South East Asia

Indonesia – Round 1

Balinese Dancers

Balinese Dancers

My first trip to Indonesia came after a week spent in Malaysia, and yes they are different countries. I had spent 10 days hiking in national parks, sleeping on a wood floor under a mosquito net and drinking tribal moonshine while wearing a feathered hat, and even though all of that was totally awesome, I was ready for a little bit of beach (even though I hate sand) and relaxation.

Fishermen in Lombok

Fishermen in Lombok

My first stop on this trip was an island called Lombok. Upon arrival to the small airport, I was the last one through immigration because my ATM card wouldn’t work to take out money for my visa, unsurprising but still annoying. I walked out of the airport and was immediately bombarded by no fewer than 20 guys frothing at the mouth, yelling at me for a taxi. Nope, I’m over it. Several years living in the developing world and I’m finished putting up with this nonsense. So, I just put my hands up, football referee touchdown style and yelled “STOP, ALL OF YOU STOP! [and they actually shut up] Who can give me the cheapest taxi?” Let the auction begin. They continued yelling, but now it was a bidding war.  200, beach is so far madam, 175 I have nice car, 150 I carry your bag now ok?, 125 you very beautiful, 110 is best price, 75 ok? Sold.  I got the price down to less than half of the original fare. I don’t know if it was actually a good deal, but it seemed fair to me, 6 bucks. In the end I got a really nice young guy who was clearly new to the game and spoke excellent English.

Outriggers

Outriggers

DSC_0802I got a (cheap) little resort right on the water and parked it on a lounge chair (not in the sand) to read my book. This was the closest to the equator I have ever been, and my first trip to the Southern Hemisphere. Lombok taught me one very important lesson: the sun near the equator is really, really, really intense. I got the worst sunburn I have ever gotten in my life after just a couple hours outside. Besides that minor mis-calculation which resulted in me having to sleep flat on my back and not move for 3 nights, I enjoyed my brief stay here. Lots of fishermen, surfers and very aggressive sarong vendors.

My next stop was one of the Gili Islands. There are 3 small islands off the northeast coast of Bali/northwest coast of Lombok. There are no motorized vehicles on any of them and they are absolutely beautiful. Since I was not on my honeymoon, two of the islands did not interest me because I have already been the weird single person on the honeymoon island eating unlimited bowls of banana chips at the bar (see: Maldives). So I headed to the island where this boat was headed:

Bintang Express

Bintang Express

Shell Art

Shell Art

In case you’re unfamiliar, Bintang is the local brew. I met my friend Kate on Gili Trawangan to spend a few days in party beach paradise. We stayed in a really cool hostel which gave us free beer and free bed bugs. I’m highly allergic to these vampiric little monsters so I was soon covered in oreo-sized welts. The worst sunburn combined with the most maddening itching ever is awwwwwesome. But, the postcard perfect beach and the Bintang were a good antidote from my extreme physical discomfort.

This was the most covered up I could get from the sun with the clothes I had

This was the most covered up I could get from the sun with the clothes I’d brought

We rented fins and masks from some guy and spent a day in the water. Gili T has great snorkeling right off the beach. I didn’t care how much worse I would sunburn my skin, I was going to see a turtle god damnit. And I did. A lot of them. Unfortunately, in most easily accessible (ahem, tourist) areas of SE Asia, the reefs are all dead and snorkeling off the beach is a depressing reminder of how it’s all over. On Gili T, there is still some mostly alive stuff to see.

TURTLE!

TURTLE!

Photo taken from a safe distance

Photo taken from a safe distance

Since there are no cars or motos, horse drawn carriages are everywhere in the town. I soon found out that I spook the horses for some reason.  Whenever I walked past one of them, despite having blinders on, they would violently swing their head towards me and chomp their teeth.  I’m sure I’m probably incriminating myself right now, because “animals know the truth”. I always like a good story, but going to a developing world island “hospital” for a horse bite just didn’t seem worth it, so I quickly learned to avoid these guys.

After a couple days of sun, sand and weird backpackers with gross beards, I took the ferry to Bali en route to Ubud. The best word I can use to describe Bali is magical. BUT, you can only really get that feeling if you head away from the packed tourist hot spots along the beaches and get into the center of the island, Ubud.  So that’s what I did.

I woke up to this every morning.

I woke up to this every morning.

Usually I am a psycho planner with my trips.  Before I leave, I have everything booked and at the very least a plan of where I am going to be on which day. I’m not so psycho that I have things planned out to the hour, although just thinking about it doing that makes me very happy, but I recognize my organizational psychosis problem so I have to actively try to stop my planning before I totally go off the deep end and have plan A, B and C for every minute of the day. However, for some reason on this trip, I didn’t book my Bali accommodations and on Gili T, the internet sucked. There is nothing that makes me more anxious than the “show up and find a place” mentality so I asked Bom to just book me a place on Agoda (a hotel website) for 2 nights that had good reviews. He followed my exact instructions, which didn’t include a price… I was furious when I found out the place was $60 a night. Luckily for him, it turned out to be my favorite place that I have EVER stayed and honestly a reason to go back to Bali, which I have done, twice. The place is called By Dorry and it’s a bed and breakfast right in the middle of rice paddies outside the city. It was designed by an artist and is run by her daughter. The bottom line is that I woke up in the most serene, peaceful place and had a great breakfast before heading out for the day. I immediately knew I wanted to come back.

Tirta Empul

Tirta Empul

I only had one full day there so obviously rather than relaxing, I packed it full of activities. My first stop was to a water temple called Tirta Empul where people go for ritual purification. Bali is different from the rest of Indonesia in that it is primarily Hindu (not Muslim), but it’s a very unique kind of Hinduism that really only exists here. The architecture, statues, flower arrangements and jungle flora make the whole place seem like something out of a movie.

Morning Prayer

Morning Prayer

The driver for By Dorry is SUPER friendly and we got up early to drive to the town of Tampaksiring. We stopped along the way so I could see the rice terraces and some of the countryside. When we arrived at the temple, I had to tie a yellow sash around my waist before I could enter. And pay the white person fee… 

Tirta Empul

Tirta Empul

In addition to all sorts of moss covered Balinese statues, the temple has an underground spring that feeds a series of spouts where people go to wash away sins and get blessings. The complex isn’t huge, so it was easy to walk around in an hour or so. Since I had a full day ahead of me and since I always feel a little uncomfortable and sometimes disrespectful doing ritualistic things for a religion that I am not a part of, which is basically all religion, I sat back and observed what was going on around me. People get into the pool and stop at each station to pray. Sometimes they leave an offering above a particular station depending on what they are praying for.

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Patient 0

Going early in the morning was key because after an hour, the place was PACKED with tour groups. As I was about to leave, an Indonesian woman approached me and asked “photo?” I thought she wanted me to take a photo of her and her group. Wow. Was I wrong. What I agreed to set of an uncontrollable spiral of photos and I learned that I never, ever, ever want to be famous. After I took a photo with her, her friend wanted one, then another woman from the group, then some dude, then the crowd started to form… Pretty soon there were 50+ Indonesian people taking photos of the white girl. I hadn’t experienced this in Lombok or Gili so I didn’t know what to expect, but after this moment, on all my future Indonesia trips, it happened. It was like the paparazzi, but much nicer. When I tried to leave, they followed me, taking photos while I turned around and smiled and waved. Eventually I shook them and was able to get outta there.

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Clear Cafe Salad

After the temple, I got dropped off in town to have lunch and wander around.  There is some really awesome shopping here, which I took fullllll advantage of. I also ate at a delicious place called Clear Cafe, which has subsequently burned down and changed locations. The town is filled with new-agey, yoga themed, organic, raw everything which was a nice change from my Bangkok brand name, consumerist mall life.

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Can you find the monkeys?

My afternoon activity was the Monkey Temple. This place is wacky and if I have ever felt like I was in an Indiana Jones movie, minus the tourists, this would be it.  I felt like I was supposed to find some kind of secret magical monkey amulet. The Monkey Temple is just that, a temple over run with monkeys and probably magic.

