Monday, October 15, 2012

all the photos

I've been going back into the posts and adding photos, you may have noticed, but in the interim, here's the whole set for the intrepid (and bored!):

That's the Myanmar set. Here's the smaller Chiang Mai set:

Friday, October 12, 2012

Chiang Mai, Thailand, and getting home

Planning this trip was difficult; originally, we'd planned to go to Tibet and Nepal, with a side jaunt to Myanmar. That fell through and we focused on Myanmar, including time in the western part of the state, Sittwe and Mrauk U. That part fell through because of the ongoing violence in Rakhine state, so we took the days we'd planned to spend in Sittwe and Mrauk U and cast around for a place to spend them. We decided Chiang Mai, in Thailand, would be a good diversion. We didn't think we needed more days in any of our Myanmar spots (and it turned out we were right), and I have some qualms about Thailand but Chiang Mai seemed more accessible in terms of my concerns. When we were in the airport in NYC, getting ready to fly off to Myanmar, we talked about what we expected. I asked Marc what part of the trip he expected to like most, and he said Chiang Mai -- and I agreed! We just didn't know what to expect in Myanmar, and we hadn't read great comments about the food (always one of our favorite things about our trips), so we figured if nothing else, we'd eat some fantastic Thai food in Chiang Mai. Boy were we wrong, on all counts! We absolutely loved Myanmar, and struggled in Chiang Mai.

One 'problem' was that the place is clogged with tourists. Everywhere you look, tourists of all kinds. Lots of slightly plump young white women with long dreadlocks decorated with silver clips, and wearing big harem pants. Lots of white backpackers. Lots of old people -- not like us!! NO! Lots of middle-aged couples, lots of young couples. Lots and lots of tourists. And probably a lot of the people who looked like natives were tourists, too, since Thailand is an easy hop from China. Here's what one does in Chiang Mai, apparently:

  1. Thai cooking classes
  2. Thai massage
  3. Shop and eat
  4. Visit elephant camps
  5. Visit a gibbon sanctuary
  6. Visit the many wats

Marc is a better Thai cook than anyone, anywhere, so we didn't need Thai cooking classes. One can only be massaged so many times (arguable!). We tried hard to find good places to eat, on which more in a second, I didn't need to shop (and Thailand was expensive for our budget!), we didn't want to go see elephant camps or the gibbon sanctuary, and we were kind of wat-ted out, after Myanmar. Our hotel had a pool, but it was rainy in the hot afternoons, right when we'd want to swim. So mainly we walked around, piddled, and tried to find good restaurants.

we'd read that we should eat in the night market, and I cannot tell you
just how bad it was.  i have a picture of Marc's shrimp, but it's too depressing.
On a pink plate, small pre-cooked  shrimp in nasty bland sauce. Seriously?
They were all a bust, and we were starting to think we'd never find any decent Thai food in Chiang Mai, until our last night when we wandered into Lemongrass Restaurant, near the night market. By that point I'd given up hope that we'd find good food so I didn't have my camera, too bad, because the food was everything we'd fantasized we'd find -- fresh, and Thai, and hot. Then, on our last morning, we sprang for an hour of massage -- just wonderful, the best we've ever had on our travels -- and Marc found a little restaurant with no English, and amazing food, as good as I can get in NYC and that's saying something.

Otherwise, we took an hour boat trip on the Ping River that skirts around the city, and we went to the zoo. My joke on facebook was "I'm not saying Chiang Mai is boring, but we went to the zoo."

a gate leading to a bridge -- that's the king in the middle, there.

dragons at the wats

the gate leading into the old city, which is where we stayed

this is a moat kind of thing, just outside the old wall

this is my favorite wat of them all -- mostly teak, with gold trim

this holds offerings

here we are, heading out for our little boat ride

no idea why the king and queen need a billboard; our boat driver said
they love their king, he's a good king

quietly beautiful, just outside chiang mai

these large trees line the river; it's older than the US

a beautiful bas-relief wall near our hotel

pretty standard Thai wat

this one's quite unusual, all in white!

beautiful caged jaguar, poor thing. the zoo is old-fashioned.

