Ruins

My Origin Story

This is somewhat of a prequel. When I graduated from college, I set a goal for myself that I wanted to travel to 30 countries before I turned 30. This monumentous occasion happened in January, but I actually accomplished my goal at 28; I’m now up to 36.5 (Nigeria sort of counts). Most of this blog has been about living abroad and travelling while living in Thailand, but I figured in the spirit of all this “throwback whatever” stuff, I would post a short story about each place that I’ve been to.

As part of my origin story, I’ll also include why I decided to write about this stuff:

  • I like writing.  I used to write a lot in college, sometimes because they made me, sometimes because I liked it.  Never because I was any good at it.
  • I am lazy and when I come back from a trip and everyone asks me how it went, I just say good, really good (except for Laos) and then change the subject.  There, my secret is out.  I mean, what else can I say?  I’m not going to stand there and describe every awesome detail to someone who is just asking me how it went because they feel obligated, unless I’m drunk and then you’re in for it.  I am also never sure who really cares and who is the obligatory “how was your trip” asker.  So, here’s a place where people who care, and people who don’t care, can hear about it.
  • I want to be able to remember my trips.  This was brought to my attention when my friend John was talking about the “Chicken and Cheese” sandwich that we had in Amsterdam.  It was arguably the best thing either of us had ever eaten and yet, I didn’t remember it until he mentioned it.  What happens if I can’t store all those memories in someone elses brain?  They get lost, but if I put them on the internet, they are here forever, and ever and ever.
  • I’m banking on a multi-million dollar book and movie and action figure deal.  I think it’s a solid plan that will bail me out of the mountains of debt I am sure to incur on my quest.

Every story has to start somewhere, so here goes:

Me and the old man at Bryce Canyon

Me and the old man at Bryce Canyon in 2012

My hometown in the fall

My hometown in the fall

1. USA — I’m counting it.  It fits my criteria, it’s a country, that I’ve been to, before I turned 30.  This is my list and I make the rules so it counts.  To be fair, I have been to 46 states (gotten speeding tickets in 5) and driven coast to coast thrice, so there.

Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho

Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho

Nantucket Harbor, Massachusetts

Nantucket Harbor, Massachusetts

Ghost Town

Ghost Town

Rodeo in Utah.  Yee Haw.

Rodeo in Utah. Yee Haw.

Thanks mom for dressing me in this watermelon belly shirt

2. Bahamas — I went here when I was 8.  It also counts because I wrote a special report and presented it to my second grade class.  This was also my first memory of Dusty the Delta Lion.  Favorite memories — braiding all of my super long hair Barbie’s hair into braids because I wasn’t allowed to get them – the beggar kid in Nassau who said he would sing us a nice song for a quarter – adding conch to my list of 2 sea foods that I will eat (haven’t had it since) – getting attacked by fire ants — swimming with barracudas — going to the “wave beach”, where I always thought I was going to drown, as opposed to the “hammock beach” which, as the name implies, was more appropriate for a second grader.

3. UK — I went when I was 13 and the only thing I cared about doing was going to the Doc Martin store.  It was a great trip, and my first trip to a place where people talked funny (I didn’t go to the south until I was 18).  Motivated by watching Braveheart, Meg and I went back for spring break 2005.

Banff

Banff

Banff

Banff

4. Canada —  Everyone remembers their first strip club.  Mine was on a sailing team trip in 2005 in Windsor. I had an out of body experience when the boys bought a $9 lap dance for me in the champagne room and the stripper asked if I wanted some gum for when we make out later. Besides that memorable trip, I have been to Canada a couple other times and it’s one of the most naturally beautiful places I’ve ever been.  Go to Banff, you can drive there, I did, no excuses.  Just do it, you won’t be disappointed.  Plus you can go camping and there is nothing like falling asleep holding on to a claw hammer because that’s the only thing in the sailing tool box that would maim the bear that is going to come eat you in the night.

Sneem Ireland

In Sneem, Ireland

Ireland

Ireland

Giant's Causeway

Giant’s Causeway

5. Ireland — This is my favorite place that I’ve ever been.  My first time there was coincidentally over St. Patrick’s day (part of the Braveheart trip).  Talk about a bunch of crazies.  I’ve been here 4 times and every time is just so awesome.  The people are the best of anywhere I’ve traveled, the scenery is beautiful and it’s relatively affordable.  The second time I went, Meg and I hailed a cab at the train station, and before we knew it, Patrick, the 50 year old cab driver, was walking around Blarney Castle with us, giving me extra camera batteries and giving us the tour of Cork.  I also met Usher and drank a Guiness with his crew at a pub in Dublin after he performed with Justin Bieber, NBD.

Sainte Chapelle, Paris

Sainte Chapelle, Paris

Nice, France

Nice, France

Sacre Coeur, Paris

Sacre Coeur, Paris

6. France —  Been to Paris, Nice, Cannes and had a 2 hour stop at the Avignon train station where it was so hot I became unconscious in the train.  If anyone ever tells me they dislike Paris, I will call them a liar or a Republican.  I won’t go into too much detail about it, but it’s just great.  Go to the top of the Arc de Triomphe at night.  The south of France is awesome, mostly because the beach in Nice is made out of really smooth gray rocks; they remind me of river rocks.  And I hate sand, so it’s a match made in heaven.  When I was in Cannes, it was during the film festival so the city was really alive, I don’t know what it’s like otherwise, but they have the red carpet all rolled out and all sorts of cool stuff set up for the festival.

Antwerp, Belgium

Antwerp, Belgium

7. Belgium — My first Belgian experience was when we met the Tram Wizard.  We were transferring from Luxembourg on our way to Amsterdam and we (me, Meg and John) decided to go get some Belgian waffles.  The tram wizard walked us through how to do everything like we were born yesterday and herded us to the door of the tram to make sure we got on it.  After our gauffres, that’s waffles in French, we went back to the train station to give the tram wizard a lovely gift, a can of Jupiler beer that we bought in a vending machine.  He said that our smiles were his gift.  And that’s why he’s the tram wizard.  John drank the gift on the way to Amsterdam.

Bridges in Amsterdam

Bridges in Amsterdam

8. Netherlands — Chicken and Cheese??  I’ve been here 4 times, twice on my own, once on an “architectural” trip while I was studying abroad and once for 4 hours on a layover to Greece. In college, our professor basically bussed us into the housing projects of Amsterdam and dropped us off and made us sketch pictures of the buildings. People in those neighborhoods aren’t skipping around in their wooden shoes with bouquets of tulips.  I tell everyone the same thing about Amsterdam:  It’s like adult fun land, and has all sorts of “bad” things, but you could also take your grandmother on a really nice walk through the city. And that’s all I’m going to say about that on the internet.

9. Monaco — Yes it’s a country.  Doug and I sat on the steps of the Grand Casino in Monte Carlo the day before the Grand Prix and just counted Ferraris.  In an hour, I think we saw like 40 or something.  I have never seen a higher concentration of nice cars in my life.  I almost barfed on the bus back to France, I remember that vividly.

Vianden Castle, Luxembourg

Vianden Castle, Luxembourg

10. Luxembourg — Also a real country and the grandest Duchy of them all.  I was there for about 3 months when I was studying abroad.  I lived in a section of the city called Howald with Claude and Ching.  The national beer of Luxembourg is Bofferding, it’s not really exported, but it’s like Budweiser.  I remember my last night in Luxembourg I got drunk and stole some frozen sausages out of a case in the bar and ran home to my friends house.  On the way I rolled and nearly broke my ankle.  Needless to say, the hangover the next morning was almost as painful as waking up with one cankle and the realization that I fell asleep on a velvet couch with a bunch of frozen Luxembourgish sausage.

America's Cup 2007

America’s Cup 2007

11. Spain — Who knew that they killed the bulls at the end of the Bull fight??  Well, now I do.  Gruver took us to a fight in Valencia and we literally walked in as they were stabbing the thing in the back of the neck with a giant sword.  We went on rookie night, which usually results in some human goring, but no luck for us. I was hoping for something more gladitorial.  After the fight, they drag the bulls out to a shed and string them up and hack off the spine with an ax, butcher the whole thing in like 5 minutes and send the meat to the restaurants for the night, pretty cool to watch, yeah vegetarians, I said it.  We also got to see the second to last race of the America’s Cup and go to the team banquet on the roof of the Prada compound, thanks to Gruver, where Mr. Bertelli (Prada’s husband/business partner) cooked steaks for us that he had flown in from Italy. When I die, I believe this is probably the richest person thing I will have ever done.

