A Travellerspoint blog

February 2017

Exploring Myanmar by Train

Myanmar Railway: tickets, experience, best routs

Being a big fan of railways and having a rule to travel by rail as much as possible I couldn't wait to come to Myanmar. And I wasn't disappointed.
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The Network
Rail Network in Myanmar is actually more developed that you would expect in a way it's as extensive as in Thailand, nothing comparing to Indian network of course. I guess this is a part of British heritage.
You can reach all the main cities that are visited by tourist and although infrequent and slow trains usually run on daily basis.

The tickets
This is by far my favorite part. You can't book them online (daa). You can't buy them for the following day (Yangon might be an exception). You have to show up at the station about 20 minutes before train departure, skip the main ticket window and just pop your head into the station office. Someone will invite you inside sit you down and write a ticket. You get a special ticket which looks as if it was for West End show, while everyone else gets a scribble on a small piece of cardboard. Foreigners pay in Kyat same prices as locals, first class normally twice cheaper than taking a bus and a second class is next to nothing.
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The Trains
The trains look like they were delivered by Her Majesty's Rail back in royal times and are still running. There are two classes, first and second. Second class is the picture above. Basically flat plastic benches, perfectly fine for a couple of hours. First class - you get individual seats which look more like barber's chairs with armrest and everything. Just like barber's chairs these spin left and right and can recline far back - sound comfortable right? Wrong! They'd be comfortable if any of them worked. 99% chances that all levers are broken, which in best case means the chair is stiff fixed, worst case it has a mind of its own and spins out of control every time when train rocks and those trains rock alright.
We decided to be brave and took a night train in first class from Bago to Mawlamine. I remember waking up in the middle of the night, when double dose of valium has worn off, and seeing everyone in the carriage spinning around as if they were on a carousel.
The night was horrific, but experience priceless!
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Only when you experienced Burmese trains you start to fully appreciate comfort of Indian trains. And this says a lot...
The trains shake big time, you can properly appreciate the extend of rocking when you look through the passage that links two carriages as you see how they rock one against another.
The Accident
We were taking a ride from Pyin U Lwin to Kyaukme when we heard a loud bang like an explosion and the train got engulfed in ashes. After a second we realized that the train just derailed. The ashes were in fact concrete from the rail frame being sliced by wheels.
All the western folks jumped out in fascination while the Burmese hardly blinked an eye. They said not to worry this happens all the time...
And indeed no one including train guys worried. They got out a mega sized wrench which had two levers one to lift and lower and another one to shift it right or left. While two guys were spinning the wrench one was counting so they could spin it from both sides simultaneously. Within an hour we were back on tracks. More in this video.

About an hour before Kyaukme we reached the famous Gokteik Viaduct. As the train has to descent to reach the Viaduct it makes a few switchbacks so you see it from both right and left. The train slows down to about 5 km/h and crosses the Viaduct at a snail place, the views are breathtaking.

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Posted by dima.safr 06:43 Archived in Myanmar Tagged train burma railway backpacking video independent gokteik_viaduct myanmar_railway derailed Comments (1)

Motorbike Trekking in Shan State - Myanmar

2 day Independent village motorbike trek from Kyaukme


More on our Myanmar trip
Most of the village trekking in separatist Shan State of Myanmar is done out of Hsipaw. We heard that a town just before Hsipaw - Kyaukme is a viable and less touristy alternative.

Kyaukme itself is a very lively town on the Mandalay - Lashio trade route from China. There is a buzzing market where you can get all sorts of Burmese street-food and one Beer station that we found by following this instructions from Wikitravel:
(From A yone oo guesthouse turn left, then left again at the end of the street. walk for a few minutes til you go over the canal and the take another left, a few meters along is beer and BBQ!).

We quickly found Northern Rock hotel, which is made up of few large colonial rooms being partitioned into small, cozy and windowless box rooms. We got a double for $12. A charming house and a nice family, but cheep and cheerful rooms. However, since you won't be staying there any longer than a day it's not a big of a deal.

