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Southeast Asia (2012)

a travel blog by shoshtrvls




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Day 1 -- Yangon in a Day

Yangon, Myanmar (Burma)


From Singapore, it was another three hour flight to Yangon. By this time Ellery and I were definitely traveled out, but the time went quickly as Ellery fell fast asleep and I chatted with a very nice auditor from Singapore

Arrival in Yangon was very smooth, although everything is still done by hand, so it isn't quick. Despite dire warnings I was able to cash my not-new, $20 bills, although it seemed to take forever and there was a ton of paperwork involved. I suspect most people change money on the black market not to get a better rate, but instead to save time

TinTin (our guide, not the Belgian dog) was there just as promised with the driver. It took roughly 1/2 hour to get to the hotel, where Ellery and I relaxed for a bit and changed out of our less-than-fresh clothing.

Then it was off to a quick few hours sight-seeing, which appears to be all the time you really need in Yangon. The main attraction is the Shwedagon Pagoda, really a large complex of probably 40 buildings and hundreds of Buddhas all surrounding a giant gold pagoda -- one so big that you can see it from the airplane on your way in. Apparently there are incredible jewels at the top, but you cant see them. Surrounding the pagoda, in particular, are seven Buddhas, one for each day of the week. Below each of these seven Buddhas is the animal symbol for that day. And what one does is dowse with water the buddha and the symbol for the day of the week you were born in prayer to Buddha; if you have s lucky number, that's how many times you pour the water. So, we visited Wednesday's shrine, with its elephant, for my birthday, and Ellery's tiger Monday. Anyway, the whole complex is lots of gold and mirrors, and even some neon disco lights around some of the Buddhas (to show enlightenment) giving the whole place a shimmer. Oh, and since it was Aung San Suu Kyi's birthday, there were many people at the shrine praying for her good health.

From there we drove around the city center for a bit. Yangon is pretty much what one would expect - decaying buildings of two main styles - British Colonial and cinder block and cement. Even the few new buildings look old. The cars as well are mostly from the seventies - and most interesting, they have cars with steering wheel on both the left and the right; it seems that whatever could be imported was. (Streets are driving on the right). In front of the buildings are street stalls offering all kinds of food and goods. Most popular are the tea stalls, with plastic chairs arranged along the sides of the walkway. Food ranges from incredible fruits, corn on the cob, fried potatoes, noodle dishes and meat satay.

Like most countries in the developing world, there's lots of traffic, and packed buses and trucks with people hanging out the sides and the back, but there are some differences. No tuk-tuks, no motorbikes, only a few pedal bikes, and no honking. Yes, honking is banned here except for emergencies - in Thailand and India, it's the opposite. So, it's interesting to walk around and not hear the cacophony of car horns.

As for the people, almost all - men and women - wear longhi. Very few people in pants of any kind and what jeans they do have appear to be of the slim, nearly legging style. And everyone wears flip flops; very few covered toes. On their faces, most girls and women wear a tan paste in big circles on their cheeks, made from tree bark. I'm told it is a good sunblock and skin softener, but I think I'll pass.

Back to the sightseeing. Eventually we stopped at a tea house for something to eat and drink. Food here is like a dim sum restaurant - different small plates of soft chewy bao, fried dumplings and pot stickers and the like. Tea is drank heavily laden with cream and sugar, making it pretty unrecognizable as green tea. Afterward, as Ellery was falling asleep in the car and didn't feel well, we dropped her off at the hotel before continuing on to the HUGE reclining Buddha at Kyaukhtatgyi Pagoda. 70 meters long and of recent vintage, this thing was the biggest Buddha I've seen. The feet alone were two or three people tall. Really quite stunning.

From there it was on to one of the two lake parks in the city, Kandawgyi Park, surrounded by a wooden footpath, in the middle sits a replica of the old royal barge which had been destroyed in WWII. Evidently it is a restaurant inside, but the outside glimmers and it's reflection in the lake is beautiful.

Then it was a walk through the city center, passing all of the embassies and government buildings, and the Strand hotel, all left over from British colonial rule. Nothing spectacular; the street scene was much more interesting. We also stopped to make over a dozen copies of our passports and visas on a very old copier; I'm told we will need to give these to government officials along the way.

Finally we returned back to the hotel for some much needed sleep before our 6 am flight (eek!) to Bagan.

permalink written by  shoshtrvls on June 19, 2012 from Yangon, Myanmar (Burma)
from the travel blog: Southeast Asia (2012)
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Day 2 -- Discovering Bagan

Bagan, Myanmar (Burma)


TinTin and our driver were waiting for us at the ungodly hour of 4:45 am as we set off for the airport. As it was with Nelson Mandela in South Africa, all neighborhoods here are defined by their relationship to Aing San Kuu Kyi - this is the street where her house is, this is where her political party office is, etc. So, we drove by her house in the dark, and then on to the airport.

