December 8, 2014

inle lake

sunrise on inle lake
just wow, my expectations weren't really high but the lake is incredibly beautiful and quiet.  perhaps just the quiet is what is so shocking in the country filled with chaos.  i ended up staying in the same place as the swiss guys and shared an afternoon boat tour of the lake with them.

they were read up enough to tell the boat driver which spots they wanted to hit.  i ran into the swiss girls from the yangon - bagan train and we make plans to meet up for dinner.  we ended the tour parked on a floating pile of plants and watched the sunset from the middle of the lake.

being on the water felt fantastic and the swiss girls and i book a boat to go back out for a sunrise.  it's just magical and there isn't another boat around.  the guest house i stayed at packed breakfast for me so we shared that out and headed to the south side of the lake to the local market which moves between five locations on the lake.

we were the only foreigners around and the market wasn't so impressive so i even wondered if we hadn't explained which market we wanted to go to.  near the market is the Hpaung Daw U Pagoda.  the pagoda houses images of Buddha that have been covered in gold leaf to the point that their original forms can't be seen.  although the monastery is open to all for veneration, only men are permitted to place gold leaf on the images.  that's why in this photo the women can only sit and watch and pray.

as we headed back out to the middle of the lake in the boat i realized why we were the only ones at the market.  boat after boat after boat filled with tourists were headed in as we headed out.  perfect timing!  

i didn't enjoy the monastery where only men can put gold on the buddhas but was surprised after a hike up to Indein to find an amazing complex of pagoda and memorials.  it was worth running the gauntlet of vendors selling junk that line the temple grounds.

in Nyaung Shwe there is a place called the French Touch and they run documentaries about Burma in the evenings.  

the third day i rented a bike [they had good off road bikes] and did a tour around part of the lake taking the ferry across to the winery.  yep, i found the one place in SE Asia where there is a winery.  it's called Red Mountain.  the wine isn't going to win any international awards but it is certainly drinkable.  more about wine in Myanmar another time.

there is plenty of touristy stuff to do and buy on the lake but easy enough to avoid.  in so many of the villages i traveled through it felt like the priority was survival and here i found a community that was thriving.  there are floating gardens with rows and rows of tomatoes and other vegetables which make their way to the local market.

there is also a 2 - 3 day trek from Kalaw to Nuang Shwe which is hugely popular.  there are home stays along the way as it's travels overland through some villages.  everyone i spoke with had a very positive experience doing this.  i was still recovering from some of the blisters from the Hsipaw trek so i did not do it.

December 4, 2014

We women foundation

as i have traveled around  the country i've made an effort to talk with the  locals and learn how the changes over the last few years are impacting their lives.  in the urban areas there is an excitement about the possibilities but in the rural areas there remains an oppressive air polluted by the violence against ethnic minorities, extrajudicial killings, land grabs and other human rights violations.

now, more than ever, it is critical to empower women to step into positions of leadership to create meaningful change.  the We women foundation is doing exactly that.  they take a holistic approach to supporting women through secondary education.  they have a pre-university program to prepare women for school and they provide scholarships to get the women through school.

please take a moment to learn more about We women foundation here.
then think about what you spend on a dinner out, a bottle of wine or a round of golf.
join me in supporting We women with a donation.

ad revenue from this blog for the month of December will be donated to We women foundation.

December 2, 2014

flight to inle lake

i'm tired of the slow trains and sad buses so i've decided to fly.  once again, i have not planned far enough ahead so after i get into Mandalay i jump on the internet to see if I can book a flight for the next morning to Inle Lake.  let's just say that didn't happen so i don't have to detail again how anything involving the internet, airlines and credit cards don't work in Myanmar at the moment.   in the morning i taxi out to the airport hoping to find a seat on a flight.  it was a bit of a gamble as the airport is an hour outside the city.  in the middle of nowhere.  when i get to the airport i find the airline i think will be safest.  i'm out of khat so I need to pay with US dollars.  what ensues is comical.  it's a $60 flight and i'm down to my last dollars which have previously been rejected by other vendors so I know this is going to be a bit dicey.  there are three airline agents crowded around the ticket counter inspecting every one of my dollars and asking for more, conferring about a tiny fold in the corner on one and a possible stain on another - holding each bill up to the light for whatever reason i don't even know.  soon there is about $250 in cash spread across the counter as they continue to debate which dollars are the best.  some other guy who i think is a porter starts to handle some money and I ask him politely not to touch my money.  it's surreal.  fifteen minutes later they eventually take the most acceptable bills and give me a ticket and the rest of my cash back.

