Friday, 31 August 2012

In Defense of Bragging

No one likes a braggart.

No one really wants to hear how amazing your life is, how happy you are, how incredible is whatever it is that you are doing. Good news is rarely interesting.

The problem, of course, is that sometimes there is no bad news. Sometimes life is just f-cking extraordinary and gives you one good thing after another. Sometimes things are perfect.

But no one wants to hear about those times.

No one wants to hear about the tiny, undeveloped tropical island off the coast of Cambodia, where we spent ten perfect, peaceful, relaxing days living in a bungalow on the beach. No one wants to know that it was the paradise everyone looks for- but rarely finds- when they book a holiday at a beach resort. They don’t want to hear that ours was the only establishment on an island with no cars, no crowds, no internet or TV- no distractions or disturbances of any kind. That the resort, at capacity, only housed around 50 people at a time and that we never shared the place with more than about 30 other guests, often half that. That the only sound day and night was the crashing of waves and the wind rustling through the palm and pine trees that lined the beach. No one wants to know that the soft, golden sand of the same beach was nearly always empty, that the turquoise water was as clear and warm as a kiddie pool, that when the sea wasn’t as smooth and calm as glass, it had rolling waves that were perfect for body surfing.

Rider on the storm...

People don’t want to hear that our rustic, private bungalow had a heart-stopping view of the sea, which we would gaze at from the two hammocks on our porch. That we shared the whole peaceful scene under our thatched roof with nothing more disruptive than a few innocuous geckos. That we slept with our door open every night to let in the sea breeze and woke up to that view, that postcard perfect view, at our feet every morning. They are not interested to hear that day in and day out, the most stressful thing we had to do was decide what to choose from the menu of the impressive restaurant. That I didn’t put on a pair of shoes, or pants, or a watch, for a week and a half. That it was easily the most perfect, relaxing getaway I’ve ever experienced- positively luxurious in its simple, uncomplicated rusticity.

Gary the Gecko, our bungalow's mascot
Gary keeping me company in our bathroom
I pretty much didn't leave that spot for 10 days

A classic, mostly ineffective, way to kid oneself into thinking one isn’t bragging is to shift focus on the negative aspects of an experience to downplay the positive: “Yeah, I won the lottery, but it was only 20 million, and you know, after taxes it’s really not that much.”

So I’ll give that tactic a try: our bungalow was very basic. Generator-powered electricity only after 6:00pm, no hot water or fan, toilets you had to flush manually with a bucket of water. The tap water came from a nearby stream, so drinking water had to come from bottles (although we ended up drinking the filtered stream water that the local staff was drinking). The wooden beams of the bungalow wall were spaced enough to let any number of bugs in- we slept under a mosquito net and counted on our resident geckos to keep our home spider-free. It rained a little bit, forcing us in off the beach to drink wine, play Scrabble and wait for the clouds to pass. And at $40 a night, it was the most expensive place we have stayed in since arriving in Asia.

So, you know, it really wasn’t all that great.

Only it was.

In a previous post, I apologized for abruptly neglecting my blogging duties for a week and a half without warning. Now you know why. We arrived on the island with the plan to stay for four days. Four turned to five, which turned to seven. On the sixth day, the manager offered us two free nights, so our four day mini-vacation turned into ten days of languishing denial that we would eventually have to leave.

The same manager has tentatively offered us a job there in October.

Nepal or Lazy Beach? We have a decision to make…

Wednesday, 29 August 2012


You’d think that after several days exploring the pagoda-studded plains of Bagan, we would be a little templed-out. Instead, we decided to test our threshold for religious edifices by going straight from Myanmar to the famed temples of Angkor in Cambodia. Actually, we didn’t go straight there- we stopped for two temple-free days in Bangkok spent eating and drinking with friends, but for the sake of my temple-to-temple narrative, let’s just pretend that didn’t happen.

The temples of Angkor, constructed between the 9th and 12th centuries, are some of the most visited sites in Asia, while their crown jewel, Angkor Wat, is considered to be the grandest, most important religious building in the world, rivaled only by the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt.

