Friday, February 28, 2014

Day 50 - Myanmar (Burma): More pagodas & Boat Trip to Hpa'an

Before I left Mawlymine, I woke up at 5:45am to watch the sunrise at Kyaikthanlan pagoda. It was peaceful with the sounds of chanting and prayers from the people in the temple.
I then found the local exercisers and ran along what seemed like 'Pagoda Row' with the multiple pagodas along the strip. And I joined the local men doing sit ups on park benches near a viewpoint.
The ferry from Mawlamyine to Hpa'an was a private 3hr tourist boat that passed farm villages and pagoda speckled mountains.

When we arrived in Hpa'an, we explored the market, wandering by vendors selling flowers, 
palm sugar, fresh fish & meat, 
fried bread, sticky rice, colorful fruit and more! 

We also sat by some kids playing an intense game of marbles in the middle of the market.
My new travel buddies, Melissa and Cassie, let me shack up in their room, squeezing a 3rd mattress on the floor between their beds. Slumber party!

NEXT STOP: Hike up Mt. Zwegabin

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Day 49 - Myanmar (Burma): Ogre Island Exploration

On Day 2, I joined a tour with 6 other travellers to Ogre Island (Bilu Kyun - 32 km long &16 km wide). It's over an hour boat ride to the island, which has 200,000 inhabitants and foreigners are prohibited from spending the night. We explored the island for 6 hours visiting the local workshops with no pressure to buy, and we only saw 4 other tourists besides our group. I imagine this is how Inle Lake used to be, except on land.

Throughout the day, we came across the following:
* Toddy - fermented palm 'juice' has roughly 4% alcohol
* Palm Sugar production
* Road paving where women contributed to the hard labor
 & tar was burned by the side of the road
* Straw hat production

* Outdoor 'pool' where I swam in my clothes like a local!
* Afternoon tea & palm sugar candy break while getting our faces painted with the local Burmese makeup, thanaka, made from bark.

* Rubber band production

* Rice flour batter fried bananas

* Wood carving (canes, pipes, etc) workshop

* Off-roading in the Tuk Tuk with a brief moment of getting stuck in the fields

* Ox and cart
* Father and son fishing
 * Riverside sunset & BBQ
NEXT STOP: Ferry to Hpa'an

Day 48 - Myanmar (Burma): Mawlamyine, Now this is what I expected Myanmar to be like....

I ventured to the bus station at 5:45am - with Alberto heading to the airport. ;(

It was a usual South East Asia bus with overcapacity (middle seats to make 5 rows across), 1970s patterned curtains, good luck flowers hanging from the front bumper and surprisingly HD quality TVs playing Burmese soap operas and music videos at a tolerable noise level. I tuned out the Myanmar programming on the TV until I heard the familiar tune "You give love a bad name" sung in Burmese by a woman doing silly dances that caused quite a bit of laughter from the passengers. As the only tourist on the bus, I was probably the only one to truly appreciate the Bon Jovi classic.

After merely 7 hours, I arrived to Mawlymine In the South of Mynamar. Getting the lay of the land, tourists were few and far between and the locals cheerfully smiled with betal stained red teeth. Betal is a nut sometimes mixed with tobacco and spices, wrapped in a lime-coated banana leaf that locals chew, leaving red vampire-like stains on the teeth and lips after being spat out in viscous pools on the ground). 

I watched a group of boys playing foot volley and kicked a few return balls back to them. 

I followed some locals into a dessert shop and did my usual, "I'll have what she's having" and ended up with Falooda, a sweet drink with ice cream and pink tapioca balls.

The day ended with a peaceful sunset at Kyaikthanlan pagoda on a hill with 6 other tourists and locals.

According to a CNN article in Nov 2013, "around 600 million people worldwid are thought to chew betel quids, making them the fourth most commonly used psychoactive substance after tobacco, alcohol and caffeinated drinks." Chewing is addictive and can lead to an increased risk of oral cancer.

NEXT STOP: Visit to Ogre Island 

Day 47 - Myanmar (Burma): Oily Curry & Shiny Pagodas

Alberto's last day in Myanmar was in Yangon where we hit up his last meal of rice, oily spicy chicken, lentils and beef. Alberto, who eats about everything, took one bite of the beef dish and left the remainder of the tough and stringy cow chunks floating in the sauce untouched.

I personally was a fan of the dessert bar where you pointed to an array of sticky rice, tapioca and coconut treats for a mixed plate of sweet goodness.

With full bellies, we walked to Shwedagon pagoda, which had more locals and tourists than any pagoda I've visited yet. It was still an amazing site to see locals and monks praying or just hanging out in front of the gold pagodas sparkling in the setting sun.

It used to be you had to arrive to Burma with fresh, crisp bills or exchange money on the black market. Now, there's banks and ATMs even in the smaller cities and even at the entrance of Shwedagon pagoda, which has a steep $8 entrance fee for foreigners.

NEXT STOP: 7-9 hr bus ride to Mawlymine, adventures currently unknown.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Day 44 - 46 - Myanmar (Burma): Lounging on Ngapali Beach

A beach is a beach anywhere - more or less. But it's sure nice to spend time by the sea listening to the gentle crashing of the waves and soaking up the rays. Alberto and I had 3 nights in Ngapali Beach in Myanmar and here are some beach-side highlights.

