Southeast Asia 2013
We left Sicily in January 2013 and flew to southeast Asia first arriving in Thailand, and then took regional flights to Myanmar, to Cambodia, to Laos, and then to Vietnam. From Vietnam we flew to Canada and then to The Netherlands visiting family, returning to Big Sky in Sicily, making our two months away a complete round-the-world trip.
January 21, 2013 -- Following 24 hours (nearly to the minute) from locking Big Sky, in southern Sicily, we unlocked the door to our beautiful 700-square-foot-hotel room (not kidding!) in Thailand’s capital, Bangkok. The Kingdom of Thailand formerly known as Siam has the longest reining monarchy, since 1946. A beautiful breakfast was included in our hotel stay, along with a complimentary spa treatment which I booked for later that afternoon, as well, a one-hour foot massage for the next day.
At 9 am we teased our taste buds with their delicious breakfast, personally I indulged in the to-die-for teriyaki salmon. From our breakfast table, we could see a heavy overcast morning, believing it was a mixture of smog and heavy air. It was. The sun burned through and we walked out into a thick-aired heat.
It’s an odd twist, but it seems MEN are served and regarded first here. The men at our hotel doors open the door when Con approaches and then ushers him in first. He is offered the first seat in a restaurant, and at the hotel reception, and is given the first cappuccino when two arrive at the table.
Walking to the public transit we climbed aboard the boats and buses, visiting: the Wat Arun; the Temple of Dawn, a Buddhist Temple on the River Chao Phraya, and for the rest, we let the public boat transit take us far down the river and back. The temple was once on the palace grounds, but the palace was relocated across the river and we’ll visit there tomorrow.
NEVER TOUCH A MONK! “If you are female and want to give them alms or food, you must set the offering nearby or on their receiving cloth. If you so much as brush against a monk on the crowded streets or water taxis of Thailand, they will have to return to the temple and perform rituals to cleanse themselves of your touch.”
I touched a monk today! I tried to give him a wide berth on the water taxi but HE brushed up against my arm while squeezing off the crowded boat-bus. I pretended it didn’t happen.
January 24 – The hotel doors were opened for Con to exit (I followed behind) and we made our way on foot to the sky train, then onto the public boat transportation getting off at the Royal Palace. Walking toward the entrance gate, a uniformed police man with "Tourist Assistant" on his shirt stopped us in the street and pointed to the palace, “It’s not open until 3:30 pm, because they’re having lunch.” Lunch! That surprised us. A big tourist attraction like the Royal Palace would close for lunch, but there are stranger things in the world. He continued, "You should go to the Golden Buddha and then the Royal Thax. It’s open ONLY today. This is your lucky day. Here,” he hailed a Tuk Tuk (motor bike dragging a carriage) "only 20 Baht (a few bucks) this man will take you."
We got in and told the driver, "Okay, ONLY the Golden Buddha, not the other.”
The driver crossed the busy road, stopped, looked us up and down, and didn’t want to take the SCAM any further and said, “Get out; no charge.” The “Tourist Assistant” was a fake. Walking a little further we saw the sign, “Don't let anyone stop you or tell you the palace is not open..."
The palace was jam packed and in anticipation, I brought a head scarf. That wasn’t enough cover. I had to rent the blue shirt to cover up.
The palace houses, established in 1782 houses the royal family and is the home of the Emerald Buddha, a protected image in the Kingdom of Thailand. The grounds are made up of many smaller buildings and museums.
Falling exhausted into bed, we were up early for our flight to Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
January 27 – Myanmar had a military coup in 1962 when the country was swept from the Brits and then it was ruled by a military dictatorship. In 2011, the dictatorship ended, but the government was still made up of the same military party members. Beloved Aung San Suu Kyi was elected in 1990 while under house arrest and remained under house arrest for 15 of 21 years from 1989 to 2010 while the military still controlled the country. Her father was the general who freed Burma from the British but was later murdered during the military coup. Myanmar has seen the longest running civil war with so many ethnic groups within the country, but now the country was opening for tourism. Con booked us with an agent who arranged the tour and guides to take us around the country, since travel on our own was nearly impossible. ATMs are virtually non-existent, and credit cards aren’t used. The agency told us to deposit money into an account in Thailand and come with crispy US bills. I spent an afternoon aboard ironing our cash before we left. (I really did!)
