Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Yangon, Myanmar and Hong Kong

I woke up fairly early to the sound of preaching, but did doze a bit. Good thing, as it's going to be a really long day! I learned later that it's from a local monastary over a loud speaker. Fantastic! Thankfully I also learned one of my bathroom windows was open, and it was improved once I remedied that.

I got breakfast on the roof terrace restaurant and enjoyed the views. The river can be seen in the distance and the Stupa of the Shwedegon Pagoda. The city is quite ugly and congested with very crowded buildings dirty from what I assume is pollution.

The breakfast was a mix of eastern and western, and I was thrilled to see chicken soup as an item. Nothing can make you feel better!

I lazed around my room a bit, caught up on my blog and email and checked into my flight. I had made plans to meet Harny, whom I met on the flight from Bangkok to Yangon two days earlier and waited for him to arrive.

First I decided to explore a little, and I wasn't really prepared for the reality that is Yangon. If I thought Hanoi felt like walking in a beehive, this city feels like walking between machine gun fire. It's intense trying to cross the street or even trying to walk on the sidewalk. People are extremely aggressive as it's so crowded and you must be alert at all times. Drivers honk constantly and I truly haven't seen cars get as close to cars and people as in this city.

The stores are interesting-- I saw a rope store, a paint shop, a makeup store and a random store that sold items with no relationship I could see. I walked a few blocks to the Musmea Yeshua synagogue, built in 1896 and supported in the last few generations by one family of sons.

It was small but quite beautiful Synagogue, built in 1896. Myanmar once had a thriving Sephardic Jewish population of over 2,500 people. Many fled during the Japanese occupation and the remainder once the military took power in 1962. Now there are only around 20 people in Myanmar in total. The temple is maintained to remember the community and the influence it once had.

I decided to find a pharmacy, no longer able to deny how sick I am. It took some doing (and back and forth on a busy street) but I found one. I had the foresight to ask my hotel to dictate a few things in the local language to help communicate with the pharmacist and that was a good thing. However, she was handing me everything from cold medicine to heartburn meds. Thankfully I have some knowledge of drug names and got some cold meds, cough meds, and a 'z-pack' antibiotic, which didn't require a prescription. I am a regular to sinus infections and bronchitis, and as this has dragged on for a bit, I'm sure I have an infection.

I went back to the hotel to check out and meet my new friend, Harny. I met him on my flight from Bangkok to Yangon, and we made plans to meet up. We had planned for dinner but when he suggested lunch, I jumped on it.

He was as overwhelmed by the street traffic as I was, which was a surprise. He lives 15 minutes from my hotel and apparently it's a little less crowded there. We hailed a cab to not deal with the mess, which was an exhilarating/terrifying experience. Even cabbies in NYC don't compare!

We tried to cross a busy street which was simply incredible. We finally ended up just running, dashing between cars, reminding me of the Nitari game, Freeway, I used to play as a kid, of a chicken trying to cross a busy highway. Turns out the restaurant he planned on is closed for the holidays. The owner apologized, and I found it interesting that the doors were open! We walked to a second place that was closeby, having to cross that busy street again. This time there was another couple and the man was quite insane just walking forcing the cards to stop, so we tagged on with them.

Shan Kitchen was quite good, and we had Shan region food. We got Shan noodles, morning glory (a green I had in Cambodia and liked) and pennywort. It was good and I especially liked the pennywort!

We then went to the National Museum, and it was amazing! Five floors but we only got through 3 of them, with some incredible historical pieces from the country and a display of attire from the many regions in Myanmar. It was interesting and beautiful.

We decided to go back to my hotel up to the rooftop terrace for some coffee and tea. The foot traffic was a bit too much for both of us, and I was getting a bit droopy. We sat there for a couple of hours and enjoyed a beautiful sunset over the city.

At dinnertime, we made our way towards Chinatown, only a couple of blocks from my hotel. We went a little further to a restaurant Harny knew, which escapes me. It was pretty good. We got a tomato dish to share and each got some local noodles.

Such a fun day! He brought me back to my hotel and I only had and hour and a half to wait for my ride to the airport for my 1 am flight.

My next flight was to Hong Kong, where I had a seven-hour layover. I grabbed a bite for breakfast, then made my way to Victoria Peak, that has an incredible view of the city. I had direction that seemed easy- take the Airport express train to central, take a mini bus to the peak tram. Well, getting to Airport Express was easy, but that was it. I had to ask several people for directions to the mini bus (which I never would have found otherwise.) I asked for the tram of the driver, and got dropped off.

