travel

Dalah and Twante, Myanmar

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Day trip to Dalah and Twante

Looking through Lonely Planet guidebook, I came across about the villages the Delta Region, Dalah and Twante. This is the area affected by Cyclone Nargis in 2008.

I tried to find more info on travelling there, but seems like there are only 3 travel blogs write up on it. The info is the same as in LP. Ferry ride to Dalah and then you can pay for local to give you ride on a bike to Twante. But not much other info like name of villages there, how to navigate there, how long will it take to travel around both areas etc. But I’m still keen for an adventure there.

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The market area near the ferry terminal

Dalah is just 10min ferry ride away from Yangon but it’s a world apart.

Right after breakfast, I headed over to the ferry terminal, which is near Strandt Hotel in the morning.

The ticket can be bought at the terminal and departs every 20min. It is $4 USD, including return trip.

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Walking around the area first before boarding the ferry.

As I was walking around waiting for departure, a local approached me. Usually I avoid small talk, especially those who seem to only approach tourists. But I kinda let my guard down this time cuz she asked if I was Muslim and gave salaam to me. She said that she could bring me around and since I was not too sure how I’ll explore Dalah and Twante later on. As I was still not sure what it will be like after I arrive on Dalah later on, I eventually I agreed for her bring me around.

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About to board the ferry

Just as we were about to board the ferry, Sharifah bumped into her friend, Rahman. So called a coincident, but later in the day I suspected that it was all part of the scam plan.

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Looking sweet and innocent, but little did I know they had already targeted me as their scam victim (more on that later).

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Departing from Yangon

On board the ferry, it is a very unique local experience with hawkers calling out selling their products. But still a comfortable ride.

Arrived at Dalah.

Upon arriving in Dalah, Sharifah and Rahman made arrangement for motorbikes to bring us around. Plan of the day was fishing village, rice plantation, lunch at Rahman’s place, ride to Twante, pagoda and pottery village. I can’t recall how much was the agree price though, but we definitely agreed for certain hourly rate for day trip to Dalah and Twante.

Sharifah and Rahman were pillion riders of another motorbikes cuz they said they wanted to follow me around (or so I thought… because later on I realised, this is all part of the scam (again)).

First up was the fishing village…

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My trip to North Korea in 2012

Way back in 2012, I made a trip to North Korea over the September term break.

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Destination: Pyongyang

Crazy, I know. But, why did I really wanted to travel to the hermit kingdom? and wasn’t I worried about war, nuclear bombing, missile attack etc?

Couple few reasons why North Korea was my choice of destination..
1. I had been teaching 2 North Korean students. Yes, I know you guys are probably shocked that there are North Korean students enrolled in normal government school in Singapore (background info: the girls are cousins who joined 3NA class in mid-2011. The elder girl was new to Singapore and the younger girl had been studying in Singapore up to P6, then returned to Pyongyang for 2 years. Both said they’re in Singapore with their grandfather who has business in Singapore.). I was quite close to both of them and through my interaction with them and occasional questions about North Korea, I realised that North Korea is not too bad. It’s really unlike what it’s portrayed as in media. I became really interested to see and experience the country by myself.
2. Term 3 2012 was really a busy period for me in terms of work that I felt I needed a crazy adventure. A trip to North Korea does sounds like a crazy adventure, right??
3. Traveling during the September break in 2012 coincides with North Korea national day, which I thought will be pretty cool to see the country in celebratory fanfare.
4. 2012 is the 100th Anniversary of Arirang Mass Games (which is iconic of North Korea), which runs only in August and September and… there was rumours that it’ll be the last year for the Mass Games.
5….. because I can.

So… lets start with some FAQs!

Who can travel to North Korea?
Anyone can travel to North Korea. Even South Koreans! I was also surprised that even Americans and Japanese are allowed to travel to North Korea. I thought they are probably not allowed considering the anti-sentiments by North Koreans towards Americans and Japanese as portrayed in news.

Basically, it is legal for almost anyone can travel to North Korea! The only restriction on travelers to North Korea are journalists, writers, media staff etc. North Korea does not issue Visas for them. If you’re journalists/writers, please do not submit fake details as this will compromise not only your safety but also the staff of the tour group.

For those keen to travel to North Korea, you have to apply through authorised agents. Even if you’re travelling alone, you still have to sign up through authorised agents. There are quite a few which you can consider… Koryo Tour, KTG, Lupine Travel, Explore North Korea and New Korea Tours. Then, during your stay there, you have to be accompanied by the assigned tour guide at all times when you’re outdoor. So, if you signed up for individual tour, you’ll have the guide all for yourself the whole day. And when I accompanied by tour guide at all times, it is really at all time. You are not even allowed to step out of the hotel on your own, even if it’s a just to walk around for fresh air.

