Monday, December 19, 2011

myanmar snapshots

a bunch of buddhas, bagan, myanmar
from bangkok to yangon, arrived at night. men in skirts (longhis), women wearing thanaka face paint and everyone spitting betel juice, and that was just the airport! before finding a taxi we exchanged money, dollars for kyat. exchange rate was 785 kyat to 1 u.s. dollar. two $100 bills = HUGE stack of kyat. they had to give us a plastic bag to carry our money. it felt illicit!

first morning, taxi to downtown yangon with very cool taxi driver cranking burmese covers of the black crows and singing along while pointing at things out the window. this so called "taxi" was a torn up old toyota wagon with half the floorboard missing and a couple of woofer speakers bungee-corded down in the back. our first thought was "this is easily the worst taxi we've ever ridden in." we would end up revising our opinion nearly every day.

disco buddha, silly papaya,
yangon, myanmar
sule paya (paya, a generic term for a buddhist site of worship), which we childishly took to calling silly papaya , in downtown yangon, one of the most heralded of buddhist sites in myanmar. a beautifully bizarre collection of buddha statues with neon disco light patterns radiating from their heads, all sitting at the base of a huge gold stupa. we left our flip-flops at the entrance, were bamboozled into buying a "mandatory offering" and then later escorted to a payment booth to pay a foreigner's entrance fee. hence, "offering" was a scam. on our way out our flip-flops were gone. "over here, i put your shoes in this box, you must give me donation." what?! welcome to the very small percentage of burma that is having a complicated, yet understandable, adjustment to tourism.

shwedagon pagoda, yangon, myanmar

after a couple of days in yangon and on our way next to bagan, the old capital of burma, an american hands us a card of a guide in bagan. "just ask for kyaw, it sounds like 'joe,' everyone knows him. by the way, everyone is called kyaw." oh, thanks. we then land in bagan, taxi guy asks what we're doing tomorrow, i hand him kyaw's card and say "i'm looking for this guy." he says "OH KYAW! he's my best friend! i will call him for you right now." and we learn quickly, this is how myanmar works.

temples of the central plain, bagan, myanmar
we met kyaw the next morning for one of the most fantastic guided tour days we've ever had. immediate friends. spent a day in a horse cart over dirt roads touring through magnificent thousand year old buddhist temples strewn across the middle plains of burma near the irrawaddy river. this was one of those powerful moments that drove home just how privileged we are to travel.

we drove an hour across those very same plains to climb mount popa, a volcanic crag that juts out of the landscape straight up for hundreds of feet. a series of 777 steps to the top that is the home of 37 "nats," animist spirits that have been "kinda-sorta" integrated into buddhism, particularly in the rural areas of myanmar.  monkeys everywhere, including one that steals our water bottle. he wins this battle. but then he tries to eat it. hard to say who wins now.

water stealing monkey, mt popa, myanmar
at the top of mount popa a stunning 360 degree view of the surrounding land. myanmar is a hazy country because of the dust and dirt and the constant fires from the burning of vegetation which makes the light seem unworldly. and out of that light are gold stupas and temples popping up out of the green country side all the way to the horizon. while sitting at the top, surrounded by buddha statues, a man emerges from a temple with two, long fluorescent light bulbs, walks to the side and launches them into the air and down the side of the mountain. well, huh.

4:30am wake up for a 5:15am taxi to the boat that will take us to mandalay, a trip we have long dreamed of. a boat up the irra-freaking-waddy river! unreal. the boat is scheduled to leave at 6:00am. 5:30am arrives. 5:45am arrives and even our hotel manager is looking worried on our behalf. screeching out of the dark comes a pair of headlights and a van we've never seen before. he skids to a stop. shouts "jump in!" and we jam through nyuang u with horn screaming and monks scattering in the dark to reach the boat. turns out, the guy's car ran out of gas on his way to pick us up and he had to jog around town at 5:15am to find someone's car to borrow so he could fulfill his promise to us.

temples of ancient burma, bagan, myanmar
arrived in mandalay, after a dream-like day floating up the irrawaddy river. sunrise from the top deck. villages floating by. women selling bananas from the banks. picking up new river pilots every couple of hours by pushing the nose of the boat into the bank and someone (the pilot) popping out of the vegetation and hopping on board. long tail boats floating by. people waving from the bank, or other boats. meeting new friends on board with a crew of fifteen for a passenger list of six. sunset from the deck with beers and palm toddy being passed around and great conversation as we touch land at mandalay.

ubein bridge, amarapura (old capital of burma), mandalay, myanmar
that dream came to a sudden, jolting end when we disembarked into a crowd of touts and trishaw drivers screaming at us "where you go! trishaw! carry bags for you!" man, hard to catch our breath after being so relaxed. this may qualify as the most challenging moment on our travels yet. they refer to mandalay as a "city" but upon arrival it was a dark, dirty, crowded collection of scooters and people that stare. all the other passengers, a total of 4, had disappeared into the night and we were left alone with trishaw drivers yelling at us "no taxi mandalay! no taxi mandalay!"