The building I was dropped at was an indoor mall of sorts, with some stores, restaurants and a viewing terrace. I thought I was being dropped off to take the tram, but apparently he took me to the top and I would take the tram down. The terrace opened at 8 so i had 30 minutes to kill and walked around. I was glad I got there early as there was quite a line. I climbed up a few floors and there it was--Hong Kong. Beautiful views and the sun was up though it was still a bit foggy.

I was debating trying to see something else quickly but decided against it-- good thing as I got massively lost on my way back. I took the tram down and  couldn't find the bus, and wasn't entirely sure there was a stop in this direction as the directions seemed a bit off. I decided to walk towards central, and while in some areas it was well marked, I seemed to miss some signs. I walked a while, and finally asked for some help. Three people pointed in three different directions, but turns out I was pretty much at the station and didn't know it. I'm bad with directions anyways, however, with no sleep in over 30 hours, yes, I was a bit of a mess.

The last guy was very nice and specific, and even ran over to make sure I went in the right door as I believe there was access to multiple things in this station. Then to find Airport Express... same thing. Wandered, wandered, signs disappeared. I asked a woman for help and she was so kind to walk me there! Very nice people here too.

Made it to the airport with some time and impressed with this huge, modern airport. Somehow managed to go to the wrong gate clear across the airport, apparently looking at the city I was going to but not confirming the flight number. It's a very, very large airport!

Dragon's Beard candy, which I got in Seoul, South Korea on my last Asia adventure

14.5 hour flight back, but I had an aisle seat so it was ok enough. Didn't sleep until my flight from LA to Phoenix where I passed out before we backed up and woke with a jolt on landing. My friend picked me up thankfully, and we went to get two of my dogs who were staying at the rescue. We did a quick grocery run, and now I'm home, sweet home.

What an amazing adventure!! I will post pictures in the next week or so and will write up my recommendations. They will not include Yangon, though!

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Bagan, Myanmar

Mingalabar, hello from Myanmar! And welcome to Bagan, a soon-to-be (hopefully) Unesco World Heritage site. Jesuper (sounds like jay-su-pay), or thank you for reading!

My challenges with my guide continued, and I woke at 5 am for a sunset view that didn't happen. I chose to go with a new, unknown guide and met May at 7:30. She was wonderful and her driver was incredibly sweet as well. Many do this without a guide, but I like the education that comes with one so paid the $75 USD for the guide and driver. I'm thrilled. My day was so interesting, both seeing the Pagodas but also talking with May. I'll include some of that learning.

There were over 4000 pagodas originally, but now there are around 2300. This includes all pagodas, even the really small ones with no names. There are three types: stupas with the large round central dome structure that were originally in plaster but later covered in gold, temples and monestaries. Stupas have the Buddha inside and temples have a Buddha image representing enlightenment. They were built to honor the Buddha.

We first went to the market, where everyone in Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nyuang U purchase their foods. Most of the produce and meats/fish come locally from neighboring farms. The fish are from the river and dried fish are from South Myanmar. It was incredibly large and I wish I could smell (thanks, head cold!) as it must have been amazing! There were many things I recognized and a lot I didn't, and May patiently told me about many. One interesting item looked like small cut tree that were around 6 inches long and maybe an inch and a half wide with a small round but flat on the top stone piece used to grind the tree to make a paste for sunscreen! It's called thanakha. Many of the local people wear it on their face, giving them a light brown color. There were also some canned goods and other products.

On the way to our first pagoda, we talked a bit about Myanmar. May said tourism is THE industry in Bagan, and it is down this year due to news reports of genocide of the Islam people in the western part of the country by the government. May said it's the media speaking, and untrue. She said the Raginja tribe wants control of the area and the government won't allow it, but that the fighting and deaths are on both sides and it's not genocide at all. More to come..

Our first pagoda was Shwezgone, built in the 11c by the king. The largest pagodas in Bagan were built by the king, the smallest by the people, and in between by the royal family. There is a large gold lion outside built with the pagoda originally. A bronze buddha is inside in a hand position that means 'no fear.' Many of the original Budda's were of gold and many were stolen and replaced with bronze.

I noticed that many men wore long skirts as well and May said they are called longyi. Men and women wear them but the design and how they are worn are slightly different.

