Photos from Burma (or is it Myanmar?) Part 2

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Gateway to Inle lake

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Traditional Inle fishermen

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Cruising the lake

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Bagan panorama

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Temple town

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Ayawardy River loveliness

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$375 balloon rides were not in our budget

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mmmmmmmmyanmar

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Sunrise vista

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All roads lead to adventure

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Self explanatory

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Another friend

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Hpa-an sunset

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Hpa-an sunrise

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Back roads on motorbike

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Karst cave touring

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Only in Burma…or is it Myanmar?

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Long and sweaty trail

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Matching bedheads

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Our lonely beach in Dawei

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Photos From Myanmar (or is it Burma?) Part 1

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Walking into Myanmar

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Life across the border

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Playing with the locals

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View from our guesthouse in Mawlamyine

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Morning on the river

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Kyaktio aka the Golden Rock

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Typical street in Yangon

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A day in the park

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Shweyadagon temple…..the heart of Yangon

Leaving Kalaw via train

Leaving Kalaw via train

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Window seat

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Is it Myanmar or Burma? Update Part 2

hello hello and apologies for the recent silence but our last couple weeks in myanmar were without internet because the government shut it down due to political uprising in parts of the country which we were happily not a part of. we are now back in thailand for the 3rd time and it feels like another world compared to myanmar. immediately after clearing stiff thai immigration the roads were paved, there were signs in english, and the people are more jaded. not surprising tho as thailand has had the last 30 years to develop tourism and infrastructure while myanmar has been locked in a time warp. our departure from there was with heavy hearts and there were a few tears shed.

during our month in myanmar the people made a real impression on the both of us and i can honestly say that as a whole they are the kindest people i have ever met. our final ride to the border was in the back of a rickety 3 wheeled type of pickup and everyone we passed on the road was waving and smiling at us. this was typical of our experiences there and darn near every man, woman, and child was extremely kind and generous to both of us every step of the way. there were also plenty of awkward moments where they would stare us down or giggle because a lot of them have never seen the likes of the 2 of us before, but that just served as a reminder to how fortunate we are to have seen this country in such a raw state before massive tourism rears it’s ugly head. this is no doubt on the horizon and it saddens us deeply to think of the inevitable changes. hopefully it will be good for the people economically but in spiritual terms they are already very rich. the government is a huge x-factor in the whole equation and the upcoming elections will play a big role in which direction they go. there is a prevailing sense of distrust amongst the people and there is already a shadow of doubt that has been cast over the election process, especially since the heavy favorite of the people, aung san suu kyi (who obama has visited twice), is currently not eligible to run becuase her party (national league for democracy) is not recognized by the ruling military junta. there is hope for a constitutional amendment prior to the elections which would allow her to run but without her participation there is little hope for tangible change and things could easily return to a state of unrest and corruption.

on a lighter note, the country itself is fantastic! the diversity in regions is astounding and we covered a lot of ground. after hiking in the hills around kalaw, we took a train to inle lake and stayed for 3 days of exploration. the lake is home to multiple floating villages and temples and we chartered a local boatman to take us around for a personal tour. we visited weaving shops, cigar rolling women, and entire communities built on stilts on the lake’s marshy edges. it was a fantastic way to taste what has been their way of life for countless generations. we also spent a day on bicycles to explore the outlying villages surrounding the lake and hiking up to the omnipresent hill temples for great vistas.

our next stop was the ancient temple town of bagan – a spot that has been on my mind and wishlist for many years, and an area i have longed to experience personally. it did not disappoint. words can’t do it justice but it sits in the delta of the ayyerwaddy river delta in north-central myanmar and is comprised of over 3000 temples from the period of 700-1100ad. it is the ancient capital of the burmese kingdom but was abandoned over 600 years ago for reasons that are still not clear. the temples are scattered over an area of about 30sq miles and in 5 days we did our best to take it all in. the haphazzardness of their placements meant that we could walk in literally any direction and stumble upon a beautiful temple. almost all are adorned with intricate carvings and buddha statues and the amount of work that went into their construction is staggering. we started almost every day with sunrise from the top of a remote temple and it gives me goosebumps just to write of the experience. the flatness of the terrain meant that we could gaze in every direction and watch the sun light up temples as far as our eyes could see. added to this was a smoky mist drifting through a mix of desert sand and jungle vegetation creating a surreal landscape that neither of us will ever forget. my vocabulary does not contain enough superlatives to describe this place any further so i will leave it at that.

