Holy Sh!+ we survived the night train to Mandalay, February 2016

  Fifteen hours on a bouncing wooden bench. Overnight. Why did we do this to ourselves? I’m still not sure!

We logistically could leave Yangon. We had our expensive land-entry Indian visas in hand. We had paid and registered, and we had contact information for the Myanmar permit to enter the restricted area at the Indian border. We had stayed an extra night due to popular demand by the 15-and-unders. We were ready to get ourselves to Mandalay in the north. We had considered and rejected going first to Bagan (unpopular with the temple-fatigued troops) and/or Inle Lake (night bus arrives between midnight and 3 am, also unacceptable to the majority )- two popular tourist destinations that sound pretty good, sigh, but such is the nature of extended family travel. 

So the decision was how to get to Mandalay. We spoke with several bus companies, and it was confusing. They seem to be run from a card table on a dusty street, sometimes just from a random guy with a cell phone, and prices varied widely. Our hotels also sold tickets, but offered fewer options. The bus station, as we knew from when we had arrived in Yangon, was 1-2 hours away through menacing traffic by $10-15 taxi one way, so going there to find prices and times would be time-consuming and expensive at best. Meanwhile, the train station was a walkable distance from our hotel, was better established, and offers the romance of antique British rail and rural views. We had enjoyed the trains in China and Thailand, and we liked what we read on seat61, so we decided to go by train. Only, hold up-the sleeper cars were sold out! We could wait 3 days, but we had been so long in Yangon and we had no hotel booked, which had proved problematic a few days prior. How about upper class, with padded reclining seats? Sold out. What’s left? ‘Ordinary class’ wooden benches, a bargain at $4 each, yes, but should we?

We did. And the troops wailed and moaned and gritted their teeth. But we had made our choice, and we figured how bad could it be?

It really wasn’t horrible, despite a detailed list created by one of my offspring to express otherwise. Our assigned car was almost full, so we did not have the option of sprawling across the whole two-person bench. We were surrounded by locals readying themselves for the same trip, and we watched and learned. We ended up, like many passengers, making a small bed on the floor between the pair of benches facing eachother. One could stretch one’s legs out a bit this way under the benches. I slept this way on the shaking wooden floor, and I may have fallen asleep once or twice. I liked the swaying, bobbing train and I liked how I could glimpse the swiftly moving tracks inches from my head as I peeked between the floorboards. It was a long night as the train cars jostled about, the fluorescent lights shone brightly, the wheels clacked in varying rhythms and occasionally shrieked or made a mighty CLANG!, and the vendors shouted about their wares even in the small hours.

Near sunrise, 6am, people started moving around and sliding open the vented aluminum windows to the fresh air. We could watch the sun rising and again see the rice fields that seemed to extend to the horizon. We had made it through the night and we congratulated ourselves. The twins actually seemed to have slept ok. We eventually pulled into the Mandalay station, caught a taxi to a hotel and decided it was fine. Next was food, naps, and showers, and we were back in the swing of things. Hello, Mandalay!

Angkor Wat trip-thoughts and logistics

   Truly surrounded by backpacks at the crowded border

The Thai-Cambodia border at Poipet is hot and dusty and it smells like fish. The kids wait in front of me in an excruciating line on the Thai side as we cross our fingers that we can make it back to Bangkok in time for Mr. Fantastic’s new online teaching gig, which we are destined not to do. We are in the first line for about 40 minutes and the second one for nearly two hours. We are returning from a visa run and a trip to the famed ruins of Angkor Wat. 

After being scammed at the border a month ago, and now with this particularly inconvenient border crossing, I am not heartbroken to say goodbye to Cambodia. But we have had a wonderful time! I think it comes down to the fact that I am not a great tourist. I would rather work and live in Cambodia, learn the language, make a friend or two, and measure my time in months or years instead of days. But that will have to wait until I maybe join the peace corps again someday or come up with something else. 

This time I am part of a family of six, and we came because we had to renew our Thai visas and we wanted to see the ruins. We accomplished these things, but perhaps our timing was a bit off. It worked out that we were there during the New Year’s holiday and the crowds were large. It is high season anyway, so I’m not sure how it compares to a few weeks earlier or later. We did have the benefits of dry, relatively cool weather, and some amazing lighting displays in Siem Reap.

