Mountain state of mind

It’s Tuesday morning here in Buenos Aires (post written this morning; posted this afternoon due to slow internet), another wonderfully sunny day, but the temperatures are definitely starting to head south this week, and we are getting a real sense of late fall/early winter weather in JUNE. I know this is normal in the southern hemisphere, but it’s still quite the novelty for me! 🙂

We’re also getting organized for some travel in Argentina. We’re still waiting for confirmation to come through and to sort out some of the details, but chances are that we’ll be experiencing a good deal MORE cold before our time here is through. We’re also going to be catching our first look at the Andes, which I’m really excited for.

All this has got me thinking back to the last place we traveled that had both cold weather and mountains. The coldest weather we’ve experienced so far during our trip has got to be during our road trip along the ah-maz-ing Karakorum Highway in Xinjiang, China.

Second coldest though would be in Zhongdian, the closest we got to Tibet, in the Yunnan province, and a place that was definitely worth braving the cold for. I’ve posted about Zhongdian already, but I haven’t shared photos from the Ganden Sumtseling Monastery or Baiji Si Temple yet.

Two Tibetan Buddhist sites, both totally awesome in two very different ways.

The Ganden Sumtseling Monastery is one of the major tourist draws for the area. Over three hundred years old, it’s the biggest monastery in Yunnan and is home to around 600 monks. It used to be able to accommodate well over double that number, but was badly damaged during the cultural revolution and a lot of what stands there currently has been rebuilt in the past decades.

It has the feel of a walled medieval city (if it was completely Tibetan that is). You pass through stolid walls to enter the residential part of the compound. Small but beautiful houses are interspersed with lesser temples, all of them moving up a hill to the culminating, massive main temples up the hill, which loom majestically overhead. It really feels like something out of a fairytale.

Not the best panorama photo, but click to see what I mean:

The place definitely has some touches of Chinese tourism, like a shop in the middle of the Monastery selling loads of prayer beads and tonkas, but also sun glasses, keychains and other pretty secular stuff, right next to the sausage stand…

A monk serves Chinese tourists in the shop

But we found it quite easy to avoid the most popular/touristy spots and were able to explore and enjoy the dimly lit, mysterious temples, crumbling alleyways, amazing architecture and beautiful views pretty much on our own.

Here are some photos from around the monastery. Photography was not allowed inside any of the temple, so that’s why there are no interior pictures.

Baiji Si Temple was a completely different experience. A small temple set on a hill within the city of Zhongdian (the Monastery is outside the city), we hiked up to it on our last morning in town.

A steep but short hike up to Baiji Si

It was a sunny autumn day. The hill and temple were completely deserted (not even a chicken in sight – Baiji, for the record, means 100 chickens :-)), but alive nonetheless with the flutter of brightly colored leaves and thousands upon thousands of Tibetan prayer flags that were strung on lines all over the place. The atmosphere was peaceful, the sun was warm on my face, the light and colors magical, the views over the city and landscape awesome.

I didn’t want to leave, but we had a bus to catch…

These amazing flowers really were this blue! I wish I knew what they’re called.

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And now for something completely different

After the weeks and months we’d spent traversing Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, we figured we had a decent handle on South East Asia. We knew some of Vietnam’s cultural roots were pointing in a different direction from its westerly neighbors, with heavier influence from China over the centuries, so we arrived anticipating a variation on a theme. What we discovered, however, was a whole new melody all together.

For starters, Vietnam is highly developed in comparison to the countries we’d just come from. Perhaps there are areas of the country that are different, but in our travels, I observed only a handful of wooden houses. This was in village that was not on the typical tourist stop, and even there, most of the homes were made of concrete. There was not a single bamboo hut to be seen, neither in the places we visited or during any of the bus rides we took.

Vietnam has capitalized on its best sights, creating a slick and efficient tourist industry. Of course there have been tourists in all the countries we’ve visited. You expect and tolerate the song and dance and the crowds at places like the Taj Mahal and Angkor Wat but then you go to some place less famous and can get some space from all that.

In Vietnam it was difficult not to feel like part of a herd of Westerners that was being shuffled through the country. Most of the places we looked into that were not on the tourist trail sounded dull to somewhat unpleasant. We got off “the trail” for one destination and while it was drop dead gorgeous countryside, still we had some mixed experiences there too.

Like in any village we’d visited we got a lot of attention from the kids living there. They had a new way of greeting us though. Whenever we ran into some children, inevitably they’d start calling out “Hello, money!” Hmm…

Other differences and signs of development: This was the first country we’d been to that didn’t have any tuk tuks! I couldn’t believe it. Discovering each country’s take on this Asian, three-wheel wonder has been one of the little things I’ve really gotten a kick out of as we’ve been traveling (Northern India’s uber-compact green and yellow autorickshaw remains my total favorite!) and it felt like something was missing when Vietnam failed to produce one.

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A small flock of tuk tuks outside a train station in India (I can’t believe I didn’t take more/better photos of them while we were there!)

Although it does have the cyclo – like a backwards tricycle with seating at the front for passengers. It’s a really lovely way to get around a city – if you don’t get scammed or into an argument with the driver about the price.

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A couple of cyclo drivers observing the traffic outside the Reunification Palace in Saigon

We noticed that there were no street dogs anywhere – also a first. I wonder what they do differently from their neighbors to keep the population in check.

The primary mode of transportation, famously, is the motorbike. I was amazed and pleased to see the majority of people where headgear. The helmet comes in all colors and styles in Vietnam. There are even women’s versions that have an opening in the back for pony tails. It also was the first country where I saw any kids in child-sized helmets too, although even in Vietnam the vast majority of children ride without.

One thing that I hadn’t realized and that took getting used to was that Vietnamese is written in the Roman alphabet. Any time I’d seen letters I could recognize in Asia, almost inevitably the words would be in English, so I was used to keeping my eyes open for the alphabet for possible useful information. It took a while to adjust to the fact that seeing Roman letters didn’t equate to me being able to read and understand anything.

