The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Islam

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Today was another travel day. Chris and Dan got up and left early to explore the Batu Caves, but Adam and I slept in. We had a light breakfast at the SPG lounge, packed up, and hurried out to the Islamic Arts Museum of Malaysia to meet Chris and Dan at 10am.

imageWe took a $3 taxi and got there early, having to wait for the museum to open. You could tell KL was a little more of a conservative town than those in Thailand. Most people were wearing pants and, at a minimum. tee shirts. It was the first town we visited that had an Islamic majority; the previous cities had been primarily Bhuddist. We particularly enjoyed the girl in the mini-skirt waiting in line to get in the museum, obviously clueless that she was likely to offend with her choice of attire.

image Adam and I wandered through the museum, first learning about the various types of mosque architecture and how political and regional influences affected the styles. Dan and Chris caught up to us and we all made our way through the museum. There was an impressive collection of centuries-old litrature, relics, ceremonial clothing, weapons, and art. The building was built in 1998 and the museum itself was fairly well put together.

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Tiny Quran is tiny

In order to make it to the airport in time, we had to make our way back to the hotel. We grabbed our things and played several rounds of hurry up and wait during our trek to our airport gate for our afternoon flight to Yogyakarta. As with our most of our Asian flights, it didn’t leave remotely on time.

We sat in the same seats on an identical AirAsia A320–200 that was equally as empty as the previous flight. Our pre-ordered meals arrived mid-way through the 2+ hour duration. For being plane food, I really enjoyed the green curry chicken with rice and Kit Kat.

Unexpectedly, there was little-to-no turbulence on this leg. Upon our arrival into Indonesia, I celebrated my new shellback status, having crossed over the equator for the first time. The celebration was short, though, because we were immediately met with immigration chaos. The airport was small, so we deplaned using a staircase onto the Tarmac. It was a race to pay for our visas and fill out the customs forms on whatever flat surfaces we could find. What followed next was a series of lines: immigration, locating luggage in a sea of bags, exitking the baggage area, and having the bags X-rayed. Lots of small women were pushing and shoving and I had to speak up for my place in line more than once.

Outside, we met the drivers – one tiny, manual transmission Toyota crossover for us, one Daihatsu for our bags. I sat in front and the 90-minute drive to Villa Borobudur was exhausting. Dilapidated single-story buildings lined the streets. It was starting to get dark, and there was nothing to see anymore. The driver hugged the center line of the busy streets, aggressive motorbikes weaving in and out. What are lanes? Whatever, just go where you want. I was ready to get out of the car half-way to the villa.

Eventually the road narrowed to one lane. After a series of turns through a small village with monotone prayers amplified over a loudspeaker, we started our steep climb up the hillside. The staff were waiting for us in car park area of our brand new open air villas No doors, no windows, just rooms with half-walls and mosquito nets. It had beautiful, ornate woodwork throughout and plenty of lounging areas. There was a medium-sized, freshwater pool and a large patio area that presumably overlooked the villages below.

We unloaded our things as the villagers below us were reciting their final prayers of the day (last of 5 times daily) and walked upstairs to the dining area, where dinner was ready for us. I vaguely remember having some beer, white rice, and chicken. Due to the combination of carsickness, migraine, dehydration, over-stimulation (unrecognizable bugs + stuffy heat + unknown variables), and anxiety, I had to leave the table.

I spent the evening making my “tent” habitable, setting up chargers, turning on lights in a satisfactory manner, spraying the entire room, staying awake long enough to ensure I wouldn’t be disturbed by any unwanted insects. Blue lights in the ceiling of the room to scare away the spiders, but not inside the net to attract bugs. It was… stressful. I think I slept a total of 3 hours off and on.

Barhopping in Kuala Lumpur

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This was another travel day, so we were up early to get to the (thankfully empty) airport. We enjoyed our coffee and croissants, browsed what duty free shops were open, and waited for our plane to board.

Accidental plane selfie

Accidental plane selfie

AirAsia is kind of awesome. They’re best described as the JetBlue or Southwest of Southeast Asia. We had a clean, like-new A320–200 plane on the smooth, half-full, 3-hour flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Chris had procured us seats in an exit row, so we had extra leg room. Additionally, there was nobody seated between Dan and I, nor was there anyone in front of me to worry about.

imageOn our descent into KL, we experienced some crazy turbulence, which is apparently typical of the tropics. The landing was smooth we taxied into the gate in awe of the beautiful, brand new (April 2014) international terminal. Malaysia had the quickest, easiest immigration process we had experienced yet. We grabbed our bags and hopped on the high-speed light rail for the hour-long ride to central station. Conveniently, it was a quick walk to the Le Méridien hotel.

