Tag: Buffalo Tours

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…


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.


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.

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.



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.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
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.

Babe the Water Buffalo

Babe ... enjoying a lovely bowl of gazpacho on a sunny day in Berkeley, CA.

Babe … enjoying a lovely bowl of gazpacho on a sunny day in Berkeley, CA.

One of my favorite parts of traveling is the unexpected things that inevitably occur… The four frantic Jack Russell Terriers that came tearing out of a pub in Ireland, skittering across the winding road to my car, just at the point when I need a little extra merriment.  A beautiful little girl running up to me at an orphanage in Zambia, telling me excitedly that her name was Katherine and then refusing to let go of my hand for the rest of the day. The bright spot of a mother’s love after an impossibly difficult day in Zimbabwe (involving a train wreck and a dilapidated hospital full of hundreds of scared and wounded people**). The friends made along the way, the surprising meals full of exotic ingredients, etc., etc.

With My Pal Katherine - Zambia 2005

With My Pal Katherine & Friends – Zambia 2005

The unexpected is already showing up on this journey – despite the fact that I have yet to leave the country. An everyday conversation on a hike with my friend Elizabeth (and her AWESOME dog Luigi) turns to talk of travel and she educates me about VPNs. Perhaps, you may think. not the most exciting of topics. But who knew that I needed to set up something like Hide My Ass in order to surf my favorite sites from afar. Not me! (NOT that I want to spend a great deal of time online during this journey … but I’m gonna need to chill out with a wee bit of Netflix from time to time.)

And other conversations with various friends that are leading me to all manner of fun – a private tour of a fish sauce facility on a remote island in Vietnam, a friend of a friend of a friend to dine with when I arrive in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and countless other connections.

Perhaps my favorite unexpected bit of joy in relation to this journey, however, is Babe the Water Buffalo. She didn’t come with that moniker … I bestowed it upon her the moment I saw her … thinking of Babe the Blue Ox who appeared in Fargo (one of my all time fave flicks). My Babe was a gift from, yup, a new friend I met because I decided to take this journey. Jeanne is a friend of a friend (they know each other through a “meat club” … god, how I love the Bay Area) who works for Buffalo Tours – a company specializing in customized tours in SE Asia. Along with the assistance of her sweet colleague Loan in Vietnam, Jeanne has been developing itineraries that are surpassing my wildest dreams. And we have, along the way, become friends. I think Loan might be a new friend as well … she has, apparently, referred to me as “the pleasant American lady.”

Babe the Blue Ox

Babe the Blue Ox (in Bemidji, MN, don’t cha know)

But back to Babe…  Made by local women in Mai Chau, Vietnam, these colorful, enchanting water buffalo are commissioned and purchased by Buffalo Tours to help support the tribal people. The women use scraps of local clothing to make these magical creatures – each one exquisitely sewn and beautifully unique.  The water buffalo is a symbol for steadfastness, loyalty and consistency in Vietnamese culture. It’s a very valued creature as it brings good fortune to all. 

So I have decided that Babe is going to be my traveling buddy. I’m imagining a bit of a “Where’s Waldo” type of situation … Hopefully you’ll see her show up in various photos – hanging out by temples in Angkor Wat, in a tree house in the jungles of Laos and sunning herself on the white beaches of Bali. I’m just excited to have something that represents such beautiful qualities. Something made with such care. Something that will remind me of friendship … and the magic and joy brought forth by the unexpected.

* * * * *

* * As I mentioned above … there was one especially difficult day in Zimbabwe ten years ago. It’s a story I think of often… I even wrote it out at one point but never shared it. So this seems like an appropriate time:

One day a bunch of volunteers was hanging out, waiting for lunch when one of the project leaders came rushing up. Two trains had collided outside of Victoria Falls and they needed help in town. We were asked if anyone had first aid experience. I tentatively raised my hand, explaining timidly that I had been a life guard years and years before (timidly because, really? A lifeguard?). They nonetheless eagerly accepted my offer and, along with my friend, Jen we scurried off – racing down the dusty hill toward town.

When we arrived at the hospital the gates were surrounded by hundreds of local Zimbabweans, hoping to learn news of their loved ones. Ambulances and trucks of every shape and size carried in the injured. As soon as our old VW bus came to a stop we rushed out toward the open door of the old hospital. It was chaos. We quickly slapped on some gloves and got to work, rushing gurneys into the hospital, attempting to help organize patients, trying to find anything useful to do.

A helicopter landed shortly after we arrived so we rushed over to take the survivors toward the emergency room. Then we heard the whir of another ‘copter so we hurried out with wheelchairs and gurneys. Once the rotors stopped, someone yelled from inside, “Only bodies.” The helicopter didn’t have any survivors, only three of the deceased. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so helpless as when I wheeled that empty wheelchair back to the hospital entrance.

We were soon distracted however with the duty of making sure the multitude of survivors, patients, doctors and nurses had water. As we dolled out cups of water and sadza (a simple maize porridge), the injured looked curiously at my white face, smiles erupting when the cup of cool water was placed in their awaiting hands.

In the middle of the mayhem, a woman who had been on the train and was waiting for a doctor grabbed my hand. She was convinced I had been on the train with her. I sat with her and held her hand, gently trying to convince her we had never met. She would have none of it.

Throughout the day, I checked in on her as she lay in the uncomfortable looking metal bed. She had a bit of a concussion and needed to stay the night and somehow, despite the fact that we didn’t speak the same language, asked me to contact her daughter. The hospital only had one working phone line, so I asked a priest who was walking by with an ancient-looking cell phone dangling around his neck to help out. I was thrilled that we were able to get through and alleviate her daughter’s concern – and the look of gratitude from my new friend was pure joy.

At the end of the day, I wandered into the ward where her small bed sat against the far wall. I told her I had to leave. She motioned for me to get the crumpled paper bag that was sitting under her bed and, once she had it in her hands, she pulled out three beaded necklaces. She tried to hand them to me, insisting that I take them to remember her. I tried mightily to resist – pleading with my eyes that she keep them. I knew she didn’t have much, that these necklaces were likely very dear to her. But I could not change her mind. I clutched them in my hands, wrapped my arms around her and embraced her, wiping tears away as I walked out of the room.

Before we headed back to the lodge, we were asked to help feed the patients in the maternity ward. The last patient had just given birth to a premature, three pound baby girl. The tiny nugget was the size of my hand, swaddled in simple white linens and wrapped in her mother’s arms. No fancy incubators here. When we entered the warm, cramped room and asked the baby’s name, the mother gazed at us, finally asking in broken English, “what do you think I name her?” There was quite a language barrier, so for a time we didn’t know what to say. “Precious,” I heard myself saying… thinking of the name of one of my favorite lion guides back at camp. “Maybe you can call her Precious?” She grinned widely, leading me to believe that she just might bestow this name upon her tiny daughter.


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