But, you’re a civil servant! Are you allowed to?
Well, I didn’t really look up on that. But I did follow through the regular paperwork any government officers have to do – “Request to Leave the State” form. No comments from my RO or the principal, so I guess no problemo!

Did I travel alone?
From Singapore yes…  But for the trip, I signed up for a tour group under KTG, based in China. My tour group was made up with people from all over the world, US, Europe and me- sole Asian representative, yo! All of us had similar story- found out about the company through googling and made all arrangements (visa, forms, payment etc) with the company via online.

How much is the trip?
1200 Euros for 5 days 4 night  (include Air Koryo return flight Beijing-Pyongyang), hotel accommodation and all meals. Entrance fees to certain places not included (eg theme park, Mass Games). Exclude return flight Sg-Beijing.

How did you arrange of the visa to North Korea?
After my trip, I found out that Singaporeans do not need Visa to visit North Korea. (Fun fact: Only Singapore and Malaysia do not need Visa to North Korea for up to 30 days)

However, as I was simply following the SOP by the tour group (basically completed and submitted all documents that were emailed to me), I did eventually applied for Visa. You’ll just need to submit a copy of your passport and a scanned photo and the tour company will make the necessary arrangement. It’s hassle free! I collected the Visa card from the tour leader in Beijing on the day of the flight to North Korea. Unfortunately, it is a separate piece of paper, which the immigration officer took away upon exit.

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Cover page of Visa card to North Korea

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Inside pages of Visa card to North Korea

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Back page of Visa card

By the way, there is no evidence in my passport that I traveled to North Korea because they stamped on the Visa card (which was taken away before leaving departure gate) instead of the passport. . Grrrr!!

Can you take photos?
Yupps! But we were advised not to take photos of restricted stuff (mostly military vehicles, places and personnel- we were reminded about this numerous times during the visits we had on the National Day as most places were crowded with military personnel). We were also not allowed to take inappropriate photos with iconic stuff (e.g the tour guide told off someone who posed with a “peace” hand sign next to a statue of Kim Il Sung).

At the start of the trip, the group was also advised that the tour guide or officials periodically may look through our photos to ensure no inappropriate photos taken. We also have to oblige if they identify any inappropriate or restricted photos and instruct us to delete it.

If there are places that we can’t take photos (e.g airport, International Friendship Exhibition), the guide will warn us beforehand.

Anything that you can’t bring to North Korea?
During my trip, handphones are not allowed in North Korea. We have to surrender it after luggage collection before walking through security and we can collect it back on our departure. Initially I was worried if it was safe, but oh wells, have to follow the rules and everyone doing it too.
Anyway, from 2013 onwards, tourists are no longer required to surrender their handphones.

GPS-enabled gadget items are also not allowed. In the briefing notes provided by my tour group, it was stated that if our cameras are GPS-enabled, we have to bring another camera instead. Well, my brand-new camera has the GPS function but I’m not gonna buy another camera just for the trip, or borrow another camera (which might be tricky too, cuz who would be willing to lend me something for a trip to North Korea??). Desperate, I went ahead to bring my GPS-enabled camera. So yeah, I actually smuggled in an illegal object into North Korea. How did I manage to smuggle it in? I pasted a sticker label to cover the GPS word and logo on my camera and wrote my name on. I used sticker label on the pretext of labelling my camera though it’s actually to hide the GPS label =D

Anyway, there’s also an interesting story about my GPS-enabled camera. Whenever I traveled, the GPS function of camera is accurate and quick to detect the city I am in once I switched on the setting. But in North Korea,  whenever I tried at different locations, it failed to detect the location. Really shocked that they have GPS blocking mechanism. So, whether I am really in Pyongyang or it the whole place is fake and just a set-up for tourists… I’ll leave it to you guys to ponder over it 😉

What’s the currency in North Korea?
There is “Won” currency for North Korea, but it’s not used by tourists. Tourists can make payment with Euros, USD, Yuan or Yen. However, Euros is commonly accepted.

How did you travel into North Korea?
By flight! There are two airlines that fly into Pyongyang, Air Koryo and Air China. For this trip, I flew on Air Koryo.