As we settled in, the staff brought almond cookies and madelines to each of our rooms, thanks to Adam and his SPG 100-day platinum status. We had a lazy afternoon and decided to cancel the food tour, partially because Adam was not feeling well and also because the tour group never confirmed our reservation. The four of us enjoyed wine and appetizers in the SPG lounge and came up with a plan for the evening.

imageChris, Dan and I took the light rail up a few stations and walked to the Troika tower, rode the the elevator to the 23rd floor, and walked across the sky bridge to catch an amazing view of the twin towers. Unfortunately, there was a Mexican-themed party in progress on the other side, so we had to turn around. On our way back over to Claret bar, a waiter mistook us for partiers and shuffled us into a group of people enjoying happy hour. Before we knew what was happening, wine glasses were shoved into our hands. A photographer came by and took our photos and shortly after, a pleasant English woman came by and explained that we had crashed a private farewell party. She let us keep our wine glass, but showed us the exit. Happily confused, we sat on the couches of the actual bar, enjoying the rest of our wine, and when we finished, we bailed.

We walked a few blocks in a relatively quiet part of the remarkably clean city. It reminded me a lot of downtown Los Angeles, where, after the work day is over, the neighborhood kind of shuts down. Even at night was very humid and within a few blocks I was sweating through my shirt. Eventually we got to Traders hotel, took the elevator even further to the 33rd floor, and worked our way to Sky Bar. In between the glass wall facing the twin towers and the indoor pool were reserved couches for various VIP groups. There were a lot of bros floating around and you could almost smell the frivolousness.

imageWe found a table and ordered drinks. Dan kept pointing out how high we were, which wasn’t helping my vertigo. The open windows weren’t helping either. Within a few minutes it sounded like someone had switched on fountains in the pool; it was downpouring outside and was someone being funneled into the pool. It got so bad that the bartenders had to close the shades on the windows. Feeling punchy, we settled our tab and hailed a cab to take us to Taps bar and avoid walked in the pouring rain.

imageTaps was great – it had fourteen craft beers from around the world. We each picked our poison, ordered some snacks, and chatted as the band started setting up. The atmosphere was comfortable: good lighting, busy but not too crowded, interesting beer, tasty entrees, and good friends. After a few rounds, we called it a night just as the band started playing.

We opted for a taxi to the hotel and our driver was the right amount of entertaining after an evening of adult beverages. Once he got a feel for us, we couldn’t get him to stop talking about his views on American politics and how Obama is doing a great job. Quote of the night: “Bush finish all the money.”

Lazy Day in Chiang Mai

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I must have signed up for the Starwood Preferred Guest program in my sleepy stupor, because I woke up to the TV on the ever-cycling SPG channel and SPG welcome emails in my inbox. We decided the night before not to make early plans so we could sleep in. After a lazy morning, we met for free cappuccinos in the hotel lobby and wandered back into the streets, weaving through the various markets on our way to a highly-regarded hole-in-the-wall for some Thai mohinga. It had taken an impressive 10 days to occur, but I had came down with some traveler’s IBS, though nothing a little Diamode couldn’t fix. I was getting tired of the same noodle dishes, so I ordered white rice with “bacon,” a ham-like meat that was cold, so I didn’t eat it. Adam and I hired a tuk tuk for a much more entertaining 2km trip back to the hotel.

I was lazy in the hotel room for the rest of the day. I watched a couple movies, did laundry, enjoyed the air conditioning, and caught up with the world; a much-needed day of rest. In the evening, we all convened in Adam’s corner suite to enjoy Burmese wine while the sun set. The three of them went on a food tour, but I opted out due to my GI distress. Instead, I walked around the night market for about an hour before I settled on a small restaurant, Daddy’s Pizza, for a familiar meal. I enjoyed my Thai chicken pizza and watched the hundreds of tourists walk by, making their way through the market stalls. Australians, Germans, French, Italians, Japanese. There was no mistaking this neighborhood is for anyone but tourists. When I finally got tired of the same woman trying to sell me a frog-shaped guiro-like instrument, I picked up some mango and sticky-rice for dessert on the way back to the hotel.

It was a quiet day, and I do feel a little guilty for wasting some of my time in Chiang Mai, but at least I am now familiar enough with the city to know that I’d like to come back again, perhaps on my way to explore more of Yangon.

Exiting the Golden Land

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Anticipating traffic on the way to the airport, we scheduled to leave fairly early for our afternoon flight to Chiang Mai, Thailand. This meant we only had the morning to continue exploring Yangon, so we arranged for James, our food tour guide from the evening before, to take us out for breakfast on the town. Adam and I took turns using the downstairs of our loft room to give each other some privacy while using the bathroom; the shower’s large window into the living room afforded very little. We met James, Chris, and Dan in the lobby at 9am and took to the streets.

Noodle salad

Noodle salad

Judging by the flurry of activity of the city at night, it was safe to say that the citizens of Yangon are not particularly early-risers. While walking, I noticed that people were just starting to get their days going. Traffic was getting heavy again and people were starting to flood the streets on their way to breakfast before work. When we reviewed our Burmese culinary adventures with James the night before, we mentioned that mohinga (noodles, egg, curry, chicken, peanuts, and banana corm-type breakfast soup) was a favorite among the four of us, so our first stop was at a busy mohinga shop a few blocks from the hotel.

James ordered us the chicken and fish varieties and also a noodle salad, sweet tea, and coffee with lime. The chicken dish was phenomenal and the fish wasn’t too fishy for my taste, both a little more interesting than Mandalay version. I wasn’t too fond of the lime coffee; not bad but not good either. The noodle salad was a less soupy version of the chicken mohinga and the clear winner in my book.

