Category Archives: Blog
You’d think that after a year of traveling (plus a good number of shorter trips in years past), we’d be pretty good at things like packing and planning and all the other logistics that go into getting from one point to another. Not so, I say. I am a chronic and unapologetic over-packer; every time I feel like I’m getting a handle on my gear, I see that as a sign that I can take on more stuff… say, an adorable sundress or hilarious erotic-themed sake cups. In contrast, R feels like every extra t-shirt is weighing him down, so he’ll chuck out that fourth pair of underwear and just go ahead and rock that same pair of flip-flops that now seem to be entirely composed of duct-tape- not entirely functional. The same kind of thinking goes into our planning. It can be easy when there is a backpacker trail to follow or when we have unlimited time, however, in the case of Korea, we not only had a flight to make, but a budget to keep. This threw us for a loop when we realized that a destination that we had penciled in as a day trip was going to turn into an overnight stay, thanks to long connection times and a delayed bus. It turned out to be the best stop of our trip.
The temple at Haeinsa is a Unesco World Heritage sight and I thought that we’d pop in for an hour or two on our way from the south to the coast. The town had little to offer, according to our guidebook, and I was only interested in seeing the temple. Our plans were thwarted when our bus arrived several hours later than we’d expected- well past the temple’s closing time. We had no choice but to seek out a place to sleep for the night and a bite to eat.
We got into town too late to see the temple, but not actually at a late hour. We had plenty of daylight to kill and absolutely no idea what to do. So we got drunk. We bought some cheap sojuat one of the tiny markets in town then wandered around the 6-block expanse of Haeinsa’s town center. I can see why the town itself is not highlighted in the guidebooks- it is small, though charming, and full of restaurants, hotels, and souvenir shops, most of which were shuttered (maybe because we visited on a weekday?). But the location was lovely and we had a great little hotel room that was decorated like somebody’s guest room with non-matching linens, a mini-fridge and a hand-me-down TV that got about 8 channels. It was cozy and the hillside view and tons of light was a fantastic change from the cell-block style rooms that are typical of budget lodgings.
The best part of the stay, though, was the food. We chose a restaurant completely at random and ordered bulgogi, a typical marinated beef dish. We sat across from each other making semi-erotic noises while our mouths were full of partially chewed meat. We immediately pegged it as one of the best meals on our trip, but figured that we’d have to go back for a second round a little less tipsy this time. The following afternoon, we went back to the same place and the husband-and-wife owners welcomed us with lots of smiles and Korean that we didn’t understand. We pointed to something that appeared to be a set menu and were almost uncomfortable with the amount of food that came out. Unidentifiable (but delicious) vegetables and leaves were set out in individual dishes. The banchan (small dishes like kimchithat are brought out complimentary, much in the way that bread is often served in American restaurants) included an entire fried fish! There was so much food that it was hard to pick out the main dish, not that it mattered. We ate so well that R cornered the wife in the kitchen and asked for recipes and photos- both requests were denied, although we took a couple pictures outside the restaurant. In a country known for it’s culinary heritage, we still agree that our meals at this random restaurant in Haeinsa was possibly the best meal we had in Korea and maybe one of the best meals of the whole trip.
But I can’t finish this post without mentioning the Haeinsa temple, which brought us to this culinary wonderland in the first place. The temple, built in 802AD, houses the Tripitaka Koreana, a collection of Buddhist scriptures carved onto over 80,000 wooden tablets, estimated to have been made between 1236-1251AD. Not only is the temple famous for its valuable library and ingenious preservation technique, but it is one of the most beautiful temples in a country full of beautiful temples. After temple overload in Myanmar, we were curious, but not chomping at the bit to see Korea’s version. They are certainly idyllic- calling to mind those cloud-shrouded mountain vistas painted on free-giveaway calendars at Chinese restaurants. The style of the architecture is very different from what we had seen in Myanmar and Malaysia (where there is a population of Chinese Buddhists), but just as serene and exotic looking. We visited a handful of other temples during our stay in Korea, but this one was our favorite, although that could have just been the beef talking.
