Saturday, September 14, 2013

Inle Lake, Burma

Making our way through the muddy banks, we hopped into a motor boat that would carry us along the length of the lake to the northern most tip, a town called Nyaungshwe. It was quite the introduction to what the actual lake would be, as we strolled through the surrounding farming villages full of vegetation growing along the banks of the narrow canal. There was so much earthy life that our boat got caught within the roots and leaves, causing our captain to get out of the boat to untangle us.

As we emerged out onto the surprisingly large lake surrounded by mountains, we caught our first glimpse of the unique rowing skills of the Inle fisherman. Using their hands to throw the net, they stood on one leg at the edge of the boat while the other leg was wrapped around the oar to row. Now that takes skill. Once stabilized, they'd splash the top of the water with the oar at the opposite end of the boat to scare the fish into their net. Clever, no? 

The lake was large enough to provide plenty of time to take in the green beauty surrounding us and wave to the locals, packed in passing boats. Thu Thu shared that there are tourist stops along the lake to floating markets and ethnic villages, one of which was a Karen village that she and Lonely Planet described as "Human zoo's". The Karen people elongate their necks with metal rings and have historically been oppressed and used poorly as tourist trade. We chose to avoid all of this and once docked, Thu Thu walked us to the Aquarius Inn where we met Marjie and Tanya who had booked us a room. We said a sad good-bye to our new friend Thu Thu and made plans to meet up with Nicky for a traditional puppet show later that night. 

We quickly learned about the gem of a watering hole Marj and Tanya had made their personal stomping ground. It was Happy Hour 2 for 1 cocktails - now I'm not one for cocktails but give me a Bloody Mary any day of the week, and then keep them coming 2 at a time and things get a little tipsy. The place was so packed we began to order 2 at a time :) Realizing the puppet show was not happening, Paul set out to meet Nicky to tell him about the change of plans. Paul must've had one too many before his walk because 30 minutes later he returned, sans Nicky. He informed us he had gotten lost and ended up walking circles - sadly we never saw Nicky after that. We did, however, meet a few others whom we ended up spending the next few days with: Lottie, Greg and Kate from England. 

The next day at a very hungover breakfast, and Tanya and Marjie's last day, we all agreed to rent bikes and ride around the lake. For days Tanya had been enthusiastically talking about the special tofu and hot springs that we had to check out. Slow to start, as things seemed to go at Inle, we were off. 

Along a very bumpy and broken up road, we pedaled. Mid-way, Paul got a flat tire and had to turn back for a new bike. After an unexpected fairly challenging bike ride, we arrived to the place that offers this special yellow tofu and serene hot springs. We immediately saw a sign stating the hot springs were closed. Unfortunate as it was, let's be honest, I was there for the yellow tofu. We sat down hungry and thirsty and as we ordered beers and tofu all around, we were told they were all out of tofu! So warm beers and shan noodles it was. Paul caught up to us quite quickly, in time for the not-so-refreshing beer :)

After lunch, we haggled for a boat to take us across the lake to the wineries we had been looking forward to. It was here that we said good bye to Tanya and my travel partner of the last 3 months, Marjie. Tanya was heading to Sydney while Marj was making her way back to America after 2.5 years away. Marj, at 66 years old, backpacked rugged SE Asia like a bad-ass. Backpack, $3 hostel accommodations, crazy and sometimes dangerous bus rides, using our legs to take us everywhere in the infamous heat - she did it all and damn, we had a good time. I'll forever be grateful for the time I had to truly get to know a very special woman, the adventure and the memories we now share together. Thank you, my Marjie, for more than I could have ever hoped for.

Riding along the easy-going path taking in the beautiful scenery, we arrived to the wineries 15 minutes before closing - just in time for a tasting, a gorgeous sunset and the meeting of a few Awesome (yes, that's awesome with a capital "A") german fellows, Marcus, Alex and Stefan. We rode back in the dark and in the downpour, thankful for Marcus's sense of direction that lead us back to Aquarius. We met later for a memorable dinner that consisted of stories of "the most disgusting thing seen on the Internet". I am naive to much of what happens on the Internet, so it was an entertaining education for me. To make things more interesting, Greg, who I learned that night is extremely funny, provided a few visuals :)

The following day was quite lazy with a Burmese massage, which was similar to work. The massage consisted of much poking and prodding followed by a lady walking on top of you. The latter was enjoyable, but the poking and prodding made my body tense, resulting in a less than relaxing massage. Paul had a rather large masseuse and was in so much discomfort he had to ask her to get off!  We later treated ourselves to noodles with the yellow tofu (we finally got that tofu!) which was extremely delish. At this restaurant, we met Jade, a cool Aussie chick who joined us for too many cocktails at 2 for 1 Happy Hour. Five Bloody Mary's later, fully in the bag, we made our way to a place for karaoke power ballads. I hope that gives you enough for a visual of an Awesome (yes, with a capital "A") night!

Take that visual to the following days hangover. With only Paul, Greg, Lottie and I still around, we considered going outside of Inle Lake for the day to venture through caves. The thought of planning anything was unappealing so we decided to stay in town -  it was too easy to relax at Inle! It worked out wonderfully, however, as it was a day full of cultural opportunity. All week we observed novice monks at the local temple preparing for a significant exam and this day was the culminating ceremonial event for the monks who passed. We arrived early, yet already packed with Burmese preparing for the ceremony. A path of colorful flower petals had been laid out, to which one could buy and add on, for the 5,400 monks to walk along. Each monk, in purple robes, held a plastic bag for people to place money and other presents in. Those at the front had full bags by the time they approached us, while we hoped people saved a few bucks for those at the end. It was a long line and we left before all 5,400 passed. Quite an interesting afternoon.

This being the last night that Paul and I were together, we went out for a treat: Italian food. The pesto was surprisingly delightful and later that night, met up with 2 of my favorite English people ever, Lottie and Greg....yet another sad good-bye. The next day was a somber one as much of the day was spent passing time before Paul and I would get on separate buses heading in different directions. He would carry on through Burma, while I was off to Yangon to catch a plane to Istanbul. Traveling is a great opportunity to meet wonderful people and Paul was no exception. After spending the previous 2 months traveling with him, it was a sad and difficult good-bye. 

