Saturday, February 23, 2013

Pin Oo Lwin

Back in the day when the Brits got too hot they made for higher
ground, beating tracks to "hill station" Pin Oo Lwin, where I am now.
It's pretty, it has cool old architecture, and it's blessedly cooler
than the south.

This past week has been the best of my trip so far. I took a boat out
of Mawlamyine and on it met up with a Czech guy who lives in Beijing
and an Israeli guy who lives in Baltimore. The three of us spent the
next two days tooling through the countryside around Hpa-An, which was
all bright green rice fields, villages and big, cool Buddhist caves.
Riding on the back of my friend's scooter, I probably waved to
hundreds of people on both days.

After Hpa-An, we went further north to see the Golden Rock, a
religious pilgrimage site of sorts. And the following day our Czech
friend headed back to Bangkok and the two of us remaining went to Bago
for another big scootering day. We checked out a forest monastery and
went to the Snake Pagoda, which had a really really big snake in it. I
was unable to ascertain how this snake scored its own pagoda. We tried
to ask the caretaker how much it ate and she seemed to say "7
chickens, 1 day" but that really sounds excessive.

Before my Israeli friend and I parted ways, I snagged a scooter
lesson. And today I had my first solo journey. This was a good town to
do it in, it's rural and so the traffic is light but the roads are
also pretty good.

I rode to a neighboring village and hiked into a waterfall. I was
guided to the falls by a 6-year-old. At first she told me she was 11
and I was all, "well I'm not sure how you're counting those years..."
So I asked some adults and they told me she was 6. Myanmar has a lot
of working children. And not only did this one guide me on a moderate
hike, she also hauled a mini cooler with her so I would buy her
refreshments as opposed to the ones offered at the concession near the
falls. Tough kid.

The people running the concession at the falls gave me a longyi to
borrow and I was able to go swimming at the bottom of the falls. The
water was really cold and clear, it was excellent. And my guide
stripped down to nothing and got in too.

This is all not terribly exciting to read about I reckon, but I'll
have to wait to get pictures up - the Internet is just way too slow in
this country to even contemplate doing it here.

I got really lucky meeting up with the guys. The Israeli was on the
tail end of his Burma trip, so he gave me a lot of pointers for what
else to do in-country. Plus, he's been traveling for several months
and just watching and observing his modus operandi was instructive.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Mawlamyine - Make a me sexy!

I kicked off the day by yakking out of a bus window. The Finnish guy
next to me handed me a tissue and a smiley Burmese woman gave me a
baggy. Burmese people. Nothing seems to bewilder them. Whether I'm
walking down an alley, or waiting in a bus station or poking through a
delta village, I get smiles that seem to say "Ah, hello tourist,
welcome." Or in this instance, "Ah, here you are yakking out the bus
window, have a baggy, welcome." Yesterday a 4-year-old stuck out his
hand and made me shake it.

My stomach hurt the whole two-hour bus ride. No AC. Just the dusty,
fishy, sewage-y, garbage burny open air wafting on through. I can't
feel too bad for myself. My Finnish friend was laid out for several
days with food poisoning in Bagan and previous to that had Dengue
fever in Thailand.

Upon arriving, I picked a mototaxi driver who understood zero licks of
English. A lady at the bus station told him where I wanted to go. He
grinned and waved at lots of people on the way and seemed to be
saying, "Make a me sexy!" But it could've been something else. I

When we arrived at the Burma-Siam Railway memorial (also called the
Death Railway for all of the Allied troops and Asian workers who died
building it), I hopped off and sexily yakked again - so long, 7-Up! My
taxi and a guy who was repainting the train looked concerned. "I'm
okay, I'm okay."

The memorial is just the engine car and a few crumbling, statues of
laborers missing limbs.

Afterward we rode to the POW cemetery, which was mostly British,
Australian and Dutch graves, Americans (with some 350 graves) were the
smallest group represented. I wish I were more of a Pacific Theater
history buff because I've seen so many memorials across Asia now - the
Flying Tiger museum in Chongqing, an allied POW camp on Taiwan, an
internment/POW museum in Singapore and now here in Burma.

After that I bused back to Mawlamyine, snacked on some Pepto Bismol
and spent the afternoon reading Little Daughter by Zoya Phan, a memoir
by a Karen woman who became a refugee in Thailand when the Burmese
military destroyed her village. Mr Tony, who is Karen and works at my
guesthouse, lent it to me last night and insisted. I'm glad, I've read
articles here and there, but the book is more comprehensively
informative on the recent history.

Now I think I will try to eat crackers for dinner and return to
reading in my closet-sized room. Hopefully the power wont go out, but
workers have been futzing with the generator in the lobby all
afternoon. A flashlight is necessary to walk around outside at night.
Lots of places here run partially on generators. This morning I
watched a woman leave in a huff, saying something about the power
going off and on. (Relevant fact: The room rate is $7 a night.) It's
interesting to observe the entitlement of other travelers: Back in
Yangon I saw a guy walk into my guesthouse and ask if they'd hold a
dorm bed while he went to look for something better. To their credit,
they said no.