The breakfast the hotel packed, while thoughtful, was less than enticing. Some hard rolls and an old banana. So once at the airport we dined on dim sum, and it was good. I like the Burmese tradition of real food for breakfast. And now we are sitting in the airport, watching it fill up with an odd assortment of Asian businessmen, wealthy Brit tourists following their guides everywhere, and the usual assortment of Western backpackers. Not sure where we fit in; we have advanced arrangements wherever we go, but this isn't an organized tour, except as organized by me. And at this point in my life, this feels about right. I would not go back to the hostels and wandering the streets searching for the bus terminal, but I also am not ready to be spoon-fed all my experiences.

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Ok, all I can say is ... Amazing. I don't even know where to begin, and the day is only half over. Flying into Bagan you get your first taste of what is to come - a wide river with thousands of ancient temples all over the landscape. So many, in fact, that at first you can't even be sure what they are.

Our guide Po met us at the airport, and took us to our hotel. Our hotel, the Aureum Palace and Resort, is more than top notch. It is a compound of houses tucked among the 3000 temples and stupas in Bagan. Our house (yes, we have our own house) in two stories of lavishness, with three balconies looking out over the temples. It is nearly the size of our house in Philly. And decorated much nicer. It was painful to have to leave it only minutes after arriving, but we did. There's so much to see here.

We spent the morning visiting several temples and stupas, starting with the large Shwezigon Pagoda. Like the one in Yangon, it is a large stupa in the center, surrounded by many smaller buildings and plenty of Buddhas. Next was Gubyaukgyi Temple, with it's walls covered in beautiful miniature paintings of the life of Buddha. Several more temples and pagodas followed, including htilominlo and khayminka, ending with Ananda, which has four huge Buddhas and hundreds of smaller ones in the niches of the walls. These temples range in age, built between the 10th and 13th centuries, in varying stages of both decay and restoration. Po took great pains to describe everything to us, and I mean everything. With his heavy accent, it was tiring, but very worthwhile.

A few items of note - almost every temple and stupa is surrounded by market stalls, with hawkers calling your attention to everything from postcards to quite beautiful lacquerware. It's just enough to be interesting without being annoying.

Roads here are traveled by a variety of vehicles. Cars, buses, motorbikes, pedal bikes, ox carts and horse-drawn carriages all compete for space. But there's no traffic and, just as in Yangon, no honking. And when the wind blows, as it does often, the sweet smell of all the blooming flowers envelops you.

Eventually, we settled for a traditional lunch of Burmese food, most of which I couldn't even describe, at an outdoor restaurant in what appeared to be the center area of the temple site, before heading back to the hotel to rest.

Upon arriving at our hotel and before returning to the luxury of our house, we visited the 12 story tower on the hotel grounds. It is the tallest building in Bagan, and it's viewing deck provides incredible 360 degree views of Bagan and it's temples. Truly awe-inspiring.

After a few hours rest at the hotel, it was back to sightseeing, starting with the obligatory "factory tour" - here of lacquerware. This one was impressive however, and the works was beautiful. More temples followed- Seinnyerneijima, Manuha, Thatbyinnyu - then a horse cart ride among the temples and, more interestingly, one of the small villages in the valley. Daily life here was boys playing soccer, women cooking, oxen resting. The homes were very much like the ones I remember from northern Thailand, made of woven bark and raised on stilts.

The final stop was Shwesandon Temple, where we and about 20 other travelers climbed to the top to view what turned out to be a somewhat disappointing sunset. Still, the views were magnificent and it was well worth the climb. But maybe not the decent, as Ellery spilled her entire bag, and money rained down the side of the temple walls. It was really a scene out of a movie; fortunately, people kindly collected it all and returned it to us. And thus, Ellery will not longer be holding any money.

We returned to the hotel for long, glorious foot massages and a dinner of, as Ellery called it, "real food" before collapsing into bed.

permalink written by  shoshtrvls on June 20, 2012 from Bagan, Myanmar (Burma)
from the travel blog: Southeast Asia (2012)
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Day 3 -- Bagan to Popa

Mount Popa, Myanmar (Burma)


After checking out of our incredible hotel, today began with a visit to the Bagan market. Hundreds of bamboo stalls packed two main areas - produce on one side, meats, fish and hard goods on the other. The stalls were all, for the most part, manned by women, selling every kind of thing you can imagine. We wandered for a bit, eventually purchasing a longhi and shirt for Ellery.