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The group finished up and moved next door to a crowded bun shop, where James went overboard and ordered us two of everything: pork, chicken, and red bean buns and pork, chicken, and yellow tofu (made from the garbanzo bean instead of the soya bean) Shan noodles, and chicken and pork sticky rice rolls. Everything was outstanding, though I enjoyed the red bean bun the most. James was kind enough to give away what we couldn’t finish to other hungry patrons.

We parted ways with James after some digestion. Chris decided to walk around the city while the rest of us went back to the hotel to enjoy the air conditioning; it was only 10am and already 88 degrees. I packed up and was lazy for a few minutes before we checked out and met U Myint at the van for our ride to the airport.


imageThe 1:20 flight to northern Thailand was our last on an ATR–72 prop plane. It also meant we had completed our week-long tour of Myanmar. We discussed our opinions of the country and agreed that the food and market tour with Nay was the saving grace of Mandalay, though we could have gone without the rickshaws – we just felt bad for our rickshaw pedalers. The town itself was dusty, very crowded with tourists, and, frankly, not that interesting.

Inle Lake was fascinating and our accommodations were very nice, though we would have appreciated less boat time. Riding to the other end of the lake in the long boat several times was somewhat uncomfortable.

The hot air balloon ride with Balloons Over Bagan and associated views were outstanding, a real treat. The staggering number of stupas in town and the rich history make Bagan an interesting destination, but it was dusty and not quite developed enough yet for tourists.

Yangon was the group favorite. We agreed it was much more like what we expected Mandalay to be like, much more culturally diverse, and that we could spend more time there.

Overall, the tour was very enjoyable. All of our guides were fantastic – very knowledgeable, friendly and helpful. They kept us busy, running us from site to site. Our accommodations were all comfortable and had reasonable WiFi. The airlines and primitive airports were not concerning, though I’m not sure their current check-in systems are scalable.

I am grateful I got the chance to visit Myanmar as it begins to get on its feet. It’s a fascinating country with a rich and complicated history. It is simultaneously surprisingly modern and simple. It’s denizens are friendly and I felt safe everywhere we visited. I hope they further develop their sense of nationalism and that they continue to thrive under their relatively new leadership.


imageAir Bagan provided us a small lunch on the way to Chiang Mai. After exiting the refreshingly-modern airport on our arrival, we over taxied to the Le Méridien hotel and checked in. I don’t mind sharing a hotel room, but after 7 days of close quarters, it was a relief to have my own space again. I showered, cranked the air conditioning and unwound in my room for a few hours. I explored the hotel pool and spa and the four of us met up later for drinks in the SPG lounge before we meandered through the night markets in search of dinner. We ended up having a delightful family-style meal at a nearby, upscale Thai restaurant, called Antique House, complete with lounge-y covers of Top 40 hits from the 70s. Afterwards, we wandered back through the lively streets, stopping for sweets at an intriguing dessert stall across from the hotel.

Krab with a K

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We got up early, had our obligatory buffet breakfast, and rode our van to airport. After saying goodbye to Mr. Min Min and checking into our flight, we sat outside terminal in the first of two wait areas. Fastantic people-watching. The terminal was packed with tourists, much more so than in Heho or Mandalay. It seems Bagan is quite the popular tourist destination.

imageWe pushed our way through security and sat in the second full holding tank until it was time to board the bus that would take us the 40 yards to our plane. The 1:20 Yangon Airways ATR–72 flight to Yangon was smooth and unremarkable. We were fed a small breakfast of local food, including a chicken sausage sandwich and two mochi, which are sugary, doughy rice gluten balls filled with a red bean paste. Interesting confections, but not really my thing.

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Longyi-clad locals

When we arrived, we watched the tractors bring our bags into the terminal; though the bags were hand carried into the arrivals area, this was much more like a real airport. After security, we walked outside to meet Mr. U Myint, our Shan tour guide, and pack up the van. While stuck in traffic on the way to Shwedagon Pagoda, our tour guide gave us the history of Yangon. The Garden City, named Rangoon by the British, was the capital of The Golden Land until 2005, but it has since been inexplicably moved to Naypyidaw. Most of the foreign embassies remain in Yangon. It’s considered the best city to live in because it is the biggest in the country and is only 21 miles from the sea. The city was heavily occupied by the British during World War II, but it was also easy to see colonial influence in the buildings.

imageWe removed our shoes and rode the elevator (another barefoot first) up to the main level of the Shwedagon Pagoda. The 60-ton, solid gold dome rises 98 meters above the base and is spectacular, even if it is covered in scaffolding for its 5-year repairs. It is the largest and arguably the most famous pagoda in the country. We toured the grounds, taking pictures and listening to Mr. U Myint tell us about the complex’s history.

After an hour of wandering, the van driver took us to lunch at Padonmar Restaurant, a seemingly popular destination for American diplomats. Beer, soup, rice, curries, vegetable dishes, fruit. We mixed up our lunch routine by having some local wine.