To maximize my time in Inle, I gambled with my trust in the Burmese timeliness by taking an overnight bus to Yangon that would arrive the morning of my flight to Istanbul. Of course, the bus picked me up 2.5 hours late. I decided to sleep so that I wouldn't have time to get nervous, only to wake up at 3am to the bus employees nursing our bus, pulled over to the side of the road. An hour later, we carried on only to stop and help another bus. It was here I began to get nervous about the potential of missing my flight. For 2 weeks I couldn't get one good story out of the bus system and they do this to me now?! The one day I yearn for efficiency! Somehow, we arrived into Yangon on time, down to the minute. I don't know how they do it. I even made it to the airport early!

It had been an emotional few days with many sad good-byes, but largely because this marked the end of my Southeast Asian travels. I had spent 2.5 years in the region, most of it in Thailand, and had fallen in love with it. Prior to Peace Corps sending me to Thailand, I never thought twice about this part of the world and now, was suddenly scared to leave. Being afforded the opportunity to learn about so much history, culture and people that I was never exposed to before, turned out to be more than I bargained for. The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia aligned with the warmth of the people, the beauty of the Philippino landscape and energy of the people, rough history and sassiness of Vietnam, the simple, undeveloped life in Laos, the current state of changing Burma and so much of Thailand - I could write a book. 

My dad has always said that I've spent my adulthood seeking out the people he spent his life working hard so that his children could avoid the hardships those, too many, endure. I tell him it's because I'm too much like him, someone who always considered Peace Corps, Yes, I've seen the difficulties that life in America presents, yet here I've seen so much more. Beauty in culture, people and environment paralleled with ugly history and corruption. The paradox of the bewildering human capacity to do evil, subsequently followed by the mind-blowing human capacity to do good. 

Leaving, I knew in my heart I was not done. I was off to Istanbul to celebrate the marriage of two wonderful friends followed by the re-meeting with my amazing family after being away for 2.5 years, but I knew I'd be back. Somehow, someway. The time away had impacted me more than I could have ever imagined and my life had been changed in more ways than I could yet comprehend. I am grateful for those I've met along the way: my Thai people, the many locals, the foreigners backpacking and my fellow PCV's. I have been blessed, as I always have been. I will continue to seek and search, as I always have.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Kalaw to Inle, with a smile

Most people go to Kalaw for the well-known trek to Inle Lake, a popular destination in Burma. It's a fairly popular route, considering the small number of tourists that Burma sees annually. I read about trekking the (personally preferred) path-less-traveled further north in Hsipaw (pronounced Sipaw) but I wanted to trek and time was of the essence making Kalaw the best option. I realize this is yet another tragedy of life: Wait, what? I have to choose amongst the amazing places to explore?but such is life :) 

This doesn't meant Kalaw or the trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake was any less worthy, because as you read on, I hope you see it as fantastically as I did. Despite my use of the word touristy, let me preface that the visual associated with that term in Burma is drastically different from that of any other place I've been in SE Asia. During our trek, we were just a few folks in the fields amongst the farmers. Since writing about Burma I've used the expression 'peaceful and serene' quite a bit and I'm using it again for Kalaw and the trek beyond, because that's exactly what it was.

Marjie didn't trek with us because, as she likes to say "This (as she motions to her body), does not trek!" Luckily, Tanya the cool Canadian we met in Yangon was in Kalaw and would take the train with Marj to Inle Lake, where we'd meet up at the end of our trek. Thus far, the bus rides from this country were mundane, however Marjie sat next to a nice Japanese guy, Nicky, who likes to trek, making the duo of Paul and I a welcomed trio.

Upon arrival, we quickly found the guesthouse recommended by Tanya, Eastern Paradise, based on the deliciously large breakfast served every morning (clearly Tanya has her priorities straight). Paul, Nicky and I immediately set out on search of a trek for the following day. We had 2 choices to make: 2 or 3 day trek? and, what company? The first place we went to, on the recommendation of Lonely Planet, was closed. Carrying on we approached Ever Smile, also recommended by LP, so we went on in. 

It was here we were welcomed by Thu Thu (pronounced Toto) and her 2 children in their early teens, with smiles that melted my heart. We met in Thu Thu's home, also serving as home to her business, not uncommon in SE Asia. I'm no guru but I do know a thing or two about gender-related issues in SE Asia, and I can assure you that women are not treated or viewed equally. So, the fact that Thu Thu was managing her own company and acting tour guide, was impressive. I soon learned everything about this woman was impressive. Her husband died 9 months ago and was running the business and her family on her own. She was honest, unpretentious and true from the beginning - simply refreshing to be around. She also cut up some mangoes for us, and I love anybody who feeds me. After a couple of minutes of chatting, I looked at the guys with a look that said "we have to go with her!". No convincing necessary as they shared the same look! 

After speaking with Thu Thu about the trek options, we chose the 2 day trek with an overnight stay at a Buddhist Monastery - this would be the first time sleeping in such accommodations for all 3 of us. Excited, we went home to pack and rose the next morning to fuel up on the awesomely large and delicious breakfast that Tanya spoke of (she was delightfully right!), said good-bye to Marj and Tanya, and were off.

