Vientiane, Chiang Mai and Yangon.

In contrast to my last couple of posts which were ostensibly about away-days, this is about a much meatier trip.  Although having said that, the manner in which it was planned and executed is still very much in the spirit of the Barefoot Bohemian.  I will also focus on the mechanics of the trip rather than on producing yet another tour guide, although a video of each location can be viewed at The Barefoot Bohemian channel on YouTube if you want a flavour on them. View the video here

Yangon street scene

Yangon street scene

Having found myself with a couple of free weeks and deciding that I really needed to tick off some things from my bucket list (see the list here), I wanted to get the biggest bang for my buck, so it was either completing the missing Asian countries on my list or tackling a couple in Latin America.  Asia won – as so often happens with me.

The big Asian gaps were Laos and Myanmar (formerly Burma), and as I’d never been to Chiang Mai in Thailand and it is conveniently situated between the other two, that went into the itinerary as well.

I have built up a number of air miles with BA (Avíos points as they are now called) so I looked at flights to and from Bangkok. There were flights out but no air mile flights back to London in March or April.  So I booked a £200 flight to Bangkok (with some air miles) and a £20 (yes that does not have a 0 missing) return flight from Hong Kong 11 days later. Then I set about linking them up.  It involved lots of post it notes and numerous permutations but I eventually settled on an additional seven flights to complete the trip ( total cost about £350 which was less than half of the cost I was quoted by a popular flight company who wanted £750 for the same interconnecting trip). And ironically the cheapest way to fly was not west to east as you might expect, but east to west and then east again which shows the value of being flexible and checking all the options.

So the trip became London Heathrow to Bangkok.  Switch airports in Bangkok and fly from Bangkok Don Mueang airport to Vientiane in Laos.  Three nights in Vientiane.  Fly Vientiane to Luang Prabang in Laos and then on to Chiang Mai, Thailand.  Two nights in Chiang Mai.  Fly Chiang Mai to Bangkok then on to Yangon (formerly Rangoon) in Myanmar.  Four nights in Yangon.  Fly Yangon to Bangkok and Bangkok to Hong Kong before returning to London Heathrow.  Nine flights in eleven days with a total price of about £600 including air miles.

Room beside the Mekong in Vientiane

Room beside the Mekong in Vientiane

Next – accommodation.  Having experimented with Airbnb in Krakow, I thought it should be tested a little further in a couple of more remote locations.  It did not disappoint. I got a large spacious room with balcony on the banks of the Mekong in Vientiane, a similar sized and well-appointed room in the old city of Chiang Mai, and a reasonable but not as impressive double room – with breakfast – in Yangon (total cost for the nine nights – about £200).

Room in the old walled city of Chiang Mai

Room in the old walled city of Chiang Mai

A couple of other things to consider – transfers and visas.  Currencies, restaurants, and bars are no longer much of a consideration when travelling, given the proliferation of ATM machines and apps like Trip Advisor to help you find places to go when you arrive in a foreign country.  Airbnb hosts are remarkably helpful with information about their city and can advise the best way to transfer from the airport to the accommodation – with approximate costs so you don’t experience that ‘am I being ripped off’ feeling, actually you very rarely are but of course it can happen.  Visas for a U.K. passport holder are not required for Thailand, can be obtained on arrival in Laos and you can either get a visa for less than £20 for Myanmar, or if, like me, you are putting a trip together at the last minute and can’t wait the couple of weeks for your passport to be returned, then for an extra £15 or so, you can get an e-visa which was approved within hours and worked just fine.

Once the flights, visa and accommodation were booked, I could only foresee three tiny pinch-points. The first was I intended to do the trip without checked-in baggage. This became a little more tricky when I received an email from one of my chosen airlines informing me I was allowed two cabin bags – as long at their total weight did not exceed 7kg.  My challenge just got a little trickier.

Chiang Mai restaurant

Chiang Mai restaurant

The second was my arrival into Bangkok Suvarnbhumi Airport was scheduled for 0930 and my flight to Vientiane left Bangkok Don Mueang airport at 1255, giving me 3 hours 25 minutes between flights. Immigration at Bangkok can be a slow process (about an hour), taxi queues lengthy (30 minutes) Monday morning traffic a nightmare (more than one hour journey) and Air Asia are quite strict on enforcing their policy of checking in at least 1 hour prior to the flight (potentially 3 hours 30 minutes).