Marc and an elephant, trained to bow (the elephant, not Marc)
All in all, Chiang Mai was a disappointment, until our final hours. We left Chiang Mai and flew to Kuala Lumpur for a night's sleep, and then on Sunday we flew to Hong Kong, sat around for a few hours, and then flew 16 hours home to NYC, arriving Sunday night at 10:30. I never can really wrap my head around the time when we make these trips. This time I never had a clue what day it was, probably because I couldn't get online. I really missed being able to share photos, and post more regularly.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

last nights in Myanmar

We had two nights and one full day back in Yangon, and no specific plans. We were both kind of sick of Burmese food, to be perfectly honest; small bowls of weird cuts of random meat floating in oil, we'd kind of had our fill. Next door to the restaurant (Feel Myanmar) where we ate our first night in Yangon, so many days before, was a Korean garden restaurant, which sounded spicy and delicious, so off we went. We walked past the enormous Indonesian Embassy, with photos of the country including one of a giant komodo dragon, and then past the small and more modest French Embassy, and there we were. The place was huge, a few different garden areas, an area on a large porch, and tables near the front. We were led to the back garden area, where mosquitoes promptly took up their own feast on my legs....but I didn't care. SPICY FOOD. We placed our orders and spent the rest of our time there feasting on spicy food, I had a wonderful Myanmar beer (wonderful, but not quite as good as Lao Beer ["the beer of wholehearted people"]), and we listened to the live band. There was a young guy on keyboards, pretty good, a guy on electric guitar, pretty good, and a guy singing. Note what I'm not saying there. :)  But I give him huge props for singing anyway, for putting himself out there and giving it his all. I had Malaysian fried rice, with a soft fried egg on top, and Marc had Thai shrimp. So much flavor, and nicely spicy. Our waiter was this beautiful young boy with badly crooked teeth and a shy smile; he reminded me of my son Will so much that my chest ached and I had to fight back tears.

The next day our big plans involved shopping and taking a boat ride. We headed back to the giant market where I'd seen dozens and dozens of fabric goodies to buy the last time we were there; as these things go, I had a very hard time finding things that appealed to me when I was there to buy. Still, I found souvenirs and gifts (including a little jade bracelet for my TT, my little Grace), finally, so that deed was done.

standard street in Yangon

more -- looks like most of the streets we saw in this area

on the right, a betel nut vendor, and walking past a man with sparrows in a blue cage

Little India

lots of physicians with lots of specialties! and lots of initials!

and  nuclear medicine. and yet Myanmar is ranked dead last in health care, in the world

apartment buildings, with satellite dishes and laundry over railings

need to make a phone call? need kaffir limes and leaves? they've got you covered!

One thing that struck me, when we were walking around, was the visible mix of religions. Muslim men, in caps and longish beards; monks in crimson robes; Catholic nuns in habits; all walking around in the swirling crowds, all together. I was sitting on the curb watching, and wondering why this seemed so striking -- hell, we live in New York City, a melting pot if ever there were one! And yet you don't see religious people, except for orthodox Jews, and some Hassidic Jews. But you don't see monks in robes, and you don't see Catholic nuns. You just don't. You have to learn how to see all the churches -- and there are a LOT here, mixed in with everything else. Suddenly, if you tune your eyes in Manhattan, you see Baptist churches and McDonalds and Korean churches and of course giant cathedrals and synagogues. But they kind of blend into the blocks in a way. In Yangon, people's religious lives are visible and invisible at the same time, because they're just all there. It was fascinating.