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Lady monkey picking bugs off her man

Even though they are wild, these monkeys have also become very accustomed to tourists so they will not run away if you approach them. Rather, they will be like where the F is my food, and then climb all over you and steal all your stuff and try to eat it. Turns out that monkeys are kind of a-holes. Monkey also get into the garbage and eat non-food items such as tape and paper towel rolls. They are not open to negotiation on this. They are going to eat it no matter what you do. I watched this mohawked monkey try to eat scotch tape for like 15 minutes; he was not interested in sharing.

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Good luck trying to find the end.

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Welcome to the afterlife?

There was also a cremation temple as part of the complex. Balinese Hindus have elaborate cremation ceremonies. Typically, they bury you for a certain number of days, depending on your status and then exhume your corpse and cremate it. This part of the temple had some pretty wild statues.

Further into the temple, there were some more statues that were just so cool.  Everything is covered in moss and vines and it is unlike any place I have ever been. There was a small river going through the temple, and this photo is the bridge over the river.

 

 

 

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Where’s Indy?

After more wandering, I found some other cool stuff.  I don’t have anything to write about it so I am just going to post the photos because I think they speak for themselves.

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Roar.

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Hear no evil. See no evil. Speak no evil.

 

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I took like 50 photos of this guy trying to get a good one.

After I had enough of these annoying monkeys, I walked back into town for dinner and then went to a (100% for tourists) Balinese dance show at the former Prince’s palace. I usually hate this kinda stuff, but it was totally worth it. The dancers were really made up, to the point where I had some trouble trying to figure out who were the men and who were the women. There was also a full gamelan orchestra. I only know what this is because I went to the Field Museum in Chicago and they had an orchestra on display from when they brought the “savages from Java” to play at the World’s Fair. Basically, it’s an orchestra of xylophones with drums and bells. When they perform, they open their eyes really big and use them as part of the dance. They move every part of their body with great precision. This was the perfect way to end my trip.

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This is a man.

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Not sure about this one…

My first trip to Indonesia just gave me a taste of some of the awesome things this country has to offer.  Stay tuned for Round 2…

Categories: Bali, Beach, Indonesia, Nature, Paradise, Snorkeling, South East Asia, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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?…..

Categories: Bagan, Beach, Buddhism, Buddhist Monks, Burma, Camping, Hanoi, Headhunters, Hiking, Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, National Park, Nature, Orangutan, Paradise, Ruins, Saigon, Snorkeling, South East Asia, Thai Culture, Thailand, Travel, Trekking, Uncategorized, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Malaysia: Penang, Borneo and Headhunters

richie

My trip to Malaysia was a mix of modern, tribal, beautifully natural, foodgasmic, environmentally depressing and biologically diverse experiences.  Most importantly, I had one goal: must see wild orangutans before humans kill all of them. Despite all the other awesome things I did, if I had not seen one of these apes, I would have been really disappointed. Misson accomplished.

I should have asked for commission

I should have asked for commission

Bom joined me again on this trip and we started on Penang Island, which was an important British colonial hub and is currently one of the big commercial cities in SE Asia. The thing that Penang is known for is its diversity of people, and therefore food. It’s also very modern; Bom had never been to a place where the power lines are underground or seen a bus that kneels for handicapped people. Upon arrival in Georgetown, at 10PM, we met a vacationing, all adult Thai family of 7 who had no English skills, no hotel reservation, no map and truly had not thought to plan any of this stuff before arrival. This was not surprising to me at all. We shepherded them to the hotel that we were staying in. Luckily, there were two rooms left, so the 7 of them shared 2 double beds. Sounds relaxing.

Bag 'o juice

Bag ‘o juice

I couldn’t wait to gorge myself on all the delicious street foods that I had been hearing about, so even though it was late, we went eating. First stop was some street juice in a bag, followed by meat on a stick, which was something like chicken satay, and finally some kind of noodle dish. Things were starting to close down at around 11, so we walked a few blocks into the Indian section of town and continued eating things that looked good. I ate until I was shallow breathing, walked back to the hotel and took a photo with all my new Thai friends who were sitting in the hallway playing on their phones at midnight. I finally passed out in an intense food coma and drooled on myself. The plan for the next day was more eating, punctuated by visiting local historical sites. For breakfast I got a poppy seed bagel, which doesn’t sound exciting but when you haven’t had a bagel in 18 months, it’s pretty f-ing exciting. And a bowl of Greek yogurt with walnuts and fresh yellow mango. Obviously I took a picture of it, but I am too embarrassed to post it.

Under construction

Under construction

Men...

Men…

Georgetown is the historical city on Penang Island.  It’s actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has an interesting blend of colonial era architecture and modern street art. The buildings from the 150 year colonial occupation have been preserved really well. Since it’s so diverse, there are churches, mosques, Hindu and Buddhist temples and even a synagogue (although it’s not used for religious reasons anymore) all within a few blocks of each other. There are lots of wrought iron sculptures that explain important or interesting facts about different parts of the city.  This one about Love Lane, where all the prostitutes lived, was one of my favorites. There were also huge paintings on the sides of the buildings, like this “little” girl.

"Little" girl

“Little” girl

Boom.

Boom.

We checked out a photography museum, some kind of community art cafe and a few of the street art installations before heading to Fort Cornwallis.  This star-shaped fort was built by the British East India company in the 1700’s and hasn’t been used in any battles…yet.  There were some pretty cool old canons here.  One of them was cast by the Dutch in the 1600’s and given to the Sultan of Johore.  Then the Portuguese took it and brought it to Java.  Then, pirates or something, then a magical curse, then the Brits took it and brought it to Penang, then the Japanese took it.  But it eventually ended up at Fort Cornwallis.

Flowers in Gerogetown

Flowers in Georgetown

Next stops, a flower market, India town, Chinatown and a food market to eat some kind of noodles that had dried shrimp mixed in so I didn’t eat them. No matter how much time I spend in Asia, I will never develop a taste for these things.

Sunset on Penang Hill

Sunset on Penang Hill

Being a tourist

Being a tourist

After our self guided walking tour, we took a quick break at the hotel before heading to Penang Hill.  We took a local bus for about an hour and got to see the rest of the island.  An old lady got on the bus in a wheel chair and Bom was so excited about the fold out ramp that he did all the work for the bus driver.  The old lady and, presumably her daughter, appreciated it. When we arrived, I used my Miami Student ID card, with my 18 year old photo, to get a discount and made a scene when they didn’t accept it at first.  Works every time.  We took a cable car up a mountain side with a bunch of Chinese tourists and saw a great, albeit hazy, view of Penang and peninsular Malyasia.  Watching the clouds roll over the mountains during the sunset up here was really nice. Unfortunately, I have no idea how to use my extremely powerful camera and “auto” just didn’t cut it for this photo.

Kuching

Kuching

The next morning we had an early flight to Kuching, which is the capital of the Sarawak province of Malaysia.  It’s on the island of Borneo. Even though it is still part of Malaysia, you need a special visa to go to Borneo.  We stayed at an amazing place called Traveller Homestay that was run by a Chinese/Malaysian brother and sister.  There are many ethnically Chinese people whose families have been living on Borneo for generations.  We got home cooked breakfast every morning and there was always a bowl full of oranges in the common area which Bom and I took FULL advantage of. Kuching is pretty sleepy.  Like really sleepy.  But, it’s the perfect gateway to lots of amazing national parks and wilderness.

Mango time

Mango time

Show me ya moves!

Show me ya moves!

As I mentioned, my sole mission for this trip was to see orangutans who are not living in a zoo. We took a bus 25K outside of Kuching to a preserve called Semenggoh where there are 20+ semi-wild orangutans being rehabilitated with the goal of releasing them back into the wild.  So as far as I am concerned, seeing as National Geographic hasn’t gotten back to me, this is the closest I was gonna get to the real deal.  I was totally psyched.  Bom, less psyched, but happy to take a nap while I indulged my great ape obsession. I saw a couple females, one with a baby, and some young males.  These guys can break a coconut open with their bare hands.