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Air Koryo Boarding pass

Yes, I know Air Koryo is the only airline with 1-star rating by Skytrax but it’s been arranged by the tour group. But I didn’t mind as traveling on Air Koryo is a good first experience to receive North Korean hospitality. Also, most companies travel by the national carrier, Air Koryo, too anyway.

There is also train between China and Pyongyang (23 hours from Beijing!) and some tour groups do make such arrangement for it. You can also make arrangement to enter by flight and depart by train or vice versa if you wish to have a richer experience.

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North Korea national carrier – Air Koryo

So, there! I hope I’ve answered most of your questions! But if there are stuff that you’re curious about and it’s not covered here, drop a comment at the end of this page 🙂

Cycling around Angkor World Heritage

Angkor is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s a significant archeological site which dates back as early as 9th century.

It’s really a large area of about 400 square kilometres with various temples within it. At each temple ground, visitors can walk around, but to travel from one temple to another, it’s best to do so on wheels.

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As we were up for an adventure, our choice was the bicycle instead of tuk-tuk or car. There are plenty of shops and guesthouses that provide bicycles for rents, from 1-2USD per day. We got ours from our guesthouse for 1.50USD per day.

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Just some tips before setting off on bike…
1. ensure bicycle is in good condition, such as brake and lamp are working.
2. ensure seat is at a good level for you. it’s better for them to adjust it for you rather than adjusting it yourself after setting off.
3. have a map in hand.

If you think we’re crazy to tour it on bikes, check out the many other crazy travelers too 😁

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Our goal for the day was to complete the “small circuit” route.

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Here’s a timeline journal of our adventure.

9am

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Our guesthouse is along Street 20 which is nearby to Charles de Gaulle, the road to Angkor. The first challenge for us was to cycle through the busy road, towards the junction at the Old Stone Bridge. We were slightly taken aback by the congestion but as long as one keep right, it’s pretty ok. Junction is kinda tricky to clear though as not vehicles obey traffic rules to follow traffic light. If you’re not confident, it’s best to push the bike to cross the road.

The long road to Angkor was slightly busy especially at the main entrance,

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9.30am

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Purchased our day pass!

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Tips:
1. Look good for the camera as that photo will be printed on the pass.
2. Do not lose the pass as you will have to flash it to the staff for entry at all temples.

10.15am
Arrive at Angkor Wat temple.

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This is symbolic to Cambodia and is printed on its national flag. Angkor Wat is the largest site as compared to the other temples on the site and it’s one of the most well-preserve.

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Angkor Wat is also the largest religious monument in the world. Another interesting fact is, it was originally constructed as a Hindu temple for the Khmer empire. Toward the end of the 12th century, Angkor Wat gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple, which continues to today.

Travelers can climb up to the highest part of the Angkor Wat, about level 4 but it’s very steep. But we gave it a miss as the queue was really long and it was noon.

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Last interesting point, no buildings can be higher than Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, which is why the tallest building in Siem Reap is only about 4-5 storey high.

1pm
Left Angkor Wat

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1.30pm
Arrive Bantaey Kdei

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It’d one of the smaller temples on the site..

2pm
Arrive Ta Prohm. It has 2 entrances, East gate and West gate.

This temple is popular as the filming site of Tomb Raider. The popular attractions are…  trees!

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4pm
Set off for Bayon

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4.50pm

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But just a few shots as we were running late to chase the sunset.

5.15pm
Hike up Phnom Bakheng.

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Only to be greeted by crowd.

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Long queue for the sunset view from top of temple.

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And a large crowd on the platform.

5.45pm
But it’s ok..we still got a nice view of sunset.

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6pm
Ride back home in the dark and congested road cuz everyone’s heading back.

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More stories and reflection in another post 🙂

Kaeson Youth Park – Amusement park in North Korea

Kaeson Youth Park, 
an amusement park in Pyongyang.
Reopened in 2010, with about 10 rides.

 

This is one of the unexpected places as part of my tour itinerary to North Korea. I really did not expect that there is an amusement park in North Korea. Like.. woa, they actually know how to have fun? Oh wait, are they even allowed to have fun?
Another surprise was that, it was at night. I didn’t expect any activities in the evening for my trip to North Korea due to my impression of North Korea as a country with strict regime. I thought the roads would be deserted and quiet at night cuz Kim Jong Un strictly make sure everyone goes to bed by 9pm.. Ok, I exaggerate, but it goes to show just how much assumptions we have due to how the country is portrayed by the media. Anyway, after the trip, I found out there are 3 others in North Korea.
I did wonder if the amusement park was for tourists only. But, when we arrived, it was crowded with families and young couples. Well, I guess the locals do get to have some fun activities. But, some friends pointed out that these people could be planted by the authorities to give an impression to tourists that it’s a normal country. I have no evidence for or against that, so just think what you want it as yeah…
Other than families, group of friends and couples, there were also kids looking like they are on excursion because they were in big group, led by some adults. I found it strange because in Singapore, having an excursion at night is quite unheard of. Then, we found out from the guide that this theme park is open only in the evening, 7pm to 12am.
 
