Thursday, January 31, 2013

Myanmar Part Two - Mandalay and Inle Lake

Friday the 18th saw us up at 5:30am for the quick 20 minute flight to Mandalay.  Our driver Mr Toa met us at the airport and we drove an hour to our hotel. There was a bit of a problem at the hotel where we found out they didn't have our reservation, and apparently there weren't any rooms available.  We weren't that keen on the hotel and were getting ready to roll the dice and try somewhere else when magically a room appeared.  The hotel wasn't great, but we were too tired to try anywhere else so took it for just the two nights.

After lunch we explored some temples, one of which included the worlds largest book.  Basically three Buddhist books engraved on large marble stones and put inside a small marble shelter, quite impressive.  Mandalay wasn't as busy and crowed as Yangon, but still a bit overwhelming.  

On Saturday we set off to explore some areas outside of the city, and had a fabulous day.  The weather was great, and provided some extraordinary clouds which looked great in the photos.    We stopped at some marble and bronze workshops, which produced statues for the many temples in the country; always interesting to see how things are made.  

We stopped at one temple and started to wander around a bit when Mr Toa pointed out what I thought was an elephant covered in ornate coverings and said look at the dancing elephant.  To our amazement it was actually two people inside an elephant costume, and they proceeded to perform an wonderful dance.  Click here for a short video of the dancing elephant!

While the elephant was dancing we noticed the start of a parade on the road.  Turns out it was a "Buddha Day' and we were treated to an traditional Burmese parade of people, horse and oxen decorated in local costumes and flowers.  What a surprise treat.

Our next stop was Sagaing Hill, an area often referred to as a living Bagan.  It is full of working temples and monasteries and is the spiritual center of the country.  We loved the temple which contained 45 Buddhas  and the many views of the river.   We finished off the day with a fabulous sunset view of Ubien bridge, which is the worlds longest teak bridge.

On Sunday we had an early morning flight to Heho, which is the entry point to Inle Lake. The lake is beautiful and surrounded by mountains.  This was our last flight on Myanmar Airlines and we were happy to land safely.  At the start of our trip we had picked up a copy of the Wall Street Journal in the Hong Kong Airport. The paper had an article about Myanmar and mentioned an airplane had crashed on landing into Heho airport, killing 4 people and injuring a bunch of others. Since we could only get seats on the government run airline, which wasn't recommended due to their safety record,  we were a bit concerned.  However the crash was with a different airline, and we went with the theory everyone would be on full alert after the crash, which worked out!

After an hour taxi ride, and an hour ride on a long narrow wooden boat we arrived at our hotel, a delightful place, all rooms and walkways on stilts over the lake. We spent most of our time relaxing, but got up the following day for a beautiful sunrise trip on the lake to photograph the fisherman on the lake and explore the local villages.  The villages were fascinating, all buildings built on stilts over the lake, and everyone moved around on wooden long boats. It was a wonderful relaxing few days at the end of very busy trip.

Tuesday 22nd we had to sadly leave Inle lake and start the long trek home.  We flew back to Yangon and survived our scariest taxi ride of the whole trip. Our driver almost read-ended one car, and after one frightening dash across the road we were narrowly missed being hit by a bus.  Needless to say we declined his offer to drive us to the airport the next day.  

The following morning we were walking down the street and noticed a sign saying the National League for Democracy and realized we were outside their main office.  The NLD is the main opposition political  party and is lead by Aung San Suu Kyi.  Although the party won a majority in parliament in 1990 they were declared illegal by the military junta and many of their members have been imprisoned or killed.  It was another indication of how much is changing in Myanmar that we could easily go to the office and talk to the people.  

That afternoon we flew to Bangkok, and then on Thursday 23rd took the last two flights back to Dallas.  It was a wonderful trip, providing us amazing memories for years to come.  We'd like to say a special thanks to our friends Vicki Storrie, Sandy Behrens, Larry Henderson and Lee and Susan Hunnicutt for taking the time to share their experiences and suggestions from their time in SE Asia. 

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Myanmar Part One - Yangon and Bagan

On Sunday January 13th we flew from Siem Reap, Cambodia to Yangon, Myanmar via Bangkok. We had to change airlines and planes in Bangkok to get to Yangon. When we got to Yangon we were standing at the baggage claim watching all the bags roll out. Out came our small blue bag but no large blue bag. We stood there for awhile hoping that suddenly the bag would show up, but no such luck.

