Saturday, February 27, 2010


Myanmar is the most isolated country in Southeast Asia and thus the most exotic. I chose to visit this country only after I visited most of the rest of Southeast Asia, as I wanted to journey to a less touristy part of the world.

Because of the actions of the military regime in Myanmar, most people choose to boycott the country. Thus, there is considerably less tourist traffic in Myanmar than in the rest of Southeast Asia. I believe this makes Myanmar a pleasant place to travel in, as there are fewer touts to hassle tourists. Furthermore, the locals are nicer (many smile and wave frequently to tourists) and interactions with them are genuine.

There are several quirky aspects of Myanmar. First, there are numerous right-sided steering wheel vehicles driving on the right side of the road. This is because after Myanmar gained independence from the British, it decided to do things the opposite way. However, many of the vehicles in the country are quite ancient, or models donated from Japan (which drive on the left side of the road). Another intriguing aspect is that there are no ATMs in Myanmar. This is the first country I have traveled to without ATMs. People simply carry stacks of cash with them! Lastly, there are frequent (nightly) power outages everywhere in the country.

My travels within Myanmar was cut short due to a very bad case of food poisoning. The source was probably a beef curry dinner that I ate on the streets of Yangon the first night. Because of this, I was sick for four days and bed-ridden for two of those in Kalaw. This was the first serious illness I have gotten after nearly one year of traveling, so it was tough. The one place that I did not have time to visit but wanted to originally is the archeological temple site of Bagan.

The highlight of my trip was the trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake. During this three-day two-night trek, I met some fellow travelers. Together, we visited several villages, observing locals play, grind tamarind, pack rice and farm. I enjoyed the scenery of hills, valleys and rice terraces. At night, we slept in a village and in a monastery. In the end, we arrived in scenic Inle Lake, surrounded by mountains, stilt villages, monasteries and floating gardens. I will never forget scenes of fishermen rowing with their feet on canoes, attempting to catch fish with their cone-shaped nets.

Syria-- The Friendliest Country in the World!

Of the over 60 countries I have visited so far, Syria ranks as one of my favorites. The stereotypical images of Arab terrorists bombing places are far-fetched and simply do not apply in Syria. In fact, I found Syria to be one of the safest countries to walk around by myself during the day and at night. Furthermore, Syrians exude warmth to foreigners--their Arab hospitality is among the finest in the world.

My favorite aspect of my visit to Syria was its people. I have never been in a country before where strangers (and even children) would say “welcome” to me! Strangers would be ever so helpful in guiding me to my intended destination and even walk me there. People would stop me in the streets and ask to take a picture with me! (I felt like a Hollywood star, for once.) People on long-distance buses would chat with me and offer me candy.

I am ever so grateful to the CouchSurfers in Syria who hosted and/or showed me around. I am especially thankful to Darwish, who made my stay in Aleppo memorable. I enjoyed sipping tea and eating mezze with his family, and the visit to his Kurdish village. That was definitely a unique experience that would not have occurred if it were not for Darwish. Lastly, Darwish even went with me to the bus station and helped me compare prices and obtain information for buses to Lebanon (which I did not end up going).

The ultimate highlight of my stay in Syria was a visit to my friend Maher’s village, near Der’a in southwest Syria. I met Maher on a minibus going from the long-distance bus station in Damascus to the city center. We had just arrived in Damascus from Aleppo. Maher noticed that I was one of the few foreigners and began chatting with me, asking the basic questions of my origins and travels and of course, what I thought about Syria. Towards the end of the minibus ride, he invited me to his cousin’s place in Damascus and then to his village. Having a place to stay in Damascus, I refused his first offer, but noted his cell phone number as I was interested in the latter. I did not think twice about safety as I had read about other similar travelers’ stories in Syria, all positive. Also, this was Arab hospitality at its best, part of Syrian culture, and I was eager to experience life in a Syrian home and in a village.

I kept in touch with Maher and came to his village two days after we first met. The village is in a rustic area full of wheat fields, Bedouin tents, valleys and a stream. Upon arrival, I was greeted by Maher’s brother, his children, nephews and neighbors’ children (all male). Together, we went on a walk/tour of the village. The children were very adorable. Afterwards, I was invited to the elaborate sitting room of Maher’s brother. All the male family members and friends joined me for a scrumptious feast of chicken, fish, rice, pita, hummus, salad and yogurt. The only females I met were young children. After dinner, some of the men smoked sheesha, some played cards, while others drank tea and chatted away. The male children also appeared at times to meet me.

I was touched at how Maher’s family and friends welcomed me with open arms and treated me like an old friend. They joked with me and inquired about Hong Kong, curious to interact with the first foreigner to visit their village. They invited me to stay as long as I could and to return to Syria and to their village. Unfortunately, I had a flight to catch the next day!

Because of Maher’s village and all the nice people I have met, I will definitely visit Syria again. It is perhaps the most welcoming country in the world.

En Route to Damascus, Syria

My original itinerary to Damascus involved flying with three airlines and two layovers, for a combined 25.5 hrs of traveling. My AirAsia flight from Kuala Lumpur to Abu Dhabi was very empty. In fact, many of us laid across three seats. (I learned later on that they have since canceled this route due to low occupancy.)

Upon arrival in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, I spotted many men dressed in traditional Arab attire. This included a white robe (jalabiyya) and checkered headscarf (keffiye). In fact, all the immigration officers wore this outfit. I was a bit taken by surprise as I had never seen anything like this before! It felt like a scene from the movies!

A problem arose when I tried to check-in for my Damascus flight with Etihad Airways in Abu Dhabi. The check-in staff told me that according to their system, I needed a visa before arrival on my Hong Kong passport. I told them that this was impossible as there is no Syrian consulate in Hong Kong. They refused to let me board my flight and after a little “begging” on my part, told me to come back in a few hours as they would check with their counterparts at the Damascus Airport. A few hours later, the Etihad staff called the Damascus Airport and informed me again that I would need a Syrian visa before they would let me board any flight to Syria. They told me that I could obtain one at the Syrian Embassy in Abu Dhabi. With the help of another Etihad staff member, I called the Syrian Embassy and explained to the staff my situation. He said that it was possible for me to obtain a visa on arrival and spoke to the check-in supervisor. I was then finally allowed to board a flight to Damascus, one that was 5 hours after the original flight!

Etihad Airways did not apologize for what happened above nor did they even try to make my waiting time or flight easier. In fact, my flight was utter chaos as these Pakistani religious pilgrims sat wherever they wished and refused to adhere to what was printed on their boarding passes. As a result of this ordeal, I am never flying with Etihad Airways (yeah right, the “world’s best airline”) again!

And the conclusion of the story is that I had to wait a bit for my visa on arrival at the Damascus Airport, but it was granted without too many questions asked. I was welcomed to Syria!