The third was the Myanmar eVisa required an address in Yangon and stressed that it must be a hotel or a licensed guest house, not a residential address, so my Airbnb accommodation might be an issue.  I resolved this by finding a cheap hotel with a memorable name in the same area as my accommodation and used its name and address.  If it became an issue I could always double book there.

In the end, none of the pinch-points became issues.  I got my bag weight down to 7.5kg and for the first couple of check-ins I wore my headphones, carried my iPad and was prepared to load the heavier items into my pockets.  However, despite numerous signs and warning announcements about their weight policy, no one ever checked the weight or size of my bag, so my achievement of getting the weight down became only a matter of pride in knowing I can do it.  The transfer in Bangkok was simple. Immigration was the quickest I’d ever experienced in Bangkok meaning I was outside in time to catch the free airport transport bus at 1000.  This takes 60-90 minutes and saved me a taxi fare.  And – the visa address? I don’t think the immigration officials in Yangon even read my visa letter.

But a final reminder if you’re thinking of making a similar trip – because I forgot!  Make sure you change back your unused Laotian and Burmese currency because even neighbouring Thailand won’t touch it with a bargepole.  Still, if you forget you’ll already have some cash for your next trip.

Good Luck
The Barefoot Bohemian.

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More Than A Day Trip

Charming Cafe in The Jewish Quarter

Charming Cafe in The Jewish Quarter

Following on from my last post about day trips, Kraków might seem like another location which would be a possible location for a quick visit. It’s a small enough city to see most things in a day, flights are frequent and cheap with early morning and late evening departures and it’s fairly inexpensive once you get there. (A train from the airport into the city centre takes 20 minutes and costs less than £2 each way).

But, for me, the thing which takes it off the day trip list is its proximity to Auschwitz and Birkenau, the former Nazi death camps. I can well understand a visit to these reminders of man’s inhumanity to man which happened only 70 years ago, may not be for everyone. They are undoubtedly a sobering and harrowing experience as you attempt to comprehend the systematic and highly organised extermination of those deemed expendable by the Nazis. However, for me, it would be a massive missed opportunity not to visit when you are only an hour’s drive away.

The gate at Auschwitz

The gate at Auschwitz

There are numerous ways to visit the camps, from public transport on bus or train, to coach tours or private hire minibuses for small groups. Entrance to the camps is free, although you pay about £10 each to join a guided group which is well worth it as the guides impart their extensive knowledge efficiently and with great dignity. I believe it would lose a great deal without their commentary.

Videos of Kraków and of Auschwitz/Birkenau are available on the Barefoot Bohemian YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCFswARTZPfWqJZ8-uQQ0JHw

Good Luck
The Barefoot Bohemian.

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Didn’t We Have A Lovely Day…

When I was young a day out involved a trip to the seaside, a fish and chip supper in a proper restaurant – with bread and butter – and falling asleep in the back of the car on the way home, especially if it was a trip to Blackpool Illuminations which mainly involved a massive traffic jam down the seafront and a lot of lights which looked remarkably similar after the first hour. Now a day out can be much more far-reaching and interesting.

thumb_P1010093_1024I have done day trips to Dublin, Geneva, Oslo and now I have added Copenhagen to the list. I accept it requires a few things to make it possible – a willingness to get up in the middle of the night; a budget airline operating from a fairly local airport (although this is not essential if your budget can cope with the additional costs or you have built up air miles – see note*); accommodating flight times with an outward flight in the early morning and a return flight in the evening; a city which is small and compact enough to see in a day and either the attention span of a gnat or no real interest in spending your day wandering around museums, art galleries or churches. If all, or at least most of these criteria apply to you, then perhaps a day trip abroad is for you.

The formula is pretty similar regardless of the destination, and the costs involved are comparable too, so I’ll use the details of the Copenhagen trip as an illustration.

Flight costs vary but are usually between £40 and £120 for a return flight within Europe. Transfers from the airport to the city centre are about £10-£20 each way. This was remarkably simple in Copenhagen.

Terminal 3

There are trains, buses, taxis and a metro to choose from. For me, the metro seemed the most efficient and cost effective. Trains and the metro leave from inside Terminal 3 and a single to the centre cost 36DKK each (£4.13). All prices are based on an exchange rate of £1 to 8.71DKK.  The journey takes ten minutes to Kongens Nytorv, which is pretty central and puts you among the shops and walking distance of many of the main attractions.

The usual hop on – hop off tourist bus costs 245DKK (£28.12) each and this includes a boat trip. In my opinion, the bus was a little disappointing but the boat made up for it, however, it does its job in taking you around all the places you need to see in a couple of hours. In some cities, it’s essential without incurring taxi costs. It also saves on doing any preparation before the trip because all the main attractions will be included.

