Monday, December 26, 2016

Myanmar, Day 10 & 11: Lake Inle

Figure among the In Dein ruins.
On the morning of the 10th, our 8:30AM flight from Mandalay departed on time and landed about an hour later at Heho Airport, the closest point of arrival near Lake Inle, our next destination. The taxi from the airport was 20,000 kyat (about $15), and it took us approximately 45 minutes to get from there to Sandalwood Hotel. On the way, up over a mountain and down into a valley, we had to stop at a little wooden booth along the side of the road and pay the Inle Zone Entrance Fee of $10, but after reaching our destination and checking in, we went out on foot to look for something to eat in downtown Nyaungshwe, the main village at the north end of the lake.

One of the views from Red Mountain Winery.
There were other tourists around, but not many. We walked through the somewhat deserted market in town, although it well after noon and most of the market seemed to be closing down for the day as many spaces were vacant and the people were few. Once we'd had our fill of Myanmarian domestic goods in the market, we found a few restaurants and eventually settled on the unassuming Lin Htett, wonderfully surprised with, perhaps, our best bowl of noodles yet! After lunch, it was hot and we returned to our hotel for a rest. In the evening, we hired a driver to take us to the nearby Red Mountain Winery and we sampled their vintages while the sun went down over the green valley, the lake and the vineyards. Vito played in the garden dotted with large poinsettia bushes and bougainvillea. The rest of the evening was uneventful with a less-than-satisfactory search for a good dinner restaurant and, on discovering that we were lacking the necessary cash to pay for the lackluster meal that we had settled for and before returning to the hotel, Angela and Vito waited at the restaurant while I searched for an ATM machine to retrieve the necessary remuneration for our meal.

Early morning mystique.
The next morning, after an early breakfast, we embarked upon a motorized canoe tour of the lake. Quite cold and foggy when we left, we wouldn't be able to see the beautifully dark and verdant mountains that surrounded the lake until later. Everything was shrouded in fog, and it was even colder speeding over the water in the long thin wooden canoe with the spume showering us in the mysterious early morning. We weren't part of a tour group, but many other people were doing the same thing. Other people in other boats, however, were bundled up in warm clothing and used umbrellas to block the water, but we hadn't really prepared for such cold conditions. It did not take long for the fog to burn off, however, and the sun soon warmed us and helped us forget the cold beginning of the day.

You can see a man in the background with one of the distinct
fishing nets, posing for a group of tourists on a different boat.
After speeding out over the lake for a while, we stopped among a small group of fisherman. They didn't really seem to be fishing, but only posing for us, after which we were obliged to donate something for their efforts. The fisherman had a unique way of holding the conical net or rowing with one foot. Later on, we actually saw what appeared to be authentic fishermen fishing in this manner, but we did not venture close to them so as not to disturb their occupation. We continued on passing thatched huts and row upon row of wooden stakes where something was being cultivated at the edge of the lake and, after about one hour, it seemed that we had traveled to the opposite side of the lake. The driver of our canoe steered us onto a narrow channel that veered off from the lake and we sped through the brown water past some kind of river village comprised of wooden houses and shops on stilts. The village was really quite large and veined with various canals and waterways that we followed to different points of interest.

Kayan Lahwi woman taking a
break to play a song on the guitar.
We really didn't know at the outset that we had agreed to go on a tour of the Lake Inle that would last from sunrise to sunset, but it was so much more than we had expected: we wandered through multiple villages lined with bamboo, wide-leaved banana plants, tall grasses and reeds; we stopped at a covered market along a waterway and bought some kind of hand-drawn triptych on oily parchment; we ambled through red-brick ruins sprouting trees and weeds and overgrown with vines; we climbed stairs to a ruined temple to admire the cracked faces of statues and to peer in shadowy alcoves; we ogled the abundant gold and white stupas topped with tin bells and spires that seemed to appear out of nowhere from the other sides of hills or around bends in the backwaters of the lake; we watched a woman roll cigars; we perused the jewelry at a local silversmith's workshop in which Angela purchased a hand-made chain for one of her pendants; we talked with the women of Kayan Lahwi tribe who wore brass rings around their calves, necks and wrists; we weaved through the floating garden and marveled at the unusual method of farming and at the people who were living and working on the water; we looked for jumping cats, as was described in our guidebook, at Nga Phe Kyaung Monastery. We did all this and more. It was hard to keep track of everything that we had seen along the way. How much have I forgotten? Already, some of the names of the places are lost. It was a long day and, perhaps, impossible to capture completely, but it is a magical memory and a spectacular part of our adventure that really transported us to another world. In the morning, we would be leaving for Ngapali Beach.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Myanmar, Day 9: Christmas in Mandalay

We all woke up about the same time, but Vito was certain that Santa had stopped by in the night, and so he spent thirty minutes looking around the room for presents that Santa may have hidden, even though we explained that the Easter Bunny was the one that hid things, not Santa. Moreover, we had strongly hinted that, because Vito had not informed Santa ahead of time that we would be in Mandalay at Christmas (although, he had mentioned the fact in a scroll that he left for Santa rolled up under our tree in Doha), the likelihood of receiving anything here was quite low. Nevertheless, that didn't stop him from looking, including within our zipped luggage and backpacks.

