Month: January 2016

Myanmar – Opening Up

The "Sisters" at Kyaik Pun Pagoda - Bago, Myanmar

The “Sisters” at Kyaik Pun Pagoda – Bago, Myanmar

I arrived in Yangon yesterday afternoon and was immediately treated to a sunset drink and early evening stroll around town with a lovely woman from Buffalo Tours. While I didn’t fall hard and fast for this city as I did for Hanoi, our walk amongst its dusk-covered pagodas and Catholic Churches and old, colonial buildings helped me become quietly smitten with Myanmar.  That said, upon awakening this morning and setting out to tour the outskirts of Yangon, I discovered that …

This part of the country is not, at first glance, exactly beautiful. The city is, quite literally,  rife with bumper to bumper traffic. Many of the old colonial buildings – while architecturally stunning – are seemingly painted with a deep gray layer of ~100-year old sooty grime.

A dog nestled into soft, discarded plastic enjoying a coveted crate in the shade

A dog nestled into soft, discarded plastic enjoying a coveted crate in the shade

When we escape the city the streets are lined with sad piles of rubbish – layers of tattered plastic fluttering amidst a scattering of discarded bottles and random bags filled with who-knows-what. Even the lazing dogs seem dustier and skinnier and, perhaps, even a little less dogged (sorry couldn’t help myself) than their brothers and sisters elsewhere in Asia. And that’s saying a lot. And yet…

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A nun shrouded in pink smiling from underneath the weight of fresh apples

There are glimpses of splendor everywhere I look – if I just look hard enough. Especially when it comes to the people. Their smiles, though timid at first, burst open as soon as I grin and nod their way. I seem to be a bit of anomaly in Bago – its remoteness apparently keeping other westerners away. So small children and even older women appear to warm as I approach – their friendly, curious stares making me feel oddly welcome.

Woman (and cat) happily posing for a shot

Woman (and cat) happily posing for a shot

Even unobserved they seem buoyant – whether it’s a gaggle of young women chatting animatedly as they hang mightily onto the metal cage surrounding the back of the pickup “taxi” they’re riding in. Or the quick grin of a guy stirring a local curry in a giant wok on the side of the road as my driver MinMin pulls over to ask for directions. Or MinMin’s look of sheer delight as he watches the 20-foot long snake at the “Snake Monastery” undulate toward a shallow pool – his eyes shining as he catches my glance … making him look a five-year old kid.

The aforementioned snake … beautiful and, though you can’t tell, roughly the width of my leg

I cannot yet tell if my growing regard for this country is solely due to my longing for the grittier, edgier Asia I’ve been craving of late. But I recognize that I would have been moderately horrified by the surface aesthetics – the trash, the traffic – earlier on my trip. This “reality” would have once again shattered my romanticized, and yes, delusional, expectations of glimmering, green rice paddies framing quiet lanes dotted with quaint tea shops and colorful lanterns. I’m coming to realize that this idyllic version of Asia is, at least in my experience, hard to come by. And I don’t mean to sound cynical. There are still jaw-droppingly gorgeous things to see here – some of which I hope to glimpse as I travel around this country over the coming weeks.

But today’s trip made me realize that I am coming to know, and finally accept, the real Asia. And this is because months of travel have thankfully made me more observant, less judgmental (because let’s be honest – I was). My gaze seem to have softened. I’m able to see the pageant in front of me as merely the way things are here. And as I embrace it – rather than yearn for the way “things used to be” – I am coming to see the beauty.  And I am grateful for this lesson … That beauty is always around if I keep my eyes – and my heart and my mind – open.

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Speaking of beauty – this woman is selling (and wearing) a local “beauty product” called Thanaka, made from a tree grown only in Myanmar. I saw the pale paste made from the branches of this tree decorating the faces of almost half the women – and quite a few men and children – in Myanmar. All of them beautiful.

“Home”

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I booked my plane ticket “home” today.  I won’t land in California for a few months yet … still… GULP.

The word “home” is in quote marks because, at this point, I’m not sure exactly where that will be. When I left last September, I sublet the adorable California bungalow I was renting in Oakland with the assumption I’d move back in come April. Alas – my landlords are changing things up such that I won’t be able to live there any longer when I return.