In the interest of speeding things along, I won’t go through each and every stop bus ride, stop-over city, and fantastic meal that we had in Korea. Early on in our trip, we got our hands on a copy of Lonely Planet’s Korea guide. Using a technique that we had perfected in previous countries, R took a photo of each page of the book (a much quicker process than it sounds with yours truly flipping pages), then converted them all to jpegs, which he then loaded on his iPod touch and, voilà!, we had our own digital guidebook, which we followed to the letter
We didn’t try to get ‘off the beaten track’ in Korea because time was tight and we were actually very interested in the beaten track. That, along with language difficulties, kept us pretty much in line with the guidebook’s recommendations, but only in terms of which cities and sights we visited. Restaurants and hotels we found mostly on our own or through the advice of the handful of English-speaking locals that we met. South Korea is a pretty small country, all things considered, but we had to pick and choose among the highlights since there are enough national parks and quirky cultural spots to fill up more time than we had. We decided to skip Jeju Island (aka ‘Honeymoon Island’) because we felt that it warranted more time than we had. Ditto on several other island destinations recommended by our book- but that was more about cost of ferries and/or flights. What we ended up with was a tour of the east coast of the country, including highlights like Gyeongju, Samcheok, and the DMZ. We also visited two national parks, which exposed us not only to Korea’s natural beauty, but the cultural phenomenon of Hiking Grandmothers.
Our first two days in Korea were a total blur thanks to the trifecta of traveller’s stomach, jetlag, and too much soju. Eating well was a given from day one, even when my stomach was acting like it wasn’t going to be cool about it; I guess beef cures all ills. I had an interest in seeing more of Seoul, but R was chafing to get out of town after he recovered from his day of gloom and I figured that I could wait for our return to Seoul to get my big-city fix.
We left town on an express bus after a series of errors in figuring out where exactly we wanted to go (South? Because north is not really an option…) and how to get there. When we got that first part down and thought we had a handle on the second part, we were hit for the first time with the challenges of illiteracy. There are not a ton of English-speaking tourists in Korea; most Westerners are there for business or are living in Korea while working as English teachers. This means that there are not hordes of touts and English-language signs to direct backpackers like us in the right direction. While we met a handful of Koreans who spoke a little bit of English, none of them were there to help us find the bus station. We must have spent an hour circling the area where our map told us it would be, but we couldn’t find it for the life of us. We tried sounding out the name of the terminal in Korean to passersby, but they either looked at us in confusion or else responded with presumably detailed directions how to get there- in Korean. We finally found the station, which was literally behind our backs the whole time, but this experience was just the first taste of what it means to not be able to read, write, or speak in a totally foreign country: really frustrating!
The funny thing is that locals seemed surprised or even annoyed that we didn’t speak any Korean. I chalk that up to the fact that there are so few Western visitors who are purely tourists; I imagine that most Koreans we came across assumed that we were English teachers or in Korea in a business capacity. I can understand annoyance at a person who choses to live in Korea and diddn’t take time to learn some very basic questions and direction markers. We were really proud of ourselves for having learned how to sound out Korean letters, although that only allowed us to recognize place names and food items that we were already familiar with- but then again, we were just passing through. Due to a combination of an insular local culture, funny-looking letters, and reliance on habit, lots of Westerners we met in Korea didn’t speak any more Korean than we did, which is to say next to none. Those living in Seoul could get by well enough because there are enough English speakers and a lot of American restaurants and shops, so you could feel safe just pointing and knowing what you were getting. Outside of Seoul, though, they’d be stranded without a lifeboat. Koreans in smaller cities and in the countryside as a rule don’t speak English. Like at all- not even toilet, which we learned with some alarm.
Our way of coping with the language barrier, which was simply too great to overcome in 15 days, was to email all of our Korean-speaking friends in the US and ask them to translate a set of questions and comments for us. We then saved those phrases on an iPod touch and were able to flash them as needed. This only works if you don’t need to decipher the response, although when we asked for recipes, we asked for them in Korean, to be translated later. Time and time again on this trip, we have marveled at the advantages of technology. Our computer, iPod, e-readers, digital cameras, etc. were liabilities in a sense, but the benefit of having all these gadgets outweighed the risk of loss or theft. Maybe we’ll write a post about the most handy gadgets we carried and the surprising uses we got out of them.
Is there any more intimate way to greet a new country and it’s people than by barfing all over the place and in public? Ask R cause that’s how he said ‘Nice to meet you’ to Korea.
Maybe that’s not very fair- I should tell how he got this way:
We arrived in Seoul on the overnight AirAsia flight from KL. The plane was almost full, but we managed to snag a center row that had three empty seats so that we could take turns laying down and sleeping. At least that was the idea, but I kind of put the kibosh on that by hogging the lay-down space for the whole flight. I woke up at one point to see R scrunched a little hunchbacked and sideways in his seat, trying to get comfortable. I offered to let him lay down for a spell but, ever the gentleman, he declined and I, ever the self-preservationist, went right back to sleep. The fact is that I was battling a little bit of a stomach thing that I suspect I picked up on the last day of our stay in Myanmar. I didn’t eat much and was feeling nauseous all afternoon, so, in my defense, the sleep was therapeutic. All the same, it meant that I emerged from the flight feeling marginally better but still not 100% and R was 75% zombie.