After the market we headed to the jetty for a boat ride up the Irrawaddy river. The boats that ply the river are colorfully painted but of dubious seaworthiness. Still, we climbed aboard for a one-hour ride. in the distance, the pagodas of Bagan crowned the riverbank, while along the shore daily life took place. There were people bathing and cleaning clothes, fishing and selling bamboo. Eventually we arrived at Kyauk Gu U Min, the sight of a small monetary and temple on top of a hill overlooking the river. The temple is built into the mountain, and one can walk through the cave deep into the hill. Otherwise, I confess, it wasn't much to see, so it wasn't long before we were back on the boat and into Bagan.

At my request, we made one shopping stop, to a store that sells puppets. It took a while to choose one but eventually we did, and then moved on to lunch, at a nice traveler restaurant in the heart of the temple area.

Then we hit the road for Mt. Popa, making two stops on the way. The first was at a roadside stand to sample all things palm - palm fruit, palm juice, palm oil. Interestingly, there was no shortage of cactus along the road (along with fields of peanut and sesame) as Po explained that this area is quite dry, even during the rainy seasons which brings only flash floods. Indeed, many parts of the road were covered in mud from the overflowing rivers, which were now bone dry.

Next it was a typical small village closer to Popa. Each house was its own compound, with a thatched hut for living surrounded by plenty of room for the animals - oxen, chicken, pigs and goats. Needless to say, we picked up quite a following of children, who trailed us throughout the village.

Eventually we arrived at Popa, a much cooler place being higher in the mountains, with dense thick jungle that smells of sandelwood. Coming around a bend, we got our first look at Popa, a monestary purchased atop a dead volcano. Really a spectacular sight, not unlike the monastery in Thimpu. Unfortunately, the rains prevented us from actually climbing to the top for a visit, so instead we made due by stopping in town to see some well-maintained statues of the 37 nats (spirits) and lots of monkeys.

From there it was to the hotel for the night. The hotel sits on a mountain just a bit higher than Popa, with huts tumbling down the side, all with a view of the monastery - when it isn't covered in rain clouds. Which was for about 15 minutes of the afternoon, in between the pouring monsoons. So, we were stuck inside for the rest of the night, content to listen to the rain and the monkeys running across the roof.

permalink written by  shoshtrvls on June 21, 2012 from Mount Popa, Myanmar (Burma)
from the travel blog: Southeast Asia (2012)
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Day 4 -- Popa to Mandalay

Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma)


Not every day can be incredible, and this was one of those days.

We left the hotel around 8:30 and hit the road to Mandalay. The countryside was nice, but nothing to write home about (notwithstanding the fact that this is exactly what i am doing). But there were points of interest. The first was visiting a market in one of the villages. Much like those in the larger towns, it was a warren of small stalls selling all kinds of goods. What made it worth the stop, though, was that it was so rural. Clearly people had come from neighboring villages to stock up and clearly we, as Westerners, were oddities.

After the market, we hopped on a very new, large highway. Apparently, this road has taken about 10 hours off the drive from Yangon to Mandalay. Po was very proud of this highway.

The other diversion was to the snake temple, about an hour outside of Mandalay. Before we had arrived, I couldn't tell if Po, in describing the temple, meant that there were plaster snakes surrounding the Buddha statues or real ones. The answer was both. Three large boas curled around one of the buddha statues, while the remainder of the temple consisted of Buddhas sitting in front of plaster snakes. Other than the snakes, though, the temple held little of interest. So, we had a quick $2 lunch at a traditional food stall before heading to our destination.

Arriving at our hotel in Mandalay, I was at first not impressed. But there's a reason it was rated No. 1 on tripadvisor - it's probably as welcoming and charming as anywhere. Anyway,after dropping our bags off and resting a bit, we took to the streets, wandering along the palace walls, and through small dirt road and neighborhoods. One surreal experience was walking down a dirt road lined with small stalls and businesses, being followed by a pushcart selling CDs, blasting music. It was as though our walk had its own soundtrack. We were greeted with "hello" by everyone, including the most adorable 6 year old sitting on her father's motorbike coming home from school, who asked us in flawless English, "May I introduce myself? I am Kayo.". We eventually found ourselves at Kuthodaw Pagoda, a beautiful temple of 700 white stupas surrounding one large gold one. In each white stupa is a marble slab with Buddhist teachings, which is why they call it the world's largest book.