They guesthouse owner said that they can help us with a trek and put us in touch with Jay. Jay is a 20-something chap, who sometimes works as an English school teacher, grows corn to sell to China and doubles up as a cultural trekking guide.
Jay came back at 7ish bringing 2 girls back from a trek, who were very happy with their experience and highly recommended the motor-bike trek! Until this point we never heard of moto-trekking, and were more in favor of using our legs as you do.
There are a couple of options where you can do a fairly short overnight trek along tea growing villages ($20) being dropped off and picked up in the hills, or to take a motorbike a do a much larger loop visiting several villages ($25). The second option sounded more adventures!
Jay asked us about how confident we were on semi-auto motorbikes, by that point none of us had any motorbiking experience and driving it on steep mountain trails sounded like a suicide. For $10 we got drivers who were effectively Jay's students and grew up in highlands riding motorbikes since they were 5.

Next day we all met up, stocked up on water and petrol and hit the road.
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Very quickly we left the road and hit a dusty trail, and when I say trail I actually mean quite literally a cattle trail! Our first point of call was a fairly large village sporting a local school.
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All the adults were away away, either in field a working elsewhere until the dry season ends. A guy showed up selling ice lollies from the back of his motorbikes, Jay bought a whole bunch for all the kids, who were needless to say, happy to have their lesson interrupted.
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And as a gratitude they sand us a song. I included it into this short video which should give you an idea of what we encountered on the road.

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And in case you wonder - it's dusty - very dusty!
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After riding for another hour or so we arrived at a small roadside village to grab some Shan noodles for lunch!
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Than we arrived at a more substantial village featuring a pagoda, school and communal hole.
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It's worth to mention here that Shan is a separatist state, there are still occasional skirmishes between Shan army and the government troops. In fact Jay had to adjust our route as there were some reported fighting on one of roads.
People are quite open about supporting independence, in almost every house you will see pictures and calendars featuring Shan army Burmese opposition leader - Aung San Suu Kyi, who at that time was still under house arrest.

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Us having an afternno nap through the sticky March heat.
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Our moto-drivers having a tea break
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We were very happy that we decided to take drivers and didn't try to wing it and learn riding a semi-auto on this mountain trails. Most trails are as narrow as the one below, plus a lot of them pass along steep cliffs and sharp turns.

As we were approaching our overnight stop, one of the motorbikes broke down. large_IMG_4149.jpg
These were unbranded Chinese 125 semi-auto bikes, a brand new one costed only $300 and could be bought in any town. Apparently they were not half bad, to be ridden by two people up and down the hills on nothing more than a hiking trail is a lot of punishment to take. Next time I'm in Myanmar for a month or so I may just buy one for me.
The kids spend about half an hour trying to fix, than Jay took a second Argentinian girl on his bike and we left for the village leaving one of them behind. After dropping us of at the home-stay and introducing to the hosts Jay with one of his students went to his man's rescue.

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The home-stay was very basic but comfortable enough, we had a nice vegy dinner and a couple of Chinese beers for $1. My favorite moment when I told our host that this is beer from China, and he said it wasn't. I was like common it has Chinese written all over it, it's from China to what he responded - no it's from Lasio!

Later on the guys brought back the broken motorbike. Turns out that one of the kids forgot to top up oil and the engine simply burned out. So one more point for the Chinese bile, after all it hasn't simply died on us.

As a way of entertaining themselves and us, Jay and his kids engaged into improvised karaoke performance. It's so popular over there that every self respecting Burmese teenager has a Karaoke up on his smartphone.

Next morning we left one of the kids with a broken motorbike, the plan was for him to push it downhill to the next small town where there is a garage. He told Jay if I haven't called by end of the day please come and find me...

We rented a really shitty, oil leaking bike from one of the local guys. That guy wouldn't rent us his good bike even if it was for a half of a day, instead he gave us the shitty one and asked for $20. Jay said it was a really dick move, as the guy new we were desperate and in Kyaukme you could buy a used bike like that for $50.

We were off to the tea plantations...
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In the next village we visited Jay's family. He sent one of his cousins to drop off the rented bike and got the the other one to take a position of substitute driver with his good bike.
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After that we came down towards rice fields, which gave us a very welcome change to lush green from the gray dusty hills.

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By 5 pm we were dropped of at the highway bus station to catch a bus for Inle Lake.

Great trip, great value for money, the fee we payed included everything we had on the trek (except $1 beer obviously). Jay and his kids are very keen and sincere and I would definitely recommend them.

