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 [minthant903@gmail.com  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 ... http://seat61.com/.  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 http://www.freeyangonwalks.com/ 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.

October 16, 2014

myanmar or is it burma?

Myanmar is the Burmese-language name for Burma, and always was, even in colonial times. Burma is the English-language name for Myanmar, and still is.  The Burmese government switched to using the Burmese-language name for the country in 1989 also switched to using the Burmese-language names for a number of places around the country.  
Myanmar has been shunned by most of the world because of it's human rights violations.  it is a country that imprisons people for disagreeing with the government.  and the list doesn't end there.  confiscation of private land, arbitrary arrest, forced labor, child soldiers, extrajudicial killings and ethnic cleansing are all on the menu. Aung Sun Suu Kyi is one of the most visible previous political prisoners.  it continues to rule by inflicting fear on the people.  

why Myanmar?  i've been asked alot.  i've had a bit of an obsession with Myanmar for years.  the temples, the stories from Orwell and Kipling.  the chance to see the country before there is a 7-11, starbucks and golden arches on every corner.  i wanted to go years ago but travel was discouraged because all the tourism money was going directly into the hands of the government.  with the slow removal of sanctions and increased freedoms for the citizens it's become easier to travel and avoid the government owned properties and tour companies.

for me, there is an excitement around the possibility of Myanmar's new and real independence.  the chance for it's people to live without the shadow of fear.  i'm not sure what i will find...

October 14, 2014

high speed internet

at some point someone decided to use 'high speed internet' as a marketing message here.  it probably stems from a time when what little internet access was available was at internet cafes.  now wireless access or wifi as it is called is available everywhere. here's the thing, the 'high speed internet'  access here is still quite a bit slower here than a regular wireless connection in the US as i am painfully reminded each time i try to upload photos.  after a week at the Elephant Nature Park with little or no access it's just nice to have reliable service again.

i'm off to Myanmar [also referred to as Burma] tomorrow and i'm so excited because i've never been there and have been wanting to visit for years.  i'm told the electricity is not consistently available and the internet access quite slow.  it may be a while before i can post again.

October 13, 2014

the coup and effects

in May of this year there was a coup in Thailand and the military took control of the government.  in the six months proceeding the coup there were demonstrations.  at this point the curfews have been lifted, the general has been installed as prime minster and there is not a heavy military presence at all.

at this point the situation seems stabilized but it is a quite undemocratic process because they removed the popularly elected government.  the people of Thailand seem resigned and a bit defeated when it comes to politics and of course there is an economic impact as the tourists choose to go elsewhere.

October 12, 2014

spirit houses

some are simple.  some are as elaborate as a palace.  some are big and some are small.  they are in every house and business.  a spirit house is a shrine to the protective spirits that dwell on the property.  the concept of a spirit house comes from Animism which predates Buddhism.  the purpose is to provide an appealing shelter to spirits who if not appeased can be mischievous.  the spirits are guardians of the home and help in business maters.

there are often fresh food or flower offerings at the shrines so when you are walking down  the street there will be a plate of prepared food sitting on the sidewalk. that's not trash or food for the homeless.  that is a spirit offering.  at this tree a full soda with a straw so it's ready to drink and a joss stick are offered to the tree.  there ae elaborate rules around the construction and placement of these shrines like they must face north or east and can not be in the shawdow of the building it's protecting.  if intercession from a special spirit is required, rituals can be preformed.

the place i stayed in Chiang Mai had quite a nice spirit house.  i did notice a correlation between the affluence of an establishment and how elaborate the spirit houses were.  at this spirit house there was an offering of two apples, some liquid in tiny cups, a heaping plate of garlic, a mango and flowers.

October 11, 2014

goodbye elephants

everyone is sad to be leaving and our last day is spent saying goodbye to the elephant, dog and human friends we have made here.  it's hard to put into words how amazing this week has been and i wish everyone could experience it.

on one of my elephant walks we saw a group of tourists and elephants on the other side of the river.  the tourists were walking with the elephants not riding them and the guide told us as a few of the other trekking camps have seen Lek's success they have started to change their model from riding to observing.

it appears the Elephant Nature Park is doing well financially, they have attracted the attention of high profile animal activist like Bob Barker, the day and overnight tours generate a considerable sum [i'm guessing 5K+ a day] but there are over 100 employees and 60+ volunteers to feed and shelter.  40 elephants and hundreds of dogs to feed.  an elephant eats about 300 pounds of food a day and all those trucks delivering pumpkins, watermelon and bananas are doing it for free.  i am sure Lek has and will continue to have a few sleepless nights thinking about the ongoing financial requirements of a sanctuary this size.

then there is the government, in 2010 i talked with her about government support and she laughed at me.  she said then the government was opposed to her mission and vision.  although there appears to be some dialogue that has started with the government about elephant conservation in the national parks there is still a long way to go.  the government is seen by many as unstable after the coup earlier this year and it's impacted the tourism that brings in money for the park.

when i think back to the conversations we had in 2010 and the progress that has been made in just four years i'm again in awe of what Lek has been accomplished and confident that she will continue to be a voice for the elephants of asia.

as we leave the park for the ride back to Chiang Mai we pass a group of elephants on the road.   they have the wooden seats strapped to their back with tourists in them.  the mahouts are riding just behind the ears on the neck of the elephant and have the hooks on sticks to manipulate the elephants for the ride.  after a week playing with the elephants at the park it's a startling reminder that there are so many elephants that don't have the freedom offered the elephants at the sanctuary and there is much to be done around elephant conservation and management in Thailand.  all the proceeds earned from ad clicks this month on this site will be donated to the Elephant Nature Park to support their work.