While Vietnam, like most of the other countries in mainland Southeast Asia, is primarily Buddhist, it primarily follows the Mahayana form of Buddhism, while in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, Theravadin is the prevalent branch (You can learn a bit more here).

Visiting Buddhist sites in the other countries we’d been to has been one of the highlights of travel in Asia for me. For me, there has been something about just stepping into a temple that has often helped quiet my running mind and something familiar and comforting about the peaceful faces of the statue work that can often be found around or within them.

The temples we visited in Vietnam were fascinating and beautiful but had a completely different vibe to them. I enjoyed seeing but couldn’t connect to them in the way I had in other places. They were dark rooms, decorated with lots of red and dark wood, with altars full of impressive but sometimes gaudy statues. Even the incense burned had a whole new smell from what I knew from other countries.

We hardly saw any monks. The cheery orange I’d come to associate with monks’ robes in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand in Vietnam had been assigned to trash collectors’ jumpsuits. The handful of monks we did see in Vietnam were dressed in somber maroons and greys.


Monks in Cambodia

A trash collector in Saigon at night

Buddhist temple decorations

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Myanmar

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Thailand

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Laos

A totally different feel in the temples we saw in Vietnam:

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I wonder if this description is tending too strongly towards the negative.  Along with all the other differences, it was the first country in which we actually experienced the “dangers and annoyances” always listed for each location in Lonely Planet, with some flagrant rip offs on the part of taxi drivers and of course my iPhone episode. Throw in catching a flu in Saigon and my bout with food poisoning in Hue and I’d say some days it felt like Vietnam was defying me to like it.

It wasn’t all bad though and for all the less-than-positive experiences we had, there was still something I liked about Vietnam that I’m still trying to put my finger on. Maybe its unapologetic attitude. 🙂 And there are certainly positive points to all the development and tourism like plenty of hotels to choose from with a pretty consistent and decent level of quality, wifi virtually everywhere, etc.

There is a lot of beauty too: From the glorious green rice fields to the impressive karst mountains. From the intriguing red and black temples to the forlornly lovely French-colonial architecture. From the picturesque vendors in conical hats bearing their baskets of wares hanging from poles slung over one shoulder to the blinding rainbow of neon that comes to life in the cities after sundown.

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So if you’re thinking of going to Vietnam, I’d say that you can hope to fall in love with it – just don’t expect it to love you back. 🙂

Kratie: Travel notes and magic moments

After having my heart melt in Laos, it took a bit of adjustment for me to get into Cambodia. The town was a bit rougher around the edges than where we were coming from in Laos. I liked it well enough, but it took a bit of time and persistence to get to the “gooey center”. The effort was worth it though – getting past the initial surface impressions led to some really golden moments.

Tourist stuff – accommodation and attractions

I mentioned in an earlier post about having to deal with touts selling their hotels the second we got off the bus in Kratie. We ended up talking to two of them; we stayed at the hotel Hap showed us, Morhautdom Hotel. We turned down the hotel Lucky showed us, but he was also a tuk tuk driver and we ended up arranging with him to see some of Kratie’s tourist attractions later on.

Morhautdom was ok, convenient central location and Hap was friendly, but overpriced at USD 15 a night for what we got (but we’ve certainly stayed at worse!). A tip – don’t agree to pay extra for air conditioning until you test it out; our A/C worked enough to blow out air but that was it.

Great about the hotel was that it was just at the other end of the block from Balcony Hotel and its totally delicious food!

Red Sun Falling had decent but not amazing food with a quirky atmosphere and (mostly) great tunes at night, and crazy Cambodian television during the day (we got to watch bits of a Khmer-dubbed Chinese movie with the staff one day during one of the frequent downpours. It involved drama and intrigue, snakes – lots of snakes, in the shower, attacking people, fighting bears, morphing into humans – and tremendously bad editing and special effects. Highly amusing!).

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Owner Joe watches crazy movies at Red Sun Falling

The first place Lucky took us was to Kampi, where tourists from Cambodia and further afield alike board small wooden ships that scoot around the broad, opaque Mekong in the hope of spotting the increasingly rare Irrawaddy dolphin. We enjoyed the morning on the peaceful waters and it was interesting and exciting to catch glimpses of the dolphins cresting.

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View from the prow of the boat – my flip flops have since then been demolished by the rainy season…

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Dolphin sighting!

For me though, even more enjoyable was the drive to Kampi, along a picturesque road running parallel to the river, and the monastery we visited on the way back to Kratie.

Before I get to those, if you’re considering visiting Kratie or other locations in eastern Cambodia, this website offers some good information and trail ideas.

Finding the magic

After we got back onto dry land, Lucky took us to Phnom Sombok, a wat (monastery) located on the only hill on the area. Lucky dropped us at the base of the hill, and steep concrete steps through lush green brought us to a peaceful complex of moss-covered buildings and a colorful temple and stupas.

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We arrived just at lunch time. The monks and nuns were in the main temple performing a ceremony. We peaked in from the perimeter and immediately the nuns, elderly, dressed in white and with kind faces, beckoned us in. I joined them on the floor for the end of the ceremony (Roman wasn’t feeling 100% so he stayed outside).

When it was finished, one of the younger monks started speaking with me, telling me about their daily life (including how much time they spend in meditation each day – hours and hours!!), swapping stories about Myanmar (he had travelled there to study and had great reverence for the Buddhism practiced and taught there), asking about my meditation practice (weak!!).

He and the nuns invited me to join them for lunch. I tried to protest but it was futile. 🙂 The monks left to eat elsewhere (apparently monks eat only that which they collect as alms; the nuns’ lunch is cooked on the premises), and the sweet nuns proceeded to chat with me in our limited French (mine much more limited than theirs) and fill me up with all sorts of Cambodian desserts. Such an unexpected and generous encounter – I just loved it!

After I ate everything they offered me and received a handful of dried mango for the road, I rejoined Roman and we explored the rest of the compound, enjoying the lovely atmosphere and gorgeous views of the farmlands below.