Shweinbin Kyaung, an old Buddhist Monastery. 
Still tired from the adventure of the previous day, with no real itinerary for the day, and after a lazy morning and a breakfast of white bread, chicken sausage, bacon, eggs and coffee (Vito had juice), we headed out to visit the jade market. It took a while to hail a cab, but eventually we found one. We didn't want to buy any jade, but we were interested in seeing the place. The parking area outside the entrance was crammed with motorbikes and a truck with large blaring speakers was advertising what looked like a soccer match for later in the day, so there was an excitement in the air. After paying a nominal entrance fee, we entered and started looking around. Rows of vendors, jade polishers and engravers were in their stalls and many people were crowded around various tables piled with plastic bags of jade. The sound of jade bracelets clinking could be heard all around us, and on either side men and women examined jade in various forms, looking at pieces with discerning eyes, others shining penlights through the translucent stone to look for imperfections, still more were looking at uncut jade stones or sorting polished stones in little cupped steel dishes or on scales. As always, men standing around chewing betel nut and spitting the red juice into spittoons. Garbage cans  and sewage drains were overflowing. We browsed the jade wares, looked more closely at some black jade, which we had never seen before, examined a few pendants, and then made our way back toward the entrance to leave. The guidebook we were using mentioned a renowned tea house nearby and a notable attraction in the area and we went in search of those places.

The tea house, Unison Teahouse, was full and lively. We ordered two house teas and Vito ordered a dragonfruit smoothie. The tea barista had an unusual way of mixing the tea with sweetened condensed milkholding the teapot high over his head when pouring—before slinging the hot glasses of tea to the window. The tea was delicious and, after finishing, we walked to the nearby Shweinbin Kyaung, an old teak Buddhist monastery. It was quiet and there were only a few other foreigners snooping around. When we were ready to leave, it was hard to find a taxi on the quiet side street, but we managed to hire two motorbike drivers (Vito and myself on one and Angela on the other) to take us to King Galon's gold leaf workshop.

The drivers waited for us to finish and then took us to lunch. We returned to Mingalabar (an establishment that we had eaten at on our first night in Mandalay), because the food was divine—pickled tea leaf salad and shan noodles. The desert, a brown-sugar covered puffed rice, which resembled popcorn, was spectacular. Following lunch, we found another tea house, starting to really enjoy people-watching from such locations, and then caught a cab back to our hotel to rest before going out for Christmas dinner at Bistro 82.

When we arrived at our hotel, many people seemed to be boarding. There hadn't appeared to be so many guests staying in the hotel so we asked the porter what was happening, and he explained that there was going to be a buffet cruise at 3PM, just a few minutes from our arrival. Vito was thrilled as he hadn't really been able to understand why we were staying on a boat if it didn't go anywhere. Sure enough, however, the anchor lifted and we headed out into the wide brown, silty river. We had a balcony room on the port side of the vessel and nice teak chairs to sit on, and we sat in the sun and enjoyed the two-hour cruise with frosty Myanmar beers from our mini refrigerator. If we had been any later, we probably would have missed the cruise completely!


Christmas dinner was fancy: red beet carpaccio with grilled scallops to start. For the main courses, Angela ordered grilled red snapper with basil risotto, Vito took a roasted lamb leg with bean cassoulet, and, going a more traditional route, I tried the stuffed turkey with cranberry jus. The restaurant was festively brimming with guests, bubbling with conversation and holiday music and appropriately decorated for the occasion. The food was not exceptional and, sadly, five times more than any meal we'd eaten since we'd been in Myanmar, but, I suppose, that's the price for trying to celebrate our traditions in a foreign land.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Myanmar, Day 8: Mahāgandhāyon Monastery, Inwa Island & U Bein's Bridge

Vito prepares to strike the bell.
This day was a sightseeing cavalcade, filled with activities from start to finish. After breakfasting in the dining hall of the hotel, Shelly met us at 9AM and took us to Mahamuni Paya, The Great Sage temple. I read somewhere that, along with Mount Kyaiktiyo, this was among the holiest sites in Myanmar. We entered along a passageway lighted with eerie green lights and palm readers. Vito thought the place should have been renamed the Bell Temple as there were numerous brass bells around the holy sitewe went around hammering them with the blunted wooden strikers. In the central room of the complex, men were lined up and thronging around the massive gold statueThe Great Sage, I supposeovergrown and misshapen at its base with bulbous, knobby, golden protrusions, waiting to apply gold leaf. Women were not allowed to enter the room where the statue was located and waited outside and prayed. I went inside to get close to the statue, but I didn't have any gold leaf to apply so I just felt out of place. We wandered around for a little longer not understanding much. After a monk stopped to ask where I was from and if Vito and Angela were in my family, clearly practicing his English, we left.