Little MermaidI’m not really going to review Copenhagen because tourism is so subjective and there are numerous guides which go into much greater detail than I could, however, I found the people friendly and cheerful, but then the Danes were named the happiest people in the world in three of the past four years by the United Nations World Happiness Report.

Food is good and not too expensive even in the most popular tourist areas, and the Little Mermaid is just that – little and a mermaid – but you have to see her.

*Air miles note: Clearly this is only an option if you belong to a loyalty programme with a major airline and have made enough full price flights to build up a reasonable number of miles. But if you have, using air miles can be another cheap way of travelling. To kill the myth, it’s not free. Yes, the flights can be free, or you can pay with a combination of miles and cash, but you would usually be expected to pay the airport taxes and fees. These vary depending on the airport but are usually about £50 per return trip. However, British Airways for one has another scheme which can reduce this to a one-off fee of about £35 for the return flight, if you meet their criteria (check their website – www.britishairways.com – if you are interested and a member of their Executive Club loyalty programme).

Video is now available on the YouTube Channel at https://youtu.be/3vzWmJ-yLKE

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Musical Chairs At St Albion’s School in July.

Union FlagThings at St. Albion’s School calmed down a little in July, although not because of calls to ‘calm down’.  Never in the history of calming down has anyone ever calmed down because they were told to ‘calm down’.  No, it’s a little calmer because nothing has really happened, and as predicted in the last newsletter, it seems not much is likely to happen for some time.  This is because the people who wanted us out of the Confederation of Schools are now saying they need to talk to a lot of experts about the implications of leaving – something we’d all hoped had happened before they so strongly argued that we should leave.  I suppose these are not the same experts who clearly told us in May that it was not a good idea.  You remember, the ones Gormless Gove told us we’d heard enough from.  Meanwhile, the people who still want us to stay, clearly have a vested interest in dragging their feet until all momentum is lost, and we end up with some form of staying because by then it will be the best option (again as suggested in what is looking like a prophetic June newsletter).

However, there are some school events to announce, despite being so close to the end of term.  We have a new Head Girl, only the second in our history, and it’s Maggie ‘Mumsy’ May.  That happened after the most pathetic election in the history of elections.

First, Foxy Fox was thrown out – again.  It’s only a few years since he was the Shadow Prefect found to have over-claimed the most in expenses and then he resigned as a Prefect for allowing a male friend to see things he shouldn’t have seen. (More on him later).

Then Crabby Crab (no, they were not all named after animals) got a text telling him he needed to spend more time with his family, and less on his phone not to his family, so he dropped out.

Then, Gormless Gove was thrown out.  Now even his mummy, Lady MacGove, has stopped mentioning him in The Mouldy Murdoch.  But no doubt he’ll be back – they always are.  It seems failure, disgrace and embarrassment are never enough to end a career in politics – or football for that matter.

So that left two girls for the top job – Maggie May and Loathsome Leadsom.  Loathsome spent a couple of days getting most of the lies out of her c.v., refusing to tell anyone how much daddy earned, and then stupidly attacking Maggie for not liking children.  It was only a couple of days later that Loathsome decided she couldn’t hack it either.  And so ended the most bizarre game of musical chairs ever – no-one ever sat down but Maggie was left as the only one circling a single chair when the music stopped.  Not so much an election, or a coronation, more an only-one-left-so-you’ll-do result.

So with Maggie as Head Girl, she wasted no time in picking her prefects.  In a bizarre set of choices the most striking announcements were: No job for Gormless Gove, who stays in the lower desks; Foxy Fox, complete with chequered past, got picked; Pretty Patty was picked to be in charge of some after-school clubs she’d previously called to be scrapped; and most bizarrely of all, the school bully, Barmy Boris was back, only days after going home in tears and refusing to even try to be Head Boy – which is what he’s wanted since he was cloned.

There are two rumours circulating about this.  One is that Maggie has put Barmy Boris in a position where she can bollock him if we can’t pull out of the Confederation smoothly, but not close enough to be involved in talking to them – the giving-him-enough-rope / you-broke-it-you-pay-for-it rumour.  And the other rumour involves a cock-up.  Barmy Boris has been put in charge of school trips, which we call the Foreign Office.  Well, the rumour has it that when Maggie was writing her list of prefects with their roles she wrote F Off next to Barmy Boris’s name and the school office misunderstood and gave him the job.