Returning to our hotel, we enjoyed cocktail hour at the pool, getting to know our fellow guests from around the world before a brief dinner and bed.

permalink written by  shoshtrvls on June 22, 2012 from Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma)
from the travel blog: Southeast Asia (2012)
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Day 5 -- Mandalay

Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma)


I like Mandalay. It has life. Maybe it's the motorbikes that are absent from Yangon, or that it isn't holding onto British Colonialism, or maybe just that Ellery and I have been venturing out on our own here, but what's ever makes it this was is good.

Jo picked us up around 8:30 for the one-hour boat trip to Mingun. Although not far from the city center, life along the river is immediately rural. Thatched huts high on stilts to protect them when the river swells, oxen plowing small fields on small islands, workers collecting sand from the banks to be used to construction in the city.

Mingun itself was a bit of a disappointment. Touted as a wonderful, artistic and picturesque place, I found it somewhat uninteresting. The climb to the top of the crumbling brick Mingun Pagoda provided a nice view, but nothing else. The Mingun Bell was a big bell, and the white-washed Hisnbyume Pagoda offered nothing new. And the artisans were less than inspiring.

Returning back to Mandalay, The ferry area was now one bistling with activity, wooden boats tied four and five abreast, people loading and unloading goods from up and down the river, women doing laundry. Then it was lunch at a Burmese restaurant, Amidah, which Jo says is one of the best in the city. It was certainly a crowded, happening place.

Then it was back to sightseeing. The wooden Golden Palace Monastery was the most interesting as it was all carved teak wood. The weather had worn away the gold leif on the exterior, but it was still present on the inside. We also visited Kayuktawgyi Pagoda with its huge, luminous marble buddha,and yet another temple, the Maha Myat Muni Pagoda, with a gold Buddha, this one quite crowded. Interspersed with these visits were the obligatory factories - here gold leif (which was actually interesting) and woodworking (which was not).

After a few hours of rest at the hotel, Ellery and I again ventured out, this time walking down 26th street, with it's packed beer gardens and restaurants. We took Jo's advice and had dinner at Cafe JJ. I mention this only because Cafe JJ was clearly where the cool kids ate. Part restaurant, part western coffee house offering expresso and cappuccino, and part ice cream shop, there were no longyis here, but instead kids running everywhere, dudes in jeans talkng on cell phones, and girls with dyed hair and skirts that would put a hooker to shame.

Our evening ended with a traditional Burmese puppet show. It probably wasn't the best, but it was good fun, with several different scenes that made no sense to us, but definitely displayed the difficulty of manipulating the puppets. There was also traditional music and dance mingled in, and at the end the ancient Puppetmaster came out to greet all 9 of us, all visitors, who had come to see the show. Made me remember my youth at the Bob Baker Marionettes.

permalink written by  shoshtrvls on June 23, 2012 from Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma)
from the travel blog: Southeast Asia (2012)
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Day 6 -- Two Weddings and a Funeral

Sagaing, Myanmar (Burma)


Two weddings and a funeral. No, you can't make this stuff up.

We left the hotel earlier than normal today to attend the 8:30 a.m. wedding of his friend, the son of the owner of the puppet show. (Evidently, Jo worked at the puppet theater before becoming a guide). The wedding ceremony was held at a large restaurant. Upon arrival, we were handed flowers and, for those bringing gifts, they were also given a bamboo fan with the equivalent of a NY Times wedding notice printed on it, including degrees received and employment held by the bride and groom. At the front of the room were large white chairs and on a curtain hanging behind them the names of the bride and groom. A band played quietly off to the side of the stage Seating was open, and upon sitting at a table, a plate of chinese dim sum and bowl of ice cream were provided. (Remember, it is 8 in the morning).

We sat with two of the puppeteers from the evening before, and Jo was quite animated as he chatted with them. People were dressed in everything from beautiful silk longhi style dresses to everyday wear. As weddings are held on good luck days, although today is Sunday, apparently they are held any day of the week, so people may come for the ceremony and then go straight to work. Apparently, this part of the wedding, the morning reception, lasts about 5 hours during which time friends and family come and go at their leisure. We were warmly greater by several family members, and made to feel very comfortable despite the fact that we obviously did not belong.