 It was sweltering hot, and so humid because giant black clouds loomed overhead; we were tired and Marc's tummy wasn't feeling well, so we returned to our room to wait out the hot part of the day. After the rain ended, we took a cab to the famous Strand Hotel, because it was right next to the boat jetty. We'd been told earlier that there were no tourist cruise boats operating for some reason, but we'd have no trouble finding a small boat and driver to take us up and down the river at sunset for an hour or so. The guy was either pulling our leg, or we were simply in the wrong place -- though I know we weren't -- because we couldn't find any small boats we were allowed to take. We found the jetty and all the boat drivers were shaking their heads, some speaking to us anxiously in Burmese, putting their hands up, shooing us away. One finally said, "No foreigners." Marc found a boat driver who spoke a little English; he told Marc that the boats are not safe for foreigners, and he pointed down the river a ways, toward the big ferry. Marc laughed and said, "But it's safe for you?" and the driver laughed too.

here's the jetty, with the "unsafe for foreigners" boats

We left the jetty (we were really making people nervous, being there) and as we walked toward the ferry, a young kid of 13 fell in step with us. I don't know if it was a boy or girl, I'll just say boy; he told us that we had to take the ferry, that the police would come if we got on a boat.

To buy ferry tickets, as foreigners, we had to walk into the manager's office and put our names and contact information on big ledgers. We suspect that we got the "special foreigner" price -- $1USD each way, for each of us. We boarded the ferry with hundreds of Burmese people who lived on the other side of the river, heading home for the day. There were some benches, but mostly the floor space was open. There were stacks and stacks of tiny plastic chairs, kid-sized, and people grabbed a chair and sat where they could. We sat next to windows on the upper level and watched the goings-on. So many kinds of vendors: boiled egg vendors, selling blue and white and brown and quail eggs; clothing; flashing plastic toys; fried fish chips in white and red; fresh pineapple chunks and watermelon slices; and cigarettes and betel nut packets. People carried groceries and shopping, and bought boiled eggs and tucked them down into their bags to eat later. Some people ate boiled eggs on the ferry; the floor was littered with egg shells. I watched a beautiful women eat one brown egg in 9 or 10 tiny delicate bites. A boiled egg never looked so good -- I was mesmerized by her, standing there so quiet and elegant in the crowd, lost in her boiled egg. She was petite, and very self-possessed.

We didn't have specific plans for what we'd do when we got across the river; we thought we might walk around and look for a restaurant, or see what there was to see and then return to eat in Chinatown if nothing looked good. The ferry sidled up to the platform and we left in the crush of people and I was already kind of overwhelmed. I was probably the tallest person in the crowd, but the intense crowds, and people shouting, and the dark, and the sprinkling rain, and my uncertainty, all combined to make me feel very anxious. When we got to the end of the ramp, we came out into a big parking lot crowded with motorcycles, people shouting, grabbing, some people trying to hustle us, other people shouting to get people into their overcrowded bus taxis. I couldn't find a place to stand that felt safe -- either from motorcycles or bicycles tearing out, or from bus taxis, or from people trying to get us into their taxi, or to be our guide. Poor Marc; he wasn't at all overwhelmed by it and would probably have loved to explore, but I was thoroughly swamped and nearly in tears, so we just went back down the ramp to take the return ferry.

waiting for this ferry to empty out so we could return to Yangon

I loved this little girl
Going back to Yangon, the ferry was hardly crowded. We sat on the tiny plastic chairs on the bottom level, and a little girl, the daughter of an egg vendor, was entranced by our camera. She pulled up a chair right next to me. I took her photo and then we looked through the pictures on my camera. She was so sweet I felt like crying, and I got this huge ache for my nearly-here granddaughter Grace.
When the ferry docked, we decided to pursue our original loose plan to eat in Chinatown. We went back to the Strand Hotel to see about getting a cab, since few street names have English translations and we weren't exactly sure where Chinatown was located, other than "over there." Plus, it was drizzling and I was still kind of shaky. We found a wonderful man who said he'd take us in his cab, or tell us how to get there, whichever we preferred, so we hopped in his cab for the ride. Like so many Burmese we encountered, he spoke pretty good if heavily accented English which he learned from speaking with tourists. I probably caught 60% of what he said, but he charmed the hell out of me because he was a big giggler. I complimented him on his English and this flight of giggles emerged out of him like a flock of birds. He said he drove a taxi for two reasons: to make money, and to practice his English.