More on our Myanmar trip

Posted by dima.safr 04:17 Archived in Myanmar Tagged trek tea plantation myanmar backpacking costs independent village_trek motorbike_trekking kyaukme shan_state Comments (3)

3 weeks in Myanmar - Independent backpacking

Sample Itinerary, top highlights, transportation, accommodations, costs

This is my 3 week itinerary around Myanmar. We aimed to fit as many as possible sites which provide for variety of activities, while deliberately avoiding beaches (this because we had plenty of that on Tiaman island.)

Yangon

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Get To
Fly in from KL with Air Asia for next to nothing. A $10 taxi ride from the airport.

Top Highlights

  • Yangon itself - a great place to get a sense of Myanmar. Get accustom to pollution, street food and buzzing nightlife around the pub street.
  • Shwedagon Paya- the biggest and greatest Pagoda complex in Myanmar, a good place to visit at the beginning before you become totally sick and tired of Pagodas. $8. Make sure to cover your legs (man and women) otherwise you will be pressured into buying a Burmese skirt. I got one which made for a nice souvenir, don't see myself wearing it around London though.
  • take a circular ride around Yangon. $1 from central train station (site to behold!).

Where to Stay
Mahabandoola Guesthouse, Cnr of 32nd st and Mahabandoola Rd (directly opposite Sule Pagoda) - $12 double.

Bago

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Get To
Take a train. No need to book, just turn up at the ticket office an hour before, someone will see you take you into the station chief's office and write up a foreigners ticket - first class $1. Foreigners now pay in Kyat and the same fairs as locals.

Top Highlights

  • Reclaining Budhe - believed to be the longest
  • Shwe mawdaw Pagoda (Golden God Temple) - believed to be the highest

Both cost $10 - but actually free after 5pm.

Where to Stay
San Francisco Hotel, No.(14), Main Road, S/Zainganaing Qr - $14-25 double.

Mawlamine

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Get To
Nerve-wrecking night train from Bago. Don't remember the cost, but no more than couple of $.

Top Highlights

  • Pa Auk Taw Ya Monastery - 15km south of town, ask in your hotel about where to pic up a truck.
  • Kyaik Tan Lan Pagoda. Up on the hill, this is great place to see the sunset over town.
  • Rivera for a nice meal after the sun set.

Where to Stay
Breeze Guesthouse - 6. Strand Road $15-20 double

Hpa-an

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Get To
5 hour boat ride - $12, or Bus - $2.

Top Highlights

  • Biking around the cliffs
  • Bat Cave - be there at sunset for an unforgettable show of nature.
  • Shweyinhmyaw Paya - a pilgrimage site, for great views and authentic experience watching locals and pilgrims.

Where to Stay
Soe Brothers Guesthouse, No.(2/146), Thitsar Street - $12.

Golden Rock

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Get To
5 hour bus ride from Hpa-an to Kyaiko - $5, and a 30 min pic up truck to Kinpun where you spend the night.

Top Highlights

  • Golden Rock (surprise)
  • Ride to the Golden Rock (my personal favourite)!

Where to Stay
Once you get of the pic up truck there will be hoteliers offering rooms, they shout out prices so it's quite easy to spot the cheap one. I believe we stayed in a place at the end of the main road (it's a one road town) for $12.

Bagan

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Get To
An overnight Bus from Bagan (10-12 hours) - $15 and a $5-$10 for a taxi to take you from the bus stand on the highway to the ticket gate at Bagan.

Top Highlights

  • 1000 temples of Bagan, quite obvious
  • Sunrise view from the top of a Pagoda
  • E-biking around ancient temples!

Where to Stay
Plenty of places all along the main road. Prices higher than elsewhere in Myanmar. 20 fan double, 25 AC double.

Mandalay

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Get To
A 6 hour bus ride from Bagan - $8 from door to door.

Top Highlights

  • Snake charmer by the main Pagoda!
  • Not many other...

Where to Stay
ET Hotel, 83rd and 23rd/24th Street - $20 for fan double. Pay an extra $5 and get AC - really worth it!

Pyin U Lwin

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Get To
2 hour pic up ride from central Mandalay, ask at your hotel and they will easily explain where to get it, also confirm the price. I believe we paid 1500 Kyat.
Top Highlights

  • Anisakan Falls - make sure to take a dip in the ice freezing water.
  • The night food market - all sorts of stuff!