At 8:30, the festivities began. While the singer and the band played a traditional wedding song, the bridesmaids walked down the aisle to the front of the room, the first one dropping flowers from a silver bowl, very much like a wedding in the US. Then the bride and groom came in together, wearing traditional clothing in white, beautifully decorated. They were followed by the parents and other relatives. The master of ceremonies then began reading the bride's and groom's many accomplishments. The ceremony itself appeared to have three main parts. First, the bride and groom placed flower garlands on one another. Then the brides parents placed the wedding rings on the fingers of the bride and groom, rather than having them couple exchange rings. The reason for this is to bestow on the new couple the same longevity of their marriage. (The groom's parents did not participate because they are, I'm divorced. No longevity there). Then there was a hand washing or shaking ceremony, although this I couldn't quite see. Finally, the Master of Ceremonies announced that the two were married. No kissing followed, however, just the obligatory many family photographers. All told, it was about 1/2 hour and not so different from our weddings. Later tonight, there will also be a large reception, although this is not always done, and has only recently been adopted from the west.

From the wedding g we headed out of town to see the three historical capitals, Sagaing, Ava, and Amarapira. We drove along the river, and one of the most striking things was how much teak is being harvested. It was piled up all along the river and on large barges, headed for export. Deforestation must certainly be a big problem here.

Before reaching Sagaing, we stopped to visit in a small village known for its woodworking. And this time, it was very interesting, as the people were truly engaged in their work, and not part of a factory for tourists. At the first house, on a table sat a wedding fan like the one from the wedding we had been to just a half hour earlier. It also said June 24, and then we began to notice that many of the women were wearing nicer silk longhi, not the normal village wear. There was music in the distance and as we wandered through, we eventually came upon the wedding party. What a difference! The event was in a brightly painted canopied area, and the music was blasting from loudspeakers. It was so colorful and festive; nearly the opposite of the city wedding.

We eventually made it to Sagaing, which seemed to have as many whitewashed temples spilling along the hillside as there were brick ones in the valley in Bagan. It is home to numerous monasteries and meditation centers, and we traveled first to the temple at the very top of the mountain to take in the view. Then it was another pagoda and a nunnery and a pottery factory. (These "factories" as they are called, are really just shops, with 10 or so people using traditional methods of craftwork). At which point I'm thinking I don't need to see any more temples, monasteries, or craft factories on this trip. There are only so many Buddhas one can take.

After Sagaing, we took a short ferry ride to Ava. A very bumpy one hour horse cart ride took us around this little river island where we saw ... yes, an old monastery and an old temple. The monastery, however, was all black teak, with children studying under the not-very-watchful eye of a monk. That was different and worth seeing. Lunch was also on Ava, where we were joined by some chameleons, a snake, and about 10 Spaniards on tour, before taking the ferry back and heading to our last destination of the day, Amarapura.

The only thing worth seeing in Amarapura is the U Bein Bridge - a 1.2 km teak footbridge that connects Amarapura with a neighboring village. This appears to be quite the Burmese tourist attraction, with many people strolling along the bridge and taking pictures.

The final stop was, of course, a silk textile shop, where the workers truly labored to make gorgeous fabrics. When I first traveled to this part of the world, in 1987, I was amazed at the craftsmanship of this work. But 25 years later, I am saddened by it; it is hours of hard hunched over labor, mostly by young girls, using ancient tools, yes, what they make is beautiful and it provides them with a living, but a machine can do the same, and not grow old hunched over a loom for 8 hours a day, every day, for one's entire life.

Then it was back to Mandalay. But first ... Yes, the funeral. The "hearse" was a brightly decorated truck; I thought for sure it was some festival. Nearby was a long line of marchers walking down a road. Only then did Jo realize that it was a funeral. Two more weddings and we'll have a movie.

Back in Mandalay, we passed one last interesting site - the motorbike registration line. Sounds ridiculous, but evidently motorbikes - which are everywhere - did not need to be registered before this month. But now they do, and there were hundreds of bikes and owners lined up waiting to register their bikes on Monday morning. Really, it was like being in Sitges, but with scooters rather than Harleys, longyis rather than leather jackets.

Dinner tonight was at a small restaurant near the hotel - chicken noodles for $2.00/pp. Can't beat that.

permalink written by  shoshtrvls on June 24, 2012 from Sagaing, Myanmar (Burma)
from the travel blog: Southeast Asia (2012)
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Day 7 -- Inle

Inle Lake, Myanmar (Burma)


And we're off to Inle Lake. Joe picked us up at 6:30 for the hour or so ride to the airport. Along the way, he told us about a small Nat (spirit) festival that we had missed yesterday in lieu of the temples. I wish we had known, because I would have much preferred to see what he described, which is this. In the house of a medium, people from the neighborhood bring offerings to the spirits, and paint their faces to look like Burmese princesses. Then they eat, and drink beer, and dance to traditional Burmese music. This starts at 9 in the morning and goes most of the day and sometimes even into the night (Joe thought this one would go into the late afternoon, which is why we didn't hurry back; instead, however, it ended mid-day). These "in home" festivals occur only on certain lucky days (June 24 was a good day, for weddings and Nat festivals) and in this case is a "send off" to the Nats as they battle one another, culminating in a huge 7 days festival in August in an area just to the north of Mandalay. I asked Joe if there were these festivals all over Myanmar yesterday and he said no, just the one he had seen near his house. Ah well, with two weddings and a funeral, I can't complain that we didn't see enough of real Burmese culture yesterday.

