Asia

Down the river

Irrawaddy river

Irrawaddy river

On our first night night in Myanmar, we were staying in a floating hotel on the Irrawaddy River, just outside of Mandalay. The taxi from the airport dropped us off riverside; It was a half mile wide with fast-flowing brown water. Dilapidated boats of all sizes were tied up to the muddy river bank, many housing families with their drying clothes hanging from boat lines. All the boats were rusted, dreary and listing. All except one, our hotel. The Karaweik Floating Hotel. It looked like a traditional Royal Barge, on acid: Gold, multi-level with white life-size elephant statues and two massive mythical birds on it’s bow, covered in lights. It looked like it just floated in from Vegas.

Hotel. .. Name

Karaweik Floating Hotel.

We walked down the gangplank and into the lobby where a Burmese wedding had just happened. The bride was in a colorful long-flowing dress and fancy, sparkly heeled flip-flops covered in fake gem stones. The men wore dress shirts with longyi, the traditional long dress worn by men. They also wore flip flop without the bling. They were all excitedly running about the lobby and through the hallways.

 

Hotel

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When we managed to get to the front desk, they asked if we were here for the cruise. Confused, we answered that we were are staying at the hotel. “OK, but you can go on the two hour cruise if you want to. We leave in a hour.”

On board Elephant

On board Elephant

This was news to us, clearly if we had arrived an hour later we would have seen our hotel sail off downriver. There was no mention of this when we had booked.
The rest of our conversation at the front desk was lost in translation. Neither side had any understanding of the other. The bell boy was clearly confused from the start. Now the woman behind the desk kept trying to order us a cab, “you want a taxi now?”.

Conversations went back and forth but somehow we got checked in and got the room key. The room was nice with dark teak walls, with a door opening up onto the deck with a table and chairs overlooking the river. Inside was a table with fruit, two life preservers and a TV with only a few channels. The local channel was an out-of-focus close up of a monk chanting. There was also a K-pop station, Korean MTV. These two channels could not have been any different.

Robes and life perservers

Robes and life perservers

In the evening we went up to the dining room as the nightly puppet show was just finishing up. Two puppeteers stood behind a small screen and manipulated strings as the puppets jerked and flailed about. Local songs played over the outdated, fuzzy sound system. Strange is the only way to describe this spectacle.

Puppet show

Puppet show

The show ended and the two families watching, left. We were the only ones in a room with a dozen large empty tables around us. So we ordered booze to go and the waiter insisted on ceremoniously leading us to our room with the beer and a bowl of fruit on a tray. We sat drinking on the deck and made a plan for the following day while watching the Irrawaddy River flow by.

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River side.

After the first night in Myanmar we felt that we were not just in a different country but we were on a different planet.

It was full of surprises and contradictions. The first of many was the floating hotel, it was just inexplicably strange; Twilight Zone plus David Lynch strange. The dirt-colored river was disconcerting. The staff was bizarre. I had nightmares about the puppet show.

We loved it; It was everything we had hoped for Myanmar.

After our first night in Myanmar, we realized we weren’t in Kansas anymore

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Beer

Sunset on the train, myanmar.

Sunset on the train, Myanmar

I always like to indulge in the local brew when I travel. On our last trip I began an appreciation of SE Asian beers; even though they are seldom cold and taste more like a bud than a local craft beer. But they are surprisingly refreshing in the heat and so in every country we visited (six total), I tried every local beer I could get my hands on.

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Hanoi beer

In Vietnam there was Biere La Rue and Saigon Beer. In Hanoi there is an area named Beer Corner that sounded right up my alley. So we walked through the maze of narrow streets to get a ‘Fresh’ beer, or two. The area was packed with people and tiny cafes with tables that spilled out onto the sidewalk. We sat down on short plastic stools at a small plastic table and watched the throngs of young Vietnamese parade down the street.

Beer Hanoi

Beer corner,  Hanoi

Myanmar Beer came in 40-ouncer’s and were dirt cheap but always served lukewarm. I brought an ample supply of Myanmar 40’s for our 16 hour train trip. Drank a few warm ones on the slow boat down the Irrawaddy River. Had some delivered to our hotel room in Mandalay. It was over 100 degrees every day; warm Myanmar saved me.

Maybe a few too many Myanmar beers

Maybe a few too many Myanmar beers

 

Lion beer

Lion beer, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka had Lion Beer, my favorite. Light and crisp and with only a few Sri Lankan beers to choose from, Lion it was. Lions are not indigenous to Sri Lanka, but they are the symbolic symbol of the country, a mythical lion adorns their flag. On our last night in SE Asia we had dinner in Galle and they only had Heineken. What, no Lion? I was appalled. But I forced down a few, against my will.

