Monthly Archives: June 2013

Myanmar Part 2: Astounding Beauty

After a few hours of a bug riddled sleep we caught our bus to Mandalay. Interestingly, the tourist buses are quite nice but the roadways can barely accommodate them. There are still dirt highways, which were in the midst of being upgraded, and single lane bridges/roads.

When reaching Mandalay we could already tell it was a bit more lively and culturally diverse than Yangon. The people appeared to be a pretty fair mix of Asian descent and Indian descent, with an obvious mix of religions as well. Like everywhere else people were super excited to see us. Thanks to Obama’s visit in ’08, Americans are especially welcome! Hillary did us a favor too, as she was sometimes mentioned by the locals. Everywhere we looked people were smiling at us, saying hello, and teaching their young children to say hello. We found a nice place with a room on the roof that gave us some good views of the surrounding area.

The first day we ventured to Mandalay Hill and the palace. The Hill is the highest viewpoint in the area and made us work for the great view. Once half way up the hill you begin a 45 minute barefoot walk up old stairways because the hill also serves as pagoda and monastery. The palace sits at the city center surrounded by a large stone wall and moat, and still serves as a military base. At the entrance we ran into a tourist who filled us in on what there was, and was not, to see inside. It didn’t sound worth the price, so we skipped out. Where most people are fair to tourists, the government price gouges tourists in every way they can find. That evening we cruised through the pretty empty night market which most interestingly displayed a huge array of old books. These covered all sorts of educational subjects including engineering, business, programming, and much more. The books had to be 15-20 years old at the newest. We dug all through them as it was a fun discovery. Quantum Mechanics anyone?

(Just a quick shot of some of the books)

The following days we just people watched. There are tons of cafes with cheap dishes and free Chinese tea. The fantastic food won over Megan’s heart from the very first day in the country. However, the few times we got dishes that weren’t fantastic, they were pretty bad. Some of the best and worst food of the trip so far. While having dinner at a street stall one day, a taxi driver was really chatting us up and told us a good joke.

“We call a person that can speak two languages bilingual, we call a person that can speak many languages multilingual, and someone that can speak only one language, they’re French” -taxi driver

Finally getting tired of my long hair, I attempted a haircut. After the entire salon staff got over the excitement that Americans were in their shop and the stylist painstakingly made me look like a white, old Asian, Megan had to correct it back at the hotel with tiny mustache scissors. I did get 2 scalp massages with the cut though, which were worth the three dollars I paid!

Eventually we were back on a bus heading to Inle Lake. Like many of our other bus rides we arrived at 4 a.m. We stayed that day at a new, clean hotel which was good since Megan started to feel a little under the weather and barely left the room. The town next to Inle Lake is quite small with not much to do. It was interesting to see the immense boat loads of vegetables coming into the docks for export from the floating gardens.

(Some of the unloaded egg plants)

We found a boat guide and arranged a full day tour. We headed out to the lake early the next morning through a canal. As we reached the lake it was a sight to behold. The smooth, glassy water reflected the blue layers of mountains that surrounded the lake on both sides. White cranes swooped down over the water and tended to their nests in small puffs of grass while enormous, brightly colored dragon flies zoomed all around us. Traditional fishermen in wooden canoes dotted the lake and larger boats of vegetables passed on their way to town.

The fishermen have a unique way of working. They balance on one leg on the end of the canoes and leverage a paddle between the other leg and their side to row the boat. While they row their hands are free to tend to the fishing nets.


As we progressed we saw the floating gardens. They literally piled dirt on lake vegetation and then planted crops on top, using long bamboo poles as pins to hold the floating mass in place. These gardens look like fields you would see on dry land except you see locals in small canoes paddling through the rows tending to the crops. Amazing!

(floating garden)

On the lake tour we stopped at a textile shop where fabrics were woven from cotton and silk, but most notably were scarves woven out of fibers they extract from lotus flowers. Very soft and nicely scented! Next stop was one of the better markets we have seen in Myanmar since it was well stocked with souvenirs and locals running around buying food, getting haircuts, and possibly stocking up on betel nut. To date this might be the most we have seen of the addictive betel nut. People walk around with mouths stained blood red, spitting everywhere, sometimes narrowly missing our feet. This used to be common throughout SE Asia but it is very slowly fading away.

(Selling some green beans and tomatoes)

Next we visited a cigar “factory” with two ladies making cigars faster than ever, and another lady smoking a cigar telling us what they were doing. Sounds like most jobs back home, but I won’t go there! We saw the making of long boats like the one we were riding in. They had a nearly complete boat and one that was 40 years old and being repaired. Pretty amazing craftsmanship. It takes about a month to make one boat by hand. They use the abundant teak wood for nearly everything there.