At the airport in Mandalay, I feel as though I've stepped back 25 years to my backpacker days. Because it is the low season and because travel to Myanmar is still rare, we have begun to see the same few solo travelers in several places. Here in the airport are a couple from Italy and a couple from the US, both of whom we had seen at the puppetshow. As is an older woman, quite sophisticated, who i take to be someone teaching abroad and traveling for her vacation, who we saw in Bagan. And they are all (ok, not the teacher) carrying their well-worn Lonely Planet guidebooks, exchanging information, discussing hostels and places to see and the like. In some ways, I miss being one of those people, having to learn so much more about a country just in order to figure out what local bus to take and where to buy train tickets. But, on the other hand, the luxury of having everything arranged, having a local guide and car at every destination, knowing there's a hot shower at the end of the day, makes things so much easier and more comfortable. I could never do a pre-packaged group tour and as indulgent as a private tour seems, it is really the best of both worlds.

Arriving in Heho, we were met by our guide Sandar, a young woman with very good English (the one thing that made traveling with Joe a problem). On the way to Inle lake we made two stops. The first was to a family that made paper and bamboo umbrellas. Although I am quite jaded of such stops (and there were more to come), the delicacy and skill of this family was quite impressive, and thus we left with our own bamboo umbrella.

Next stop was, yes, a temple and monastery, but an interesting one. The temple was built in the 18th (?) century and displayed both English and Burmese influence. There were hundreds of niches with Buddhas in them, and above and below we're beautiful glass mosaics of everything from British soldiers to tigers to flowers. Next door was the monastery, Shwe Yan Pyay, which consisted of an old teak structure like the several we have seen before and a few newer buildings. The monastery housed about forty young monks and a few older teachers, all of whom were very friendly.

Finally we reached Inle and got on our motor boat and headed out to the lake. Our hotel was about 30 minutes away, a resort consisting of dozens of huts on stilts, like all of the villages around the lake. After a brief rest we headed to the far side of the lake, about 40 minutes away, for lunch, a boat tour of some of the villages, and tours of, sigh, craft factories - silk, silver, and cheroot (cigars). Agriculture is the main occupation, with a lot of rice and tomatoes ioak articulate. We opted out of more monasteries and pagodas, however, and eventually returned to our hotel for dinner (served to a bad cover version of Yellow River by Paper Lace) and sleep.

A few notes - everything here occurs, or seems to occur, on the water, and boats, some motorized and some not, are the mode of transportation for everything - crops, people, hard goods, and schoolchildren - the last being transported by a very long boat, the water equivalent of a school boat. As one might expect of a lake that rises several meters in the rainy season, every building is on stilts, and since the lake is low now, activity occurs both in the houses on top and on platforms lower down. Finally, this place has already figured out the tourist business quite well, with plenty of resorts and restaurants lining the lake. So being here in low season is a bit like being down the shore in November - the locals are curious about you not because you are tourists but because you've come at the wrong time, and most of the hotels and restaurants and closed for the season and being refurbished for next year.

permalink written by  shoshtrvls on June 25, 2012 from Inle Lake, Myanmar (Burma)
from the travel blog: Southeast Asia (2012)
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Day 8 -- A Day On The Lake

Inle Lake, Myanmar (Burma)


A day on the lake. We started, as we usually do, by visiting the local market. To get there we again crossed the hyacinth-dotted lake, passing by a number of local fisherman using the traditional cone-shaped nets, which are becoming more and more rare (or so says out guide). We eventually reached the small but interesting market. What separated it from the others that we've been to is that, in addition to the locals, several stalls were manned by Pa-Oh women, one of the local hill tribes. They dress in black, with orange or red head scarves, and their faces are rounder than those of the local population, a bit more tibetan, which is where the tribe originated. From where they live now, it is evidently a 4 hour journey to get to Inle. The market used to be a floating one, but it no longer is, which is a shame, because the floating markets I've seen before, in Thailand and Kashmir, were really beautiful affairs.

