Monday, August 8, 2011

Where I've Been

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    • Tuesday, August 2, 2011

      Singapore: A Fine City Indeed

      So reads the ubiquitous t-shirt, in the surprisingly- able-to-have -a-sense-of- humor-about- itself dictatorial city-state on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula.

      We arrived weary after a few hour flight on (yes, that's the official name of the airline), to a hypermodern airport a striking contrast to those we saw in Indonesia. (And, I believe, the highest ranked airport on the great website,, and yes, they really do have free foot massage machines there). Customs was simple, taxi was seamless. Zipping down clean new highways, past billboards advertising- what, yes, the Women's World Championship Netball Tournament is RIGHT HERE RIGHT NOW in SINGAPORE! We could even go! How totally random! We were dropped at our hotel- a cheapie by Singapore standards but still more than twice what we were spending in Indonesia. The place was a little cigarette-smokey, and a little prostitutey. But hey, the price was right and it was basically across the street from the eat-off-the-platform clean Singapore mass transit subway/skytrain thingy.

      Day one we wandered around the city center, or tried to find the city center. All the buildings seemed like new skyscrapers, and the heat and humidity and lack of breeze could only be described as "punishing" even well into the afternoon. In terms of aesthetics, I can basically describe Singapore as "like China, but clean," we is not exactly a ringing endorsement. But we strolled by the river and past little shops and pubs that were touristy but charming, kind of "Wee-Britain" district of smaller scale colonial buildings along the water. From there we wandered to the "colonial district" which distinctly lacks colonial buildings, although there were a few cute old British Empire-Era government buildings that were nice to look at, and imagine what it might have been like once upon a time. Not much else besides malls, although we did stop by a high end mall food court for lunch, where we had some kick-ass dumplings and dim-sum, watching cooks behind glass and wearing surgical masks preparing our food with the utmost hygienic care. Re-energized we headed out to walk in this apparently unwalkable city that is built for either subways or SUVs, and soon found ourselves exhausted by the heat again. Searching for something besides air-conditioned mega-malls to cool off, we followed signs and wandered up to a park, historic Fort Canning Park in search of shade and relief.
      Again, a charming old British era fort and park, and we headed up to an old colonial building, only to hear pounding noise as we approached. Sure enough, we rounded the bend and saw handmade signs advertising Singapore DethFest 2011, and legions of black clad, tattooed and pierced, chainmail wearing pan-Asian death metal fans milling about, selling merch, and greeting friends each time the door swung open to blast more music outward into the park. Now this was a definite incongruity with the image of a sterile Singapore no doubt, but what made it more hilarious was the fact that literally steps away, a traditional wedding was setting up. Next to the dethfest sign was a sign pointed to Steven and Ashley's wedding, which meant watching well-heeled evening gown clad guests walk past dethfest attendees and up toward the white rose covered trellis and enjoy lemonade and quiet conversation while every few minutes the muted death metal roar exploded outward as the doors opened. We just sat and people watched the whole thing, each group seemingly oblivious of the other, and not seeming to mind the presence of their celebratory neighbors. And, in that cool Singapore way, both groups were as diverse internally as externally- Chinese descendants mingled with Subcontinentals, a few old British folks and Malaysians wandered around in each group, and really showed the best of Singapore as a successfully diverse, pluralist, multicultural place. And yes, English is the official language, but its a strange English, like India - sort of British, and sort of its own thing, peppered with odd (to our ears) idioms and accents, and responses that give pause, like when you say "thank you" the response is "never mind."

      Finally, as both the sun and mosquitos began to descend, we headed down and back to the streets before wandering into the national museum, free after 6PM. A great interactive exhibit traced the history of hawker food from the British colonial days through the present, and other exhibits showed off Singaporean pop culture from film to fashion to music, all housed in a grand old colonial building. The food exhibit certainly got us excited for dinner, and we were now armed with notes on what we wanted to eat and headed to a hawker center for some "carrot cake," Peking duck, and a few other local specialties, washed down with cool iced chrysanthimum tea. And all this while watching on all the TVs, yes, once again, the world netball championships! Back on the refreshingly AC subway home to our hotel, a nice walk in the now tolerable temperature past some smaller scale buildings and the reeking durian fruit stand across the street. (Which is weird, because I thought durian was illegal here, maybe its just illegal to have inside or something.)

      Next day we were off again early, wandering our small scale Chinatown like neighborhood, enjoying a Vietnamese style iced coffee at a local coffee shop, and then back on the SMRT train to downtown. As I said, the trains are like a spotless version of the London Tube and ultra air-conditioned, with signs in English, Malay, Chinese and Bengali, and the announcement voice the same woman as the London Underground, making the same warnings. We wandered Chinatown, a great, though touristy neighborhood that was setting up for the day, selling "A Fine City" t-shirts, trinkets, and assorted Merlion merchandise (the Merlion, half-lion half-fish, is the symbol of Singapore- mythical since the mid-60s tourism campaign.) Wandered past the Buddha-tooth temple (the number of temples in Asia with tooth relics of the Buddha would suggest however, that that man had a LOT of teeth...), which I realized had been done in gold leaf by an old friend of mine Dave from Providence. The buildings were charming and looked like old China or the Victorian Asia of the imagination, brightly painted two-story wooden structures with shutters above and shops down below. Some good looking food sold in a few windows, including some historic pork jerky place that advertised "pork floss," but we decided instead on Hainan Chicken and a few other specialties at the nearby hawker stalls. Oh, and who should we see wandering the streets that day, but ALL THE WOMEN'S NETBALL TEAMS out on the town, with locals asking them to pose for pictures, and the first black people we'd seen in months.
      What else to report? Not much, spent the afternoon in the megamall district of Orchard Road, watching the luxury shopping, (Singapore's national pastime it would seem), and Asian tousrist posing outside of the rows of Louis Vuittons and Pradas, hands in victory poses. We didnt spend much time inside, but did enjoy an amazing pork rib noodle soup somewhere. One thing I couldnt help noticing in the police state, was that none of the stores had anti-theft devices, I guess it never even occurs to anyone to steal. And up early the next day to fly to a VERY different airport at Kuala Lumpur, basically a giant temporary airport made of corrugated metal, sweating in the Malaysian heat. The only interesting thing there being the electric fly swatter employed by the Starbucks employees. And from there on to Burma.

