Category: Myanmar

Myanmar Part 2 – The Comfort of Strangers

Quintessentially Beautiful Bagan

Quintessentially Beautiful Bagan

I left Myanmar this morning with a flurry of mixed emotions and feelings. Sadness, gratitude, relief. This land was at once welcoming, confounding, beautiful, tragic, and generous. Allow me to try to explain.

In my last post I wrote about how I found Myanmar’s challenging environment to be in such contrast to the beauty of its people. And that theme continued as I traveled to the amazing splendor of Bagan, the hustle and bustle of Mandalay and the quiet countryside of Inle Lake. The one constant was the kindness demonstrated by everyone I met along the way.

With Thaw Thaw as the sun sets over Bagan

With Thaw Thaw as the sun sets over Bagan

In Bagan, my beautiful guide Thaw Thaw (pronounced Taw-Taw), her dark silky hair falling to her waist and her cheeks decorated with pale squares of powdery Thanaka, toured me around temples and pagodas – teaching me about her hometown’s ancient history and mesmerizing landscape. Perhaps my favorite part of this visit was sitting with her on the top of a temple waiting for the sun to set. As the sky changed colors and the scattering of temples and pagodas began to disappear in the slowly descending darkness, I learned about Thaw Thaw’s home, her education, her dreams. At one point we talked of our shared love of dogs and she told me of the puppies she recently found and tried to save – only one of which survived. She named him Mickey and, to my delight, the following day she offered to take me to her home to meet the little guy. Watching her patiently hold that little black and white pup while I tried, rather unsuccessfully, to ingratiate myself with proffered slices of white bread was a highlight of my visit.

A slow wooden boat then took me up the Irrawaddy river to Mandalay where my next guide UD (pronounced You-Dee) met me with a huge smile. He took me to an long, ancient teak bridge and even more ancient temples and monasteries where I got to help a smiling monk work on his English. Another day we toured other historical spots, finishing on the top of a mountain watching the bright orange sun descend behind hills topped with even more golden pagodas.

My new friends - UD and a monk from Mandalay

My new friends – UD and a monk from Mandalay

And yet again – the highlight of my visit to Mandalay was my time with UD … After hearing me mention in passing my interest in meditating, he personally arranged with the head monk of a Buddhist center for me to join the locals to sit in meditation. And insisted on driving me to the remote location on his day off. UD pulled up to my hotel on his motorbike, fashionable as ever – on this day sporting crisp blue jeans and pale tan slip-on loafers rather than his traditional longyi (a long, wrap-around skirt that looks super comfortable) and velvet flip flops. After handing me my helmet he whisked us off into the chaotic Mandalay traffic.

Before we settled onto the bamboo mats laid about on the hardwood floors, UD translated what the monk whispered to him upon our arrival: “Breath in through your nose and repeat to yourself, ‘I know, I know'”.  I desperately wanted to ask him, “But what do I know? What does the monk know?!?” But there was no time. And naturally my mind tried to figure out this puzzle for the next hour – only rarely settling into the empty, peaceful state intended. Sigh. Despite telling me when we arrived that he was only going to stay for 15 minutes, UD was still sitting next to me an hour later. It was his first full hour of meditation and we both seemed a bit giddy as we mounted his motorbike for the dusty ride back through town. When I had to say goodbye the following day, my eyes were wet as I tried to explain to him how grateful I was. I just hope he understood.

I then flew to Nyaung Shwe to visit Inle Lake and its floating villages and markets and more ancient monasteries and pagodas. Alas – I had eaten at a suspicious Indian restaurant in Mandalay and a severe bout of food poisoning laid me low for my entire visit to this purportedly beautiful region. We’re talking the kind of sick when your kneecaps ache, you shiver under your bedcovers regardless of the layers of Asia-appropriate hot-weather wear you’ve piled on, and the mere thought of the homemade Mac & Cheese you’ve been dreaming of for four months makes you physically shake your head in attempts to dismiss the nausea.

Floating high above Inle Lake

Floating high above Inle Lake

Regardless … I tried… My amazing tour company Buffalo Tours had arranged a free-of-charge hot air balloon ride on my first morning that I just couldn’t pass up. A low slung wooden boat scooted a few of us across the misty lake before dawn and our massive balloon floated above the villages as the sun rose. It was a magical site made all the more enchanting by the villagers running out of their houses waving and cheering at us. I was even able to snap a few pictures before my stomach heaved and I had to sit on the bottom of the basket (the captain had given us stern instructions to not drop anything over the side of the basket … not sure if the contents of my stomach counted).