Because we chose the 2-day route, a taxi dropped us off at the start point in a small farming village. We soon learned that the "trek" was more of a walk, set amongst aesthetically amazing landscape. The dirt, a deep, rich, rusty red color contrasted against the green, grassy hills, made for quite the sight. I must've exclaimed "This dirt is unbelievable!" about a million times....who would have ever thought dirt could make such an impact! The dirt was not the only impressive factor, as there were clearly some good agricultural practices being used. We walked amongst beautiful, significant crop-producing fields, potato being the most prominent. Running through a bit of the land was a still existing railway built by the Brits - I guess they left something positive behind ;)

This trek may have been light on hills but it was heavy on the culture, just 1 of the aweomse aspects of this walk. Thu Thu shared a childhood story of a village fire induced by fighting causing everybody to flee, leaving everything behind. Her family walked all night and arrived in Kalaw, where Thu Thu remained alongside her Aunt until present day. Sadly, the fighting still exists. About one month prior to our arrival, Buddhist monks were burning mosques in the same region, causing many Muslims to flee. Thu Thu's sister still lives in their childhood village and opened her home to those who'd fled the fighting. This was very dangerous as checks were made, home to home, to determine if anybody was protecting Muslims. Luckily, they didn't get caught. Sound hauntingly familiar? Yes, it does....a little too much like history repeating itself.

"Break time" was announced in one of the ethnic minority villages of this region, Padaung. The women of the tribes wear brightly colored head scarves - an array of pinks, reds, oranges - each tribe distinguished by a different color. We were seated on a low, wooden bench where grandma served us peanuts, tea and vegetable curry with rice. Some of the neighbors came by to check us out and were impressed with our appetites and lack of fear in eating the local food. With this, grandma extended the invite for us to sleep over any time we were in her village which was very generous and quite common to SE Asians. I actually would have loved to stay with her, even for a night - the things we would have learned. Grandma showed us her weaving skills as she sat on a low stool and hand-wove on a traditional, wooden "machine", for lack of a more accurate word. She was weaving a satchel bag, a common product amongst the tribes. 

A little segway visit at the local elementary school, we saw one story school with rooms divided by cement walls. Each grade consisted of 8-15 students and all taught and taken care of by one teacher. And teachers in the western world think they have it bad! Thu Thu explained that teachers receive such a small salary from the government, barely enough to live off of, leaving little incentive to become a teacher. 

"Lunch time" - I was loving the announcements made by Thu Thu, who alternates employing villagers to provide meals during her treks to give all an opportunity for income. The man who made our lunch of vegetarian noodles, was very generous in his helpings. Stuffed and tired, nobody hesitated when Thu Thu announced "nap time" after lunch! 

Continuing on after lunch at an easy pace, Thu Thu at the back of our single file line, suddenly exclaimed "SNAKE!" This caught our attention and as we all turned around we got a good view of a snake about 4 feet long. Paul asked Thu Thu what would happen if one of us had been bitten and she answered "5 minutes after a bite, you die". Paul followed up with google only to learn that Burma "is home to 52 venomous species of snakes – more than any other country in the world" (that was verbatim from Paul's blog post....thanks, man). So the lesson learned here is don't get bitten by a snake in Burma.

Each break was "just a break for 5 minutes" and 45 minutes later we were still on break, eating snacks and chatting away. Thu Thu was just so full of knowledge and beyond willing to share; during afternoon break, over sunflower seeds, we got a run-down of the healthcare system and the many NGO's in the country providing health support. Super interesting, but too much to get into here.

The last 15 minutes of the days walk became a bit damp - Paul, always prepared for a pickle, offered me a poncho or an umbrella. I've never been one for a poncho (they make me so hot) so I took the umbrella and thank God I did. Let me preface by stating that backpacking isn't all glitz and glamour folks, as some may believe. In a hurry, or simply forgotten, that poncho hadn't been aired out since the last sweaty rainfall. It smelt awful, and I give Paul cred for wearing it anyway. 

At the monastery, we met the one monk living there for over 30 years. He had a stroke a few years ago and is now paralyzed on one side. Locals take care of him but because he can't teach or take care of anything, this monastery is no longer a home and school to young monks, as it once was. 

Once settled in to our humble abode, the 3 of us made our way down for dinner....or shall I say feast. Thu Thu had prepared dinner fit for a village: 11 different dishes, 10 of them vegetarian, along with rice and lentil soup. We couldn't fit it all on the table! We hung out for a few hours (btw: Nicky was a really interesting guy; 34 years old and already had been to 60 countries) staying out of the company of another group of trekkers staying there. This group of Americans had gotten a reputation amongst the Burmese guides on the trail from their partying the night before. They carried their partying ways to the monastery that night as well, quite disrespectful in this setting. Anybody who knows me knows that I love to party with the best of them, but there's a time and place for it. I wouldn't place Buddhist monastery amongst them. Therefore, we chose to keep our party to 3, with the main beverage being hot tea.

We woke up to another royal meal, packed up and paid a visit to the monk to say thank you and to make a small donation to the monastery. He answered a few questions I had as I was curious about the differences between Burmese and Thai Buddhism. The last few months at my village temple in Thailand, it had become a bit of a trend to go to Burma to study, making this visit additionally interesting. The most striking difference to me is that women can touch the monks in Burma, unlike Thailand where women cannot and must sit below them while speaking to them. It was nice to be eye level with him and to touch his hand while he blessed us.  

A bit more hilly terrain with more of a "trek" atmosphere, we walked for half the day and got to see more of Burmese every day life. I think it's fascinating that traditional farming methods, including ox/cow carts to till the fields, are still being used. Much more laborious, but much more culturally cool. I also find the clothing in Burma fabulous. Longyi's, a long wrap-around skirt garment a bit like a sarong, is worn by both men and women everywhere, while doing anything. Holding on to culture is a beautiful thing. 

At the end of the trek was a restaurant where we ate lunch and waited for a family who would be joining us on our boat ride up Inle Lake. While waiting, we shared a beer and watched the restaurant staff play dta-kraw (they even play sports with the Longyi). It had been a nice 2 days but I was looking forward to the boat ride to the Northern part of Inle Lake to spend the last night with Marjie, before she made her way to Bangkok, en route to Seattle.

Time was flying by too quickly.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Temples, Ruins and Sunsets, oh my!

Bagan, the City of Temples. I must admit that although I was excited about Bagan, as I feel for any new place I visit, Buddhist temples typically don't impress me. It's more like: some do, many don't. In Europe, I can walk in and out of churches all day with my mouth open in awe and a permanent 'wow' experession on my face. Some say it's because I'm Catholic and while yes, I am a believer, to say I'm very religious is an overstatement. So why is it that St. Peter's Basilica in Rome exuded such powerful emotions that brought me to instant tears, yet Buddhist temples have done little for my soul? Whatever the answer is, Bagan changed my feelings.