As you can imagine, our expectations were high.

Using the surprisingly developed town of Siem Reap as our home base, we bought a three-day pass to visit the various temples in the Angkor area. One could easily spend a week exploring the temples, of which there are many in varying degrees of preservation, but we thought a week of temples would be bordering on overkill. Three days ended up being the perfect amount of time to leisurely explore the main sites. We saved Angkor Wat for last, reasoning that it would be the grand finale and that anything that came after it would seem anti-climactic in comparison.

The first day, we hired a tuk-tuk, which is essentially a carriage pulled by a motor bike, and left at 4:30am in order to hike up a hill and catch the sunrise over Angkor Wat and the surrounding jungle. 

Our first, hazy glimpse of Angkor Wat

Once the sun was up, we continued our tour, taking in several of the better-known temples and trying to time our visits to avoid the oppressive tour groups of Chinese and Japanese tourists that threatened to overtake us in a wave of umbrellas, cameras and cheesy poses with the obligatory two-fingered peace sign.

Despite the hordes, the temples were incredibly impressive. While Bagan’s main draw was the sheer number of temples in a relatively small area, Angkor boasts quality over quantity. The main temples are massive, and although many are half in ruins, they remain ornately detailed with religious carvings throughout. 

There was the Bayon temple, with over two hundred enormous faces carved into its walls and towers, looking down on visitors with blank, enigmatic stares. 

The alleyway in Angkor Thom lined with image after image of intricately etched dancing deities. 

The mysterious, inaccessible ruins of Preah Khan, the soaring terraces of Pre Rup and the mind-blowingly detailed carvings in the well-preserved art gallery that is Banteay Srei.

Can you spot the ridiculous Frenchman?

While most of the temples have been reclaimed from the jungle that overtook them many centuries ago, a few, the best example of which is the eerie Ta Prohm, still have trees  growing from their walls, making the sites feel like an Indiana Jones movie set. 

Our second day of sightseeing (which was actually our third day in the area: Day Two was spent sleeping in, working out in our guest house’s rooftop gym, getting Cambodian massages and eating. Pretty rough day, if you ask me…), we hired another tuk-tuk to take us further afield to a site called the River of a Thousand Lingas. The site is a sacred place where the Angkorian people carved into a river bank hundreds of religious images, including lingas, or the ancient fertility symbols consisting of a phallic form, or linga, set in a yoni shaped like the female equivalent. In religious ceremonies, water was poured over the linga to pool in the yoni, creating holy water that represented the sexual energy of creation. 

If only Catholic mass was that hot…

The River of a Thousand Lingas included a little hike through the jungle to a waterfall, where we were able to cool off, while Japanese tourists pushed each other aside to take pictures of us. Of course they did.

On our last day, we again woke up for the sunrise over Angkor Wat, only this time we went by bicycle, peddling half asleep in the dark to the temple in time to see the sun come up behind those three famously rounded towers. It really was an awe-inspiring sight, despite the fact that we had to share it with about a thousand other people, most of whom had arrived by tour bus. 

Once the sun was up, the mass of human bodies retreated, assumingly for breakfast as part of their tour package, and we had Angkor Wat, the most important religious building in Asia- if not the world, nearly to ourselves.

And it was every bit as amazing as we had expected. 

First off, it is enormous- much bigger than it looks in pictures. Rivaling its impressive size are its painstakingly detailed carved frescoes and decorative carvings found on nearly every surface, which underscore the dominance of Hinduism in Cambodia at the time of the building’s construction. Scenes from Hindu epics line the outside walls, while more recent statues of Buddha dominate an indoor courtyard. The structure has been meticulously preserved and lovingly restored where necessary. The result is a place that transports the visitor back in time.

That is, until the tour buses come back after breakfast.

Just one scene from the extensive frescoes inside

Although Angkor Wat was a magnificent sight to behold, it was not the most memorable of our time in Siem Reap: that honor falls to what happened during the massage we got on our last day.