In our food coma, Mr. U Myint gave us a driving tour of the colonial buildings along the waterfront. Though the owners had given up on fresh coats of paint long ago, the residential and commercial buildings were quite impressive. Some of the larger commercial buildings had recently changed ownership and were in the process of being converted into hotels, which is sure to help draw more tourists to the city.

imageEventually we came across another city landmark, the Sule Pagoda, dating back over 2,000 years. The group played a game of Frogger trying to cross the insane traffic to get inside. More pictures, more history. Many of the temples and pagodas are seen as community centers; places to pray, eat, sleep, play, and commune.

imageThe van driver took us to The Loft, our accommodations for the night. Our twin bed rooms were unavailable, so they upgraded us to the suites. Modern architecture, two-level lofts with a living room, rooftop terrace, and giant display window into the bathroom. Oh, Asia… Chris and I took off to see the nearby street market before it closed for the day, wandering through the food market before stumbling upon an open-air mall of hundreds of stalls. The items for sale were mostly clothes (longyi), jewelry, and souvenirs but some were art and fabrics. I spotted a watercolor painting that I liked and stopped Chris to investigate. We successfully haggled down our geometric paintings of scenes of the country from the same artist, a fine reminder of this exotic adventure. We returned to the hotel and rested for awhile in the air conditioning before meeting up for dinner with James, our food tour guide.

While the taxi battled the crazy, noticeably motorcycle-less traffic, we learned that James, who is maybe 20 years old and has great English, is of Indian descent and hopes to study the Bible and music in Colorado in the next few years. I did notice that Yangon is much more of a melting pot of cultures than any of the other Burmese cities we have visited.

Our first destination was in China Town, and James brought us to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, being careful to wash our hands with sanitizer and wipe our utensils and plates down. Apparently because the Shan state extends so far north, many of the dishes from the area overlap with China, with which it borders. We had Shan noodles with chicken and curry – easily our favorite dish of the trip thus far – as well as chicken meatballs with a spicy tamarind sauce and some kind of spicy vegetable dish with quail eggs, jelly noodles, and chicken.

imageAfterwards, we walked down the street to a night market, where James ordered us a selection of meat on sticks, as well as a fried tilapia, from which I abstained. Between the pork belly fat, corn-like vegetable, broccoli, okra, and pork, I found the pork on a stick to be the most interesting. The bugs were swarming all around us, but I was fairly distracted by how vibrant the nightlife is. Constant car traffic, people meandering the hundreds of market stalls. There was even a DJ playing music from his laptop. The streets were very dirty, wet and cluttered with trash and construction debris; moreso than most cities I’ve visited. I was convinced that we were all going to get sick that night.

The second course consumed, we walked 15 minutes to another neighborhood through what would be some seriously shady streets in any other city. According to James, the city was “99% safe,” so we marched on. Walking past more night markets, we eventually arrived at the curry destination, where we had the local version of the country’s national dish: curry and rice. I enjoyed the spicy chicken and black bean pork, which was very similar to the pork we had at lunch on our first day in Myanmar. I noticed some German tourists at a nearby table and started to relax some. Having been surrounded by tourists in all the other cities, I was beginning to feel insecure by our local immersion in Yangon.

Durian mousse

Durian mousse

We were getting pretty full after the curry dishes, but James insisted we try dessert before we went back to the hotel. Walking around the block, we entered a large bakery/ice cream parlor, where our guide ordered us a popular dessert called faluda. It’s basically a combination of ice cream, milk, jelly noodles, and custard that eventually melts into a milkshake. It was… interesting. The taste was fine and I particularly enjoyed the custard, but the combination of the jelly noodles and everything else was a bit odd. Dan spotted durian mousse, so of course we had to try that too. It was more like a cake and made of mostly frosting, and was therefore approachable.

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Sweaty, exhausted, and full, James arranged a taxi back to the hotel and we said goodnight.

Hot Air Balloons, Horse Carts and Hops

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imageWe were up by 5:10am to catch the Balloons Over Bagan bus, which was a combination of retro 1950s styling and new luxuries (like air conditioning). The retro suspension rattled us over the imperfect roadways on the way to other hotels to collect the remaining balloon passengers. Thankfully, my concentration on retaining the contents of my stomach were distracting me from the reality that I was soon going to be suspended in the air very high above the ground. The bus unloaded us in a large field, where the crews were already hard at work getting the balloons and baskets ready for our departure.

imageThe group was corraled into a circle of inward-facing chairs, where we could enjoy coffee and biscuits and watch the crews do their thing. The two English pilots eventually came over to introduce themselves and organize us into groups. We were brought over to our respective balloons and given a safety briefing. It was hard to believe 16 tourists and a pilot could fit into such a small basket. The group stood aside as the crew began to inflate the balloons, first with large fans and then with the propane-fueled burner. At least six other balloons were being launched from the same field. The sun began to rise as we all piled into the balloon and finally launched.