      Monday, July 25, 2011

      Yangon Redux

      Left Bagan on the night bus, safely getting out of town without paying for the temples. The autocracy is also a beaurocracy it would seem- although my hotels and buses and entrance tickets all required passport numbers, visa numbers, addresses etc, no one seemed to cross check my Bagan entrance ticket that I'd been given by another tourist, something I'd been sweating about for the past few days. Well, I can just say I'm relieved to have no more night buses for a while. Nothing much to report about that, except that once again the sweet chanting of the diamond sutra with synthesizer music and accompanied by bizarre animated videos and maps of Buddhism around Asia eventually turned into the inevitable terrible blaring Burmese soaps. A late stop at a truck stop with nothing but women frying chicken and potato chips while The Lion King played on an old TV (not the first time I'd seen it- apparently the people see it as an allegory for the current situation and the Aung San family, etc.)

      Arrived early and not so bright to the guesthouse and crashed for a few more hours before heading out for the day. Lunch at a local spot, chatting with the waiter about politics and sports and travel, he was eager to hear if I'd e to the new capital of Nay Pyi Taw, built a few years ago from scratch and basically an empty gleaming new city built for billions of dollars. " yes, Than Shwe lives there," he said "lights are on 24 hours not like here, air-con 24 hours for Than Shwe, no blackouts, no generators, but no one lives there." Air-con also for the penguin exhibit at the national zoo there, that no one is allowed to go to. It's apparently a very strange and surreal place.

      From lunch out to the market for some shopping, wandering down the broken wet streets in flip-flops and once slipping about an inch from an open sewer. Got within a few blocks of the market when the downpour began, so running through the ancient streets getting soaked and dodging ancient cars. The government basically banned car imports and taxed them so they cost over 200000 dollars (yes, dollars) which means a fleet of ancient Pre-89 Toyota Corollas wheezing around prowling the city. Unlike every other city in Southeast Asia, no motorbikes since the 2007 protests. They also have steering wheels on the right because the country USED to drive on the left until the random day in the 90s when the generals switched it all around without warning. Of course, you can always tell a rich person or government person (same same, really) by their newish SUVs. And I saw plenty of motorcades of big shots everywhere flying the new flag and toting around some minister of something, while all the other cars stopped.
      Anyway, did some shopping at the market and still a few hours before sunset when I wanted to see Shwedagon again, but too far from the guesthouse and pouring rain, so ended up seeing X-Men at the movie theater once I got though all the metal detectors.

      After some previews and propaganda, an announcement on screen had something about everyone honoring the country, and the national anthem blared over a clip of the new flag waving. I didn't know what to do, but couldn't help no one stood up, put a hand on their heart or anything. Movie was decent and totally forgot I was in Burma until the shock of the strange theater and a floor now completely carpeted in sesame and peanut shells. On to the Shwedagon, which really was incredible by sunset and night, different colors and different quoted peaceful vibe with the candles and a few birds.

      Back to my hotel for dinner, with nothing much else but sleeping to do. Read the English language newspaper- which included on the front page a piece about the local cabbage harvest, an article about Martyr's DAy without mentioning Aung San Su Kyi, and a puff piece about "China Celebrates 60 Years of the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet." That about sums up the cooutry and many of its issues right there! And now on to ChiangMai.

      Oh, one last thing, the stressful-as-hell money thing here.
      Once upon a time the junta's astrologers (are we sensing a theme here?) told the to only print money divisible by nine! Thankfully those days are over but money is a major pain in the ass. The only good money to bring is US cash, (although at a few places that take euros, I smugly enjoy the fact that they enjoy the same exchange rate as the dollar). There are no ATMs an certainly no credit cards due to sanctions. And the bills to exchange have to be PERFECT, and I mean perfect! "crispy" they insist, and I hand over a twenty to by guesthouse. 'Notha one please." hand over a crsipier one. "notha one please.." and so on, until finally they decide to give me less for various bills than others. "This one I give you 7600, these ones 7300." a hundred dollar bill also gets a better rate than a fifty which is better than a twenty and so on. Furthermore, certain serial numbers are considered unlucky and are unchangeable as well, and to top it off, in exchange for exquisitely crispy bills, I get kyat that are shredded with holes big enough to look through and with a surface area 99% covered in scotch tape. Oh yeah, and the 1000kyat note is the largest in circulation and worth slightly more than a dollar, which means changing 100$ I can't even close my wallet. (see photos)

      Sunday, July 24, 2011

      Begin Bagan

      The chapati stand around the corner seems to be the local favorite among the city's Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and backpackers. (In general, the best food seems to be in these Indian joints that are always nearby to the Hindu temples) Its a bunch of women slapping our chapatis dough in front of bubbling vats of curry, just out on the sidewalk and spilling knee-high tables with buckets for chairs into the street. The waitstaff are all under ten years old, and are constantly sneezing into the food, and wiping their hands on their filthy shirts. For change, they don’t always have exact, so they augment with a random few pieces of candy, a package of instant coffee, a few cigarettes, or a packet of tissues. Locals get chapati and curry scooped into plastic bags, and a lighter hangs from a tree to light cigarettes. Its great, except for the nasty cold I got from eating there, that I'm still nursing a few days later in Bagan.