We passed through immigration and made it onto the right bus, thanks to our friend and host in Seoul, Attila (you should remember him from our stay in Xela: he is the Hungarian who we met on our first day in town. He had also ridden his bike from Mexico to Guatemala and was living and learning Spanish in Xela. He ended up inviting us on one of our favorite bike rides of the whole trip to Lago Atitlan. For the following 5 weeks, we hung out with Attila and his multi-national crew- 5 weeks that, in many ways, formed the heart of this whole trip.). Attila left Central America about 6 months ago and found work in Korea after initially looking to settle down in Mexico. Lucky for us, he’s an engineer so he gave us fantastic directions to his place; even a pair of spaced-out, semi-poisoned tourists like us were able to navigate the all-Korean bus system and make our way to his front door.
We found Attila in scarcely better shape than we were in. You know how Koreans have a reputation for insatiable drinking and carousing? Totally true, especially businessmen. Poor Attila had been subject to a string of ‘work dinners’ that involved copious amounts of soju and getting up early the next day to go to work with the same people he karaoked with the night before. The two of us arrived, curdled, at his doorstep and (sorry for this Attila), he looked like one of us. Despite his delicate state, he managed to play host in an amazing way. We all went out to an unbelievable lunch of Korean barbecue and then went back to his place for us to nap and for him to get ready to go to a wedding that evening.
We roused from our nap around 9pm and were too useless to try to do anything besides brush our teeth and watch a movie. Around midnight, Attila came home just long enough to change his clothes and convince R to join him for the wedding ‘afterparty’ at some fancy-shmancy club. I begged off, pleading a legitimately sensitive stomach situation and lack of sleep. R, bless him, couldn’t let an opportunity like this pass him by: partying in Seoul with a Korean wedding party? That’s as authentic as it gets! I did have my regrets for sitting it out… until about 5am when the two boys came home and R started what would be a full day’s worth of writhing around on the mattress, unable to hold down even water.
R claims that he didn’t really have that much to drink- certainly not enough to warrant the kind of suffering that he went through the next day. The truth is, I have never seen him as ill as he was that day in the 10 years we’ve been together. While soju certainly played a roll in the misery, we think that we both probably picked up some kind of stomach bug in Myanmar and that, coupled with only a handful of hours of sleep over the preceding two nights, turned him into a puddle of a person for almost 24 hours. Through all of this, Attila was a prince and pretended that having a pair of adults camped out in his living room was absolutely no skin off his back- even when one of us kept puking in his recycling bucket.
We made up for lost time the next day. We put on our ‘tourist’ hats and hit the town in a way that only guidebook-toting Westerners in Asia can. We held up traffic in the subway stations (all the signs here are in Korean!) and spent time taking photos of shop windows and having confusing exchanges with old men in fedoras. We discovered some unexpectedly lovely areas in Seoul like the Cheonggyecheonstream, running right through the heart of downtown, and more than a few side-alleys filled with enough restaurants and shops to make our heads spin. We went to a few of the tourist districts and R stoically allowed me to run around like a puppy at a Little League game in Myeongdong, the shopping district (think Herald Square in NYC). We finally wound up the sightseeing and went in search of a cheap bite before admitting defeat and heading back to our crashpad shortly before midnight.
Don’t Let the Door Hit You On Your Way Out! – Yangon, Myanmar to Seoul, Korea (via Layover in KL, Malaysia)
So, we left Myanmar and had a 24-hour layover in Kuala Lumpur, which has become a sort of base-camp for us in our SEA travels. We had reservations at our favorite hotel, we had plans to get our fill of our favorite Malaysian food (and by that, I mean Chinese and Indian food), and we were headed to Korea the next day, which we were very, very excited about.
Things turned out to be more lackluster than we had envisioned: our dim sum breakfast was in name only, our highly anticipated lunch at Sri Ananda Bahwan was just gross (but the restaurant’s branch in Penang remains one of the best places that I have ever put food into my mouth, ever), and I began to feel the twinges of something foul in my stomach. To cap it all off, I had a run-in with some vendors in Chinatown who essentially took my money and ran. This culminated in a shoving match between my gallant hero, R, and a very angry Chinese man who thought that I should have less emotional attachment to my cash. We had to leave right on the heels of this incident to catch our flight and I have to say that, although I love Malaysia and have no particular beef with Kuala Lumpur, we couldn’t have been happier to be leaving just then.