Il Duomo, Florence

Il Duomo, Florence

Rome

Rome

Pompeii

Pompeii

Trevi Fountain, Rome

Trevi Fountain, Rome

12. Italy — This place can almost be talked about as all separate countries.  Been to Rome twice, Florence, Chianti area and Pompeii.  For all you fellow history nerds, Rome should be like Mecca for you, make one pilgrimage in your lifetime.  There is so much cool stuff to talk about here, but in the end, I would be perfectly happy if someone hooked me up to an IV of Italian food and sat me in front of the Pantheon for 5 days.

Sistine Chapel

Sistine Chapel

13. The Vatican — Technically a country, so I am counting it.  Still no sighting of the Pope mobile, despite 2 trips.  I’m so holy.  The first time, we waited in line for the Sistine chapel for like 4 hours, put that in the record book God.  It’s one of those things you have to see, but the whole experience was so unholy, you are literally herded into a room like cattle and told “no photo!” but everyone who has been there has the blurry picture of Adam and God that they show to their friends and try to explain what the blobs of color are — guilty.

Neuschwanstein, Bavaria

Neuschwanstein, Bavaria

Eisbach River, Munich

Eisbach River, Munich

14. Germany — Loved Munich, loved Trier, did not love Berlin.  Now this is probably just my preference, but Berlin is weird, and ugly. I’m willing to give it another chance, but the first impression was not great. If you are going to Germany, go to Munich, go on a bike tour, get drunk, bike through the nudist park and jump in the river like I did.  Also, go to Neuchwanstein Castle.  It’s what Disney modeled the Magic Kingdom after and some crazy German king built the thing in the Bavarian Alps right next to his other castle, which is yellow.

Cathedral in Prague

Cathedral in Prague

Prague in March 2007

Prague in March 2007

U Fleku, Prague

U Fleku, Prague

15. Czech Republic — I hate when everyone says, Prague is SOOO cheap.  What they meant to say is “beer is cheap, but since everyone says Prague is cheap, I am going to say it too”.  Prague is not cheap, it’s on par with what stuff costs in the US, if not more expensive, at least when I was there.  Doug and I went to Prague with Marks for Spring Break 2k7.  We drank real Absinthe in the completely wrong way.  If you go to the club here, note that people don’t show up until 3AM, unless you’re American, then you show up at 11 when the place is just an empty cavern of Euro-beat, play Foosball, get tired and go home at 1.

Vienna, Austria

Vienna, Austria

16. Austria — Didn’t spend a whole lot of time here, but would like to go back and check it out for longer.  The Schoenbrun palace is pretty cool and I went to a concert in one of the same places where some of the musical geniuses of the 18th and 19th century played.  Vienna was also the site of my first ever Big Mac.  Everything was closed when we got there except for le Macdo and I hadn’t eaten all day so I went for it, and that was the first and last one I ever had.

Beach on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica

Beach on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica

Rincon National Park, Costa Rica

Rincon National Park, Costa Rica

17. Costa Rica — I went here courtesy of Carearbuilder in 2010.  So beautiful and we didn’t even go on the tropical side.  Rincon is a cool place to hike, lots of mudpots and hot springs.  We hired some guy and his buddy to drive us to the park in their van and then take us to a traditional Costa Rican restaurant in Liberia. There also happened to be the annual pony show or something in town that day so there were ponies everywhere.  Yee haw.  I ordered something with the spine still attached, and can you believe it?  I got sick.

Arabian Desert

Arabian Desert

18. United Arab Emirates — After going here, it puts real perspective on how ignorant Americans really are.  Not like I am some bastion of smartness, but Dubai and the UAE was, hands down, the cleanest, safest place I have EVER been.  I am more scared at a Chicago bus stop than I ever was here.  Granted, the UAE is way different from the rest of the middle east, but I will talk your ear off about how awesome this place is. We went to the Arabian desert outside Liwa in the evening one day. There were no other people or buildings as far as the eye could see. Except, I found a guy, Mohammed, with a sweet dune buggy. He spoke 0 English, but I understood his hand motion of “get in my dune buggy”, so I did. Risky? Eh. Turned out not to be. He drove me and my friends all up and down the sand dunes, brought us to the top of one and made us tea over a little fire while we watched the sunset in the complete absence of any other people. We randomly saw him at the gas station the next day in his white robes and headscarf. Is that Mohammed???

19. Oman —  The joke about the Sultan of Oman is that he loves fast cars and young boys.  And I can’t speak for his boy love, but the roads in Oman are immaculate.  Everything is lit, and perfectly paved, even in the middle of nowhere.  There is a coastal drive along the Arabian sea that is absolutely terrifying and gorgeous.  I went to the Mussandam region and took a dhow (boat) through the fjords near the Strait of Hormuz.  There are no people here, except for fishing villages (only accessible by boat) and just rocks and beautiful water with dolphins and fish and Iranian smugglers, they waved at us.  The crew on our boat caught a fish and cooked it for us for lunch.  I even tried some.

Cabo San Lucas

Cabo San Lucas

Humpback Whale

Humpback Whale

Green Turtle

Green Turtle

Being a tourist in Cabo

Being a tourist in Cabo

Rio Grande, on the border somewhere

Rio Grande, on the border somewhere

20. Mexico — My first wake up call in Mexico was by the border patrol on the bank of the Rio Grande.  Apparently there were some Mexicans that crossed over the border in the night right through our camp.  Mexico trip numero uno was not the typical Mexican Spring break.  Instead of getting wasted on a beach in Cabo (I saved that for after college), I canoed down the Rio Grande for 90 something miles with Jess; she capsized every day, had to say it.  It’s literally a river of liquid mud.  My 2 other Mexico trips were via the CB presidents club trip, and they were amazing but I’m not writing those stories here, partly because I don’t remember them, partly because I would like to be employed in the future.

Woman drinking bil bil (fermented millet)

Woman drinking bil bil (fermented millet)

Kids in Duroum

Kids in Duroum

Meg's neighbor Howa, the most amazing woman I have ever met

Meg’s neighbor Howa, the most amazing woman I have ever met

Amulets to protect me when I travel

Amulets to protect me when I travel

21. Cameroon — What can I say about this place…I really should just write a whole long blog about it because there are so many hilarious stories. First of all, I’ll save you the time of looking for it on a map. It’s right at the “armpit of Africa”, that joint where west Africa turns South. I spent a total of about 2 months here on 2 separate trips because my sister was volunteering in the Peace Corps in a village with no running water, cell phone service, or electricity. After 2.5 years of living there, all of those things arrived within about 2 months of her departure. I have never experienced heat induced lethargy like I did in Cameroon. There are 0 tourists here and no infrastructure to support them even if there were, so everything I did was as local as it gets including eating spoiled meat, attending festivals and using a hole for a toilet. This is also the first place that I have ever been where people just straight out yelled “nasara!” or “white!” or “la blanche”, which means what you think it means. I’ve never been so aware of my skin color.

The Crab Sorcerer of Rhumsiki

The Crab Sorcerer of Rhumsiki

Teacher Joc

Teacher Joc

Giraffe at Waza National Park

Giraffe at Waza National Park

While 95% of my experiences here were amazing and wonderful (including teaching 100 students at the high school, eating many home cooked meals, having the best chicken I have ever eaten, seeing what’s left of the wildlife and experiencing truly welcoming hospitality), I can also say that I spent the worst night of my life here. Gaston “forgot” to buy our train tickets to get down to the capital for my return flight, so we had to take an overnight bus/van which even the Cameroonians warn against because of the bandits. Bandits are basically guys who roam the bush and rob and kill people.  No other options, so we had to do it. The van was completely overloaded and had about 6 feet of luggage stacked on the top of it, and a goat for a little while. This was the first of only two times in my travels that I thought I was going to die, like hands together praying to God thought I was going to die. We took a road through the jungle along the border of the Central African Republic which is currently in the midst of a war. It was raining, the red soil road wasn’t paved and there were 10 foot deep ditches on either side of it . Semi-trucks were jackknifed all along the road from what we could see out the front window because the red soil has completely covered the sides. The driver was basically skiing the van down the hills of mud. We made it somehow, but I haven’t even gotten to describing the night. For 17 hours straight, there was a Christian preacher in the row behind us who wouldn’t shut up. Not only that, but he felt the need to tap us on the shoulder every 8-10 minutes to try to get us to talk to him. When night fell, the border police stopped the van every 40 minutes or so to check for bandits.  HUGE guys dressed in all black with guns that I have only seen in Terminator movies and in the boys section of Toys ‘R Us got on, demanded our passports and looked at them upside down because they can’t read. We just hoped that they wouldn’t pull us out of the van. Like we were the ones they should be worried about… All the while, the preacher, talking, talking, talking, tapping, tapping, tapping. Finally at about 2 in the morning, I couldn’t take it anymore, I turned around and politely asked him to be quiet.  Ahhh 15 minutes of sweet, sweet silence (except for the loud Cameroonian music that had been blaring through the broken speakers for the entire trip) until the border police stopped us again and the talking started. On top of everything, we had a seat on top of the wheel well so I was basically sitting in a ball for half the trip.  Meg and I switched on and off to prevent the full plunge into insanity. When we arrived in Yaounde, I can’t even describe the feeling of elation to be out of that van.