Milk party

Milk party with Richie

We happened to be there at feeding time which means the rangers put a big pile of fruit on a platform and if the orangutans want to eat it they come, if they don’t, they don’t.  The real treat of our trip was that we got to see Richie, the alpha male (the first photo from this post).  Apparently the day before, Richie got a little testy and attacked some Chinese tourists. So, they warned us to keep our distance from him.  Someone asked the ranger, “What if he starts to come towards us?” and he just answered, “run.”  Ok great. Big bad Richie also enjoys drinking milk from a bottle like a baby and could probably crush your skull with one hand. Anyone who would argue that humans and apes don’t have a common ancestor should be put a little too close to him. The last bus back to town was leaving and Bom had to physically drag me away from the orangutans and we ran/walked the 3K through the jungle to get back to the bus stop on time.

Bako National Park Sarawak

Bako National Park Sarawak

The next day was our visit to Bako National Park.  I saw more wacky PBS nature show animals here than anywhere else in my life. Bako is really cool because it’s a jungle/rainforest on the South China Sea. So, I saw weird beach creatures and weird jungle creatures including endangered proboscis monkeys, mud skippers, a Borenean bearded pig and my favorite, the dung beetle.

DSC_0268

Jellyfish

To get to Bako, you have to take a boat which drops you on the shore and you wade through the water across a huge beach.  I don’t like this situation because I am always the one that loses balance getting off the boat and falls in the water with all my clothes on. I kept the tradition alive, but luckily it was very shallow so I didn’t totally soak myself.  That day, the beach was littered with these giant jellyfish blobs.  They were about a food across and presumably dead; I checked by poking them with my bare foot.  I’m not sure why there were so many of them.

Proboscis monkey

Proboscis monkey

Baby Proboscis Monkey

Baby Proboscis Monkey

Our first land wildlife sighting and arguably the coolest, although I have already stated my feelings about the dung beetle, was a big group of proboscis monkeys.  They are endemic to Borneo (meaning they only live on this island) and endangered so it was really cool to be able to see so many of them, including a baby.  These things are comically hilarious because of their giant noses. They are Seussian, especially the babies which look like Whos from Whoville. They were really active and I was able to get close to them because they aren’t as aggressive as other apes. These guys also honked a lot.  I mean with a schnoz like that, what else do you expect.

Proboscis monkey

Proboscis monkey

Wagler's Pit Viper

Wagler’s Pit Viper

Next sighting was a snake curled up in a tree. Upon doing further research when I got home on Encyclopedia Internet, I figured out that this snake was a Wagler’s Pit Viper. They’re not commonly seen because they are arboreal and camouflaged well, but this particular one decided to park it in the single tree that overhangs the entrance to the park.

As per usual, I began my anticipated 6+ hour hike into the tropical jungle with one 500 mL bottle of water and a Luna bar that was already melted into a blob.  I have literally made this same mistake so many times, you would think I am incapable of learning anything or that I should be dead. There are a couple trail options and we decided to do two of them; a short one to get to a beach and a longer one to  go to a nice viewpoint.  In total, the hike was about 12k and the weather was 95 degrees and humid. I was well prepared.  Not.

Mangroves

Mangrove Wasteland

Ubiquitous Seabird

Ubiquitous Seabird

To get into the jungle, you have to take a boardwalk through a wasteland of dead mangroves.  It’s pretty creepy actually. There were some sea birds and fiddler crabs walking around in the mud, but nothing particularly interesting. The low tide smell reminded me why I can’t eat fish.

Once we got off of the boardwalk, we found a HUGE jungle hermit crab.  I should have put my hand next to it so there was some scale to the photo.  He had a mossy green shell and was surprisingly fast for his size.

Hermit Crab

Hermit Crab

One of the coolest things about this park is the crazy root systems of the trees. We had to climb over these things everywhere.  Because it’s so humid, they are also very slippery so I wiped out more than a few times.  I’m also very clumsy so it’s not 100% the roots’ fault. Before I ever came to a jungle, this photo is almost exactly how I pictured one. But in my mind, there was a dancing bear and a kid in a loin cloth.

The Trail

The Trail

Butterflies at Bako

Butterflies at Bako

At this point in the hike, we hadn’t yet seen my favorite wildlife (dung beetle!), but the biodiversity of this place was already very apparent.  In less than 1k, we had seen endangered monkeys, lots of crabs, ants marching in a row, jellyfish, a pit viper, butterflies and birds and there was still more to come. And the best part, we had only seen like three other people! The cure for every disease in the world must be in these jungles.  Good thing we’re cutting them all down to make palm oil, because if we found those cures and humans lived longer, the planet would truly be doomed.

Bako beach

Bako beach

Tide pools!!!

So. Many. Tide Pools.

The first hike was short so it only took us about 40 minutes to get to the beach, where the wildlife party continued. This wasn’t the stereotypical “paradise beach” with white sand and blah, blah, blah. But I hate sand and this place had awesome tide pools filled with all sorts of cool stuff so it was my paradise beach. They all had little minnows in them, and there were a lot of hermit crabs and snails. I spent a long time on those rocks working on my sunburn and looking in each pool to find critters.   I think at this point, Bom was sitting in the shade being patient while I reverted back to my childhood activity of finding animals in tide pools, putting them in a bucket in the beating sun with the goal of eventual transport to their new home in my yet to be built extravagant sandcastle and then learning about the circle of life. Unfortunately  (for me, not the sea life), yellow plastic bucket from Mr. Amazing’s was not on my preparation list; neither was water or adequate sunscreen.

This beach crab is more stylish than the jungle crab

This beach crab is more stylish than the jungle crab

Mudskippers on a date

Mudskippers on a date

Probably the coolest fauna sighting at this beach were mudskippers.  At first I couldn’t figure out what they were because they are really fast and really skittish and also because I did 0 research about what I might see beyond proboscis monkeys.  I figured out that I needed to approach them slowly in order to see what the heck they were. I dug back into the random thoughts section of my brain and remembered Muddy the Mudskipper from Ren and Stimpy. Just kidding Mom and Dad, I never watched that show, not even at my friends’ with absent parents houses….

Bako Trail

Bako Trail

After I was finished indulging myself at the beach, and when I started to feel bad about making Bom sit and wait for me, we headed back into the jungle to continue the hike.  We had only gone about 2k, and my water was 3/4 gone.  We had another 8k round trip ahead of us in the midday sun.

Dung Beetle!

Dung Beetle!

This part of the hike was particularly exciting for me because this is when I finally saw the beetle. He was just right in the middle of the trail.  OMG.  I know it sounds nuts and I don’t know why I think they are so interesting but I just do. I should have probably been more excited about seeing whatever animal left the dung than the beetle rolling it into a ball.  For anyone who was not subjected to hours of nature shows on PBS as a child and got to watch cartoons instead, a dung beetle is simply a big black beetle that rolls poop into a ball. (see the video) I don’t know, care or remember what happens with the ball. These things are just mesmerizing.

Top of Bako

Top of Bako

Ok, enough on the dung beetle.  The next part of the hike was particularly grueling because we had to hike up, and up and up. We weren’t exactly sure what we’d see at the end of the line, but we knew it better be f-ing worth it.  The water was completely gone, and we still had a long way to go. As we got closer to the top, the flora quickly changed from Jungle Book to Lion King.  It became dry and scrub brush-y and sandy. And hot as balls. This photo looks like it’s just missing a pair of impossibly attractive, middle-aged white people wearing full linen outfits and leather sandals going for a romantic stroll.  It was anything but that. First of all, I was completely red and Bom was black skin (as Thai people say, but actually mean tan).  I was wearing the nerdiest shoes known to man, Keens and Bom was rocking a pair of baby blue, knock off Converse. We were hangry and had run out of water hours ago. There were rusty nails jutting out precariously all along the path and broken boards with spiders under them. It was like a death march. The only positive thing was that, by all of our calculations, it was almost over.