The massage itself was relaxing and wonderful, but what raised it in our esteem from an hour of bliss to a trip highlight all started with laundry day. You see, before our massage, we had dropped off our laundry, which included all of Vincent’s boxers, to be cleaned. Logic of deduction will tell you what Vincent had on under his shorts for the massage. As we got undressed in our joint massage room, Vincent took off his shirt, but kept his shorts on, assuming the masseuse could work around them.

How wrong he was.

Vincent’s masseuse, an adorable shy Cambodian girl of 25, asked him to remove his shorts for the massage. Vincent explained that he couldn’t take off his shorts because he wasn’t wearing any underwear.

“No underwear?” the girl frowned. She consulted with my masseuse in rapid-fire Khmer (the language of Cambodia), apparently discussing what to do.

Finally, she turned to Vincent, “Don’t worry, I have something you can wear.”  

She stepped out of the room and returned a moment later with something balled up in her fist. Proudly, she handed Vincent her solution, which he held up to examine.

It was a pair of tiny, black mesh bikini briefs with white floral embroidery.

“Are you serious?” Vincent bleated, holding up the panties, which would have been snug on me and downright lewd on him. “You want me to wear these?”

“They have been cleaned,” the masseuse replied, somewhat missing the reason behind Vincent’s incredulousness.

By this point, I couldn’t even pretend to hide my laughter. The horrified look on Vincent’s face was topped only by the sight of him once he finally acquiesced and donned the shrunken, flowery briefs. I will spare you an actual photo of the moment, but the mental image of Vincent in his miniscule panties would haunt me throughout my massage, causing me to burst out into barking laughter at random. My mirth would lead Vincent to start laughing, which would in turn make our two masseuses giggle uncontrollably. The whole massage was a disaster, with the four of us cracking up the entire time.  We finally managed to pull it together until Vincent’s masseuse made his bikini into a thong to massage his hips. It was game over after that.

When the massage was finally finished, we thanked our masseuses and apologized for acting like children. As we were paying and getting ready to leave, Vincent’s masseuse asked, without a hint of irony, if Vincent wanted to keep the briefs.

Sadly, he decided against it under the guise that maybe one day they would bring as much joy to someone else as they did to us.  In reality, I think he just didn’t want any evidence of what was, for him, a traumatizing experience.

And since I’m such a good wife, I’m supporting his recovery by immortalizing his humiliation in my blog. Love you, honey.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Burma Diaries, Continued

But first, I owe you an explanation. 

It has been my goal since the beginning of the trip to try to post a blog update at least once a week. It has now been a week and a half since my last post, and for that, I apologize. You see, the problem with my first goal is that it is not always conducive to my second goal, which is to never let my documentation of the trip interfere with the adventure itself. For most of the trip those two goals have lived in harmony, but this past month or so has made it clear that a weekly post is not always possible. In a later blog post, I will explain why I was MIA for 10 days (hint: it involves a bungalow on a paradisaical undeveloped island with limited electricity and no internet), but please know that I appreciate your patience and your readership despite my sporadic posting schedule.  

When I left off, we had returned from a fantastically miserable nine-hour hike in the rain, half of the day spent lost and frustrated. We were relieved to finally return to our guesthouse in Hsipaw and nurse our sore legs and wounded pride with an indecent amount of beer.

Day 11: Rain, aching legs and a nasty stomach bug (my first since leaving South America) keep us on our guesthouse balcony the entire day: reading, chatting with the other backpackers we had met during our hike and generally letting ourselves relax. When I ask the adorable older lady who runs the hostel if she can recommend something to take for an upset stomach, she tells me, “Wait here.” She disappears and then returns two minutes later with a bowl of plain rice, a pot of Chinese tea and a dose of her own supply of natural medicine, which she will continue to share with me for the next two days. When I thank her, somewhat profusely, for her help, she replies with a shrug, “I like to take care of my children.”

