Location: Somewhere between SD & Chicago, USA
So Ive clearly dropped the ball on writing this final blog and uploading the last set of photos. The vacation is long over, and Ive done my trips back and forth from LA to San Diego and back. Ive been in Chicago for over a week, which is the longest Ive been home in the last six or seven months. In fact, Im back on a plane to San Diego (via LA) for the Christmas holiday. I suppose this is a good time to do this sort of thing, since the cell phone has to remain off, I cant check e-mail, and I cant do those errands Ive been meaning to do at home for the past six months.
The Burma / Thailand vacation was very much needed; my string of international travel dating back to 1998 was in danger of being broken, until Scott brought up this trip sometime in early fall. Aside from adding another stamp to the passport, it was nice way to get away from the beaten tourist path. While there were certainly a fair share of middle-aged French and German tourist herds, they were generally easy to out-maneuver (except for at the airport) allowing for a more genuine experience.
While there were many memorable moments during the trip, a few definitely stood out among the others. Here are some of the top ones:
*Watching 10-year old Buddhist monks play computer games and smoke cigarettes at an internet café (this was probably the one photo I regret not taking!)
*The amazing hospitality of the Burmese people. While the government does dictate that its citizens should treat tourists well, which does put into question a small fraction of their sincerity, I think for the most part the friendliness and considerateness of the Burmese is genuine. Case in point, someone from our hotel (the Thande Hotel in Old Bagan), tracked me down all the way to the airport to return the battery charger I had left. Where else in the world do they do this?
*The crash landing at Heho airport. I would probably have been more terrified if I knew it was coming. As it was, Im surprised the airframe held up, given the fact that it seemed like the pilot forgot to flare the plane upon landing. The pilots landings got progressively better as we continued on the journey. While Scotts theory was that the landing was due to a short runway, that was nixed when a few days later we landed back in Heho and had a very smooth landing.
*The taxi driver / fighter pilot. We were not in a hurry. Seriously. But the guy took what should have been a 1-hour drive and turned it into 30-minutes. And unlike the Heho crash landing, we were well aware of impending dangers down the road. On these narrow Burmese roads, with barely enough room for a single car, he was playing chicken with everyone, from bicycles to Mack trucks. And then there was the passing-a-bus-while-driving-uphi- ll-into-a-blind-curve experience, i.e., death wish experience. Later, there was this bit that Kannan found on Wikipedia:
"As a former British colony, cars in Myanmar (formerly Burma) drove on the left side until 1970, when the military administration of Ne Win decreed that traffic would drive on the right side of the road. It is alleged that this was because Ne Win had been advised by his soothsayer, who had said "move to the right", although this was in fact a reference to economic policy. In spite of the change, most passenger cars in the country today are RHD, being second-hand vehicles imported from Japan, Thailand, and Singapore. However, government limousines, imported from China, are LHD. Virtually all vehicles are driven with a passenger in place to watch the oncoming traffic and inform the driver as to whether it is safe to overtake or not, as the driver cannot see this from his RHD position."
Our driver was on the right-hand side. While we were the spotters by default, we still could not see around the blind curve.
*$2 = 16 dishes at one restaurant! And we didnt get sick (at least not there)!
*All the awesome sunsets and sunrises, with the Indiana Jones temple exploration. And 35-year old, 35-pound, Communist-bloc bicycles with the 35-cent seats. Ouch. Days later.
*Monkeys! Did I mention monkeys! Like Wizard of Oz, without the wings!
Also, while the Lonely Planet was a great travel guide, it did leave out some stuff that was pretty important:
*Not only do they not have ATMs, accept credit cards or travelers checks, but they also are very particular about the condition of the American currency they accept. Any tears or writing, and the bill isnt taken. If its pretty beat up, its not taken. And on top of that, due to some recent money laundering scandal, they dont accept $100 bills with certain serial number prefixes. Given the fact that if we ran out of cash, we were totally screwed, it caused some minor anxiety. The latest edition of Lonely Planet Myanmar (Burma) does not mention any of these money issues, either.
*No mention of monkeys at Mount Popa. None.
Well, enjoy the pictures. I highly recommend visiting Burma if you end up in Southeast Asia. The people are absolutely among the friendliest Ive encountered and its not overrun with tourists. The religious sites and ruins rank among the most fascinating in the world. If you remotely have an interest in photography, the country is very photogenic. Safe travels!
Oh, and Thailand was great. Lots of innocent, clean fun!
Location: Yangon, Myanmar
Inle Lake was quite the experience. I was pretty keen on checking it out, especially since the lifestyle of the folks who lived there sounded similar to the Uros Tribe on Lake Titicaca in Peru.