Lunch at Mahāgandhāyon Monastery.
Our driver stopped at a shop that specialized in wood carving, but we didn't buy anything. We returned to the car and drove to Mahāgandhāyon Monastery, which our driver referred to as the Buddhist University, and where we watched monks and nuns of all ages line up to enter their dining hall for lunch. They were holding large black pots and, as they filed into the dining hall lined with long wooden tables and benches, a process that lasted fifteen or twenty minutes, many onlookers donated money, food or other items (notebooks, packaged food, pens, razors, etc.) by dropping them onto the pots. Shelly said that there were around 1500 monks. I somehow felt like a bad tourist. After watching the lunch procession, we went to look at the kitchen where all of the food was prepared for the monks. A dingy, drab place with little light, like most of the kitchens we'd seen in Myanmar, but everything was on an enormous scaleVito was impressed with a man who was shoveling rice (with a real shovel!) into a large wooden tub. We gawked and snapped with the rest of the other tourists, and headed out, again, stopping briefly at a silk garment workshop wherein many craftspeople were using old wooden looms to design dresses and other articles of clothing. We were curious, but we weren't really in the market for those kinds of goods.


Buddhas inside a crescent-shaped room at Umin Thounzeh Temple.
We didn't shop long, returned to the car and drove to Sagaing where white and gold stupas dotted the tree-covered hills. On the way to the temple, young female nuns in pink and young male monks in their typical red robes—kidswere roaming the streets after lunch, playing and laughing and throwing rocks just like any young people anywhere. We stopped at Umin Thounzeh, a terraced temple at the top of a high hill, but, even with a driver, we couldn't avoid the stairway climb. There were a few small sights and a nice view. Then we relocated to the nearby Soon U Ponya Shin Paya, where we made offerings before a giant gold Buddha and, before leaving, as we were a little hungry, I bought banana wrapped in sticky rice and steamed in a banana leaf, which was delicious and quelled our hunger sufficiently until we could find a place to stop for lunch.

Vito taking a rest from sightseeing.
After eating, we drove to a ferry to cross the river to Inwa. It wasn't possible to drive a vehicle to the island, but, once we had arrived, we hired a horse-drawn carriage and continued our tour around the island. Our first stop was an at old wooden monastery, Bagaya Kyaung, which was still in use. In fact, there were seven or eight young boys reciting when we arrived. It was, otherwise, not very exciting. We continued on and stopped at Yadana Hsemee Pagoda Complex of old red-brick stupas. Not as popular, the site was largely unoccupied aside from a man selling paintings, and so, quiet, calm and reflective. The final attraction was a leaning tower, which we arrived at by bumping through a banana plantation. The Nanmyin Watch Tower is the 'leaning tower' of Inwa as it was leaning to one side. It wasn't particularly tall or beautiful, but it is all that remains of King Bagyidaw's palace complex and still offers a pleasant view of the surroundings. This was the last sight on our tour of the island and we returned to the levee to await the ferry to re-cross the river.

Walking along U Bein Bridge.
The last stop of our day was U Bein's Bridge, the world's longest teak footbridge. The driver let us out of the car at a very crowded market near the entrance of the bridge and we had to walk through the crowd of people to reach the bridge. Much of the bridge rose over what appeared to be farmland, but it was clear that, during the rainy season, the water probably covers the entire area. There was still a large river flowing beneath the bridge and some people were fishing with their nets while many tourists were boating in the small canoe-like Myanmari boats. It was approaching sunset and, as we reached the approximate halfway point, the volume of people was considerably smaller, but the bridge was not as well maintained. We traversed about two-thirds of the bridge before stopping to order beverages (Vito tried a tamarind drink and Angela and I quaffed a bottle of beer between the two of us), waiting for the sun to set, and drank them on a wooden bench under a gazebo while the people of the bridge passed in front of us. The sun set and we returned to Shelly's car and asked him to drop us for dinner and then leave us. He seemed a bit perturbed that we weren't interested in hiring him for another day, but we just wanted to do some exploring by ourselves. Those kinds of drivers tended to have a set circuit that they followed and those destinations didn't necessarily align with their client's interests. Anyway, we parted ways and began to look for a place to eat dinner.

Who's really pulling the strings?
Our evening closed with a terrible meal at a restaurant called Unique Myanmar. We should have been suspicious with a name like that, but the restaurant was crowded and our options were limited as we had to eat near the theater. After dinner, we had tickets to watch a marionette puppet show that included a live orchestra of traditional Myanmari instruments, which was fantastic and, thankfully, helped us forget about our unsavory meal. Before the show, some of the puppeteers gave us an opportunity to try out the marionettes.

Vito was overly-excited all day long because he knew that Santa was doing his thing all around the world, but the numerous sights of the day certainly kept him distracted enough. We caught a little taxi-truck back to our hotel and we were all exhausted when we returned, but bubbling with all the memories of our adventure. Looking back at everything we did, this was a climactic point in our trip, and it really seems incredible that we accomplished so much.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Myanmar, Day 7: Bagan Departure & Mandalay Arrival

We packed and went to the airport to catch an early flight for Mandalay. Before checking in, Angela tried to withdraw money, but the ATM took her card. There was a momentary panic as the airport was crowded, we had no money and we thought we might miss our flight; however, as the airport was really quite small with only one large area to check in and one large waiting area, help arrived within a few minutes. After clearing away the receipts that had jammed the machine, her card was returned. I tried to withdraw money from a different machine and it worked without further incident and we were soon waiting on the orange, plastic, 1970s-style moulded seats. There were no screens or boards showing flight information: we had to wait for the stewards to call out our flight number. We didn't have to wait long, thought, and we were soon on our way to Mandalay.

