is entertainment and fun. When you think Sentosa think sun, sand, golf, theme parks, and attractions for people of all ages. Whether you stay at Resorts World or the Shangri-La Rasa Sentosa Resort you will find world class amenities and dining. The breakfast buffet at the Silver Shell Cafe is a particular treat. Take a spin around the Island on the shuttles, and for a really great day pick up tickets to Universal Studios. A compact but quality theme park which has some classic Universal attractions (think The Mummy) along with some original rides exclusive to the park.
For some of the best of Singapore’s hometown dish, Chili Crab, visit Momma Kong’s where you can even get the crab shelled for you (for a small fee) to cut out all the hard work. Get what is possibly the world’s cheapest Michelin star meal at the Liao Fan hawker stall. Chicken Rice, another Singapore special, is the only thing on the menu you need to worry about. And at just a few S$ a plate it can’t be beaten. If you’d prefer comfort, speed, and air conditioning they now also have a brick and mortar restaurant you can visit just a few minutes away. The dishes cost a little bit more, and they technically don’t have that coveted star, so maybe stick to the original if you want a good story to tell.
This is really just the beginning of the list of everything Singapore has to offer but hopefully, from these suggestions, travelers of all styles and budgets will find something to enjoy in Singapore.
As 2017 starts up, it is inevitable that we would contemplate how life has changed this past year. It’s a clear, sunny day - about 30ºC (86ºF) - at lunchtime here in a leafy residential quarter of Yangon in Myanmar (Burma). We are looking after Bubbles, who we met on our very first house sit in Normandy in France only 6 months ago. For that is where our story of house and pet sitting really starts, and what an unpredictable adventure it has been ever since. If you had asked us a year ago what we would be doing now, or where we would be, never in our wildest dreams would we have contemplated this. So to say goodbye to 2016 we have compiled a list of our favorite moments, best meals, and the most stunning locations we have experienced. Without further ado here are our 12 Best and Most Pleasantly Surprising (and 6 Not So Great) Travel and House Sitting Moments of 2016 in no particular order.
-Blair and Nicolo
Normandy American Cemetery
We of course expected to be moved by the experience at the Normandy American Cemetery and Omaha Beach, but it was more than that. Being halfway across the world and seeing all the graves lined up really put things in perspective. It’s stunning in its sadness, and yet there is something beautiful about the memorial to so many who died protecting our world and our freedoms. It was the least we could do to take time out of our trip to honor the dead. The exhibit is extensive and you should plan on spending a few hours here to take in everything.
Nestled in the far northwest of England lies the (very) small town of Silloth in Cumbria. For years I had driven up the M6 motorway from the south to north of England and on into Scotland. What a shame I had never known to divert west 30 minutes to the coastline. It’s beautiful. And right in the middle of town is the large Silloth Green filled in winter with dogs and their walkers, in summer I am sure with a mass of people enjoying the beautiful scenery, Victorian designs and Silloth Music and Beer Festival. - N.
Eagle’s Nest (Kehlsteinhaus)
As history buffs, we would have never forgiven ourselves if we had skipped this stop on our way to Austria from France. There is a strange disparity being here as the stunning views of Austria and Germany are not to be missed while at the same time the history is almost startling when you think about what was and what could have been - especially after having visited the Normandy beaches and war memorials just a few weeks before - The bus ride to the top is gorgeous but also thrilling. And if you’re feeling adventurous you can walk all the way down to the bottom, which we did. You can also walk all the way up, but, no thank you because it is a giant hill.
Fish and Chips
If there are two people who have tried harder to survive on more than solely Fish and Chips please comment below and bring us out of our shame. Also if there is prize money for the award for most Fish and Chips eaten in one year we happily accept checks. It’s gotten so bad we now do post-mortems after each fish and chip meal and keep running reviews and rankings. We just can’t resist the deep fried goodness. So we have to shout-out or favorites of the year. Riley’s Fish Bar, a family-owned shop on the coast in Blackhall Colliery, Durham, for having humongous portions and for restarting up the fryer after closing once you saw the four sad hungry faces outside your window. And just down the road in Blackhall Rocks, Cod on the Rocks, for having very friendly staff, and for being the perfect meal for four people who had just traveled a very long way to get home. The Angel Inn in Grosmont, Monouthshire, Wales, for having Fish Thursdays instead of Fridays and for the food and atmosphere in this charming pub being perfect. The Fountain Head in Branscombe, Devon, for providing the perfect accompaniments to the excellent main dish: real ale and the best platter of local cheeses for the ultimate cholesterol booster. The King’s Road Fish Bar in St Leonards, East Sussex for being the perfect snack to take to the beach. The Pheasant Inn for being a surprise find near London Heathrow Airport with an expansive menu, quick service, so many drink options, exceptional portion sizes, and great fish and chips.