Chinatown didn't seem like it held many good options for dinner (though he said Burmese people, including his family, love Chinese food), so we asked our driver to take us back to the Korean garden restaurant, since it was also near our hotel and we could just walk back afterwards. The restaurant was much quieter than the night before, and there was no live music, so we enjoyed a quiet dinner and I had one last Myanmar beer for the road. Marc got a Thai omelette and Thai basil and pork salad, and I got the fried Malaysian rice again, with chicken -- it was so good the night before!

We were up early this morning for the flights to Chiang Mai.....Yangon to Bangkok to Chiang Mai. More on that later -- in this hotel we have wifi!

Sunday, October 7, 2012


The reason most tourists come to Bagan is to see the temples that cover the plain; there are between 3,000 and 4,000 temples, pagodas, and stupas covering the area around Bagan, New Bagan, and Nyaung U, mostly built during a 230-year period ending around 1287. For a few years, a new structure was begun every two weeks – according to something I read, they were rather shoddily built, and the reconstruction efforts are done in just as shoddy a manner. There was a devastating earthquake here in 1975 that destroyed many of the old structures, and they’re being reconstructed. UNESCO was involved in restoring some of the old frescoes inside the temples and pagodas. It’s impossible to see them all, especially in a two-day period, but if you have $290 to spare for a 45-minute balloon ride, you can float over the plain in the morning and see the full sweep of them. We satisfied ourselves with a view from top of one of the higher structures.

click to enlarge this one -- just a tiny smidge of the structures on this large plain
But first we had to get here. The flight from Heho (pronounce hay-ho) was unremarkable, and after we got our luggage we headed out toward the taxi drivers. One came toward us and gave us a pretty good rate to the hotel, so we went to the taxi and were surprised when he got in the passenger seat up front, next to the driver. We’ve never had that happen before; usually the guy who approaches the tourists simply sends them off to the taxi. [And here’s a good point to say that the driver sits on the right, like in the British system, but also drives on the right-hand side of the street, like in the American system. I never thought about how strange that would be until the taxi driver wanted to pass a big truck, and he had to pull all the way out to see around. Very strange. Also, we’ve been surprised by how much English we’ve encountered; we were not expecting many people to speak English, as in Vietnam, but of course this was a British colony, and also many people have learned by speaking to tourists.]

Anyway. The taxi guy. All the way to our hotel, he talked nonstop. He had something to say about everything, and when Marc and I tried to talk to each other he usually kept talking. Once he stopped, but he seemed irritated and he jumped in as soon as there was a pause. There was something odd about him; I wondered if he was manic, or on drugs. He had something nasty to say about the Chinese, but I can’t remember the detail now. When we got to our hotel, he went into the lobby with us and grabbed our passports and voucher out of our hands, to go check us in, but Marc grabbed them from him. While he was gone, the taxi guy was pushing me hard, as he had been pushing Marc and me, to be our tour guide for the temples. We were kind of dazed and were already feeling assaulted by him, and we certainly weren’t ready to make that kind of decision and commitment before we’d even settled in, so I told him that we didn’t know what we wanted to do yet about tomorrow, so no thank you. He just stayed sitting there. The hotel brought us drinks and served him one, too, which was very weird. The guy just kept sitting there, pushing hard, and Marc finally leaned toward him and said forcefully, with a little sharp edge, NO, we are not interested. He still didn’t leave. He wrote down his name and telephone number and our room was ready so we stood up and walked away from him. We shook our heads in disbelief, and for the rest of the night kept talking about how intrusive he was, how rude, how much we felt assaulted by him. But we thought that was it, we were done with him. The next morning at 7am, our telephone rang and it was the front desk informing us that our guide was here! It could only have been him, and of course we hadn’t hired him. I'd missed the phone the first time it rang; a minute later it rang again and Marc said no, we did not hire him, send him away. A minute later it rang again and the woman at the front desk told me our guide was here, and asked if I’d like to speak to him. Unbelievable! I told her no, we didn’t hire him, he was harassing us, and hung up. We’ve felt assaulted by hawkers before – in India and at Angkor Wat – but this was a whole new level. I keep looking over my shoulder here in Bagan, expecting to see him haunting us, and I’m just a little anxious about the taxi ride back to the airport tomorrow.