      My motorbike driver to the bus station and I chatted for a while, as we zipped through traffic and he cursed the local drivers. He spoke with an amazing cockney accent, I asked where he learned it and he said "Where do you think." I was right. "On the pillow. Ya know what I mean mate? I've got a British girlfriend. Ha ha!" He's going to Thailand next week to marry her, and we discussed the relative benefits of living in Thailand, Burma and London - he's not sure. We zipped past some massive new malls on the way out of town and I asked who shopped there. "Chinese arseholes... Government arseholes..." was his response. I didn’t press more about politics.

      Busride was only moderately hellish. Bus filled up and they put down the dreaded middle seat for half the bus, ending, mercifully at me. (sometimes in these place they put seats in the aisles to make more
      money illegally. Unpleasant and claustrophobic experience for all. Seated next to an elderly monk who snapped open the sports pages on the bus, and smoked cigarettes (albeit mindfully) at the dinner stop. Ended up making new travel companions though as we searched till nearly midnight for a guesthouse, and four of us shared one crappy double room somewhere near the market in Bagan. Thankfully, the next day we all got adjoining singles on the roof of the hotel across the street.

      So let me introduce the gang- there’s Josh, the septuagenarian pensioner Basque Spaniard who fled Franco's Spain when he got drafted for the army and moved to Australia and joined the merchant marines, sailed the world, then moved to Australia and worked as a professional chef and waiter. He's great, old timey salty left winger with a great accent. (You can guess what we all talk about, politics and food!) Andreas is an Italian chef/teacher with dreadlocks down to his knees that brings joy to all the local people, but whenever he meets a foreigner as tells them he is from Napoli, they all say, “Ah, the garbage place!” much to his chagrin. He also chain-smokes the local cheroot cigars. Kis the LA yoga girl who is bright but not super knowledgeable and breaks no stereotypes (sample conversation: Me: Oh, did you get an Indian SIM card for your blackberry? Her: No, I havent gotten aroud to it yet and I’ve been here for five months, its been like, thousands of dollars in roaming fees.” Evenings are generally spent filling her in on who was the Khmer Rouge, and other relevant history of the region. But she’s sweet. And then their friend P, a grumpy Swiss arrived today.

      So the first morning in Bagan we rented a few bikes, ancient fixed gear Fuji cruisers for a dollar a day. Realized that they all ride bikes with no top bar because the men and women wear Long-Yi shirt/wrap things, so makes more sense. And the temples, well, they were amazing. The ruins are red brick colored, and over 4000 Buddhist temples in this area about the size of Manhattan, dating back over a thousand years. If you’ve been to Angkor, they mostly look like some of the smaller temples there, and there are little villages all over the place, peanut and sesame farms everywhere, and very, very few tourists. The occasional trinket seller is at some of the larger temples, but mostly we had the temples just to ourselves and the noisy locusts. The day was hot as hell, (Sorry east coasters, no sympathy for your current heatwave), but a nice breeze when you climb the temples or clamber around in the candlelit tunnels and stairways inside. Best temple was the Ananda temple, with its four incredible buddhas and striking and imposing architecture (and striking and imposing AK47 wielding soldiers out front!). One of the statues is designed to appear to smile up close, and frown at a distance. A few hawkers outside try to sell stuff, as with any sight, but they leave you alone after a few minutes and the talk just turns to family, life, the usual while we wait out the heat. One guy tried to sell us some rubies, and we waved him away. “Fakes, right?” He paused a moment, and nodded in agreement, we all laughed. “Where do the real rubies come from?” He pointed to the mountains. “Mines.” “But we cant go there, can we?”
      “You, no, me I can go there.”
      “What else is there? Heroin?” He nodded. “Yaa-Baa?” He nodded. “War? He nodded. “The minority peoples." We then spent some time chatting about how he prices his goods (we were cheap riding up on bicycles, he'd charge far more if we arrived in a car, or with a tour group... I tried to explain that Americans werent rich anymore but he wasnt believing it.
      Other locals were similarly friendly and chatty, offering to repair our bikes free of charge, and laughing and joking with us. Many were excited about the previous week’s visit from Aung San Su Kyi, and showed us pictures they had taken of her, or casually mentioned their cousin who had sold her a trinket of some sort.
      A few took us to their village one day, where we
      got to watch an ancient grandmother rolling and smoking cigars the size of bananas, (seriously!), the animals at work, and women getting water at a 1000 year old reservoir that they still use, walking down the steps barefoot and dipping yoked buckets into the water. We saw cave temples that were still active with monk beds in them, ancient temples, new temples, all pretty incredible with views that were even more incredible than the temples themselves, over the Ayerwaddy River, boats carrying illegally harvested teakwood upriver to Ikea factories in China and to the mountains beyond. We biked down back pistes and got lost in villages on the way to watch the sunset at one particular temple, and had a village full of kids cheering us on and running to keep up as they directed us to the temple, and we rewarded them with some of the delicious local tamarind candy. The sunset temple was hilariously crowded after a day of exploring temples undisturbed, the one recommended by the Lonely Planet, so ended up seeing every Westerner I’d met in all of Myanmar there, well all fifteen of them. We looked out on the plain dotted with spires and turrets, looking like massive overgrown chesspieces dotting the plain. Temples of all sizes and shapes, wedding cake white cubes, rich red cathedrals, and gold-leaf topped spires in every direction. Then the rain hit, we watched it coming across the plains and barely made it to our bikes as the storm was upon us, soaking us thoroughly for the 45 minute bike ride home in the dark, though it was the only rain we got in the rainy season, so cant really complain too much.