Clothes hanging out to dry outside the Karaweik Mobile Hotel.
After we landed, I exchanged the USD that I had withdrawn at the airport in Bagan for kyat, and we gathered our suitcases before catching a taxi to our hotel, the Mandalay Karaweik Mobile Hotel designed to resemble a Myanmari royal barge, which, as far as we could tell, moored to the bank of the river, wasn't really mobile, but it was definitely a boat. The lodgings seemed a little dubious, too, after we descended a flight of stairs down to the river, which was flanked with makeshift clotheslines. We checked in without much delay and were soon shown to our room on the starboard side of the vessel. The room was almost entirely constructed out of teak wood like the rest of the boat, and it was really quite beautiful. I wouldn't call it a luxury hotel and we were quite a ways out of the city, but were weren't planning on spending much time there, so after settling in and doing a bit of research, we took another taxi to Marie Min, a vegetarian restaurant near the Mandalay Royal Palace and then, after eating, made our way there.

A typical building at the Mandalya Royal Palace.
Vito enjoying the first of
many lychee-flavored beverages.
Foreign visitors could only enter the Mandalay Royal Palace from one gate as the palace appeared to be a functioning military complex and the uniformed officers took our IDs before we entered. The old, red, wooden buildings were beautiful, but the highlight was a tall cylindrical building around which was constructed a spiral staircase so that visitors could climb to the top for a nice view of the manicured palace grounds. Coincidentally, we ran into Vito's kindergarten teacher, Ms. Tara, at the Mandalay Palace, which was an unexpected surprise. After catching up a bit and parting company, we stopped for a cold drink as it was quite warm, and Vito was discovering that he enjoyed lychee-flavor beverages, which he first tried in Yangon. On the way out, we haggled with a lad with red-stained teeth (whose name sounded like "Shelly" but then not really) who agreed to bring us around to a few more sites and then, additionally, guide us on the following day.

Some of the 729 stupas at Kuthodaw Pagoda.
Next, we took a short ride in Shelly's taxi to Shwenandaw Monastery or The Golden Palace Monastery, which is the only remaining original structure from the Royal Palace and built almost entirely out of teak wood. It is supposedly renowned for its Buddhist wood carvings, but it was a smallish site, crowded with tourists and surrounded by souvenir vendors and, in the end, didn't captivate our attention much. After that, we moved on to Kuthodaw Pagoda, which, unknown to us at the time, boasts the world's largest book, a stone-inscribed page of which is contained within each of numerous little, white, lichen-marred stupas that really weren't so little and surrounded the central pagoda. I thought they were the resting places of monks. The complex was quiet and, getting later in the day, not overburdened with tourists, which made it feel more enchanting and mystical.

Angela and Vito chat
with a Myanmari student.
We ended the day on Mandalay Hill at Su Taung Pyae Pagoda to watch the sunset, which was exceptionally beautiful. With a driver, we could skip the pilgrimage up the stairs and got out of the car very near the top of the hill. The pagoda was peculiar with its numerous arched columns, open-air chambers and colorful and ornately tiled walls and floors, but it was not overwhelmed with tourists and there was plenty of space to spread out and get comfortable. We could walk the circumference of the structure and see a 360° view of the entire area. The was a low murmur as everyone, locals and monks included, seemed to be chatting somberly and enjoying the amazing panorama overlooking Mandalay while candles burned, little bells twittered and tinkled in the breeze and the great brass ones rang out periodically, and incense wafted up to arouse the spirits.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Myanmar, Day 5 & 6: Bagan by E-Bike

Upon waking and looking out the window, which had a view of the back side of the resort, hot-air balloons were starting to rise into the sky and drift across the Bagan plains. It looked like fun, and as we were going to be here for a couple days, we checked the price of such an adventure and discovered that it would cost $380 per person! That was quite a bit out of our price range and we decided against doing it. In any case, the idea of a hot-air balloon ride was not as thrilling to us as keeping our feet firmly on the ground.

Vito dismounts an e-bike.
Breakfast, as usual, was included, so we dressed and made our way down to the outdoor dining area. It was somewhat chilly, but the sun was out and the spread of fresh food was dynamic and enticing, including everything you might expect. Vito was particularly thrilled that there was an omelet station, and Angela and I were excited about the noodle station, which meant, of course, that we could eat more mohinga. We were beginning to expect mohinga at every hotel we might stay in during our trip. After eating our fill, a taxi brought us to a shop at which we could rent electronic bikes or e-bikes as everyone was calling them. We rented two for 6,000 kyat (about $4) and could use them the whole day. We could have rented them from our hotel, but they were almost three times the price!


We spent this day and the next bumping along dirt roads and exploring the Bagan plains. There were a few large paved roads, but almost all of the roads were squirrel-y dirt jobs that cross-crossed in and out of the relatively dense vegetation. E-bikes were everywhere and that method of transport made it easy to cover a greater distance quickly and fun to zip around from one pagoda or temple to another. Traffic was light or non-existent and really only consisted of other tourists on bicycles or e-bikes, tuk-tuks or an odd tour bus, so it really wasn't treacherous to travel in such a manner, even without the helmets that would have been required in other places. We hadn't planned on trying to visit every ruin that dotted the countryside, but there were considerable distances between some of the sites and walking or riding old-fashioned bicycles would have not allowed us to see as much without getting exhausted, especially in the heat. We also had Vito to consider, who would have balked at strenuous bike-riding or walking in hot conditions. With only two e-bikes, Vito (who was obviously under age) rode on the back of mine and Angela drove her own. The e-bikes were simple to operated and almost completely silent so it was quite pleasant to drive around with them.