After a poor night sleep on an overnight bus, we arrived in Bagan at 4am instead of the anticipated 6 am (early arrival? This place is so strange, in a good way). Disoriented and disheveled, we were offered horse and buggy rides to guesthouses in town, but luckily two other tourists informed us that town was a mere 500 meters from the bus station. So we strapped on our packs and set off on the inevitable search for a place to rest our heads at night. After too much walking in un-Godly heat (fyi: profuse sweating at 5am is a red flag for unbearably hot afternoons) we decided to stay at Schwe-nadii Guesthouse. Rooms weren't ready, so to kill time guesthouse "staff" suggested we get ourselves a view of the sunrise via a seat on top of a particular temple we'd need a horse and buggy ride to get to. The price was unnecessarily high so we said we just wanted to stay close and suddenly there was a spectacular sunrise temple nearby. This was our introduction to the awesomely sassy Mao-Ba, who didn't work there but somehow ran the show and was always good for a deal.

Taking Mao-Ba up on his second, more reasonable suggestion, we went to a small, nearby temple for the sunrise. It was so small we couldn't find the stairway entrance, when a woman showed us the way to our first taste of climbing these ancient ruins. As I slowly ran my fingertips along the old, stone walls and hunched over to fit through the narrow, steep stairwells that led to the break of daylight, I felt alive. At the top, taken breath and all, I couldn't get over the vastness of it all; we were mi-nute beings amongst thousands of ruins reigning in on history dating back thousands of years. Additionally pleasing was that we were alone with the exception of one tranquil monk and a few of his dogs. At that moment, I felt more at peace than ever before.

This was the first of many awe-struck moments over the course of 2 days in Bagan. I was consistently taken away by stories told by the temples, leaving in me an invaluable appreciation and respect for its history, beliefs and those who built it. The only somewhat comparable world wonder that I have seen, and loved, was the beyond impressive Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Yet, Bagan was more special to me simply because I felt something more of those gut intuitions that are inexplainable.  

Afterwards, we visited Schwezagon Temple - large, in charge and made of gold, similar to Schwedagon Pagoda in Yangon however much less known and "important". Yet to me, Schwezagon was far more beautiful and provided a such serenity that its counterpart lacked. We were the only folks there, alongside some beautiful birds that made for some fantastic photography, another contrast to the busy Schwedagon. It kind of felt as though this temple was there solely for us...maybe that's why I liked it so much.

Once rooms were ready, naps were calling. We eventually got ourselves motivated to venture out in the afternoon and see some temples, via bike. For fuel, we hit up a tea house for Shan noodles and bean salad, staples I'd begun to get used to, where we scored some unexpected entertainment. We named him Whippersnapper, a 12 year old boy that was the typical young and adorable tea house server, but he was extra special. He would lean his arm on the table, bend over and get close. Then he'd look at you with his scrumcious smiling face, seemingly sweet, and after each item ordered he'd stand up straight, face in the air and scream out the order for the food preparer to get busy. Then he'd lean back on the table, smile and say "ok" as in, "what's next?". He had an efficient system and it was super cute to boot.

Full bellied and ready to go, we set out on day one of temple sighting and well, what a day. It was a never-ending plain of greying black and white temples and red-bricked ruins at every head swivel - simply spectacular. Excited for and impressed by each one, we stopped at most and amongst the favorites were ones we could climb. The best things in life must be earned, and I appreciate something that makes me work to experience its unique beauty. The first temple of the afternoon was also a little "shop" to a nice man selling paintings. I bought one I really liked but did so largely because I liked him. I thought the art was unique, but as the day went on I learned that many temples were host to sellers selling tourist stuff, many of them painters! Maybe not as unique as I thought, oh well!

Bagan is most known for sunsets over looking the temples, and based on what I've said I'm sure you can imagine that the best view is at the top. The first night we climbed Schwezadawn Temple (lots of Schwez-ie type words going on, I know), the most popular sunset location. An over ridden with tourists, yet pleasant spot, Paul enjoyed the sunset by photographing it and chatting with people he'd met previously on his travels (the world gets smaller and smaller) and Marj and I enjoyed it while chatting about how lucky we were. After an afternoon of biking and temple sighting we felt we had earned a dinner splurge and found ourselves eating Nepalese later that night at a place called Wonderful Tasty. And that it was.

Determined to check the big temples off our list, the second day we set out at 5am to beat the excruciating heat. After getting lost in the temples, Paul and I settled in at one of them just in time for sunrise, while Marj hung back to take her notes. Many of the temples look similar making it hard to distinguish between all of them. Paul was certain that the temple was one we had climbed the day before and I was certain it was not. I supported my opinion to the max, as we all should, and I ended up being wrong. This is not something I brag about, but just to give you an idea of how many there are and how impossible to see them all!

In preparation for a full day biking temple to temple, we parked in a tea house for a carby Burmese breakfast of fried dough and fried samosas. While we are on food, I'll share lunch as well. A lovely lady Marj and I met traveling in northern Thailand had recommended a vegetarian restaurant named, "Be kind to animals the moon".....I can't make these names up guys. We randomly stumbled upon it while my stomach was yelling sassy things at me to eat. Of course there was excitement at the realization that it was the place recommended by Jenny and once we settled down and ordered (FYI: the tomato curry was off the chain!) we saw a veggie restaurant across the street with a sign that read "Lonely Planet doesn't talk about us yet, but lovely people do, be kind to animals the sun" (the "sun" part, I may have made up). We felt so bad - if time permitted we would have liked to give them a fair chance, but not possible. If you ever get to Bagan, please check it out and let me know how it was!