      Another day we went to Mt. Popa, a Nat (local pre-Buddhist) and Buddhist site, that basically I dont know how to describe other than showing a picture. Its the Mt. Olympus of pre-Buddhist Burma, with shrines to the holy Nat spirits all over it. Although really, it has monkeys and monkey shit all over it, and is best viewed from a distance. The first tip-off should have been watching tourists climbing off the mountain and purell-ing their bare feet (you have to take shoes off in all the temples here). The razor wire is also a tip off, and yet still the place is crawling with monkeys and reeking of monkey shit. Up close and at the top the views are pretty cool back over Bagan, but for the most part its most interesting to stand in front of the pagoda-topped volcano and view it from a distance.

      Our taxi driver picked up some guava at a local fruit stand and delivered it to a friend in a small village on the way home, where we got to his his moonshine still for palm sugar whisky (I passed on trying it), and sampled the fresh palm sugar and palm juice, delish. Fell asleep only to be woken by Andreas shouting as a starfish sized spider climbed over him. On our way again, we made it back to relaxed on the roof-deck of the inaccurately named Eden II guesthouse and swapped travel stories for our last night before Yangon again. Andreas won the best travel story ever, with tales of a tour driver dying of a heart attack in central Tibet.

      Saturday, July 23, 2011

      The Road to Mandalay...

      ...Has many potholes.
      I took the good karma private bus, (also cheaper than the shorter, but apparently heroin cartel owned airline) which also meant being up at the crack of dawn, (5am) although the monsoon rain drumming the tin roof is what really woke me up even before the alarm. Took a taxi to the bus station, (an hour away!) where I was again rather a spectacle. as the only white foreigner in the place. The drive out was beautiful though, past endless pagodas and monks and nuns making their rounds for alms (the monks here wear the deep reds, the nuns an amazing bright pink). And they were even making the trick-or-treat rounds at the bus station. The other women women in the "waiting room" (read: plastic lawn chairs on dirt floor) all unsnapped their pocketbooks and handed over a hundred kyat or two to the begging young monks, and I didn't have any small bills but they turned up their nose at my Oreo offering. Bus station was your standard developing country bus station, kids selling gum and old women selling fruit, but a lot more monks wandering around, and the dust mostly settled by the night's rain.

      The bus station had a TV which showed a local Sayadaw preaching and praying, kind of incredible, as various people came by and blessed the bus. Washing it, placing elaborate flower bouquets in the wipers and antenna and making other offerings for the journey, which really did kind of reassure me. I don't know whether such blessings work on the bus, but I truly believe they work on the people- reminding the drivers to be cautious. Once on the bus it was more prayers on the TV, before it settled in to terrible Burmese sitcoms and soap operas. Landscape was mostly empty, a few water buffalo and oxcarts from time to time, rice paddies, and the occasional village with bamboo huts, not even a corrugated metal roof in sight. This country was once the rice basket of Asia before the military completely mismanaged the economy.

      The guy next to me was eager to practice English and immediately asked me for my facebook and gmail addresses, and wanting to hang out in
      Mandalay (how they have facebook access here but not in China I do not understand...). He also insisted on buying lunch at the bus stop, which I refused, although he then made me promise to let him buy me dinner in Mandalay, to which I reluctantly agreed , figuring I'd never see him again. He was also quite eager to talk about Buddhism and Christianity, he was Christian, though we were able to agree that they both valued the same things, but there we were a Burmese Kachin Christian and a White American Buddhist on the road to Mandalay. Not much else to report, a few checkpoints, some bags for people to spit betel juice into, and a 200kyat note that sat on the floor of the bus the whole time, no one touching it until I handed it to the driver at the end of the trip who put it on the dash. Weird, people do seem scrupulously honest here.

      My moto ride from bus to guesthouse was relatively easy, I have to say, there is nothing like the feeling of arriving at a dusty baking bus stop in some developing country, and riding on the back of a motorbike with a backpack slung over each shoulder, just hoping you get to your destination. My hotel is decent, with a few other foreigners about, including an interesting retired Aussie schoolteacher who now works in Dharamsala, and a few younger backpackers. Connected with a German guy and Chinese woman for dinner at the local chapati stand on the corner. This place was a sight, tables a foot off the ground, sitting on buckets, steaming buckets of curry kept hot by burning wood, women rolling out chapatis and sneezing into them, while the waitstaff was literally a bunch of kids running slamming chapatis down in front of us with the utmost efficiency accompanying their world weary looks.