Either way, it’s an interesting appointment but it’s impossible to ‘un-see’ that image of Barmy, complete with school flags and his trousers pulled into a wedgie, hanging on an aerial runway at a school sports day a few years ago.  It will, and should, haunt him forever.

Now a game of double-speak has begun, where everyone says what they think everyone wants to hear while meaning exactly the opposite.  It’s similar to the normal diet of lies, distortions, and misinterpretations that emanate from the School Council but linguistically slightly cleverer.  For example, Maggie, who didn’t want us to leave the Confederation, is running around saying Exit means Exit.   Can’t fault her on that one.  Stay mean Stay too, but it doesn’t tell us anything.  In fact, the head of English tells us most words mean what they mean because that’s how language works.

It’s all happening because it’s based on the flawed school vote we had, which purported to be a clear Yes-No decision, when in fact, there are shades of grey in both choices.  In other words, if we’d had a vote to ban caning it would be a clear Yes-No vote.  Unless we were suggesting banning it for all offences apart from those involving violence, for example.  In which case, it would have been clear in the vote.  This vote couldn’t cope with the nuances or shades of staying or leaving the Confederation.  We can’t ignore the Confederation altogether so we will have to have some kind of relationship with it, therefore it’s not really a Yes-No issue.  What conditions would be acceptable within the deal we end up with that would satisfy those who voted to leave?  That’s the ambiguity that Maggie is banking on to get her out of having to deliver what many people thought they wanted when they voted.  And after all, a school vote, or any survey, is always going to be flawed to some extent.  Surveys involve asking people what they think, when most of them are ill-advised about what to think, and others simply have not been thinking at all – and that includes both sides of the argument.  But as Maggie says: a vote is a vote, a result is a result and the future will be the future.

Meanwhile, the Alternative School Council is still in chaos and tying itself in knots by trying to out-manoeuvre each other by using the school rule book.  This is doubtless going to run into next term so I suspect this will have to be addressed in future newsletters.

On the sporting front, we have a new teacher to supervise the football after Wonky Way resigned. It’s Hagrid Sam – a safe pair of hands, a systems man and reliable.  He’s renowned for dodging relegation which means he’ll probably ensure we avoid dropping out at the group stage of the World Cup in 2018 but after that, he normally hands over to another manager who specialises in success so who knows if we will do any better than under Wonky.  It remains to be seen whether this appointment is enough to inspire our over-hyped players enough to turn them into winners.  It’s not promising, but if we didn’t want to bring in someone from another school, he was probably the best we had.

Our athletes are preparing to go to the Inter-Schools Games in a country where they have a virus which is a danger for unborn babies.  Believe me, there’s been an unprecedented rush on matron for those sticks you wee on from many of our girls’ team.  The other drama is that our team won’t be meeting many Russian competitors this year as most of them have been banned because some of them are accused of taking drugs.  It’s a shame it’s come to this, but it will certainly speed up the time it takes to get ready in the morning.  Last time the queues for the shaving points were horrendous, especially in the girls’ bathrooms.

Enjoy the holidays.

The Common Room Commentator

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Cheers. But Don’t Mind If I Don’t.

Coffee CupI’ve been considering stopping drinking alcohol for months now. Not necessarily forever, but for at least a few weeks, and afterwards, probably never returning to my pre-abstinence levels. What has prompted these cataclysmic thoughts?  A number of things really – some age-related, some health-related, some experimental.

Let’s get age out of the way first. For years I’ve believed that as you slide over 40 you can either have a late night, or a heavy drinking session, but not both; and my experience has borne that out.  So, even though I still think I can hold my own drinking alongside others half my age, (don’t we all?) it undoubtedly takes me longer to recover. And to quote the American civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer: “I’m getting sick and tired of feeling sick and tired” after a heavy night. Instead of losing a couple of hours to a hangover, I can lose most of the next day to not feeling 100%.  Although there is an interesting aside to this effect, in that it does depend on what I drink. For some inexplicable reason, I have developed an intolerance (in quantity) to my favourite tipple – Aspalls cider. A couple of pints and I struggle the next day whereas 5 or 6 pints of a different, arguably inferior, brand and I’m fine. It’s not the strength of the brew and it’s not the quantity, but it’s definitely happened. I’ve even contacted Aspalls to see if their recipe or brewing methods have changed. But they were unable to explain the effect, or why it’s suddenly developed. If anyone can shed any light on this I’d be interested to hear it.