ticket in hand I head off to find an ATM so i don't run into this problem again and tucked away in the corner I find a cafe.  with an espresso machine, air conditioning and fresh croissants.  it is quiet and there are clean comfortable chairs.  it is so vastly different from the raw hot sweaty loud dirty world that is myanmar.  it isn't until i am sitting quietly in the stillness of the cafe that i realize how overwhelming the sights and sounds and chaos of this country can be.  the moment ends too quickly as i must go to catch my flight.  

tagged with an orange circle marked HEHO i'm rounded up and sent out to a plane.  SE Asia is the only place in the world where flights routinely take off BEFORE they are scheduled and in this case we leave 15 minutes early.  crazy.

the plane isn't as scary as i've read about.  just a twenty minute flight and then i'm down at HEHO.  whatever, that's the code for the inle lake airport.   it's still another 30 minute ride to get into Nyang Shwe which is on the north side of the lake i share it with two swiss guys who are mega travelers and just arrived to Myanmar.

November 22, 2014

hsipaw to mandalay

i leave Hsipaw on the train heading down to Mandalay and some vague plan to get myself to Inle Lake.  according to the guide books, this is an 'epic train ride'.  seriously?  i already did the Yangon to Bagan train which in my humble opinion is the ride required to earn a I SURVIVED MYANMAR RAILWAYS badge.  there is however, along this ride a very beautiful gorge with a very, very scary train bridge.  it's so old and crappy and rickety that the train has to go really slow as not to deteriorate the bridge further.  why not just go really fast and get as many carriages as possible across before the bridge collapses?  or how about you just pony up the money to replace the bridge?  note on the ticket stub i've purchased .... THERE IS AN ACTUAL ALLOCATION FROM MY FARE FOR LIFE INSURANCE!!! what am i doing??  the total cost of this ticket is 2750 Kyats which is $2.75US so i'm not sure how much the insurance payment would be anyway.

it's a big moment for all the foreigners [the locals sleep through it].  we are excited before, during and after crossing the gorge/bridge.  we even ask for seat assignments to have the best view of the bridge.  we take hundreds of photos and hang out the windows.

afterwards someone says to me, 'i have like 100 photos of a bridge'.  yah, i know you are dying to see it... so here it is.

perhaps as important as the safety issues around replacing the carriages and bridges and other railway infrastructure is reinventing the logo for Myanmar Railways.  i get the MR but what's up with the symbols underneath?  time to rebrand i think.

anyways, it's a 6 hour train ride and costs $2.75US.  when we hit Pyin U Lwin we bail on the train and take a $2US/2 Hour pick up for the ride back to Mandalay.  i make a feeble suggestion to get a shared taxi as that would be inside a vehicle but i go along with the fellow travelers who want to take the pick up.  even though it is raining.  the ride is surreal but not uncomfortable.  the pickup is covered so we aren't wet or cold.  i put on my earphones and just soak it up.  the smoke from a cigarette, the rain on the canvas covering our heads, the guy who is sleeping on the floor between our feet, the bundles and bags that the locals carry, the lights from passing cycles, cars and trucks.  this is Burma.  raw, unfiltered, dirty and noisy.  i've been traveling all day and i should be exhausted but i am so alive.

November 21, 2014

my halloween candy

not everyone celebrates halloween and in asia it goes by unnoticed but when i was a child it was a magical day.  there was no praying, no going to church,  no tie to any geopolitical or national tradition.  it was a pure holiday about dressing up and getting AS MUCH CANDY AS POSSIBLE IN JUST A FEW HOURS.  i remember how my mom would create the costumes that were our identities if just for one night - they were not store bought but sewn on her sewing machine after we went to bed at night.

and our neighbors were oh so willing to fill our bags with candy .... our parents would corral us into the back of a station wagon with NO SEATBELTS and cruise around the neighborhood dropping us at the end of a driveway to let us race up to the door shrieking TRICK OR TREAT and this would only end when the parents were tired or the kids fell asleep.

even today i can remember the high from collecting a bag full of candy in one night - sure older siblings helped themselves to the best of my treats but there was still so very much for me to enjoy.

now i'm 'grown up' and don't go around collecting candy usually i just give it out but my godson who can still legitimately collect candy because he is six years old set aside some candy to send me.  so here it is ... my brother has photographed it and sent it to me.  so if you send a photo of candy instead of actually sending the candy, does that still count?  or does he still owe me the candy?

i don't want to get all 'CSI' on the photo but since it looks like it was taken at office on some type of official document i'm guessing the 'evidence' has already been consumed.  someone is going to have to go to confession.