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I was surprised by how stable and lofty the basket seemed. Our ascent was fairly slow, which gave me time to get used to the height. The rising sun burning off the fog among the thousands of pagodas was spectacular, and for a moment I forgot that there sixteen of us unsecured inside a balloon rising above the trees. That, or the Xanax finally kicked in. As we continued to rise, Mike, our entertaining UK pilot from Bristol, slowly spun the balloon around so that we could see in all directions – Mt. Popa to the east, the Ayeyarwaddy River to the west! New Bagan to the south. The sunlight was beginning to hit the pagodas, making the landscape beneath us glow. Our balloon continued to rise and around 1200 feet, I decided the Xanax wasn’t strong enough, so I sat down in the basket. This helped my heights anxiety, because I couldn’t see out of the basket and there was little to no wind. I could hardly tell we were moving.

All the balloons headed in the same direction and, after about 40 minutes, we started our descent. Interestingly, the pilots had minimal control over steering, but the crews were in constant contact, so they coordinated a landing in a field. One by one, the balloons would land, their crews racing to provide assistance. Our turn came and, in case the basket tipped over, Mike ordered us into the landing position: seated, heads down, cameras away, and holding onto the rope handles. As we got closer, he released the hot air at the top of the balloon and we softly came to a rest on the ground. The crew cheered and the passengers clapped! We remained in the basket until instructed to re-enter a new corral, where champagne, croissants, and chairs were waiting for us. After a few minutes of chatting with the pilot while the crew packed up, we received our certificates and got on the bus for the trip back to the hotel.

Not that safety was ever really a concern, but I was pretty impressed with the whole operation. The company, owned by an Australian, has been flying in Bagan since 1999, so I suppose they’ve had time to get their process down. I’ll very likely never do it again, but now I can say that I survived a hot air balloon ride over Bagan in Myanmar.

imageMr. Min Min and the driver arrived around 9am to bring us to our next activity: a horse cart tour of the pagodas. We split up – Chris facing the rear and Dan sitting in front one on cart, Adam facing the rear and I sat in front with the driver on the other. Our horse was female, she was seven years old, and she obviously didn’t like the dirt roads. We cruised through the bumpy streets, winding through the small villages past half a dozen small pagodas and stupas. When we finally reached the farmland, there were stupas in every direction! It was almost surreal to think of how many images of Buddha (statues) were in Bagan if every stupa, temple, monastery, and pagoda contained at least one.

The trail was very dusty and, though the pagodas were fascinating and beautiful, I am thankful the ride only lasted one hour. We rejoined Mr. Min Min and headed to lunch at the Green Elephant, where we partially helped cook our own meal. This was a much less informative demonstration and we were happy to sit quietly, drink beer and snack on potato chips. Lunch was a typical Burmese meal of curried chicken and fish, lentil soup, white rice, vegetables and fresh fruit.

imageAfter lunch, we returned to the hotel for naps and relaxing. Later on, we rejoined Mr. Min Min for a boat ride on the Ayeyarwaddy River for sunset. Beers in hand, we chatted with our tour guide while the boat (and many others like it), climbed up the river and turned around. The engine was shut off and we “slid” back down the river watching the sun fall behind the cloud for an impressive, orange sunset. Mr. Min Min invited us for more beers in his village, so once again we piled into the van.

His village was basically the area that we had the horse cart tour through earlier. In fact, one of the cart drivers walked in shortly after we arrived. We continued our chat, comparing stories of our hometowns, snacking on potato chips. Our early morning caught up with us eventually, so we called it a night and drove back to the hotel.

Bagan is an interesting town. Where it lacked in charm and finesse, it made up for with it’s rich history. It’s not my favorite stop on the tour of Myanmar, but I am certainly glad we made the visit.

Temple-hopping in Bagan

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imageBuffet breakfast, showered, packed. We met Lay Lay at the reception hut and loaded up the Alphard, opting for a van to airport instead of another boat to van transfer.

It was that time of day where the villages were coming alive. Children going to school, farmers tilling their land with tractors, ox-drawn carts being lead through the streets, Chinese Buffalo-led tractors pulling trailers of raw materials, mopeds and bikes of hotel employees on their way to work. Only the dogs seemed to be resting – commonly in the middle of the road.

The driver gave a courtesy honk at a every moped, biker, and other obstacle in the street – this meant he was honking incessantly. Once past town, we came upon a new monk initiation ceremony taking place in the street along a lake. The different tribes were wearing their ceremony garb, chanting, singing, and marching through the street to the beat of the drums. Our tribe was spotted on the side of the road, adorned with large cameras and documenting the festivities.

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Most people got around on Chinese, Japanese, and Thai motorcycles. There were newer-model Japanese cars mostly; I enjoyed spotting the non-American Toyota models. We passed many different types of crops – corn, sugarcane, citrus. There was a lot of commerce on the roads through the hills to the airport/train station.

imageHeho Airport was swarming with tourists. We hung out outside, watching the planes takeoff and land. Easiest boarding process ever: Walk towards the plane, wait for someone to ask for a ticket, get on. A short, 30-minute flight on the Air KBZ ATR–72–500, complete with cake, soda, and candy; It was like an airborne kids birthday party. Upon landing, we grabbed our bags and met Min Min outside the terminal where yet another van was waiting.