      The next day the German and Chinese and I split a "taxi" to a few of the ancient cities around
      Mandalay. By taxi, we were expecting, well a taxi. What we got was essentially if Mini Cooper made a pickup truck, you would about get the idea. The cab was about four feet long and three feet wide which the three of us managed to cram into. The spedomoeter was covered up- just a sticker with a picture of Buddha and no idea of how fast we were going. But the sights we did see were impressive! First up was the U Bein bridge, the worlds longest teak bridge, almost a mile. It may not sound that amazing, but it really was beautiful, going over a lake and basically connecting two monasteries, making for ample photo ops and swarms of dragonflies flitting about. Little stalls along the way sold food, knick-knacks like wallets and purses made of watermelon seeds, t-shirts that read "Souvenir of U Bein" or read fortunes (seriously the astrology/fortune telling thing here is huge...). The temple on the opposite side was very strange, with rather kitschy miniature replicas of many great Buddhist sites (Golden rock, etc) of Burma, which gave it a bit of a mini-golf course feel, but was overall pretty cool, with great views from atop a tower, and a somewhat more Tibetan feel to it architecturally. The driver we had, Mr. To, was not very pushy, and stopped at a shop or two, but they were generally interesting- a gold leaf factory where we could see people hammering sheets of gold, a carving workshop with some incredible puppets and wooden statues, and a Lyongy (sort of sarong) factory, where women clacked away on wooden looms with bamboo pedals that looked straight out of the industrial revolution. My German compatriot bought a few and also told me an amusing story about buying the sandlewood makeup at the market, with plenty of advice from various local women telling him the relative merits of each type. He was planning to be a "Burmese Person" for Halloween. I neglected to point out the poor taste of anyone, let alone a German making such an ill-advised costume choice. From there it was more temples and monasteries, arriving at one larger one just in time to see the monks lining up silently for lunch, about 2000 of them silently and patiently standing in line, a river of that dark red and saffron. Our lunch was a little iffy. I tried what I thought was fish curry, (passing on the jellyfish salad) and was pretty tasty, only to realize that it was in fact mutton brain. In general, I tend not to totally freak out about this kind of thing, but I was frankly terrified of getting hoof-in-mouth disease or something, and so spent the remainder of lunchtime throwing up in a bamboo outhouse, the further details of which I will spare you. I just sat and nursed my rolex brand water and nibbled on a few candied chestnuts (delish!) and felt awkward amongst my companions, and ardered a coke for my tummy. Yes, I thought I could finally get to a coca-cola free country, but they smuggle in Thai coke from Thailand! (Though no McDonald's here... yet!)

      Onward from there down dirt roads, past small stores and juice stands, locals carrying bundled sticks, weaving past pickups and trucks overflowing with monks, nuns and other passengers, sitting on the roof, hanging off the edges, and waving to us. First one person would notice, nudge their friend, smile, we'd wave, they'd wave back and smile, it was impossible not to get joy from the simple human connection of seeing someone who looks so different, but taking such mutual pleasure in a wave and shout of 'hallooooo'.

      Our final destination was another ancient capital of Burma, this one that required a teak boat ride to an island where the capital had been, and then haggling for a donkey cart to take us around the dusty as there were no cars. (Note to self and others, do not get on a donkey cart ever again, especially with two other people and driven by a seven year old) It was even more impressive, and great to be the only people at ruined old pagodas and temples, tumbling around in a donkey cart even smaller than our "taxi." Climbed a spectacular old very-leaning tower, where we were chased by a few adorable girls selling jade necklaces shouting "okay hello you buy!" up the tower, around the tower, down the tower, on bike trying to catch up with our donkey cart, smiling and laughing and shouting "two thousand!" holding up two fingers...

      Back to the hotel to find a note from my bus-mate who was apparently making good on his promise. Actually ended up running into him at the Chapati stand and feeling terrible, though we decided to have him take me to
      Mandalay hill on his motorbike, which was today's activity. The chapati stand around the corner seems to be the local favorite among the city's Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and backpackers. (In general, the best food seems to be in these Indian joints that are always nearby to the Hindu temples, and sure beats more tea leaf salad , fermented bamboo and fried noodles with cabbage), The place is a bunch of women slapping out chapati dough in front of bubbling vats of curry, just out on the sidewalk and spilling knee-high tables with buckets for chairs into the street. The waitstaff are all under ten years old, and are constantly sneezing into the food, and wiping their hands on their filthy shirts in a world weary manner. For change, they don't always have exact, bills so they augment with a random few pieces of candy, a package of instant coffee, a few cigarettes, or a packet of tissues. Locals get chapati and curry scooped into plastic bags, and a lighter hangs from a tree to light cigarettes. Its great, except for the nasty cold I got from eating there, that I'm still nursing a few days later in Bagan. The other evening activity was taking in a dissident comedy show by the (in)famous moustache brothers who are currently under house arrest after years in prison for making jokes about the government. I can't say it was funny- the humor was not-so-fresh, but I can say it was fascinating, though strange, watching them play clips of American celebrities talking about them and fast forwarding clips about the horrors of the Burmese government, which was all a little odd to try to be laughing after speeches about child soldiers.

      And Mandalay hill the next morning was impressive. I cant deny that pagoda/buddha/temple fatigue is rapidly setting in, but climbing to the top of the hill, (which the Buddha himself apparently climbed with Ananda some 2500 years ago) with thousands of pilgrims and not a westerner in sight was fantastic, if claustrophobic, and some great views over the city, to the royal palace in the center, and stupas dotting the landscape for miles out to the mountains that begin the Himalayan foothills. It was unbelievably crowded due to the fact that the full moon apparently merits a national holiday off from work here in Burma (the astrology thing again!) , and thus a long weekend and sightseeing for the locals. From there to another strange temple, featuring the worlds biggest book that's the Buddhist canon inscribed on marble in thousands of stupas. (more details to come, but my hour is up.)