About the kids… Some of them are dressed in formal wear (shirt and pants for boys, and dress for girls), others in school uniform (identified by their white top and red neck scarf), but most are just in casual wear of shirts and shorts.
When we had just arrived, we were standing around waiting for instruction from the guide, when one of the ladies from my tour group offered the children nearby some candies she had in her bag. Soon, there was a crowd of kids around us. They were curious about us as much as we were curious about them. But before we can have interaction with them, our guide quickly stepped in to disperse the crowd. I don’t understand what he spoke to them, but one can sense that it wasn’t pleasant. After that, he told off the ladies who gave the candies and reminded us not to take or give anything with others. He also told them that those kids are not beggar. Since he raised his voice at them, I guess he was pretty much angry and upset of the incident.
The tour guide, the guy with lanyard, quickly dispersed the crowd forming around us. He snapped at the kids to scoot off.
Generally, I did observe on the trip that my tour guide seems to dislike it whenever we try to communicate with the locals. This incident also is one of the times that gives me the impression that the guide really do not like it when a negative impression is portrayed. The kids crowding around us for sweets may give us the impression that the kids are pitiful, and he was clearly embarrassed about it. It seems like he thinks it’s his duty to ensure that tourists have nothing but only the good and positive takeaways from North Korea.
Anyway… back to the amusement park.
The place was pretty and cheerful with bright lights hanging even on trees and songs being played.
They also have pretty much all kind of rides..
Credits: abandoned kansai
viking ship…
Credits: abandoned kansai
drop tower

 

belly-down rollercoaster…
360-degrees pendulum swing…
As we were tight for time, we were offered VIP treatment. For VIP treatment, the rides are 1-3 Euro, without having to queue. As the tour group has to remain intact and accompanied by the guide at all times, we were not allowed free and easy.
Flow of event…
The guide brought us as group from one ride to another ride. At each ride, he quoted the price and asked who was interested for the ride. These people were then accompanied by the theme park staff to the ride, bypassing the queue, whilst the rest remain with the tour guide. The rest waited for those on the ride to return before moving on the next ride.
There weren’t many tourists, so we got a lot of attention from the locals when we got on the ride. There were some who will be blushing and looking away timidly when they sit next to tourists while on the ride, while others who were more confident, shook our hands and smiled.
One of the memorable rides for me was the drop tower. It took us quite awhile to get everyone seated, fastening the belt etc.. and so, while waiting, since we were facing the crowd, some of us smiled and waved at the crowd. We actually got some cheers! Lol… Driven by the response, we cheered along and waved more vigorously…. and the cheer got louder.
We felt like superstar…
but only after seeing this photo taken by my guide,
the view from the crowd,
it seems more like we’re caged display in human zoo =/
Other than the incident with the kids in the earlier part, it was pretty much just a regular evening. I went for most rides and the experience was the same, like any others that I had before in Singapore or anywhere else. It does not feel unsafe, weird or any different just because it was in North Korea. If you’re expecting adventurous stories like failed ride that stop halfway cuz you know, it’s North Korea… well, I’m sorry to disappoint you cuz it was really just simple night spent having fun on the rides.
It was uneventful, but you can check out more actions at the amusement park in this video.

 

But if you prefer the propaganda kind from North Korea media, it’ll be this video..

 