After the market we headed for In Dein, a village on the furthest end of the lake. This was really a fascinating site to walk through, with hundreds of old brick stupas and temples in various states of decay and reconstruction. Each temole almost felt like its own discovery, as you looked inside to see how much of the Buddha was left, and how much had crumbled or been overtaken by trees. As in Heho, many of the temples had old paintings on the walls inside. Interestingly, all of these figured, both the Buddhas and the drawings are all smiling, a trait of Shan buddhist images. Inle must have always been a happy place. At the top of the village was a large temple of little note, but clearly renovated.

Then it was back down to one of the villages, where we made a quick stop at the home of a family from a different hill tribe, whose name escapes me at the moment. But it is a tribe that stretches their necks with heavy metal coils, making the women into human giraffes. It was quite uncomfortable being there, both because of the strangeness of the neck brace, and because it was like looking at people in a zoo. But, they have chosen to come to Inle to do their weaving and show the visitors a bit of their lives, and evidently it is much preferable to the mountains from which many have been forced out and now live as refuges.

Then it was time for lunch at a restaurant overlooking the lake's main pagoda, Phaung Daw Oo, best known for the fact that it's five small Buddhas have been so covered in gold leif by worshippers that they are now merely blobs of gold. Evidently, these blobs of gold are taken out on a huge barge, not unlike the one we saw in Yangon, once a year for a major festival that involves boat races and boat parades.

Our final stop before returning to the hotel was to Nga Hpe Chaung Monastery. Known for some reason for its cats that jump through hoops, Ellery loved it because of the newborn kittens who took to her; I liked it because the Buddhas inside, as well as the decoration, was some of the most beautiful we've seen, very intricate and delicate, and adorned with glass and jewels.

After a brief break, Ellery and I took a brief walk to the village that sits about a mile inland from the hotel. It was a nice walk (did I mention that it's at least 29 degrees cooler here than anywhere else we've been) and we were able to stop in at what appeared to be one family's living complex. There was a fairly large area where corn was being grown and several buildings, each of which seemed to have its own purpose (kitchen, horse stable, trainers, etc.). The people were very friendly and invited us for tea. And they were fascinated by Ellery's braces; I think they didn't know if they were decorative or not, and as they spoke no English it took quite some time to explain what they were for.

So, tomorrow we leave Myanmar and head to Thailand. It's been a great trip so far, and a country I'm glad we came to see.

permalink written by  shoshtrvls on June 26, 2012 from Inle Lake, Myanmar (Burma)
from the travel blog: Southeast Asia (2012)
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Day 9 -- Thailand

Chiang Saen, Thailand


Leaving Inle, this is a leisurely travel day. We left the hotel a bit early so we could spend some time in Nyaung Shwe, the main town at the near side of the lake. Some last thoughts on Inle: I felt a bit like an intruder here. Although this is on the "tourist route," it is not like Bagan, where you come to see the pagodas and the stupas. Here, you come to see the daily life, and as a result you are imposing on it. And you can see it changing almost before your eyes, as old ways of doing things (fishing, market days, etc.) are becoming tourist spectacles, and not real life. People are still friendly and willing to show you their homes and their way of life, but soon I think there will be two lives here - one that caters to tourism and one that rejects the intrusion. It will be interesting to see how Inle adapts.

Anyway, back to Nyuang Shwe - next week there will be 4000 monks in town to take their exams, and the entire town is preparing for it. Everything is being cleaned and repaired, the dining halls are being prepared, and many traveling merchants and people have come from around the region to care for the monks while they are here. I'm sure it must be quite a sight, to see them all here at once.

Although not a market day, the market area in Nyuang Shwe is quite large, and there were still many stalls open and selling. Not as colorful as others we've seen, but more practical in some ways. There were a few stalls manned by women from the hills, Karen I believe, but most were hard goods stalls owned by locals. After walking around for a while, we headed back to Heho to catch our plane for Tachileik, in the golden triangle. Our guide and others seem quite surprised we would go this way. "No tourists go to the Golden Triangle.". Well, we shall see. Tourists - backpackers and groups - seem to be everywhere.

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Pretty close. We were the only foreigners on the plane, and there were only a few backpackers to be seen in Tachileik, but then again, we only drove through quickly to get to the Thai border. Still, in many ways, Tachileik is a world away from the rest of Myanmar. It is a mountainous region and the fact that it is a border town gives it a very different feeling. People are dressed in western clothes, the cars are newer, the houses built of cinder block and concrete rather than thatch. And here the Thai baht is accepted more than the Myanmar kyat (about $15 dollars worth I'm now stuck with).