One of many stories I hope to write about Cameroon in the future…

Greek Island

Greek Island

Parthenon

Parthenon

Mykonos Harbor

Mykonos Harbor

Wreath on Mykonos

Wreath on Mykonos

22. Greece — My first trip to Greece was during their huge protests and near government collapse. Abby was working there for a few months so I made up an excuse at work and booked my flight for a long weekend 3 days before I left. This trip seemed to spark my late quarter life crisis at 27 because I went back for 2 short trips within 6 months of the first one. Ah, disposable income from sales and a complete lack of financial responsibility, I miss those days. It’s probably good that I experienced Mykonos at this point in my life because if I did this party scene any later in life, I would feel a bit ridiculous. I’ll never forget Greece and neither will the 6 inch section of skin on the inside of my right calf from burning it on the tailpipe of a motorcycle.

Key Caulker, Belize

Key Caulker, Belize

Rainforest in Belize

Rainforest in Belize

23. Belize — I can’t believe more Americans haven’t been here.  I’m not complaining, just surprised.  It’s closer than a lot of Caribbean destinations and way cooler. We stayed at a jungle hotel run by a former jaguar hunter from Texas.  The bungalows were all lit with gas lamps and had thatch roofs, no electricity and so peaceful.  I tried bread fruit for the first time and rode a horse at a terrifying gallop through the jungle and didn’t fall off and paralyze myself.

Tikal, Guatemala

Tikal, Guatemala

24. Guatemala — I wasn’t here for very long because I just went for a day trip from Belize.  I wanted to see Tikal, which is an ancient Mayan city that is still largely buried under the jungle.  It’s also the site where they filmed some Star Wars scene, but even I am not nerdy enough to know which one.

Pauly Shore and that Baldwin brother live here

Pauly Shore and that Baldwin brother live here

25. Singapore — This was my introduction to Asia, which hardly counts because Singapore is so nice. Allison was living here and she put me up for a few days before I officially moved to Thailand. The botanical gardens are beautiful as are the giant terrarium gardens of the future. The first night there, after I had flown for 20 something hours straight, we were out until sunrise. My body clock was smashed into a million pieces.

Thai Monks 2012

Thai Monks 2012

26. Thailand — I’ve now been living here for almost 3 years.  Can’t. Get. Out. Hmmm, if I could tell just one story from Thailand, what would it be… Maybe that I lived through a military coup and subsequent military dictatorship and it hasn’t been anywhere near as bad as it sounds.

Monestary at sun set.

Monestary at sun set.

27. Laos – I spent a couple days in Vientiane shortly after I moved to Thailand to get my visa.  To get a Thai non-immigrant visa, you have to leave Thailand and go to an embassy then come back in.  Efficiency in it’s purest form. This place was boring as F. I also got molested by a “monk” at the big golden temple, and had to punch him in the neck to get him off of me, so be careful ladies. But, they have good bread. Heyyy, criticism sandwich.

Angkor Wat at Sunrise

Angkor Wat at Sunrise

Am I in a movie?

Am I in a movie?

28. Cambodia — John, Meg and I had a romantic 36 hour trip to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat. I was awake for about 32 hours, Meg for 33 and John was the winner with 35:40.  Meg and John get bonus points for a night of heavy drinking included. I get a bonus point for not clawing their faces off when they came home and aggressively spooned me at 4AM, 1 hour before we had to meet our guide, Robin Hood, to take us around the temples.

OMG ELEPHANTS!! - was basically my reaction

OMG ELEPHANTS!! – was basically my reaction

29. Sri Lanka — This was an unexpectedly awesome trip.  I only ended up here because I had a week off and I planned to go to the Maldives, but I was/am too poor to spend a week there and the cheap flights all transferred through Colombo. I saw lots of wild elephants, ate delicious food and almost murdered someone at the airport when they told me that the flight was full and they had to put me on another one the next day (which screwed up all my plans).

This is an actual photo of where I lived for 3 days

This is an actual photo of where I lived for 3 days

There were a lotta selfies on this trip

There were a lotta selfies on this trip

The ocean was my husband on this trip so we color coordinated

The ocean was my husband on this trip so we color coordinated

30. The Maldives — For my 30th country, I wanted to celebrate somewhere really awesome. The Maldives are so indescribably beautiful, probably because there aren’t any humans there. I stayed at a resort with a bunch of honeymooners. I told the reception that I am a travel writer and got upgraded to a huge room. Ka-ching.  Again, since I am poor and couldn’t afford their meals (which started at $40 each), I had a good food strategy: eat for free at the breakfast buffet until I was shallow breathing, survive on that for the day and then have a Cliff Bar, buy a cocktail and  gorge on bowls and bowls of free banana chips provided at happy hour. When I paid my bill at the end, they couldn’t figure out why I only had 4 cocktails on there and nothing else.  I beat the system.

me and a constrictor

me and a constrictor

Vietnamese people wear great hats

Vietnamese people wear great hats

Our awesome student guide Ken

Our awesome student guide Ken

31. Vietnam — I think I need to give Vietnam another shot. I enjoyed my trip, especially the historical stuff, and I got an awesome free tour from a university student who wanted to practice his English, but I would say it falls on the lower end of my favorite places. Like this summary of my trip, Vietnam was eh.

Burmese monk near Mandalay

Burmese monk near Mandalay

Shwedagon stupa at sunset

Shwedagon stupa at sunset

Inle Lake fishermen.

Inle Lake fishermen.

32. Myanmar — It might almost be too late to go here and have a truly amazing experience because tourists, like myself, have been flooding in at a break-neck pace since they opened the country a few years ago. Even when I went a year and a half ago, it was starting to get obnoxious.  As I mentioned in the Cameroon summary, I have only thought I was going to die (while travelling) twice in my life. Taking a flight from Air Kanbawza from Bagan to Inle Lake on a re-purposed Soviet era airplane is number two. I should have known from the minute I got to the airport and there was no electricity that this was going to literally be death defying. Or maybe I should have just assumed that since the airline is named after the villain from Super Mario, it was not going to be a smooth ride.  I prayed to every God I could think of that that airplane would land in fewer than 4 pieces.

Richie, the alpha male

Richie, the alpha male

Petronas Towers

Petronas Towers

33. Malaysia — Don’t go for the cities, go for the wildlife.  Borneo was amazing, although depressing because the earth has been raped to make palm oil. The flora and fauna that remain is worth the trip around the world to see.  Or for those living in Asia, a $60 flight. See the Orangutans, soon.

Bali

Bali

Me and Lukki at Mount Merapi

Me and Lukki at Mount Merapi

Bali

Bali

Let's take a photo with each person individually now...

Let’s take a photo with each person individually now…

Monkey time in Bali

Monkey time in Bali

Me at Prambanan

Me at Prambanan

34. Indonesia — I’ve now been 3 times (longer blog post in progress) and I love it. I’ve been to 3 of the major islands, Java, Bali and Lombok and they are all awesome in their own way. I’m obsessed with Bali though, like been 3 times to the same place obsessed.  The beaches in Bali aren’t great, but in the center of the island, it’s magical. Green moss growing everywhere, monkeys, organic food, yoga. The islands off Lombok have beautiful beaches and I’ve seen a bunch of turtles when I go snorkeling just off the beach. The temples near Yogjakarta on Java are impressive, and thank god for Lukki when I was there.  He made that trip worthwhile.  The funniest thing about Indonesia for me is that everyone wants to take a picture with me. At first it’s kinda cute, but after hoards of people started coming up to me wanting photos with every peace sign, head tilt, winking and tongue sticking out combination possible, and then the big fat guy kisses me on the cheek, I know that you could not pay me enough money to be famous. Maybe I won’t be writing that book….

Girls from the largest slum in Mumbai at a women's empowerment leadership retreat

Girls from the largest slum in Mumbai at a women’s empowerment leadership retreat

If I were a man...