We got to the airport nice and early, which was lucky since the security screening was the most stringent I think I have ever been through. The officer screening me took a look at my passport, noticed how many countries we had visited in the past year (12, for the record), and then asked how my ‘mission’ was going. I almost screamed in protest. R was kept for a while because the security guard who checked his documents did not believe that the person in the photo and the man standing before her were one and the same. R blamed the confusion on his hip Burt Reynolds-style mustache that he had been rocking since Nicaragua; I thought that perhaps it was the fact that the photo was taken before he was able to buy a beer. In any case, we made it on with minimal trouble and I immediately conked out for the overnight flight.
By the time we arrived in Seoul, I was a green-grey version of my usual sunny self. I can’t say whether it was our last meal in Yangon or the dredge that we were served for lunch in KL, although I had hardly touched the stuff, feeling sick even then. We headed to a friend’s house in the heart of Seoul, where we would be staying for an indeterminate number of days during our stay in Korea and terrified him by letting ourselves in with the key-code he had given us after he didn’t answer our knocks. Turned out he was still groggy from the ‘business dinner’ the night before, which included copious amounts of soju- a cultural quirk we would become very familiar with in the coming weeks. While our friend, Attila, and R toasted our reunion with a morning beer, it was all I could do to keep my eyes open and my stomach down. Lucky for me, after a coffee and a quick lunch, I got to roll out my sleeping mat and shut out the world on Attila’s kitchen floor. Welcome to Korea!
It has come to our attention that this blog is dragging on a bit. We set out to chronicle our ride for our family and friends and hoped that our experiences would also help touring cyclists with their own routes and planning, but we have reached a point where even our mothers are no longer faithfully reading (but you, Nick, you’re still hanging in there, right?). [EDIT: thanks to our other 4 readers (that includes you, Mom!) for making us feel like we shouldn't give up! Nick, you better step up your game if you want to be our #1 fan]. We want to see this thing through to finish the story of our trip and even document the aftermath: coming home, resettling, figuring out what comes next. Since we are already back Stateside in real life, but still somewhere on a bus in rural Asia according to this blog, we’re going to spare you the boring day-by-day details and just go to the highlights- and lowlights- of the remainder of our trip. We’ll be sure to supplement with lots of photos.
We finished where we started in Myanmar: after two and a half weeks we made it back to the White House Hostel in Yangon. This time the city wasn’t as overwhelming- it actually had quite a nice shine in comparison to Mandalay- but we gave ourselves permission to hang around the hotel instead of trying to squeeze in more sightseeing in the heat and grime. We did manage to rouse ourselves out of our room and over two blocks to the only Synagoguein the country. Apparently Yangon had been home to a healthy Sephardic Jewish community that emigrated from India during British colonial times. As the political situation strained, Jews began to leave and by the 1980s, there were fewer than 50 Jews left in the country. Rabbi Moses Samuels is the caretaker, having taken over from his father, and sees more Jewish (and other foreign) tourists nowadays than Burmese Jews (one current estimated count of Burmese Jews is less than 20). R turned to me and said that after months of visiting Buddhist temples and Muslim regions, this was the first time he felt totally comfortable walking into a religious area, knowing that he didn’t have to be afraid of failing to observe form.
To tell the truth, I was ready to leave the country days before our flight was scheduled to leave. There is a lot to love about Myanmar and it is truly unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been, but it is a hard place to be. There is a ton of poverty and the history of military oppression is mind-boggling. Infrastructure is inconsistent (roads, public transport, electricity) and the cultural divide- between an inscrutable language and a devout Buddhist population (oh, except for the Muslims, who are still marginalized and barred from citizenship)- it is a difficult place to for a foreigner to travel. A good portion of my eagerness to get a move on is definitely attributable to travel fatigue and I knew that with the next flight, our trip was officially winding down.
A Few Funny Things That Happened To Us In Myanmar:
- The T-shirt Phenomenon:
In the second week of our time in Myanmar, R bought a NLD (National League for Democracy) t-shirt featuring the likeness of two Burmese national heroes: Aung San and his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi. The shirt was both a souvenir of shifting times and an attempt to expand his meager wardrobe. It immediately went into his wardrobe rotation and we began to notice that every time he wore the shirt, we’d get honks, yells, thumbs-ups and even high-fives from basically everybody we saw. We knew that the Burmese people are going through major changes and that they are embracing a newfound sense of national pride, but it was kind of crazy to us that R, as a Westerner, would get so much props for rocking a t-shirt. He began to wear it more often than was suitable, considering the scarcity of washing machines, because every time he did, we ended up having great conversations and interactions with locals. The energy and pride was very reminiscent of young people in the US during Obama’s first campaign where a sticker or a t-shirt signaled a shared goal and camaraderie that I had never seen before aside from Ohio State fans.