      Yangon Day One

      So before I delve into Burma I want to say a few words about this place an my decision to come here. Burma, or Myanmar as it is now called, is surely the worst government in Asia and perhaps the worst in the world. This is a military dictatorship/kleptocracy that has ruled with an ion fist for decades, imprisoning thousands of peaceful protesters form monks and nuns to students and even comedians. A government that kills monks and journalists in the street. Tortures prisoners. Mines it's own territory in ongoing ethnic conflicts that are fueled by the illegal mining, timber, and oil, as well as heroin and meth trades much of which are with forced labor of prisoners. A war fought by conscripted child soldiers, human minesweepers, in which villages are burned and buddhist nuns raped at gunpoint. Meanwhile the people are kept in poverty while the generals have multimillion dollar weddings, inexplicably move the capital of the nation for billions of dollars based on the advice of their astrologers, and fight a war with a billion dollars a year in military aid from China. If you don't know much about the situation, or figures like Aung San Suu Kyi, I encourage you to educate yourself with a simple google search.

      At the same time I have always wanted to visit one of the most actively Buddhist countries in the world, one of the most closed and isolated countries in the world, talk o the monks and the people, and see the Shwedagon Pagoda and the temples plains of Bagan. I also want to educate people on the outside, readers of my blog, etc about how truly fucked up a place this has been and continues to be as the world ignores the situation.

      I also planned to spend minimal money, giving little or nothing to the government (ie, no railroads for me, and sneaking into sites where possible), and donating equivalent money to Burma awareness and activist groups abroad afterwards. Suggestions would be much appreciated.

      So anyway, I'm here in Yangon. Up and out this morning proceeded to get completely lost. The streets are completely potholed messes, a la Cuba or Cambodia. I don't know if its Nargis or neglect, but it basically looks like someone walked up and down the street pushing a jackhammer, and then added garbage and mud to the whole thing. Theres some crumbling colonial glory, but mostly it looks like much of the developing world. That is to say, to paraphrase a journalist I met once in Phnom Penh, "Mildewed cement buildings with metal rebar sticking out of the top." (and in wealthier ones, not Burma, Blue glass and tiles on said buildings.) I soon discovered there are no street signs in my neighborhood, or anywhere in the city, and a lot less text in English than I expected. Monks and nuns wander around begging bowls open, and trishaws ply the streets along with a few ancient cars and jeeps. The women and men wear a kind of pale yellow makeup as well as sarongs called Long-Yi, and I don't mean a few people, I mean the vast majority dress like that. Stumbled into a wonderful temple and just sat and tried to calm myself down after getting completely lost and a little overwhelmed and get my bearings amidst the serenity and the stares in the shady pagoda. Decided to start walking again and found a big street, and looked for addresses to no avail, until finally one building said it
      was Bogyoko Aung San, (a big street) and I was then able to get a vague sense of where I was, until finally a few streets with numbers appeared.

      It was around then that a Burmese guy about my age approached me and started chatting in English, and offered to show me around- I was initially very hesitant, all my travel instincts said no, stay away, this is a scam, but my people instincts suggested he was genuine and earnest, just wanting to show me the city in exchange for English practice, and he mentioned that he worked as a guide during the touristy season. He seemed genuine, so I went along with it. We walked past Shule Pagoda, though skipped it, given that its supposedly so-so, and the fee goes straight to the government. Admired the fortune tellers and incense sellers outside, along with the women guarding laundry baskets filled with songbirds (you can buy one and release it for luck or a wish. They fly into a tree, but I have a sneaking suspicion they just end up back in the same laundry basket the next day). We passed by a Hindu temple to Kali, which was kind of a fun flashback to India, seeing the bellringers and colorful and crazy statues of the gods. There were also fortune tellers everywhere inside and around the whole colonial neighborhood surrounding Shule. He explained a lot about the superstitions, astrology and numerology beliefs here that are fairly intense, including the recent decisions by the government on advice of their astrologers to move the capital and to make a new flag.

      From there we boarded a city bus, which was quite the experience. Imagine a "bus" with about a five and a half foot ceiling, wooden floors and a few scattered wooden benches, and PACKED with dozens of Burmese people, who were utterly fascinated by my presence. It was fun, to be sure, but I cant say I was too sorry to unwedge myself from where I was jammed in (the sweat at least helped me dislodge) and get off the bus at the bottom of the hill beneath the massive, 300something foot solid gold stupa of the Shwedagon pagoda. And impressive it is, dating back, legend has it 2500 years, when the Buddha gave some of his hairs for the place's founding, and has only grown and gilded since then, and is basically blinding in the tropical noonday sun- but what do you expect for a massive solid gold stupa?

      Wandered past the planetary shrines, where worshippers pray and wash depending on what day of the week they were born (mom, do you remember?). Others left gifts for the Buddha and spirits called nat, usually on the recommendation of astrologers, but the gifts are funny- "you must leave three pieces of bread, a glass of milk, and a jar of jam" and variations like that. Stopped by one of the many shrines inside and bought some gold leaf for a few kyat, which I applied to a Gautama Buddha for merit and a wish.