On the way from the airport, I noticed a flurry of new construction. This area was obviously booming, likely from tourist profits made possible by the recent governmental changes. We stopped at the large Shwezi Gon pagoda, built by King Anawrathta in the early 11th century, listening to Mr. Min Min tell stories of Buddha as the hawkers lined up to pitch us souvenirs. From there, we visited the 13th century fresco caves of the Kyansittha temple. It was a very dark man-made stone/brick structure with elaborate paintings on plaster of select teachings of Buddha formerly used primarily for solitude and prayer. Unfortunately, insects had eaten away at a fair amount of plaster over the years.

Leaving the caves, it was hard not to notice the myriad of golden brick stupas and temples, scattered throughout the landscape. It reminded me of Gettysburg, where everywhere you look there is some kind of monument. The van driver took us to have lunch at a popular upscale restaurant on a cliff with a view overlooking Ayeyarwaddy River. We dined on various preparations of duck, fried fish, curried chicken, and lentil soup. Fresh fruit seems to be a common meal-capping course and no meal would be complete without Myanmar beer.

imageWe checked in at the Thiripyitsaya Sanctuary Resort to relax for a little while. The hotel and grounds were pleasant – clean, well-kept, and reasonably modern. It was situated along the hillside overlooking the river and adjacent to many stupas, the ruins of several they had restored themselves. Chris and Dan had a river view, while Adam and I had slightly smaller room nearby. Thankfully, most Burmese speak English as a second language and all the staff were very accommodating.

Later, the van driver and Mr. Min Min took us to the whitewashed Ananda Temple that housed four standing Buddhas and dozens of frescoes, where the entrance hallway was lined with souvenir stalls. Adam and I were amused that the shoe rule was essentially “No shoes in the gift shop.” We spent some time wandering the temple and listening to our guide tell us more stories of each painting. It was a fascinating building, though also affected by insects eating the plaster and was whitewashed many decades ago. Fortunately, there is now funding to remove the white paint and restore the elaborate wall and ceiling patterns.

Moving on, Mr. Min Min brought us to Shwesandaw Pagoda, where we joined the gaggles of other tourists upon the monument to watch the sun set behind the pagodas. For some reason, Asian people really like steep staircases, perhaps to make western tourists nervous centuries later. I made it up to the third tier before deciding that was far enough. While waiting for sunset, I counted the number of tourists clad in the locals’ longyi, a type of sarong. When I had had enough, I made my way down the steep stairs among the dozens of pushy tourists and waited for the rest of the group to descend among the sourvenir-hawking locals. Every time I approached a stand and considered a purchase, the competition would get louder and pushier, dissuading me from any purchase at all. Back together on the ground, we returned to the hotel for the evening.

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Adam and I attempted to do laundry in the sink of the hotel in Mandalay, but our clothes didn’t dry by the time we had to leave for Heho. This hotel offered a laundry service, and we took full advantage of it.

Stogies and Mid-Lake Meals

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imageThe breakfast buffet was served out of ornamental long boats on the deck of the dining hall facing the water. We lapped up coffee, shoved in crepes, got ready for the day, and met Lay Lay at the boathouse. After a 45-minute boat ride, watching the fisherman slap their paddles on the water to scare fish into the nets, we arrived at the very busy market.

The group got off the boat and wandered around the marketplace stalls, stopping every so often for Lay Lay to explain how the items being sold were prepared. This market was much like the one in Mandalay, but with more fish and many more tourists; I’d estimate half of the market stalls being oriented for souvenirs. After 30 minutes or so, we returned to the boat and continued back through town, stopping to see a boat maker’s establishment.

 

Two narrow wooden boats were being prepared by a team of artisans: a fishing boat and a tourist long boat. The fishing boats take about a week to complete, while the long boats take about a month. More souvenir tables were surrounding the workplace, which was situated on dirt underneath a raised house. We continued back on the boats until we pulled down one channel and stopped at another stilted house with dried leaves around the windows.

The cigar shop owner was a woman with three children who ran a small business out of her equivalent of a garage. She and four other woman sat on woven mats, each with a bowl of tobacco, glue, a knife and dried leaves in front of them. According to Lay Lay, each woman could produce 1,000 small cigars per day. The proprietor served us tea and answered any questions we had, using Lay Lay as an interpreter. We were walked through the cigar-making process and were invited into the woman’s home to see what it looked like.

We took off our shoes and walked upstairs into the living room, an open room that was obviously the center of the 300 square-foot bamboo-stilted, thatched-roof house. There were small, unscreened windows propped open for airflow. Lay Lay had us sit in a circle to talk about the woman’s home, being careful not to point our feet towards the image of Buddha, the obvious focal point of the room. The house had basic electricity with an non-enclosed electrical panel near where a selection of hats hung on the wall. Sparse, but modest; you could tell the woman the woman was happy. Her young daughter, maybe 6 years old, joined the circle and we went around, giving our names, what they meant, and where we were from. We parted ways and got back on the boat.