“How poor people live”

We rejoined Lucky at the tuk tuk and turned back to Kratie – but first he asked if we minded making a quick stop at his home. With only a slight tinge of bitterness in his voice, he said we could “see how poor people live.” I was moved to be invited into his simple one room house, where his wife and two young children were at home to receive him. His toddler son was fast asleep in a hammock slung across the room; his older daughter shyly watched me with big eyes, but warmed up when an older, braver neighbor girl stopped by to investigate.

Lucky was dropping in for his lunch break – a quick meal of rice and chicken and vegetable soup that had been prepared with the simple cooking implements in one corner of the room that constituted the kitchen. He told me that the house was relatively new – earlier they had been living with his mother-in-law. The roof was corrugated iron (cheaper than natural fiber or tile roofs – but hotter when the sun was out), the floor bamboo, the walls incomplete, patched together from woven palm fronds and pieces of plastic. In the village, his was one of the simpler houses. I wonder what it would be like to live in any of the homes there. I’m grateful for the glimpse we were able to have into Lucky’s life.

Even for the relative poverty and simplicity of the villages along the river, there was a lot of beauty too. Many of the houses were sturdier wood in a traditional Khmer style and really lovely to look at. The whole road once you got further out of Kratie was lined by gorgeous massive trees; the village homes and stores enjoyed their lush, green and gold-tinted shade. I fell in love with the peaceful atmosphere and sweet scenes of every day life that we passed in the tuk tuk and resolved to come back.

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Lucky’s napping son

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Grabbing a quick bite to eat

River road

I tried to find Lucky the next day but was unsuccessful, so I headed back along the road out of Kratie on my own steam (Roman was still not feeling great so I went on my own). I was aware of weather’s tendancy to get stormy towards the end of the day, so, leaving after lunch, I had to keep an eye on the time if I wanted to avoid a soaking. The journey by foot was a lot slower than by tuk tuk; I didn’t even get close to making it all the way to Lucky’s village, but I still saw loads of beauty on my three hour walk (and I made it back to Kratie five minutes into the afternoon rain – but before the real downpour opened up. Perfect timing!)

As I had from the tuk tuk the day previous, I just drank in the beautiful houses on stilts, rice paddies, massive trees and river views. But being on foot was even better – the countless number of smiles and greetings I exchanged with bemused Cambodians made the little trek just magical – especially the amazing, out-going, totally fun kids (see my earlier post for evidence 😉 ).

Other bits and pieces

I’ll post pictures in my next post, but before I finish, here are some of the snapshot-type things I want to remember from Kratie. 🙂

  • The kids sitting outside a store in town eating steamed snails, pulling the meat out of the shell with toothpicks
  • The television in our hotel room that turned on automatically when the power in the room got switched on. It was on a Cambodian music channel – horribly dubbed singers and musicians (honestly who ever was editing the sound to match the video wasn’t even trying) performing traditional and modern Cambodian music to a room full of dancers dressed up like they were going to the prom, dancing sedately around a table piled high with fruit. Awesome, atmospheric background music for our stay in Kratie! 😉
  • The cheeky little scrap of a dog from the hotel next door that nipped at my heels and made me scream (embarrassing! 😉 ) – not because he bit me but because he came out of no where
  • Waiting for our bus in town. The bus station was right by a medical clinic. The clinic was open to the dusty, busy street. Patients would shuffle out with a drip attached to their arm to by food from street vendors. When we arrived, two men in black were sitting on funny wooden benches by the station, busily sharpening carving knives. Slightly disturbing when they finished their work and went to deliver the knives not to the nearby restaurant as I would have expected, but to the clinic.
  • There was one young man I saw both during the tuk tuk ride and a couple of times during my walk outside of Kratie. Although he was walking around fine on his own, it was clear that he had cerebral palsy. I can’t begin to imagine the first thing about him or his life, but we caught each other’s eyes the last time we passed each other and I do know that his smile was so bright that it lit up my heart completely.
  • The sweet guy at the cell phone shop who was really friendly and helpful. He had received a brand new iPhone from his folks who live in the States; Roman fixed his sim card and tried to help him unlock it (I love this about Roman!) – unfortunately the guy’s phone was too new to be unlocked.
  • The hilarious woman at the first phone shop we went to who kept burping the whole time she was waiting on us. Now that’s customer service! 😉
  • Trying krolan, a regional specialty. It’s sticky rice with coconut milk, beans and a bit of sugar and salt, cooked by steaming it in bamboo. Total comfort food!

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At the krolan stand. The tops of the bamboo tubes are stopped with coconut fibers

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The sweet vendor demonstrates how to open the bamboo

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Deliciousness inside!

Bike trek adventure

We arranged for a two-day bike trek from Savannakhet – biking from the city to the Dong Natad NPA (National Protected Area – wilderness preserves throughout the country), through the forest, to the village of Ban Phon Sim for a home-stay overnight and temple visit in the morning, and then back via That Ing Hang, a beautiful Buddhist stupa.

It was a package offered by the Eco-Guide Unit in Savannakhet. Being low season, we could go on our own with a guide and a local forest “specialist”, but during peak times, this could have been a group trip of up to eight people.

Roman is a bit allergic to organized, tourist-group activities, and we were excited for the trek but also braced for the possibility that it could feel a bit “manufactured”. It turned out to be really wonderful though.

Laos has opened up to tourism later than many of its neighbors in southeast Asia and has taken lessons from their successes and mistakes. From what we’ve read and experienced, it’s making a decent effort (not perfect, I’m sure, but at least it’s trying) to develop tourism in conjunction with and to support local communities.

You can read more about it here if you are interested, but certainly our experience with Eco-Guide Unit made us feel like we got a wonderful view of traditional life in the region without being too invasive. The people in the village of Ban Phon Sim seemed comfortable having us wander around and were happy to greet or chat with us; at the same time, there wasn’t a single post card for sale or eatery with food aimed at tourists – really nice.