If I were a man…

35. India — I had a brief trip to India to visit Meg when she was working in Mumbai last year.  Surprisingly, there were no major snafus to speak of and technically I didn’t get sick.  It did rain for almost 24 hours a day for 6 days straight but besides that, I think it was just India as normal, which is intense as fck. I have spent a lot of time in the developing world now, so there’s not a lot that can really shock me, but the slums… WOW. The living conditions are as bad as you read about and see photos of, I can’t even describe them.  And the most difficult part is that not 1 mile away, people are living disgustingly lavish lifestyles with no care for the people who are literally living on top of a medical waste dump and being raped when they get up in the night to use the public bathroom. That disparity was really hard to rationalize.  The men have something that Meg termed “the cold dead stare” or CDS for short.  In public, the male/female ratio is about 10:1. And the men just sit and stare with an unflinching, soul piercing intensity. Even if you stare right back at them, they do not stop. This coupled with the gross overpopulation was maddening.  So maddening that one day I just locked myself in my sister’s room. I wasn’t sick, the intensity of it all just made me feel like my brain was melting out of my head.  I just could not go out there. I’ll go back though.

Kangaroo peanut theif

Kangaroo peanut theif

36. Australia — I actually just got back from here about a month ago.  I went to Perth to visit a friend who gave me the most amazing tour which totally made the trip worthwhile. The weather was beautiful, the food and wine were amazing and the people were super cool, although as an American, we’re conditioned to believe Australians are cool, so maybe it was like a self fulfilling prophecy. And the men are hot.  I ate everything in my path: beef, wine, cheese, honey, nuts but the most exciting thing was a pear.  Just a regular pear.  When you have lived in Asia for nearly 3 years, a ripe green pear is the most delicious thing you have ever tasted. I also got scratched by a wild kangaroo trying to steal my peanuts in a park.

36.5 Nigeria — I’m almost counting this because while in Cameroon, we hiked into Nigeria twice and being so close to the border, had a lot of interactions with Nigerians, ate their delicious cake bread, listened to them speak Hausa and saw the effects of the crazy street drugs they sell.  Upon our second entrance to Nigeria via a goat path in Rhumsiki (the photo on the header of the blog that looks like the moon), a young boy greeted us with a knife that he had lashed to a stick and  yelled all sorts of things at us until we passed back across the border.  Welcome to Nigeria.

Next up… Japan? Korea? Philippines? New Zealand? China?…..

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Myanmar

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Everyone that I talk to who’s been to Myanmar says it reminds them of Thailand 50 years ago.  All of those people are under the age of 50, so I am not sure how they know this, but they seem very sure of it. As long as we’re making analogies, I am going to go ahead and make one too.  Myanmar reminds me of Cameroon today. I find it interesting that when I say this, as someone who has been to Cameroon and Myanmar but not Thailand 50 years ago, people identify my real time analogy as the obscure one. If you haven’t been to Myanmar yet, I suggest you go so you can make your own analogy and get there before the hoards of elephant panted drunks ruin it, otherwise your analogy will be “Myanmar is like Thailand today”.

Myanmar is really into mirrors and so was I

Myanmar is really into mirrors and so was I

A little background… Thailand and Myanmar are not best buddies.  Another analogy, they are kind of like the US and Russia.  We’re “friends”, but not friends. In Thailand, the Burmese are frequently the scapegoat for crimes and in all the movies, they are the bad guys. Sound familiar? In 1767, the Burmese sacked Ayutthaya, which, at the time, was the capital of the Kingdom of Siam and one of the largest cities in the world. They burned it to the ground and Thais still aren’t over it.  Thais are taught in school that Burmese are dangerous, so my students kept warning me to be careful when I go. In reality, the Burmese were incredibly friendly and haven’t been tainted by the tourism industry yet so they were genuinely welcoming. Also, until recently, Burma has been closed to outsiders due to the military dictatorship. Many parts are still inaccessible. Since it has recently been opened, there is a rush of tourists, including myself, to see it before it’s too late. As a result, everything is incredibly expensive.  For example, high demand for hotels, and no hotels because they’ve never needed them results in $40 a night for a room that would cost about $5 anywhere else.  While it’s still WELL behind other SE Asian countries in terms of development, hence my reference to Cameroon, it’s changing rapidly. Two years ago, there was one ATM in the whole country; when I went in February, I had no problem finding one. Wifi was almost non-existant and people aren’t allowed to have cell phones unless they are granted a SIM card via the government lottery system, which I believe allows about 500 per month; that is nothing for a population of 53 million. Like any kind of contraband, a black market for cell phones has developed. If you’re planning to go, take crisp new US dollars. They inspect them meticulously and if they have a small wrinkle or crease, they won’t accept them. Buddhism in Myanmar is strong.  Red robed monks are everywhere. I see maybe one or two a day in Thailand, but in Myanmar I would see 100+ in a day. The food is delicious.  It’s a fusion of Thai and Indian, imagine how hip that will be in America some day.  Anyway, here’s what happened when I went…

Like all my other trips to countries in SE Asia, my trip to Myanmar started at the embassy to get my visa. Former military dictatorships/currently oppressive regimes always seem so concerned about visas. Luckily, the Burmese embassy is in Bangkok so I could just go there and get it taken care of.  Unluckily, every soul searching SE Asian backpacker was also able to find their way there from Khao San Road.  You have to drop off your passport on day 1 before noon and then pick it up on day 3.  I have a history of fainting when I am standing for a long time in the heat; imagine the Six Flags Superman ride line the summer it opened… hello Six Flags medical team. At 11:30, it had been an hour, standing up against a white wall in direct sunlight and 90+ degree heat with about 200 people still ahead of me.  I knew how this was going to end.  I was also dropping off Bom’s passport (he’s Thai) because he had to work. I called him and told him I didn’t think this was gonna happen.  20 minutes later, he showed up on a motorcycle, took both passports to the Thai line which had like one person in it and things were taken care of.  When I went back 3 days later to pick up the passports, I was first in line, but some Thai people pushed me out of the way and when I showed them my slip for having to pick up a Thai passport, they were very embarrassed, which I was very happy about.  I got the passports easily while the backpackers all played the waiting game again.

Bike.

Old bike and bike parts

First stop was Yangon, formerly Rangoon.  We arrived in the evening and took a taxi to our hostel. Before we got to Myanmar, Bom told me that Burmese people call Thai people Yoda, like from Star Wars.  I was pretty confused but whatever.  So we got in the taxi, which, by the way, is terrifying because they drive on the right side of the street with the driver sitting on the right side. Picture this.  The driver asked where we were from and when Bom told him Thailand, he started saying Yodiah! Yodiah! at which point I realized he wasn’t saying Yoda, he was saying Ayutthaya.  Burmese call Thai people the name of the city they brutally sacked. Nice. At night, the streets are all dark.  It’s incredibly peaceful for a city but a reminder of just how closed off the country has been. We arrived at our hostel and were warmly welcomed. We were exhausted so we went to bed.  Besides the freight train tracks right outside the window, the earthquake (literally) and the lack of AC, it was a pleasant sleep. I’ve actually had much worse.

What the Brits left behind

What the Brits left behind

The next morning, we got an exorbitantly priced taxi to take us to meet Pearl.  A Burmese friend from home hooked me up with his mom who is a travel agent and she was incredibly helpful (thanks Lu). We met her and picked up bus/flight tickets and chatted with her before our day of Yangon exploration. Yangon was under British colonial control and the architecture reflects it.  However, since the British left, it has been overgrown and not well maintained so the contrast between the vines and broken windows and and Corinthian pillars and domes is thought provoking.

Congrats Grads

Congrats Grads

After parting with Pearl we found our way into a church in the city center, and unknowingly crashed a graduation ceremony. Whoops.  While trying to find the bathroom, we were enthusiastically waved into a room with a table covered in bowls of noodles. We hadn’t eaten yet and this looked like as good a breakfast as any.  The Burmese people sat us down and gave each of us a bowl and then poured a steaming ladle of stew from a giant witch’s cauldron into each one. Bom told them he was “Yodiah” and they were very happy and excited.  While Thai people are generally unfriendly and distrustful of Burmese, Burmese people are welcoming and warm to Thais. Bom also knows how to say hello in Burmese (ming ga la ba) so they were super excited about that.  The only word I understood was “mohinga”, because I had read about this famous Burmese breakfast food.  It’s a fish stew served over noodles, and after trying it in the basement of this church with a bunch of Burmese people, I can say that it has well earned reputation, and I don’t even like fish.

Breakfast noodles, pre-mohinga

Breakfast noodles before adding the mohinga

Contraband

Contraband?

