The Automotive Boneyard in Yangon

Southeast Asian megacities are known around the world for their snarled streets, daring drivers, and smog-tinged skies. Saying Bangkok, Hanoi, or Saigon may invoke images of motorcycles and swerving taxi drivers, but one Southeast Asian city stands out from the rest for its interesting array of vehicles and how they drive: Rangoon (Yangon), Burma (Myanmar).

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One thing that makes Rangoon unique among Southeast Asian cities is the lack of motorcycles and motorbikes. They were banned from Rangoon several years ago when a motorcyclist struck a vehicle driven by a military official.

While Rangoon certainly does not have as much traffic, congestion, or pollution as the aforementioned cities, it makes up for it by being a literal boneyard for a hodgepodge of right and left-side drive second-hand imports from Japan and South Korea that all drive on the right side of the road! I first noticed this when my driver picked me up at the airport. He was seated on the right in a vehicle with a Japanese language navigation system, yet we were driving on the right side of the road! Below is a right-side drive Japanese bus in the heart of Rangoon.

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Car enthusiasts should check out the interesting traffic situation in Burma before it is too late and the all the clunkers on the road are replaced with new busses and cars with left-side steering wheels. There are even traffic cops who direct traffic at a few major intersections in the city.

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Following the end of British rule in 1948, Burma fell under authoritarian rule for nearly six decades. With limits of free speech, a police state, and a government-run economy under a military dictatorship, Burma’s economy suffered mightily. Today’s bustling shops and streets are in sharp contrast to what the country faced several decades ago. The lack of economic activity with the rest of the world left behind two very visible legacies: beautiful, yet crumbling, Victorian-style British colonial architecture and old, rusting, imported cars with right and left-side steering wheels all driving on the right side of the road.

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I was prepared to see old vehicles on the streets of Rangoon when I arrived last year, but I certainly did not expect to see the wide array of Japanese and Korean imports that I did. As a Japanese speaker, it was fascinating to encounter decades-old Japanese tour busses and refurbished kindergarten (幼稚園) busses on the streets taking Burmese from point A to point B in Rangoon. About seventy percent of the public transportation busses I saw on the streets were second-hand Japanese imports, which still bore the Japanese characters denoting their former purpose and destinations in many parts of Japan.

Tour busses served different purposes in Rangoon.

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Kindergarten busses transported passengers in Rangoon and Bago.DSC08320

Even old metro busses were refurbished and turned into Rangoon’s public bus system.

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To the untrained eye, this may seem interesting, but because the Japanese drive on the left side of the road, many of these busses were retrofitted with cargo airplane-style netting to seal off the Japanese doors. These doors were replaced with cutout doors to ensure passengers did not get off the bus into oncoming traffic. It was quite fascinating to see these old vehicles still going around Burma. Their bright colors, faded façdes, and dirty windows would tell many stories if they could talk .

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Another interesting aspect of the traffic in Burma was the presence of old Korean public transportation busses that served the same purpose as the Japanese busses on the streets. The only difference between the two is that the Korean busses have left-side steering wheels, making it easier for them to maneuver through the right-side drive Rangoon streets. Much like their Japanese counterparts, the Korean busses were very visible as Burmese script covered up or surrounded Hangul as if it was not even there.

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Without money to repaint or strip advertising off of these busses and cars, Rangoon’s streets offer the chance to see a virtual boneyard of Japanese and Korean public transportation vehicles on their last legs.

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Away from Rangoon’s city center and in other, more rural parts, like Bago, you can also encounter Soviet and Chinese-issued military vehicles that have been retrofitted and refurbished for both civilian and military purposes.

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While many tourists come to Burma to enjoy the famous Buddhist sites like Shwedagon Pagoda and other towns like Bago and Pagan, there is much to see in Rangoon. Aside from the fantastic British architecture, car enthusiasts should set aside some time to see the boneyard that exists on Burma’s streets and alleyways.