i crossed the road in the dark with a policeman who, after i put my hand to my head imitating a phone call, walked me to a makeshift counter with an old g&e phone sitting on it and a phone cord disappearing up the palm tree above and into the dark. showing the phone number of our guesthouse to the girl, and the little boy hugging my leg, she dialed the number and i was connected with our guesthouse who had promised to send a taxi. "oh! we were told the ferry was late. it's on time? that means it's early."

we walked back across the road to michelle, our baggage, and a gaggle of trishaw drivers. the policeman mumbled something in burmese essentially saying "they have a ride," and all the drivers suddenly disappeared. welcome to burma.

myanmar is a wonderfully baffling, and unbelievably generous, country making do with what they have. it's a challenge to travel here as one can't pull money after entering. there are no ATMs. the preparation for arriving was a guess in the dark as to how much cash we would need without knowing the day to day cost. u.s. dollars, oddly, are the preferred currency and to get the best rate of exchange, they need to be pristine. which means the banks of myanmar must have the largest supply of the cleanest, most beautiful $100 bills in all the world.

it's been a great nine days so far and we're looking forward to another week. next stop, inle lake in the shan hills, a legendary area. and with that, we leave you with this... you're welcome.

parts of this guy are strewn all over this country. mandalay, myanmar.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

always leaving

it's a testament to our species' ability to adapt to our surroundings that we find ourselves a little sad each time we leave a new place. it's also a testament to just how many wonderful places there are to visit in this world.

serenity and calm. special price for you, $5.
bangkok, thailand.
without exception, we've felt a little sense of loss each time we've left a new town or city, regardless of country. well, maybe not dubrovnik, but that's complicated. still, one of the surprises on this trip is just how quickly we make ourselves at home. that initial rush of a few hours of disorientation upon arrival quickly washes away with a small walk around town, or down to the beach or wherever, just to get your bearings. over the next couple of days, places and people quickly become familiar.

as we were leaving the thai islands of the andaman sea last week (he shakes his head wistfully while typing) after nearly three weeks to visit friends in bangkok, we were struck with just how at home we felt. when we landed those three weeks earlier, it was an alien world. granted, an alien world full of palm trees, beaches, mango and papaya but still, after istanbul, definitely alien feeling!

we've been in bangkok just under a week and knowing we're leaving in a couple of days has us already a little melancholy. keep in mind, we're talking bangkok. not the smallest, most lovable place on the planet upon first impression but, like anywhere else, give it a little time, allow it to show you what it has to offer (and bangkok has a LOT to offer) and you feel at home.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

roomorama review part 2: lessons learned

not istanbul. our bungalow on koh lanta, thailand.
back a few weeks ago while staying in istanbul we had the good fortune of being hosted by roomorama, an online short-term apartment rental service matching apartment owners in cities all over the world with travelers looking for a temporary home. (see our review part 1)

this added boost of spending money let us shop for an apartment a level up from what our budget typically would have allowed. however, what we found were that photos, and a VERY friendly host, can really sell a place. we've used short-term apartment rentals before and have loved all of them. even this one, in its quirky way.

take a look around at some of the apartments available on and you will start to drool. ours in istanbul looked unbelievable. the location could not be beat (galata tower neighborhood, if you're looking) and the views seemed unbeatable. all of it was true, kind of. we were down a ragged alley lined with garbage bags and chewed up pavement. istanbul is old, we get that, no problem. but that's one of the pitfalls. be prepared for a neighborhood that might challenge your ideals. such is travel, yes? the apartment was described as being in a romantic, turn of the century, french-inspired building. well, it certainly was turn of the century.

through a heavy iron, more of a gate than a door, up four flights of stairs to #5. we stepped inside to the living room hardwood floor and we tilted to the left. oh, i see, that must be the "romantic" part. there was a pretty damned good view, though. overall, the apartment worked, but that's because we were determined to make it work. dangnabbit, we were in istanbul and we we're going to enjoy the hell out of it. and we did.

we can deal with loud, squeaky, horizontally-challenged floors. and we can deal with chairs that were purchased at a turkish version of ikea, and a satellite dish staring us in the face out one window and, dang it, NO COFFEE MAKER! ok, got that last bit off my chest. luckily, we bought a press pot in athens. :)

now this is istanbul. mosques for days. istanbul, turkey.
the point being is that one's expectations when booking an apartment online, as wonderful as the experience has been for us, can also come with some challenges. sometimes that next level up may not provide exactly what you think you're getting and sometimes it will. just like anything purchased "sight unseen," do your research, be prepared for reality not matching up to dreams and, in the end, have fun anyway. i mean, for god's sake, you're in istanbul! or athens, or berlin, or madrid, or.... wherever, but use to get your juices flowing and you'll be buying a ticket somewhere sooner than you think.