(Nearly finished boat)

Next stop was a huge pagoda in the middle of the lake.  After seeing so many pagodas this didn’t excite us too much, but as we were walking around it a crowd started forming behind us. Megan felt a bit uncomfortable, but then a monk stepped forward and started talking to us. He was helping all these people learn English and they were super excited to practice with us. As we were talking to the monk, a few of them were circling us like vultures trying to take photos. I asked if everyone wanted to take a group photo, and they all erupted with pure excitement. This must be what superstars feel like. During the photos Megan had a girl cling to the side of her like a magnet. Quite the memorable moment.

We dropped in on a silversmith shop where they made jewelry with silver they themselves extracted from stones. Silver and precious gem stones are mined all over this area. Megan was excited for what was next. I think nearly everyone has seen these tribal women on the cover of National Geographics: the “long neck” women with the numerous gold rings used to stretch their necks. They had a small shop where four of the women were weaving cloth by hand, the most impressive weaving I have seen on this trip. It would have been nice to hike to their village and see them in their home environment instead of jammed into the back of a tourist shop, but the season and our time wouldn’t allow for that.

(Kayan women)

Before leaving for Yangon the next day, an old lady from our family-run guesthouse gave us bags of fresh green tea as a parting gift. The small family run places always outdo the new fancy hotels! Let alone the breakfast at 4 Sisters Guesthouse was by far the best we had in Myanmar.

The bus to Yangon was the cheapest of all the buses we took in Myanmar, and somehow seemed first class compared to the others. We had snacks, water, soda, and a stewardess to top it off.  Heck yeah! Still we arrived to Yangon at 5 a.m. Megan and I spent a few days just walking around checking out some more pagodas, parks, food, books, and the people. One day while looking at books a guy walked up to us and warned us of money exchangers that rip off tourists (which we were aware of). Megan and I got suspicious as to what his angle was, but he caught our skepticism and told us that he is an English teacher. He chatted up a storm through the book shop and led us back to his classroom. He was super nice and even bought us a couple of sodas while he asked about current slang and phrases. After his class arrived, which was predominately tourist police with a few monks, he asked us to keep talking so they could learn to listen. Before we knew it we were teaching the class, but not about grammar or phonetics, we taught about credit cards, mortgages, and interest rates! These services are just being introduced into the country and the teacher prodded us with questions. Our lengthy lesson even included figures on a whiteboard. I am sure we confused the hell out of them, but none the less the teacher was appreciative of our visit.

Experiences like these and everything that encompasses Myanmar at this time is what I think most people are looking for when traveling Southeast Asia.  The country is astounding, and we feel honored to have been guests there.

Back in Bangkok we have been hanging around the tourist central, Khaosan road. The world renown “backpacker ghetto”.  This was quite the shock after being in Myanmar, but we have adjusted.

If you have made it this far I applaud you as this is a long post.  Enjoy the pictures and know that we appreciate you sharing in our experiences with us!

Myanmar Part 1: Sad to Bagan

Are you ready for this? It has been nearly a month since our last post and we’ve been itching to tell you all about our experiences! We’re splitting it into two posts to give you a break and have split the photos by locations. If you only have time to look at some of the photos, definitely check out Bagan and Inle Lake.

Part 1: Bangkok, Yangon, Bagan
Part 2: Mandalay, Inle Lake, Yangon, Bangkok

Before flying to Myanmar, we spent a few days in Bangkok. What seems to be the beginning of some crazy overnight bus schedules we have submitted ourselves to, we arrived in Bangkok a little before 5 a.m.  In a state of bleariness and confusion we managed to catch one city bus, a subway train, and finally a sky train to our hotel.

Our visit to Bangkok was especially exciting because we got to meet up with a friend of mine, Gaby, from graduate school whom I hadn’t seen for a couple years. Gaby was great in giving us some places to check out before we could meet up. Aside from some religious sites, we were introduced to what had to be countless city blocks of multistory buildings filled with shopping of every kind. The amount, variety, and quality of shopping was truly impressive. There were stores for everyone. Bryan was super excited for the five story building of everything IT.

(Tons of technology!)

The skytrain in this part of the city was raised high above the streets and had a nice walkway below the train. It was refreshing to not have to dodge traffic and street vendors while walking this section, and it provided some good views. On our second day in Bangkok we were determined to get some skyscraper views of the city. We decided to ask at the front desk of one skyscraper. This was the Central World Tower, connected to one of the largest and most upscale shopping centers. To our surprise we were able to go up for free, where there happened to be an outdoor cafe that circled the top of the tower. On our way up we passed through an area where Forbes Magazine was holding a conference. If only we had the formal wear to blend in! The views from the top were fantastic and the wind was refreshing. I can’t say Bryan was very fond of the glass railings and glass stairway!