La Route du Cidre is definitely worth it if you are visiting Normandy. You can take one day to visit, but that won’t be enough time to really tour all the facilities and really take advantage of the route (ahem, taste all the cider!). The scenery, the people, and the alcohol pretty much make a perfect day! The setting is perfect for sampling the local cider, calvados, pommeau, and cheeses. Just be careful because they are very generous with the samples. If you can arrange a driver, do so, otherwise someone is going to have to DD and trust the others to pick good bottles to bring home. Our favorite was the Poiré, also known as Perry or Pear Cider, from Manoir du Grandouet. This place was really beautiful, with an informative tour of the press, caves, and farm. Also, they weren’t judgy at all when we bought 18 bottles to take with us on our travels.
Nissan, why don’t you make this anymore? If I had known how awesome it is, despite how ugly it is, I definitely would have bought one! Left to us by one of the homeowners we were housesitting for in California, this big-little car was perfect for getting around. With headroom for two 6’5” giants like us, and cargo space plus room for pets, it was absolutely perfect. Comfortable, good mileage - I’m totally a convert now. I heard they still sell them in Japan; anyone know a good exporter? - B.
Because we haven’t talked about food enough, we have to mention the Bijou Bistro restaurant in Leith, Edinburgh, Scotland. For a birthday breakfast, this was great. The proprietor is completely mad but it just adds to the fun. We ate way more than necessary but still not enough off this really good menu.
Turkish Airlines Lounge in Istanbul
It’s very rare that I’ve ever wanted to stay in the airport rather than get on my next flight, but this is one of those times we would have been happy for a delay. Set across two floors, The Turkish Airlines CIP Lounge at Ataturk Airport is travel paradise. Just leave your stuff in the private electronic lockers and let loose. You can continually stuff your face on the buffet of different types of food being freshly prepared for you by the chefs. Lounge in front of the multitude of video screens, or pass the time playing the video games made available to you. It’s exactly what you imagine being an adult will be like when you are a kid but better because there is alcohol! - B.
The Ewyas Harold Common
One of our nicest surprises of touring and sitting England the last few months was discovering the county of Herefordshire (not to be confused with Hertfordshire just north of London). The mainly rural county runs along the southwest border with Wales. It’s beautiful, with narrow country roads and hillsides stretching for miles. Nothing exemplifies this more, though than the huge 125-acre area of common land featuring wild roaming ponies, fields of ferns, woodland, and fresh blackberries and damsons to eat there or take home to make jam and lies with at the time of year we visited. We often spent hours here each day watching our canine charge around and never tire, as we never did of the views.
National Trust Properties
I grew up, lived and worked in England before moving to the US almost two decades ago. Being back for several weeks this year made me experience again the rich history and beautiful landscapes that this island offers visitors and inhabitants alike. One of the great organizations that protects this for future generations is The National Trust While staying in the Cotswolds, in particular, we were within reach of a multitude of National Trust properties that I was able to visit - ranging from the village of Bibury with its seventeenth century weavers cottages and water meadow to Great Chalfield Manor, a fifteenth century medieval manor house, and Lacock Abbey, an 800-year-old country house with monastic roots, to name just a few. - N.
Edinburgh Fringe Festival
We could not have been luckier than to be scheduled for a house sit in Edinburgh while the Fringe Festival was taking place. People pay hundreds of dollars for what little accommodation is available and we had a place to stay for free! As first-time festival attendee I were overwhelmed with options but somehow managed to see 12 shows over one weekend. From The Lady Boys of Bangkok to a bilingual English/Welsh production of A Good Clean Heart, it was an unforgettable experience. - B.
The City of Bath, which lies about 115 miles directly west of London, is a gem dating back almost a thousand years. Established originally by the Romans during their occupation of Britain as a thermal spa resort, it became hugely fashionable once again in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with its stunning Georgian architecture later added to by the Victorians who would go there to “take the waters”. Nothing exemplifies this better than The Royal Crescent, a row of 30 Georgian townhouses with Royal Victoria Park in front of it. Today, Bath retains almost all of its heritage and architectural beauty despite being a bustling city and smaller sister to nearby Bristol. Well worth a visit for a day.