Day 12: Overnight bus to Inle Lake. We board the bus and look for our seat numbers, which are all the way to the back. As we approach, we find our seats completely surrounded by luggage. There are not only suitcases blocking the aisle to our seats, but they are also piled up on the seats next to ours, creating a little enclosed fort where our seats are supposed to be. We are giggling about the whole thing until we realize that there are also suitcases piled up behind our seats, locking them into an upright position for the 13-hour overnight trip. We scramble over the suitcases in the aisle by using other people’s armrests as stepping stones and settle in to what we will from then on refer to as our “nest.”

In our nest.

Day 13: The bus pulls to a stop in the middle of the night and the lights go on. I check my watch: 3:30am. The bus isn’t supposed to arrive at Inle Lake until 5:30 and the people getting off the bus aren’t bringing their bags with them.

It’s our breakfast stop. At 3:30 in the morning.

I shake Vincent awake and, realizing that it is after midnight, wish him a happy 35th birthday. We celebrate by sharing a truck stop pork bun and some sleep deprived musings about how anyone, let alone most of the people on our bus, could possibly eat the fish curry that was being served at this ungodly hour.

After two more hours of fitful, pork bun-haunted sleep on the bus, we arrive in the town of Nyaungshwe on Inle Lake. We book a room at a hostel chosen at random from Lonely Planet and go back to bed until midday. To have some semblance of a birthday celebration for Vincent, we celebrate his milestone with dinner at Nyaungshwe’s nicest restaurant. The meal alone is more than our daily budget in Myanmar, but I guess 35 years of Vincent merits the cost.

Day 14: We take a boat tour of Inle Lake on a motorized longboat with two other people from our guesthouse. We luck out and are randomly paired with French siblings, a brother visiting his sister who lives in Yangon and speaks Burmese. First stop, a village market, where we have coffee with a local family while our boat-mate translates. It is a unique opportunity to be able to talk to these people, who don’t speak any English and therefore don’t often get to talk to foreigners.  

On the way back to the boat, we pass some of the merchants loading their goods into their sampans, or little elongated canoes. We stop to watch and Vincent decides to offer to help, communicating by miming instead of words. Within five minutes, he and a villager are carrying heavy loads on a bamboo pole back and forth between the market and the boats as the locals stop what they are doing and start pointing and laughing. They are getting a kick out of us helping them and are wonderfully appreciative of our effort to interact with them in a more meaningful way instead of just taking pictures of their difficult work. When we finally board our own boat and pull away, we get applause and enthusiastic waves from the villagers.

The rest of the day is similarly interesting and engaging. We pass “floating villages,” built on stilts above the lake. Each house has a sampan, or flat-bottomed wooden boat, tied to a dock on the water for transportation, while some homes even have floating gardens full of tomatoes or enclosures for pigs perched over the water. It’s hard to imagine a lifestyle in which one needs to take a boat to visit the neighbors. 

We also visit a small shop on the lake where village women hand roll cigars called cheroots filled with a mix of light tobacco, spices, fruit like banana and coconut, and various other flavorings. We sit and chat with the women, who laugh and gossip and sing as they work, and we try the cigars. They are light and flavorful and even I, a die-hard non-smoker, am hooked.                

Day 15: There are certain days while backpacking that we do absolutely nothing. Today is one of those days.

Day 16: We leave early in the morning for a three day, two night trek in the mountains around the lake. It’s just the two of us with our guide, who we call Dante although I’m not entirely sure that’s his name. The first day is only a five hour hike. The air cools considerably as we gain elevation and we pass through idyllic country scenes: bamboo houses, waving children, extensive tea plantations and mango groves, lush green farm land flanked by banana trees. Water buffalo lounge in giant mud puddles. Oxen pull plows through rich brown soil as a peasant in a conical hat looks on. 

For lunch we stop in a tiny village and are welcomed into a home belonging to some of Dante’s friends. The house is a standard two-room bamboo structure, elevated onto stilts with a sort of dirt-floored basement underneath. We eat in one room while Dante, our cook and the host family eat in the kitchen room. Burmese tradition dictates that guests eat before the hosts, so although we feel a little awkward eating by ourselves, we follow the custom. A pack of local children crowd in the doorway to watch us while we eat, whispering "calapiu", or "white Indian" in their tribal language. 