We left the church and continued wandering through the city.  This is the only trip I have ever used a guide book on, because there’s really not much info on the internet, and it was incredibly helpful.  Use the Lonely Planet guide if you go, they have a great walking tour map that we followed, among other great tips and general information. Speaking of books, there are a lot of street vendors selling tattered old books and magazines in English.  Want a Newsweek from 1993? Look no further.  The military government put strict controls on all media and educational material so this kind of stuff was/is not easy to come by. There are English textbooks stacked next to Sports Illustrated stacked next to Star Trek. It’s very eclectic. They sell a lot of Kipling, probably because of his famous “Road to Mandalay” poem.

We stopped into the Strand hotel, which was one of the most luxurious hotels in SE Asia at the time that it was built.  It is still very nice but its surroundings have obviously changed. We just went the to use the bathroom and feel 10 minutes of AC.

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Betel nut prep

People in Burma love to chew betel nut.  I have seen it in other parts of SE Asia and India among older people, but again, since Burma has been so closed off, it’s still widely used by all ages.  Betel nut is a seed from a specific kind of palm which is wrapped in a leaf and then chewed, similar to chewing tobacco. It is a mild stimulant, kind of like a cup of coffee. People who chew betel nut are very obvious because it stains their teeth and mouth red. Betel nut is also gross because you have to spit, same as tobacco, and people spit red EVERYWHERE.  On the street, against trees, in stair cases, basically on the corner of anything. So pretty much everywhere you go is covered in red spit.

Need to make a phone call?

Need to make a phone call?

As I mentioned before, cell phones are very hard to come by.  But people still need to make phone calls, so voila, street phones.  These set-ups were all over the city.  Instead of pay phones, there are “businesses” with plastic chairs set up next to a phone with the cable running into a building. If you look carefully you can also see the reddish-brown betel nut stains on the sidewalk and on the table legs.

Beep beep. Yangon city bus.

Beep beep. Yangon city bus.

Transportation is Yangon is, developing, I guess you could say.  Taxis are really expensive and we didn’t attempt the public bus because I can’t even guess where this thing might take us. For some reason, I get really annoyed by travelers who say, “Just get on a city bus and see where it takes you”.  I think it’s because when I travel, I travel with purpose and this isn’t my style.  If your idea of an adventure is to take a bus to someplace you don’t know and then try to figure out how to get back to wherever you need to be, let me offer some advice from someone who has done this accidentally, it’s a huge pain in the ass. It also tells me you have done no research about the place you are visiting so you have no idea what to see or do and the best thing you can come up with is to get on a bus. People take buses to go to a specific place, that is their purpose.  Their purpose is not for your misguided “adventure”. Yes I agree you can meet people who you may have not met otherwise, but why can’t you do that without getting on a bus? Anyway…here’s me with a goat head.

This this was heavy

This thing is heavy, please take the picture so I can put it down

Cluck cluck.

Cluck cluck.

We wandered the city for a while and bought a big sack of little oranges which we ate and gave away to people who helped us.  Our next stop was the market.  I have a sick fascination with the butcher section.  Bom does not.  Too bad for him. I think it’s because in America, we have no clue where our meat comes from.  We’re so shielded from it that I find it really interesting to actually see it.  In Thailand, the markets still have butcher sections so this is nothing new for Bom. I love animals so animal cruelty people can spare me their complaints on this. Humans are omnivores, we eat meat and as far as I’m concerned, these developing world butchers are allowing the animals to live and killing them in the most humane way possible.

I'll take 3?

I’ll take 3?

The market is also filled with spice vendors.  They have big sacks of all sorts of things that I’ve never seen or smelled or tasted.  This is where you can get that cliche feeling of the “mystery of Asia” because you have no idea what they have in those bags.  It’s literally a mystery. I swear one of these old guys has the cure for all the world’s diseases in one of his sacks and he’s sitting back there at like 120 years old saying to himself, good luck suckers.

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The nice section of the market

We stopped at some of the other parts of the market selling puppets, fabric, gems, clothes, general bric-a-brac and crap from China.  There was nothing here that was particularly exciting or different from any other SE Asian market, but still very cool for a Westerner.

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Burmese Puppeteers

After Bom finally dragged me out of the market, we headed to a puppet show.  I pre-planned this because it sounded cool, and it was.  There is a place called Htwe Oo.  No that’s not a typo.  When we finally found it down a small back alley of a residential neighborhood, I knew it was going to be legit.  This is a family run theater, literally in their home.  They invite you in to their living room where they sit you down and teach you all about the art of puppetry and how to make puppets. It’s really interesting because they are just recently starting to see a sharp decline in interest for this type of art because TV is becoming more available to people. They do a whole show with lots of different puppets and at the end they let us try to do it at which point I realized that these people are seriously talented.  My puppet looked like a drunk stroke victim while the other guy’s was dancing the waltz.

Me and my new friends

Me and my new friends

Shwedagon complex

Shwedagon complex

The last stop for the day was Shwedagon Pagoda.  This is an enormous (325 foot tall) gilded stupa on the top of a hill in Yangon.  It dominates the skyline.  It’s incredibly holy for Buddhists and is said to house relics from several previous Buddhas. The best time to go is sunset so we timed it perfectly.  This place was truly impressive. The whole complex is massive and there are many buildings orbiting the main stupa. To enter, you must pay, of course, and take off your shoes which is a sign of respect in Buddhism.  You also can’t wear shorts which is why I walked around all day in a pair of pajama pants from Uniqlo.  Not complaining.

Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda

So much golden

So much golden

This is a site of pilgrimage for Buddhists so there was a real mix of people here.  Some tourists, lots of big loud Chinese tour groups, Burmese monks, Thai monks, other monks and plenty of regular people just coming to pray.  I also heard a lot of Thai which was strange because now I can recognize it and understand when I hear it outside of Thailand.

Lady monks praying

Lady monks praying

As the sun started to set, they lit oil, a lot of oil and it made a ring of fire (and a lot of smoke) around the whole stupa.

The real ring of fire

The real ring of fire

As the sun set, the colors on the Pagoda and the contrast against the blue sky was truly magnificent.

Shwedagon stupa at sunset

Shwedagon stupa at sunset

Sunset at Shwedagon

Sunset at Shwedagon

Night at Shwedagon

Night at Shwedagon

That concluded our whirlwind day in Yangon and we went back to the hotel for a peaceful nights sleep next to the railroad tracks.  On the plus side, it was a little cooler and there was no earthquake, or maybe we just slept through it.

The next morning, we ate our free breakfast banana and got another exorbitantly priced taxi to take us to the bus station. Since Pearl had booked our tickets for us, we had a nice bus, thank God because some of the buses chugging around Yangon look like they belong in a transportation museum. We were en route to Bagan via the strangest highways I have ever been on.  They are brand new 8-10 lane highways but they have like 1 car on them.  I guess the military government is expecting big things.  The drive took us through the farm land.  Next to these massive expressways, the farmers were tilling their fields with their buffaloes.  Such a strange juxtaposition. When we got close to Bagan, we got on more local 2 lane roads, which is where we drove past a convoy of 10 tanks.  Yes, just 10 tanks with soldiers crawling all over them, driving down a road in a cloud of dust.

Temples in Bagan

Temples in Bagan

Bagan is one of the most spectacular archaeological sites I have ever seen and I never even heard of it until I started researching this trip. It’s located in central Myanmar and from the 9-13th century, this ancient city was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan.  Over 10,000 temples and other monastic buildings were constructed during the height of the empire from 1100-1300 and the remains of about 2200 are still standing.

Yeah right.

Yeah right.

We found our hotel at the end of a dirt road on the edge of the very small town of New Bagan. The picture above is the view from our rooftop.  And those are not birds on the ground, they are plastic bags. Like Thailand, there is a complete lack of awareness of how bad plastic bags are.  Plastic bags are technically banned in Bagan, but this is obviously not enforced. The plastic bag epidemic is not only evident on the plains of Bagan, but everywhere else we went too.  Our first night, we got in late, after sun set so we just walked in to town to get dinner and see what was up.  It’s really sandy and dusty in this part of Myanmar and during the day it was near 100 degrees Fahrenheit  so we were basically disgusting for every minute of the trip.

Our stallion

Our stallion

The next day, we had a really good free breakfast (it should have been at $45 a night for one of the cheapest hotels in town) and walked across the dirt path/road to rent an electric bike from a family living in a thatch house built on stilts on a pile of sand. The heat and our laziness ruled out regular bikes and you can’t get scooters, so this battery powered, Chinese made, electric stallion was our only option.  This thing was a workhorse for us, but man, what a piece of shit.  It was like a toy.  More on the shitiness of this thing later.