Our guide took us through town to another temple, where we unloaded once again, shoeless, and wandered through the marketplace of more souvenirs on the way up to the temple. I paid the 5,000 kyats (about $5) to bring my camera inside, where five statues of Buddha were housed. Visitors would rub gold leaves onto the statues and, over the course of a couple hundred years, the statues became unrecognizable. Now sat amorphous golden blobs, surrounded by tourists with gold leaves. As with any temple, women were not allowed on the platforms. Not for sexist reasons, but supposedly to avoid possible time-of-the-month-related messes.

imageWe started getting hungry and we got back on the boat once again, this time being taken to our covered lunch boat about 30 minutes away. Upon our arrival in the middle of a seaweed-heavy part of the lake, we switched boats and sat at a narrow table obviously only meant for two diners (or four children). Once we finally found comfortable seating arrangements, we were served more Myanmar beer and three courses of delicious food, cooked in an adjacent boat. It was beautiful scenery and, though the lunch was tasty, the uncomfortable seats and lack of space dictated our next move. We were tired from riding around long distances on the long boats and the sun was getting to us, so rather than continue our journey on the lake back up to the monastery, we requested our guide bring us back to the hotel to be lazy Americans and relax.

The tour group is keeping us busy, and I noticed most activities revolve around temples and marketplaces so that the souvenir stalls have adequate access to tourists and their money. Having spent the last four days being shuffled around from place to place at an aggressive pace, we enjoyed a quiet afternoon in the chalets, cooled by a breeze coming in off the lake, keeping the bugs at bay. I caught up on my documentation of our travels thus far and even started reading the book I brought from the comforts of the dining hall while watching the sun fall behind the mountains. Adam and Dan later joined me on the deck while Chris got his feet pampered at the spa. The bugs came out again, so we retreated back into the chalet to catch up with the world on the spurts of usable WiFi signal. Even the power was sporadic; more than once the AC, fans, and lights would turn off for minutes at a time, prompting a kick from the APS unit located in each room. Beer finished and frustrated from the WiFi, we called it a night.

Felines, Ferries and Fritters

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Our air conditioning in the hotel room had been fixed the night before, so we slept inside an ice box with no mosquitos. It was glorious. We had breakfast, showered, packed up our things and met Chris, Dan and Mr. Win in the lobby. Apparently there is an expressway to the airport, rather than just the dingy, narrow roads we took into town two days earlier. We thanked our guide and driver and made our way through security to the ticket agent to receive our boarding passes. Old school! The brightly-colored Yangon Airways ATR–70 prop plane was waiting for us out on the Tarmac, and we boarded from the rear, choosing seats near the front of the under-booked plane.

 

imageOn the 30-minute long flight to Heho, we were served our choice of 2 colas or water, as well as a type of fruit-based taffy. I’d estimate the flight was 98% tourists following a very similar (if not identical) tour package as ours. I assume the roads between Mandalay and Heho were in unfavorable condition or the tour companies want to help support the local airlines, because as soon as we were up, we were back down again. The plane turned around at the end of the single runway to head back towards the single-level terminal. We made our way out the back of the plane, as our bags were carted over and hand-carried in. It reminded me of the old Westchester County airport terminal.

imageThe tour guide met us shortly after we exited the tiny airport, and we were escorted to our Toyota Alphard van, where the driver was waiting for us with chilled water bottles. Our guide, Ley Ley, educated us on the Shan state’s culture and history as we were carted through the green hills to the Red Mountain Estates Vineyards and Winery for some tastings. I found the white fortified wines to be the most pleasing. The reds were not enjoyable, though it’s remarkable that they can make any wine there at all.

Refreshed, the van took us to the Princess Inle Hotel, where we checked in and relaxed before we boarded the tourist boats for a ride around the lake. The boats were handmade on the lake by locals and, though there were low-angle engines (presumably because of the many weeds) attached, the boat drivers liked to paddle using their legs in a unique manner for a little ways. We wound our way through the weed channels and entered the open water on the lake, cruising at 15mph for about an hour before reaching a town – on the water.

The buildings were supported by bamboo stilts and arranged in a block-like formation. We cruised along in awe until we arrived at the cooking school, dismounting the boats and shuffling into a demonstration room where our chef was waiting for us. He taught us how to cook several items on the lunch menu, just like the locals’ Grandmas used to make, asking occasionally for our participation. The dishes were outstanding, and we were getting hungrier with each dish. Thankfully we were treated to full-size portions of the menu items – fried spring onion, steamed spring onion in banana leaf, grilled eggplant salad, curry noodle soup with chicken,  – upon completion of the demonstration. It was while we were enjoying our meal that we noticed the island of cats.

Part of the school’s complex includes a Burmese cat shelter extending to a small island, where they are attempting to rebuild the breed’s population. After our late lunch, we snuck downstairs to visit with them, though most of the 39 inhabitants were asleep. I wondered how many fleas or diseases they each had, so I didn’t bother any of them. Many were sneezing, which I understand is not uncommon for the breed. Amused, we re-boarded the long boat and toured through the town again, this time heading down a channel  leading to the floating gardens.