I'm still alive, barely

I’m still alive, barely

We were correct. The trail finally opened up to this breathtaking view of a bay from a cliff.  It was totally worth it, even if we might have died up there. We sat and rested up here for a little while and then headed down to the beach to check it out.  We saw some French people who had been dropped off there by a boat enjoying a full picnic. At this point, we were so thirsty that we contemplated going and asking for water. Instead, Bom went and asked the boat guy if he had any.  Thank God he did or we might not have made it back.  He gave us a liter and we drank the whole thing in like 30 seconds.

Just take one more step back...

Just take one more step back…

After chilling on the beach for a little while, in a cave because neither of us could be in the sun anymore, we began the trek back.  I ate my Luna bar, which I would NOT recommend doing if you don’t have any water to wash it down. As is evidenced by my complete lack of photos from the return trip, I just wanted to get the F out of that jungle and get some real food and water as soon as possible.

Oink

Oink

When we got back to the Park HQ a couple hours later, and got food and water, we had another super cool wildlife sighting.  The Bornean jungle pig.  Apparently these guys hang out around the HQ because of the food and if you rumple a potato chips bag, the go bonkers.

Man vs. Wild

Man vs. Wild

Also, around the HQ are the macaques.  These guys are such little shits.  They are all over SE Asia and the ones that have gotten used to people try to steal your stuff and scratch you and climb all over you with their weird little monkey hands. Bom had a show down with one who tried to get our peanuts. Man vs. Wild. Man won.

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Kuching Jungle Curry

We took the last boat out of the park and went back to our homestay to shower, eat a million free oranges and re-hydrate.  We tried to get a pirated copy of Game of Thrones to watch because everyone loves to spoil it on the internet (I’ve read the books, but Bom hasn’t), but after 10+ failed attempts, we gave up and walked to get food on the Kuching river front. I got some seriously awesome jungle curry and lime soda that was so good, I tried to replicate it at home.  Fail.

Skulls

Skulls

Knowing that Borneo is home to some of the most interesting indigenous tribes in the world, most famously the head hunters, the Anthropologist in me was not about to leave without interacting with some of them.  Bom was less than thrilled about this, but I was hell bent on doing a trip into the heart of the rainforest and staying with a tribe for a night.

Delicious jungle ferns

Delicious jungle ferns

So we found a  guide to take us into the interior.  It took a couple hours from Kuching so we stopped along the way at a market and sampled some local fare.  It’s a lot of the same stuff that you would see at other SE Asian markets, bananas, papayas, leafy greens, a butcher section etc.  This market had a few unique things due to its proximity to what’s left of the rain forest.  They had lots of ferns, which I later ate in a stir fry and they were delicious. I also found this guy cooking chickens with a very high powered blow torch.  He wanted me to take a photo of him.  No problem pal.

Blowtorch Chicken

Blowtorch Chicken

No thanks.  We prefer junk.

No thanks. We prefer junk.

When we were at the market, the guide suggested that we buy some food to take to the host families. I was totally down for that and ready to shop for all kinds of produce.  I was even ready to buy and haul watermelons into the jungle.  Then the guide informed me that they would prefer packaged stuff (i.e. high sugar processed corn/wheat puffs and crackers and cookies in individually wrapped plastic bags). I bought the absolute least amount of crap that he said would be acceptable.

One thing I did read a little bit about before going was the destruction of the  primary rainforest for the production of palm oil.  Everyone has seen the photos on the “Save the Rainforest” campaigns with the ragged stumps creeping toward the towering trees that remain.  This is what it actually looks like and it is depressing.  Palm oil is a cash crop that is dominating agriculture in Borneo. Look on any kind of packaged/processed food, or hair/soap product or cosmetics, or detergent and chances are, it contains palm oil, or some derivative of it. You can read about it here (Everyday Things With Palm Oil).   The demand has skyrocketed in the food industry because it can be used to fry at very high heat and doesn’t contain trans-fats. You can’t really get an idea of just how bad the environmental impact is until you see it.  We would drive for 30 minutes at 60mph and it was just palm oil trees as far as the eye could see.  It all used to be rainforest. In the areas that are being logged to be transformed into palm oil plantations, the earth just looks like it’s in pain. I don’t know how else to describe it. The soil is red and the tree trunks are thrashed to shreds. I don’t eat much processed food, but seeing the destruction had such an impact on me that palm oil is the one thing I look for on the ingredients list and if I see it, I absolutely will not buy it.  Unless I’m drunk and those Snyder’s cheese pretzel sandwiches are in front of me.  I’m only human.

In we go.

In we go.

After lunch and 4 hours of driving, we finally stopped at a river bank where a boat was waiting to take us up the river to the tribe.  There is no road access to the place we were going and it took about 40 minutes by boat via a shallow river. There was a woman on the front of the boat whose job it was to push us off the sandbars when we got stuck.  But we still had to wear crappy old life-jackets… #Asia.

Boats at the village

Boats at the village

Iban Longhouse

Iban Longhouse

When we finally arrived at the village, we were welcomed by someone with a gong and a old woman wearing only a sarong.  Thumbs up for indigenous nudity.  I think the gong was more to warn people that the foreigners had arrived than to welcome us. Some brief notes on the group that we stayed with: They were members of the Iban tribe. Traditionally, they practiced headhunting, but in modern times, they’re not our warring and chopping off peoples’ heads.  They live in longhouses.  Basically it is one long house with a common corridor that connects all of them. Nowadays, they have electricity and running water systems, but it’s still very new. The tribe that we were staying with has hosted foreigners for a number of years so we were definitely not a shock to them.

Iban man with tatoos

Iban man with tatoos

When we got there, we just hung out for the afternoon. There seemed to be a lot of that going on, just hanging out. They brought us some tea and we wandered around and relaxed.  One thing that was surprising was that they smoked like chimneys.  Everyone.  The guide brought them tons of cigarettes. There were a couple old guys roaming around who had badass tatoos.  They each mean something, but I can’t remember exactly what. The neck one is to protect you from poison and the flowers on the shoulders are for coming of age. They obviously can’t speak a word of English so we used a lot of body language to communicate.

Masks

Masks

Tribal drunk

Tribal drunk

After our afternoon hang out, it was time for dinner followed by a show.  We sat on a mat and ate with one of the families.  It was pretty standard fare.  Some stir fried vegetables, eggs, rice, dried fish and fruit. When we finished, we headed back out to the common area where everyone was gathering around the chief’s door.  He came out and welcomed us.  Then the local women played some instruments while a little girl danced in traditional clothing.  After that, two men did a tribal war dance that simulated a fight. Then the party really got started when they gave us shots of moonshine that they distill from rice (?) and gave us straw hats so that we could join in the dance. A giant cockroach fell out of mine into my lap right before I put it on. Good thing we had those shots.

The orchestra, the dancer and the chief

The orchestra, the dancer and the chief

Snack time

Snack time

After we danced around in a circle for a little while, it was time to present our gifts.  We gave our Costco sized bags of snacks to him and he was very appreciative.  He must hoard this stuff for months and we were there on redistribution night.  He brought out a ton of snacks and each little bag was separated into a different pile and distributed evenly among all of the families.  The men hung around drinking and throwing dice and the women gathered all their snacks and went to bed. We were invited to stay up with the men and get hammered on jungle moonshine, but I feel like that would end in a story line for episode of some show on the Discovery Channel.  They gave use a mosquito net and mats and we just slept in the main corridor.  I slept like a rock.  It was so peaceful that I slept through the roosters in the morning until about 8:00.

After breakfast, we got to shoot stuff with their blow guns. They used to use these to shoot poison arrows. I was terrible, Bom wasn’t bad.  I think my weapon of choice is the Thai wooden crossbow.  I was lethal with that thing in Chiang Mai.

mmmmm ferns

mmmmm ferns

And that was the end of my brief and touristy anthropological trip. My biggest take away from the experience is that while it may seem that these people have a lot to learn from the “modernized” world, in reality, we have a lot to learn from them. I couldn’t go back to the hotel without one more jungle fern feast though.