November 20, 2014

a really really spiritual moment

it wasn't in a church, stupa, pogoda or temple.  in one of the villages i was a silent witness to an amazing spiritual moment.  we were invited and visited the local buddhist monastery in the evening during their devotions.  there was lots of regular stuff like chanting, candles, men in robes, incense and some other not regular stuff like bats flying around.   afterwards we were back at our home stay, tucked into our beds [mats on the floor in the main living area] when the Mom came home.

despite the fact that strangers were sleeping on the floor right next to her devotional alter she removed her headpiece exposing a completely shaved head, lit some candles and proceeded to pray. 

her prayers were a combination of singing and chanting and silence and it was probably the most beautiful spiritual devotion to which i have ever been witness.  i have no idea to whom, or for what she was praying, but i hope it was listening and has answered her prayer.  the picture of her kneeling with hands raised in prayer in the light of the house candles will forever be a magical moment for me.

November 18, 2014

tea with guerrillas

Hsipaw is a great spot to jump off into well, what i call the villages.  it's the grey zone between where the government is comfortable having foreigners and the restricted area.  i didn't have proper footwear for what would turn out to be a very long trek.  the first day was spent clawing my way up a downward stream of mud.  not a lot of photo opportunities since it was raining all day.  we are tired when get into the village where we sill be staying.

as we pack up to leave the village this little guy comes down the village path to see the foreigners.  the woman at the home we were staying told the little boy that we were taking away children in our packs!  he turned and ran away very quickly - i thought that was really mean.  i didn't bring along anything for the children and we were in areas where we were still a curiosity and children were interested but wary of us.  and no wonder if the mean spirited grannys were telling children we were kidnappers!

the time in the villages were a real window into the lives of ordinary Burmese people.  we passed through Shan and Palaung villages.  we stayed in homes where dinner is still cooked over an open flame in the living room.  we met women trapped in the cycle of poverty.
we saw the power the budhist monks weld in some of the villages.  we played with kids during recess at a school.  we crossed paths with the shan and palaung armies which was a bit confusing at the time.  there are all these armies that fight each other and sometimes band together to fight the Myanmar Army and there are more three letters acronyms for these groups than exist in the whole of washington d.c. afterwards to me it seemed that it is a bunch of narco warlords fighting for control of the resource rich areas.  they were however, quite polite to us, posing for photos [which we were later advised not to publish anywhere public] and sharing a cup of tea.  i can share the photo of this jumbo red snail that was crossing our path.

in one village we stayed at the home of these lovely ladies where the meals are cooked over open flame inside the house.  we knew there were multiple sisters in the family and there was one woman who sat apart from us, in an asian squat, smoking her cheroot, but wasn't participating in the preparation of the meal.  someone asked if that was also a sister and they said, 'no, she's a villager who has come to see the foreigners'.

there is no internet.  there are no cell phones.  they have some solar panels that have been provided by the government but electricity is used sparingly.  they have water courtesy of USAID in most of the villages.  they grow their own food stuff in private gardens.  this is a primitive life.

October 31, 2014

Twilight over Burma - The life of a Shan Princess

the town of Hsipaw sits in the north east.  quite close to the China border but beyond is a restricted area so you can't cross the border there.  yes, theoretically you can but it takes two weeks or so in Yangon to get the proper authorizations and costs additional money.

it is a great little town, easy to navigate and i stay at the mr. charles guesthouse.  borrow a bike and cruise around town.  it's the kind of place where they don't give you a lock for the bike and it's safe to leave a bike unlocked outside on the street while you shop or eat.  i decide to do a three day trek into the mountains to visit some of the villages.

there's plenty to do around he town.  waterfalls to visit, nat shrines and old 'palace' where there a great talk on the history of the Shan royalty.  the princess that lived there, before her husband a Shan Prince, was killed during the military coup, now lives in Colorado and has written a book about the Shan people called, 'Twilight Over Burma My Life as a Shan Princess'.  i've just picked up a copy to read and it's a perfect Myanmar read.