The inhabitants of Inle Lake actually live on the lake...their houses are built on stilts to accomodate for the rising and falling lake levels throughout the year. Scott and Kannan compared it to Venice in many respects. To be honest, the floating islands of Lake Titicaca are more visually stunning, but the Inle Lake experience seems a lot more authentic. We wandered around the neighborhoods for a while, which included watching some of the children at play as they got out of school.
We also went to a market on the second day. We got there well before the tourists arrived (the whole sunrise theme again), which made for a great experience. A lot of the merchants apparently get there in the morning, so they can conduct trade with each other before the the tourists arrive. There were a lot of fish and fruit vendors interspersed with the trinket sellers.
So we're off to Bangkok for one last full day/night of travels before heading back to the US. The last day and a half in Yangon has been uneventful, except for me recovering from various illnesses. Look for one last travel blog, with more photos, once I get back to the US and high-speed connections!
Part of the day was spent at Mount Popa...innocuous enough, simple 25 minute hike to get to a great view. The views were quite spectacular, but that was a small fraction of the Mt. Popa experience.
As you start the hike up the covered walkway to the top, you notice right away that aside from the commonplace stray dogs, there are also these small monkeys that walking about and casually looking at the new tourists. The first five were a novelty, but then as we ascended the stairs, we quickly saw dozens, and eventually hundreds of these cute, and hopefully disease-free, monkeys!
The monkeys aren't shy either...they frequently came within inches of us. They left us alone for the most part, instead chasing each other around and minding their own business. On several occasions, however, they crowded the stairs enough that we were forced to think twice about how to continue up.
Mount Popa is absolutely incredible, not only for the views, but also for its residents that you don't meet every day!
Anyway, we're off to Inle Lake tomorrow, which should feature a different experience entirely. The Bagan portion of the trip has been quite "Indiana Jones" in nature. We've climbed a number of temples, biked around the region, and taken literally hundreds of sunrise and sunset pictures. Yes, we've been getting up before the crack of dawn for the last couple of days of our vacation!
Location: Bagan, Myanmar
I managed to get into Myanmar, with edited visa and all, and so far the trip has lived up to expectations. Each stop we've taken has felt like a trip further back in time. In Yangon (which until about 3 weeks ago was the capital of Myanmar), there is a distinct lack of modern infrastructure that places you back about 30 years. It is bustling urban center, but the newest vehicle looks like it was built back in the Nixon adminstration. In Bagan, you're transported even farther back, hundreds, if not thousands of years. The landscape is teeming with temples. Temples in Bagan are as ubiquitous as Starbucks is in the United States. For all the built up expectations for Bagan, so far they have been exceeded.
The temples here in Burma are absolutely fantastic. They rival any of the great religious buildings in Europe. The Shwedagon Paya in Yangon is breathtaking, and is probably one of the best kept secrets in the world. The pictures don't even begin to convey the sense of awe one gets by being on the temple grounds. In Bagan, we've just started our exploration, but already, we've climbed to the top of one temple and explored several others before breakfast. It is very much an Indiana Jones adventure come to life! I'm to even more adventures in the afternoon. We've rented bikes for the day, so we should be able to maximize our temple exploration. The Tour de Bagan is set to ride just before lunch!
The people here are some of the friendliest I've met in my travels. Many are looking to simply practice their English, which we oblige for the most part. Folks who do approach to sell trinkets are not as overbearing as in other developing countries that have been overrun with tourists. A simple "no" is enough to get them to back off, which I've found very refreshing.
I'll try to attach some photos from the last couple of days. I'm on a dial-up connection, however, so there may not be that many for now. I've taken a couple of hundred photos so far, and we're on day 2 or 3!
Location: Bangkok, Thailand
Once we got off the plane, we found out that our hotel was pretty much in downtown, instead of the airport like we thought, so that compelled us to check out the scene.
We were in the Nana area in Bangkok, which actually had a fair amount of activity for 2AM. Phat Pong, famous / infamous for its nightlife, shuts down fairly early, but the crowd migrates to Nana for after-hours.
After hanging out there for a few hours, we decided to visit Arun Wat, to photograph the temple at sunrise. It's a great place, right along the river. I think we're planning to view it from the river when we get back.
There are a few pics that I've uploaded.
Now we head for Myanmar...It'll probably be a few days until the next update...
Location: Los Angeles, USA
Suggestions for Bangkok?
Ok, so I'm sitting here in the Admiral's Club at LAX, and with a few cups of coffee in my system, I'm thinking that when I land in Bangkok 22 hours from now, I'll have enough energy to go out and check out the town.
I've heard the town closes down relatively early (around 2AM), but does anybody by chance know of a place, i.e., bar or lounge, to go that would be open later? We're landing at about midnight, so we probably wouldn't be ready to go by around 2AM. We're not heading to Yangon until 11AM, so we have some time to kill.
I should be able to check this once I get to the hotel in Bangkok, so any last minute suggestions would be great!