leaving bagan, we took another 10hr ‘sleeper’ bus back to yangon as we needed to work our way south in preparation for exiting the country overland. we only stayed a day this time thru but it was enough time to chart our course south and restock on baileys.

from yangon we took a brutal night bus back to mawlamyine to fulfill a promise made to our friend phyo. he was our taxi driver upon entering the country and our first of many friends. on our previous stay we left before being able to meet his family but vowed to return and that we did. he came to meet us at a restaurant with his wife and baby boy in tow and was visibly emotional to see us again. we only had a couple hours to spend with them but it was a really powerful reunion and watching megan play with his 7month old son and the stuffed pooh bear we had procured as a gift was truly priceless. they put us and our packs on the back of the motorbikes (he drove one-handed with his baby in the other and me and my pack on back) and got us to the bus station to see us off. it was a teary and heavy-duty goodbye but we hope to see him again sometime in the future.

near mawlamyine is hpa-an which we missed on our way north so we decided to give it a look. this turned out to be a great decision and we ended up staying for 3 days. the surrounding countryside is laced with limestone karst formations, massive caves, and hidden lakes. we rented a motorbike to explore some of these natural wonders and had a great time doing so. our biggest adventure there was making the pilgrimage to the top of the highest peak in the area where there is temple housing a hair of the buddha. it took about 5 hours to climb the thousands of steps and we dripped sweat constantly but the views from the top were spectacular and the gang of monkeys provided the entertainment. we were both really glad to have made this impromptu trip but the southern beaches were calling so off we went into the sunset again.

yet another night bus! we rolled into the town of dawei at sunrise and quickly hopped in the back of tuk-tuk for a ride to the coast. tired and weary, we quickly perked up when we saw the stretch of coast on the andaman sea which would be our home for the next few days. gorgeous. we followed the recommendation of a german couple we had met earlier in our trip, and tracked down a lonely set of bungalows right on the beach. they were cheap and basic and we had the place nearly to ourselves for 4 days of splendid bliss. our days were filled with walking the shell-ladened beach for miles in either direction and our evenings were spent eating seafood and playing cards in one of the beachside shack restaurants. there may have been some cheap whiskey (ridiculously cheap) involved as well but that part is a little vague. we both were longing for more time in this wonderful country but alas our 28day visas were expiring in a matter of hours so we bid a fond farewell to the coast and made a run for the border.

we were able to cross relatively hassle-free at a newly opened border crossing near katchanaburi in thailand and that is where we now sit, reflecting on the past month and our absolutely fantastic time in myanmar. being back in thailand things feel modern and easy but we are looking at it thru different eyes this time around. we are wrapping up logistics and preparing to board a train in a couple hours which will take us 18hrs south and to our next destination – the trang islands off the southern coast of thailand where more happiness undoubtedly awaits.

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Is it Myanmar or Burma?

Well we have been flying under the radar and off the grid for the last month so internet has been few and far between. For the sake of keeping this blog somewhat current we’re gonna cheat a lil’ bit and use our last couple email updates to home. Sorry if it’s a repeat for some of you lucky folks but hey, it’s a rough life out here so here you go…

minglabah and hello from myanmar (trying to get used to not calling it burma anymore). we are on day 10 here and things are going great…interesting and varied. our walk across the border bridge from thailand and subsequent bus ride was probably the most eye-opening and hair-raising experience of our entire trip so far, but that was expected. the government just opened that border within the last year so many people are taking advantage of the ability to cross, but there are very few tourists and mainly traders carrying all sorts of goods.

upon clearing immigration we were immediately harangued by touts trying to sell us on all kinds of tours and transportation which can be expected in most border towns worldwide, and we settled on a shared taxi to the town of mawlamyine. we stuffed into an SUV with 7 other people and the roller coaster ride which ensued was one of epic proportions. the ‘road’ out of town is only wide enough for one vehicle so traffic alternates directions each day and it crosses a substantial mountain range. picture 2000ft dropoffs with no guardrail, potholes large enough to swim in, and no less than 100 hairpin turns. yikes. the ride took about 8 hours and mom would not have lasted 10 minutes. for me it was travel as usual and for megan it was a nice introduction for what no doubt lies ahead…she was all smiles (with a bit of hand clutching) and did great as usual. just when we thought we were home free, the truck stopped in a scruffy little town and the driver notified us that we needed to transfer vehicles and crammed us into an overloaded little car for the final stretch. megan made friends with a little girl in the back seat and i made friends with the young driver who we plan to see again on our way back south in a couple weeks. we spent 3 nights in mawlamyine in a little hotel on the riverside and spent many hours watching the river traffic and market below our balcony…fantastic people-watching without having to be in thick of things. we wandered the streets and temples for a couple days then took a bus 5hrs north to the buddhist holy site of kyaktiyo, aka the golden rock.