After lunch we hike a couple more hours, passing a village primary school as we go up. We stop at the school and peek in on the children in the open classroom. Our presence is soon detected and chaos ensues: the disciplined calm is abandoned as the students wave to us, laughing and showing us their homework. One of the classes is learning English, so the teacher asks me to lead the class in the lesson. I read simple phrases off the chalk board and the class repeats after me. The kids are too excited to have an English speaking teacher to actually pay attention to what they are reciting, so my echo is just a sloppy mix of sounds meant to sound like English words. It’s really quite adorable.

We arrive at our overnight stop: a Buddhist monastery tucked away on a wooded hill in the mountains. It’s a small operation, only two young monks and four tiny novice monks taught by one head monk, a venerable man of 65 with a mouth full of betel, a bald head and spectacularly sporadic facial hair growth. The monk speaks little English- and even when he does his mouth is so packed with betel nut that he is incomprehensible- but he adores tourists and dotes over us like a grandmother.  When we first arrive, he is using a machete to cut thick stalks of bamboo. Within fifteen minutes, he has constructed a little bamboo bench for us to sit on. Admittedly, it isn’t the most comfortable place to sit, but we make sure to spend a lot of time on the bench, and exclaim to each other how comfortable it is in loud voices every time the monk passes by.

One of the younger monks teaching the novices the Buddhist chants
Don't be fooled by his betel-filled frown- that monk loved us

Just as we are feeling that we are in the most relaxing, spiritual place in the world, Dante calls me to come into the shack that serves as a kitchen and try their rice liquor. I am enjoying the sake-like drink when I spot something I never expected to find in a monastery: there, hanging upside down on the wall from a rusted nail is a massive bouquet of the most famous five-leaf plant in the world. While often called an “herb,” it’s not something you expect to find in the kitchen, especially a kitchen in such a spiritual place.

“Wait, is that…?”

Dante nods, grinning over his glass.

“Does the monk…?”

“No, but he knows we do and he doesn’t care.”

That evening our cook, imaginatively called “Mr. Cook” by our guide, makes us a massive feast of delicious Burmese food, which is accompanied by rice liquor, whiskey and what Dante refers to as “happy smokes.” We are a little hesitant to take part in the more hedonistic parts of the meal out of respect for the ever-present head monk, however he doesn’t seem to mind and simply sits there, chewing his betel and watching us with mischievous smiling eyes. In the end, the novelty of indulging in morally questionable activities at a monastery wins out over our intentions to be respectable, upstanding adults.

Maturity has never been our strong suit.

Our gut-busting trekking dinner, courtesy of Mr. Cook
The monk made me a turban in the fashion of the local tribal women. It goes perfectly with my happy smokes.

Day 17: In theory, the second day of our trek would see us walking 6-8 hours through remote hill tribe villages, one of which would house us in a home stay for the night. Instead, we wake up to pouring rain, while our guide and cook wake up to crippling hangovers: it’s not going to be a very productive trekking day.

To Dante and Mr. Cook’s credit, they both woke up far earlier than us and have a gorgeous breakfast laid out on the table by the time we shuffle into the common room. That day, we try to hike, but the rain has turned the paths into muddy, slippery death traps, so the going is slow and arduous. Taking things from a glacial crawl to a veritable standstill is that in each village we pass, we find some of Dante’s friends urging us to come in out of the rain and join them for a snack and a tea. We quickly learn that “tea” is code for “rice liquor” and that it is considered quite rude to turn down the offer, even if it is 9:30 am and we’ve only been walking for 30 minutes.

After only a couple hours of walking (and many more sitting in village huts drinking rice liquor), we decide to call it a day and head back to the monastery for the night. There is a full moon celebration- an important Buddhist custom- at the monastery and around 30 villagers have descended on the building to be led in meditation by the monk. It is fascinating to watch how the villagers flock to show their respects to the monk, the same one we smoked and drank in front of the night before. They bring food and gifts to offer the monk and it is obvious that they regard him as something between a father and a demi-god.