Where to Stay
Cherry Guesthouse, next to the clock tower on the Lashio Road. $20 for a double

Kyaukme

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Get To
Only the train! Well there is a bus of-course, but you must take a train which takes best part of the day and in the general class costs around $1.

Top Highlights

  • Motorbike village trekking, what a great alternative to reportedly overcrowded Hsipaw.
  • Train over Gokteik Viaduct - I'll have a separate post on this point!

Where to Stay
Not a lot of choice. Northern Rock, Shwe Phi Oo Road - $12 per double.

Inle Lake

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Get To
12 hour excruciating bus ride from Kyaukme - $15, the bus leaves from a station on the Lashio highway, your hotel will arrange a ticket and call a tuk tuk to take you there. You will need to take a tuk tuk from main road to the town - $1.

Top Highlights

  • Boat ride on the lake. Make sure to include further side of the lake where monastery is.
  • A bike ride around the lake to hot springs!
  • Trek to Kawar (we haven't actually done it)

Where to Stay
Diamonds star guesthouse, Yone Gyi Road, a short walk from the pier - $15 for a double.

Kalaw

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Get To
3 hour painfully slow train from Inle or a 1 hour bus.

Top Highlights

  • Circular village trek - can do on your own with a GPS map
  • 3 day Kalaw - Inle trek

Where to Stay
Pine Land Inn - main road, $12 for a double

After researching the web and reading a lot about high accommodation costs and inflated attraction fees we have set ourselves budget of $70 per couple per day. In fact $50 was more that sufficient.
ATMs- plenty
USD - if binning cash, make sure it's brand new - literally brand new!
Language - English is widely spoken
Internet - widely available, cheap and slow

Posted by dima.safr 11:05 Archived in Myanmar Tagged accommodation hotel bus train bagan mandalay golden_rock pagoda transport inle_lake yangon backpacking viaduct kalaw independent bago bat_cave myanmar_rail motorbike_trek e-bike Comments (0)

Jaipur Monkey Temple

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Jaipur is't my favorite city in India by a mile. I love busy, buzzing with life cities of Rajastan, but there is something about Jaipur that just didn't sit well with me. It isn't as authentic as Jodahpur and not even ounce as hectic as Delhi. Although this is only one traveler's opinion.

There is one place, however, that sunk in my mind - the monkey temple! A place which sadly often bypassed by travelers who are too busy visiting Palace of Winds and Amber Fort.
How to get to, the easiest thing is to negotiate hard and get a taxi to a Galta Gate, or if you already in down town you could probably walk it in a 30-40min. Here is the map-

The reason you go to the Monkey Temple is - the monkeys! But not only, as soon as you cross the gate you see a perfect family of monkeys. cows, goats and pigs all fiddling with each other. All of them are clearly very well looked after, we bought a bunch of bananas to feed, but really struggled to stick them to anyone.
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This picture is of Dovile trying to feed banana to a monkey. What you don't see is the monkey taking the banana reluctantly and than tossing it away.
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A minute later we saw an Indian couple coming with a stuck of chapati! Now it all made sense- these were Chapati Monkeys!

Once we were done with enjoying the monkey show, we left for the actual temple. The temple is a 20 min hike away. Funny enough you don't see as many monkeys over there...
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The temple itself is actually very peaceful. You get a little bit of hustle for donations, but not more than any other temple and there are enough of donation boxes where you can deposit if you feel being a bit apprehensive about giving money to fake priests, which there are plenty in India.

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All in all a very good a half-day out doing something other than Palace-hoping in Jaipur.
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Posted by dima.safr 08:51 Archived in India Tagged monkeys temple rajastan monkey_temple hanuman_temple galta_gate Comments (0)

Desert safari in Rajastan

Independent desert safari out of Jaisalmer on a backpacker's budget

You can't spend a month in Rajastan without going for a safari.
We tried to research for it to get an idea of the cost and what to expect. But all that internet and Lonely Planet told us that it's a bit hit and miss and you should just come to Jaisalmer and go and see few travel agent.