in kyaktio, on top of a mountain above the town is a precariously perched boulder adorned with a crown of gold which is said to house a hair of the buddha. one hair is enough to make a place like this a pilgrimage site for devout buddhists, and the scene was beyond crazy. just to reach the site we had to load into the back of pickup truck with wooden benches and 50 people for the hour ride to the top. from there we had to battle through thousands of pilgrims who sleep on the temple grounds to catch sunrise and the assault on our senses was borderline overwhelming. the sound of people chanting, the sight of families praying, and the smell of oils and incense burning made for a dizzying experience. getting close to the boulder itself was impossible because one of the traditions is applying thin pieces of gold to the rock surface and it was like a war zone to do so. the amount of gold covering the boulder was staggering and beautiful. we lingered for a bit to take it all in then happily headed down for a meal and a bus out of town.

we arrived in yangon just after dark and checked into our guesthouse on the 7th floor of a downtown building. yangon is a bustling beast of a city but is, in fact, no longer the capital of myanmar. in 2005 the ruling military junta unexpectedly moved all government offices and personnel to a newly built secluded city and made it the nation’s new capital. yangon was left to the people and in 2007 became the site of anti-government protests led by buddhist monks. the protests quickly escalated until the military stepped in and things ended with the deaths of many protesters and world condemnation. it still has a very raw feel but hope for the future is palpable and was expressed to us by many locals. in recent years it would have been dangerous for locals to discuss politics but throughout the country we have found them to be extremely friendly and eager to open up when given the chance. we thoroughly enjoyed our stint in yangon and covered a ton of ground on foot just wandering the busy streets (in search of baileys) and admiring the decrepit architecture. we had a magnificent sunrise mission to the golden stuppa temple shweyadagon after being turned away the previous day for wearing shorts, but that was the only ‘touristy’ thing we did. from yangon we boarded a night bus north for the mountain town of kalaw and it was megan’s first experience on an overnight luxury bus and good thing it was luxury because 10hrs on a local bus would have been brutal.

our stay in kalaw was for trekking and that is what we did. we decided to forgo the guided options and instead relied on local insight and route-finding skills to hike to remote temples on the surrounding peaks. we covered 20 miles over 2 days and after all the oily foods, our bodies were thanking us. now here we are in inle lake. we took a train here from kalaw and are using the town of nyaungshwe to explore the surrounding area. yesterday we chartered a local boat to take us around the lake and the floating villages which dot it’s shores. this is a beautiful area full of fishermen and temples and mountains and for our last day we took bikes to some remote village and, yes, more temples. time now for our last meal here before catching a 10hr bus to the ancient temple town of bagan tomorrow.

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Starting the New Year in Sukothai

Ok, sorry for the delay in updates but you can blame the Myanmar internet availability. Now to get you caught up to speed…

After our time in Chiang Mai, we headed North to the historical city of Sukothai. The city is classified as a world heritage site so we knew we were in for an adventure. What an adventure it was! We spent 2 full days wandering the 700 year old temples and massive buddha statues which was exhausting but a great experience and quite humbling. The highlight was renting a motorbike on our second day to cover more territory since the area is quite spread out. Renting the motorbike gave us both a sense of freedom we’d been craving and we both felt like we fit in with the locals. The temperatures got quite warm in the afternoon so our hammocks saw some much needed use napping between a couple teak trees on the temple grounds. We found a quiet spot that wasn’t occupied by other tourists which can be a difficult thing to find so when you do, consider yourself lucky. Of course no adventure would be complete without falling into a vat of green sludge, which I made sure to do. Andy was reluctant to enter one of the temples head on but I decided to investigate and ended up drenching my feet in a substance that looked like neon green slime. We took full advantage of the moment with a lot of laughter and a nap outside the temple, barefoot of course. That evening we rang in the New Year with a group of local University students at a bar across the street from our guesthouse. We brought that bottle of LaoLao that we had been cursing since Laos and managed to pawn most of it off to the locals at the bar. They were happy to practice their English with us and laugh at our lack of Thai. It was a very random, unexpected New Years Eve but one we will remember and cherish for years to come. The New Year celebration wouldn’t have been complete without the night cap of sending off paper lanterns outside of our guesthouse. This is a Thai tradition and we reveled in the chance to send our wishes and blessings into the universe beyond. Considering where we were and the adventure we are on, watching them drift off into the night sky with our words of hope for the year to come was very memorable.