This “Good By” bus is a fitting end to this article.

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New Friends and Free Pizza in Vientiane, Laos

For many backpackers and travelers in Laos, Vientiane is nothing more than an afterthought or a thorn in their side. For them, the capital city is a one night stay in one of the numerous hostels before making their way to either party in Vang Vieng or see the Buddhist marvels that await in Luang Prabang. Not for me.

I came to the city to see the remnants of French Indochina architecture and to explore the cafe and dining scene which is unlike anywhere else in Asia. The European influence was still strong in the city which gave it a very special vibe. Patrons, locals and tourists alike, were relaxed and moved around lethargically throughout their daily procedures. It was a welcomed respite for me.

After two days of wandering the city and meeting some interesting folks on the streets, I descended on Via Via Restaurant right next to the Mekong River for dinner on my last full evening in Vientiane.

As with all restaurants in Laos, Via Via had the standard yellow and green sign out front with a photo of a large bottle of Lao Beer. That is where its similarities with other restaurants I visited in the capital city stopped. On my first night in the city, I was struck by the unique atmosphere at this pizza restaurant.

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Traditional Italian music bellowed out from the speakers while waitresses frantically took orders and delivered drinks to patrons.  The unique mix of European expats, tourists, and locals resonated, as I heard orders taken in Laotian, French, and English on my first pass by the restaurant. I was intrigued and knew I would make my last meal in Vientiane a memorable one at this fine establishment.

After seeing the sun set over the Mekong the following day and checking out the night market, I made my way back to Via Via and was fortunate enough to grab a seat right outside of the restaurant itself but also not quite on the sidewalk. With a seat like this I could monitor what was happening both inside and outside the restaurant.

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Usually I do not drink soda when I am either at home or on the road, but I had a very special chance to order a Laotian Pepsi, served up in a glass bottle without any English labeling. For someone accustomed to international travel throughout Asia, I  was surprised by a native language Peopsi bottle. I had to take a photo. More than likely, I will not have the chance to sample this kind of Pepsi again.

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As the night wore on, patrons were quick to grab a Beer Lao and then head off into the Vientiane haze, either back to their hotel or to another cafe or dining establishment. I decided to order a Beer Lao and a pizza and wait it out for an hour or so at Via Via. Even though Beer Lao is a state-sponsored beer, it tasted very good. Such a pleasant surprise on this balmy December evening.

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With my Beer Lao in hand, I ordered their version of a supreme pizza and started to write in my travel journal when a British couple sat down next to me. They were old but certainly not elderly. Jim had wiry grey hair and wore a nice blue polo to compliment his thick black framed glasses. His wife was wearing a white shirt and carried a nice handbag. I can still see the two of them as I write this article.

They were quiet at first, but as soon as my mouth-watering pizza arrived, they started talking. It was for good reason, too. They wanted to know what kind of pizza I had ordered because it looked so good. Take a look for yourself:

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It was hard to believe, but the best pizza I had had since I moved to Asia was in, of all places, Vientiane. The sharpness of the pepperoni was complimented by the tingle of fresh peppers and the smoothness of Beer Lao.

Then we got to talking. Jim and his wife wanted to know about my travels through Southeast Asia at 24 because they had done similar travels when they were young, only through Europe. He told me stories of going from West Germany into East Germany, riding various trains throughout Europe, and even going to some countries in Indochina and Southeast Asia in the late 1970s. Usually long stories can become boring stories, but Jim had a unique way with imagery and describing the people he met along the way. His verbosity was truly something to behold.

We shared tales of the trains in Burma, dirty and crowded Bangkok streets, and of our time in Singapore. It was so cool to meet a travel couple which had been so many places but continued to go wherever they saw fit.

Jim revealed to me that he and his wife had been out of the United Kingdom for the last three months in Southeast Asia and had no plans of returning home in the near future. As they had both been foreign service officers in their youth, they were bitten by the travel bug and had no desire to stop going places and trying new foods along the way.

