South-East Asia Revisited: Vietnam, Laos and Burma


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July 16th 2012
Published: July 16th 2012
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Dear All

Here I am again, whiling away the last few hours before a big trip, and trying to control the nerves and channel the excitement at the same time – not easy. It is usually at this point that I ask myself why on earth do I do this – board a flight to the other side of the world with just me, myself and I (and my backpack) - but hindsight reminds me that it leads to an amazing time, and a fantastic learning experience of the world around me, the peoples, societies and cultures that make it up, which is far beyond my day to day (but far from unenjoyable) life here in London. I guess I am also just thinking too much before the huge unknown of the next few weeks, so will try to relieve a few nerves by writing my first blog entry on this trip.

South-east Asia, revisited! Here I go again, as in 2006 to 2007 I spent a year teaching Geography at the British International School in Singapore, intermittent with a number of trips to surrounding countries during half-terms and holidays. My trip this time originally held the intention of plugging in the three gaps of unvisited countries left during that year, and thus visiting specifically these three countries to be able to colour in my regional map more fully. But now it has become of course a trip in itself, visiting countries which my pre-trip research about has got me really intrigued, particularly regarding their recent histories and current political situations.

Vietnam, Laos and Burma. Mostly by plane. Budget airlines are big in South-east Asia, which means that 12 hour overnight bus journeys in cramped conditions can be replaced for only a few dollars more by an hour’s flight arriving in immaculate condition and fresh to explore a new area – thus, 13 flights in total have been booked, and here’s hoping they’ll run to schedule. If not, I’m sure they’ll be other ways to do this thing.

So first up, in a few hours’ time, I’ll be boarding a Singapore Airlines double decker A380 plane at Heathrow destined for my old stomping grounds in Singapore – well, Changi Airport for a few hours at least – before changing flights to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon). After a few days in the south of Vietnam, I fly up to the centre and the area around Danang, Hue and Hoi An for a few more days exploring this geopolitically significant region at the midway line between the north and the south, before finally heading further north to the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, and its nearby Halong Bay.

After 2 weeks in Vietnam, I’ll be flying to Luang Prabang in northern Laos, where my journey takes me overland down towards the Laotian capital, Vientiane. Midway between these two cities is the infamous, “backpacker hotspot” of Vang Vieng, which I am still in two minds about whether to go or not due to afore-mentioned notoriety.

11 days in Laos will then lead me on to a couple of flights via Kuala Lumpur to Rangoon/Yangon, Burma/Myanmar. Now this country is certainly one to watch right now, as it very slowly moves towards some form of democracy and acceptance into the international community. Not sure what to expect, whether the completely alienised society of yesteryear or the openings to political freedom and internationalization. Apparently until last month it was one of only three countries in the world without Coca-Cola (the others being Cuba and North Korea), and certainly no international financial structure to be noted. This latter point affects my trip greatly, and has caused both my pre-trip planning to be intense as well as a number of Plan Bs to be put in place on the journey should the need arise.

This is because there is absolutely no way of getting any money whilst there – no international banks or ATMs to speak of, no way of exchanging traveller’s cheques, no Western Unions or the like, and a rate of exchange to the dollar which is 12 times more lucrative on the black market than the official one. Thus, after a number of considerations, I’ll be carrying all my cash for Burma with me – notes need to be American dollar high denominations, in absolutely pristine condition – no tears, folds, stains or anything. Well, the cash I have on me right now is certainly in that state, but after 25 days in Vietnam and Laos, I’m hoping it will still be the same. Thus, I have wrapped my wad in 3 sheets of paper, an envelope, a waterproof plastic wallet, and a bubble-wrap-lined envelope to be stored in my moneybelt, hoping that the rigours of my trip and the many tea-leafs and pick-pockets which apparently exist in Vietnam do not affect my preparation (I’m a stickler for the belief that you can never be too careful!).

Anyway, money issues aside, Burma should be an amazing country to visit, particularly at this time of change, and I am looking forward to this very much indeed.

So, bags are packed, blog is begun – here begins another trip – 40 days (and 40 nights) of South-east Asian Adventures. Please do watch this space for more updates as I travel.

All the best

Alex

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