here's our beautiful room

On our first night, we ate dinner at this really lovely little restaurant near our hotel, strangely named Star Beans (well, one sign says Beans, another says Beams). It’s a family-run place, apparently, and our food was amazing – delicately cooked, delicately seasoned, utterly delicious. We got a green papaya salad and a tomato salad (tomatoes from Inle Lake), and then we each got Irrawaddy butter fish in a delicate butter sauce. The fish was just perfect, and the service was sweet. The placed a mosquito coil under our table, and we were so eagerly tended to. They were like insecure kids, asking us constantly if it was good, was it good, is it ok? Every few minutes we reassured them that it was delicious, that it was wonderful, very good, and they seemed so pleased. The young women who served us were gracious and smiled a lot; one was harder to understand, but she was nearly giggling whenever she spoke English to us. I smile remembering her. The fantastic meal was about $14. We ate there again the second night, but they were overwhelmed – victims of their own success, I guess – because every table was filled and the service was slow. 

sweet, sweet little restaurant! i wish them every success.

they're very proud of being #1 on TripAdvisor (how we found them!), as well they should be.

making my mouth water, remembering this tomato salad, tomatoes from Inle Lake

and this very luscious green papaya salad, YUM.

and here, a grilled aubergine salad. Outstanding food there.

our sweet horsecart driver
On our first morning, we hired a horsecart and driver to take us to Nyaung U, a small town about 30 minutes away (by horsecart, would’ve probably taken us 5-10 minutes by car). Our driver was very sweet, not at all pushy – a huge relief, after mr. taxi jerk man – and glad to give us information but not to push us to do anything in particular. For an hour, we walked through the market, which was one of the biggest ones we’ve ever seen, and sat on a curb and watched people pass in their busy day. I think that was Saturday, so maybe it was a busier day than usual, I don’t know.  

lots of ways to get around in Bagan, bikes and tricycles and walking and horsecarts and motorcycles

lots of trees arching over lots of roads, and lots of crimson-robed monks walking along barefooted

here's the market -- a big, and busy one. notice the thanaka on the women's cheeks. men wear it too, but less often than the women

marc and a nun, in the market

at a busy little restaurant near the market -- near here, a monk walked up to us and very quietly, with small movements, pointed to his money. it was the only time a monk 'requested' a contribution.

it's always a beauty salOON in Myanmar, which made me laugh.

quite common -- see all those women lined up behind the already-crowded mini-bus? They all made it into the back. Every last one.

lots of oxcarts, with skinny oxen

and LOTS of people picking on guitars in Myanmar! this surprised me.

When we got back to our hotel, we arranged for the horsecart driver to pick us up at 7am the next day to drive us through the area for 3 hours so we could see some of the temples, stupas, and pagodas. We spent the afternoon lounging in and around the pool, which was really great in the heat.

cool and shady in the heat of a Bagan(ian?) afternoon

One thing we’d planned to do was hire a boat at the river to see the sunset; we walked through the Tharabar Gate and down to the jetty to hire a boat. A young man came out of a monastery (that had a little restaurant, he must’ve actually come from the restaurant) and we made our arrangements, one hour for ~$12. Since we had time to kill, we wandered down to the river and were stopped by another man, and when we told him we’d already made arrangements, he told us that he was the other man’s uncle, and he’d be driving us. We were swarmed by women and children trying to sell us postcards, little drawings, lacquerware, bracelets, puppets, and random jewelry. A tiny little girl stole my heart; I imagined my little granddaughter Grace, and loved this little Myanmarese girl who was wanting so much to sell me a drawing she’d made. She’d say “just looking maybe later.” She’d say “1000 kyats only.” And then she said “see you later alligator” and I said “in a while crocodile” and we laughed. Marc and I went to a nearby hotel to get something to drink, and when it was time to go to the boat, another man tried to sell us a boat ride and then said he was the original young man’s father.  I think they really were all related, but it’s hard to know for sure.