Jungle boogie

Our guide from the Eco-Guide Unit was a young man named Pasert. He was soft spoken but opened up more as the day progressed and we had more time to talk (the shots of Lao Lao at the home stay may have helped as well. 😉 ), and was really sweet.

We rode with him from the shop in town to the stupa where we met with our “local” guide, Sodar. He was an expert on the forest we’d be biking through. He didn’t know any English and obviously we don’t know any Lao, but that didn’t stop him from talking and laughing lots – regardless if Pasert was around to translate or anyone was even in earshot. He was good fun. 🙂

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Sodar demonstrating the flammability of the fuel produced by a special tree, used for torches traditionally used by the locals

The ride through the forest took up the better part of the day and was wonderful. The trees and undergrowth grew thick and the air was always humming with the buzz of insects. The flora was pretty varied – ferns and vines and smaller fruit or flowering trees grew prolifically under the cover of less frequent but totally impressive towering, ancient giants of trees. We saw no other tourists while we were in there, just a handful of locals who were foraging for edible plants and animals.

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We met a small group of women gathering these plants in the forest. They were too shy to have their photo taken, but they let me try the leaves. Sticky like okra but with a lovely, fresh taste.

Even under the cover of the trees, it was very hot going and Roman and I are convinced we’ve never sweat that much before in our lives. 🙂 We made pretty frequent stops, hopping off the bikes any time Sodar had something interesting to show us: termite colonies, stink bugs, dung beetles, edible (?!?) halucinigenic spiders, all sorts of amazing forest fruit, jungle vines that would yield small sips of delicious water when chopped open with his machete. Learning about those sort of things, being in the incredible nature and the exercise of biking through the muddy, sandy, rocky paths were all right up my alley – I just loved it.

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A massive cicada. Sodar played with it – making crazy sound effects by opening and closing his mouth while it was inside and chirping like crazy. This was before he ate it, the first of multiple bugs he’d munch on during the trek. 😛 I’m just grateful he didn’t eat the spiders he found…

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One of the types of forest fruit we got to try. White flesh around a big pit under that bright pink peel, very sour. Roman got pretty addicted to them. 🙂

We took a break when we came to some open farmlands on the edge of the reservation. We made ourselves comfortable in a simple hut on the field – a small platform a couple of feet off the ground with a thatched roof – and ate a lovely al fresco lunch. Lots of still warm sticky rice with a myriad of vegetable dishes. My favorites were the big steamed bamboo shoots (similar to artichoke) and some sort of eggplant dish with lots of cilantro. Dessert was dozing and daydreaming in the shade until we’d digested enough to move on.

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Pasert unpacks lunch

Home stay magic

We pulled into the village of Ban Phon Sim in the late afternoon. We were staying at the home of the village head. We were invited to make ourselves comfortable on a simple wooden platform in the yard that functions as deck, table and lounge areas and were welcomed with traditional shots of Lao Lao. Strong stuff! 🙂

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Ducks enjoying a puddle at our home stay

We had some time to relax, freshen up and explore the village before the baci ceremony – a traditional buddhist ceremony that is performed to celebrate everything from guests arriving to school graduations to the start of new business ventures – in our hosts’ home. We went for a lovely stroll around the village and some of the surrounding, peaceful farm lands. I really enjoyed cleaning up with the standard Lao shower, wrapping myself in a borrowed, well-worn sarong and cleaning myself with bowlfuls of refreshing water in the family’s outhouse.

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The road out of the village, flanked by towering Eucalyptus trees

The baci ceremony began after the sun had set. A good-sized Pha Kwan, a kind of “mini stupa”, had been set up, streaming loads of perfectly white strings. Elderly neighbors arrived to join in the welcome ceremony and dinner that would follow. The oldest guest led the event, reciting traditional invocations. Everyone present reached in to either touch the Pha Kwan or touch someone who was touching the stupa as the prayers were said. Once completed, everyone removed the strings and came up to me, Roman and Pasert, tying the strings around our wrists as they blessed us, each in turn. The ceremony was simple and of course we couldn’t understand what we being said, but the gesture of blessing us individually was so heart-felt and lovely – I was so moved and so grateful.

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The Pha Kwan

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Family and neighbors gather for the ceremony

The dinner afterwards was simple but delicious, and again we were treated as honored guests, being served first and on a low table, while everyone else had their plates simply on the floor. Even though communication was really limited, still all the members of the family were sweet and easygoing and made us feel really welcome.

After dinner, we enjoyed some start-gazing from the platform outdoors until we were too tired to stay up any longer (the family stayed inside, watching music videos and comically dramatic Thai sit coms. Apparently this is the thing to do in Laos – we’ve seen it every where we’ve gone.).

We slept on mats on the floor under mosquito netting – until we were awakened in the middle of the night by booming peals of thunder close by and the deafening pounding of rain on the tin roof overhead. The storm was magnificent and huge and I was really glad it arrived during the night and not while we’d been biking.

The morning after

We had to get up shortly after 6am the next day; part of the experience was bringing alms to the local monastery. The mother of the house gently wrapped me in the traditional sarong and scarf – required for women presenting monks with gifts – and Roman, Pasert, one of the daughters and I headed to the temple, bowls of donations in our arms.

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The lovely mother at the home stay, two daughters and one granddaughter

It was a holiday, so the place was absolutely packed. We squeezed into a small patch of open floor for part of the opening prayers, then joined the crowd as the alms – everything from fruit and sticky rice to pens, toothpaste and cigarettes to money – were placed in large bowls. A lovely experience, albeit a bit early!

We were very happy to get a strong Lao coffee at a shop in town afterwards, joining a group of amiable men from the village who were getting caffeinated and chatting before getting going on the day’s work, including one teacher who was using the school holiday as a chance to go collect mushrooms in the forest we’d driven through the day before. It was fun talking with him and the other men in a mix of English, basic French and translation facilitated by Pasert.