Food diversion complete, now back to temples. Each temple's existence came with a unique story, often involving Kings. One provided us with a little story of our own, with goats instead. We originally thought the goats were friendly and looking for food, but soon learned that daddy goat simply didn't want us in there and expressed this by butting his horns into Paul, consistently, until we left. He even followed us to the temple "lobby" where we were waiting out a short rainfall, and butted Paul until we exited the temple completely. I think daddy goat may have been the King of our story!

Interested, while slightly uncomfortable, this led us to a local Burmese family living outside the temple who provided us shelter under a tree near their hut (they welcomed us into the hut, but it was so tiny I have no idea how we would've fit). What to do whilst hanging out in the rain with people you can't verbally communicate with? Pictures, lots of pictures. We thanked them for shoo-ing the goats away and carried on, once again getting slightly lost on the dirt turned mud roads, as we chased a sunset at Baludi Temple. This is not a well known temple which meant few tourists. Paul went on ahead, while Marj and I made it to a nearby temple that offered a great view and a "free" tour guide. The guide was a 13 year old girl who did give a great tour as we brick-climbed the outside of the ruins, barefoot. Brick by brick, she guided me up rather than a plummet to my death, and shared a bit of her life. She spoke great English, is number 1 in her class and aspires to be a doctor - she gives free tours and sells post cards for now, to help her family get by.

It was an active, fun-filled yet exhausting day and we were ready for bed - Marj didn't even make it out for dinner! We had learned by this point that while electricity in Burma exists, it comes and goes as it pleases, and well, it pleases to go often! It had been so hot since our arrival in Burma that we had splurged on rooms with A/C, but the splurges had proven unworthy when electricity went out constantly. An entire night with not even a fan equals schweaty mess - although I had a few nights like that during my service in Thailand, it never gets easier. But Schwena-dii knew how to entice people with A/C including a generator for night time emergencies....thank you Mao-Ba! We all slept very well that night :)

With an extra day in the area, we decided to spend it in Pakoku, a town about 30 km away which had been recommended by a cool German traveler, Max, whom we met in Yangon. We respected his travel style so trusted his opinion and it just happened to be the weekend of a religious festival. The actual holiday was the following day, leaving us to pre-celebrations. Similar to Thailand, there was a lot of food, markets of clothes and gadgets and a few sketchy looking rides, all surrounding a temple that was heavy on the glittery decor, full of people making merit.

We came aross a booth proudly supporting the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, an opposing party of the current government. I was both surprised and impressed with the boldness of this booth, as a few years ago the people manning it would have been arrested and held as political prisoners. It was a sign of change and a freedom of expression, something the Burmese have been denied for a long time. I bought a t-shirt of Aunty and as we left, one of the booth-manners scurried after us with a little extra something sporting the NLD logo. When I said I didn't want to buy anything else, he looked surprised and said he was giving it as a present. Nicest.people.ever.

While strolling along, Paul spotted a pirate ship ride and immediately exclaimed "we have to go on that!" I love rides, so I was all "yeah, let's do it". Right. So we get in and there is no security belt while six Burmese teenagers manually rocked the ship to get it swinging. Eventually a machine kicked in that made enough noise to wake up the dead but gave the guys a break to leisurely sit on the boats edge and flirt with the girls behind us. Across from us, sat a 2 year old on his moms lap and didn't blink an eye. All this while my stomach jumped around and I thought we were sure to fall out!

We spent the rest of the day checking out a monastery, temples and a market where fruit was weighed via an traditional scale. Back in Bagan, we had time to catch one more sunset at Baludi, easily the most gorgeous one I'd seen there. We had an easy night and were up early the next day to move on to the next destination, Kalaw. Sad to leave Bagan, I felt blessed for the opportunity to experience its beauty of many levels, and excited for the next adventure.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Driving circles in Burma - to Mandalay and beyond!

Time limits in Burma demanded difficult decision-making: where to go, where not to go. I highly dislike this process because I prefer to go see it all. But, I figured of all the potential decisions to be stuck with in the world, this wasn't so bad. With that, Mandalay, just another city, lost the deal and the next destination was Bagan, the city of Temples. Coco told us that getting there straight from the Golden Rock was challenging, with no direct route. It seemed simply passing through Mandalay, with a bus transfer in Bago City, was the best option to Bagan as Coco assured us it was a mere 16km away from Mandalay, a quickie ride. It was all working out and so we booked tickets without checking maps or guide books, but on the sole trust of Coco. 

The bus heading to Bago City left on time (this was getting weird) and thus far, Burma had proven itself to be pretty chill: not a lot of people, absolutely nobody hounding you to buy anything or trying to swindle. It's easy to get into that laid back mode, and I learned in Bago, just as easy to get out. When I got off the bus, still half asleep from my unfinished nap, people were moving very quickly and frantically. I honestly thought something was wrong because they were moving as though reacting to an emergency. 

This put me right back into "guard up" mode, as men were grabbing our bags, throwing them on tuk-tuks, telling us to get on the back of the motorbike, all at very high volumes and very quick movements, never telling us where we were going or why we needed to move. As any good traveler would have done, we firmly "said" back in high volumes: give us our bags, don't touch my stuff, where are we going??, why?? and there's no way in hell we are leaving our packs in a tuk-tuk that we aren't on. Finally, some guy says, "I'm Mr. So and So, friends with Coco, it's OK, we are here to bring you to the next bus station". Having already put my trust in Coco, I felt better hearing his name alongside some explanations. Marj got on the tuk-tuk anyway to safe-guard our bags while Paul and I hopped on motorbikes. 

At the restaurant/bus station, we had a chance to actually talk to the men man-handling us and our stuff and learned they were nice, genuinely helpful guys. With a few hours to spare, they directed us to one of the most crowded and busiest markets I've ever been to, which confirmed that Bago City was drastically different from anywhere else in Burma, including Yangon. It had its own culture of hustle and bustle with a lot of people, vehicles, traffic, food, noises, honks, and all that jazz. That description sounds like any other city, I know, but this couldn't be any more different; the smells, the people and the feeling of it was different...I can't really explain it.