-Money Ain’t A Thing. Oh, Wait, Yes It Is- It’s A Very Big Thing:
Any guidebook on Myanmar will have in big, bold, capital letters that you MUST HAVE US dollars in pristine condition. Message boards have subject listings like ‘How pristine is pristine?’ and ‘This is no joke: bring brand-new bills!’. The issue is that there are no ATMs for foreign banks in the whole country (thanks to long-standing sanctions against Myanmar’s military government) and US bills are the most desirable currency for exchange. You can exchange Thai bhat or Euros, but at a much lower rate and even these must be absolutely free of creases, smudges, tears, etc. These people don’t play around. For a pair of backpackers with limited space and a penchant for wadding up receipts, cash, and candy-wrappers in our pockets (we’re like children!), this presented something of a challenge. We did manage to make it through our two weeks with the aid of a paperback book and carefulness bordering on obsession in keeping our bills straight, but it makes you wonder how local businesspeople get along with this policy and how bills, which circulate through the country, stay in such great shape. On our return to the US, I felt a little wave a panic when the ATM machine spit out some well-loved $20 bills, but when I realized that I could spend freely, it made me love my country just a little bit more.
-Karaoke. Is. Everywhere:
But mostly on buses. With the exception of the most beat-down tin-cans on wheels, every long-distance bus that we took featured music videos with lyrics scrolling along the bottom. A personal favorite was Chan Chan, a Burmese model/singer who cribbed American tunes and paired them with fantastically bizarre videos (this one is definitely worth a watch) while passengers would sing along quietly or not-so-quietly to pass the time. We saw karaoke in the remote hillside village we hiked to outside of Hsipaw – note that this village had absolutely zero electricity except for the tiny array of Chinese-made solar panels, whose function I have deduced, is solely to provide weekly entertainment in the form of living-room karaoke with the extended family. I can totally get on board with a little bit of Whitesnake sing-a-long, but, due to the language barrier, I could only watch while everyone else had all the fun.
I’ll paraphrase our Lonely Planet guidebook’s entry on Burmese food: ‘For a country bordered by China, India, and Thailand, the food in Myanmar is shockingly awful’. No spice, no flavor, no fresh ingredients (this last complaint may be attributable to the dustbowl-like landscape in southern and central Myanmar). It is sadly surprising that despite an eternity spent sharing borders with the world’s culinary powerhouses, no element of good eating appears to have snuck through the bordered. Oh, yeah- and colonized by England? They didn’t have a prayer.
It sounds trite to talk about the weather, but our trip happened to fall smack dab in the middle of Myanmar’s hottest season. The insane heat was the biggest presence every single day of our trip and dictated how we toured the country. We always wanted to pay extra for air-conditioned buses, but rarely ever had the pleasure of a cool ride even when we paid for it. We never paid for air-con rooms because electricity was so spotty and hotel generators did power fans, but not the antique A/C units. We began to get up around 4am and nap during the afternoon- not by choice but because that’s when our bodies started to shut down from overheating. One of my most memorable ‘culinary’ experiences was finding the one lady who somehow, magically, had frozen water bottles for sale in Bagan. I mean blocks of ice in water bottle form that melted within moments of reaching my hot little hands. Mind you, we spent the better part of 14 months in the tropics, we’re not sissies, but the heat in Myanmar can’t be all that different than the heat on Mars.
One of the reasons we decided to go to Myanmar was because the country was ‘just opening up’. We wanted to get in before the Australian bar crawlers crept over the border from Thailand and before McDonalds could formulate the perfect Sparrow McNugget recipe. What we found was a country very much in the throes of shaking off its shackles and trying to figure out what comes next. Myanmar has problems and I didn’t know that half of them. In the past year, Myanmar has been in the international news in a big way with the democratic election of Aung San Suu Kyi and the lifting or easing of sanctions by many countries, including the US. Now, excuse my language, but let me just say that shit is still fucked up over there. There is ethnic violence, forced labor, extreme poverty, and did I mention how hot it is over there? What I’m trying to say is that the country is still working on a lot of very basic things like not violating human rights, holding democratic elections, and easing the extreme censorship that has permeated life for decades. In the past, activists have called for a boycott of tourism in Myanmar so as not to support an oppressive government. Now that the government has made some good-faith efforts to create a regime more palatable to the outside world, tourists are streaming in, but they still find themselves blocked from visiting huge swaths of the country. I am not trying to summarize what the problems are in this country or how to fix them, but Myanmar is going through a type of revolution and we had no idea what we were getting into. The history of the country is so complex and full of hardship (British colonization, Japanese occupation, a military coup or two, ongoing efforts to bring the country up to modern standards of sanitation, education, and technology, and the list goes on), that some messiness is inevitable. My ignorance about the country and its history is my own fault and it was only after we arrived that I understood how much that history continues to affect the present.