Our conversation seemed like it took up only a few minutes, but in reality we spoke to each other for over ninety minutes. As they finished up their pizza, I still had a few pieces left to go. He and his wife both said they enjoyed our conversation very much and said that they had already paid for my pizza.

“We were hoping to meet a young man on our travels tonight,” he said. “Never stop traveling. You never know when you will not have the chance to do it again in your life.”

Those words of wisdom, coupled with a saying my friend Tom told me way back in 2010 still stick to me this day.

“Young people have all the time in the world to travel, but no money. Old people have all the money in the world to travel, but no time. You are living abroad. Get out there and explore.”

It was a pleasure to meet yet another interesting couple out and about in Southeast Asia. While the friendships may be fleeting, it is always nice to meet generous and talkative people out there on the road.

Sometimes traveling alone has its benefits. I know that I would never have met half of the interesting people I have encountered on my travels if I was traveling in a group or with another person. Embrace solo travel meet new people on the road. You will have stories to last a lifetime.

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A Special Singapore Sling

Simple travel moments often turn into extraordinary memories. Two years ago I went to Singapore as a part of my inaugural trip through Southeast Asia and I had a great time. Between the bustling city, the interesting nightlife in Clarke Quay, and the new friends I made along the way, it was a memorable and unique trip.

Over the past year, some of my travel memories have gone to the wayside only to be rediscovered at a later time. While I was reading about the passing of former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, my memory bank was tapped and I recalled one very special moment I had in Singapore. I made friends with complete strangers and would like to share this story with you.

As the typical budget traveler in Southeast Asia, many backpackers lambaste Singapore. They often say some things about Singapore that are meant to dissuade you from going.

“Oh, everything is so expensive,” they say.

“There really isn’t much culture there,” they say.

“Skip Singapore. It isn’t even worth it,” even more say.

As a big city lover who lives in one of the world’s most expensive countries, nothing could tarnish the allure which Singapore holds. For a history lover (tons of British colonial history) and an architecture lover (one of the world’s finest waterfront skylines), nothing would stop me from seeing Singapore and jotting down notes along the way.

As soon as I arrived, I was pleasantly surprised. Changi Airport was spectacular in every sense of the word. Transportation into the city was flawless. Aside from the strict rules and signs referring to the numerous prohibitions at every corner, Singapore was a nice place for me as a tourist. At least these signs made a great photo opportunity.

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Everyone spoke English and there were a lot of interesting things to do for someone there on a budget.

The highlight of wandering the streets was the chance to eat a real ice cream sandwich. Believe it or not, this version of the sandwich was more delicious than the typical version served up in every convenience store in the United States. Take a look for yourself!

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While Thailand was a budget traveler’s heaven, I did not like the lack of English and cleanliness.  After seeing the Merlion and taking in the skyline on my first night, one Singaporean staple catapulted to the top of my list. Glistening in the evening fog across the way was the Marina Bay Sands. After seeing it from the Merlion, I knew I needed to get to the  pool atop the ship-like casino.

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The pool is something about which you read in travel magazines, see on the Travel Channel, and about which you hear stories from your friends who had the money to stay there. The imagery from reading about it, seeing it on TV, and hearing stories turns the Marina Bay Sands infinity pool into a place that seems larger than life. Palm trees swaying in the subtropical wind while jazz music plays in the background make for an interesting atmosphere.

When I heard even more stories about the heated towels and the special drinks they serve at the top, getting there without paying the expensive price for the room became my number one Singaporean travel goal.

To make a long story short, I made it to the pool atop the Sands. Here is the the unconventional way in which it happened.

Before I left Japan, I developed a scheme to get to the pool. I would wear a nice set of clothes and just walk by the guards like I was staying there. Simple enough, I thought, as the typical tourist would not be wearing a button-down shirt. The average tourist would be wearing shorts and a t-shirt. They would have a camera draped around their neck and they would gawk at the skyline, right? Wrong.