After I got myself some deep fried deliciousness at the market (most dishes in Burma revolve around oil and a deep fried food stand lives on every corner, like Starbucks in the Western world) we made our way back to the restaurant/bus station for pre-night bus dinner and beers. It was here we realized Bagan is, in fact, NOT 16km from Mandalay as our trusted friend Coco told us. Get ready for this smack in the face......Bagan is 400 km from Mandalay! With the new-found realization of an 10 hour bus to Bagan instead of a "quickie ride", we became angry with ourselves for not checking first. Yet, we also knew it'd all work itself out. 

The bus was late, only because it was pouring, and while waiting the strangest thing happened. One of the helpful men from earlier in the day, came up to me to tell me why the bus was late (the rain, clearly) to ensure nobody would be upset. We had the "wait for the bus" thing down pat by now, basically just eat, drink a few beers and all is good in the world, so we weren't bothered much. I found it all sweetly strange to get an unprovoked explanation for tardiness in SE Asia....Burma was surprising me on the regs! When the bus arrived 1 hour later, we discovered we had scored a delightfully comfortable overnight bus. Blankets, head pillows, squishy chairs AND the perfect temperature caused me to sleep like a rock.

Which is possibly why we missed our stop the next morning in Mandalay. Suddenly, we arrived to an old colonial town called Pyin Oo Lwin (POL), about 1.5 hours north of Mandalay. In any Western country, the bus driver would have told us "too bad, you should've woken up", but here, the bus driver paid for a taxi ride to get us back to Mandalay. We felt bad about this and I think would've even stayed in the cute town of POL if we had more time, but time was something we didn't have much of.  We needed to get to Mandalay in order to catch a bus to Bagan, which was all still unknown.

Finally in the Mandalay bus station (after about 19 hours of traveling), we bought tickets for an overnight bus to Bagan, that same night. With this plan, we had the day in Mandalay and decided to go explore and eat. After haggling a ride into town and arriving to a particular vegetarian restaurant we were curious about, we learned the place was closed for a month...figures! Good news is we got a picture of the cool sign at the closed restaurant: "Be kind to animals by not killing them" (it was as though I had died and gone to heaven, floating on clouds with people just like me), and met 2 super nice people who directed us to a tea house to "eat with the Burmese". Best advice of the day.

The teahouse was bumpin and we were served by 5 young boys (about 12 years old) who literally stared at us for hours, since we ended up being there for hours. We ate some delish foods, my fave being the Burmese pastry salad, and hung out with some amazing people. The best part of my day was meeting DeBhin, an 87 year old Burmese man who approached our table, and once confirmed Marj and I were American, asked to join us. It turned out that DeBhin studied in America (Hawaii) for 2 years on a scholarship, and taught English in Burma since his return, decades ago. Every Burmese person we met loved America (they'd all cheer "Obama" because he visited a year ago and made the Burmese proud!), but DeBhin loved America more than anybody. He traveled a bit during his time in the states (late 40's/early 50's) and adored it. He shared that there were 2 places in the south who wouldn't let him inside because he was brown, but that experience didn't taint his overall view of the country or the people. He said he was forever grateful to America for the educational opportunity, the scholarship and for all of the wonderful and helpful people he met there. Yet another impressive and lovely human being. 

**DeBhin also confirmed that school is only covered by the government until the 3rd grade, about 8/9 years old. Since it's the families responsibility to pay for school, many kids don't (and aren't required to) continue. Hence why every teahouse was staffed by young boys, not attending school.

An hour and a half and some donuts later, DeBhin floated out of our lives and the next cool person made their way in. A young boy of 6 years old, encouraged by his mom, approached Marj to practice his English. We ended up hanging with his mom and uncle (who had to go back to work, but never did. I guess Burma has that in common with the rest of SE Asia!) for an hour and then decided to take us on an outing. In Thailand, PCVs called this Thai-napping, because it's like being kidnapped: never knowing where you were going, what you were doing, or mainly, how long it'd take. So, we were being Burmese-napped but I was stoked about it! Mainly because I was a tourist and wanted to hang with the locals as much as possible. 

With not much to Mandalay, we had decided to climb the 760 feet up Mandalay Hill to scope out a view of the flat city and some statues. There's a large standing Buddha pointing an outstretched arm towards the royal palace. Here, I provide you another Buddha legend. His outstretched arm is meant to indicate the locale of Burma's future capital (btw, the country has moved capitals umpteen times); apparently Buddha hiked this hill long ago and said in the 2400th year of his faith, a great city would be found below the hill. According to Lonely Planet, that would've been in 1857 when the King at that time, did in fact order the capitals move to Mandalay....coincidence? Who knows.

On our way to Mandalay Hill, we enjoyed seeing kids getting picked up from school, traffic, food and life on the streets of Mandalay. As much as I enjoyed our teahouse, after 4 hours it was nice to walk around, stretch my legs and see some life! The young 6 year old son of the woman Burmese-napping us had to go to his afternoon schooling, but he walked with us a bit; while walking, he grabbed my hand and held it until we parted ways. It was quite sweet.
We climbed up Mandalay Hill and enjoyed the view with our new friend. Marj enjoyed a tarot card reading and later we got dinner and beers to prepare for the next night bus to Bagan. It was an unexpected wonderful day in Mandalay. I believe all of the mix-ups with buses was fate, to give us time there and the opportunity to meet the special people we did.  

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Rock that is Golden

The Golden Rock is, well, a rock that is gold. But the real snazzy thing about this golden rock is that half of it sits atop a mountain while the other half hangs off the edge. I know, so snazzy. Reaching the shrine is a major religious feat Burmese Buddhists dream of achieving before they die. Getting there initially meant climbing Mt. Kyaiktiyo, an 11km pilgrimage from bottom to top, and after the brief encounter with the sincerity of Buddhism here, my desire to hike this bad-boy had increased 10-fold. 

The legend of the rock (spoken in a Lord of the Rings narrator-type voice) is that in the 11th Century, King Tissa was given a Buddha hair from a hermits head and was told to search for a boulder, same shape as the hermits head, then enshrine the hair in a stupa on top. It's now said that the Buddha hair is what holds this rock up. Most temples' claim to fame is a Buddha hair, so not all that impressive, but thought it'd be cool to check out what this was all about.