We started out at the morning fresh market.  This was a pretty standard SE asian fresh market except it wasn’t as nice as other countries, again, it reminded me more of the rural markets in Cameroon.  Bom was saying hello to everyone in Burmese so they all thought that was great so I got some good pictures.

Burmese woman in Bagan

Burmese woman in Bagan

There was an old dog wandering around that Bom wanted to feed and a woman gave us something to give to the dog and also signaled to us that we should try it.  Well, if it’s good enough for that mangy dog, it’s good enough for me.  The dog didn’t like it, but I did.  It was like maple candy; most likely it was made from palm sugar.  Basically it was just balls of hardened sugar.  Mmmmm sugar…  In the picture you can see the white paint on the woman’s face.  This is VERY common in Burma.  They say it’s good for your skin, but it is a sign of beauty in their culture.  It’s more common among women, but men and boys wear it too.

Burmese sugar balls

Burmese sugar balls

We pretty much just drove around to as many of the temples as we could for the rest of the day.  A few of them are more well known, for various reasons, but the majority of them are just temples. Inside they all have at least one big Buddha statue and various other statues and frescoes painted on the walls/ceilings.  They’re all pretty dark and much cooler than outside. My favorites were the less touristed ones because they had spider webs and piles of dust and felt almost abandoned.

Inside one of the smaller temples

Inside one of the smaller temples

Frescoe

Fresco

Wildlife shot

Wildlife shot

Buddha in a cage

Buddha in a cage

Ancient Buddhist text

Ancient Buddhist text written on a frescoe

In Bagan, the souvenir vendors are EXTREMELY aggressive.  There are at least one or two set up outside every temple, and a small markets-worth set up outside the large ones.  They are selling puppets, lacquer ware, Buddha statues, sand paintings, and all sorts of other stuff.  If you even look in their direction, they are all over you so you need to walk with blinders on if you want to get into the temple without being harassed.  I finally caved and got a beautiful black lacquer box for like a dollar from one of the women with a very small set up at one of the middle of nowhere temples because she was the first person who just smiled and said hello to me when I walked past her.

Puppets hanging from a tree

Puppets hanging from a tree

We stopped at one of the more touristed temples and got bombarded with vendors; mostly kids selling post cards and stuff. Bom started chasing them around and playing with them, because that’s what kids are supposed to do, play.  He was chasing them through the temple and scaring them and they were having so much fun.  Then he gave them each a ball of sugar and they got really wild. I finally got them to sit down for like 10 seconds at the foot of a giant reclining Buddha to take a photo.

Bom and the kids

Bom and the kids

Later in the morning we took a dirt road into the plains without any particular plan.  The local farmers still farm around all these temples.  We drove through cotton fields and saw them drying some kind of berries on the front patio of the small temples.

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Small temple

Then we found this dude and his buffalo and cart hanging out in the shade by one of the temples, just totally in the middle of nowhere.  It’s so cool though, these people are farming and minding their own business (until we show up to bother them) next to a couple 1000 year old temples.  No big deal.  Bom said hello in Burmese which the farmer was very excited about. He let us check out his buffalo or cow or whatever large work animal it was.  I’m not sure what he was farming, maybe sticks, he had a lot of sticks.  He got a real kick out of it when I put my head in the yoke of his cart and took a photo. Stupid foreigner…  The men wear wrapped cloths called longis, like this guy.  I occasionally see some old people in Thailand with these, but they are very common in Burma.

Bom and the farmer

Bom and the farmer

Me being an idiot

Me being an idiot

I am chopping off Bom's arm

I am chopping off Bom’s arm

We followed the dirt road to one of the more iconic temples in Bagan.  This one is one that built by a crazy OCD king and they say it’s haunted.  He killed a lot of people while they were building it.  If the bricks weren’t perfectly aligned, he would chop off their arm.  They still have the chopping block in the temple, which Bom and I used to make a very accurate re-enactment.  This temple was legitimately eerie compared to the others.  It was massive, but very cold and dark  inside and it lacked the offerings to Buddha that all the others had.

Haunted temple

Haunted temple

Me being hot as hell in front of the haunted temple

Me being hot as hell in front of the haunted temple

Shaaaaaaade

Shaaaaaaade

After we had enough of the spooky business, we went to lunch.  Our friend D recommended a good restaurant at one of the few nice hotels  along the river in Bagan.  It was in the shade  and it had a bathroom with running water, which gave it 5 stars as far as I was concerned.  The hotel were really nice and there were even some temples on the grounds of the hotel.  These things were seriously everywhere.  We got some curries and veggies and for some reason French bean salad sounded really good to me at the time.  The place was deserted except for one other group so it was really peaceful.  So peaceful that Bom fell asleep at the table.

View of a temple from the hotel

View of a temple from the hotel

After lunch, we had more temple gazing to do. As I mentioned there are literally thousands of them. We got back on our electric bike and started checking out some of the big ones in the old center of the city. This big white one is the tallest in Bagan and was built in 1144.

That Byin Nyu Temple

That Byin Nyu Temple

One of the really cool temples has a huge statue of Buddha, but it’s unique because as you get closer, his face appears like he’s frowning.  As you step back, he has a smile.  Of course I only took a picture of smiling Buddha so you can’t see the contrast.  I guess you’ll just have to go and see it with your own eyes.

Smiling Buddha

Smiling Buddha

After checking out a bunch of other temples, it was getting close to sunset.   We wanted to go to a specific temple for sunset so we saved it for the end of the day. When we got to the temple, the “archaeological police” were waiting to collect money from us. Apparently you have to pay $15 to go to Bagan. My guess is that the bulk of this money goes straight to the dictatorship and very little, if any, actually goes to restoring the temples.  If you fly in, you have to pay this fee automatically in order to exit the airport and maybe you get some kind of receipt or something.  We came on a bus with all the Burmese, so we didn’t pay or get a receipt. They were checking receipts to get in to this particular temple and not only did I not have $15, I wasn’t about to pay these dudes since I know most of my money would get boffed anyway.  Strategy one, play dumb and pretend like I didn’t understand what they wanted and just ignore them and walk in.  Fail.  Strategy two, go to the payment counter and tell them I lost the receipt and I didn’t know I needed to keep it.  Fail.  Strategy three, sneak in over a temple wall via an overgrown patch of grass that may have been filled with venomous snakes. Some guy saw us and yelled at us.  Fail.

At that point, we were like, fuck these guys, this place is crawling with a bajillion tourists with their stupid sun umbrellas anyway, let’s go to a different temple for sunset.  So back to our electric bike we went. Bom went to put the key in the ignition and the whole ignition detached from the plastic frame and like fell into the engine compartment. Great. My rage level was pretty high at this point. I was hot, tired, covered in dust, and super pissed off about not being able to get into the temple, and now this? Luckily, I’m always prepared for idiotic things like this happening and I had a little screwdriver in my purse. Mrs. Fix-it was angry, the sun was setting and there was no way in hell I was about to watch it from a dirt parking lot full of tour buses. I tore that thing apart, I unscrewed the entire frame of the bike. While I was doing this, vendors kept coming over to me, like at least 5,  getting all up in my face trying to sell shit to me. I really lost it on the last guy trying to sell me a book. “Look at me right now!  Why the fuck would I want to buy a book?!”  Sorry pal. And of course, plenty of men came over to tell me I was doing it wrong and that they could fix it better.  Rage level increasing. Bom’s job quickly became to deflect all these idiots from stepping within a 10 foot radius of me, or risk a complete meltdown. I was able to get the ignition back to where it needed to be and jerry rigged it to stay in place by ripping off the elastic ear band from a medical mask (which I brought to keep the dust out of my mouth) and lashing the ignition to the frame of the bike before screwing the whole damn thing back together. We had about 15 minutes til sunset.  Vroooooooom.

Sunset at Bagan

Sunset at Bagan

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Bagan temples at sunset

Thank Buddha we were able to find a small temple about 5 minutes away that we could climb to the top of to watch the sunset.  There were only about 10 people up there and zero Asian sun umbrellas. It was truly magnificent.  The sun set behind a mountain over the Irrawaddy river.

Sunset in Bagan

Sunset in Bagan

After sunset, we rode back to our hotel.  My bike fix worked and the real miracle is that I fixed it without the help of any men.  Wow….  We had dinner and went to sleep after a long exhausting day so that we’d be ready to get up and do it again the next day.  1000 temples down, 1000 to go.

Good morning!

Good morning!

We started at a little market outside of town that we just rode to by accident. It was all Burmese people just doing their regular morning thing.  We bought some bread and went out on a pier with some monks to feed the fish. This is a really common thing for Buddhists to do, same in Thailand.