Following a lengthy hot entry into the country at the Yangon International Airport airport, as anticipated, our visa's were waiting for us -- a complicated process, nevertheless, we picked up our suitcases, exchanged 190 USD for 160,000 kyats and met a man holding a sign “Sprenger” greeted us, “Ming ha la ba” (Hello). He was dressed, as all men in the traditional long skirt (longhi) wrapped and tied in front. The women wear the same skirt but tied on the side with a flap over.
He introduced himself as "One" and let us to our comfortable van chauffeured by “Ten” we headed into the city to check into to our hotel called “My Hotel.”
We studied the guidelines for what to do and not to do before coming to Myanmar (I listed some of them below). Specifically, we wanted to know how to greet people, and you don’t touch them. Never kiss cheeks. Obama greeted Aung Sang Suu Kyi by shaming her (but more himself) by kissing her cheeks. The appropriate greeting is a gentle yoga-styled hands together and a slight bow.
On our way through Yangon (formerly called Rangoon) toward our hotel, we asked to see "The Lady's residence, Aung Sang Suu Kyi's house. She is the elected leader of the Democratic Party holding 45 seats and the Military Governemnt holds 455 or so. Our driver stopped across the street and we snapped a few photographs. A photo of her father sits above the driveway entrance. The lake-front location where she was held under house arrest is beautiful.
As in most Asian cities traffic is chaotic, noisy and smelly. Luckily motor scooters are not allowed in downtown Yangon, so it is not quite as bad as it could have been. In Myanmar traffic keeps to the right, but strangely the steering wheels in most cars are also on the right hand side. Apparently they come from Japan. A small car runs around 20,000 USD, which is half of what it used to be a few years ago. That seems pretty reasonable, however, One’s girl friend makes 130 USD per month (in kyats), working six days a week from 8 am to 8 pm. She graduated with a Physics degree and a oneyear course as a dental assistant which she is doing now. Her only day off is Tuesdays. Gasoline or diesel runs around 3800 kyats, about 4.50 USD, an astronomical price. A modest apartment rents for 200 USD a month (in kyats), so needless to say many family member share accommodation.
One and Ten waited while we checked into our hotel. Opening our window curtains our eyes traveled over the city’s central park, the Kandawgyi Lake, to the Shwedagon Pagoda on a hill raising it up to higher glory. It’s also known as the Great Dragon Pagoda. It’s gold stupa glittered under the hot sun. A “stupa” is a cone-shaped shrine for Buddhists. The Great Dragon Pagoda was built 2,600 years ago making it the oldest Buddhist pagoda in the world and allegedly houses relics from four previous Buddhas and makes it the most sacred of all Buddhist pagodas. A 76-karat diamond is mounted at the top and standing in the right place at sunset you can see the colours change. We did just that later that night.
Dressed in a long dress, with open arms (acceptable) we slipped into the comfy air conditioned backseat of the full-windowed van and drove through the park to the Great Dragon Pagoda. And then the reclining Buddha, 70 meters long and 10 meters high.One told us, "Everyone must know the day of the week they are born, and match it to the animal." It's most important when looking for a life partner to pick one that's compatible with yours. If not, you can make monthly financial contribution to the church of around 5,000 kyat’s, about 6 USD and everything should be okay. Luckily Barb was born on a Sunday, making her a bat (coincidentally the one animal she fears the most) and I am born on a Wednesday, morning that is; Wednesday is split into morning and afternoon to get to 8 creatures in a 7-day week. That makes me an elephant, and as luck might have it compatible with the Sunday bat.