The bus ride from Yangon was smooth and actually left on time which is quite the accomplishment. There was a quick transfer stop to hop on a song-taew to Kintun, the town at the base of the mountain. Shortly after getting on the song- taew, a young man hopped on and introduced himself as Coco, owner of a guesthouse. Sassy marketing skills to hop aboard the mode of transportation with the few tourists who come out this way, before anybody else can get to them! So, guess where we stayed? Yes, we stayed at Coco's place.

Unfortunately, time in Burma was precious with only 2 weeks in country, sadly hindering us from completing the bad-ass 11km pilgrimage (amongst other things in Burma). Instead we had to take a truck that would drop us off at a "truck stop", allowing us to walk about 45 minutes to the rock, the same afternoon we arrived. The last bus would leave the top at 6pm, so we figured we would make it just in time if we got the process moving quickly. The trucks leave when full so we got on one that already had people on it. What we didn't know was that the people on the truck were from a Thai tourist group. Tour groups are always the worst, let alone Thai ones, solely because whenever there is a Thai involved, there is waiting. It's how they've perfected the art of patience. As if things couldn't get worse, a Chinese tour group gets on the truck after us. The 3 of us waiting on a truck chock full of tour groups was not how I envisioned the afternoon. 

Please give me a moment to describe these trucks. They were enormous, open-air monster trucks in which passengers sat on top with semi-cushioned metal bar seats. The trucks were so high we had to climb stairs to enter and exit them. Despite the open-air, sitting on top whilst not moving got hot and steamy, and not in the good way. Still to this day, I have no idea what we were waiting for, but we waited in that damn truck with the tour groups for 2 hours before we heard the engine roar, even though the truck was at full capacity the whole time. The start of the engine brought on cheers from the crowd!

Now, please give me a moment to describe the ride. HOLY SHIT!!!!!!!! about sums it up. Apparently we got Psycho Driver of the Year behind the wheel to drive up this insanely steep mountain with some serious inclines along very narrow roads, at a speed that was exhilarating yet slightly concerning. I do think I was more delighted at the adrenaline rush than anything and the ride itself offered some stunning was delightful.

We stopped mid-way up for about 20 minutes to let the trucks coming down pass, as the road is too narrow for 2-way traffic. Our time was cutting close and we were afraid that we wouldn't have enough time at the top after the 45 minute climb up and down. Well, not to worry because the truck, unbeknownst to us, took us to the very top. Didn't 2 years living amongst Thai's teach me that a group of Thai's would never hike 45 minutes up a steep incline?! Yet it never crossed my mind! 

So, there we were at the top with a hazy, cloudy mist hanging over us, limiting the views. We took a look at the Golden Rock and it was exactly what one would think, a golden rock. Somewhat underwhelming, as most destinations like this are. Please don't mistake me for a Negative Nancy because I do love that stuff, but I always feel the journey is the real adventure, not the destination.

Thus far I have forgotten to inform you of a Golden Rock Rule: women aren't allowed to touch or go near the rock. Yes, that's a rule. We took some fun photos, you know the kind when it looks like you are holding up the rock with a pinky, and carried on back down the mountain....via truck. A different driver provided a much calmer ride down.

That night we went out into the sleepy town of Kintun for a snack and a beer at a local tea house. We were welcomed with a heavy downpour, forcing us to stay and have another beer....oh such tragedies :) It provided the opportunity to watch 2 sweet 12 year old boys working there make paper boats and send them off in the water that flooded the dirt streets. 

The following morning, determined to hike a portion of this pilgrimage, albeit a short one, Paul and I set out at 6am to catch a truck that would drop us off at the "truck stop", 45 minutes (by foot) from the top. It was a tough walk, but it was good exercise and we got to engage in the exchange of regular greetings with every local we passed. We got ourselves a much more clear view that was quite beautiful. We walked a bit further on as there were various ridge paths we would've loved to explore, but time was precious and so we had to get moving to make our way back down the mountain to catch our next bus.

Although we couldn't explore as much as I would've liked, this little journey back up the mountain enabled me to put my feelings about Burma into words.  No matter where you go, whether it's "touristy" (I quote this because although there are places that attract a lot of tourists and Burma is becoming a desirable destination, yet it's one of the least touristy places in SE Asia (as of right now) because her borders were closed for so long) or not, the Burmese people continue to live their lives whether foreigners come to visit or not. It's nice when you see people living as they were, before and after you, with no need to rely on your (meaning, the tourist) existence.  I hope you check out my facebook page to see the photos of Burma (thanks to Paul) that are mostly of daily life.  It surrounded us everywhere we went and was very refreshing.

The next bus was leaving at 1:30 and surprisingly once again, left on time. I began to wonder if Burma didn't take part in Asian time, meaning at least 4 hours late with various crazy stops and stalls in the midst of the trip.....

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Heading west to Burma!

Bangkok seems to grow on me the more I go, yet I suspected this short visit would be the last for a while. We met up with Paul and for the next 2 days ran around getting Visas and perfectly crisp US dollars, as Burma only accepts and exchanges local currency for brand spankin new USD's. We were told that banks in Bangkok are aware of this and could easily accommodate this need, yet somehow we searched for an an entire afternoon, to no avail. I ended up sprinting 1km at the end of the day to reach a particular bank before closing. Since I'd been engaging in my hobby of running less and less frequently, this was uncomfortable enough to remind me I needed a good run.

Marj and I paid the Peace Corps staff a visit and later that night, Kevin the Country Director took Marj, Paul and myself out for dinner; the visits were great and brought back positive memories. The second night, we not-so-surprisingly ran into American Nick (the guy we consistently and randomly bumped into while in Laos with the "hey guys") and hung out on Khao San Road listening to amazing live music with the most passionate drummer I've ever seen, while sipping Leo beers on ice. It doesn't get much better than that. 