      Briefly stopped and watched a close circuit image of another Buddha sculpture, which my friend explained was a statue that a group of people had allegedly seen blink five years ago, and so now it was placed in a secret cave but a closed circuit camera was trained on it 24/7 and all could watch if it blinked again. (Insert terrible joke about surveillance state here!) So the whole complex is a series of smaller shrines and stupas surrounding the big one, and Buddhas and pilgrims everywhere, and amazingly, only maybe six westerners, though a few other Asian tourists. The grand stupa itself as I said is 322 feet high, I think it was 60 tons of gold (I need to check on that) and the top crown is covered in 1100 diamonds, 1383 rubies and emeralds, then that crown is crowned with 4351 MORE diamonds, and then tipped with a fist-sized 75 carot diamond! Photos at the museum showed when it was briefly taken down, and bejeweled with more donated gemstones (though, there are a lot here in Burma, but still...), many of which are people's family rings, jewelry, earrings etc that then hung before it was hoisted back up. Pretty incredible, and brilliant in the sun. And, my guide who I'd agreed to was extremely knowledgeable, and I was thinking he maybe was pretty genuine and worked for a real company.

      We left the Shwedagon, sweating and panting, and returned to the bus and hit up the market, mostly full of ruby and jade shops (which he declared were legit, not fakes) and a few assorted trinkets and t-shrts, along with traditional clothes, food, and everything else one finds in such a market. We did get into a few interesting antique stalls, selling old bells, gongs and the occasional opium weight, all of which are cool, but I'm trying to decommission stuff, so not sure if I'll go back and buy anything or not.

      From there my guide suggested a lunch spot he knew, and I was starving and exhausted, and now at which point I started to get nervous, having read in China, Vietnam and other books countless warnings about the "friendly" locals who want to practice English and then stick you with an insane tea or lunch bill. We browsed the thali selections at the place (a very larger Indian population here in Yangon, legacy of the colonial era), and I decided against the pig intestine curry and the goat brain curry and went veg and mutton. As soon as we sat down and I started to get nervous, kept asking how much everything cost, and then alternatively feeling plagued with liberal white guilt for being doubting of his generosity, and feeling hungry, dehydrated, starving, anxious about the quality (or the spice!) of the mutton I was scarfing down, mouth stinging from the extremely sour lemon pickle on everything, wondering if my sweat was anxiety, heat fatigue, sunstroke or what, and generally feeling paranoid and weird. Every time the waiter came around to offer more food, my host kept insisting it was all-you-can-eat, but I declined, imagining an ever growing bill, and wondering whether I'd have to stay in Yangon and be broke, (no atms, no credit cards here) or just pay a massive bill and be left with minimal travel cash, or be arrested for not paying and ending up in a Myanmar jail or.... But it was all okay. The bill was about four dollars, and white liberal guilt trumped my traveller's cynicism, for a nice change of pace.

      From there we walked most of the way back to the hotel, where he also pointed out all of the not-so subtle undercover police, and explained that the reason things had been so clean at the Shwedagon today was because a dignitary from China was probably visiting, also probably the reason for all the police everywhere. He stopped and bought some betel nut to chew, and I asked him to show me how, which he and the street vendor also found uproariously funny and interesting, and bought me a leaf which was painted with lime, filled with betel, tobacco and
      cardomom, and I proceeded to chew with no notable (ill or good) effect, save for the fact that I was now, like the locals all over Asia and the subcontinent, was spitting red every thirty seconds. "Do I spit like a local?" "Yes, very good!" he laughed. I'm sure I blended right in!

      Back to hotel, and greeted by the Burmese women, who giggled at each other and the only words I could make out were "Harry Potter"and ""American." Seriously, everywhere I go in the world, I put on my NOT ROUND glasses, and I get either Dr. Who or Harry Potter. Wandered out to dinner at the surprisingly decent "New Style" restaurant, where I was the only white person, and had every waiter in the place at my table the whole time, and every time I looked up, all eyes on me. I got a decent enough stir fry, (thank god for the Asian penchant for photo menus), and ate some peanuts.. were they peanuts, suddenly I worried they were some kind of larva appetizer I'd read about in the lonely planet, no wait, okay, they were peanuts after all. The owner wanted to talk soccer, but his English was not so great, and hard to hear over the blaring Burmese rap music and video being shown of gangsta Burmese hip-hoppers, who seem to have a penchant for the "Little Miss ___" t-shirts and who's video's otherwise display a strong influence of American 80's music videos.

      Anyway, there is a lot more to write about, particularly some political situations here that I don't want to write about until I'm in Thailand. Let's just say that there's a joke here about George Orwell- that he wrote three books about Burma: Burmese a, 1984 and Animal Farm...

      Back now at my hotel trying to decide whether I should take the evil bad karma train owned by the government early in the morning tomorrow, or the good karma bus which goes overnight and thus is rather unpleasant. I think I might have missed the train opportunity, so might not even matter.