Back in Kuching, we wandered around the town for a little bit and I freaked out at a mini-mart when they had Crunch Bar ice-cream. Bom thinks I’m super weird. We ate more jungle curry and called it a night.

Borneo is amazing and even though I only spent a short time there, I am glad that I had the opportunity to go and see what little bio-diversity is left before it’s all totally destroyed.  Here are my two pieces of advice about Borneo:

1. Go, soon.

2. Don’t buy things with palm oil in them.

Bom went back to Thailand the next day, but my trip wasn’t quite over. I had a night in Kuala Lumpur before heading down to Indonesia for a few days. I can’t say much about KL because I was literally only there for a few hours but I made sure to go to the Petronas Towers. When I was standing in front of them, I had a major realization….

I travel because when I first see something with my own eyes that I have only ever seen in pictures, it’s like I am alive in my own imagination.

Petronas Towers

Petronas Towers

Categories: Headhunters, Malaysia, National Park, Nature, Orangutan, Paradise, South East Asia, Travel, Trekking, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

White Elephant Mountain – เขาช้างเผือก

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White Elephant mountain is the highest peak at Thong Pha Phum National Park on the western border of Thailand. I went there last year with some friends to do a really cool hike. The park is heavily protected and you can only hike for a couple months per year.  On top of that, they only allow 60 people per day on the trail and you must go with a military guide because it’s right on the border with Myanmar. It’s also VERY Thai; there is almost no information about it in English online.  In fact, it’s so Thai that when we got to the gate of the park, they didn’t know how to charge Neil and me to enter because the rangers had never had to deal with a foreigner.  The price was supposed to be higher for us, but they were so confused that we just got the Thai price.

Sunrise in Kanchanaburi

Sunrise in Kanchanaburi

DSC_0547We spent the night outside of Kanchanaburi before entering the park and went to a little local market in the morning to watch the sunrise. The road to the park is really windy and dangerous with like one guard rail. To add to the danger factor, we let the guy with the least amount of driving experience (Bom) drive the car. The night before he hit some rail road tracks going about 75mph and kept the car in control when we landed on the other side, so we figured he could handle the switchbacks. Upon arrival, we paid our Thai entrance fee and stopped at the rangers’ station to get set up with a guide. I’m not really sure what happened here because it was all in Thai. I spent most of my time looking at the terrarium full of dead beetles and this diagram of footprints. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any wild elephants or sun bears, probably because they are all dead.

Village

Village

Village girl

Village girl

We drove to the hillside village where we met our guide, porters and a couple other people who were in our group.  We saw our guide like three times on the whole hike because the other people in our group were so slow that we hiked away from them like 2 minutes into the trek.

Strongmen

Strongmen

We hired porters to carry our food, water, tents and sleeping stuff.  Technically we could have carried all of it ourselves, but when it’s like $15 for someone else to carry it up and down, it’s tough to turn down.  They also set up/broke down our tents. These guys were unbelievable.  They carried 50 kilos each (over 100 pounds) wearing a pair of old broken Crocs and did the whole thing in about half the time it took us.

We hiked through forest, grassland, tall reeds, and scrub.  The temperature was great and there was a nice breeze all day. It took us about 4 hours to hike up to our camp. In the picture you can see our camp in the small clearing on the bottom (with all the tents already set up by the porters) and the path up to the summit along the mountain ridge.

Camp at the base of the summit

Camp at the base of the summit

Happy hiker

Happy hiker

We took a short break at camp and took a nap since we’d only gotten about 4 hours the night before. We planned to hike to the summit to see the sun set. It’s hard to see from the picture, but on either side of that path, it is a steep drop off to either side, so it was fairly challenging.  There were also some sections that we had to climb up the rocks.  The guides had ropes tied up to the rocks so that made it easier.

Rock climbing

Rock climbing

The last part up to the summit was really steep and was all loose soil. Prim, Neil and I were fine, but Bom was wearing Converse with no tread.  For the parts that he wasn’t crawling on his hands and knees, the guide literally had to drag him through the dirt. That guy earned his fee on this section of the hike.

The little engine that could

The little engine that could

We got to the top right on time and were able to watch the sun set over the Thai/Burmese mountains.  It was so peaceful. Then it was time to hike back down to camp and cook dinner. Bom slid on his ass for most of the way, but we all got down safely.  I brought stuff to make s’mores. These things are so American, it was even a first for Neil.  I couldn’t find graham crackers, but I found something that was close enough.

Victory

Victory

Prim and I were fine in our tent, but they were definitely not made for someone Neil’s height so he had a rough night. We started the next day pretty early, and it was cold so it was nice to hike.  Luckily our only job was to wake up and go.  The porters took care of everything else, and then blew past us on the trail on the way back down.  The return trip was obviously way easier and only took about 2 hours.

Camp in the morning

Camp in the morning

This was a really cool experience and I definitely recommend it if you can figure out how the heck to get there and arrange it.

Wilderness

Wilderness

Categories: Camping, Hiking, Kanchanaburi, National Park, Nature, South East Asia, Thai Jungle, Thai Mountain, Thailand, Travel, Trekking | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Vietnam

Eggshell Paintings

Eggshell Paintings

I think I should start this story from the real beginning which was at the Vietnamese embassy in Bangkok.  I had to get my visa there and it was easy to find, because it is located across the street from the American Ambassador’s residence.  I don’t know if this placement was intentional or some kind of sick joke, but the Vietnamese Embassy is literally falling apart (like there were construction workers trying to put it back together) and across the street in America, behind an iron fence, it looks like the Garden of Eden.  Anyway, after I procrastinated until the last minute and got my visa, I was off.

My 3 conclusions about Vietnam:

1. America lost.

2. Vietnamese food is boring.

3. How is it possible for so many motorbikes to exist per square foot of road space?

Their horns are probably still on.

Their horns are probably still on.

I spent a week in Vietnam and had the opportunity to do and see a lot, or at least a lot of whatever the government controlled tourism industry would allow me to see.  I started in the capital, Hanoi (in the North for everyone that forgot their high school history lessons).  Upon arrival, I learned very quickly that the way to cross the street is to just walk at a slow pace and the sea of motorbikes will part.  It’s miraculous.  However, if you walk quickly, they seem to be attracted to you like moths to a flame and you will certainly die.  And I swear to God, they must have some kind of locking mechanism on their horns that just allows them to drive with the horn on, like how you would drive with headlights on.  Please imagine this scene in your mind and laugh.

Lanterns galore.

Lanterns galore.

My only remarkable meal.

My only remarkable meal.

Hanoi has an amazing old quarter that was built by the Frogs when they were the colonial power.  The architecture is French Colonial but the buildings are tired, overgrown with all sorts of tropical flora and decorated with lanterns, baskets and other bric-a-brac.  On my first day in Hanoi, I ate my only truly remarkable meal.  I went to a place called Cha Ca La Vong, which serves one dish: fish cooked in oil.  I hate fish, I usually avoid it, but this place was in my 1000 Things To See Before You Die book and I love to check things off the list, so I just went.  It was absolutely delicious.

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The definition of a square jaw

Caligrapher

Calligrapher

I wandered around the old quarter for a while learning the ways of the motorbikes.  In the center of the city, there is a big park with a lake (Hoan Kiem Lake) and a temple on a small island in the middle.  It’s called The Temple of the Jade Mountain and is dedicated to Taoist and Confucian principles.  I must have been there on portrait day or something because there were a ton of women taking photos.  They were all beautifully made up and were wearing long, traditional Vietnamese dresses.  It was very peaceful and you could feel the French influence in the park and street design.  I kept plodding along taking photos and just being a tourist.  I tried asking what was going on, but they couldn’t understand me so I just remained ignorant about this whole situation.