Much to my chagrin, almost all of the tourists with whom I rode the elevator dressed nicely. They were all wearing button-down shirts and slacks. Even though we had tickets to the lowly “visitors space” atop the Marina Bay Sands, I came to the realization that  I would make it to the top and get some good photos of the harbor without making it to the pool.

I walked around and took in the atmosphere to plan my next move. I took photos of the boats docked outside the Sands.

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Then I took a photo of the golf course island and the ferris wheel which seemed so close to this mammoth structure.

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As I positioned my ¥100 tripod for my next shot of the harbor and the city, I felt a quick jolt and my camera was knocked to the ground.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, young man,” said the kind woman.

Her husband quickly apologized, as well. They had bumped into me while they were posing for a photo with the ferris wheel, mere inches away from my right arm. Fortunately my camera was still working and I was in a good mood because my luck that evening was about to take a change for the better.

The three of us got to talking about traveling in Asia, living and working abroad, and the exciting nature of being young. They were fascinated by my tales of living in Japan and traveling the world alone at such a young age. I was equally struck by their stories of working on Australian mining and oil operations while having also worked with the Australian equivalent of the Foreign Service. While slightly older than my parents, we were able to converse like old friends.

In passing they asked where I was staying and when I revealed that I was staying at a budget hostel, they presented the nicest offer to me:

“Why don’t you be our son for the night? We would like to talk to you more and share some drinks poolside with you,” said the gentleman.

With their kind invitation to join them poolside, our scheme was set in motion. I was to walk in with them like I knew them and there would be no questions asked, they said. They added that the guards would not stop anyone who looked like they belonged for fear of offending a wealthy or important guest.

Within a few minutes, they gave me their extra room key to prove I was staying with them. We quickly lined up to pass to the “hotel guests only” region on the roof. After a cursory checkpoint, I was through and at last!!

As my excitement swelled, they quickly ushered me over to a reserved table with their name on it! Drinks and food quickly came our way as they insisted to treat me for the evening. Their kind hospitality and welcoming nature is something I will never forget. As we peered off into the night, the lights came on in far off Indonesian islands and boats passed through narrow channels to their docks for the evening. Tiger Beer and intermittent appetizers made the evening pass effortlessly into the night.

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What was once a young evening had become old, and with the passing time, my gracious hosts had to return to their room for the evening, but not before they gave me one parting surprise.

“Behind us is the infinity pool. We have ordered a Singapore Sling for you and hope you enjoy the rest of your evening on the lounge chairs and in the heated pool. You made our night. Have a fine evening, young man,” the woman said as we embraced and parted ways.

As I settled into my lounge chair after a quick dip in the pool, I marveled at the palm trees and the poolside atmosphere.

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Looking past the lifeguards, frolicking children, and waiters, I saw a group of women at the edge of the infinity pool, overlooking the Singapore skyline.

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At that moment, I was tapped on the shoulder by an energetic waiter. In his right hand he held a heated towel. In his left, he carried the world-famous Singapore Sling. He also brought a message from my new friends.

“Share an experience like this with a young man someday,” they said.

All seemed right in the world at that moment. As the Rolling Stones played, I toasted to my new friends. I hope we meet again someday so I can share the impact this moment had on me and my subsequent travels.

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With Singapore in the background, I enjoyed this drink to the last drop. Sometimes the most human moments during our travels are the most memorable ones. This was a special Singapore Sling.

Riding a Motorcycle in Bago, Burma

Usually when I travel I do not hire local guides or drivers because I like to explore the city on my own. Solo adventure often results in getting lost, discovering new places, and meeting new people along the way. I employed a different strategy in Bago and ended up having a great time. This is the first of a few videos I will share from Bago before making a detailed post about my experience in this city. In this video, we are riding a motorcycle through downtown.