At one point in the evening, a sloppily drunk villager joins our dinner table and tries to talk to us, slurring in his tribal tongue. The monk is not impressed: apparently it is ok for the tourists and their guides to indulge in his presence, but the same does not go for the locals. The monk stands up in front of the man and shakes his finger at him, speaking calmly but tersely and making it clear to everyone in the room that he is displeased with the man’s behavior. He doesn’t even have to raise his voice but the effect is immediate: the villager cowers, shoulders hunched and head down, like a dog being scolded for doing his business on the carpet. The scene is uncomfortable yet telling: in how many cultures does one man have such unquestioned, unchallenged respect from another?

Day 18: Our hike back to Nyaungshwe is long, but relatively easy and we arrive unscathed back to our guesthouse. We’ve had a sufficient amount of Burmese culture in the past few days, so we feel justified as we indulge in huge plates of pasta for dinner.

Day 19: After three days of trekking, I decide to splurge and get a Burmese massage. And by splurge I mean I spend six dollars. 

My masseuse even comes to my hotel room and spends the next hour pummeling me into euphoric oblivion in my own bed. It is slightly less painful than my Thai massage, despite the fact that the little woman is all but using my back as a trampoline. At one point, she stands on my butt and does what feels like an enthusiastic tap dance routine, but all I can do is sigh happily and wonder if life could get any better than this.

Day 20 & 21: We take an overnight bus back to Yangon, which, while uncomfortable, is largely uneventful. Our last day in Burma is spent avoiding Yangon’s oppressive, interminable rain by spending hour after hour in tea houses. We go back to our hostel around 4:00pm to find that there is a neighborhood-wide power outage. I surrender to circumstance and go to bed, sleeping through the night until we wake up for our flight back to Bangkok the next morning.

Our three weeks in Myanmar were some of the most interesting and eye-opening we have had since the beginning of our trip. Myanmar is not a comfortable or easy place to travel on a budget: it still wants for the basic infrastructure necessary for tourism on a large scale. To a visitor, however, this simplicity and perceived naiveté are what make it unique. As I’ve written previously, Myanmar is on the edge of a precipitous movement to modernize and change. Once it does, it will no doubt become a top tourist destination: Bagan will be like Angkor, Inle Lake like Lake Titicaca, the Western beaches like Thailand’s southern islands. The Burmese will see more tourist dollars, which will allow them to catch up technologically and economically to the rest of the world. Women will wear make-up instead of tanaka while men will don trousers in the place of their longyis. Who knows, maybe people will even stop chewing betel as they become more aware of its health risks.

These changes will no doubt benefit the Burmese population and allow them to become citizens of the world, rather than live in an isolated society cut off from other cultural influences. People who have never left the villages they were born in will be able to afford to leave the country. People who have lived their entire lives without electricity will be introduced to the internet. Life expectancies will increase, infant mortality will plummet.

Progress is a good thing, right?

But I’m selfish. I don’t want Myanmar to change.

I want to go back in five or ten years and still see children run to the windows of their homes to wave at us and yell, “Hallo!” or shyly hide behind their mothers’ legs and stare at us in the streets.  I want village leaders to still welcome foreigners into their humble bamboo shacks and thank them for coming to their country, offering their guests tea and cake that they themselves can hardly afford. I want old and young alike to still crowd around the view screen of my camera and gasp in delight at pictures of the temples in Bagan, a sight that they have never seen despite living within a day’s travel from it. I want toothless elderly women to clap their hands together in laughter as they echo the phrase the white girl in traditional tribal dress has taught them: “Sank yew.”

The white girl wants to say so much more to these people, who have showed her such warmth, such kindness, such sincere hospitality, but her lack of Burmese vocabulary keeps her from expressing her gratitude any other way.

So she only repeats, over and over again, the words, “Thank you.”