An exciting photo

An exciting photo

Next stop on my meandering, self guided tour was lunch.  I just went to a street vendor selling noodles.  They were fine.  This is how I would describe 95% of the Vietnamese food I ate.  It’s fine.  There isn’t much flavor and there is no spice.  It’s not bad, it’s not good.  It’s food that I can eat and it will keep me alive.  If American restaurants served Vietnamese food the way it is prepared in Vietnam, they would go out of business in a month.  The photo was the most exciting part of this meal.

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Scales of Fruit

In Hanoi, many of the roads are named after what they sell, or traditionally sold, on that particular road: basket road, lantern road, silk road, shirt road, meat road, vegetable road etc.  There are also lots of mobile vendors wheeling bicycles laden with fruits or carrying bars with baskets on either end.  A lot of people also wear these woven, triangle hats, which I thought were just a horrible, racist Asian stereotype, but turns out, the Vietnamese wear them for real, even in the city.  The local barbers just set up shop on a wall.  Literally, they have a chair on the sidewalk and a mirror and little table bolted into a cement wall.  I admit, I was tempted to get a trim just for the experience.

Just a little off the ends

Just a little off the ends

Portrait Day

Portrait Day

Up next was the Temple of Literature, where portrait day continued so you better believe I took full advantage of the chance to take a million photos like an obnoxious tourist. I think maybe it was graduation? I tried asking again, but no luck. I paid the obligatory white person fee and grumbled my way into the college/temple. The Temple of Literature was originally built about 1000 years ago as the first university in the kingdom and it’s dedicated to Confucius.  There are large tablets engraved with the names of people who passed the royal exams.

What's black and white and red all over?

What’s black and white and red all over?

At this point, I needed to start to wander my way back to the hotel because I had been walking in unguided circles almost all day.  I took a route through what I call propaganda park.  I’m sure it has a real name, but the giant statue of Lenin and large Vietnamese flags everywhere lent themselves to a more “state controlled everything” sort of name.

What a beautiful day.

What a beautiful day.

Day 2 was my Ha Long Bay day trip day.  Ha Long Bay is well known for its limestone karsts and picturesque scenery.  The tourism here is largely controlled by the government at it’s difficult not to go on a group/herd package tour, so that’s where I found myself.  I was picked up early by an oversize van and luckily since I was travelling alone I got a good single seat.  There were some enormous 50 year old Australian men that got on after me and had to sit on an aisle jump seat that was made for someone about the size of one of their legs…. for 4 hours…. on roads that were almost all under construction.

Duck Egg Smasher

Duck Egg Smasher

Our first obligatory tour bus stop was at a factory where disabled people work to make art and handicrafts for tourists. It’s definitely presented as a “we do this to help these people” factory but I couldn’t help but feel like it was a borderline slave labor operation set up purely to use the handicapped people for profit.  Nevertheless, they were amazingly talented craftspeople.  There were women smashing duck eggshells to make canvases, silk weavers and painters.

Seafood Delight

Don’t be fooled, there’s no flavor

On the way to Ha Long Bay, there were lots of big open air restaurants along the street with like 100 chairs at them, and no people. We probably drove past 200 of these places over the 4 hours, and I saw fewer than 10 customers.  On top of that, it seemed like there were just no people… anywhere, even in the big towns.  No one walking on the street, no vendors, nothing.  It was very odd, especially coming from Thailand where there are people all over the street.

S.S. Minnow

S.S. Minnow

We finally arrived around lunch time and were herded on to our boat for the 3 hour tour (not a Gilligan reference, it was literally a 3 hour tour).  They served us lunch, again it looked better than it tasted, and we started our government approved cruise.  Unfortunately, it was a pretty gray, drizzly day and since I was there in October, there was also a bit of a chill in the air.  But after spending a year living in 90+ heat everyday, some natural cool air was nice.  Also, my definition of chill has changed dramatically; now “a chill” means that it was below 80 degrees Fahrenheit. The fog and drizzle made for a sort of mysterious, eerie scene. At the risk of sounding incredibly annoying, I will also say that the karsts weren’t super interesting to me because I’ve already seen the same thing in Thailand so the fact that the weather wasn’t great was ok.

Hey where do you think you're going??

Baby wants to go for a swim

Our first stop was a floating village with a population of about 100.  These are people who literally live in floating houses with the karsts towering above them for their whole lives.  There is a school and a little store and, of course, a government building. There was an option to paddle your own marginally seaworthy kayak, or to pay a small amount of Dong (yes that is the name of their currency, and the Dong jokes never get old) for a guy to row you around. I was on vacation and feeling like I didn’t want to sink, so I opted for the latter and hopped on a boat with this guy and his awesome helmet hat:

Vietnamese people wear great hats

Vietnamese people wear great hats

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Taking the kids out for a walk

When I got back to the raft/grocery store, our guide was smoking “Vietnamese tobacco” out of a giant bong.  He said it was very strong and offered me some, but I’ve watched too many episodes of Locked up Abroad and I feel like Vietnamese prison isn’t forgiving to Americans.

Apparently some of these islands are hollow and filled with caves.  That was our next stop; an awesome cave.  The cave, Dong Thien Cung, was discovered fairly recently and they have the whole inside lit up with colored lights so it is a really cool sight.  I haven’t been in a cave in a long time, so this was a nice treat, especially since I wasn’t expecting it.  It was nice to see something different.  I was there during the off season, so the herd was smaller.  Apparently during high season, it’s so full that you can barely walk.  If there were such things as cave fairies, this is where they would live.

Fairy pond

Fairy pond

That was all we did for the day tour.  Our junk boat cruised us back to the traditional Vietnamese tourist port and we took the van back to Hanoi, with a stop at another handicapped factory of course.  Halong Bay was definitely cool, but it’s a shame that the government controls so much because I have never felt like such a sheep.

Vegetables and brown water

Vegetables and brown water

I didn’t get back until around 8ish and I had to find my other hotel which was a huge pain in the ass because their Google pin wasn’t in the correct location so I literally walked back and forth down the same street like 7 times and was on the verge of losing my mind.  Oh “A Dong Hotel”, you were such a mystery.  Yes, I partially picked it because of the name, how could I not?  It turned out to be a good place and I went out and got some boiled vegetables for dinner.  So delicious.  Not.  I think these stir fried vegetables were literally just boiled in water with some oil.  There was no flavor at all, not even MSG.  But again, it sustained me which I guess is the purpose of food.

On my first day I bought oranges, 2 kilos of them by accident, so that was breakfast the next day.  Day 3 was Vietnam war/Commie/shopping day.  I went to a really cool store called Craft Link where everything was made by local craftspeople.  It’s a non-profit so it seeks to support local artisans.  I got lots of silk for an absolute killing by American standards. In retrospect, I probably should have saved this for later because I had to carry everything for the whole day.

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The blushing bride… in dress number 2.

Next stop was little park where it seemed to be wedding photo day.  In Thailand and the rest of SE Asia, the wedding photo process appears very strange to westerners.  First of all, they usually rent their wedding dresses and they will take photos in several different dresses.  But even more unusually, they take their wedding photos well before the actual wedding, like sometimes weeks or months in advance.  When I tell them in our culture it’s bad luck to see the bride in her dress before the wedding day they are surprised.  But since America has an incredibly high divorce rate, maybe we have the whole luck thing backwards….

Happy couple

Happy couple

Choo Choo!

Choo Choo!

I did lots of wandering on my way to Ho Chi Minh’s tomb.  Hanoi is really cool because it’s laid out like a French city with big tree lined streets.  And there are almost no street vendors, unlike in Thailand, so I could walk without crashing into Grandma Daeng selling noodles in the middle of the sidewalk.  I went to the train station which is cool because the sides are old French architecture from the turn of the century, but it was damaged during the war so the center is like a big Commie cement block.

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30 minutes of my life for this

I had a small detour where I tried to take a photo of this butterfly for like a half an hour.  I still don’t know how to use my incredibly powerful camera (100% my own fault) although when I hold it I think I am a National Geographic photographer.  It’s smarter than I am.