With Sukothai in our rear view mirror, we headed for the border town of Mae Sot for a couple days of logistics before crossing into Myanmar. We were only planning on staying in Mae Sot for a couple days but ended up extending our stay to check out the border and figure out logistics. Looking back, I am so glad we did. We got to know the border scene and I learned how to play dominoes. I don’t know which one is more of an achievement ( In case you’re wondering. I put up a good fight but lost). After four days in Mae Sot we were ready to finally cross the border. That in itself was a rush of emotions. I had never physically walked into another country and the experience was like no other. I will never forget that moment. Seeing the faces of the people walking across the bridge was something that I will never forget. I got emotional a few times thinking about where these people had come from and what their stories tell. One thing I’ve learned is you don’t have much time to digest emotions because you’re onto the next situation in a matter of seconds. Stroll across that bridge and……..hold on tight!

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A Chiang Mai Christmas

Dear Chiang Mai,

First of all, thank you for our wonderful stay for 6 days within the old city. We thoroughly enjoyed our studio apartment rental via airbnb.com and used it as a launching pad from which to roam your endless maze of cluttered streets and timeless back alleys. Your beautiful and numerous temples kept us humble and curious, and we loved our impromptu chat with a young monk in Wat Jedi Li…did you know he loves hiphop music?! You welcomed us with open arms and a warm sunrise to witness the procession of 10,000 monks and we will never forget it.

One of our favorite days was one, like most, with no agenda in mind – simply strolling the back streets to see what the universe puts in our path. After a lap around the moat and through the park, construction forced us into a rural area and we became wonderfully lost. From there we ran into a great little temple bursting with Chompa flowers which, as you know, Megan proudly tucked into her hair. Around the next corner was a couple of local yokels training cocks for fighting. After standing outside the gate watching for a few minutes, they invited us in for a ringside view. Those crazy cocks were clawing and scrapping, much to the delight of the proud owners. I tried to bet 20baht on the clear favorite but the ringmaster laughed it off amusingly – though I think he was tempted. Just watching those birds brawl stirred an appetite in Megan and I so we moved on but didn’t have to move very far. Around the next corner was a wonderful woman cooking up some of the most delicious noodle soup we’ve encountered thus far. She had only one table and the place had no name, but you know the one I speak of. She had no beer to offer but kindly steered me to the nearest vendor where I procured the essential liquid gold. How else were we supposed to wash down that insanely spicy concoction? Simple pleasures.

Did I mention this was Christmas Day? Well it was, and it was lovely. Megan and I had split up the previous day to do a touch of shopping and exchanged gifts that evening. She scored a beautiful and flattering hemp dress, while I made out with a handsome yet studly thai-style shirt that will serve me for many years to come. That evening it was off to see live reggae and drink small buckets of mojito. We had wanted to quietly dine at one of your wonderful restaurants, the one with fish curry served inside a coconut, but the obnoxious music cranking from the entire place drove us away…pretty sure it was the soundtrack from Frosty the Snowman. Oh well, we improvised and loved it.

The local band was rowdy and fun, but our favorite watering hole in your city is without a doubt Freedom Bar and the huge smile of the owner, Selly. He became a good friend of mine when I spent 2 weeks here about 7 years ago and has not changed a bit. One of the great pleasures for me personally was presenting him with a picture of he and I that I had taken on that previous trip. I never would have thought his smile could become larger but as he proudly showed the picture to everyone around, I swear it touched both of his ears. Please look after him kindly because Megan and I both look forward to seeing him again in the future.

Our final night was spent with countless thousands of others at the Sunday walking market. Craziness. I had regaled Megan with tales of this epic shopping mecca in the months prior, but words do not do it justice. We spent a solid 4 hours checking out the goods on display but still couldn’t see it all. Luckily for our bank accounts neither one of us has extra room in our packs to fill with frivolous items, though we did end up shipping a small but stuffed box of goodies home the next day. The one thing we were not allowed to ship was a bottle of laolao whiskey which had burdened my pack since leaving Laos. Not sure if this was a blessing or a curse because while we will enjoy consuming it, it’s still laolao and it’s still lethal. We shall see.