The first of many temples.
Anyway, the ancient, mostly reddish-orange (or pink, depending on the light or time of day), brick ruins were scattered everywhere with no apparent order, and we pinballed around with no sense of urgency. Some were nicely restored and clearly cared for and some were left with weeds growing out of the roofs. Once we started, the sheer volume of structures was overwhelming, and, with little information to follow and little or no obvious identifying markers or signs, it made exploration much more difficult but also mysterious and surprising. Many of the ruins could be thoroughly explored and we wandered through the dark passages within and climbed the exterior facades and staircases without. The many carvings, designs, figurines, paintings and statues were unique and varied, and there was always something unusual or unexpected to discover.

Vito channels his inner Myanmari.
On the first day, we spent most of our time exploring the area around our hotel and around Old Bagan, which was along the northern part of Bagan. After visiting a few sites, we stopped for a cold beverage along the Ayeyarwaddy River and then stopped on a different riverside restaurant in Old Bagan for lunch. The restaurant overlooked the river and the food was largely unidentifiable, but we enjoyed it. Afterwards, Vito tried on some of the local dress (a longyi around his waist and thanaka on his cheeks) that, I believe, the proprietor was hoping to sell to us. Anyway, we were templed out, so we returned to our hotel for a quick dip into the hotel pool and a short rest before heading out in the evening for dinner.

To write that the temples were amazing does not really reveal the beauty or magnitude of the experience, which was completely immersive and, at the same time, magical and surreal. There were dozens of unregulated ancient pagodas, temples and other structures scattered throughout the shrubby countryside spiked with trees and rutted with curlicue dirt roads, and, at least when we visited, tourists could visit most of them at their leisure. It is hard to find a place that allows such liberty. A few of the more prominent temples required an additional fee to enter, but it was nominal. Many of the temples are still actively used by the local population, but many were in a severe state of disrepair and, otherwise, aside from serving as the homes of birds and rodents, abandoned. Unluckily, a few months before our arrival, there was a strong earthquake, which further damaged many of the deteriorating buildings. Some that were too dangerous to enter were cordoned off with yellow tape.

A view of the Bagan plains sprinkled with ruins.
On the second day, we carried on with the activities that we had started the day before. The sites we visited were further afield and, as a result, seemed less populated. At the end of the day, after driving to a remote location to watch the sunset, which happened to be in an area that had been more severely affected by the earthquake, despite what I had written about before, at sunset the sites offered ideal locations to view the sights in the declining light and were much more crowded at that time. When we were leaving, my e-bike started to fail and slowed considerably. We had driven much greater distances and barely made it back to the e-bike shop with just enough energy to return the e-bikes. We were afraid that, in the darkness, it would be long and dangerous return trip due to the busy unlit street we had to use, but we made it back without incident. Angela and I talked about how another day in Bagan would have been nice, but we weren't disappointed that we were leaving the following morning. We both felt like we had seen a great deal, but were still left with a desire to see more, and, I think, as a tourist, that is what you want to take away from a place: a desire to return to it.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Myanmar, Day 4: Yangon Departure & Bagan Arrival

We left Yangon in the morning after eating breakfast at our hotel. As we had done each morning since we arrived, we tried the mohinga again and, again, it was different! Still tasty, just different. I described it briefly in a previous post, but I will add a bit more detail: mohinga seemed to be a kind of noodle soup with very thin noodles in a fish paste and onion oil broth, sprinkled with sesame seeds and containing tomatoes, eggs, chickpea powder and onions. After breakfast, our driver, Zo, met us outside the hotel and took us to the airport. Our flight to Bagan would depart at 10:30AM and we had about 90 minutes to kill. We noticed the Italians that had been staying in our hotel were waiting for the same flight as us, but we didn't really acknowledge each other beyond exchanging smiles. Anyway, after checking in, we settled down to a cup of coffee and took advantage of thirty minutes of free wi-fi, which seemed lightning-quick compared to the snail's-pace service we had received at the hotel.

The plane, a little two-propellor job, left on time and the flight lasted about two uneventful hours. On the way out of the airport after landing, we had to pay an additional fee of 25,000 kyats each (approximately $18 per person) to enter the Bagan Archaeological Zonewe were noticing that there were quite a few hidden fees in a trip to Myanmar. Following a brief taxi from the airport to Amazing Bagan Resort, which was, according to Vito, as amazing as advertised, we left our luggage in the room, enjoyed the complimentary fruit platter that was waiting for us, oriented ourselves to the surrounding area and then went for a bike ride using the hotel's complimentary bicycles.

We rode into Nyaung-U, which was the closest village to our hotel, and ate lunch at Weather Spoon. We ordered the pickled tea leaf salad (a Burmese specialty and, after one tasting, already becoming our favorite dish) and a couple other salads, washed them down with bottles of Dagon and Mandalay beer, and then made our way back to the hotel. We passed by the ruins of a few old temples along the way, but nothing that really captured our imaginations or prepared us for the surprises that were coming. The bikes weren't in the best condition, and it was a little uncomfortable to ride them for very long, but we eventually made it back to our hotel.