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas

There were tons of kids running around playing and we saw a bride and groom going down to the river to get wedding photos. We made a stop at the local temple and then continued on our way. We had a half day to explore so we headed out of town to an area that we hadn’t been to yet.  The plan was to fly in the afternoon, so I was a little nervous that the ignition would break again and we’d be stranded in some obscure location and miss the flight.  But whatever, we just went anyway.  Outside of town, we went to a temple that was just in someone’s backyard in complete ruins.  I loved this because I went through a phase where I wanted to be Indians Jones, and I definitely have not fully exited it.

Where are the booby traps?

Where are the booby traps?

We saw a couple other pretty cool temples and they weren’t in the main tourist center so we had them mostly to ourselves.  One of them was red and gold at some point, but had faded to pink and gold.  I think this was my favorite one. It was definitely not famous for any reason, but I just really liked it.

My favorite

My favorite.

Free water!  Drink up!

Free water! Drink up!

At some point we ran out of water and since we were away from the highly touristed areas, there weren’t annoying vendors everywhere, which was nice, but I needed some fricking  water.  Of course, when I needed one of these guys, there were none to be found.  I considered drinking out of one of the free water jugs that are left out, but I reluctantly decided against it. These clay/ceramic pots are all over the place in Burma. All I know is that they have water in them and usually a few lonely cups laying around.  I’m not sure who provides it (I assume the temples) or if it’s clean. But it was probably a good choice to remain dehydrated rather than experimenting.

Built by a queen

Built by a queen

Most of the temples in Bagan were built by kings.  But the last one we visited built by a queen. There were some herders moving through the area just minding their own business when we were there.

Goats!!!

Moo.

After many hours and visiting hundreds of temples, it was time to say goodbye to Bagan.  A lot of people say “oh if you’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen them all”.  Not true.  Bagan is truly one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been and I am shocked that it has remained out of the limelight for this long. I can’t really put in to words how special this place is. Add it to your list.

Little girl monk.

See ya next time little girl monk.

Airport?

Airport?

Our next stop was Inle Lake.  We had to fly from Bagan so we went to the airport. This was an experience, but again it reminded me a lot of the Garoua airport in Cameroon. We were the first ones there except for a couple stray dogs and yes, I am talking about an airport. They hadn’t turned on the electricty yet, but we knew that we were in the right place because the chalk board sign behind the check in counter said there was an afternoon flight scheduled on Air Kanbawza, also known as air KBZ. I would describe this place as appearing post-apocalyptic but surprisingly functional.  I don’t think anything has changed since about 1950. The ball finally started to get rolling about a half hour after we arrived.  We “checked in” and got a sticker to wear that showed we were flying Air KBZ. We went through security which probably zapped me full of cancer rays, but it was all pretty efficient.  There were about 10 people on our flight and we walked out on to the tarmac and saw our plane. I’ve never seen anything like this thing. It must have been bought from some former Sovier Union block country’s air force.  It was pretty beat up. Good thing I am not terrified of flying or I would have turned right around.  There was basically “turbulence” from the minute the engines turned on but there was no going back now. That plane was rocking and rolling like we were going through a hurricane, except we were in a cloudless blue sky. I really thought this was the end. I was holding on to the arm rests with a literal death grip as if that would have saved my life when this thing dropped out of the sky into some God forsaken Burmese mountain side. I’m not a religious person, but I said a few Hail Marys on that flight.  When we gracefully smacked down on the runway, I had a long list of promises to God that I needed to fulfill.

There is only one way to get from the airport to Inle Lake; in a taxi controlled by the mafia. So it was like $75.  We found one other guy our age, Steve, so we joined up with him.  There was also a French family of four.  We wanted to join together and take an 8 passenger van and split the price. The mafia didn’t like that and said we had to take two cars even though we could have all comfortably fit in one. After some arguing, we saw that there was really no way around this so we split up, and spent $25 each instead of $10, and took two 8 passenger vans into town.  It’s about an hour drive from the airport to the town, so we had a chance to get to know our new friend and ended up getting dinner with him.

Inle Lake fishermen.

Inle Lake fishermen.

Crepes for breakfast

Crepes for breakfast

Inle Lake is surrounded by mountains and is pretty cold in the morning, especially if your hair is wet. Our hotel, Hotel Aquarius, was awesome.  They also served crepes for breakfast, instead of 1 banana like most of the other places we stayed.

Inle Lake is famous for its fishermen.  They skillfully row their fishing boats with one leg and it looks like they are dancing on the water. There are 4 main fishing villages around Inle and they are mostly built on stilts in the lake. People travel primarily by boat and subsist on fishing and farming in floating gardens.

Inle Lake village

Inle Lake village

The three of us took a private day tour of Inle, which was dirt cheap, like maybe $7 each or something. We took a longtail boat out of the main town, and went through the floating gardens into the village.

Group photo

Group photo

Tourism is fairly new for these guys, so we got to see some really authentic stuff, however the tour boats definitely have a circuit that they follow. We first stopped at a little village and saw guys making things out of silver with a little fire and a bellows. There was a temple with lots of stupas and a market selling fruits and vegetables, crafts and other stuff for tourists.  We continued on our way through the village, via boat. There are no roads or cars or land, so people go to school, to a friend’s house, to the store etc. by boat.

Woman at Inle Lake

Woman at Inle Lake

People from this area are very talented weavers.  They make special fabric from lotus flowers that is used to wrap Buddha statues. They also make beautiful silk and cotton textiles. Our next stop was to see some of these women. There were hundreds of wooden looms set up with women, young and old, artfully weaving all sorts of beautiful fabrics. I bought a red and yellow silk scarf from them.

She has been weaving for 70 years

She has been weaving for 70 years

After the weavers, we appropriately went to a boat building shop. I loved this, of course, and the guide had to pull me away from watching these guys planing wood to make the hulls of the ubiquitous long tail boats. I mean look at those chops and the inner arm tatoo, this guy totally looks like a sailor.

Boat builder

Boat builder

After the boat building shop, we went to a cigarette/cigar rolling workshop. This was cool to see, although I wasn’t as interested in this as I was in the boats, so I went back outside to watch the boat builders again and got pulled away, again.

Rolling cigars

Rolling cigars

After lunch, we took a trip up one of the small rivers that flows into the lake to go to Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda. We passed this guy taking the family buffalo out for a walk.

Taking the family buffalo out for a walk

Moo?

Buddha blobs

Buddha blobs

At this temple there were some Buddha statues that people have been putting gold leaf on for many many years.  Now, they are just blobs of gold.  As a woman, I actually wasn’t allow to approach them, so I had to sit further away while the boys got up close to see them.  One thing I can say for sure, the Burmese love gold Buddhist stuff. After this stop we continued on to another temple.

$15 at Whole Foods.

$15 at Whole Foods.

As usual, I was really thirsty so I bought a huge coconut when we arrived. There were a bunch of kids playing in the river where we docked and everyone was waving to us and smiling.  The temple was at the top of a big hill.  To get to it, we walked under a covered walkway, filled with souvenir vendors, of course.  They must have been on a break or something because they didn’t harass much. We were also the only people there, which was kind of weird considering how many vendors there were. As we got closer to the top of the hill, we could hear the tinkling of lots of little bells. At the top of the hill, there was a really amazing chorus of bells ringing from the tops of the stupas.  I took a video of it, so now is the time to turn on your sound.

This was pretty much the end of our day at Inle. This is another must see if you’re travelling to Myanmar. It’s probably the most relaxing place I went on the whole trip and I wish I had more time there, but I had to get moving to the last stop, Mandalay.

Monk express.

Monk express.

The plan was to take an overnight bus to Mandalay, and when we finally got on it, it was actually pretty nice. The thing that sucked is that the bus company picked us up in a shuttle and took us to the “station” 3 hours before the bus actually departed.  This station was basically a dirt clearing on the side of a road with a couple houses/shops. I had the option of sitting in the dirt or sitting on a plank suspending a trash pit.  The trash pit actually didn’t smell so I sat on the plank, for almost 3 hours. Bom found some local kids and I guess he went to play Super Nintendo or something with them while I got stuck making polite conversation with some “we’re finding our true calling in life” backpackers. When the bus finally came, it was much nicer than I expected.

Washing Mahamuni Buddha

Washing Mahamuni Buddha

In Mandalay, there is a famous temple with a huge golden Buddha.  It’s a major pilgrimage site outside the city and it’s well known because every morning at around 4:30, the senior monk comes and washes the face of the statue and brushes his teeth with a giant toothbrush in a very elaborate, formal ritual.  We arrived in Mandalay around 4AM so we just went straight to the temple to see it. When the ceremony was finally over around dawn, we were exhausted so we went to our hotel and took a nap.