I can’t believe that in all my smack-talk about the bus situation here in Myanmar, I have neglected to mention one of the most common occurrences of all: the barf phenomenon. I was a little worried the first time we boarded an overnight bus and were each handed a small, clear plastic bag. I had read that the roads in Myanmar were rough to say the least, but I had also read that the road we were taking out of Yangon was newly completed and we had sprung for the nicer air-con bus. Within minutes of pulling out of the bus station, people started puking. It was like that scene in the movie Stand By Me, you know, the one where the fat kid starts puking and everyone around him starts puking just from watching him puke. Like it was staged or something.
Time after time we watched the same scenario unfold: within minutes of the start of the ride, everybody was puking. Little kids, their mothers, couples, middle aged men, everyone. Except for tourists. I never once saw a tourist get sick on a bus ride in this country which is either a testament to the hardiness of the kind of travelers who make it to Myanmar or highlights a glaring lack of conditioning of the Burmese people. I thought that maybe it is because Burmese people aren’t used to long bus rides, but it happens within minutes of the ride, even on flat roads, and I’ve seen what I feel like is a pretty good cross section of people in different types of buses, going to different types of destinations and they all just can’t hold on to their lunches.
The fact that every bus is distributing barf bags by the fistful suggests that everybody knows what to expect. Which leads me to wonder why people insist on boarding a bus so poorly prepared; it is possible that motion sickness medications are tough to come by out here, but there have got to be better ways. Perhaps skipping breakfast is in order when you know you are about to get on a long distance bus ride. Families come laden with tins full of food and don’t hesitate to lean out the window and buy whatever snacks might be on offer: sliced fruit, fried samosas, chicken feet skewers, you name it. These same queasy passengers also never pass up a lunch stop no matter that they know that they will be parting ways with their meals before it is even digested. It is so egregious that I felt nearly compelled to start pulling people out of line at the lunch counter and figure out a way to communicate that pre-cooked fish curry is probably not the best choice for the next leg of the trip, particularly if that passenger is sitting in my immediate vicinity.
On overnight bus rides, you’d figure that getting people to sleep as quickly as possible might also deflect some of the heaving, but bus drivers instead choose load music videos played at rock-concert frequencies with the lights turned all the way up. And then they stop for snack breaks every hour or so.
We have had moments of queasiness on particularly bad roads that we just grit and bear but we just don’t understand how the barf phenomenon can continue untreated. We are usually able to put on our headphones or take a nap or just keep our heads buried in our books, but every now and then we are seated next to particularly dramatic pukers. This was what happened today on our bus ride from the beach back to Yangon. By all appearances, we were traveling with a big group of middle class Burmese who had just taken a little weekend getaway. These were not poor people, unaccustomed to travel, but people who came prepared with distractions like handheld video games and comforts like throw blankets and fluffy pillows. But they were all sick, all around us from the first bend in the road. It appears to be pretty debilitating; I watched a mother with four young kids as she retched her guts out while her children stroked her back and then slid down to the floor of the bus where she rested her head on the seat for the rest of the ride. Yet she still insisted on packing in a full meal at the lunch break and made sure to grab a few extra barf bags from the attendant when she re-boarded.
I am sympathetic- anybody who has had an experiences with motion sickness can understand how miserable it feels, but I think something has gone wrong here. Maybe just a little more mental fortitude is in order to show these people that the buses are not the masters of the human body. We may be bent and shoved and pushed and folded into overcrowded buses in unthinkable configurations, but he one thing we can do is hold onto our cookies. I have been on buses all over the world, on hairpin turns on mountain passes in Guatemala, on a 40-hoir odyssey across the Pampas of Argentina, stuffed in with live animals and people who smell like them in Indonesia, but I have never seen a group of people so poorly suited to riding in a moving vehicle in my whole life.