(Megan on top of Central World Tower)

The day before heading out Gaby first took us out to lunch and ordered for us. We shared from three Thai dishes that we had never tried: a spicy soup, a salad of sauteed vegetables, and some type of fish. They were all excellent! She then took us to the Vimanmek Palace, the largest teak wood building in the world, which was used by kings in the early 1900s. Some of the smaller buildings were filled with pottery and jewelry from excavation sites in the country and with photographs taken by the current King Bhumibol Adulyadej as his hobby. Later we took a ferry to Asiatique, a historic pier and boardwalk with cute shops, nice restaurants, and a huge ferris wheel. We had an upscale dinner near the water where Gaby again ordered for us: green curry, pad thai, another type of sauteed salad, and a pastry appetizer. Once the sun had set and we were about to burst from so much good food, we hopped on the ferris wheel and enjoyed some beautiful nighttime city views. Thanks so much Gaby for such a fun day and for introducing us to new foods! We hope we will get to spend some more time with Gaby after she settles into her new job.

(Megan and Gaby)

The flight to Yangon, Myanmar from Bangkok only took an hour and getting into the country was totally painless. We weren’t sure what to expect since there has been so much recent change within the country and government. We had received our Visas while we were in Cambodia and had done quite a bit of research about the do’s and don’ts, while we also paid close attention to the current events. Myanmar seemed to be in the international news every day, both good and bad. In the North/Northwest part of the country, serious religious clashes and a cyclone had been in the news a lot. We didn’t expect to see any of the violence since it was further out in smaller villages. In the more positive news, Myanmar’s economic situation is changing so rapidly that outside investment is blowing up, infrastructure is getting new attention, and hotel prices are skyrocketing from the influx of tourism. We are so happy that we got to experience the country now, before it completely changes and before the tourism industry really catches up with it.  Even upon arrival locals were very excited to see us, as there still are not many western tourists visiting.  The friendliness of the locals was beyond comprehension. We experienced something new in these people: complete honesty. Everyone there was eager to help you and business didn’t price gouge.

Three years ago a couple of our friends went to Myanmar, made all the stops that we did, and it seems had quite different experiences in some ways. While we could get internet sometimes, albeit not reliable and not fast, our friends never had it; and as we were chatting over the internet from a Western-style cafe in Yangon, they had never seen a Western-style restaurant of any type in the city.

Our first stop in Yangon was to see the reclining Buddha. We were almost to the top of the stairs when an old man came up and introduced himself as the teacher at the monastery there. He eagerly offered to give us a little tour of the monastery buildings. Grasping an opportunity, we gladly followed. As he took us into the oldest building (little more than a wood shack now filled with old junk), he explained how it used to be used. If I remember correctly it was over 100 years old. A student of his joined us for the rest of the tour. They showed us the current sleeping quarters and classroom for the monks, we walked through a dark building where monks were currently studying by light from the windows, and we went into the meditation building where, if there were any unpracticed meditators in the crowd, we surely disturbed them as the teacher directed me to take photos. All through the tour the pair were openly talking down on the Myanmar government, something, they explained, they couldn’t have done a year ago without fear of retribution.

In the last few months we have been lucky enough to meet some incredibly strong people who have been through terrible times and were willing to talk about their experiences. This teacher, now in his 70s, sadly lost his entire family in 2008 from Cyclone Nargis, the largest in Burma history. The military government refused international aid for several days, adding to the death toll. The government’s official death toll is less than 150,000 but the people believe it was closer to half a million. At that time he had been a public school teacher, but after that he no longer wanted to work for the corrupt government and felt he could do the most good at the monastery. The student told us his teacher still has terrible nightmares sometimes, but through meditation and teaching he finds peace and happiness.

(Us and the Professor)

Two hours later our spur of the moment tour was ending and we were finally seeing the enormous reclining Buddha. We didn’t get the chance to ask them why this particular Buddha was wearing blue eyeshadow and lipstick.

The most popular site in Yangon is Shwedagon Pagoda, an incredible, enormous temple built on a hill and lit so bright at night it could probably be seen from Mars. We have seen a lot of pagodas throughout Southeast Asia, but there is nothing else like this one! Grand, covered stairways lead a very long way to the hilltop where the giant pagoda is surrounded by many smaller, similar structures. The place was huge and the Buddhas were never ending. We made it just as the sun was setting and the lights were beginning to illuminate the gold structure. It was absolutely beautiful.