I initially met this news with fear and self-pity. Really?! I am supposed to continue living out of my luggage for an indeterminate amount of time? I won’t get to sleep in my own bed as I’ve been dreaming of doing? At least not immediately I guess… Thankfully, I’m gaining a modicum of seternity around the situation. And though I’m still not 100% at peace with the idea … onward, right?

And this little kerfuffle prompted me to really evaluate what a home is. I’ve learned over the past months that I can live with just a few belongings in a suitcase and a roof over my head. And I’ve been telling myself since I landed in Africa and saw how people lived that I wanted to downsize. Certainly to simplify. So – someone was listening and I get to do just that. I have no idea what “that” will look like. How could I? But as I write these words, I’ve gotta say … I’m actually a bit excited.

So what does all of this have to do with this Onward blog? Aside from the obvious (keep moving forward, regardless of what comes up) – it’s really gotten me to thinking about all the homes I’ve seen and visited over the past several months. And the lives people live in and around these homes. So I thought I’d reflect a bit on what I’ve seen in each country I’ve traveled through, on how people live, on what “home” can really mean…

ZAMBIA

School kids in the village where they live.

School kids in the village where they live.

At home in the bush

At home in the bush

ZANZIBAR

Proud Rama and family in front of their home

Proud Rama and family in front of their home

Heading home after work

A chat before heading home from work

VIETNAM

Girls traveling home in the mountainous trails outside of Sapa

Girls traveling home in the mountainous trails outside of Sapa

Stilted homes on the Mekong

Stilted homes on the Mekong

CAMBODIA

A "pig palace" we built in a local village

A “pig palace” we built in a local village

The cemetery at Elephant Valley Project ... the final home for three of the elephants

The cemetery at Elephant Valley Project … the final home for three of the elephants

LAOS

Monks heading home as the run rises on Khong Island

Monks heading home as the run rises on Khong Island

Ducks waddling through the main drag of my fave village

Ducks waddling through the main drag of my fave village

THAILAND

Dogs relaxing in front of their home in a Chinese Koumintang village outside of Pai

Dogs relaxing in front of their home in a Chinese Koumintang village outside of Pai

Thailand: In A Fog

The misty Kiw Lom Pai mountain range in northern Thailand

The misty Kiw Lom Pai mountain range in northern Thailand

So sadly … I’m sick again. Thankfully this time I’m not staring, bleary-eyed, into toilet bowl full of tiny frogs. This time – just an annoying head cold brought on, perhaps, by dramatic changes in climate and elevation as I traveled up and down the mountains of northern Thailand. Or maybe my body is simply saying enough. Four months of travel can wear a girl down a bit. Regardless of how it happened, my weary body and foggy mind are having a tough time figuring out what to write about my time here. So as before, I’m going to be a bit lazy and rely on pictures to tell the story of the past seven days in this beautiful country….

Mountains of fresh curry paste in a fragrant local market in Chiang Rai

Mountains of fresh curry paste in a fragrant, local market in Chiang Rai

A long time fan and student of Thai cooking, I was drooling over this display. I’ve tried as many kinds of curry as I can here and have yet to be disappointed.

Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai

Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai

Local artist Cha Lerm Chai has stated he’ll work on this modern marvel until the day he dies. I think Elton John would like it here.

Wat Chedi in the center of Chiang Mai

Wat Chedi in the center of Chiang Mai

My former-Buddhist-monk guide sat with me in front of the Buddha statue at this historic temple, patiently answering every question I could think of about Buddhism…which is a philosophy (NOT a religion) I’m coming to admire more and more.

Lod Cave - in Pang Ma Pa

Lod Cave – in the Pang Mapha district

With a majestic, shallow, koi-filled river running through it, this “spirit cave” was a magical place.  We were lucky enough to be there at a time when we were surrounded by silence – no other tourists in sight. Far into the cave sit several coffins believed to be thousands of years old. Staring down at the narrow teak boards just barely held together – several of which previously held the remains of mothers and children – was staggering.

Pack of pups at Fern Resort, Mae Hong Son Province

Pack of pups at Fern Resort, Mae Hong Son Province

Perhaps my favorite spot in Thailand to date … These dogs gathered around me when I arrived and found me at this fire pit early the next morning as I tried to warm myself against the chill.