On to health. At the moment I have an injury which is preventing me from running so I’m starting to put on a little extra weight. I eat pretty healthily and so one of the most obvious sources of unwanted calories is the sugar in alcohol. According to various websites, there are about 275 calories (16 grams, or about 3 teaspoons of sugar) in a pint of draught Aspalls. This compares to about 190 calories (18 grams, or 3.5 teaspoons of sugar) in a pint of draught Strongbow;  or 110 calories (20-25 grams, or 4-5 teaspoons of sugar) in a single Gin and Tonic.  Clearly, this is mainly in the tonic water so a slimline tonic has less sugar but then you open the can of worms that is aspartame, and you really don’t want to go there. I have quoted the statistics for cider because I can’t eat wheat, so that rules out most beers, but for the record, some real ales can contain as much as 9 teaspoons of sugar, and a bottle of white wine contains about 700 calories, so there are no real good guys in the alcohol world as far as controlling calories go.

The third ‘reason’ is my compulsion to try things to see what will happen, even if that means using my body as a lab rat. I suppose it’s the same faulty gene which has made me run four more marathons after I swore I’d never do another. (See my earlier post about testing a weekly diet which resulted in a significant weight loss – although the results of this experiment do raise the question of how much dropping alcohol was responsible for that weight loss).

So why do I drink, anyway? Convention, social pressure, habit, ease of ordering and I like that slightly spaced out feeling you can get as the alcohol gets into your bloodstream.

  • Convention – we live in a society which to an extent revolves around pubs and drinking.
  • Social pressure – this can very strong particularly among men, and as for men who don’t finish their pint, don’t get me started.
  • Habit – drinking alcohol in pubs, usually in moderation it has to be said, has been part of my life for 40 years, even since pubs were merely annexes to newspaper offices.
  • Ease of ordering – buying a pint of whatever cider is on draught is much simpler and quicker than having to decide what you’d like to drink every time you go into a pub. Yes, men are incredibly lazy.

So 5 weeks ago I stopped drinking alcohol. I didn’t cut down.  I didn’t stop during the week and then drink Waitrose dry at the weekend.  I genuinely stopped.  This included the week I was at Glastonbury, which anyone who’s been will know is no mean feat as drinking is part and parcel of the festival experience.

The first thing I noticed was that I thought about drink far more than when I am drinking. I didn’t crave it but I thought about it. I thought about not drinking which inevitably made me think about drinking.  At the risk of getting all Zen – you can’t think about a negative – try it.

By far the biggest ‘problem’ was social pressure, having to constantly justify why I wasn’t drinking, putting up with the jibes and comments about not being able to run with the big dogs anymore etc. etc.  Predictable, I suppose, and I dish out enough I have to suck up my share when the tables turn, but that might be a little surprising to women, who, by and large, take a much more sensible approach to most things.  Still, after a couple of weeks, the humour wore off but so did the effect it had on me and it just served to make me more determined to continue.  I did wonder if I was still the same sparkling company sober as I am when I’m drinking but I’ll leave others to be the judge of that – and to be honest, I don’t really want to know.

I drank a little more coffee than usual, perhaps subconsciously in search of some form of buzz, but I suspect more because I don’t really like most soft drinks so I ordered coffee when faced with choosing a drink.

The main health benefits were that I obviously didn’t have any symptoms of a hangover and I have lost some weight.

When I started, I weighed 12st 6lbs  (79kgs), a week later that had fallen to 11st 11lbs (75kgs). The following week, there was no change (this week included a three-day birthday trip to Valencia so you can imagine healthy eating was not a top priority). At the end of four weeks, my weight was still at 11st 11lbs (75kgs) so no further losses but I’d maintained the lower weight. This is interesting and suggests that dropping alcohol can shed a few pounds but it’s not a weight-loss programme in itself.  I should make clear that during this period I did not change my diet, eat less, or do any exercise other than my usual daily hour-long dog.  I simply stopped drinking alcohol.

All in all, I’m happy I tried it, pleased I managed it, relieved I know I am in control of my drinking and glad I’ve lost a few pounds. I found it much easier to go without than I thought it would be, so I guess I’ve proved I wasn’t on my way to becoming an alcoholic. In fact, it’s become so easy and routine to order a soft drink that I’m aware I might be creating a habit I feel obliged to continue – that’s the obsessive-compulsive, stubborn gene again!  How long could I keep it going?

So, enough is enough. I’m going to start drinking again.  I don’t feel the health advantages are significant enough, the weight loss consistent, or the hassle of not drinking worth continuing. And when all is said and done, I do enjoy the odd pint.

So cheers, I don’t mind if I do …… again!

Good Luck
The Barefoot Bohemian.

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