We climbed into our boat, which could’ve easily held 20 people, and Marc, the driver and I rode out into the Irrawaddy River. The engine was loud, and the driver had tamarind flakes and Chinese tea for us. We rode up the river, watching fishermen, other boats, families in the river bathing and doing laundry and playing. We watched red brick stupas and gold-topped pagodas pass. We saw dogs running down ancient steps to the river. We saw enormous trees with their roots grabbing the bank. And then we saw the sun start to dip down to the horizon, shooting beams through the clouds, lighting up the water, and coloring the sky. The driver cut the engine and we sat in the quiet, in the middle of the river. He pointed to the far bank and told us it was an island, and when the rainy season comes the island is covered in water so all the people who live there move to the other bank until the rainy season ends.  We sat a few minutes more, and then he drove us back to the jetty. I saw the same little girl again, and said “see you later alligator” and she returned the crocodile line.

the boat jetty

a couple of stupas seen from the river

Sunset over the Irrawaddy River

more sunset over the Irrawaddy

giant trees along the riverbank
This morning we met our driver at 7 and were ready to see a number of nearby structures during our three hours (which was only ~$9); after the first temple, my camera battery died. I was able to click off one or two extra photos before it died for good. It was very hot, and while there were some temples and stupas we visited where we were left alone, we were also quite aggressively hounded by hawkers at others – “we like money, you give money.” Postcards, sand paintings, lacquerware bracelets, too-gold Buddhas, make-up, glasses, anything we want. Cold drinks. Tour guides. We saw the following places this morning, which I’ll say more about later:

  • Nan Paya
  • Manuha Paya
  • Gubyaukgyi
  • Mingalazedi Paya
  • Gawdawpalin Pahto
  • Mahabodhi Paya
  • Shwegugyi
  • Thatbyinnyu Pahto
  • Ananda Pahto

Partly because my camera battery died, and partly because we have the bulk of the day here again tomorrow, we arranged to meet our horsecart driver again at 7am tomorrow, so I will have my battery charged and hope to get some really good photos. Tonight we hope to climb one of the nearby pagodas to watch the sunset, but it rained pretty hard all afternoon so I don’t know what it might be like, getting out there.

It’s very hard to deal with the hawkers, because I dearly want to talk to the young man who wants to practice English, which he has learned by talking to tourists and by listening to BBC – I want to talk with him. We laughed until we nearly cried when he was showing me the obelisk – the “Rosetta Stone” – and he said he couldn’t read it…..but then came the hard sell for his sand paintings. I know he needs to make money, and I also don’t need or want a dozen sand paintings. If I have to say no a thousand times to the young girl who tries to sell me postcards, I don’t want her walking with me through the pagoda, but she will not leave us alone. It’s enormously difficult saying no, I do not want to part with $1, over and over and over. It’s just $1, so very little to me, and much more to them. It’s the essential tension of being a Western very rich traveler who is not at all very rich at home. Nowhere else in Myanmar have we encountered anyone pushing things on us, not in Yangon, or Nyaung Shwe, or Kalaw. I hope that as time passes, what I think about when I remember Bagan is the beautiful scenery, the rich and fascinating history, and the warm people. I hope the kind horsecart driver and the laughing women at the restaurant are the ones I remember, not the hawkers and the first taxi jerk man. The smiling young man at the pool, who seems eager to practice his careful English. The beautiful nod of the head and warm ‘Mingalaba’ offered by everyone we pass.

I have a lot of photos of the stupas, from the second day, but I need to process them so I'll come back and do that later. For now, here are some that are ready:

another view of the plain -- more stupas than you can imagine

beautiful beautiful beautiful.

this reclining Buddha was built in a too-small room, to signify the king's feeling of being trapped and held prisoner

a temple we didn't actually see -- but look at the Burmese script! So beautiful.

standard -- stupas in a field, everywhere

random road, covered by trees, with stupas alongside. stunning.

coming into Old Bagan

more of the turquoise, i never got enough of it

and here's the Tharabar Gate, into the old city
my camera battery was dying so I was anxious about this shot;
not our best, but it's the only one we got of us together!