So all of the sudden we had one of our first potential crisis. The problem was we were only going to be in Yangon for two days and if we did not get the bag we would have to completely alter our plans or maybe even have to blow off the Myanmar part of the trip. So we frantically tried to impress upon the baggage supervisor how important it was to get our bag. Trying to get that point across with a pretty big language barrier was nerve wracking.

To make matters worse Sara was pretty sick at this point, on antibiotics and definitely not feeling worth a damn. We went into the city and checked into our hotel, which was new and very clean and comfortable. We were in the central part of Yangon and the streets were crowded, noisy and not very clean; so we suffered a little culture shock once again. After dinner we walked down to the Sule Pagoda to explore and take some photos. In Myanmar you must take off your shoes and socks to enter any temple or pagoda.  Our tender feet were not ready for 10 days of barefoot temple walking. When we got back to the hotel we had the staff call and see if the lost bag made the last flight into Yangon. The answer was no so we went to sleep with a fair amount of stress.

The next morning we went to our travel agent which just by luck was only a hundred feet down the block from our hotel.  When I booked the hotel I had no idea the travel agent was so close, what a stroke of luck!  In Myanmar it is impossible to make flight reservations online, you have to use a travel agent and you have to pay in cash - American cash. Additionally there is some crazy government regulation that the American dollars have to be new unfolded money with no crease, marks, tears or any ink stamps on them. We read about this when we were doing our research but we didn't know they would be so fanatical about it. 

Every time we paid with American money we would do this little game where they would hold the money up to the light and look everything over.  Some would be rejected and we would pull more out until they finally accepted what we had. We started to get a little worried because there aren't any ATMs in Myanmar, and you can’t use credit cards. Good thing we picked up extra crisp US dollars in Cambodia!

Our next stroke of luck was when we received notification the missing bag was at the airport.  So back we went to the airport to retrieve the lost bag. A couple of hours later and $40 worth of cab rides we had the bag in our possession and all was right in the world, the trip could continue!

In the afternoon and evening we went to the Shwedagon Pagoda also known as the Golden Pagoda because it has accumulated over 60 tons of gold leaf. It is over 2,500 years old making it the oldest pagoda in Burma and the world. It is very big and very spectacular.  Unfortunately just like in Angkor Wat parts of the pagoda were being refurbished and had scaffolding around those parts making photography difficult.

Early the next morning we left the craziness of Yangon (the biggest city in Myanmar) and took a short flight to Bagan.  Bagan was very different, much smaller and peaceful, in the middle of a plain full of many temples.  In the 11th and 13 century there were 10,000 temples of which over 2,000 exist today. Bagan is dry and somewhat dusty with red dirt and temples everywhere. We checked into our hotel which was nice and in a good location. 

Once again we went through the American money game where they scrutinize the bills and we pull more out. Luckily we found a bank who took most of the money we wanted to change to Krats so we were pretty well stocked up on Myanmar money.  We talked to the two money changers about the government rule they said quite bluntly they know it is stupid and it needs to be changed!  Quite an indication the military government rule is lessening.

The next good thing which happened was our hotel found a nice taxi driver for us named Mr. Po. We ended up hiring him for three days and he did a great job taking us to all the temples and markets we had selected. He even got up before sunrise so we could climb up one of the temples for sunrise. 

All the temples have many local people set up as vendors selling their handicrafts to the tourists. They are all over you to buy something from them but still fairly polite when you say "no thanks". A lot of them are pretty poor and it is heartbreaking to have to say no but you just can't buy from all of them. We did of course find a number of things we liked and bought.  Sara really enjoyed talking to the young girls, who are very friendly and keen to practice their English.  Many of them want to become tourist guides, which is quite an involved process with about a year of study and a long exam.

We had some good meals in Bagan, including our favorite restaurant "The Moon", a vegetarian restaurant where we ate twice.  On the walls of many restaurants and shops we noticed  pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy. She was released from house arrest in 2010, having spent the last 15 years either in jail or under house arrest.  She is much loved in Myanmar, and many people would tell us how much they love her, and how much they appreciate the support of the US and other countries in their move towards democracy.

At the end of our third day we were pretty "templed out" so we arranged a boat ride on the Irrawaddy river at sunset. It was a great break and a beautiful sunset. The boats they use are interesting; they are long wooden boats with a large loud Chinese motor in the back end. The boat ride ended our time in Bagan and we prepared to move on to Mandalay the next morning. Fortunately, our driver Mr. Po had a buddy in Mandalay named Mr. Toa so he arranged to pick us up at the Mandalay airport and drove for us in Mandalay.


Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Angkor Wat - A World of Stone

We flew from Hanoi, Viet Nam to Siem Reap, Cambodia on Wednesday 9th January.  Our tuk-tuk driver, Savuai met us at the airport and took us to the hotel after a quick stop at the ATM, which provided cash in crisp US dollars.  

The next day we got up before dawn to start exploring Angkor Wat, which is a huge ancient complex with many stone temples.  Sara had a high fever and a hacking cough and felt like Patient Zero in a medical epidemic!  However determined not to miss anything we spent the day exploring several temple complexes.

The temples are made of huge pieces of stone and there are many intricate carvings in the stone.   I have no idea how they moved all the stone around to construct the temples.  Many of the temples have been restored; however, a few of the lesser visited ones are being taken over by the jungle and have the iconic tree roots growing over the stone.

Angkor Wat is a huge tourist destination so there are big crowds.  We managed to avoid most of the crowds by getting up before dawn and resting during the heat of the day, before a final afternoon/dusk excursion. 

The temples are surrounded by jungle and many large moats.  It is quite hectic with tourists, tuk-tuk’s, vendors and motor scooters.  We are amazed we did not see any accidents, or get run over ourselves; although it seemed our tuk-tuk was going to be squashed by a bus several times.

Our hotel provided us with the tuk-tuk driver everyday so we could visit any temples we chose.  Savuai took great care of us, waiting patiently under a tree with the other drivers while we explored the temples.  He also took us to an excellent local Cambodian restaurant with fabulous food, and we were happy to buy him dinner, which he seemed to greatly appreciate. 

One of our favorite temples was the Bayon, full of large stone carved faces on towering pillars.  We also enjoyed Preah Khan which was very long and being taken over by the jungle.  Here we met an old nun, who gave us both a blessing.  We also spoke to an artist who was painting in the temple.  We loved his work and bought several paintings. 

On our last day, Saturday the 12th we drove out an hour into the countryside to see Banteay Srei a small temple with very ornate carvings.  Since we arrived early it was empty and very peaceful.  That afternoon we took a ride in a tethered Helium balloon, which went to about 350  feet.  The sunset views were amazing.

When Savuai took us to the airport we shook hands and hugged and we both had a moment of emotion. John in particular had bonded in that short time in Angkor Wat. This was a 37 year old man whose father was killed by the Khmer Rouge when he was a small boy. This was a man making about $10 a day, living in one room with a wife and a small daughter. This was a man with a different color of skin living in a different part of the world speaking a different language but yet I felt a sense of brotherhood as two human beings on the same planet. Won’t it be nice if we all could have that sense of brotherhood?

We are headed home to Dallas tomorrow, January 24th, and will work on our photos and description of our Myanmar experiences on the plane!

Friday, January 11, 2013

Adventures in Viet Nam

Adventures in Viet Nam

We flew from Laung Prabang, Laos to Hanoi, Viet Nam on January 3rd. The good news is that John did not have any flashbacks from his 1969 experience. The bad news is that it was cold, grey, and overcast the whole time we were there. We visited the city of Hanoi, went north a stone’s throw from the Chinese border, and east of Hanoi to Ha Long Bay.

When we got to Hanoi we checked in to our hotel, Hanoi Elegance Diamond and they upgraded us to an Executive room which was really nice and well worth the extra $20.  As soon as we settled in we decided we should do a little walking tour of the “Old Quarter” which is where our hotel was located. The roads and streets of Hanoi are extremely busy with all kinds of street vendors and there are thousands of motor scooters darting around on the roads. Their roads are complete “jungle rules”, it is every man or woman for themselves. Crossing a road is an adventure in itself. It was kind of funny because you would see lots of foreigners standing on the side of the road with that “what do you think, should we go now” look on their faces. We were standing on the side of the road trying to decide if we should try to cross and a local person came up to us and said “follow me”. So we did and she said “go slow, they will go around you”. So it became sort of a game for us crossing the road and we would high five each other every time we made it across.

The people in Viet Nam are very friendly and the city was interesting.  We were standing taking pictures when a group of young people rushed up to us, and we thought they were about to start some scam.  Instead they started asking us where we were from, and explained they were learning English and wanted to practice.  We had a lovely time talking to them and helping them with their English skills.  They even taught us a few words of Vietnamese.  
The next night we took the Orient Express, night train to Lao Cai, which is right next to the Chinese border. Our train arrived about 5:30 in the morning and our guide, Ha was there to meet us. We had breakfast and then our driver, Hi arrived in his Ford SUV. Ha in Vietnamese means the sea and Hi means the river. So we were well covered with the river and the sea; and they were both great. After breakfast we drove several hours to the Can Cau market. This is a market like nothing you have ever seen before. It is out in the boondocks and held out in a field off a dirt road. The draw for us is all the local hill tribe people who come to sell their goods including water buffaloes, birds, and pigs. The main tribe group there was the Flower H’mong. This tribe got its name from the colorful dress and clothes they wear. As a photographer it is a visual feast to see all these people dressed in such colorful and decorative outfits. It was a wonderful experience.