Back to town

After a lovely breakfast at our home stay, Pasert took us for a small bike loop through delicious smelling Eucalyptus plantations and picturesque rice paddies and along a lovely lake. We stopped back at the house to pick up lunch for the road and then headed back to the village of Ban Thad – home to the That Ing Hang stupa and Pasert.

The stupa was lovely – unfortunately though my camera had run out of batteries at this point, so I haven’t got any pictures. You can see it online though if you’re interested.

After checking out the stupa, we stopped at his house in the village, where his mother and sisters welcomed us and served us lunch – and then went back to watching their Thai soap opera. 😉 Roman was brave and tried the chicken feet on offer. I was happy with my veggies and sticky rice. 😉 Fueled up with more delicious food, we hopped back on our bikes and pedaled our way back to Savannakhet, where we arrived a couple of hours later, hot, sweaty and happy. All in all, a great experience!

Three miles of bad road: Day trip to Wat Phu

(I’m leaving off the back filling for a bit – this is a post about what we did yesterday.)

At the risk of sounding nerdy, I really enjoy history. Roman and I are lucky that we are getting to visit some amazing historical sites during this trip, and I love learning about and being able to imagine what daily life was like when these locations were at their height or why some building or person is historically significant. The red forts, the Taj, Mehrangarh and Hampi in India, Bagan in Myanmar have all been just fascinating to learn about.

But sometimes I want to set the dates, facts and names aside. Some places it’s enough just to be there – to see, to be with, to simply experience. To tap into and commune with the energy and mystery of the land and the layers of history that run through it.

Wat Phu, the temple ruins set on a hill in southern Laos, is such a place for me. It’s been a sacred place for multiple religions across the centuries and remains a place of worship today even as it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There’s a decent amount of information about it on the web if you are interested to learn more, but mostly I’ll just write from my perspective.

What I can tell you is that it is good-sized temple ruins spread up a beautiful, wooded hill with a lovely view of the valley stretching below. The ruins are centuries and centuries old. In its earlier history it was a temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva; in the 10th century it was a sacred space for the Buddhist Khmer empire.

The journey

We decided to rent a motorbike in the city where we are staying, Pakse, and do a day trip to the Wat. It had not been on our radar, but the monk we met in Vientiane and his friends all raved about the place and said we had to go see it (even though they’ve not been – but they’re from the area and it seems to be a source of regional pride).

We took the new road (it’s less than a year old and not yet quite finished) from Pakse to Champasak, the town that is host to the UNESCO site. The journey took about an hour and a half in one direction; mostly easy-going and a beautiful drive. Even the bits where we got off course or the road quality deteriorated were good fun.

There’s not much along the way between the two towns but it was a gorgeous drive. Roman soon found he prefered driving to being a passenger, so I hopped on back and was at liberty to enjoy the scenery and flirt to my heart’s content; waving at any friendly villager who smiled our called out “Sabaidee” as we passed (which was most of them).

We stopped to photograph water buffalo cooling themselves in mud puddles. In no time we needed to cool off too; hopping on the bike and zooming across the gentle bends of the road was welcome relief from the pounding sun.

The landscape and weather began to change as we traveled on; towering mountains of earth and clouds reflected in the still waters of the rice paddies that flanked our path. We could see the rain moving in, a sheet of soft grey straddling the mountain. At one point we drove through a refreshing shower, cool drops hitting my cheeks and lips like unexpected but welcome kisses, but I’m glad that we made it to Champasak by the time the real rain started.

We managed to park under the awning of someone’s front porch just as the skies opened up. I felt bad parking and sitting just in front of their house, but Roman assured me this worry about invasion of space was Western thinking, and of course he was right – the residents weren’t bothered in the slightest. The rain came down hard and heavy for about a half hour. Villagers took shelter or continued on their bikes, utterly soaked and squinting through the down pour. Young kids threw off their shirts and took advantage of the chance to cool down, running and playing through the streets.

The destination

Finally the rain abated, and we headed through the village to the ruins. They are stretched across a large area, starting with an ancient stone-lined road pointing the way up the hill to the main Wat. It’s a steep climb up weathered stone stairs with much beauty along the way, and we took our time and savored each step.

Although the precipitation stopped, the dark clouds remained, and deep, sonorous peals of thunder punctuated and accompanied our journey up the sacred hill. The air was thick with the song of hundreds of bugs, a constant and ceaseless mantra.

The hills are covered with rich vegetation – great flowering trees, vines, thick, vibrant green grasses. With only few other visitors to the site, it felt like we were entering the deepest jungle. The great stone steps and temple walls are being claimed by the plant life; flagstones are crooked where roots flow under and through them, tumbling walls begin to disappear under a cover of ferns and moss. The buddha statues and other sites show evidence of modern day worship; bundles of incense are secured under a vine and statues that have witnessed the passage of centuries are garlanded in bright, plastic flowers.

The place feels bigger than us but willing to hold us too; a place of worship for all, from the smallest ant to the gods older than mankind. The sacred cycles of nature – from ceaseless destruction of the man-made buildings over the years to the ephemeral adornment of flowers and leaves, perfect for a moment, before they fade – encompass the stumbling gestures of man like a mother taking a beloved child into her lap.

Suffice to say, the whole day was magical, and we absolutely loved Wat Phu. I’m still taking it in, so that’s all I’ll write for now – but here are some photos before I end the post. 🙂

The pictures

A panoramic shot of the view from the steep, stone steps, shaded by magnificent leelawadee trees at Wat Phu. Click for a closer look.

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Some very happy, very muddy buffalo

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Sun and shadow, mountains and rice fields

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The rain approaches

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Heavy drops fall into muddy puddles, Champasak

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Approaching Wat Phu

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No entry – a girl plays where restoration work is being done to some of the structures in the site

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Butterfly landing on a fallen frangipani bloom

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Headless statues, incense sticks

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Incense and flowers in a tree

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Overgrown walls, mountain views

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Steps and roots

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Jungle Buddha

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Temple detail

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Making miniature stupas out of banana leafs and flowers – an offering

Other bits and pieces from our stay in Vientiane

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Monastery visit

One of the nice things about sharing the tuk tuk ride to and from the Buddha Park was getting to know the other passengers. A monk named Sone was taking some other monks, newly arrived to his monastery, and his sister and his friend sight-seeing. They had limited English except for Sone, but were very smiley and sweet.