      Sunday, July 10, 2011

      Labuanbajo and Back to Bali

      Or: Five Mata Rays is Alright

      The only drawback is that we are a bit out of town, which means having to head to a dark corner of town and furtively have locals kids in the dark offer us motorbike rides back, which all feels a little like a drug deal or something. Oh well, the place is beautiful the sunsets are truly extraordinary over the islands in the harbor and beyond.
      So it's clear why Flores is the next hot destination in Indonesia- it's a huge and diverse island without many tourists. The villages are still charming, and it's got what the rest of Indonesia does, incredible volcanos and rice paddies, village life, indigenous tribes, and at least here on Flores, Catholicism rather than Islam or Hinduism, and so again has a different cultural feel.
      So what have we done? Day one was mostly lounging by the pool, relieved to be off the damn boat. Day two we took a day trip out to a local desert island, which was amazing, though unbelievably hot and we of course ended up a little sunburned. I have to say though, if you are in search of Robinson Crusoe fantasies, Indonesia is the island nation for you. Which reminds me, among the random white people on our boat was a German witha bike who we saw pedaling past us in Labuanbajo as well. Now I'm a biking fan, I love biking at home abd when I travel, I've bird in (mostly down) the Himalayas and Andes, and even fantasize about doing an all-biking trip someday. But one place I do not dream of biking is an island nation. Like Indonesia.
      Anyway, the island was great, but now that we are hooked on diving we decided to dive Komodo, which everyone ha told us is allegedly the best diving in Indonesia, one of the bet diving nations in the world. So we set out early with a Dutch family (of course), to an incredible dive with all manner of bright coral and incredible fish. I've never had the experience of diving where it truly looked like a nature video, but the clarity, visibility, diversity was unlike anything I've experienced, not that I've experienced a lot of diving in my life, but I know I will always compare everything to this. The second dive was completely different- we went down where we we just saw nothing but endless dead coral that looked like dynamite fishing aftermath we saw a bit in the Gilis, and were caught in an incredibly strong current. Our divemaster put a stake into the ground and instructed us to hang on in the current. As beginner divers, we had no idea what was going on, but we held on until soon in the distance a gigiantic manta appeared. And when I say gigantic, I mean, like 12 or 15 feet wide, just drifting next to us in teh current, staying perfectly even as it undulated silently on the ocean floor just staying in place. We just held on and watched, until at one point I turned my head to Olivia and looked over her as another one approached, nearly drifting over her, easily the size of a king sized bed hovering above her. And that was the dive, just holding on at the bottom as rays drifted by, over and around. All told we saw about five, which seemed incredible to us, though our divemaster told us that in the rainy season there are literally hundreds at "Manta Point" where we were...
      From there the boat stopped briefly at Rinca, the other island with Komodo Dragons, so the dutch family could get a look. We just hung around the cafeteria again, old hands at Komodos, we knew where to spot them, and a huge one came by sure enough. I went over to get some pictures whil a group of Australian doctors and nurses taunted it, throwing their hat to it and taking pictures. (apparently, the Australian Federation of Nurses has a contest in which you win a prize if you get the best photo of the AFN hat somewhere amazing. They got a great one of it in a Komodo's mouth, and the hat afterwards was shredded. Not sure it was the best judgment, but then, Australia's founding father's werent known for that...

      Last night in Flores was mellow, dinner with some Dutch and Germans we;d met on our boat. Ate at the restaurant "The Lounge" (motto - dribbling a little olive oil and squeezing a little lime on your adventure) was clearly the hangout of choice, with a giant TV showing, of all things, the womens netball world championships. Netball, amazingly enough, was a topic our German dinner companion knew something about- as he had a PhDin physical education with a concentration in basketball. (I swear I do not understand the European education system!) we enjoyed dinner, swapping travel stories from this and other trips we've all taken. Of course, we thought our dive had been spectacular, but the Germans were just back from two days of diving to report that they'd been diving with all manner of sharks, baby dolphins and turtles... Not that I'm complaining about what we'd seen, but damn! Decent food too, and not the weird "apple pie" we'd experienced of pizza dough, apples, and chocolate sauce elsewhere in Flores.

      An early trip to the airport the next morning, where we were required to be three hours early for our tiny flight back to Bali. Shockingly enough, we were the first people there, some Dutch couple right behind us, who were instructed to be four hours early. And this airport was literally smaller than our tiny hotel. Security was being asked for tickets, with a metal detecting wand half heartedly waved over our bags, no metal detection for us or X-Ray for the luggage or anything. It was a little nerve-wracking, especially as our propellor plane looked, in shape and size, like a kid's toy Still, glad we chose Merpati and not Wings Air, who slogan reads "fly is cheaper." not that Merpati is anything to write home about, and my faith was a little shaken by the fact that in the seat pocket magazine was a prayer card in multiple languages representing multiple faiths- now I appreciate the nod to diversity and pluralism, but reading the prayers for the pilot and flight in many faiths actuat made me mire insecure "in the name of Allah, without whom we are helpless, bless this aircraft and flight crew..." no, not kidding! And the diversity of Indonesia really is great, our flight had a contingent of Indonesian Catholic priests on it as well.

      But of course, we survived the flight back to Bali, and arrived in semi-shock back in the land of high traffic tourism, in an otherwise lovely beach town called Sanur, sort of an Ubud on the beach with countless restaurants and spas, and this time there were tsunami evacuation signs everywhere, but at least everything in Bali is on a small scale. (When tourism first hit in the 1920s, the local priests decreed that no new building could be higher than a coconut tree, which keeps massive hotels, at least in height, to a reasonable size.)

      Basically spent the next few days lounging around Sanur, taking walks on the beach, and generally just relaxing and resting. The other other thing of note was a trip to Ulu Watu, a clifftop Hindu temple INFESTED with overfed tourist-spoiled monkeys, most of whome were playing with sunglasses, wallets, and other items purloined from tourists, and where we watched a firedance of the Ramayana, which was pretty cool (see pictures.)

      So what else from Bali and Indonesia, here's the roundup of other weird observations. Well, the world is getting smaller- every advertisement here as at home suggests "find us on facebook" and the cell phone companies lure customers with promises of "free texting and facebook." The old report on strange potato chip flavors from aroudn the world now includes seaweed, barbecued chicken and barbecued beef. We saw a number of bikes with steering wheels instead of handlbars, and the most amusingly ironically named internet cafe ever, "Wank Internet."

      More to come on Singapore, and then my next adventures solo and visiting Dan G in his native habitat...