(Shwedagon Pagoda)

We arrived to the town of Nyuang U just North of Bagan at 4am. As usual, a mass of “taxi” drivers were waiting for us at the bus station to take us to a hotel, but instead of seeing taxis and motorbikes, we were greeted with horses and buggies. Completely adorable! After some haggling we hopped on a buggy and were carted around to a few hotels until we found the cheapest one with an opening. I forgot that horses are Bryan’s worst allergy. Oops! He recovered a little while later and we decided no more buggies. After a short nap we were up for the second time that morning and pedaling out of town on some sad looking bicycles.

Bagan is… Phenomenal! The majority of the hype is centered around “Old Bagan” which was a walled fortress, and as you move away from Old Bagan you are greeted with temples, pagodas, and stupas of all sizes and shapes. The largest and most popular are closest to Old Bagan, with over 2,000 in total spread out over the plains. That first day we rode our bikes through dirt and sand to get to some of the temples that are least visited. For most of the day we saw nobody except the random sleeping salesman who would maybe wake up and offer us trinkets when we approached a temple. Most of these temples were in ruin, which made them all the more fun to explore. We climbed crumbling, dark stairways that felt like hidden passageways and stairways so steep and narrow we had to use our hands. The scenery took my breath away. You could see miles of perfect palm trees complementing old red ruins in every direction. After exploring the more popular temples, we decided we were much more impressed by those that were farther out. Most of the popular ones had been “restored” at some point where much more damage was done than good, and all but the bottom levels were closed off. There were a couple of the closer temples in which access to the higher levels was still allowed, and these were very popular for sunrise and sunset photos.

(Sunset over Bagan)

We attempted two nights of sunset viewing and two mornings of sunrise. The ride took about 30 minutes from our hotel to the popular viewing temples. We only got clear skies for one of each, but we enjoyed all four attempts as the dark night/early morning bike rides were very peaceful (and much cooler) and clouds or no clouds, there is nothing like that view.

On another note, we’ve got a story that will make your skin crawl. We had our first run-in with bedbugs in Bagan! We stayed three nights at that “cheap” $14 hotel (which is twice what we are used to paying for cleaner hotels, thanks to the tourist boom in Myanmar). The first night, no problems. Shortly after turning out the lights the second night, Bryan felt something on his leg so I flipped on the light and we found a bedbug. EEK! A quick search turned up no more so we hoped it was a fluke. On the third night, 15 minutes after laying down I felt something bigger on my arm so I flipped on the light – I wish I could describe this better – THE ROOM WAS FILLED WITH WINGED TERMITES! WTF? The spot I was just laying on the bed – covered. The floor – covered. The air – totally infested. It seems they were spawning from their nest in the walls to start another colony like ants do. I ran down to get an employee who immediately told us the light attracted them. No dude! The light was OFF when they arrived! He didn’t get it. They swept the room (pretty sure they didn’t own a vacuum) and left. Little translucent wings covered everything, and as Bryan started picking the dead and wings off the bed, he started finding bedbugs. A lot. He lifted the corner of the mattress and tons that were waiting for the right moment went running from the light. UUuuuggggghhhhh! We stood paralyzed for a few moments staring at the bed and trying to decide what to do next. The termites were gone as quickly as they came, but the bedbugs weren’t going away. We decided to keep the light on and see if that kept them at bay. Five minutes later Bryan felt a few under his leg. He was too close to the wall and his shadow provided enough darkness that they came out. So then we curled up together in the middle of the mattress as far from the walls as we could get. Throughout the night I awoke frantic several times, immediately searching the bed for any evidence of the bugs. It worked. Not once did I see another bedbug with the light on. But that’s not the end of the story. In the morning we left the room to get breakfast, naturally turning off the light. I went back first to finish packing my bag for the bus ride to Mandalay. As soon as the door swung open, all I could do was step back and resign. The room was again infested with flying termites, but this time it was double the previous amount. An employee got most of our stuff out and we finished packing in the hallway. I was brushing little wings and termites off my back for awhile, and they still show up in our bags sometimes.

(Whats left of some of the flying termites)

We’re a bit more diligent about checking the mattresses now!

Life @ Pai and a little Chiang Mai

From a speeding van to slow moving train we made it from the Cambodian/Thailand border to Bangkok, and up to Chiang Mai.  The train was super relaxing, and it was our first time riding in one since Germany.  We only have fifteen days to spend in Thailand on this first go-around, so we jumped up North to visit Chiang Mai and Pai (pronounced ‘Pie’).  After roughly 34 hours of travel since leaving Siem Reap, Cambodia, we had a quick break in Chiang Mai before taking the local bus up to Pai.  Upon inspection, the bus looked like something that had been broken down and sitting in a junk yard for the last twenty years.  Nervously jumping on literally as it was leaving the station we found a couple of comfy seats, and I have to say it was one of the best bus rides we have had.  There were only a half-a-dozen people on it so we had room to sprawl out a bit, and the driver was sane.