October 7, 2014

elephant walks

during the week at various times with various guides we have the opportunity to walk through the park and visit with the different social groups in the herd.  we call them elephant walks.

after a couple of days it's really easy to identify the groups.  the three ladies that always hang together.  here the are playing in the river.  the lady on the left is Mae Do who i remember from my last trip.  she is one of the gentlest elephants at the park and one we get up close to alot.  she's fiercely protected by the other two ladies that's she's formed a bond with.  both her back legs are dislocated.  i'm not sure why, the two common reasons for dislocations at park are being hit by cars or trucks while street begging or during logging operations when the logs roll down a hill and hit the elephants.  yeah, both of those sound like horrific situations.

the group with the baby boy and baby girl (called the Dok Mai) family.  it's a large social group because the female elephants gravitate to the social groups with babies.  they all want to be nannies and auntie to the baby and some times even compete for the baby's attention.  because the babies are so active they are fun to watch and the changing dynamics of the group are easy to see.

the Nuvonn family with just one baby boy.  there are some elephants that don't get along so well.  some elephants are bullies some of the old ladies try to monopolize the time with the babies.  it's on these elephant walks that we get a chance to see the dynamics of the social group play out.

there were a few instances when i saw an elephant chasing another one but it didn't amount to much other than a bunch of tourists running for cover which was a little bit funny.  a lot of funny after the fact when everyone is safe and the elephants back with their mahouts.

one day i was on the sky walk during the elephant bathing time and saw one of the elephants start towards another elephant.  they were both in quite deep water so she was moving slowly but i could see her mahout waving from the bank and yelling to get her attention so i knew she was getting into trouble.  next there is trumpeting and waving of trunks and all the elephants start to react by leaving the river.  that triggers the guides who are Thai to start yelling 'up to the river' repeatedly.  which means nothing to me but the urgency in their voices is very clear to everyone who starts to bolt in every direction.  remember, i'm safely on the skywalk so i'm thinking it's all kinda funny.  wish i had the video.

every moment spent on the elephant walks is precious and everyone enjoys being up close to the elephants.  one day after an elephant walk Jodie needed some help to get some steamed pumpkin over to some of the old ladies.  when their teeth wear out it's harder to get the nutrition they need so the elephant kitchen steams up some pumpkin which is easier for them to digest.  they missed getting it at the platform feeding so we haul three baskets out to the pens and feed them there.  steamed pumkins are nasty and to distract the other elephants in the pen we break up some of the pumpkins and feed it very slowly to keep them away from Jodie who is shoving steamed pumpkin as fast as she can into the mouth of the old lady.  

October 6, 2014

dog days at the Elephant Nature Park

when i visited in 2010 there were dogs everywhere.  on the platform, in the fields, on the skywalk.  they came from all over and just stayed.  i think there were about 30 at the time.  now there are over 400.  elephants are a little bit wary of dogs in general and can stress them out a bit so the dogs have been given their own space at the sanctuary.

the catalyst for a formal dog rescue project began as a result of the catastropic floods in Bangkok in 2011.  in rented boats navigating the river of streets Elephant Nature Park volunteers rescued dogs trapped on rooftops and desperate for help. of the 2,000 dogs pulled to safety, 155 were brought to Elephant Nature Park to begin their second chance at life.  large 'dog runs' were built with all kinks of things for the dogs to climb on, swim in and play around.  a small animal hospital was constructed and a full time vet and clinic manager have been employed to care for ENP's new family.

there is lots of downtime for the elephant volunteers.  the chores are usually done between 8AM-10AM in the morning and another hour in the afternoon.  one day it rains and they let us go after unloading a banana truck.  most all of the volunteers head over to the dogs to help give them walks or socialize as needed.  this can be dangerous because these dogs are adorable and they have made it very easy for US, UK, Australian and Canadian citizens to adopt these dogs.  it's not at all expensive and it's quite fast.  four dogs are adopted out by volunteers in our group.

some of the dogs still roam freely around the elephants, skywalk and platform - the legacy dogs that were never placed in the kennels. the staff and volunteers who are on the dog project work really hard.  it'll be after we've had dinner and they are still running about to find the free roamers and deliver meds or treats.   the ones who don't enjoy a tummy rub from strangers wear a red ribbon around their neck.

this is mary, from LA, with Kalup the dog she is adopting

 did i mention there's a cat kingdom as well???? 
that's what they call it and so there are quite a few cats that roam around when they see you coming they roll right over on their backs for a tummy rub.  they stay pretty clear of the elephants and one day i see an elephant [i think it was Faa Sai] chase one of the cats under the platform.