I remain frustrated that I don’t know how much things cost in Cambodia! I know you’re supposed to bargain in most cases but it gets confusing when I don’t want to be unfairly frugal or spend too much. And I’m always working in three currencies- Cambodian riel (4,000 to $1), US dollars (preferred), and since we are staying in Thailand, Thai baht (36 to $1). As far as scams go, though, we’ll call it even. Last month I was bamboozled into buying Cambodian visas through a service- expensive and unnecessary- as I staggered out of the four hour minivan ride from Bangkok on my own with the kids. This time, I had Mr. Fantastic by my side and a printout in my hand. The printout was from the Cambodian government website and their free-visas-for-kids-under-12 policy was highlighted in neon yellow. Yes! The twins got in for free. I bargained for a taxi to Siem Reap for $45, I’m still not sure if we overpaid but it was dark out and we are six people (seven with driver) in a car for five, and we felt OK about the price. (It only cost us $30 in the return trip, but that was in a minivan that seats 14). Three hours later, we arrived in SR and the taxi driver took us to a budget hotel as we requested. They quoted me $30 for a three-bed room, and as I walked out to consider, they changed it to $20. We took it and ended up there for four nights. It was perfect for us and when we walked around to compare, nothing came close: no vacancies or much higher prices. Cleverly bought four t-shirts for $6 after an original price of $20. I agonized over a rice-paper rubbing of a stone carving at a temple- original price $45, I paid $20. The tuk tuk driver who took us to the ruins charged anywhere from $13- $30 per day over three days of varying time and distance. We are sure $30 was too much and we complained to the hotel for that one. And it feels petty now, since it was only $5-$10 too much to a hard-working man in an impoverished country while we privileged Americans travel the world. 

It was all confusing but I think it turned out ok. I am especially proud that we found a way to avoid buying too many disposable plastic water bottles. Trash is a problem everywhere we have been, yet drinking water clearly is a necessity. We were able to buy a returnable 15-liter water jug for $6 including deposit, fill our bottles for two days, and return the jug, retrieving the $5 deposit. So just $1 for the water and no extra plastic bottles in the trash! That was a success. 

Another success was our scheduling. We stayed four nights and had three full days for the ruins. I am satisfied with what we saw, though it was far from seeing everything. That would take much more time. The first day was about 7 hours of seeing ruins. The second day we watched the sunrise over the Angkor Wat temples then, after a nap, let the kids swim all day while we parents rented a motorcycle and saw some of the further away ruins on our own. The third day we were out for about five hours then the kids swam again. 

Our hotel location was great. We could walk to the night market and Pub Street across a short bridge, but out street was quieter than those areas. We were able to swim at a nearby hotel for $3 per person, which included a can of soda, and the kids were thrilled. We checked at a few hotel pools and chose our favorite; all allowed non-guests to use the pool for $3-$5 per person. We ate at the night market or a restaurant near our hotel. We had smoothies, Indian food, baguette sandwiches, Thai food, and local noodle dishes. Eating was easy with low prices and plenty of western/backpacker crowd food.

I think that’s all I wanted to say about our non-ruins experience at Siem Reap. I hope it helps other budget-travel families as they negotiate this amazing, sometimes overwhelming, magical place with its history, beauty, and mystery.

Budget, August- November 2015

  I get a lot of questions, and I wonder myself, so here are some details about what we have been spending from when we left on August 28 through the end of October. For more detailed RTW budgets than we have been able to document, I recommend GlobeGazers.wordpress.com (a couple who travelled 1 year) and traveljunkies.com (couple with 1 child who travelled 2 years).

In the US, we were able to sleep in 1 hotel room for the six of us, and breakfast was included. For Philadelphia to San Francisco, we had a driveaway car and paid only gas. Before leaving, we spent $800 on travel health insurance (August 15 through Feb 1st excluding the cruise for which we had separate insurance) and a little under $1200 for Chinese visas (must be done in advance, multiple entry for 10 years, awesome!)