Living on the lake, the farmers have no land to grow crops on, so they have to build it. They’ll use seaweed and other raw materials as a base and buy mud at the market to layer on top of that. The “islands” are many rows of long, thin strands within sections of water walled off with more seaweed piles. Most entrances were marked with a floating bamboo stick, presumably to help with wave control and to keep errant boats from floating too far away.

Tired from a long day of traveling, our driver brought us back to the hotel dock. We proceeded to unwind on the deck with cocktails and snacks while watching the sun tuck behind the lush, green mountains. All-in-all, a very good day… until the bugs arrived. Thankfully, we were prepared with bug spray and the hotel provided mosquito repellant in strategic places  throughout the grounds. According to the staff, November is the start of their cool season and that there’s no malaria to worry about. Fears eased, we retired to Dan and Chris’s chalet to enjoy wine acquired earlier from Red Mountain Estates. A few glasses later, we said goodnight and headed to our own chalet, opting to close all the screens and fire up the air conditioning. Temperatures at night were pleasant, though it was still warm and humid during the day, which lingered inside well after the sun had set. The landscape is borderline tropical and very green, despite its higher elevation.

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Adam and I again split a “room,” which was a free-standing chalet perched up on bamboo sticks and partially over the lake. It had a massive vaulted ceiling made of tightly woven leaves and was a pretty good-sized space. We had a lounge area and an outdoor deck overlooking (and over) the water, two twin beds, and a bathroom area. Though westernized with flushes and an entertaining kitchen sink-style spray gun, which can only be assumed for use as a bidet, the bathroom had no roof. Needless to say, privacy was limited.

Rickshaws and River Cruises

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Upon entering the room, Adam and I were greeted with a half dozen mosquitoes and a fairly warm room, despite the air conditioning being set as low as it could go. I spent the night killing mosquitoes and sweating under the oven of a blanket. We enjoyed our “American Pan Cake” breakfasts at the buffet in the morning before being shuffled off to our rickshaws at the Australian-run Grasshopper Tours.

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Our guide for the food tour was Nay, a native of Mandalay who clearly enjoyed practicing his English with us. The rickshaw pedalers whisked us through the mixed income neighborhoods and we arrived at our first stop to enjoy mohinga, a popular breakfast soup made of rice noodles, fried banana corm, and fish balls. From there, we were taken on a tour of the indoor market across the street, where we tried a type of custard made of eggs, milk and rice. Nay taught us about the thanaka tree, which provided the paste used by the locals as sunscreen. We walked along the stalls of vegetables, fruits, roots, spices and eggs, stopping to try several local snacks, such as the mixture of sticky white and black rice with salt and peanuts. Our guide brought us through a typical meat market, where they can only sell chicken and fish – selling beef requires a permit.

Nay showed us the local’s fresh shampoo before we moved on to the Indian tea shop, which was the Mandalay version of the corner Starbucks; A very social place with free WiFi. We tried a naan-type fried dough with a white bean sauce, sweet chicken buns, and sweet and bitter tea – all delicious. Afterwards, we re-mounted our rickshaws and were taken to a another tea shop to enjoy both red and green-tomato and tea leaf salads. The green tomato salad was more bitter and a little more spicy; I preferred the red tomato salad’s flavor, but I would have enjoyed more of a kick. Back on the rickshaws, we headed off to the Shwe Pyi Moe cafe.

Nay ordered us more tea, soup, noodles with chili powder, and bean and onion fritters while we chatted about the differences between Myanmar and America. The soup was much like the breakfast soup we had earlier, which was very tasty even without the banana. When we finished, we were taken to a roadside juice stand, where we sat in a circle and enjoyed freshly-squeezed orange juice. We mounted the rickshaws once again and were taken back to the tour van, where Mr. Win was waiting for us.

Because we had been eating all morning, we forewent lunch an d the driver brought us across town to the Ayeyarwaddy River, where a large double-decker boat with lounge chairs and beer waited for us. We cruised up the river for an hour and came across the  temple and de-boated, being greeted by a number of aggressive merchants. It was obvious that Myanmar residents were taking full advantage of the tourists at the various sites, with souvenier booths lining the streets and merchants on the move, trying to make a deal.

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Passing the giant dilapidated lion statues, we came across the Pa Hto Daw Gyi pagoda, an unfinished square stupa. Supposedly construction began in 1790 for King Bodawpaya, but was discontinued when the king left and later passed away. It now stands in rough shape, slowly disintegrating after having sustained damage during an earthquake in 1838; the surrounding grounds are faring similarly. I hope the recent increases in tourism will help to fund preservation of the site.

imageMr. Win brought us past more souvenier stalls to the Mingun Bell, which was built in the 1808. He gave us some history and we returned to the boat to cruise downstream back to town. The river must have had a fast current, because we got back to the docks in half the time. The afternoon was capped with Mandalay beers, fried cashews with salt, fried chicken fingers, friend spinach, and fruit at a great outdoor restaurant looking over the river.

Back at the hotel, we attempted another happy hour, but didn’t last long. We retired to the room only to hear Iron Cross, Myanmar’s premier heavy metal band, just getting started next door. I had a few hours to kill, so I did some initial packing and caught up on my trip documentation.