I was planning on leaving tomorrow, but I'll give it another day to rest.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Leaving Yangon

Tonight I take the bus south to Mawlamyine, where George Orwell was once stationed. Glad I read Burmese Days.

Yesterday I ferried across the river and took a trishaw (like a rickshaw) tour of a delta village. The driver took me to his house and his sister rubbed sandalwood paste on my face. We stopped by several pagodas and then waited out a rainstorm in a coffee shop, which was a plastic roof and thatch affair that served milky instant coffee to Burmese folks seated on tiny plastic chairs watching a soap opera. 

I spent the afternoon reading and went to dinner in a restaurant, which was a change of pace since I've mostly been eating street food. I'm 95% sure I'm going to get food sick before I leave this country. It's bound to happen. Or at least it is if street refuse and vermin are correlated to bodily illness: The alley between my hotel and the adjacent building is like a mini dump, there's even garbage on some of the window awnings, like it didn't make it all the way down when people chucked it. My first morning I saw a rat crawling across the roof. Also, Yangon is like pigeon heaven. They roost on the telephone wires here in droves. Droves! I thought one was going to fly into my face yesterday. 

One of my dorm mates last night was a 70-year-old German man who has been to more than 100 countries. This was his eighth time to Myanmar. He said that he was always single minded about what he wanted in life: to travel. As soon as he was done with university, he left Europe and spent most of his working life teaching in east Asia. He was raised by his grandparents, and I wonder, because of his age, if he was orphaned by the war. Never had a wife or family, he just travels. All the time. It wouldn't be for me (he's also been robbed four times), but it's fun and inspiring to meet people who are so intentional about following their dreams.

This morning I went to the National Museum which was, bar none, worst lit museum I've ever been to and they had giant metal jail doors over the display cases with golden court accouterments. All the folk art was in shadows. 

I walked around the block to a Lonely Planet-recommended Burmese restaurant for lunch. It was noon and crowded, so a waiter showed another single man to my table. When he went up to the buffet to get his food I thought, "hmm, he looks like someone I know from church in Shanghai." And sure enough, that's who it was. We talked about our mutual acquaintances and about wanting to move back to the US. On the one hand, it's kind of amazing to run into someone I know at lunch in Yangon. On the other hand, it's Chinese New Year and expats love to travel, so it's not so crazy. It's not the first time either, a couple years ago I ran into a girl I knew from Shanghai coming down a hiking trail in South Korea.   

What I'm reading

Just finished

Anna Karenina

The first of many classics I hope to plow through this year. The list is pretty long, and so are most of the books, including this one, but man it was a great one to start with. There isn't much to say that hasn't been said more eloquently elsewhere, it's on most of the "best novels ever" lists. It's always so satisfying to read a book that's more than a century old, written about people in circumstances much different from mine, and identify so strongly with the thoughts and emotions conveyed.  Tolstoy, nicely done.

Currently reading

Bleak House

It's a Charles Dickens. And so far it's pretty bleak! I'm glad I didn't live in London back then. 

Best American Essays 2012

Amazon had a killer sale a month ago, each of the books in the Best America series was going for $1.99. I've found a couple of the pieces to be a bit of a yawn, but mostly they're good. 

Also, I highly recommend this story in GQ by awesome short story writer Wells Tower about going to Burning Man with his dad. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


I am so excited to be here. It's really so different from anywhere I've been and I think most people traveling here can't help but feel privileged to see things now before they inevitably change. Men still wear the traditional longyi, women and children wear yellow paste, thanaka, on their cheeks and noses as a form of makeup/sun protection. The sidewalks are a mess. I don't think I've seen a smooth one yet. And there's not so much as a 7-11 in the way of chain stores.

This morning I made my way through the center of town, taking a picture of decaying colonial architecture. Then this afternoon I went to Shwadegon Pagoda. I had a guide take me around. Burmese people are Buddhist but also believe in astrology (which they received from Hindu Brahmanism, Wikipedia tells me). My guide had a little astrology book and looked up my birthday (a Thursday, meaning Jupiter is my planetary BFF or something). He said this meant my life is changing right now and would get better when I'm 31. Me thinking: right, four years to get rich and famous, sounds good. Then he asked for my boyfriend's birthday. And he told me James is way luckier than me and his life is going to be awesome until he's 42. After that he needs to be careful, because Saturn comes around and stirs shit up. (Or something). James, I resent your sign superiority. 

My cab driver on the way to the pagoda told me he used to be a sailor and so he's been to Alaska, Long Beach, New Orleans and several other American cities. He told me it's easy to get a girlfriend in America, especially in a club. 

I have two more full days in Yangon then I take a night bus south. I'm less worried about finding accommodation because I was talking to the person at the hotel today and he said everyone is in the same situation as me -- we all have the same guide book, call the same places and thus those places book up, but now there are a lot of new places not in the guidebooks. Plus he says every day a lot of people book and then don't show up, which is a headache for the hotels. So while things are confusing, I don't think I'll be left out in the cold (erm, heat).