We happened upon  the end of a noviciation ceremony here. I'm not sure I have all the details correct, but at around age 7, boys become a novice and are sent to a monastary to become a monk. Every boy does this, though I later learned that the age can vary. They must go for three days and can stop and return to their family, or continue down the path that they can stop at any time.

The boys were dressed in brightly-colored long flowy dresses, with lots of decoration, flowers, hairpieces and makeup. Most had long hair up in buns, that is cut when they enter the monastary. May said that her own son is 7 but she is waiting a few more years so he will understand the requirements to make a good decision. She told me that all parents want their sons to become monks, and it honors the family.

the central pagoda was built in 11c but additional buildings were built as late as 16c. Bagan history begins in 2C, however, Buddhism was spread to the land in around 11C so many of the pagodas were built in that time and later. Prior to 11C the people were secular and made animal offerings.

This stupa had illustrations and carvings representing the life of the Buddha. It had four bronze Buddha including two of the three types. Indian and Myanmar were both represented. Indian had a long nose, fingers of a different length, ears that don't touch the shoulders and the statues have a woman's curves. The Myanmar type are stockier, fingers of the same length and the ears touch the shoulders. the third kind is Srilinka, I believe.

Next we went to the Gupyaukyi Temple, built in 12C. There were many paintings inside representing the life of the Buddha. The top fell in 2016 due to an earthquake. Paintings in red, yellow, brown, black and white adorned the walls and some were stolen by a German architect in 1899.

The third temple was Htilominlo, built in the early 13C by the king. the original Buddha was made of one piece of wood covered in gold however it was replaced with a Bronze. It was named for the king who built it and means, wanted by the king or wanted by the white umbrella. The king was the youngest of the prior King's sons, which was unusual. There was also a custom to have the heirs be under a white umbrella and where it falls, names the new king.

There are 50k people in Bagan overall. The people used to live in Old Bagan among the temples, but in 1990 the military government moved them to an area now called New Bagan. They had to leave their homes and pay the cost to rebuild, the government did not help, only by giving the people land. Some had to build from bamboo as lower cost, and those who could afford it built out of brick.  Hotels were then built by the rich in the military in Old Bagan. People once could climb the pagodas and now are not allowed to climb most, in order to preserve them.

We walked outside the pagoda and May showed me someone doing sand painting. He showed me how he prepped the fabric, applied glue and sand from the river, spread it evenly and then started to paint. While I was committed to not really purchasing anything, I felt compelled and now have a sand painting depicting days of the week. There is a lion in the center as I was born on a Tuesday. He also showed me a limestone carving which is a thin piece of limestone applied to the fabric then carved, so when you hold it to the light it's stunning. That was a bit more costly and while beautiful, I decided to pass. May said she wanted to get these for window coverings but it was too expensive. That would be stunning!

May shared with me a little more about her family and the country. She has three children, including two older daughters that are 22 and 14. Her eldest lives in Yangon and works, so she visits occasionally. Her 14-year old goes to a boarding school as the schools in Bagan are not very good. Her 7-year old son does go to local school, but he will go to a boarding school in a few years if he doesn't join the monastary. Her husband also works as a guide and this last year has been difficult with the decrease in tourism. She said they work 6 months of the year mostly, but she does do work supporting tourism marketing in the off months. People have one name in Myanmar, just a given name, and no last name.

We then went to the group temple Kaninga built in 13C. It was reconstructed many times, falling due to earthquakes. They were small and built by the people of brick. It was quite stunning.

Next we went to Ananda Temple, known as the most beautiful. It means Wisdom of the Budha and was built by the king in 11C. There are 4 standing Buddha images; two from 11C and two replaced since as they were stolen (the original were of gold and new of bronze). The hand position of all means preaching. There is a guardian Buddha at the entrance built later with hands in the position of 'fear not.' The Buddha where we walked in appears to be smiling from the doorway, but as you get closer you see he is not. There are 800 niches in the temple to reduce the echo, which were original.

There were additions added after the original temple was built, and there were two small "lakes" where you could get a beautiful reflection of the temple. It was white and had many carvings along the tip and statues around the building.