Later, when considering our evening plans, we realized that had eaten so much at lunch so late in the day that we weren't really hungry, but we made plans to go out anyway to see, at least, a little bit more of Bagan. We decided that we would try The Moon, a vegetarian spot that had printed "Be Kind to Animals" on the sign for the restaurant which had become so iconic that all the other restaurants and shops in the same area copied them by adding the same expression in the exact same style to their own signs. Otherwise, without street lamps, the road to the restaurant was almost completely dark and we arrived at what appeared to be a wide dirt field--we could see that it would't be easy to get around at night. We ate (Angela tried the pineapple and coconut curry, but there was not much else to write home about even though I am, essentially, doing that) and then taxied back to our hotel to sleep, tired, but excited about what the next day would bring.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Myanmar, Day 3: Mount Kyaiktiyo

We rose early this morning, our last full day in Yangon, to travel to Mount Kyaiktiyo, the Golden Rock, another Buddhist holy site at which we could see a giant gold boulder balancing at the summit of the mountain. It was a 3-hour drive to the mountain, so we had to get an early start and departed at 5AM. There wasn't much to see until the sun came up when we were outside the city. There were many makeshift buses on the roadtrucks, really, that had been converted into busesstuffed with commuters going to work. Some of the buses were so full that people were simply riding on top of them! It wasn't uncommon to see a truck with 5 or 6 people on the roof. When our driver, Zo, picked us up, he was listening to what sounded like Buddhist chanting, but after about an hour, he switched to a  CD of popular music from the West that included songs by artists such as The Beatles, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Neal Sedaka that was the soundtrack for the rest of the day.

How many people can go up the mountain at one time?
Eventually, we arrived and parked, and then our driver walked us over to the loading area where there were many large trucks full of people. We were shuffled about and finally squeezed in with everyone else looking to drive up to see the Golden Rock. After the 45-minute, pedal-to-the-metal grind up the mountain, we climbed out of the truck and proceeded toward the Golden Rock that we could see in the distance at the end of an asphalt path at the top of flight of stairs. As we had done a couple days prior when we entered Shwedagon Pagoda, we had to pay a fee of 10,000 kyats each (about $7 each) to enter the Bago Archaeological Zone and an additional fee to enter the site itself by purchasing the Foreigner Entrance Fee Card, which was $6 per person. You can see us wearing the emblems of commercialism around our necks in the picture below. With a variety of irregularly shaped buildings and some giant bells and gongs to bang on, the site was, otherwise, not particularly impressive, although it was deep in the mountains, and so the natural setting away from the Golden Rock was quite beautiful to behold. A number of small groups looked like they were having picnics, but Angela observed that they had probably spent the night.

On the footpath to The Golden Rock.
There were hundreds of Burmese people, but almost none that looked like tourists, which appealed to us. It's one thing to see tourists at the main attractions in the capital city, but it's another thing to travel 3 hours away from the capitalit requires a more serious commitment. Anyway, there were numerous vendors along the short pathway leading to the stairway at which point we had to remove our shoes before treading on the sacred ground. Along the way, I bought what looked like some spicy fried potato pancakes and sticky rice that was covered in coconut to eat. All told, we did not stay more than two hours. We weren't terribly pleased with our decision to visit the Golden Rock: it was a long journey and, as we weren't on a religious pilgrimage and didn't have prayer at the heart of our visit, we certainly missed the significance of the experience. I don't want to be too critical, however. Looking back, it seems like an arduous, memorable adventure which, perhaps because it required so much effort to go there and return, is more firmly planted in our minds.

In any case, the return to our hotel was unremarkable. Zo seemed to think we liked the Western music so much that we listened to the same CD for the entirety of our 3-hour return trip to Yangon. We were tired and the three of us nodded off at different points along the way. We stopped at an unremarkable restaurant on the way back in what appeared to be a roadside tourist feed / souvenir stop. After resting in our hotel and freshening up a bit, and then not straying too far from our hotel, we went out for an unremarkable dinner at a Japanese restaurant in the vicinity of our hotel. We really pushed ourselves during these three days, and we were still a little jet-lagged, but we were excited about what was in store for us in our next stop and our spirits were high.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Myanmar, Day 2: The Yangon Circular Railway

The next morning, tired from traveling and looking for a milder sightseeing experience to help us acclimate to the new time zone, the three of us headed out to catch the Yangon Circular Railway train, which traveled along a circular route around the suburbs of Yangon; the round trip lasted about 2½ hours from start to finish and was recommended on many travel sites. One ticket was 200 Ks (just about 15¢) so it really made for a worthwhile gamble to cover a bit more ground and see a wider swathe of the people.

The train arrived as scheduled and we climbed aboard. Train cars were full but not overly crowded; we found seats easily and there was room for people to walk up and down the center of each carriage. A handful of the other passengers looked like tourists, but, for the most part, the train seemed to be full of Burmese people. We clacked along from station to station and, while the countryside was beautiful, the real entertainment was watching the people: red-grinned men selling packets of green leaf-wrapped betel-nut came and went, women boarding at each stop carrying large metal basins on their heads full of different edible items who prepared what looked like spicy salads flecked with chili pepper and dressed with an abundance of herbs and sauces or selling what appeared to be fried bread or varieties of sticky rice, kids clustering everywhere selling everything from bread to water.