Trishaw

Trishaw

We only had one day in Mandalay, and it started with a half day food tour from Grasshopper Adventures.  It was excellent. It ended up being a private tour because we were the only two people.  Our guide took us to our transportation, trishaws.  These are like bikes with a sidecar.  I rode solo while Bom and the guide rode on the other one; one person facing forward and one person backwards on the sidecar seat. These might be the slowest form of transportation I have ever been on, but they were cool.  The drivers were wearing longis (the traditional man skirts) and they got caught in the gears 0 times.  These guys were pros.

That's a lot of people on one bike

That’s a lot of people on one bike

Our first stop was to get some breakfast, mohinga, the same fish stew that we had in the church basement in Yangon. It was delicious, unsurprisingly.

Mohinga

Mohinga

Stop number two was the local fresh market.  This was in an old two story market building.  There were lots of fruits and vegetables, many that I had never seen, and even a few Bom had never seen which was interesting considering the two countries aren’t far from each other.

Colorful Tomatoes

Colorful Tomatoes

In Asia, there are a million different kinds of noodles. Think about it like in America, we have all different kinds of bread, or in Italy there are lots of kinds of pasta.

Burmese noodles

Burmese noodles

After the fresh market, we went to a tea shop.  There were lots of people there drinking chai and eating dumplings.  These things are called baos, for Chicago people, think Wow Bao.  They’re basically a big white pillows filled with pork or something. We tried 3 different kinds of tea.  They were all REALLY sweet, so I didn’t drink much.

Tea and dumpling party

Tea and dumpling party

Next was lunch.  I was so full, but I just kept eating. Pearl had told us that there was a Burmese version of Khao Soi, which is a Northern Thai curry and noodle dish, called Khao Shwe. Khao soi is my favorite Thai food so I had to try this Burmese version.  Burmese curries have a LOT of oil, like a centimeter deep oil slick on the top of all the food.  Our guide told is it’s to protect the food or something.

Khao Shwe, get in my belly

Khao Shwe, get in my belly

At this point I had already reached the point where I was so full, I was shallow breathing, but we had one more stop.  I soldiered on.  The last place served pickled tea leaves, called lahpet.  This is really unique to Myanmar, it’s their national dish.  It’s basically pickled or fermented tea leaves served as a salad or with some other condiments like sesame seeds and ginger. I’ve never had anything like it, and it was delicious.

Lahpet

Lahpet

It can also be served in salad form.

Pickled tea leaves salad

Pickled tea leaves salad

My observation of Burmese food is that it’s a really interesting fusion of SE Asian curry/ginger/fish sauce flavors mixed with the spices of India, which makes sense because of the location of the country. Everything I ate was so delicious, and I didn’t feel sick at all, except for the fact that I overate, but that’s my own fault.  Our trishaw drivers took us back to the Grasshopper office and dropped us off and I was in full food coma.  But, since we only had one day in Mandalay, taking a nap wasn’t an option.

Kuthodaw Temple

Kuthodaw Temple

 

We asked our guide if he could hook us up with a driver to take us to a few of the other sites around Mandalay for the afternoon. He did, and the first stop was Kuthodaw temple. This temple houses the world’s largest book. The whole thing is inscribed on upright stone tablets that are housed in 729 individual white stupas. This place was really peaceful and I almost fell asleep under a tree due to various forms of exhaustion.

Monks at Sutaungpyei

Monks at Sutaungpyei

Next, he took us up to the top of Mandalay hill.  At the top, there is a large temple complex and a panoramic view of the entire city. Sutaungpyei Pagoda is another important pilgrimage site so there were a lot of monks wandering around. This is a cool open air temple with lots of archways and mirrors.  Bom straight up fell asleep on the floor like a beggar so I wandered around and took some more photos while he napped.

Me at Sutaungpyei in Mandalay

Me at Sutaungpyei in Mandalay

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Monk on U Bein bridge

Our final stop in Mandalay, and the whole trip, was U Bein bridge.  This is the longest and oldest teak wood bridge in the world.  It spans Taungthaman Lake outside Mandalay and it’s about 1.2K long. We walked across the bridge to the little village on the other side.  Apparently, one of the Kings of Siam, King Uthumporn, was captured when Ayutthaya was sacked and held here with 30,000 other Thais.  The art inside one of the temples shows hidden Thai influence.

The pollution here was really bad, soooooo many plastic bags everywhere.  There are garbage cans along the bridge and we saw someone just dump a full one over the side of the bridge into the stagnant water below. There were also some little shacks built on the flood plains where people were farming.

Farm at U Bein bridge

Farm at U Bein bridge

There were people selling delicious foods, like water rat.  Bom tried one of these crabs. It actually looked really good, but for a Thai person to eat one bite and then toss it, I decided to pass.

Hungry for rat?

Hungry for rat?

It’s also an amazing place to watch the sun set. I have never seen a sun set like this in my life and it was the perfect way to end the trip. I can sum up my advice on Myanmar in 2 words: Go, soon.

Sunset at U Bein bridge, Myanmar.

Sunset at U Bein bridge, Myanmar.

Categories: Bagan, Buddhism, Buddhist Monks, Burma, Myanmar, Ruins, South East Asia, Travel | Leave a comment

Ayutthaya

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Test Your Might.  Excellent.  Kano, Liu Kang, Rayden, Johnny Cage, Scorpion, Sub Zero, Sonja…. MORTAL KOMBAT!  Ever since I saw Liu Kang’s sweet moves and flowing locks, I’ve wanted to be transported to Outworld.  Just kidding, that would be weird.  BUT, before I went to Ayutthaya, I did some research and found out that this is where the 1995 masterpiece, Mortal Kombat, was filmed.

DSC_0577Ayutthaya was the former capital of the Kingdom of Siam and interestingly, it was the largest city in the world in 1700, not London or Paris.  It was the trading capital of Asia at the time and because of its contact with the Arab world and Europe it was arguably the largest trading city in the world.  Yet, most people have never heard of it because:

A: According to US history classes, history of white people is all that matters.  Except for the Ancient Egyptians, because they built cool shit and The Rock used to be their scorpion king.

B: Ayutthaya was destroyed by the Burmese in the late 1700’s and subsequently abandoned.  All that’s left are stone ruins of palaces and temples.

Rocket/Tuk tuk hybrid

Rocket/Tuk tuk hybrid

It’s only about an hour from Bangkok, so on one of my precious days off, my friend Bom and I got in a van for $2 and headed out of town.  When we got there, we hired a rocket ship/tuk tuk to take us around for the day.

The town has been repopulated, but the ruins were declared a UNESCO world heritage site so they have been largely preserved.  Although, you could easily still climb all over them if you wanted to.  The modern town is interesting because since the former city was so large, the modern buildings co-exist with the ancient ones.  We’d be driving down the street and a business would be built next to the ruins of a small temple.  The more expansive temple/palace sites had larger “grounds” surrounding them though.

Where's Johnny Cage?

Where’s Johnny Cage?

Tree hungry.  Tree want eat Buddha.

Tree hungry. Tree want eat Buddha.

At one of the temples, there is a Buddha head that is slowly being swallowed by the roots of a large tree.  I imagine that if I go back to Ayutthaya someday, I probably won’t see it again.  That tree is hungry for Buddha.  There is also a huge reclining Buddha statue draped in an orange cloth.  He’s real sleepy.

How dare he show me the bottoms of his feet.  Rude.

How dare he show me the bottoms of his feet. Rude.

After checking out the ruins, we went to a floating market.  They had a theater there where actors portrayed the brutal sack of the city by the Burmese.  I mean, the attack was unquestionably terrible.  Innocent people were killed, raped and enslaved, but as an outsider, the play was the one of the best examples of propaganda I’ve ever seen.  They must have taken lessons from American war movie producers.

I hope that elephant tramples you.

I hope that elephant tramples you.

One thing that really pissed me off was the ivory section.  Because of the time I spent with Meg in Cameroon, I’ve read a fair amount about how their elephants are being slaughtered so that ivory can be sold in Asian markets.  But this was the first time I’d actually seen it and it really shocked me.  I was just gawking and the sales people were saying to me “real, real, special price for you”.  In a very un-Thai like way, I gave them my best scowl and just said “This is awful.  So bad.”

After trolling the market and “zoo” for a little while, we decided to head back home.  To complete the full cultural experience, we sat in traffic for over 3 hours.  The ancient Ayutthayans probably could have walked back to Bangkok faster.

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Categories: Ayutthaya, Ruins, Thailand, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

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