The military government had control of the country for 25 years. It was difficult for people to find work as many businesses were owned by the military. Aung San Su Kui now has a 'consultancy' position with the government and is trying to take power. "Our lady" as she is called, was the daughter of a former general in Myanmar, who fought for independence. I believe they were exiled, and at age 2, she grew up in the UK. She married a man from the UK which has caused some of the challenge in her becoming President, as the military put into place a constitution to rule the country, and in it, declared that the ruler cannot have married a foreigner.

The military controls 25% of Parliament, and in the constitution, laws require a 75% vote. This has caused challenge in removing the military from parliament and making changes, however "Our Lady" continues the effort for the people. She came back to care for her mother, then the people asked her to rule and voted her to her current position. It is the hope of the people that she will rule sometime and the military will be outed from their position of power.

May said that the Islam people in the country are from Bangladesh. The military approved of them to stay to secure their votes, but then causes issues with these refugees, causing the negative media about genocide in the country.

Outside Ananda there was a young boy of around 8 selling hand made post cards. "You are beautiful. You want to buy?" Nice opening!
"Where you from?"
"Ahh US. Obama! Obama! Obama good, Trump not so good."
Interestingly, May asked him in the local language why that is so, and he could not answer.

He tried very hard to sell me a card and then pointed to my banana and requested it. Ok, that I could do, and happily handed it to him. We both felt good about the exchange. :)

We went to lunch at a restaurant right on the Ayeyarwatty River called Art@Bagan Restaurant, or Aye River Terrace. The view was quite tranquil and we got a table on the end of the deck overlooking the river, which was a distance off but not too far. I got a green bean salad made of beans that are over two feet long (I saw them in the market!), peanut oil, crushed peanuts and onions. Yum! I got a chicken curry which was unlike any I've had-- no coconut milk and it was sweet, yellow, and thin. A cat started nuzzling me under the table so I shared my chicken, and the skinny little thing ate over half of it! I tried a glass of the local wine, but the flies enjoyed it more than me and I gave up. At least 6 ended up in my glass and I rescued them but didn't really want it after! I also got a lime soda, which was lime juice and a bottle of soda water to mix in. Hopefully the vitamin C will help get rid of this cold.

We took a short break and I went back to my hotel and May had some time with her son before setting out again to go to the last temples of our tour.

We next went to the highest temple, Thatbyninyu built by the king in 12C. It looked a bit more like a church, with white walls with black stainings. The inside was plain and mostly unadorned on the walls.

Next to this temple was a grouping of temples by the people. One you could walk up and it reminded me a lot of the Mayan temples but in brick. We didn't have enough time to walk up and still see the sunset from our designated temple, so we left to go to Shwegugyi Temple, the largest temple. Built by the king in 12C, it's one of only two temples that you are allowed to climb now (the small temples built by the people allow it when possible, but this is one of the only larger named temples.) At the end of the month people will not be allowed to climb any, however, the travel industry is petitioning the government to be able to climb five.

Narrow, steep, and uneven steps led to the area where you could stand to watch the sunset. It was crowded but manageable. We walked around and then settled on the direct view. Watching the colors of the sky and landscape change with the setting of the sun was simply incredible!

We drove back to my hotel to get my flight information tomorrow, and the hotel will confirm my flight was not changed/cancelled (apparently it's a thing here!) I scheduled to go with May tomorrow for a few hours to see some of the local villages before going to the airport. They dropped me on a road with many restaurants, and I had picked out Taw Win due to high Tripadvisor reviews. It was empty except for staff which had me a little concerned, but apparently I was just early as a crowd came as I was leaving.

The staff was very friendly and one girl spoke very good English. She told me her father's farm provides much of the produce, and she was very proud. I got another green bean salad which was similar though the beans were cut to a larger size, and a thai vermicelli with vegetables. Both were really good and I took some back to snack on tomorrow before my flight.

After I started my meal, another solo traveler came up to dine. We were talking from separate tables and then decided to dine together so she joined me. She is from Slovakia but has been living in Sydney, Australia for 12 years after following a friend there. She is touring Myanmar for 2 weeks and is debating if she will move home to Europe.

I walked back to the hotel in 15 minutes or so, which was fairly well lit and felt safe. I have never felt unsafe in Myanmar, or Thailand and Laos for that matter. I did stay close to my hotel at night in Bangkok but otherwise have had no concerns at all. It's truly an amazing experience traveling to this part of the world and I'd encourage anyone to.

Going to grab a bite and debate- massage or not to massage. I suspect I know which will win! After all, it has been 3 days!