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After drafting this post I was struck by my feeling that these pictures – even these words – don’t have a great deal of soul. Perhaps my cotton head, which is making me feel dull and numb, is contributing to this lack of joie de vivre. But really – I am coming to realize that my feelings about Thailand are quite different to how I felt about Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. There isn’t as much grit here. Thailand’s edges are polished, its people more tame. At least in the areas I’m visiting.

I miss the rawness of the first three countries I visited. Granted, the strife they have and continue to experience causes them to struggle more than their neighbor Thailand. The people of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos have had to overcome much more and their progress has been, understandably, challenging. They aren’t as modern, as advanced, as westernized. And I loved that about them. And I miss it.

Don’t get me wrong. There are things I love about Thailand. Upon entering a public bathroom in a national park I found a “western” toilet WITH a toilet paper dispenser which I literally greeted with the words, “hello lover” (a la Carrie Bradshaw upon seeing her beloved Louboutin’s glimmering in a Park Avenue boutique window). And I so appreciate this country’s progressiveness. I’ve had not one but two female tour guides (only male guides in the previous countries) – one of whom was named Beer (yes, BEER!).

So – I’m conflicted about Thailand. Is it beautiful? Yes. And I t’s often referred to as “the land of smiles” – which I find apt. But as I get to know this country – I am happily learning as much about myself. I’m finding that shiny and modern is not my speed. Give me bamboo huts and crazy drivers and inexplicable customs and mysterious food any day. I feel so strongly about this that I have decided that, rather than travel to the sunny, white sand beaches of southern Thailand next month, I will return to the jungle and my beloved elephants – hours outside of Chiang Mai at a remote “retirement home” called BEES Sanctuary. And we’ll just wait and see if I’m still praising the simple yet wild flavor of the jungle – and the more primitive way of life found there – after a week of no internet and cold showers 🙂

Laos Part 2: Loving Village Life

Cruising the Ou River

Cruising the Ou River

Without question, these past two days have left me with my favorite memories of Laos. Which I was not expecting as I climbed into the van with my guide Song yesterday morning – heading to a remote village about which I knew little. I hadn’t really done my homework this time – researching the region and learning about where we were headed (north perhaps?) so I really had no idea what was in store. I’m learning that this MO works for me.

We drove for almost four hours up and around scenic mountains on the ubiquitous rutted roads I’m getting to know all too well. Then we arrived in Nong Kiew – a tiny town nestled on the Ou river dotted with bamboo thatched bungalows popular with the backpacker set. Song led me down a steep path toward a waiting boat – explaining that we were about to embark on a 1 1/2 boat hour trip down the river to our home stay…well past Muang Ngoi – another somewhat well-traveled backpacker destination. You see – we were headed to an even more remote village where most tourists don’t travel – no less spend the night. I only realized this after Song explained that I would be their first western overnight visitor in some time. I could hardly wait.

Sop Jaim - The Main Drag

Sop Jaim – The Main Drag

We arrived to find a few local women bathing in the calm river. After crawling out of the boat, we climbed a sandy hill and the small village finally came into view. Consisting of about 50 families, Sop Jaim has one main “road” (more of a wide swath of hardened dirt) lined by a scattering of sturdy bamboo houses covered by corrugated tin roofs. Most families have an “outhouse” with a squat toilet. Some don’t. Electricity hasn’t made its way to this part of the world yet. They power things (like the boom box that played obscenely loud Lao house music for a long hour in the late afternoon) using batteries charged by hydro-power from the river. A small school squats on a low hill on the outskirts of town next to a path that leads to the next village. No English is spoken here.

Perhaps my favorite part of this quiet spot in the world was the tiny beings buzzing all about. Small children sporting mismatched t-shirts and muddy shorts were everywhere – boys pushing sticks after small wheels and girls huddled together holding hands – giggling as I wandered by calling out “Sabaidee!” (Hello in Lao).

A Cluster of Kids

A Cluster of Kids

And everywhere I looked – babies. Not human babies… Groups of chicks skittering around on toothpick legs, and tiny yellow and brown, just-hatched ducklings racing after their fat waddling mothers. And a lone, rotund puppy, racing under a house, which I nearly started to follow on all fours until I came upon a full litter of six minuscule pups lazing about on a slab of dirty cement. I think I visited that gang of warm puppies eight or ten times over the next 18 hours (the too brief duration of our stay)… letting them suckle my fingers, piling three at a time into my now dirt-filled lap, rubbing their bald, warm bellies and trying to stop them from gnawing on my sandals. And then the kids came to play with us. And at one point the kids and the puppies and the ducklings were all cavorting together. I could hardly stand it.