Public water dispenser in Yangon

The usual water dispenser that we know of looks as such…

A regular water cooler
However in Myanmar, water sanitation is still quite a problem. Hence, access to drinking water is limited. So, how do the community overcome this? Well, water jugs are commonly found along the streets.
Credits: Dr. Günther Eichhorn
Some are in proper housing as above.. but there are others that are simply placed on racks in the open.
Credits: Monkey Puzzle
Such jugs was one of the first few things that got my attention when I arrived, while on the cab ride from the airport to my hotel. Most that I observed were placed in front of buildings or houses. Initially, I thought that it was part of a culture or Buddhist ritual (had this idea because in Chinese fengshui, water is seen as good luck). I also thought that perhaps it was meant for cleaning the feet before stepping into the house.
However, I also saw some along the streets with no other buildings in sight, or under the tree, away from the houses.
Eventually, I learnt from the locals that these jugs function as public water dispenser. The jugs are always covered to prevention contamination and there will be a cup or two for you to scoop out the water to drink. I was told the water is safe for consumption but I’m really not sure about the source of water (rain water? well water? bottled water??), hence I did not drink from it. I was also concerned about the hygiene of the cup, but from my observations, the locals simply gulped it down, without the lips touching the cup.
I understood from the locals that the water is accessible to anyone and that it will be refilled when it’s empty. However, I’m really not sure how that works. Like, are there officials making rounds every few weeks to refill the jugs? or residents are assigned to check on some jugs regularly?? I have no idea…
Personally, I feel that this act of placing jugs of water is not just another unique culture of Myanmar, but also speaks volume of the Burmese community. By ensuring accessibility of drinking water to the public, it shows the warmth and kind hospitality of the Burmese community. Through this, it is nice to see that community comes together to look out and provide for each other. The strong sense of community is really heartwarming and it is something that we can reflect on.
Another learning point from this is equality for all. Anyone can drink water from those jugs… it doesn’t matter if you’re a fisherman, student or businessman. Nothing matters. Anyone and everyone is entitled to it. Regardless of age, class/rank, religion etc, anyone can drink from that jug.
Simple water jugs, but a few learning points to reflect on 😉

Street peddlers of Yangon

Other than street food… there are quite a few other interesting street peddlers in the heart of Yangon.

 

 

1. Betel nut
It’s basically areca nuts and tobacco, wrapped in a lime-coated betel leaf.

 

2. Phone services
Mobile phones are still not widely used, so… public phones are still commonly found. But, it’s not the typical coin pay phone kind. It’s just like the phone you have at home or work, just that it’s on the street.
I was curious why they were chatting over a table that was so randomly placed along the walkway. The phone on the table caught my attention, but I was still puzzled about it. When I saw more of it, then it hit me that.. ahh, it’s a phone booth.

 

Nope, these phones aren’t for sale.
But, if you want some privacy, head down to any of this booth.

I saw quite a few of such booths and was curious about it. It took me a great deal of courage to peek into one. I timidly stepped into one and craned my next to look around… “Cehhh.. it’s just a phone booth.”.

3. “Hair salon”

To pick out head lice…
4. Fortune telling services
Most of the fortune tellers do it by palm reading based on the posters I saw.
5. Pedicure/ manicure
Even guys need to pamper themselves yeah..
6. Lottery booth

Sarong: Burmese daily wear

Sarong is their daily wear…

Check out the ladies behind me in beautiful sarong…
Ok, fine… lemme crop out my annoying face….
There you go… Happy ladies in sarong
They wear it to school…
for grocery shopping…
and even for dating 😉
The problem with sarong is that it may come loose and need adjustment, especially if there had been too much movement. But, don’t worry.., they have no qualms about adjusting it in public places.

 

Erm, I may seem like a pervert getting such photos, but let put it this way, that I had cultural shock that I had to take a photo. Ok, that sound even weird.. in a state of shock but yet my hands were quick enough to get a snapshot of it. Forget about it, lets just not pursue why I had taken those photos, yeah?
Moving on…
Another problem is that it is without pocket, but hey… one can always do some life-hack to get around that problem 😉
Even without pocket, with a little bit of creativity, you can still keep your wallet and phone on you.

Anyway, had an interesting travelling snippet whilst looking around to buy sarong.

While on the way to Bago, the driver had a quick pit stop for toilet break, refuel and smoke and coffee break for him. There was time to spare, so, I walked over to the nearby weekend market. As I walked through it, I came across a stall that sells sarong.

It’s a relatively undeveloped town, so the stall owner doesn’t speak English and no passerby could translate for me. I had relied on passerby when I have to overcome language barrier in the main city. The shop owner, hand-signed to me the number 1 and 5, which I assumed as 15 USD per piece (about 15,000 kyat). Wanting to ask for discount if I buy more, I wrote on my notepad…

1 —> 15, 000
3 –> 30, 000

Thank god she can read English numbers because a few days before, the locals that I met don’t understand English numbers.

Anyway…. showed the lady what I’m bargaining for and she gasped. She looked so shocked that I thought she wasn’t happy with the discount I asked for. Before I could bargain to something else agreeable, she took my pen and cancelled the last zero. So, apparently a sarong costs only 1,500 kyat (about 2USD).

She must have thought I was mad to think it was
15,000kyat per piece 😂