About halfway through the trip, the train had nearly emptied, but, at what was essentially the furthest point outside Yangon, there was a flurry of excitement and many people suddenly climbed on board, loading big barrel-sized burlap bags of produce through the windows and doors and filling the train car with the goods that they were apparently bringing into the city, much of it unidentifiable to us. There were so many bags loaded under the seats and in the central aisle that there really wasn't any room to move about.

The busy end of the street market.
Our ride came to an end, and we exited the station with the rest of the passengers, hungry but excited about everything we had seen. We wandered into a nearby neighborhood to look for a Burmese restaurant, which we found, but which also did not impress us much, and then we walked through a street market. We noticed that, along with the many colonial buildings in the area, there were also many mosques. It was surprising because we did not expect to see so many and it really hadn't been described in any of the guides that we had read before traveling to Myanmar. We were essentially in the city center, notable for Sule Pagoda in the middle of a roundabout, but it was hot and we were too tired to enter. We continued walking until we reached The Strand Hotel, stopped for a coffee, and then, exhausted from the long train ride and walk, we caught a cab back to our hotel to take a nap before going back out in the evening.

Sule Pagoda from our taxi.
For dinner, we hailed a cab and asked to go to Feel Myanmar, a street food eatery specializing in local cuisine. Stations to prepare various dishes were set up on the sidewalk and in front of the restaurant. Little low stainless steel tables and plastic stools were arranged in the street near the sidewalks, and many people were making food and many others were eating. Most of the seats were taken, in fact, but eventually we found an empty spot. We walked around ordered numerous plates of noodles and salads, and really enjoyed the surprising dishes that we tried.

Shwedagon Pagoda from the
Merchant Art Boutique Hotel rooftop.
Toward the end of our meal, an older couple seated next to us at the same table started speaking with us. They were surprised that Vito was eating the food. After talking for a while, we found out that they lived in Vacaville, California, which is my hometown! Even though they lived in Vacaville now, they were from Myanmar and returned every winter. It's funny, sometimes, how the world conspires to bring things together. We talked a bit more with the friendly couple, finished eating, and then when back to our hotel for a nightcap at the rooftop bar of our hotel, which had been covered with astroturf and decorated with comfortable pillows and tables. The view was beautiful, the weather was glorious and the atmosphere was magical, so we couldn't resist going back each night.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Myanmar, Day 1: Doha Departure & Yangon Arrival

Friday evening, the three of us left Doha at 8:20PM and flew 5½ hours before landing at our destination: Yangon, Myanmar. Some people are not familiar with Myanmar and recognize the country by its former name, Burma. Even though I was relieved of my scholastic responsibilities by 3PM on Thursday and could leave the country at that time, we couldn't leave then as there were no flights available. So, after school on Thursday, we went to see the new movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them at the Gulf Mall, ate a quick meal at Shake Shack and then went home to open Christmas presents. We wanted to open our Christmas presents so early, because we would be traveling on the holiday, and, even though there weren't very many gifts, we didn't want to lug them around during our vacation. In any case, Vito had customized his letter to Santa this year and held out hopes that the naughty-or-nice guardian would leave something particular under our tree in Doha and also deliver something to him wherever we were in our travels.

There is about a five hour time different between Qatar and Myanmar so, even though the flight was relatively short, we arrived in the morning (which would have made it around 2AM for us if we had stayed in Qatar). I don't remember doing much aside from eating on the plane. We were served a beverage and a light snack shortly after takeoff and then served breakfast just before landingit seemed excessive for such a short flight, but we weren't really complaining. After disembarking, clearing customs, gathering our two suitcases, exchanging US dollars for Myanmarian Kyats (sounds like 'chat') and arranging a taxi to our hotel, we reached our final destination, the Merchant Art Boutique Hotel, by 7:30AM. The few couches in the small lobby were full of guests (I could recognize that four of them were speaking Italianwith their backpacks and luggage who looked like they had also just arrived on the same early flight as us, which wasn't a good sign, and we were really much too early to check in so the room wasn't ready. We asked to leave our suitcases, and, even though both Angela and I had not slept much (Vito had slept for about three hours) we coated ourselves with mosquito repellant and headed out to explore the neighborhood around our hotel.

The location turned out to be quite well-considered. Winding our way through the criss-cross streets and through a roadside market that was readying itself for another day, we stumbled across a small temple, removed our shoes and socks, and entered to look around. It was relatively unremarkable aside from a large pond brimming with gigantic catfish. When we had finished, we climbed a tall hill, a wood-covered and columned stairway lined with vendors, to the entrance of Shwedagon Pagoda, perhaps Myanmar's most famous sight. The high walls were decorated with elaborate and brightly painted scenes carved into wood. We paid the 24,000 Kyat foreign entrance fee (approximately$18) and received a brochure that indicated multiple entrances, one at each of the east, north, south and west entrances.