Just married and returning to live in her new husband's native land, a young Austrian woman arrived with her Burmese husband by passenger ship in Rangoon in 1953. They were met at dockside by hundreds of well-wishers displaying colorful banners, playing music on homemade instruments, and carrying giant bouquets of flowers. She was puzzled by this unusual welcome until her embarrassed husband explained that he was something more
than a recently graduated mining engineer - he was the Prince of Hsipaw, the ruler of an autonomous state in Burma's Shan mountains. And these people were his subjects! She immersed herself in the Shan lifestyle, eagerly learning the language, the culture, and the history of the Shan hill people. The Princess of Hsipaw fell in love with this remote, exotic land and its warm and friendly people. She worked at her husband's side to bring change and modernization to their primitive country. Her efforts to improve the education and health care of the country, and her husband's commitment to improve the economic well-being of the people made them one of the most popular ruling couples in Southeast Asia. Then the violent military coup of 1962 shattered the idyllic existence of the previous ten years. Her life irrevocably changed. Inge Sargent tells a story of a life most of us can only dream about. She vividly describes the social, religious, and political events she experienced. She details the day-to-day living as a "reluctant ruler" and her role as her husband's equal - a role that perplexed the males in Hsipaw and created awe in the females. And then she describes the military events that threatened her life and that of her children. Twilight over Burma is a story of a great happiness destroyed by evil, of one woman's determination and bravery against a ruthless military regime, and of the truth behind the overthrow of one of Burma's most popular local leaders.

October 29, 2014

mandalay - disappointing

i don't have much that's great to say about Mandalay.  i did have a look about but didn't find anything too interesting.  i think it's probably disappointing because Bagan was so phenomenal.  the famous teak bridge in Mandalay is just a wooden bridge across the lake.  there is a popular pagoda up on a hill above the  city and it's a 30 minute walk up the covered steps.  at the top is - just another dirty pagoda.  although the views are good it's hard to enjoy them with your bare feet burning on the ceramic tiles that are baking in the sun.

at the top i meet a swiss couple on holiday.  they are super sweet and very funny.  we end up spending the rest of the day together as we are both on the same tourist circuit from hell.  Sebastian has me laughing all day and especially when at an old monestary he comments, 'you can take a crap in the corner but you can't wear your shoes in here'.

in the temples and pagodas here you have to take off your shoes which would be okay if they in return could keep the floors clean. let's just say there's a lot of feet washing.

so far, the miliary presence in Myanmar has quite a low profile.  the rainy season here has ended but the rain has not.  even a little bit of rain turns the streets in Mandalay into rivers and with the open sewage system they have here it makes it both unpleasant and a health risk.  i'm booked to leave for Hsipaw [pronouced sipaw] which is in the mountains and should be cooler.

October 26, 2014

boat to Mandalay

ugh... it's still dark when we are up to catch the 5:30 boat to Mandalay.  we've got the fast boat [12 hours] instead of the slow boat [2 days].  i crash for a few hours then wake up and go sit on the upper deck which is really nice until the sun creeps onto us and then it's just really hot.  we move to another section of the boat until lunch time which is some very average fried rice.  we find some deck chairs for the afternoon and open a bottle of wine.  the boat is quite shabby but being on the water is nice and the trip is relaxing as we cruise through the undeveloped area between Bagan and Mandalay.

i was hoing to see some of the Irrawaddy dolphins ... a rare fresh water dolphin but we are on a part of the river where they have all been killed.

i finally finish Freedom From Fear, a collection of papers and speeches by Ang Sung Suu Kyi.  it's not an easy read but gives me some more perspective on the social and political situation in Myanmar.

the day ends with us cruising into Mandalay with the sun setting behind us as we get our first glimpse of the pagodas and temples that line the riverbanks.

October 25, 2014

a great guide named Min

found a great guide named Min [  959256039745] that i recommend for english tours of the temples.  he was lots of fun and understood english qute well.

the october full moon festival coincided with the days i was in Bagan and the celebrating went on well into the night.  the temples were lit up with candles and it made the setting even more dramatic.

there were parades and processions and candles and fancy umbrellas.  fireworks and food and lighting of ballons.  special offerings for the monks and big crowds at all the temples. it was a great time and i will be sad to leave.