The border crossing was typical. A few stern looks, a few questions, our "special papers" (the ones that let us leave the country from somewhere other than where we arrived) scrutinized, and then a short walk across the river, where entry into Thailand was a similar process. After changing some money, we hit the road for the Golden Triangle, about 40 minutes away. I suspect that this town, which sits on the borders of Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos, has a real name but it isn't used. There are a few nice resorts here, they blend here, like in Bagan. Ours is a bit different; an older building (or so it seems) right on the Mekong River, turned into a stylish boutique, not unlike the old motels in Hollywood now chic hotels. We have a terrific view of both the huge (and I mean huge) Buddha that looks over the Golden Triangle, and of a large casino on the Laos side of the river.

Walking along the road back from our restaurant before the sidewalks roll up at 9pm, two pick up trucks with speakers in the back and flashy wheels drive by - this appears to be what passes for "cruising" here. And the song they're playing? "I've had the time of my life".


permalink written by  shoshtrvls on June 27, 2012 from Chiang Saen, Thailand
from the travel blog: Southeast Asia (2012)
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Day 10 -- Up A Lazy River

Muang Pakbeng, Laos


It is almost noon, and we're comfortably motoring up the Mekong. I say comfortably, because our boat for this two day trip is quite large, made of beautiful wood, with modern cushioned seats for about 40 people. In the far back is a bar and the latrine. But there's no one to serve at the bar as we are only 6, the boatman and his wife, our guide Fun, me and Ellery, and a young girl we picked up at a checkpoint about an hour ago. I thought her joining us might provide some opportunity for talk, as she's about Ellery's age I suspect. Instead, she quietly climbed on the boat and went to the back and has been sitting there silently ever since. Indeed, the whole ride is quiet, just the hum of the boat engine and the water lapping against it as Ellery reads and our guide sleeps. (Funny, just as I write this, the boatman turns on some music, and then just as quickly turned it off).

Eric, the travel agent in the US, discouraged us from taking this boat trip, saying that the river isn't so interesting here and it's a long two days. That's probably true; every so often we see fishermen, villagers panning for gold, or kids playing on one of the sandy shoals, and we've passed one or two Wats, temples, overlooking the river, but there's really nothing but the spectacular views of the mountains. Still, I think it's a perfect interlude. The weather is nice, and it gives us time to relax and read, reflect and rest, after what now seems like the hustle of the last 9 days. Smelling the cool, lush odor of the jungle is intoxicating.

So, returning to this morning, not much of note happened. The usual wake up, shower, pack the bags, get in the car, head to yet another border. Here, on the Thai side of the river, there was a some hustle and bustle, as we had our pictures taken for the necessary Lao visas and were stamped out of Thailand. Then a very quick water taxi ride to the other side, to Laos, where government officials leisurely, almost defiantly, took their time in reviewing our papers and issuing our visas. A tuk tuk then took us to the boat jetty, and this is where we've been ever since.

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Our first stop was a small village. It wasn't a long walk from the river to the village, but it was hidden behind the vegetation, and I realized that we've probably passed dozens of such villages without knowing it. Here, Fun explained, the people are "middle landers.". The government has moved them closer to the river, from the hills, apparently so that they can arrange schooling for the children and bring them electricity and other modern conveniences. I'm not sure I buy that excuse, but certainly the people don't appear to be suffering much from the move. The village was full of children of all kinds - human, chicks, piglets running everywhere, and laughing. There was a lot of laughter, as most of the adults were off working in the fields. The few we saw were either carrying children, sling-style, or older. The older women had tattoos, very intricate patterns, on their arms. Their language is kumao, similar to khemer. Houses are bamboo, built just a few feet high. The main house is one large open room with mats for sleeping, and the kitchen is separate. This village received electricity only last year, and just like that, every house now has a satellite dish and a tv.

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The rest of the day was more of the same - slow, relaxing ride up the river. We arrived at the hotel overlooking the river around 4, and then walked down the main street of Pakbeng, a one-street town catering only to the backpackers who come this way. Guest houses and cafes offering cheap food and free wi-Fi, and stalls selling cheap Chinese toothpaste and clothing clearly left behind by backpackers who passed through. But as the commercial zone peters out, you see the other side of this town; trash and waste piled along the street, tiny children picking through it, broken plastic sandals and rags being sold. A very depressing reminder of what life is really like in a developing country.

permalink written by  shoshtrvls on June 28, 2012 from Muang Pakbeng, Laos
from the travel blog: Southeast Asia (2012)
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Welcome to my travels. On this site you'll find recent trips and some very old trips. You'll note that for some trips I wrote very detailed reports (at least in the beginning), for others, I didn't even take notes of where I was on what dates. Nevertheless, I've done my best to document, to...

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