I had a 5 year old LP where there was a good review of a place called Badal House, in a village of Khuri, 40 minutes out of Jaisalmer. A 5 year old LP said Mr. Badal Singh was charging 500 rs for a full board home-stay and organised safaris for another 500 rs per person per day, so we decided to give it a go.

We arrived Jaisalmer at 6am on an overnight train from Jodahpur and went to the road towards Khuri where we were supposed to catch a Bus. LP and Wikitravel were stating that you can catch a bus from the first cross road on road rd '15', where there is a large Banyan tree and a small shrine. We easily found the place, but after asking some locals who were hanging out on the streets at 6 am, and most of whom speak hardly any English, we realized it wasn't the right place. Bus departs from a small Bus stand further down that same road, you have to walk for about 10-15 minutes until you see a bunch of buses and jeeps parked. We had to wait for till 8 am for the first bus to depart and it took us under an hour to get the place. Tickets - 30-40 rs.

You can't miss that place it's right in the middle of the village and anyone can point you towards Badal House.
Here is the man himself -
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To our surprise we found out that none of the prices has changed in the last five years. Mr. Badal was providing a little sanctuary of home-stay where you live in mud huts from the smurf kingdom. The food is great, the family is very kind and you really feel like you staying at someone's home. He used to work as camel driver for decades, than when he got too old for that he put a sign on his house and waited for people to come.
He is a very modest man who has never been to Delhi, doesn't like Jaisalmer because it's too busy and is absolutely in love with desert.

Totally of point, but Also make sure that you spend at least one night on the roof under the desert stars!
We decided to take it easy and use this opportunity to have some rest from buzzing cities of Rajastan.

There isn't really much to do in Khuri, it's literally just a gateway into the desert. We strolled around to take pic at the quiet and somewhat primitive desert life.
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We decided to go for a 2 night desert safari, frankly it's hard to handle more than that on a camel.
We left in a late afternoon each accompanied by a camel driver. I don't think we were riding for longer than an hour, but we managed to cross a couple of dunes to find a remote and lonely spot for ourselves.
Our drivers managed to collect some firewood and cook us an intricate desert dinner, we in turn shared some whiskey. Sun set and an hour later we were of to sleep under the stars.
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The next day we got up for a sun set, had some breakfast and set off deeper into the desert. This is where we actually experienced what it's like to ride a camel and I mean galloping across dunes and desert bushes. The ride starts really cool and 15 minutes later you pray for it to stop...

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An hour and a half later we arrived at this little settlement in the middle of nowhere, where we were greeted by our camel driver's family.
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The re isn't whole lot to do during the day so we wondered about around the village, explored the dunes and after having a basic but very tasty desert lunch we set off back into dunes for another night under the stars.
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Next morning we got back home just before afternoon, leaving enough time to get a clean shave.
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I would recommend Badal's place for: great value for money, great relaxed atmosphere, 0 pushiness, open and honest service.

Posted by dima.safr 08:20 Archived in India Tagged desert india safari budget cheap camel rajastan cost badal_house Comments (0)

Ping Pong show in Bangkok

How to see a ping pong show in Bangkok and stay safe

Prologue...

There is no one who has been to Thailand and never heard of Ping Pong shows. When I visited Bangkok for the first time back in 2010 I agreed with one of my fellow travelers that we must go to see a Ping Pong show when we return to Bangkok. Unfortunately James got stuck in Cambodia and I decided that it would be supper creepy to go and see one on my own. Hence I had to leave Thailand without ticking this one of my bucket list.

5 years later fate brought me back to the Bangkok, this time accompanied by my girlfriend. This time it had to happen!

There are herds of tuk tuk drivers hawking around Khao San road making "pouch"-like sound and saying "you want see ping pong?" and sticking a menu like that right in your face.
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needless to say going anywhere with those scammers is a sure way to get ripped off and find yourself in the whole heap of trouble.

I have tried googling around on "how to see a ping pong show in Bangkok" and came up with a whole lot of reports on "how to NOT to see a ping pong show in Bangkok".
Apparently it's a massive scam, where you are likely to be overcharged for everything including the air you breathe, locked in in a basement and ruffed up by a bunch of naked women while being threatened with Thai mafia. The common trick is to lure you in promising something like 200 bath for show, and than tell you that that was only to see one show, but there were several girls on the stage and each of them did several performances and your bill comes to 8000 bath.