Pictures will have to wait, perhaps until I'm out of country.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


I have arrived! Aaaand I saw two fender benders just on my way from the airport, wahoo!

I'm staying in a sixth-floor, walk-up dorm. There's approximately zero space between my mattress and the mattress of the origin-as-yet-undetermined European dude sleeping next to me. Hopefully he's not a roller. I met a girl in the same room who is basically my Canadian equivalent: She's from B.C., she graduated in 2008, she's a journalist traveling for five months. 

I had a samosa, a piece of friend chicken and a pancake thing with lentils and veggies rolled up in it for dinner. 

It was basically dark when I arrived, so I haven't been able to see much, but already I can tell it's a world apart from Thailand. 

I'm going to stay in Yangon for three nights and then hopefully head south to the town where one of my favorite authors, George Orwell, was once stationed. I say hopefully because my Canadian friend says a guy she talked to called a hotel down that way and they told him not to come. Period. Because there was no room. Oy. She also said some people were sleeping in monasteries when they couldn't find rooms, but now the monks are wary of this because they're getting in trouble with police (foreigners are supposed to be registered every single night). 

Also, there's a Burmese teenager in this Internet cafe crooning "Payphone" and it reminds me of my little brother. 

Wish me luck...

Monday, February 11, 2013

Patara Elephant Farm

Ashley turned 27 in Chiang Mai and we celebrated by being 'elephant owners' for a day at Patara Elephant Farm. We washed them, rode them and got in a river with them. 

I try to be a conscientious traveler, but only afterward read that the Humane Society asks people not to ride elephants because of the cruelty involved in training them. Most the elephants on the farm are rescues from circuses and the like, though now there are babies being born into the group. It was unclear if they'll be trained for riding. The surrounds were really nice, the elephants are on 24-hour watch and roam free, never cooped up unless they're giving birth. 

In his opening remarks, the director also alluded to the "everyone-else-is-doing-it-wrong" attitude various elephant groups, sanctuaries and the like tend to have, where his philosophy was more along the lines of "everyone helps differently" (but don't go to a circus). 

They do a clever bit of marketing in that a guide with a fancy camera follows the group around all day and takes wonderful photos of you and your elephant that you of course then share on social media, and then your friends want to come to Thailand and ride elephants. 

I guess it's like the old zoo question -- does the boosted awareness justify submitting animals to unnatural circumstance? I'm not sure, but the day was truly amazing. The elephants were incredible. And before the year is through, I'll make a contribution to the humane society or a (thoroughly researched) elephant conservation group so that I can at least answer that question for myself.

(Bragging rights: the photos that are not people portraits I took myself)

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Back in Bangkok

Ashley left on Friday and I've been amusing myself until it's time to head to Burma. Amusing myself mainly consists of reading, finding things to eat and taking lots of showers. It's hot, no, it's languid. My room has no aircon. I have lots of bumps on my hands and feet, heat rash, but I prefer to call it prickly heat since it sounds like something a fair-skinned colonist would've had back in the day (Thailand is the only country in SE Asia that was never actually a colony).

Somewhat relatedly, I was mistaken for an 'English girl' because of my fair skin by a German Floridian (do Germans get to claim, "I'm from Florida?" Really?). He was a shill for a guru.  He told me I could "find my inner piece that's actually been there the whole time." He approached me in the hotel bar just as I finished the final pages of Anna Karenina, which are all about the protagonist's Christian epiphany. Maybe I had that "seeker" look.

After Chiang Mai, Ashley and I made for the islands. In Phuket, we were flanked by Russians. Always. I guess we picked the European beach. Thailand gets 14 million tourists a year and this is high season, so everywhere was a bit of a zoo. The smaller island of Ko Phi Phi (where Leonardo DiCaprio filmed The Beach) was much nicer, though still crowded.

Supposedly Burma only gets 300,000 tourists a year, but I bet that number will shoot up again this year. So while I don't expect the Disneyland-feel there is here in Thailand (some places feel like the only Thais are the ones employed in tourism), I am a little anxious because it's still high season and everyone says the tourism infrastructure is at capacity at the moment. Everyone also says book ahead for hotels, but not that many hotels (in my price range) are online and the ones that are are booked. I'm pretty sure I have a dorm bed lined up for my first few nights, but it's hard to tell from the emails I've been exchanging with the staff, "Every day people booking, no show up, email again day before you come."

The highlight of Thailand was definitely our elephant riding day. Second best was a boat ride with snorkeling on Phi Phi Ley. There's a couple elephant photos below, but I'll share more in a separate blog since there are so many I want to post.

Elephants cleaning up after lunch

Playful baby elephant
The view from our place on Koh Phi Phi

On the way to Phi Phi Ley

Phi Phi Ley. I had a lot of boat envy.

delightful view from my Bangkok hotel room

A lot of my meals look like this

My hotel is in Chinatown, perfect for Chinese New Year!