The following, and last night in Bangkok before our early morning flight to Burma, Marj, Paul and I hung out drinking until we had to get in a cab for the airport. This was a major set-up for an exhausted arrival into the city of Yangon, but it was a really good time.

We arrived in Yangon airport and were picked up by a driver from the guesthouse we were staying in (Motherland Inn 2). Marj and the young Burmese driver hit it off (grandmama and grandson) and he gave Marj his cell phone number in case she needed help at some point. The first person we met and I was already in love with him....too sweet. At the guesthouse we ate breakfast while waiting for our room and in the interim, Paul met a young English journalist, Rory, who was interning in Yangon. Rory informed Paul that our first night in Yangon was the Opening Ceremony to Myanmar's very first film festival (being held in Yangon) which was focusing on human rights. Myanmar has a spectacularly oppressive history and we knew this was going to be huge.

A chilled out afternoon led us to the Opening Ceremony with Rory, Tanya (cool Canadian chick) and Chris (Singapore/American) which hosted impressive speakers from all over the world. Aung San Suu Kyi (by most Burmese aka Auntie) couldn't attend but had someone read a speech on her behalf. After speeches were completed, one of the documentaries featuring a young political prisoner from the 1988 Revolution was shown. It was a powerful film that was informative and frustrating, yet hopeful.

Here's a quick bit on Burma's history. While talking, I almost always use Burma, but within the text I use both Burma and Myanmar interchangeably. Myanmar is made of various states with many different ethnic groups whom, historically, have experienced discrimination and prejudiced treatment. Burma was a British colony until 1947 when Aung San, political leader, led his people to fight and gain independence from England. Amongst many positive things, Aung San and this party agreed to give the ethnic groups what they have always desired, to be independent states. The  agreement was that these states could secede within 10 years of the nations independence (1958), but sadly and not so ironically, Aung San and 6 other leaders were assassinated (by the oppressors) before seeing the agreement through. Destabilization within the country was almost immediate. Since, there have been multiple violent coup's and revolutions within the country, killing and imprisoning thousands. Human rights have been notoriously abused over the years.

Aung San died when his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi (Auntie) was only 2 years old. She carried on with her life until she was drawn to help her country and continue the mission her father sought after so many years ago. She, amongst thousands of others were made political prisoners after the 1988 revolution (3,000 protestors killed by military coup). Aunty spent a total of 12 years in house arrest and has become the face, savior and desired leader of Burma. The current military government have found various "legal" reasons to prevent her from running, yet there is hope that in 2015 she will be able to be elected. Let's keep our fingers crossed.

Currently, my understanding of the political sitch is such that the states want to elect representatives to make state laws, similar to America's state vs. federal concept. The intention is to strip the oppressive military government of its power but also for each state to be represented by their distinct ethnic group and have some laws unique to their own. Originally, in 1947, an official secession was to be granted therefore I'm not sure if this a compromise or simply a new goal.

**The original name of the country was Burma and it was changed to Myanmar to be inclusive of all the ethnic groups. Although the concept of inclusion is positive, it was changed without ever consulting the people and for this reason, Auntie prefers Burma. The people use both, yet while I was there, I heard Burma being used most often.

After the ceremony, we had dinner at the first of many tea houses we would sit in throughout our time in Burma. It's where all the Burmese people go and it's a culture unto itself. Obviously, there's tea, but there's also coffee and a few various Burmese dishes available. The staff, about five 13 year old boys, were paralyzed when they saw us enter the teahouse and brought over a man from a different store who spoke some English to help us order. Despite these efforts, miscommunication caused three extra, unordered meals to come out. They were super grateful when we said we would still pay for the food and to box it up for take-away.

The next morning we were up and at em' crazy early for a sunrise at Schwedagon pagoda, the most significant and well known in the country. Every-day people were there going about their religious business of making merit (give offerings to the monks and pagoda, including chant prayers, etc) as though it was any other temple, giving me the first taste of authenticity regarding Burmese Buddhism. Nothing seemed to be for show, just a pure, strong following of beliefs. Many monks were present, meditating in solitude, while others were a bit different. One monk approached me to chat away while another shamelessly took photos of each of us on his phone. The fact that he even had a phone was quite un-Buddhist of him, but we got a good chuckle out of it anyway.

Later that morning, we all made our way to the cinema to attend the first showing including 3 films. The first, Go Home, was about Burmese refugees who've crossed the border into Thailand, living amongst the rubbish dumps to earn a living of picking and selling recyclables. The poor health conditions and this youth patrol to guard against thieves at night, brought tears to my eyes. The second film Agape, about a community of illegal Burmese refugees in Thailand. Most of the kids there were sold by their parents, orphaned or ran away from their dangerous villages (1 kid said the military government went to his village and beheaded people - the rebellion army recruits young children to fight back and he left to avoid recruitment). David, an awesome Burmese guy in the village opened a school with everything he had and various donations to help the children and community. It was inspiring. The last was regarding the dangers a North Korean family faces in their escape to safety in South Korea. All were impressive and insightful and afterwards, we were lucky to meet the festival organizer and pay our respects and admiration for his enormous accomplishment.

Marj stayed for every showing while Paul land I went for a city walking tour including: Inya lake, Auntie's house where she was imprisoned, another pagoda and market. We stopped at a tea house for lunch that was also staffed by a bunch of young boys, clearly excited to be serving us. We began to wonder why none of these kids were at school. 

Later that night I took a walk and got some Shan noodles on the street. Through charades and a few english words, it was understood that I don't eat meat.  I got excited when they handed my bowl to me and there was a spoonful of chick peas (garbanzo beans), my favorite bean of all time, on top. I dug in and in the first bite realized the beans was actually chicken. Everybody at the little stand was watching me anyway to see my reaction to the food, and I looked up and said "chicken" and they said "yes, chicken" and I said "no meat please" and they said, " no meat, chicken". Gotta love it. It was all dealt with smoothly however as they just scooped the pile of chicken off of the noodles, handed it back to me and charaded "eat", so that's what I did. And it was damn good.

Next morning we were up early to make our way to the Golden Rock.