In the afternoon I went to Uncle Ho’s final resting place.  He is lying in state in a huge granite tomb, which means that his body has been embalmed and is on display. This specifically goes against his will, in which he said he wanted to be cremated and scattered all over Vietnam, but the government didn’t do as he wished, weird.  Unfortunately for me, since October is low season, Ho Chi Minh was in Russia for his annual cleaning.  No joke, he goes to Russia every year to get cleaned and say what’s up to those dead Russian guys.

Ho Chi Minh's Mauseleum

Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum

Musicians

Musicians

In the shadow of the mausoleum, and the giant Vietnamese flag there was a really nice concert of traditional Vietnamese music going on so I hung out and watched that for a little while.  The musicians were really talented. As an American who has been conditioned to think of Communism and propaganda going hand in hand, it was hard to look at the scene and think that American’s are so different.  Go to Washington DC and go to the Lincoln Memorial and listen to people play music with American flags everywhere.  We’re not so different.  Except at least our dead guys haven’t been preserved for 40+ years.  Even Ho Chi Minh thinks that’s weird. To be fair, the propaganda in Vietnam is way way more blatant than in the States, but it’s not to say that it doesn’t exist in America too.

Wrecked B52

Wrecked B52

The final stop was the wrecked fuselage of a B52 that the Vietnamese shot out of the sky over Hanoi. The B52 Victory Museum isn’t highly publicized so I was the only person there which was a nice change.  Seeing an American plane wrecked and displayed in that way was probably one of the most foreign things I’ve ever seen.  Besides the bad English, the language used on the plaques was something that would never be written the US:  Sume Types of Boms – Used by US Army during the Air War of Destruction over the north of Vietnam during 1964-1972 — Wreckage of US B52 Bombers – Shot down by Hanoi’s people and army during the US Air Defense Attacking to the North of Vietnam in December 1972. Seeing this American plane (that I usually see in all its glory in the US museums/air shows) totally blown to pieces put some things into perspective. It still makes my brain go upside down because as an American, we are indoctrinated with such a contrasting message to what I saw here.  That concluded my short stay in Hanoi.

Shooting down a B52

Shooting down a B52

I made it to the airport without any issues, but when I got there I made a HUGE scene.  I went to the self check in kiosk and got my boarding pass, ok no issues.  I went to wait in the security line, but apparently I was waiting in the wrong one, and had to go wait in another one.  This is when I started to de-rail.  So I waited in the other line for about 15 minutes, and when I got to the ticket checker, the woman told me, in terrible English, that I needed to go back to the counter and get a stamp.  So I went all the way back to the check in counter to get my stamp.  Ok not a huge deal, I arrived with some extra time so I was ok.  I went back and waited again and had my bags scanned and a woman asked “Have Swiss knife?”  I was like what the hell is going on here.  Then I remembered that I have a multitool credit card in my purse that I have carried through security probably 50 times with a 1 inch dull blade and a pair of scissors with blades as long as my thumb nail.  Tooooooo dangerous.  So she was like “scissors can’t have, knife can’t have”  and I was like “WHAT?! Are you kidding me?  Fine, I will check my bag”  because that multi tool is like the most useful thing I own.  So I went back to the check in counter again and told them I needed to check my bag.  I was raging by this point, I feel bad for that guy at the counter.  He told me, “ok it’s not included with your flight, it’s $13.”  So I said, “ok fine, I don’t have cash or time, I’m not checking it.”  But it was already on the scale and he said, “carry on limit, 7 kilos, must check.”  My bag was 10.  FINE.  He said I could take 3 kilos out and carry it.  So I took out the oranges, changed my shoes and moved a bunch of stuff into my purse carry on, right in front of him.  I was ready to play my crazy white girl card, which I rarely have to use, but this was one of those moments.  Then, he pushed me over the edge when he pointed to my purse and said, “Your bag too? limit 1 bag per person.”  I lost it.  I used lots of profanity and threw my raincoat down on my open bag like a WWE wrestler and was like “WHAT THE FUCK!!!!!”  but seriously wtf.  I had already gone to security twice and this was my second time talking to that check in guy and I stood right in front of him furiously unpacking my backpack into my purse and THEN he decides to tell me one bag.  He deserved it.  I stole his face so badly, he just waved me away.  I put the knife in my glasses case and the scissors in my camera case and breezed right through security with 10 minutes to spare. I’m glad to know that someone as insane as I was in that moment was allowed on the airplane.  Saigon, ready or not here I come….

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Looks so flavorful….

I met Bom at the airport and it was really exciting because it was his first time outside of Thailand.  We stayed at a super cool  hostel/homestay run by a Vietnamese family.  After we finally found it, we went to get some pho down the street. Unfortunately, it was as disappointingly bland as the pho in Hanoi.  This was bowl number 3 or 4 and I still don’t see the obsession. It must be better in America because there’s no way the real stuff would ever sell in the US restaurant market. After Pho, we went to sit on the backpacker street, Pham Ngu Lao and be tourists.

Our awesome student guide Ken

Our awesome student guide Ken

The next day we met up with Ken. Ken is a university student who is part of an organization called Saigon Hotpot.  Basically, students who want to practice their English apply for this club and then they will take tourists around the city.  And it’s FREE.  FREE!!  This was one of the best tours I have ever been on and all it cost me was a bus ticket and lunch for Ken, which I was more than happy to pay because he was awesome.

Names of people to pray for

Names of people to pray for

First, he took us to a temple in China town. In Thailand, there are temples and religious shrines everywhere you look; but in Vietnam it’s the other end of the spectrum.  I’m sure this has something to do with religion being the opiate of the masses etc.

What up Jesus

What up Jesus

Next stop was a big local market.  This was 2 stories and bustling with local people selling all sorts of stuff.  Saigon has a bad reputation for theft and Ken warned me to keep my camera in my bag so I didn’t take any photos there.  After the market we took the bus, on which Ken politely answered all of my American questions about Communism.  We got off in a different area of town and went to the cathedral, Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica.  Since Vietnam was colonized by the French, there is a sizable Catholic population.  It was cool to see a Cathedral especially since I have been away from this kind of stuff for so long.

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Return to sender?

Next to the cathedral is the Saigon post office, which is especially cool because it was designed by Gustav Eiffel when Vietnam was part of French Indo-China.  Yes, the same guy. There are large murals on the wall depicting the borders of the colonial powers in the early 20th century and old wooden phone booths.  I bought a nice postcard of Uncle Ho and sent it to my parents in America, but it seems that it still hasn’t arrived, 11 months later… When my kids send me a post card from Afghanistan, I will remember this moment at the Saigon post office.

We walked through some big parks and everything reminded me a lot of France; big tree lined streets and actual city planning where the street numbers make sense.  I miss that.  Like #64 is next to number #66 which is across the street from #65.  In Bangkok #64 is next to #105 which is next to no number which is next to #21B/4.  I think people just make up whatever address they want in Thailand so the organization of the streets in Ho Chi Minh was refreshing.

Looks beautiful

Looks beautiful

Lunch time was next.  We went to the same restaurant that Ken went to with his family for his birthday.  It was good food, but again, nothing shocking as per the general theme of all the food I ate. Not bad, but not really special.

After lunch, we went to the famous war museum.  Wow. This really put a lot of perspective on the Vietnam, or as they call it, American War/Independence War.  I’m not a Vietnam War scholar, nor do I believe the museum isn’t strongly biased, but there were photographs that I would NEVER see in an American museum.  The villagers running out of their homes with their skin melting off, the torture at the prison camps, corpses of people blown to pieces, the side effects of Agent Orange… It was really eye opening.

An American soldier with the skull of a Vietnamese patriot.

An American soldier with the skull of a Vietnamese patriot.