That afternoon we drove back to the little town of Bac Ha. The hotel we stayed in was an interesting experience. I think it was the first hotel Sara and I have ever stayed in where we could see our breath freeze when we exhaled. It was cold!! We had the heater going but it didn’t seem to make a dent in the temperature. Finally, we figured out the window in the bathroom would not close all the way so we closed the door to the bathroom and that helped but we still slept with our warm clothes on and every blanket available. It was like camping in a hotel.

Another interesting thing they do in Viet Nam in every city and town is every morning and evening the government broadcasts the news and some music over a loud PA system. So forget about sleeping when that is going on. Isn’t that nice of the government to provide news and music for the people? Apparently, it is mostly the older people that listen because there is unlimited Internet access for everybody.

On Sunday January 6th  we got up and went to the Bac Ha market which was in the streets of Bac Ha. It was a lot like the Can Cau market but bigger. They were selling basically everything from finished goods to hacked up animal parts- pretty earthy and gritty.

That afternoon we headed back to Lao Cau to catch the night train back to Hanoi. On the way back, Ha suggested we take a walk through the country side through a small village to a river where we would take a local boat down the river. The walk and boat ride was a real pleasure. It was refreshing to get some exercise and fresh air and see the rural area with rice paddies and farming. That night we boarded the “Orient Express” to head back to Hanoi. The train arrived at about five in the morning. We went back to our hotel and got a shower and prepared for our drive to Ha Long Bay. We took a mini bus to Ha Long Bay which took about three and a half hours. About half way through the drive we stopped for a bathroom break. The place we stopped was a place where disabled people made some fine embroidered art work. These pieces looked like paintings but were done by hand with silk thread. Of course, I insisted that we buy some.

When we arrived at Ha Long Bay the staff there was very efficient at collecting us up and moving us to our boat which looks like a Chinese Junk. The sails are really only for decoration and they only put them up when we were anchored but we knew that. The bay is quite an extraordinary geological feature. It was really quite beautiful, although photographically it would have been nice if we did not have grey skies. Our first stop was a little island called Titop. We hiked to the top for a view of the surrounding area. Next we went to another area with a cave and did some kayaking. The boat was delightfully luxurious, with wonderfully food and of course massages.  

We had a great time in Viet Nam. I just wished we would have had better weather but on a one month trip you are bound to get some bad weather somewhere.  

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Chanting Monks in Laos

Chanting Monks in Laos

On January 1st we flew to Luang Prabang in Laos. We again stayed in the old part of town, nestled in the corner between the Mekong and Nam Kang rivers. The town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is known for its many Buddhist temples and monasteries. Every morning the local monks walk the streets collecting alms, which provides their food for the day.

We got up before dawn both days to view the alms tradition and to wander the streets before it got busy. The Mekong river is very peaceful that early in the morning. One afternoon we joined the monks for their evening chant, which was a special experience and very relaxing. We recorded their chants, as we sat on the floor behind them. It was interesting talking to one of the monks, who has plans to join a monastery in the capital city and go to University to be an accountant.

We are really glad we visited Luang Prabang, which was highly recommended by our friend Larry Henderson. Apparently the town is similar to how Chiang Mai was 20 years ago, and it is likely the town will be very different in coming years. We had some great food in Laos, and of course a massage. Our plan is to have a massage in every country!

Our two days in Laos were a welcome rest after the busy week in Thailand.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

New Years Eve - Elephants and Lanterns

New Years Eve - Elephants and Lanterns

We flew to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand on Dec 30th.  It was a bit quieter than Bangkok, but not much since everyone had traveled to the town for New Years Eve.  We stayed in the center of town, which is full of of small alleys and streets with plenty of guest houses and cafes.  That evening we wandered around town through the night market full of vendors selling everything imaginable to buy or eat.  We of course stopped in to view a few Wat's, one in particular was very ornate, and we stopped to listen to the monks performing their evening prayer chant.  The temple was full of hanging prayer flags put up by people to wish for good luck in the coming year.  Sara hung one and asked for best wishes for humanity, the earth and all the animals.  (So you are all covered for 2013).