I also read about one story which made to fall of my chair and almost pee myself while being seriously concerned. It was about a guy who was shot in his eye by a ping pong ball. The eye got infected and had to be removed. I wonder how does he respond when asked "mate how did you loose your eye?" "I was attacked by a rancid pussy...".

Basically our internet research showed that there is hardly any decent ping pong shows left in Thailand, and most of them are confined to Pattaya...

Field research

We decided to not despair and go and try our luck in world renown Soi Cowboy.
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Soi Cowboy looks much more civilized than we would expect. The street is fenced off from both sides and there are heavy cops guarding entries. Inside the alley there is hardly any hustle, a lot of offers and price lists are on display. Actually we found it to be a way more relaxed place to grab a drink than most of Khao San. We got a couple of drinks and took a seat outside to people-watch. I'm not judgmental, but this was a real delight, some of the guys you see there look as if the came out straight from "To catch a predator", hugging two adolescent girls and heaving the biggest, dirtiest smile ever. I'm gonna get it tonight, fuck yeah! Ok, I am judgmental.
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When we ensured that there were no ping pong championships going on at Soi Cowboy, we decided to go for a walk and pop into Nana Plaza. I red that there was a place called Angel Witch which had sex shows including ping pong.
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Nana Plaza is way creepier place than Soi Cowboy. Essentially it looked like a sex ghetto, with a bunch of working girls lining up outside as if they were waiting for a bus which will never arrive.

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To be fair Angel Witch is actually a nice place, very professional they give you a bill with your drink, a beer is 150 bath, no hustle and the show is actually very artistic and nice to watch. Recommended, but no ping pong.
Well that was it, the next morning we were going to Chiang Mai and the ping pong show was gonna elude me once again...

Not so fast!!!
We got back from Chiang Mai a day earlier, this was a sign from above! Now or never! We had to go to the dirtiest, sleaziest and dodgiest part of Bangkok - Patpong.
Being aware of all the possible scams that were waiting for us we decided not to take any chances. I left a the hotel my walet, all the cards, mobile phone and my watch, taking only 1000 bath which I was prepared to loose.
Patpong is nothing like Soi Cowboy or Nana. It's a cross between a Brick Lane market and Soho with a bunch of Pimps eager to take you to the Ping Pong show.
Patpong is made up of two street Patpong 1 and Patpong 2. We circled around and peaked in windows until right at the middle of Patpong 2 we haven't settled on this one.
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In Case you wonder the place is not really called "Super ussy", the "P" is out.

There was a girl at the door who explained that all is included, we only had to pay to her and that is it. 300 bath would get you an entry card which includes one drink and the show. We payed up and went up. First we missed the show room and went up to the second floor which looked supper creepy, but we were turned away by one of the Bangkok's finest pimps.

The Ping Pong Show

Am I actually going to write about a ping pong show? About time init?

We took a sit at a corner by the door (so we could do a runner if anything), but we were quickly moved to the front row VIP seats. At this point we realized that we were the only-ones there.
There were 3 girls who were quickly swapping one another.
I'm not going to describe all the tricks as you probably already know what they are and my description won't make them any justice. The only thing I'm going to say - I didn't find the show sexual in any way it was more like watching a circus performance. I didn't found it degrading ether, this probably follows from the previous point.
After completing all the tricks from that menu in the beginning of the post the girl proceed towards the highlight - Ping Pong.
Some things you just cant unsee...
Suddenly we were given ping pong rackets. This was the moment when alarm bells rang in my head - "The LOST EYE"!!! I put my sunglasses on and went into a defense mod! I'm goint to stand my ground and not surrender any of my eyes to a rotten pussy!
She was loading two balls at once and launching them right at our heads. There is only one thing I can say - What a shot, what a precision! Respect!
We managed to fend of all the balls and NO Eyes Were Lost during this experiment!
While leaving a gave a girl a tip as I though that was expected and see was genuinely surprised.
All in all it was a good experience and a good thing to tick of your list, it ended safe and without having to put a fight with fierce Bangkok mafia!

Hopefully this post will help someone on their next trip to Siam.

Posted by dima.safr 09:00 Archived in Thailand Tagged bangkok patpong ping_pong_show super_pussy sex_show Comments (0)

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