There was one photograph that I found to be particularly interesting because of the caption. The caption says “An American soldier with the skull of a Vietnamese patriot.”  This is a photo that I probably would see in a US museum because it doesn’t really show the horrors of war, but it shows just enough to pique peoples’ morbid interest.  However, I think the caption would read something like this in a US museum, “An American patriot with the skull of a Vietnamese rebel”  It made me really think a lot more about how there are two sides to every story, but we’re often only taught one of them. We stayed until closing time and then parted ways with our fantastic guide Ken.

nom nom nom fro yo

nom nom nom fro yo

We went to check out the main night market in town which was pretty similar to all the tourist markets in SE Asia.  Lots of hippie pants (which I bought a pair of because I can’t seem to get enough), tourist knick knacks and costume jewelry. I was very excited to see that they had self serve froyo.  Bom had never experienced this because Thai people really don’t like to serve themselves so these don’t exist in Bangkok.  Due to his inexperience, he loaded his bowl with all the heaviest “condiments” and it was something stupidly expensive like $12.  I think mine was 3 bucks.

After spoiling our dinner with dessert, we went to Pho 2000 which is where Bill Clinton got pho when he came to Saigon. I didn’t expect it to be the best pho in town because it’s definitely touristy, but this was probably one of the most boring ones I tried.  It was like warm water and noodles.  The coolest thing about this place was the view of a major intersection with no traffic lights.  I still can not comprehend how this works.  Or maybe it doesn’t and I was just lucky enough not to die while I was there.  If you watch the video, you can see a herd of motos just converging on each other with bikes and cars and trucks and pedestrians all trying to go somewhere.  It’s truly remarkable.

The next day was an early wake up for a 2 day tour of the Mekong River delta. I will preface this by saying that while we saw some cool stuff, this was probably the most “package toury” experience that I’ve ever had. We were just herded from one tourist thing to another.  There was almost nothing authentic about it unless we went a little away from the group but then we were promptly herded back.  The tourism industry is HIGHLY controlled here so I assume that’s one of the major contributing factors.  I can’t believe that this is how some people travel all the time.

Reclining Buddha

Reclining Buddha

Stop number one was at a Buddhist temple.  I don’t think there was anything particularly significant about it besides the fact that it was a good stopping point for bathrooms and food.  It wasn’t ancient or special but there were some big statues.  We continued on, and when we arrived at the mighty Mekong, we got on a boat to begin the tour.  We had to put on our “life jackets” of course.  I’m all for safety first, but I know that these things would probably cause more harm than good if a situation arose where we actually needed them.  There were lots of barges filled with goods floating down the river.  They all had a design on the front that looked like eyes.  There were fishermen in the shallows on simmilar, but smaller boats.  And then there was the fleet of boats filled with whiteys.

Fisherman

Fisherman

The boat took us to get lunch at a traditional Vietnamese tourist trap. I would say it was a restaurant but it was definitely only set up to serve the people on the Mekong boat tours. We were served an egg, boiled vegetables, white rice and some oily slabs of meat that must have been pork?  I tried to look at the bright side though and the one thing about this place that was good was that they had pomelo trees, so I got to see how the fruit grows.

BEES!

BEES!

So powerful

So powerful

Next government approved tourist stop was a coconut candy and honey operation. This stuff was delicious, but the coolest part was being able to hold the bees and the giant snake.  It must have been some kind of constrictor because it was huge and heavy and wrapped all around me.  I felt like Britney.  So touristy but totally cool. I got Bom to touch the snake with one finger but that’s as far as he went.

After our coconut and honey binge we got on little wood boats and floated down a small canal or tributary of the Mekong. The water is really murky since it’s a delta and along the banks are really tall reeds. We also got to wear the triangle hats to complete our transformation into full on tourist. At the end of our float, they took us to another tourist set up and we watched some “traditional musicians” and ate “traditional jungle fruits” such as banana and pineapple.  If they’ve learned anything about foreigners it’s that the content of the tour doesn’t matter, but if they don’t feed us every 45 minutes to an hour, they can expect 1 star on TripAdvisor.

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Never thought I’d be on a boat, it’s a big (brown) watery road.

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Sunset on my bungalow porch

The day was coming to a close so it was time to go to our “homestay” which we paid extra to do as opposed to staying in a hotel.  When we arrived in the small town, it was definitely not a homestay, but was still cooler than a hotel.  It was thatched bungalows along a slow moving tributary.  No hot water, no AC and the beds had mosquito nets.  They served our tour group dinner and rice whiskey, which as usual, was just fine, literally nothing to write home about.  There were some really cool Polish girls who sat with us and I had to chance to see them again in Bangkok so that was a bright spot.

The next morning, I think they served us a traditional breakfast of Kellogg’s cereal or something, I can’t even remember.  We went for a bike ride around the village and then took motos to a market where we would meet up with the main herd.  It was a pretty standard Asian fresh market: fish, fruits and vegetables, meat, rice etc.

They're watching you, just like the government

They’re watching you, just like the government

We got on our day tour boat at the pier to go to the floating market. Basically this is a bunch of barges anchored in the river selling their produce. They had big sticks hanging pineapples or sweet potatoes or beans to show what they were selling.  Little coffee boats zipped around to the barges and tourist boats. The whole scene was pretty cool.

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Floating Market

Pineapple Express

Pineapple Express

Our tourist boat stopped at a barge selling pineapples. They were obviously ready for us and spoke standard “buy stuff from me” English.  Luckily everyone else on the boat bought pineapples but couldn’t finish them so I benefited directly from that.

Our next few obligatory stops were fairly uneventful.  A rice paper factory and an orchard which had both been outfitted to handle the package tour coming through.  I just can not believe people travel like this all the time.  The best part of the trip was seeing the things outside of the tour, but whenever I wandered away, I was quickly found and shuffled back to the herd.

Laundry Day

Laundry Day

Spooky

Spooky

Upon returning to Saigon, Halloween celebrations were in full effect.  We were staying in the backpacker area so that obviously made it more of a scene, but I think the American influence makes Halloween a little more popular here than in surrounding countries.  The road was completely gridlocked with cars, motorcycles and people.  I have never seen anything like it.  Usually people can at least weave their way through all the cars and motos, but this was complete gridlock.  It reminded me of when you fill a jar with rocks (cars) then add gravel (motos) then add sand (bikes) then add water (people).  It took an hour to walk one block.  So that was enough of that for these old bones.

OMG get me outta here.

OMG get me outta here.

The final day was Cu Chi tunnels day.  For those unfamiliar, these are the tunnels that the Viet Cong used during the “War of Independence/American War” or “Vietnam War” depending on where you come from. The network is massive and this particular section was critical in the Tet Offensive and a base for Viet Cong operations. After going down into these things, I understand why America lost. I can not believe people actually lived and functioned from here. That’s a victory in and of itself. We went into one of the large upper sections, close to the surface and I had about 1 inch of clearance on either side of my shoulders and I was on my hands and knees.  We crawled through about 100 meters and it was unsettling. We were allowed to go further, but after 100 meters, I was so disoriented and I had to get outta there.

A world of pain

A world of pain

The complex is situated in a forest where there are still craters from B52 bombs and the frame of an incapacitated American tank, they’re really proud of that.  They also have a gun range where you can shoot all sorts of things, including an AK47.  The whole thing was creepy because as we walked through the forest, you could hear machine guns in the distance.  They also re-constructed all the jungle booby traps that the Viet Cong set and they look absolutely f-ing brutal. Spikes everywhere.

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The fried bread was the best part

That afternoon, back in Saigon, in the quest to find Pho that was as impressive as it should be for all the hype, we went to a restaurant that is supposed to have the best Pho in all of Saigon, Pho Hoa Pasteur.  It was fine. I just wish I could say more about it.  One thing I can say though is that it looks great in photos.

Around sunset, I grabbed a drink at a famous roof bar where the American war correspondents used to hang out during the war.  That was my last stop before flying out. All in all it was a great trip and put things into a lot of perspective. I never thought I would be so excited to get back to the peace and hornless-ness tranquility of Bangkok.

Categories: Hanoi, Saigon, South East Asia, Travel, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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