Their peaceful, small monastery was on the way back to the city, set on a ledge with a lovely view over the Mekong. When we arrived there, Sone invited us to take a look around, and we ended up having a really enjoyable chat with him.

He’s a really determined guy who worked hard to teach himself English fort he opportunities it would open for him. With his education, he’s been able to travel throughout Asia, which has been eye-opening for him.

He told us that the message the government pushes is that Laos is the best and the education and infrastructure and opportunities afforded through the benefit of communism are superior to what’s available in other countries. He said the average Laotian isn’t given enough education or perspective to question this. He feels very strongly that education is key, and he teaches English to a growing number of students.

Unfortunately we’d already made plans to leave Vientiane in the morning, so we couldn’t take him up on his invite to come meet some of his students the next day. I’m still so glad we met him and I hope I can help him out on the proof-reading front when he works on his applications for scholarships at some schools abroad next year (he makes me feel like a slacker! 😉 ).

Fruit of the loom

One other thing I did while we were still in Vientiane was a day trip to the Houey Hong Centre, a vocational school just outside the city center where underprivileged women (and actually a few men too) are trained in traditional Lao textile arts and given a chance to earn a living. I loved the day there. They offer tourists a chance to see the facility and do some simple dyeing and weaving.

The center comprises a clutch of simple, open, concrete buildings set on wooded land. Each building is used for a different part of training. There were no new students when I was there, so the weaving room was full of now-trained employees who were creating beautiful silk scarves and sarongs to sell in the center’s small shop. What I loved to see was the number of young children playing between the wooden looms; mothers are welcome to bring their kids who are too young to attend school. The atmosphere was totally relaxed and friendly, with the women chatting and helping out with each other’s kids.

The dyeing process was (for me – someone else had done a lot of the prep like weaving the scarf and preparing the all natural dye) easy, but stinky! I don’t know if all the colors smell the same, but the red I chose, made from bug resin (didn’t know that before I chose the color!) produced the most disgusting smell!! I tried my best to keep up wind of the steam as I stirred to help the color set. Luckily, the end result smells just fine. 🙂

The weaving took a lot more time and technique, but I loved it. I was the only tourist visiting that day, and once I got a feel for it, the woman who was teaching me left me to it. It was so peaceful. The rhythm of the wooden shuttle clicking back and forth with the gentle sounds of birds and insects in the woods and the children and women speaking in the back ground. It was almost a bit meditative and I really enjoyed it.

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The simple died scarf and woven material I made

Other little things I enjoyed about Vientiane

  • On certain roads, the beautiful trees had been labeled with their scientific names. Too bad I don’t know any Latin, but as a tree-lover I appreciated the city’s attention to the beautiful specimens lining its streets.
  • One tree that was everywhere in Vientiane was Leelawadee, or Frangipani. I’m slowly falling in love with this tropical beauty. I’ve seen it lots of places, but this city was really chock full of the trees and flowers. The flowers have a gorgeous scent that you can smell once you get close. In Vientiane though there were so many that the fragrance was in the air on certain streets.

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  • It was funny to see hammer and sickle flags everywhere. Also books and posters of Marx and Lenin for sale in some shops. And the stickers of Che Guevara on lots of the vehicles. Not the classic headshot of him looking all dreamy that we know in the West, but a more angular, harsh looking man with flowing locks and a red hat… (didn’t manage to get a photo while in Vientiane, where the stickers were everywhere, maybe I’ll have a chance elsewhere in Laos.) Need to find out more about communism in Laos
  • At the food stands at outdoor markets in Thailand, I’d seen people using plastic bags on sticks to shoo away flies that would land on the food. Saw something new in Vientiane though – a long stick with plastic bags on either end that was attached to a small motor and hung over the dried fish or barbecued meat, spinning like a slow propeller. Seemed to be pretty (or just as) effective. Genius. 🙂
  • One evening, I counted 32 geckos on the wall of the building down the street from our hotel. 32 on one wall! 😀

Sights in and around Vientiane

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We did a nice mix of tourist stuff and just hanging out while we were in Vientiane.

Food and drink

After weeks in the northern Laos countryside, Roman was happy to indulge in the international fare on offer in the capitol. We found some really nice places for food.

I did get introduced to and promptly fell in love with one Lao speciality – the country’s beer. We’ve tried the “gold” version and some of Laos’ other beers like Savan, but the original is the best. Beerlao, made with rice, hops and yeast and served icy cold on a hot, sunny day has got to be one of the most delicious things ever.

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Deliciousness (This photo’s actually taken in Savvanakhet, not Vientiane)

Noy’s Fruit Heaven had really tasty western offerings with both service and ambience that was cute and friendly. I had one of my rare beef cravings (happens probably about five times a year) and was in luck – Vientiane has a western style steak house called Xayoh and my tender, juicy filet with fries, salad and veggies (and a bottle of that oh so good, oh so cold beer) really hit the spot. And we ate too much ice cream at the newly opened Swensens, something we’d discovered in Bangkok with mixed feelings (another massive global chain… so bad! But, delicious tasty ice cream… so good!).

The vibe

So far I’m finding Laos is very different from the other Buddhist countries we’ve visited. It has a relatively short history as a nation in comparison to Thailand and Myanmar and has suffered many losses of historic sites over the decades whether at the hand of attacking neighboring kingdoms or during the ceaseless hail of bombs from the US during the Vietnam war.

I’m not sure if the relative youth of the temples and sacred spaces we visited in and around Vientiane was a contributing factor to this, but I found that, while they were beautiful, they didn’t convey the almost tangible spiritual atmosphere I’d experienced in some Buddhist sites we visited in Thailand and Myanmar.