The stunning central stupaa great, wide, golden, pregnant behemoth around which every other structure crowdedcould be seen from the bottom of the hill and was surrounded by statues and stupas and towers of all shapes and sizes, most of them covered in gold or gold leaf or painted gold, and all of them surrounding the main immense stupa in the center of the complex. The site was an impressive and surreal feast for the senses. Starting with the removal of footwear, which put us in contact with the world in a way that we were not used to, we joined the monks in their maroon robes, the nuns in their pink ones, and the rest of the pilgrims and tourists thronging around the great stupa. We could smell incense and hear bells and gongs reverberating through the complex periodically. People were kneeling and praying, lighting candles and setting out flowers. Many of the stupas, studded with diamonds and other jewels, were crowned with a circular lattice of bells that could be heard tinkling faintly in the breeze.We spent a couple of hours exploringVito discovered that there were numerous bells to strike, and he made it his mission to seek them out. We also learned that there were eight 'corners' around the stupa, and that each of them corresponded with an entrance and at which water could be poured over a representative statue. There were nice Myanmar men (identifiable by the longyis that, incidentally, both men and women worewide garments wrapped around the waist and tied in a knot at the frontthat they were wearing) with laminated cards who could identify anyone's day of birth, so we all learned what the days or our birth and then looked for the respective animals (Angela's animal was a rat, Vito's a tiger, and mine the lion) to bathe the Buddha statue in that location. We were tired and thirsty and hungry so we returned to our hotel to see if we could check in, but it was still too early. The hotel's restaurant was, at least, open for breakfast by then, so we found a table to sit down and eat.

The buffet food was nothing to brag about with the exception of mohinga, a kind traditional Burmese noodle dish incorporating chickpea flour and fish paste among other typical ingredients, which we tried here for the first time. After eating, our room was still not ready. Vito was exhausted and went to sleep on a sofa in an empty lounge next to the restaurant and I waited in the lobby. Angela stayed with Vito, resting herself, and noticed, too late, that Vito was getting bitten by mosquitoes. We were worried about mosquito bites, because we had heard that the prevalence of Dengue fever was higher in recent months due to a wetter than usual rainy season. Anyhow, by about 12PM, our room was finally ready, we settled in to take a nap.

Entrance to 999 Shan Noodle Shop.
We went out again at around 4PM and, not really knowing what else to do, we went back to Shwedagon Pagoda. We had read that it was particularly beautiful at sunrise or sunset and, having missed sunrise, thought to return there for a walk before looking for 999 Shan Noodle Shop restaurant for dinner.

It was about thirty minutes before closing and the little hole-in-the-wall restaurant was full when we arrived, but the waiters made room for us at a table with another couple so we didn't have to wait for a seat. When space at a larger table opened up, they moved us to that table where two German guys were already eating. The noodles were remarkable and we made small talk with our table mates wishing them a happy holidays when they finished eating and left the table. We were the last to finish and caught a cab back to our hotel. We weren't quite ready for bed, and we went up to the rooftop bar of our hotel, which had a lovely view of Swedagon Pagoda.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

The Holiday Season

We're in the middle of the holiday season again, or, well, it was closer to the middle last week when I started writing this post. Anyway, I have always loved this time of the year—and I still do—even though it's a little different in the desert. For instance, with the call to prayer sounding out across the city, we went to the beach to go swimming last Friday morning, which is not a typically winter activity for us. In past years, it has been too cool to enjoy the beach, but this year has been an exception. Even though the holidays are a little different here, Angela and I still want to expose Vito to our traditions while he develops these new ones...

The holiday season really starts with Halloween on the last day of October. Many here in Qatar consider Halloween a forbidden celebration, but events still take place in the ex-pat communities. There is a certain amount of preparation involved in the requisite holiday costuming necessary for Halloween, so the hype actually begins a little before the end of the month. There are enough activities and parties, however, so that we don't miss the holiday's purer stateside version. Vito's school, The American School of Doha, usually holds a gigantic Halloween carnival complete with carnival games, haunted hallways and trick-or-treating (although it was cancelled this year due to construction on campus), but, in addition to what his school has established, for the past few years, Vito has also gone trick-or-treating in multiple compounds around Doha.

The next holiday is Thanksgiving, which arrives at the end of November. For the past five years, we have brined and baked a turkey, and invited guests to a Thanksgiving potluck dinner at our apartment. Thursday is the end of the work week here and, as most adults work during the day, we have started throwing our party on the day after Thanksgiving. Many of our guests are not American, so it has changed the flavor of the event, somewhat, but it has become a nice new tradition for us and for the few that have annually returned. The day after the party, we clean up the Thanksgiving mess, put the Christmas tree together and decorate for that holiday.

As usual, Christmas really throws its weight around at the end of December. Obviously, the Christmas emphasis is greatly reduced in this part of the world, but we do our best to celebrate. Last week, Angela and I strung a string of lights around our windows in the living room. As Angela is Italian and I am American, we have two slightly different ideas about how to celebrate Christmas, so navigating The expectations of The Befana, the family and Santa can be challenging. Christmas is always further complicated, because, once the semester ends, many teaching families leave to return to their native lands or to travel. It ends up shortening the time allotted for celebration considerably, because people have to get their social events arranged before people leave the city. We don't cut our own Christmas tree, either, as we used to do when Vito was a baby, but we have a little plastic Christmas tree to assemble that someone gave us when we first arrived here in Doha.

New Year's Eve caps off the holiday season on the last day of the year to ring in a new one, which closes out two full months of celebration-worthy occasions and chaos. Happy holidays!