When I arrived on the ground I told my guide Thet that I was simply too ill to continue the day’s planned outings and headed to bed. And bless his heart, he checked on me throughout the day, bringing me extra water and dehydration salts and even a thermometer – and upon seeing my pale face and shaking body mid-afternoon insisted on taking me to the local clinic. As my van pulled out of Nyaung Shwe two days later I felt heartbroken and close to tears … We drove slowly past villagers heading to the local market and wide fields of green beans and bright yellow sunflowers and lumbering, massive cows pulling old wooden carts. I’m pretty sure I would have adored this charming part of the world.

So as I close my chapter on Myanmar I feel like my time here is unfinished. That there was so much more to see, to experience. I am grateful I was here at a momentous time in this country’s history – a time when there is hope for democracy and a better life for the people here. Because they are some of the most courteous and buoyant of any I have met along my journey. I was so touched that all my guides left me with the hopeful words, “When you return…” I can’t say with certainty that I will come back to this country. And yet … and yet…

Ancient teak carving. "I know... I know..." Namaste.

Ancient teak carving. “I know… I know…” Namaste.

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.

Who, What, When, Where…

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Since I already wrote about the “Why“, I figured I’d explain a bit about the other particulars… at least the highlights ‘cuz it’s really my hope that the stories will unfold over the coming months. So below is a little overview to let you know what’s what. In a nutshell though – the eight flags above represent the countries I’ll visit!

I’m leaving on September 11 (total coincidence, that date) for Zambia where I will volunteer at a Lion Conservation Project near Livingstone. I’ll be doing conservation work (preparing food, cleaning enclosures, etc.), research (traipsing around in the bush taking notes on the lions’ activities, character traits, etc.) and conservation education (hanging out at local schools to teach the kids how cool lions are!). This is the same work I did 10 years ago and I cannot wait to get back to the cats.

In mid-October I’ll head over to Zanzibar to work on a Dolphin Research & Marine Conservation project for three weeks.  I’ll be conducting marine research, monitoring dolphin activity and doing coral reef assessments. And hopefully swimming in the ocean every day.

From Zanzibar I’ll travel to Vietnam for a month … wandering from the north to the south – checking out the food scene in Hanoi, trekking through rice paddies and doing a home stay in a remote northern village in Sapa, passing through Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City, touring the Red Boat Fish Sauce factory on a tiny island in the south and then jumping on a few traditional teak boats to motor up the Mekong Delta to Cambodia.

elephant valley project

In Cambodia I’ll work with the Elephant Valley Project in the Mondulkiri Province near the Vietnam border. My days will be spent working to improve the elephants’ living conditions in the sanctuary, helping the mahouts (the elephant caretakers) walk and bathe the elephants, preparing their meals, etc. After I tear myself away from the elephants (I’m already anticipating lots of tears) I’ll head north through Battambang to Siem Reap – spending Christmas amongst the majestic temples of Angkor Wat.

I’ll be in Laos for the New Year – traveling around for about three weeks. I’ve heard it’s amazingly beautiful country …  and am perhaps most excited about participating in “The Gibbon Experience” – zip-lining through the jungle and spending the night in a tree house in a national park surrounded by Gibbons (I originally thought they were monkeys but they’re actually from the ape family … who knew!??).

gibbons experience

After Laos I’ll head to northern Thailand for lots of good food, some cycling tours and cave dwelling and temple visiting and night market perusing and who-knows-what-else.

Myanmar is next on my dance card … think strolls around ancient pagodas and cruises up rivers and across majestic lakes on rickety boats and yet another food tour (are you sensing a theme here?) and I honestly can’t even remember what else.

Then back to Thailand to visit the southern part of the country which I haven’t even planned. All I know is I want to stay far, far away from the crowds of partying westerners on holiday. Anyone with great recommendations for this area – please let me know!

By this time, it’ll be the end of February and I’ll head to Bali to meet some dear friends. We’ve reserved three ridiculously affordable AirBNBs around the country and are just going to do whatever the heck we want. The gals will take off in early March and then … well, I don’t really know. I might head down to the Flores Islands in the southern part of Indonesia (home of the Komodo dragons!) or try to find a volunteer opportunity with sea turtles or who knows what.

So there you have it. I have to admit that, after typing all of this out, my head is spinning. I am left speechless… pinch-myself-don’t-really-have-words kind of stuff. I am a lucky, lucky girl … a girl bursting with gratitude.

 

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