Bangkok

Chang in Bangkok

Back at home now, drinking ice-cold, organic, craft, small batch, farm to table IPAs. They’re nice, but I still have a soft spot for those warm Myanmar 40-ouncers.

On the boat on Halong bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay beer, on the boat, Vietnam

Overnight train to Hanoi

Overnight train to Hanoi

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Saigon Beer in Ho Chi Minh City

On the plane.

Chinese beer on the plane to Beijing

Monkey ???

Monkey beer???

Tinssao ice beer. China.

Tsingtao Ice at the Great Wall, China.

 

dan Nag, Vietnam

Tiger in DaNang, Vietnam

Vietnam

La Rue beer, HoiAn, Vietnam

Categories: SE Asia - March 2016 | Tags: , | 1 Comment

Underwear

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We packed light for this trip. We were going to be away for four weeks, so I had planned to pack six pairs of undies and do laundry, but I couldn’t count and ended up with only five. This turned out to be an issue, especially on our grand tour of Sri Lanka.

It was stupid hot, over 100 degrees, so all clothing, especially undies, had to be washed often; No wearing them inside out for the second day. So I had to wash them in the sink and hang them around the room to dry. I’d dry them on the balcony, on the chairs, in the shower. Half the time it was too humid and they wouldn’t really dry and I would have to stuff them in my pack damp.

In Sri Lanka, Helen, Rachel and I shared a room in basic guest houses, a kind of Sri Lankan B&B. Now Helen is used to my underwear lying all over the place. But poor Rachel had to endure my undies flung all over the room; Walking into the bathroom first thing in the morning and having to negotiate around my underpants.

I think she may now be suffering from PTSD.

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India-light

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When we landed at Colombo, Sri Lanka and took a taxi to the hotel, there was hardly anyone on the road. I was half expecting Delhi-style traffic chaos. We checked into the hundred-year-old Grand Oriental Hotel, which had seen better days. A few hotel employees were in the lobby intently watching the tv, which was playing a repeating infomercial of the hotel. Very Strange. Needless to say, it took a lot longer than it should have to check in. All very similar to India, but not quite as crazy; Sri Lanka was India-light.

Some of the similarities and differences I noticed:

Tuk tuk. The Sri Lankan 3 wheel taxi

Tuk tuk. The Sri Lankan 3 wheel taxi

1. For being a laid-back people, Sri Lankans are aggressive, reckless drivers. Anything goes on the road. The main difference to India is that there are less sacred cows all over the road.

Size matters, so buses rule the road. Many buses are privately owned so race well over the speed limit, looking for fares. Cars and scooters get pushed off the road and bicyclists must have a suicide wish. It’s a free-for-all; they cut each other off and come within inches of hitting you.

With all the chaos you would think there would be fist fights in the intersections. But no; no road rage, no dirty looks, just quick beeps of the horn.

2. Good food; The cuisine is fresh, with lots of Indian influenced tapas-like small plates.

Breakfast

Breakfast

The most prevalent dish is curry. Every meal has curry, even for breakfast; Curry of every type: lentil, coconut, fruit. All spicy but not blazing hot.

The Sri Lankan fruit was amazing; pineapple, mango, papaya and odd shaped tiny bananas. I was eating it with both hands whenever fruit appeared on the table.

bananas

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3. Both Sri Lankans and Indians do the ‘head bobble’. This is when they tilt their head quickly from side to side and it can mean several things. I deciphered a few:

A) “Ok, but I’m not happy about it”. For example, when we told the women at the hotel that we had a change of plans and could only stay one night, not two, she gave us a big, slow, silent bobble, and then she said “ok.”

B) “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” I got this one a lot. This is usually a continually rolling bobble, followed with a blank stare.
C) Most of the time, the head bobble means something between “Maybe” and “Whatever”.

I have quickly adopted the head bobble; It comes naturally to me. I have bobbled a few times even after I returned to the states. I hope it sticks.

Gale, Sri Lanka.

Galle, Sri Lanka.

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Travel karma

We were taking the long overnight train from Bagan to Yangon, Myanmar. We booked the tickets weeks before for one of the old beat-up British sleeper cars with four sleeper berths. The conductor opened the door, and an English couple were already inside, and he said, “actually we booked all four spots in this car”. The conductor looked at all our tickets, the carriage had been double-booked. The Englishman said again, “We booked all four spots, so sorry”. Clearly there were only 2 of them; We both gave him a look; that’s not going to happen. I thought to myself what a #!?! Was he just going to leave fellow travelers on the platform when they had two spots open? Luckily, before it all kicked off, the conductor looked at his clip-board, and motioned us to the next car that had beds available.