I’ll write more about it later, but subsequent to leaving Vientiane we were able to participate in some Buddhist rituals in a rural village and I can tell you those were very moving. Perhaps the Buddhist spirit of Lao is more present in the coming together of its people than in its monuments?

None the less, I really enjoyed the places we saw.

Temples and parks

Haw Pha Kaeo had lush, immaculately manicured grounds populated by flickering butterflies. The wat (temple) itself was lovely. I really enjoyed seeing all the various buddha statues along the outside of the building, watching visitors rub the faces, arms, feet of the bronze figures in devotion. Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera with me the day we visited. Check here for a bit of info and some pics: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haw_Phra_Kaew

Wat Si Saket, with its alcove-filled cloister walls containing thousands of little buddha statues gently picking up the warm light of the midday sun from the open courtyard, was peaceful and breathtakingly beautiful.

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A portion of one of the many buddha-filled walls

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Buddha detail

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Offerings and the remnants of candles in front of a Buddha statue

We took a trip out-of-town to visit Xieng Khuan, also known as Buddha Park. Created in 1958, it’s a surreal “park” along the edge of the Mekong river, containing massive, bizarre and wonderful statues representing figures from both Buddhism and Hinduism. I’d say it’s got an almost Edward Gorey-esque feel to it, and while it’s fun enough during the bright Lao afternoon, I’d be disinclined to spend a night in the park alone. 😉

 

 

 

A panoramic shot of the park – click for a closer look

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Monks in front of a massive reclining Buddha

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Monks in orange, statues in bizarre

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Hindu god in the foreground, monks and the Mekong river in the background

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Not sure what’s going on here

Even more surreal though was the next stop we made. We’d shared a ride with a bunch of sight-seeing monks who wanted to go to see a “Cultural Park” before we headed back to the city. This is not something that is listed in the guidebook and I can see why. Although it was open and we had to pay addmision, the “park” felt and looked like it had been abandoned years ago, with locked up, cobwebby exhibitions, public areas entirely overgrown by nature, and not all that much to look at. I think the idea behind it was to showcase Lao culture; there were replicas of different traditional tribal houses and what looked like a good sized outdoor stage that may have hosted dance and music performances. Mostly though there were just shut up buildings, cracked pathways and lots and lots of trees and shrubs. Oh, and some random dinosaur statues. 🙂

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Pha That Luang, an impressive, massive, gold covered stupa, is the national symbol for Laos. We headed there after the amusing visit to the Cultural Park. We got there past closing time, so we couldn’t go in, but we enjoyed people watching and strolling around the beautiful, open grounds and checking out the lovely temples around it as the sun began to sink lower over the city.

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Pha That Luang

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One of the Wats on the grounds

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Ribbons around a beautiful, massive tree in front of Pha That Luang

Sacred Kyaiktiyo

Our final stop before returning to Yangon was one of the most holy sites in all of Myanmar: the magical and majestic Golden Rock, or Kyaiktiyo (pronounced something like “Chai-tea-oh” in Burmese).

This significant Buddhist pilgrimage site is focused on a massive, holy, golden boulder perched precariously on the edge of a mountain and topped with a stupa. Devotees believe is the rock floats just above the ground against a backdrop of breathtaking nature, balanced on a single hair from the original Buddha. The complex is accessible only by foot and apparently can only be reached during the dry season. (More info if you’re interested)

The place sounded spectacular and fascinating. We really wanted to see it but were rapidly running out of time before our flight, so we decided to travel American style, doing a whole lot of traveling for a short stay. 😉

We got up early at Inle Lake and got a cab to the Heho airport – about an hour’s drive. A slightly longer flight took us to Yangon, where we caught another cab to the bus depot. We got slightly hustled at the station – we paid for what we thought was the first class bus direct to Kinmun, the small town that serves as a base camp for the site. We ended up on a “local” bus that made a ton of stops and dropped us off at the town on its route that was a bit further from Kyaiktiyo. To get to Kinmun, we took motorbike cabs – our packs wedged in front of the driver while we sat on back and could enjoy the gorgeous scenery and late afternoon sun as we made our way over the curving roads. It was unexpected but the nicest part of the journey.

We sorted out a hotel and transport back to Yangon for the next day. The last bus left at 2 in the afternoon, so if we got up at a decent hour we could make it up the mountain for an hour or two visit to the Golden Rock and still be back in time.

There are two ways to make it up the mountain. Ambitious people with more time than we had can walk one or both of the ways along mountain paths. For us, it was the more standard method. Good sized flat bed trucks, kitted out with tremendously narrow wooden benches in the back, regularly transport visitors from Kinmun to the highest vehicle-accessible point on the mountain. From there, it’s about a 45 minute walk the rest of the way along a steep, twisting, shop-laden road to the entrance of the complex.

The trucks start running around 6 a.m. We didn’t quite make it on the first departure, but it was still pretty early and a morning chill hung in the air when we climbed from the concrete platform into the still relatively empty bed of the truck. The drivers don’t leave until they’ve packed as many people as physically possible into the back, so we ended up sitting around for about 45 minutes until the rows of passengers began to resemble a can of sardines.

We were really astounded how many people they managed to squeeze into the space. They may do this for financial reasons, but it could also be a safety measure. The ride up and down the mountain is like a roller coaster without the safety bar and being packed in so tightly may prevent passengers from flying out over the edge! We happened to be at the front both times, so could brace ourselves against the wall in front of us; even so I came out of the ride with some black and blue marks, and I don’t know what folks in the middle of the truck did to stop from bashing into each other on some of the more dramatic hairpin turns! 🙂

After the wild and wonderful ride up, we began the walk to Kyaiktiyo. It’s not too long, but it is pretty steep, so I paced myself and enjoyed the amazing views over the valley and some nice people watching while Roman powered ahead. We met up at the entrance and had our first view of the floating Golden Rock together.

I have to say, it IS pretty darn spectacular. 🙂 The giant boulder has been completely covered in gold and was lit up by the morning sun as we approached it. It looks like someone has gone and carved away the earth beneath it; how it may have come to be sitting so perfectly on the edge of a mountain defies easy explanation. I couldn’t get up close – only men are allowed direct access, but even from a distance, it is impressive!