* Found cheapest room on the beach with a partial sea view at Memento Resort for $35

* Morning runs on the 2 mile stretch of beach

* Fresh seafood meals of Tiger Prawns, Whole Fish and Squid

* Gin Rummy & Kings in the Corner

* Afternoon swim across the calm Bay of Bengal

* Happy Hour in a beach chair

* Beach side massage shacks

* 50 cent Mandalay Rum served in a wine glass while reading Burmese Days
The best way to learn numbers in another language is to look at the serial numbers on the bill written in both languages. Thank you Alberto.

NEXT STOP: Travel day to Yangon and saying farewell to Alberto

Day 40 - 43 - Myanmar (Burma): Boats, Bikes & Booze at Inle Lake

Inle / Nyaungshwe: 4 Days

Day 1 Activity: Lounged in Nyaung Shwe & Valentine's Day date night
Day 2 Activity: Boat ride & floating village visits on Inle Lake
Day 3 Activity: Bike to boat to bike loop, including visit to a monastery / view point and Red Mountain Estate winery
Day 4 Activity: More biking. More Wine. Roamed around the vineyards. More biking. More wine.

Today Alberto (AB) will join me again as a guest writer on the same 4 questions that I answer below.

QUESTION 1: What was my favorite thing in the Inle Lake area?

(JW) My favorite day in Inle was our bike loop, which involved hiring a boatman to take us and our bikes across the lake to complete the loop.

After lunch at a floating restaurant, we took a misguided turn up a huge hill to the Forest Monastery with an amazing view of the lake and hills below. We ended with a wine tasting at a Burmese vineyard on the hill.

(AB) We took a boat ride through Inle Lake and its intricate canal system. The lake is only 50 square miles, but its a floating self-sustaining ecosystem with houses on stilts, markets, restaurants, farms, and religious temples. The floating city even had power lines that cut across the water.

QUESTION 2: What was my least favorite thing in the Inle Lake area?

(JW) ...when Cujo chased us down a dark alley on our way to dinner.

(AB) Burmese food is not particularly good and lives up to its "oily" reputation. However, being at the crossroads of Asia means we got awesomely prepared Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cambodian cuisine.

QUESTION 3: Share a unique observation
(JW) The fishermen have mad balance and really do paddle with their feet standing at the tip of the boat (...although the pic below is posed for tourists!)

(AB) Burmese hotel names evoke 90s nostalgia in me with names such as "remember", "memento", "november", "bliss", and "gypsy". Were all Burmese big Guns and Roses fans?

QUESTION 4: What is something the other person is not willing to admit? 
(JW) Alberto may be equally as petrified of dogs as me.

(AB) When we got lost later in the trip, my exceptional Burmese number reading skills helped us identify that we were on 44th street and had gone too far. (Editor's Note: ok, I will admit this happened with 1 correction. This happened in Yangon, not Inle. :-)

UNIQUE TRAVEL TID-BIT: This region still had the Padaung Tribe whose women wear brass coils around their neck, starting at the age of 5. The heavy rings push the collarbone down and give the appearance of a long neck. It was a bit disturbing to see and I was hesitant to take a photo because it felt like the women were on display in the corner of the shop.

NEXT STOP: R&R at a Burmese Beach, Ngapali Beach

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Day 38 & 39 - Myanmar (Burma) - Temple exploration by Bicycle in Bagan

Bagan - 2 Days

Day 1 Activity: Bike around pagodas with sunset view
Day 2 Activity: Visit Mt Popa & Half Day Bike around Pagodas
Today's post features guest writer, Alberto (AB), who will keep me honest by answering the same 4 questions below that I answer.

QUESTION 1: What was my favorite thing in Bagan?

JW - We visited my favorite temple before sunset with no other tourists around. The big gold-gilded top shined in the sun and the temple housed Buddah frescos from 900 years ago. 
I also loved biking from temple to temple, even though our old school fixed gear bikes felt like we were biking hills on flats. 
AB- watching the sunset with jeanne on top of a pagoda. With a backdrop of hundreds of stupas interspersed across the valley, the scene had a "land before time" quality to it and I half expected a flying pterodactyl or a t-rex to come scampering from behind a stupa.

QUESTION 2: What was your least favorite thing in Bagan?

JW - The realization that Burma is taking the tourist turn. While the temples were not swarming with tourists like in Cambodia, prices are inflated relative to the SEA neighbors and luxury tours are driving demand for high-end hotels and fancy tourist packages. Also, restoration of some of the temples looks more like Disneyfication with the bright colored paint and electric lights.

AB - The blaring sound of democracy. Although I initially thought it was cool that our guesthouse was across the street from the National League for Democracy's local headquarters, I was not expecting their particular technique of mobilizing the masses which consisted of firing up the speakers at 6am and proceeding to broadcast loud, local music throughout the day.

QUESTION 3: Share a unique observation

JW - Monkeys have a fascination with toilet paper, and if flaunted in front of their eyes, they will jump across stairwells to your back trying to steal it (speaking from experience.)

AB - There are 8 days in the Buddhist week and 8 steps in the path to enlightenment. At this point, I'm well on to step five.

QUESTION 4: What is something the other person is not willing to admit? 

JW - I appreciate Alberto's confidence, but I don't think he's made much progress in 'cracking the code' of the Burmese written numbers and alphabet. He still has yet to read a sign, but thinks he will be fluent soon. 

AB - Jeanne is deathly afraid of monkeys. All those cute pictures of monkeys you will see on her blog were taken with a shakey camera and she more than once took a picture of my feet as she jumped back from what she claimed was an Ebola carrying monkey.


Mandalay Airlines boasts a mosquito free aircraft! Check out the 'Mosaway' ticket.

NEXT STOP: 4 nights at Inle Lake