October 24, 2014

the money grab

i booked a room in advvance so i'd know where i was staying.  i knew i'd be exhausted after the train ride but i really wasn't it was exhilarating.  we leave the train as a group and negotiate a taxi into town.  they drop me at the Aung Minglar and at the reception desk i'm told by the woman who had english as a first language that i could have my choice of two rooms.... one over the router so had internet access and a view, the second room did not have internet but was a double like i had booked. i ask  to see both.  first, the wireless access everywhere in Bagan is crap so it doesn't really matter how closer you are to the router, you are not doing anything that involves the internet.  i look at the first room and i'm 100% positive this was not the room i had booked.  plus there was no view but a big window that  looked out onto a closed corridor.  it looked like the carpet was mid century or so.  i looked at the second room and its not as bad but still dingy so i go back to reception, fire up the ipad and show her the lovely room pictured which is what i was expecting.  oh, she smiles, no that is the deluxe room and they are fully booked.  i'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest they are probably overbooking the nice rooms and then putting guests into the crappy rooms.  she tells me i'll be charged one night regardless of whether i stay.  the rooms got mildew, a few holes in the wall from something that once hung there, a space under the door large enough that a python could
probably crawl in and the shelf in the bathroom over the sink is slanted so anything you put on there slides off.  the next day i moved over to the Pann Cherry where they had better rooms that were $20 US less than the crappy room at the Aung Minglar.  the worst part is the girl at the desk tried to argue  with me everytime she saw me that she wasn't responsible for the photos posted on the website.  i chose to politely disagree but not wanting to spend another minute in this rediculous conversation with her i just smile and walk away.

October 22, 2014

epic. train. ride.

i'd heard all the stories about the Yangon to Bagan rail service.  it's considered the craziest train ride in Myanmar and after carefully considering my choices the bus [less expensive, shorter time and more reliable] or flying [more expensive, very fast and more reliable] i decide i will take the train which is notorious for excessive swaying and bumps having something to do with double track carriage on single track route and because it is frequently delayed due to uncoupling of carriages because of the bumps.  the adventure starts when i show up in the morning to buy a ticket and it's pretty chaotic.  eventually i get a ticket - it takes about 30 minutes because everything is done manually with paper and carbon copies.  thank god for the guy who keeps track of all the railway informmation for us travelers ...  i find his information to be quite good.   the guy at the counter has badly decayed red teeth, which many of the men have here, from chewing the betel nuts.  when it's finally my turn at the window, i push my
passport over say 'Bagan' and mime a person sleeping.  as i walk away with my ticket in hand it feels like i've won the lottery.  it's hard to explain the euphoria i feel every time i susccessful navigate one of the scenarios where you understand NOTHING the other person is saying.

at 3:30 i wander over to the train station and find out the 4PM train is delayed probably two hours they say.  as i'm looking for a place to squat i see three other westerners.  all women.  so i ask them if they are going to Bagan and they are.  it turns out we are all in the same sleeper car so we commence the getting to know your travelmates ritual.  it is hot and humid and i am sweating just sitting still.  we do our best to ignore the heat and humidity by engaging the kids around us.  they are bored as well and interested in the white people.  they love having their picture taken and always want to see the photo afterwards.

the train arrives at 6PM and we board and leave around 6:30.  i'm sure at one time this was a grand train.  like maybe in 1930, now it feels pretty dingy.  it's supposed to be a 12 hour overnight train and the cost is $17US.  about an hour into the trip we get the first few bumps and then some more. it's like severe turbulance in an airplane.  all you can do is hang on.  it's amusing for about five minutes then the reality sets in.  the cabin boy stops by and says we'll be into Bagan at 3PM the next day - i'm doing the math in my head and it's more like a 21 hour ride.  it seems like it would be impossible to sleep.

eventually, i crawl up into the top sleeper which is hot and cramped and try to sleep.  it's crazy but i actually did sleep.  the windows were open and in the middle of the night at one of the stops we hear voices and it's vendors right outside the window trying to sell us something.  even without the jumping up and down the swaying back and forth is so severe that you can feel the carriage actually leaving the tracks and settling back down.  it's insane because the only thing keeping the carriage from tipping over completely is the connection to the other cars on the train.  somehow we make it through  the night and the rest of the ride is comfortable in comparison.  the jumping stops on the second half of the trip although i'm not sure if it's because the tracks are better or if it's because the train is moving slower.