Sleeper car

Sleeper car

We settled in and a nice kid from Singapore joined us and we chatted about our travels around Myanmar. Later, we were all ready to try and get some sleep, when the train made a stop. I stuck my head out the window and noticed two young local men get into the carriage of our friends next door, the door shut and the train immediately departed. Looks like the young English couple was going to have some company for the evening after all. There was no way to leave the car once the train was moving and there wasn’t another stop until mid-morning.

When the train finally arrived in Yangon, as we passed their carriage, I slowed and took a peek in. The carriage looked well-worn and the women was still packing, looking disheveled and exhausted. She saw me out the window and I gave her a big smile; travel karma got you!

Sunset on the train. Good karma

Sunset on the train. Good karma

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Crazy train

The rail system in Myanmar was built by British in the late 1940s and has fallen into disrepair over the decades. It is notoriously slow, always late and an extremely rough ride. We were taking the overnight train from Bagen to Yangon, a seventeen hour ride through the jungles of Burma.

Sleeper carriage

Sleeper carriage

We climbed aboard and were joined by a 20-something kid from Singapore. Together we checked out our home for the night; The 50-year old ‘upper-class’ sleeper carriage had four seats underneath a sleeping shelf on each side. With a fight, the seats could be turned into a bed. It had a bathroom with a sink with no water and when you opened up the toilet lid there was just a hole through the floor to the tracks below. We opened the windows wide, were pleasantly surprised when the ceiling fan worked; the train seemed relatively comfortable for being a rolling antique.

Comfy.

Comfy.

At the station, we had loaded up on the essentials; water, snacks and beer. We got out the books, camera and sustenance out and settled in for the long trip.

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The train slowly groaned to a start, bumping along the track. It certainly was not a bullet train, we were traveling at about 25 mph. Looking out the window we saw small farms with grass and mud-brick homes. Small kids would stand by the tracks and wave as we passed. We didn’t see a car or paved road for hours.

Sleeping shelf

Sleeping shelf

We tried to sleep on the upper bunks; basically enlarged luggage racks. Every time I drifted off, I was jolted awake by what sounded like someone banging on the floor with a sledgehammer. During the night you’d be woken by the train alarmingly rocking and rolling from side to side; it was like sleeping through a massive earthquake. You were bounced inches in the air off the bed, slammed into the wall and then almost thrown right off. I resorted to sleeping on my stomach, arms and legs outstretched, like a starfish.

We arrived at Yangon almost two hours late. We were tired and dazed, but OK considering we had just been trapped in an over-sized washing machine for nineteen hours. Then we stepped off the train into 106 degree heat.

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Faux pas

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We tried our hardest to be respectful and observe the numerous rules of the Buddhist pagodas and religious sites of Myanmar. We did well; most of the time.

It’s a lot to remember; when seated on the floor of a temple, you shouldn’t point your feet at a Buddha statue, or have your photo taken with your back to Buddha, and be properly covered up, shoulders and knees.

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Shweyattaw Buddha.

In addition, at all the temples you have to remove your shoes and socks. The locals all wear sandals and so the idea of socks is just odd to them. Before they enter, they just kick off their sandals.

After the sunset at the magnificent Sutuangpyei Temple atop Mandalay Hill, we took the long way down the stairs, past small shrines and Buddha statues. We started off in sandals but quickly heard calls of “no shoes” from the locals. Usually it was a shoe-free area only in the temples, but this was a sacred path. We quickly kicked them off and walked down the hundreds of stairs at twilight.

Pagoda

Sutuangpyei temple.

At some of the big pagodas, there are cubbies and benches for foreign visitors. Everyone would sit down, take off their shoes and socks and then line up to check them in for 50 cents. I was doing this too at the start; what a pain. By the end of the day I had already switched to my flip flops and was kicking them into the pile of sandals like a local.

Buddha

Mahamuni Buddha temple.

Our feet quickly toughened up to the blazing hot tiles, gravel and debris in the temples. Once in Bagan, we were walking through a dark corridor and under our feet there was a slight squish. I heard fluttering above us and saw bats flying. Yup, we were walking barefoot through bat guano. We consoled ourselves with the thought that people in LA probably pay hundreds of dollars for a bat guano pedicure treatment.

At the end of the day we would arrive back at the hotel and our feet would be absolutely filthy.

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Categories: SE Asia - March 2016 | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ming gah la ba

Ming gah la ba

Ming gah la ba

When we travel to foreign countries, we try to learn at least a few words of the local dialect. It breaks the ice, people laugh at our pronunciation and generally appreciate it, (except the French). This is tricky for me, I can barely speak English half the time.