Google - Hallstatt, Austria...stunning right? You have now experienced everything you need to about Hallstatt. This town that looks so beautiful in photos did not live up to the hype and felt more like a cheap roadside attraction in person. First, you have to struggle to find parking, then you pass the bus loop where loads of tourist are getting off and immediately snapping photos. After that, you stroll past the stands selling expensive pretzels, soap, and trinkets. A few duck boat peddlers and random kitsch here and there line the cobblestone streets and that’s about it. Other than one square there is really nothing interesting to look at. It’s boring, overpriced, and lame. If it wasn’t for our walk around the lake to get to the town (trying to avoid the crazy parking lots) the day would have been a complete waste.
Instead - skip going into town and have a picnic on the other side of the lake or camp in the area. Take a nice train ride from Bad Ischl. Visit some of the other lake towns in Austria like St. Wolfsburg.
I empathize with ABBA. I was definitely sick and tired of everything when I woke up the next morning in Glasgow. This city can really do a number on you. There are a number of popular bars and restaurants of which we were taking to three (or was it four) of in one night. The Karaoke at the Horseshoe Bar was definitely top notch, but most memories after that get fuzzy. There were magic tricks, deep-fried pizza, and lots of stumbling down the streets speaking too loudly. Enjoy the city, and pace yourself, but also maybe not. - B.
I have to be honest. I do not eat popcorn very often, and typically only at the movies. But I was hot and tired and feeling hungry towards the tail end of this day, having walked several miles through hot, bustling Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. When you’re still far from “home”, this is the perfect recipe for going to a Malaysian movie theater. They are inexpensive, modern, with large comfortable soft seating, A/C cranked up high (actually too high if you are just in shorts and a T-shirt), and, as with most cinemas, you can buy snacks on the way in. Not being a meat eater, and not knowing what many of the food items contained, I decided I would just have to do with popcorn. So I got in line and waited my turn to get to the front of the queue. Imagine my horror then when I was told that the regular popcorn had run out, but the featured variant - chicken flavor - was all that was left. Chicken flavor popcorn? Really? What next? - N.
Smog Season - Sounds like a bad B-movie but no, this is how Malaysians describe the period when the air is thick with haze and fog that gets irritates the eyes, nose, and throat. Said to be caused by illegal slash and burn land clearing practices taken by corporations in Indonesia, it’s a real pain. If it wasn’t for the huge storm we were lucky to get that cleared this out we might have been unable to leave the house for the duration of our trip to Malaysia.
This, of course, is not a surprise to anyone, but having spent so much time in the UK this year it has become sort of a running joke. Britain, your weather sucks, you need to do something about this. - B.
What were your favorite (or least favorite) moments from 2016? What are you excited for in 2017? Comment below.
Photograph of Nissan Cube by IFCAR (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Photograph of Royal Crescent by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
All Aboard the Yangon Circular Railway
It’s a staple of all must-do lists but is the Yangon Circle Train really worth it?
So far in Myanmar I have not had a more serene moment then about halfway through the circle line train ride. The crowd had dissipated, the landscape flattened, and everyone on the train had quietly agreed to a few moments of peace. As we rumbled along the tracks, no one spoke, no one was selling anything, and I was able to just appreciate everything happening around me...
Getting on the train is a little confusing. There are lots of different ways to secure a ticket and different sources will tell you different things. We managed to get our tickets and board the train without too much trouble, but with more difficulty than usual for a metropolitan train. We arrived by taxi right outside Yangon Central , the main railway station in the city. There is a big ticket booth in the main entrance but you don’t need to stop at it. You can walk around to the left where there is a gate, turn left and head towards the staircase at the end. There are security guards at this gate, so if you need help vaguely give them a circle-like gesture and they will point you in the direction of Platform 7, from which the circle line runs. As you walk towards the stairs you might notice a tourist office to your left. You can go in there but I think it is unnecessary and you may end up paying more for your tickets, but I imagine they have English speakers in there who can help you if you are lost or confused.
Once you reach the staircase go up to the top and walk all the way until you can’t anymore because of a wall. You have reached Platform 7. Go down the stairs to the right and you will see a ticket booth down the platform in front of you. You should be able to pick up tickets here for no more than 250 kyats. You can try getting a 100 kyat ticket, but they seem to automatically sell the 250 kyats “air-con” ticket to foreigners.