August 28- August 31: we began driving from Philadelphia to San Francisco in the driveaway car. We stayed 2 nights with my parents, so only 1 hotel night. We went to Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, and St. Louis.

$60 hotel, $147 food, $182 gas, $111 admission to The City Museum(which everyone still considers a highlight of the trip!)= $500 for the first 4 days, $125/day or $20.83 per person per day

September 1-11: From St. Louis, we went pretty quickly across Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and into California. We reached San Francisco and stayed there and Sonoma for 4 days. Then we rented a car and went north to Vancouver, where we got on the ship on the 11th. $520 for hotels (5 nights; the rest we stayed with friends), $500 gas, $610 food, $500 rental car, $370 miscellaneous (mostly clothes and books, thrift store last minute things I thought we should have- raincoats, hiking sandals). Total is $2500 for 11 days, $227/day or $37.83 per person per day

Sept 11-27: the cruise cost about $6000, not a sustainable travel amount for us but we paid for it over the previous year when we were both working. That includes taxes, tips, health insurance onboard, and trip cancellation insurance. And of course, room and board and entertainment and transport to Shanghai. We spent an additional $276 onboard, mostly for Internet access for Mr. Fantastic for business things. Onshore we spent about another $150 on snacks and entertainment. Total $6426, or $401.62 per day, or $66.94 per person per day.

  September 27-November 16: here it gets a little messier. We calculate we have spent $87 per day (cash we have withdrawn/51 days) plus a few things we put on credit cards. Since we use cash so often, we don’t have the credit card statements telling us exactly where we are spending it. We try to write things down but rarely can we be that organized. We do know the amount includes our expenses to volunteer at Sae Lao, which were about $875 for 16 days (or $54.68 per day, or $10.93 per person per day). Also included are Laos visas ($45 per person= $270), most food and housing and entertainment. Not included are the Gibbon Experience, ($1400), the Shanghai to Kunming train ($530), and hotels and food we charged ($390). With those expenses, total for those 51 days are $6757, which is $129.94 per day, or $21.66 per person per day. If that figure is correct, there may be credit card purchases we haven’t checked or something, we are doing amazingly well because we have SIX people!! Many travelers try for $100 per day for 2-3 people and I knew we would spend more than that, but considering the expensive things we have done (gibbons, getting stuck in China) I am happy with how we are doing. Also, we have gone from Philadelphia to Bangkok by land and sea- no airplanes! I’m glad about this; it really shows us how large the world is and it’s just more adventurous in my opinion.

Income and current plan:

We have about $2600/month income from renting out our house and other properties. We had hoped to get a loan against our house for the rest, but it seems to have failed due to some last- minute snafus and the papers having expired. They had actually given us a check, we deposited it, then they cancelled!! Annoying. The bank wants us to sign again in person and it’s not worth the expense to do so now. 

We may have done this anyway, but we decided to accept a position Mr. Fantastic was offered to teach part time for a test prep agency in Bangkok. He is getting far fewer hours than they had discussed, but he gets a small housing stipend that almost covers our rent, so it is cheap for us to stay here.  Other considerations: the kids wanted to settle somewhere for a while, Bangkok is a travel hub for short trips, it has an expat homeschool community, there is easy access to Cambodia and Myanmar, good medical facilities are here if we need them. 

So, we plan to stay in Bangkok for 3-4 months. We are trying to stay under $100/day here and, though we have to say no to some things, it has not been too difficult. For example, we stayed overnight at Cha Am beach last week and yesterday we spent the day at a water park. Including food and transportation and entertainment, were able to stay under budget, even with our fixed expense of rent. And while I sometimes envy the steady paychecks of the expats we meet, we have so much freedom and time together and that is wealth indeed. 

In our pre-trip planning, we had decided to stay in places for weeks or months at a time. We did not plan on staying in cities, since they tend to be more expensive, but so far we are ok here. We are planning where to go next- from Thailand, either India or back to China (Beijing and west) then westward to Eastern Europe. We will likely have to fly soon, since overland looks expensive either way. That’s all for now on the budget!