Change is coming to Myanmar and nobody knows what things will look like in 5, 10, 20 years. I, for one, hope that the image of the country in the future does not include a puke-laden bag being tossed out an open bus window at 60km- because that’s just gross.
We were 0 for 7 in terms of bus rides in Myanmar. They were either too pricey (for what they were), too hot, too rickety, too crowded, or a combination of the above. We finally got our comeuppance in the bus ride from Bagan to Yangon, an 11-hour ride in a state of the art (by Burmese standards) bus with reclining seats, functional AC and a flat-screen TV played at a reasonable volume. Overnight bus rides are never comfortable exactly, but this was as good as we could have hoped for and brought us into the main terminal in Yangon a couple hours early (as is normal) at about 4:30am. We had 4 days left in Myanmar and had seen all of the sights we had planned to see in the north at a quicker pace than we had anticipated, so we found ourselves with some extra days to fill up anywhere but Yangon.
Yangon is hot and harried enough to warrant only minimal time as you enter and exit the country. We had planned on spending one full day on our way out of Myanmar to see the famous pagoda and fit in some souvenir shopping, but we were not up for stretching that to 4 days. Instead, we jumped directly into a taxi at the bus terminal and paid an extortionate rate for a shared taxi to another, smaller terminal about 45 minutes away where our guidebook told us we could catch a 6am bus to Ngwe Saung, a ‘white sand’ beach popular with Western tourists who couldn’t make it all the way to Ngapoli in the north. We were herded out of our taxi and to the bus stands where we were told that there were no direct buses to Ngwe Suang, but that we could go to the less beautiful Chaung Tha beach instead or else catch a connecting bus from Pathein to our intended destination. I was firmly set on lazing away our last days in the country at a nice beach and kind of looking forward to some Western comforts so I insisted that we stick to out original plan and take the connecting bus to Ngwe Saung.
We bought our tickets to Pathein, which were overpriced as usual, then stopped for a quick breakfast before being put on a non-AC, but otherwise comfortable bus to Pathein. Or so we thought. According to our guidebook, Pathein is about 4 hours from Yangon and we had not ridden a bus yet that arrived late- most buses actually arrived up to two hours ahead of time! I started to wonder what was going on at the 5-hour mark, but with no Burmese language skills we simply sat and waited for our arrival. That’s when we saw the sign saying ‘Welcome to Chaung Tha Beach!’ and a local tout came on to direct us to his Western-friendly resort. I was greatly disappointed to find myself at the beach that the Lonely Planet describes as having a ‘muddy delta’ appearance at low tide. R wasn’t bothered at all and even said that he was glad to be at a beach where locals came as opposed to a resort-driven beach with no local color. On the bright side, it turns out that our 6000 kyat bus fare was actually a fair price for going all the way to the coast.
We were a bit at loose ends, not knowing where to stay, since we weren’t planning on coming here, and me wondering how hard it would be to get to Ngwe Saung (a 2-hour, $20 motorbike ride each). We were too tired after 18 hours on buses to put up much resistance, so we followed the tout off the bus and took a room for $25 (the most money we have spent before and since New Zealand on accommodation) with no hot water, power only for half the day, and views of the non-white sand beach.
After a couple hours of pouting, a couple of beers, and a nap I finally came around to a better attitude about the place. By all accounts, Ngwe Saung was much pricier than Chaung Tha and the fact is that relaxing near a beach- even just hearing the waves and getting a bit of that ocean breeze- was all we really wanted. Our only planned activities were reading, blogging, and sleeping in past sunrise. Besides, by the next morning there was so much rain that even Ngwe Saung may have been given to a bit of the muddy delta look. It was a kind of poetic end to our travels in Myanmar: completely unexpected, inconstantly priced, a little aggravating, but ultimately satisfying and enjoyable.
Something happened over the last few days that has changed my attitude towards Myanmar. We decided to come here (instead of the beachy Philippines or jungly Borneo) after every single traveler we met who had been here told us that Myanmar was amazing, their favorite country. We were further compelled by political changes happening right now and figured ‘if not now, then when?’ As evidenced by my complain-y blogs about the weather and state of transportation, you can tell that we didn’t drink the same kool-aid as everyone else. Until now.