The guy at the booth on the platform didn’t speak English very well and there were so many people rushing up to him that we weren’t entirely sure what happened in this transaction. There was a train on the platform leaving at 11:50 that we had intended to get on, but the same guy seemed determined that we get on the 12:20 train, which isn’t on the schedule anywhere (more on that later). I’m not sure if the train running was full, (although I don’t think so because we saw 5-10 people buy tickets and run to the train) or if the 12:20 train was supposed to have air conditioning (also more on that later), but we ended up waiting for the 12:20. There were people around we tried to ask but they seemed just as confused as us. It also seems that different types of trains run on the circle line at different times, and that might affect the price, but this is not posted anywhere.
Suffice it to say this doesn’t seem to be the most well-organized train station or system in the world. That said, it was lively and fun, and it was nice to observe for a half an hour. We noticed some other foreign-looking people coming to the track and figured that was a good sign we were in the right place. But then things took a turn for the worse. We saw a big group descend the stairs with what looked like a local guide complete with flag to wave in case people got lost. I was suddenly less excited to get on the train.
12:20 did eventually come around eventually but no train came to the platform. What did happen was: (1) A train arrived three platforms over. (2) All the local people crossed the tracks to get to it as an announcement was made in Myanmar language. (3) The tour guide started taking people across the tracks too. (4) Suddenly the rest of the foreigners were racing across the tracks to get the train. We also had to cross the tracks towards said train, walk down the track and along a fence that divided us from the platform, walk in front of the train (not knowing when it could start to move), then race ahead of the tour group to get on the last car on the train at its other far end which looked less crowded. And a good thing too because the last of that group just made it on as the train started moving.
Getting on a crowded train with a bunch of other tourists wasn’t exactly my idea of an “authentic” Yangon experience, so I was pretty miserable standing on the crowded train in the heat for the first 20 minutes or so. But slowly the mob started diminishing and we were able to grab two seats. Then the tour group got off at one of the earlier stations and the train was looking a lot more attractive. The scenery was changing as rapidly as the crowd and we were finally able to relax and settle into the upcoming journey.
Our train was actually a lot more comfortable than I had prepared myself for. The “JR” signage on the car, and writing in Japanese implied it was used Japan Railways stock. We had nice padded seats all along the sides, loops overhead if you were standing, and fans spread evenly across the ceiling hitting you with a nice breeze every so often. The ride was certainly bumpy at times but the cushioned seats really helped. I don’t know if this was officially “air-con” class, but it was fine by me as we had planned to ditch the A/C anyway. It has been implied that all the air conditioning units have been removed from the trains due to the Japanese equipment malfunctioning in the Myanmar heat, which wouldn’t surprise me. Or perhaps A/C means ceiling fans combined with windows that opened and sun blinds.
The ride itself was quite entertaining for something that amounts to sitting on public transit and people . watching for 3 hours. There was a lot to see out the window to keep you occupied, and you get a pretty good idea of life outside the center of the city. Most of the time will be spent in the suburbs of the city, so don’t get the idea that you will be seeing authentic untouched villages or anything like that. You’re more likely to see an expat walking through their neighborhood. Despite that though, there are some interesting sights with people going about their daily life.
One of the stations is surrounded by a lively market, and at this stop, many people were bringing on, or dropping off, huge bundles of produce. There are some stops that are so quick, and the station so small, you might blink and miss them. People wave as the train goes by and it’s fun to wave back especially when they see faces that are quite different from their own. You can feel free to get off the train at any time with your ticket; there don’t seem to be many rules about that.
We found the most interesting part of the journey to be just around the second major turn in the oval shaped track. It’s very peaceful here with the clear land, trees, and very few people or houses around the train.
You will also see lots of vendors selling their wares up and down the train cars. They are very polite (if occasionally loud) and not normally pushy at all. The stuff they are selling looks great. I was most tempted by the corn on the cob that I could smell coming a car away. I noticed most of them are very friendly with the conductors and police officers on the train and would offer them something from their basket - the officials didn’t seem to take too much advantage though.
As the train rolled around and came to a stop again at the Central Station. We both felt happy, relieved, and quite satisfied. What was supposed to be just a simple train ride had actually turned out to be an emotional rollercoaster, but not in a bad way at all. So was the train ride worth it? Definitely, no it’s not a life-changing experience, but for less than $0.20 USD I can think of a lot of worse ways to spend 3 hours.
My Advice For The Train -
A lot of foreign investment is being put into the rail lines in Myanmar. Train cars for the long distances routes to places like Mandalay are being built and brought from China and soon to be produced here with Chinese technology. I also just read today that the line is going to get an upgrade, funded by a loan from the Japanese International Cooperation Agency, to improve the track, amenities, and cars. This upgrade will also shorten the journey to two hours and probably increase the price. So it may not last for many more years in its current state. While improvements are much needed for this system to be on par with most major cities, it was still nice to get what feels like a classic experience - the only thing that was missing were steam engines! I’m sure it will still be great after the improvements but get on in the next few years if you want to experience it how it is today.