Pile-o-Puppies

Pile-o-Puppies

There was also the lone, black cat who assertively approached me as I sat on another low slab of cement listening to Song chat, uncomprehendingly, with the locals. The thin feline crawled into my lap and when the clouds gathered I grabbed her warm body and hurried over to the protection of the tin roof covering the narrow balcony outside my simple room – the black cat nestling back down in my lap as the skies opened and the rain poured down – rivulets of water steaming from a few holes in the roof on either side of us. I sat there on a hard wooden chair for over an hour just gazing about, listening to the pouring rain and then the shrieks of the kids as they emerged from their homes to inspect the puddles. I was mesmerized by the simplicity of the place.

My abode for the night

My abode for the night

This simplicity – this purity – was mirrored in our evening meal. I got to sit with the village “chief” and his wife and mother (the kids were still playing throughout the darkened paths surrounding their beautiful two-story hut). We ate squares of delectable crunchy river weed (a Lao specialty made of a local seaweed-like substance, covered in a smattering of sesame seeds and lightly fried) and bowlfuls of fragrant soup brimming with of slivers of chicken and even more chicken bones along with handfuls of fresh herbs I could not identify that I had helped the mother clean and trim an hour earlier. Bowls of boy-choy-but-not-bok-choy swimming in salty, ginger-laced broth were surrounded by smaller bowls full of soy and garlic and ubiquitous sliced chilies (the Lao people like their food SPICY). We ate all of this with small clumps of warm sticky rice picked out of bamboo baskets – rarely using utensils and often dabbing our sodden fingers on tiny homemade cloths weaved by the village women.

The men drank rice wine…the conversations becoming more animated as the sky darkened. There was talk of government corruption and education and farming – my guide chattering away and then leaning over and explaining the foreign words to me. My favorite topic, however, came at the end of the evening… Once again Song leaned toward me to translate what the cluster of men had been discussing. “Gays!” he exclaimed – going on to explain, “We talk about why no gays in village – only in city. Think chemicals – here in village they eat all natural – only organic. In city – chemicals! Gays!!” I was speechless for a moment. He hadn’t seemed critical in his explanation … more curious in a way. I tried to offer that perhaps there were some gay people in some villages – that maybe they don’t know about them or that these “gays” aren’t comfortable … and I struggled with the words “coming out” because I just knew it wouldn’t translate. And then I stopped talking. And I looked across the table at Song’s blank stare. And I decided to just smile and nod because I just couldn’t imagine this conversation going anywhere… And it was a beautiful evening and debate was not on the menu.

The next morning, after being awakened from my mozzie-net covered, thin, firm mattress by unbelievably loud roosters at 4:30am, I wandered the village as it came to life…watching a little girl feed her ducklings and a woman return from the river with buckets full of water draped on a bamboo pole over her neck and a man chopping slivers of wood for kindling with a huge, thick knife.

A Girl & Her Ducklings

A Girl & Her Ducklings

After a simple breakfast of fresh eggs and greens and more sticky rice it was time to say goodbye – much too soon. After asking Song to translate my deep gratitude to our hosts (my simple “kop jai” <thank you> seemed wholly inadequate), I followed him down to our awaiting boat. Which had a dead battery. So we got to travel back on a local boat – narrow and low to the water and slow … the perfect vehicle from which I could gaze at the towering trees dripping with garlands of thick vines in every shade of green Crayola makes. The river was a mossy jade color – still as a glassy lake. Our boat driver navigated the river over the next hour – at one point narrowly missing a herd of water buffalo out for a morning swim.

Our original "big" boat ... and my favored small boat

Our original “big” boat … and my favored small boat

I was sad to leave the children and the chief and the puppies and the serenity that greeted me when I visited Sop Jaim. But I am hopeful that this tiny village will remain small and sleepy and slow – and that I might just visit it again some day.

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End note… This experience is one of the many reasons I am eternally grateful to Buffalo Tours – the agency that helped me plan much of my Asia travels. Their ability to work with local communities and develop extraordinary and unique outings has helped make this journey unforgettable. If you’re interested in experiencing this kind of Asia – let me know and I’d be more than happy to help make connections.

© 2017 Onward Voyage