Like at all other buddhist sites we’d visited so far, the vibe was peaceful while still being lively. There was a good number of pilgrims and monks wandering around, chatting with friends, sitting in prayer and making offerings, but it didn’t feel crowded at all. The air up there is crisp and clean and full of cheeky swallows winging wildly about – it actually made me a bit homesick for Switzerland (in a nice way 🙂 )

After we’d gotten our fill of all the gorgeous sights, it was time to head back down the mountain. Another looooong wait till the truck was filled meant that we made it to town just in time to grab our things, check out and hop on the bus to back to Yangon.

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Pilgrims arriving at the truck station in the morning

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A first view of the Golden Rock

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Male pilgrims affixing gold leaf to the rock

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A Buddhist nun lighting a candle in offering

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Applying gold leaf

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The view from the mountain

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If you didn’t feel like walking the last 45 minutes to the complex, it was possible to be carried up! Can’t believe people actually do this, but this guy seemed to really get into the part. 🙂

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Stopping for some fresh coconut on the way back down – unfortunately I think I got a tainted coconut because I got sick soon after.

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Burmese soda on sale at one of the small road-side shops

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Pilgrims piling into the truck

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On the way down we shared the front bench with a group of very sweet older women all dressed in matching traditional garb. This is them, holding on for dear life on the truck ride down the mountain. It was risky letting go to take the photo but I’m glad I did. 🙂

Myanmar: First notes from Yangon

Arriving in Yangon

Flying into Myanmar from Thailand was magical. As I mentioned earlier, I knew next to nothing about the place, and with the little information that I did have, my imagination could run wild.

I felt we were alighting in a land forgotten by time, tropical, mysterious and unknown, conflicted but yet somehow unspoiled, rife with untold, shadowy cultural riches.

We had a late afternoon flight. The landscape scrolling beneath the plane was a rich green: broad sweeps of flat lands covered in countless rice paddies and other farm lands, punctuated only occasionally by low buildings or, more spectacularly, by the spires of gold-painted Buddhist pagodas, aflame in the last sun rays of the day.

The plane landed just as the sun was beginning to melt into the tree-lined horizon. Time after time during our stay there I would have the same realization – the sun is just bigger in Myanmar than in other countries I’ve been to in this world. I couldn’t stop watching it as the plane taxied on the runway. I tried to capture it with my iPhone – this image does nothing to convey how huge it seemed but here it is anyway. 🙂

IMG 0308 The setting sun above the plane’s wing

After waiting in massive lines in the bustling and huge Bangkok airport, Yangon International was small, simple and above all peaceful by comparison. The airport staff was dressed in drab brown uniforms; women in unflattering skirts and tired socks pooling around their ankles. There was definitely a feeling of depressing government influence in the attire, but everyone we dealt with was cordial and quiet – the vibe was surprisingly tranquil.

We got a taxi from the airport to our hotel – a battered Nissan Bluebird, a model I’d never heard of before. Taxis in Myanmar are pretty impressive. New cars and proper replacement parts must be really hard to come by. We did see some modern, western-style cars in the former capital, but most people and certainly no taxi driver can afford them. Every taxi we took during our stay was a well-loved but totally dilapidated rust bucket with exposed inner workings and improvised upholstery held together by scraps of metal, duct tape and hope. I really got a kick out of them! 🙂

A taste of home

There was another aspect of driving in Myanmar that I enjoyed. Thailand certainly felt more western after India. Myanmar was definitely a whole different flavor, but there were a few little things that were distinctly reminiscent of home – and specifically the States.

This was the first country we’ve been to in Asia where they drive on the right hand side of the road. What’s cool though is that they take what ever cars they can get – the driver’s seats seemed to be on the right side of the car as often as on the left. 🙂

It’s a small thing, but I also noticed American Standard brand toilets and sinks everywhere we went – a brand that I haven’t seen anywhere else but in America. Someone must have secured a good deal with the Burmese government…

The other thing that I hadn’t seen in ages and ages but was a huge part of our trip was the US currency. The Burmese currency, the kyat (pronounced chat) is so unstable, that tourists have to pay for larger purchases (hotels, transportation, etc) with dollars. It was funny to see those distinct and familiar bills again after such a long time. 🙂 Apparently there are issues with forgery; people will only accept spotless, creaseless bills of a certain age – there are even some serial numbers that get rejected. There are no international banks or ATM machines anywhere in Myanmar (apparently the local banks still operate with manual book-keeping – nothing is computerized) and only a handful of places in the entire country are equipped to accept credit cards, so the money you enter with is the money you have for the entire trip – that is if people accept it. We had a couple of bills that we just couldn’t get rid of because of slight bends or discolorations.

So we had to be cost conscious in a whole new way on this trip, which added an interesting dimension to the travel. Taking after my dad for a bit ;-), I ended up being the one who worried and worked over our budget again and again; in the end we had more than enough money, even with the imperfect bills. We stayed in budget hotels nearly everywhere we went and did what we could to keep costs down and our experiences were no less rich for spending less money.

Accommodation: The Classique Inn

The one place we did totally splurge was in Yangon, where we stayed in an incredible hotel. The Classique Inn was just gorgeous. Six elegant rooms in a quiet setting (north of the city center, so it’s a bit away from the action), run by a mother and daughter who live with their family in a house next door. The building, rooms and garden area were just beyond gorgeous and provided lots of inspiration for my dream house of the future. We paid less than USD 60 a night, a price which included really reliable in-room WiFi, high-quality breakfast in the gorgeous garden and most generously of all, tons of personal travel planning support from Kalya, the daughter. She gave us great suggestions, helped with logistics and let us monopolize her phone lines as we booked what ended up being a phenomenal trip around the country.

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Beautiful bedroom
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Foyer outside our bedroom leading to the ground floor

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Our outdoor breakfast spot

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Lovely Kalya and the shy but sweet young man working at the hotel