So adios again, Chiang Mai. You’ve changed a bit since we last met, but you needed a fresh coat of paint and you wear it well. You have retained your old world charm while moving forward with the rest of this busy planet. Until we meet again…

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Luang Prabang, Laos

Sawatdee and greetings y’all! This update comes to you from the hands of Orlando (the Andy, not the city) and it’s my first attempt at this whole blog thing so here we go.

Luang Prabang was fantastic and our 4 days there were filled with walking, eating, cooking, monks, temples and culture. Luang Prabang sits on the banks of the mighty Mekong river and is the cultural capital of Laos. In fact, the entire town is designated as a UNESCO world heritage site. We stayed in the heart of the old city at Villa Senesouk where $26 per night scored us our swankiest accommodations thus far and a far cry from what I have grown accustomed to over the years…yet another perk of traveling as a couple. Our days started before dawn to witness the procession of monks collecting their daily alms from devout Buddhists lined up on the side of the road. This was an incredible event to witness as hundreds of monks clad in saffron robes paraded right in front of our guesthouse with a backdrop of temples. Peaceful, humbling, and serene are the adjectives which come to mind. The only negative aspect was the unescapable hordes of disrespectful tourists and their cameras. Most people watched quietly from a distance but it only takes a few self-righteous idiots to make everyone feel uncomfortable.

I had a similar experience in Sri Lanka some years ago during sunrise on top of a mountain temple and one of the most spiritual moments of my life. I had joined thousands of pilgrims to climb the 5000 ancient steps and after 4 hours of climbing reached the summit for sunrise on my birthday. As the first rays of light struck the temple, horns sounded and everyone sat in silent prayer and contemplation…except for one jackass. This guy (German) proceeded to aim his monstrous camera right in the face of an old woman who had been carried up by her family to pay respect. It took major self-restraint not to smack him but I did express my disapproval with a shove to his elbow, nearly knocking the camera out of his hands. He stormed away in shock but I was rewarded with approving looks from those around me. I later saw this man on the way down while he was snapping pictures of a group of monks and all I could say to him as I passed was ‘have you no shame?’. He started barking obscenities at me but I simply apologized to the monks for his behavior and carried on my way. I know it takes all types of people to make the world go around but sometimes I just wonder what is going through people’s heads. Ok, sorry to vent, let’s get back to lovely Luang Prabang.

After a great day of wandering the back streets and alleys we decided to splurge on a bottle of wine and have dinner at a riverside restaurant called Bamboo Tree. We both agreed it was one of our best meals yet and after a couple dessert shots of laólaó (the ubiquitous local alcohol), we signed up for a cooking course. Our course kicked off in the morning with a trip to the local market to procure necessary ingredients and quality insight as to what a sprawling Asian market has to offer. Our group consisted of 10 people representing America, Austria, Australia and Singapore, and we settled on 5 local dishes to prepare. Our choice was a chili coconut lemongrass chicken concoction but we also learned the others. We spent 5 hours preparing and cooking the dishes as a group before settling in to a communal meal of our efforts. Every bite of every dish was outstanding and by the time laólaó shots were served we were all contently stuffed. The course and our instructor, Lynda, were fantastic. I took a Thai course years ago and was a bit apprehensive of a repeat sub-par experience but this was not the case and we would highly recommend it to anyone who has the chance.

The following day we said our goodbyes to Luang Prabang and boarded a slow boat for our 2 day trip up the Mekong to the Thai border. Our boat held about 70 people, mostly foreigners, and gave us many hours of gazing aimlessly at river life while we played cards and sipped beers. The Mekong is the jugular of this part of the world and getting to know it intimately was a nice treat. We had an overnight stop in a shanty town and after day 2 arrived in Huay Xai where we crossed back into Thailand on the following day. Laos was not part of our initial itinerary but we are both extremely happy and appreciative for the couple weeks we were able to spend in this little gem of a country.

So here we are back in Thailand! We spent a night in Chiang Rai and this morning arrived to our home for the next week, Chiang Mai. It is one of my favorite parts of Thailand and we have a nice little apartment rented to serve as home base. We are both loving life. Megan has been the best travel partner I could hope for and I feel very fortunate to be sharing these experiences together. We are all smiles on this Christmas Eve, and hope all of our friends and family in the heartland are as well!

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