How to Get There - If you’re coming by taxi just say the "Yangon Railway”. If you’re coming from Downtown walk north on Pansodan street and one the left side of the street there is a covered walkway on the overpass. About halfway through you will see a staircase that if open will take you straight down to Platform 7.
Train Stops - Information and Maps ...accuracy varies.
Times - The first train leaves at 6:10 am (06:10) and they depart the station every 45 mins - 1 hour until just after 5:10 pm (17:10).
Cost - 100-250 kyat. Our taxi also paid 200 kyats to the security guard to get into the drop-off area outside the station, not 100% sure about this but for a few cents I wasn’t going to argue.
Have you been on the train? Was your experience similar to ours? Are you tempted to get on the train now and experience Yangon? Have updated information about the train? Let us know in the comments.
A Visit to the Yangon Night Market
The newly opened Night Market on Strand Road is a perfect place to spend an evening (or two) while in Yangon. Opened in November 2016 by the Yangon City Development Committee, it’s a buzzing strip of vendors and street-food carts where your senses are overloaded wiht sights and smells. There is Myanmar cuisine cooking, families chatting over whole grilled fish, and the occasional unidentifiable product being sold from the many many market stands along the way.
The market stretches for about a mile and a half along Strand Road from the intersection with Pansodan Street to the east and Wa Dan Street to the west. The busiest area seems to be centered around the CB Bank Head Office which is a big building with neon rainbow colors on the front that can't be missed. You can walk freely along the entire length and you don’t have to cross any roads or intersections as the whole area is blocked off and protected from the traffic on the road. We walked the whole length and it definitely makes for a good workout.
We went on both a Monday and a Thursday. Even though it was Monday the first time it was still relatively busy in some parts so I imagine you’d have no trouble going any day of the week. It’s actually probably better to go earlier in the week as the market can get very crowded and the small area they have partitioned off for walking can become a challenge with people strolling then stopping every few feet, children playing, and the general bustle getting in the way. It’s best to go on a day you are feeling... patient.
Although it was pretty busy we actually saw very few tourists when we were there, maybe two or three groups total, and the vendors, especially on the outskirts of the market, gave the impression they still don’t see many these days.
You will see a lot of similar looking stands selling the typical Myanmar street food: mohinga, skewers, samosas, fried fish cakes, dosas, tea (of course); but there are also a few rarer finds like smoothies, cotton candy, lobsters, and something that looked like fried crickets. One of my favorite places was the pop-up pub which had set up a satellite dish to show football (it was packed of course).
The fruit and vegetable stands look amazing. The produce looks so delicious: huge avocados, succulent oranges, colorful dragon fruit, you name it. There were definitely some fruits I have never seen before and couldn’t even begin to tell you what they taste like. There were also places where they were cooking fresh fish right off the ice, what a treat!
The prices are extremely reasonable and there don’t seem to be any tourist prices as of late. Lots of dishes come in under 1000 MMK ($0.75 USD) or even less. If you’re concerned just follow someone who is getting what you want and pay what they pay.
To coincide with the opening of this new market the government has also been pushing for improved hygiene practices among street food proprietors and I don’t think foreign stomachs would have a problem with any of the freshly grilled or fried food as long as it’s cooked well, and in front of you. Just be careful as people often like to touch prepared product to make sure it’s to their liking, so make sure if you do order something pick out the one you want to be cooked or ask for something that’s being made now. I wouldn’t suggest eating anything you don’t see prepared, but life is about risk, is it not?! (Maybe not.)
Getting to and perusing the market isn’t a risk at all. If you’re staying downtown it’s so easy to walk there; just head south and you will run into it. If you’re not Downtown just ask your taxi driver to take you to Strand Road, if he heads to The Strand Hotel that’s fine too. If that doesn’t work just say Sule Pagoda and it’s a quick walk from there to the market. It’s well lit, with CCTV, and nice new bathrooms (with attendants) placed in convenient locations along the walk. The whole thing seems very safe and organized but still authentically hectic. It was reported some of the vendors were concerned about business dropping before making the move, but from the number of people we saw even on weekdays I don’t think it will be much of a problem. Plus the traffic improvements from moving the stalls off of the main downtown streets must be tremendous.
The market is open every day from 15:00 (3:00pm) until 23:00 (11:00pm) but people start to close up shop earlier depending on the day and the rush.
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