In Myanmar we have learned a few helpful words, including ‘hello’: Ming gah la ba! and ‘thank-you’:jay zu ba. It was fun walking down the street and people would stare at us like we were from Mars. Then we would bust out an exuberant, “Ming gah la ba.” They would look back, wide-eyed and visibly stunned, before breaking into a large grin and replying in a sing-songy way, Ming gah la ba.

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Myanmar

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“This is Burma and it is unlike any land you know about”

– Rudyard Kipling

It didn’t take long for us to realize that Myanmar is from a different time and dimension. After decades cut off from the rest of the world by oppressive military juntas, it has finally opened up. We visited Cuba in 2008 and hoped that Myanmar would be the Cuba of Asia. It was as advertised and we were not disappointed.

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We landed at the desolate airport an hour outside Mandalay and caught a cab to town. A bumpy asphalt road, then a dirt road, past ox carts, grass huts and large open air markets; this is the main road to the city.

Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda

The countryside is littered with Buddhist temples; Pagodas. Some new, some thousands of years old. Some shiny, some in ruins. Some massive, high on mountain-tops, some tiny in village squares. They all had a statue of Buddha in some form and condition, some had armies of Buddha statues. We must have visited over a hundred and they were all unique in their own way.

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Buddhist Monks are revered by the people and are the spiritual foundation of society. Barefoot in dark crimson robes, they are everywhere. In the Pagodas, on scooters on their smart phones. They start their studies at a young age and we would often see groups of five and six year-old-monks running around.

Mini monks

Mini-monks

The women and children wear a white paste on their face made from thanaka tree bark, It’s used to protect them from the sun and form of make-up. The men and boys walk with their arms on each other’s shoulders. A shy yet friendly people.

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Burmese are not used to seeing Westerners. Women and children stop and stare as we passed and snap pictures of Helen’s blonde hair when she isn’t looking. They sheepishly approach and gesture to have a picture taken with us. We nod and the floodgates open; they line up! The children have no idea what to make of us, they nervously look at us as photos are taken. After, they look at the pictures screeching and laughing.

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Kipling was right; Myanmar is a place like no other I have seen. A magical place yet unspoiled by the outside world and bus-loads of tourists. The infra-structure is terrible, the poverty is evident, the people lovely. Hopefully as the new government takes it’s place, the peaceful transition to democracy continues for the people of Myanmar.

Balloons over Began at sunrise

Balloons over Bagan at sunrise

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Checking in at the Hanoi Hilton

For a pacifist, I have a strange fascination with military history; always have. I have read numerous books on The Vietnam War and have already visited numerous sites on our trip to Vietnam. My favorite part is seeing the government’s spin and propaganda on the war. I went to one Museum that was propaganda-free; boring. However, that was not the case at the Hanoi Hilton, the propaganda was over the top. It was basically the complete opposite of everything I have read about the conditions and treatment of US prisoners held there.

The Hanoi Hilton

The Hanoi Hilton

The Hanoi Hilton was a sarcastic name given by US pilots to this infamous prison during the war. American pilots shot down were held here, including senator John McCain. It is now a museum; the first part is dedicated to the brutal treatment the Vietnamese suffered under French rule after World War 2. The second part is dedicated to The American War and how well the US prisoners were treated.

Pictures of of pilots gardening, playing basketball, and raising chickens in the prison yard. Pictures of them playing chess, billiards and hanging out, laughing in a large communal dorm room. Displays of items the prisoners had while incarcerated: Winston cigarettes, Vicks cough drops, hand-held fans, winter and summer clothing. They did not show the solitary confinement cells that pilots were held in.

Vietnamese propaganda poster from the war

Vietnamese propaganda poster from the war

Photos of pilots receiving medical care in a hospital, and a list of rules for prisoners including how they had to inform guards in the morning if they didn’t feel well, so they can get immediate treatment. John McCain did not receive any care for days for his serious injuries after being shot down; not until the Vietnamese found out his father was a four star admiral and McCain could be use for propaganda purposes.

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A video showed pilots released after the war, before returning home receiving souvenirs from officials. They looked confused as they accepted these gifts for their time in prison. I chuckled out loud at this, people looked at me like I was crazy. The video did not show the forced confessions of the pilots or how after being shot down the pilots were marched through the streets of Hanoi, being abused by people that lined the streets.

I realize that I have been subjected to my own government’s spin on the war and I have tried to keep a open mind. I also know that North Vietnamese prisoners were treated brutally by both Americans and the South Vietnamese army. Cutting through the propaganda of both countries and coming to the truth is difficult, but one thing is for certain, it was a dirty and ugly war and atrocities were committed by both sides.

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