Myanmar moves slowly past us as we settle in for the rest of the trip.  between the four of us we have plenty of snacks which is fortunate because i can't even figure out what the vendors are selling along the way.  it's really hot and the fan in our room has stopped working so the only way it is bearable is to stick your head out the window.  some passengers throw things out the windows for the kids that run along and up to the train.  there is trash everywhere in Myanmar and it's amazing to me how much trash is thrown out the windows of the train.

as all train rides do, this one ended and exactly when the cabin boy said it would.  3PM in Bagan.  i think this train will be gone soon.  replaced by a newer version and there will only be a memories of how truly horrible this train ride wass.  as we pull into the station i feel like a deserve a badge.  an 'i survived the Yangon - Bagon train ride' badge.  it was worth every bit of the $17US i paid.  i'm hot, tired, sweaty and ready for a cool swim in the pool at the hotel i booked in advance.  before we part the four of us, the only westerners on the train, agree to meet up later for dinner.  what an epic train ride.

October 20, 2014

my first glimpse of myanmar

my arrival was easy enough, i breezed right through immigration and there's a taxi desk with fixed fees by the exit so that's nice but i had a pickup from my hotel so i'm off the plane and on the street in less than 30 minutes.  the hotel taxi is pretty stinky.  like the windows were left open when it rained and it hasn't properly dried.  my hotel, Hotel 63, is fine but far enough from the center of town that i move in a couple of days over to the Hotel K.  i arrived after dark and in the morning the view from my window is pretty depressing.

i met up with a contact at a coffee shop to get some perspective on Yangon.  the art scene is exploding here after decades of restriction on any type of expression and as i wander the streets i see galleries that have popped up everywhere.  

the traffic is just like everyone says - gridlock everywhere.  a 2 mile $2 taxi trip can take up to 30 minutes.  motorbikes aren't allowed in the city.  the country is like 98% Buddhist but apparently they forget that as soon as they get behind the wheel.  they will run your ass over in a heartbeat.  i saw two people get hit by cars in my first few days.  

the colonial buildings that still exist are in severe decay although there is a movement now to restore them which i hope they do because they really add to the character of the city.  there is talk of an opera house or museum but some of these buildings are already being scraped to fill the need for more hotel rooms.

walking around there are not a lot of westerners.  i see them in some of the western restaurants but rarely on the street.  the exception is when i join the free Yangon walk this guy is good... reciting the complete Kipling poem Mandalay and his passion for architecture makes him a good tour leader.  yes, it's free but everyone enjoys it enough to give him a few bucks.

and the food.  i'm adventurous and willing to try the street food.  i look for the native spots for a snack but i'm spoiled after Thailand and the food i find on the street is fried, swimming in oil, infested with flies and bland.  i try to fill up on breakfast at the hotel but even that is by any standard bad.  they sell msg by the pound here and i can tell by the swelling in my ankles it's going into everything.  unlike Thailand where i eat mainly from street vendors and the local cafes here i find myself looking for the western restaurants which will eat up your budget very quickly

there is a very special, extremely revered pagoda in Yangon.  it's listed as the top site to visit in Yangon.  i go early in the morning - about 7 am - to avoid the heat.  it is packed and for the hour i am there i do not see another westerner.  i'm guessing the tour buses show up later.  to me it's just another pagoda but i am respectful because it's clear there is a lot of worshiping going on. everywhere you go there are tourist fees and everyone gets tired of seeing the signs saying as a foreigner you must pay but the locals are free.  what if in the US they only made foreigners pay for access to our National Parks?  something to think about.  here's another thing to think about... at this site that is so revered and holy that you can't wear shoes or inappropriate clothing .... there are signs advertising free wireless access for the internet and vendors everywhere.  it's like putting a router into St. Peter's ... and charging noncatholics a fee to enter.

still there is an excitement around the city with all the restrictions that have been lifted in the last couple of years and the sense of optimism and hope is quite tangible. i'm off to Bagan to visit the temples that i have been wanting to see for years.