The next day (Dec 31st) we visited an elephant rescue park.  It was a wonderful experience allowing us to closely interact with the elephants, including feeding and bathing.  There were some very sad stories about the suffering of the elephants, many who had been abused, and were now blind or injured.  They do now have a wonderful area to roam as they wish, with plenty of food and kind attention.  There were two young couples in our group, and we really enjoyed talking to them and sharing the experience.  A friend from work recommended we visit and I'm very glad we picked this park.  We of course left with several souvenirs, and made a donation to sponsor an elephant for the year!

That evening we learned why so many people go to Chiang Mai for New Years, it is so magical.  The streets were packed full of people and street vendors, including a live band.  The best part is everyone was lighting paper lanterns and releasing them into the sky.  This is a tradition for good luck in the coming year, and an way to release the bad things that happened in the previous year.  We purchased a lantern for 30 baht ($1) and decided to launch our own lantern..... its not as easy as it looks!

John was ready with the camera and Sara started the lighting process aided by a friendly American tourist.  Unfortunately a wind shift caused the flame to catch the lantern on fire, and not wanted to get burned we let go.  The lantern took off and flew into another tourist, sending sparks and flames around his head and shoulders.  Some frantic slapping by Sara averted a nasty disaster, and further stamping extinguished the still burning lantern on the ground.  John was too stunned at the disaster unfolding in front of him that he didn't take any photos!  A little shaken by the experience we were concerned our Karma was damaged for the coming year, however some local folks took pity on us, and helped us light and release another lantern sucessfully.  Mission accomplished!  It was truly the most memorable New Years Eve we have experienced.


All Things Buddha

Happy New Year, Welcome to 2013!

We have had a very hectic first week in Thailand.  We left early Christmas Day, and 14 hours later landed in Tokyo. Thankfully we used miles and were traveling in Business class. After a 4 hour stop we flew to Hong Kong and fell into bed exhausted after 24 hours of travel.

The next day (Dec 27)  we flew to Bangkok and arrived in the late afternoon at Sala Arun, our hotel in a perfect location.  Walking distance to the main temples, and on the river opposite Wat Arun - The Temple of Dawn.  It was dark by this point but we rushed out, excited to start our  exploring.  We stopped to take some night photos of Wat Pho, lit beautifully, with a full moon.  Unfortunately, John in a daze of travel exhaustion had a "trip and fall" and did a face plant onto the side walk with his camera and tripod crashing to the ground.  Fortunately John and the camera equipment were ok, but we both thought the trip could be over before it started!

We woke up at 5am on Friday and decided to take the first ferry boat across the river to Wat  Arun, appropriately named the Temple of Dawn.  It is a beautiful temple, and was very peaceful so early in the morning.  We spent several hours wandering around the grounds and climbing the steps for different views.  We returned to the hotel for breakfast and then headed out to the Grand Palace, only 10 minutes walking distance.  The Palace is exceedingly ornate, and a large complex of many temples.  It was very busy, crowded and hot but we thoroughly enjoyed the visit.

After a busy morning we decided it was time for a massage, so we went to the market and had an hour Thai massage each.  It was an interesting experience, lying on a mat in a row and with lots of vigorous pushing and pulling.  We did feel more relaxed afterwards and ready for our last temple viewing.  Wat Pho was our favorite temple complex, and we spent 3 hours wondering around all the buildings which are magnificent.  It was a perfect end to the day.

Click on the photo below to see the photos from Bangkok.


On Saturday (29th) we visited the flower market, and then headed to the ancient city of Ayutthaya. Our mode of transportation was a 3rd class commuter train which cost 20 baht each (70 cents).  Needless to say the 1 1/2 hour trip was hot, crowded and loud!  At the final stop a number of dazed tourists disembarked and wandered off in different directions.  We took the ferry to the city center on the island and arranged for a Tuk Tuk driver to drive us around for several hours.  He took us to a local restaurant for lunch, and afterwards said he was having his brother drive us, which was great because Jacob had an air-conditioned car!  We toured the main temples which were unique and different to Bangkok, similar to what we may see at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

Following a tip from an English family we met on the ferry we decided to take the air conditioned bus back to Bangkok.  At 60 baht each ($3) it was a great decision and only took an hour, although we were deposited at the Bus Terminal with no idea exactly where we were!  Luckily a taxi was able to take us back to our hotel, in time for a delightful one hour foot and leg massage, a must after hours of walking around.

Click on the photo below to see the photos of Ayutthaya.
Ayutthaya - Thailand
We are currently in Hanoi, after spending a few days in Chiang Mai (northern Thailand) and Luang Prabang (Laos).  Still playing catch-up on pictures and post, more to come soon.