(Bus to Pai)

Pai feels like a little hippy town pulled straight out of Colorado.  In fact, the only people we met randomly were Americans either from Colorado or with some connection to Colorado.  Megan and I almost didn’t want to leave as we spent some time cruising the area on a scooter, taking a cooking class, and relaxing to the art and music scene.  When cruising around on the scooter we got to venture up a super steep road to a viewpoint.  I thought I was going to have to kick Megan off the bike so I could get to the top.  At that point we really thought we should have gotten a bigger bike, but everything after that was easy as Pai.  Now it did make sense why the bike rental place offered insurance on the scooter.  We saw foreigners all over the place wrapped up in bandages and covered in road rash.  Apparently this location is where a lot of people try driving a scooter for the first time (it was only $3.30 to rent).  Traveling around we saw waterfalls, Wats, elephants, a canyon, and some amazing scenery.  One of the best things was a juice stand we stopped off at.  Hoping to fend off lunch just for a short period we stopped at a small place on the way to one of the waterfalls.  As we sat down this lady, who was super happy to see us, brought us over some juice and a bunch of fruit, boiled potatoes, and nuts.  Megan immediately asks how much it costs, and she says it is whatever you want to pay, pointing at a donation box.  Lunch!  The fruit was grown in her garden and was all amazing.  I think in the end we might have had a bit too much sugar from all of it, but it was nearly better than some of the sights.  She had a rather large guestbook for us to sign and it was packed with excited and happy customers.  Venturing farther we eventually ran across what might as well have been pole barns with elephants in them.  Elephants are always nice to see, and Megan just reverts back to a kid getting super excited.  She got to feed one of them a papaya which only made the elephant next to it upset.  Seeing the elephants really has more of a downside than anything though.  Most, if not all, of them don’t lead the best of lives and these ones in specific are just chained to a post unless they are giving a tourist a ride down the road. 🙁  For these reasons, plus a few more, Megan and I haven’t visited the elephant camps.

(Megan feeding one of the elephants)

On a happier note we had an amazing experience taking a Thai cooking class.  We started our day off by visiting the local market where we learned about some of the different veggies, herbs, fruits, and other goodies.  Getting back we started immediately cooking; making a fried dish, curry, dessert, soup, appetizer, and salad.  After each dish we would sit down and eat it.  By the end of the day we were stuffed.  It nearly felt like Thanksgiving.  I think we will keep an eye out for another class in the future.  My mouth is watering just thinking about it.

(Papaya Salad and Fried Spring Rolls)

Because of our time crunch, we hopped on the local bus back to Chiang Mai.  There are tons of Wats all around town, and some different street markets throughout the week.  The night bazaar is absolutely huge.  You need more than one night to go through it all, but they have some awesome pad thai for about 30 cents.  In one day we biked all around town and ventured through the bazaar.  By the time we made it back to the hotel we crashed. That was a long day, let alone a bit too much shopping for me.  On top of the bazaar there is the Saturday street market, then the Sunday street market. All sorts of handicrafts and great street food!  One night Megan was craving a veggie burger, which we couldn’t find, but ended up having burgers at a little hole in the wall.  It ended up being a late night there as we sat and talked to the owner for hours.  The owner, Bill, was from just outside of Denver where he owned a real estate appraisal business.  He retired and moved to Thailand three years ago, and recently started a little restaurant.  He doesn’t hold much faith in Social Security, but he provided us with a bunch of insight to the Thai culture and opening a business.  It was sort of funny as the next morning another retired exPat from Idaho caught us at breakfast and talked our ears off.

While walking around we did purchase some durian fruit to finally try it out.  The smell is really bad, but I found the taste to be boring.  Megan thought it was pretty horrible.   I say try it once and then go buy some mangos!  Aside from the plentiful fruit we were super stoked to hit some really good book stores here.  We quickly swapped a handful of books for new ones.  Hopefully they last us a couple of weeks, as we are heading down to Bangkok to catch a flight out to Yangon, Myanmar.  We will spend two and half weeks there, and then fly back to Bangkok to spend another thirty days in Thailand.

(One of the many Wats in Chiang Mai)

Just a note, it might be a bit longer until our next post as we don’t expect to have internet, or have a good enough internet connection in Myanmar to leave updates.