True, it is hotter than hell here and transport is designed for maximum discomfort, but there is magic here and we have found it. Our trips to Inle, Hsipaw, and Bagan have been increasingly spectacular and we have also discovered, more and more in each place we stop, of the famous Myanmar hospitality. When we asked people what their favorite places in Myanmar were or why they liked it here so much, we were often told ‘it’s the people’. Which sounded kind of weak to me. We are travelers, we like meeting locals, but we aren’t flying around the world just to be smiled at a lot (the language barrier often limits interaction to buying souvenirs, buying food, or responding to children who wave and yell ‘Bye!’). A couple things have happened to change my mind about that, though; our visit to the village outside of Hsipaw , where we were welcomed warmly by the locals, the phenomenon caused by R’s new NLD t-shirt, which is the source of unlimited thumbs up and smiles, and the wonderful family we met in Bagan.
Khin Mg Oo is an ex-school teacher who opened up an unassuming restaurant along the Old Bagan-New Bagan road. We stopped in because it was the only game in town. We went back the next day because the family who runs the place was so friendly and encouraging and the food was really good at a decent price. On our first visit, we stopped for a quick lunch but were brought out extra dishes, chatted with the owner at length about his country, our country and learning English, then on the way out I was presented with a laquerware bangle and R was given a handcrafted bottle opener. We were also invited back for lunch the next day. The exact invitation went ‘My wife would like to invite you to come for lunch tomorrow.’ We spent the next morning trying to decode this: was it a general suggestion, ‘Hey, stop by for lunch tomorrow, too!’ or an invitation to something more personal? We were happy enough with the food and charmed enough with the family that we did go back the next day for lunch. When we arrived, there was another American couple finishing their lunch, who, we assume, had gotten the same invitation. But they just got an extra salad and some juice; we had the red carpet rolled out for us.
Before we even sat down, there was a cold beer and two glasses on the table (how did they know??). Following shortly were about 6 dishes of salad, vegetables, fish and chicken, bottles of cold water as fast as we could drink them (fast!) and fried bananas for dessert. It was obscene. We ate, chatted with the Americans- who were very cool- and chatted with the family, mostly with their teenage son translating. R got some recipes and took some photos that we promised to print up and send once we get back home. We were there for almost 2 hours and only got up to leave when we realized that we were cutting it close for time to catch our evening bus. The temples of Bagan are spectacular, but the thing that made the most lasting impression of our stay was they people we met.
We had been warned about temple fatigue early in our trip: Bagan, arguably Myanmar’s #1 attraction, is all temples, all the time and we wouldn’t want to burn out before we got there. I am intimately aware of the phenomenon, as is likely anybody who has tried to see all the churches in Italy or all the Mayan ruins in Guatemala. We did see a fair number of pagodas in Bago, Inle, at the Golden Rock, and a whole slew of them around Mandalay, but it all pales in comparison to Bagan.
Our guidebook describes Bagan as a ‘Manhattan of pagodas’, which is funny and about as good a description as any. Not so densely packed-in as the New York skyline, but just as striking, at least. Plains surround the villages of Nyuang U (where all the backpackers stay) and ‘Old Bagan’ and they are absolutely surrounded by old temples and pagodas. The tourist map that we got from our hotel points out the biggest and most famous temples and the rest are just indicated by tiny red dots, making our map look like it’s going through puberty. The vastness of it is indescribable, as is the heat. Our guidebook recommends avoiding the area in March through May and even in the ‘cooler’ seasons, scheduling sightseeing at dawn and dusk with long siestas in between. Since we arrived right in the middle of May, we have been doomed to sweating for our good time. Waking up at dawn is insufficient to avoid the heat; we went through two liters of water each before 8am. The mid-day reprieve of shutting ourselves in our room with the AC going is frequently interrupted by power outages and our midday showers are acts of futility within moments of stepping out the door again in the afternoon. But it is all worth it. I have never seen such a vista, with heat-and-smog haze only amplifying the romance of the place. You can climb up the biggest pagodas and see a sea of little pagodas poking up through the scrubby trees. There is a quality of timelessness that is broken only when child-vendors swarm you with offers or postcards, guidebooks, t-shirts and all the rest.
Even the base-town where all the cheap hotels are, Nyuang U, has a lazy charm. All the restaurants serve more or less the same hybrid-menus of Chinese, Western (read: banana pancakes), and Burmese dishes, but they have put up fairy lights instead of florescent bulbs and have nice touches like wooden tables (no child-sized plastic stools) and no dysentery. Around town there are the standard pitches for tour guides, t-shirts and taxi rides, but it’s just too hot for anyone to get too worked up about anything. True, it is not the best depiction of the ‘real Myanmar’; it is much more comfortable and clean. But, I’ve still got my flea-bites to remind me of the time we spent in a ‘real’ Myanmar village and I’ll take Bagan over that any day.