Myanmar is a country steeped in tradition and slow to modernize, which makes it all the more tantalizing. Surrounding the pagoda were fortune tellers, ancient book sellers (perhaps left over from the British colonization of the country), fruit and vegetable stands artistically displayed, coal heated ovens cooking various unknown products for sale. Walking through the market was a walk back in time. For instance, a man sat cross-legged offering to type a letter for you on an old fashion typewriter. The food variety is mind boggling. I purchased some mini pancakes and a cob of corn, both very tasteful. A stray dog was playing with a dead rat; flies were all over the raw chicken; food was cooking; and business seemed pretty brisk. Men and women are gracious and easy to smile, greeting us (some with their red-toothed smiles) and eager to see our reaction to their wares. They chew the betel leaves, it’s a green leaf sold just about everywhere in the outdoor stands. The vine is an addictive mild stimulant putting the chewer into a euphoric state with bad-news side effects. It wrecks your teeth for one. People who chew (and there are a lot) when young have a mouth-full of red teeth, but before they’re too old, there are no teeth left. All over the roads and sidewalks are puddles of the red stuff where they spit. The Burmese grind up the root of the Thanaka tree making it into a fine yellow-white powder, adding a bit of water turns it into a paste which both men and women (mostly women and girls) put in round circles on their cheeks, but also across their forehead, down their nose and on their chins. The belief is that there is goodness in “white” skin and the paste keeps the sun off the painted part of the skin; it’s tradition and fashion.
Back at our van, a station wagon pulled up bursting with little boys in monk outfits. They’re called, “Novices” pre-monks. Nearly every boy in Myanmar will do time as a Novice. One of the benefits is that they will have food. The country claims nearly half a million people are monks. Buddhists make up 90 percent of the population.
On our own for the night, we walked along the pitch-black street where the sidewalks are extremely hazardous. I nearly stepped into a knee-deep hole, but instead stubbed my toe on a medal peg. The restaurant was good. We ordered water cress with mushrooms, curry chicken, fried noodles, and spring rolls for 13,200 kyats, about 15 USD.
We were driven to Bago, 190-kilometers stopping at a monastery housing more than a thousand monks where the attraction was watching them file into the dining hall one by one to eat. Luckily there were other attraction; a new floor was being constructed and women were carrying the cement in shallow dishes on their head from the cement mixer to the job site with a posture that would make a catwalk model jealous. For a 10-hour day, the going rate for carrying cement on your head is 2200 kyats, about 2.75 USD. The cement mixer, the only mechanized apparatus was powered by a small gasoline engine requiring cooling water every ten minutes.
At the back of the monastery children were playing and making blowing gestures to me. We learned people bring them balloons and they were bitterly disappointed in us. I tried to placate them with bandages which they tried to put on, but they were too dirty and of course they didn't stick. A bit later, a boy was brought to me with a real wound, but I didn't have any more bandages.
January 30 -- Myanmar a beautiful country – but it’s a jungle out there
Myanmar, a country filled with intrigue, beautiful people inside and out, but it’s a jungle out there. If the cultivated landscape isn't watched closely, the jungle takes over.
For a closer up view of the countryside and the way the people live, we opted to travel north from Yangon to Mandalay by train, hoping to get a richer view into the countryside, crops, and the way of life. There are a few tips for foreigners if traveling to Myanmar:
· Don’t touch a monk
· Don’t touch a person’s head
· Don’t show the bottom of your feet
· Don’t use your left hand to eat (that’s for bathroom duty)
· Accept and give items using two hands; your right extends the gift; your left holds your right elbow
· Don’t ride on the trains – they’re slow, incredibly bumpy, dusty, and down-right uncomfortable.
We opted to travel by train! Our guides looked at us oddly, when we said, “Train” but their wish was our command. They drove us to the station. “Will we have a private cabin?” Con asked.
With a half-smile and full apology, our guide (who would not be going with us) laughed apologetically, “No,” followed by more nervous laughter. Not learning much ahead of time about the trains, and if the air conditioning would be cold, I packed a sweater.
We woke at 4:20 am to catch the 6:00 am train. “One,” our guide and “Ten” our driver were at the hotel early, and consequently, we arrived at the train station 50 minutes early. Being there well in advance gave us a better idea of what our day might look like. I looked through the iron fence seeing what looked like a tin shed, which was the train car, apparently built in the 30s.
Locals were gathering. The people are beautiful, slim, standing proudly tall in their longhis, some holding a sack of goods, others with a sack balanced on their heads. One (our guide) turned to me asking tentatively, “Why are you taking the train?”
“Con likes trains.”
“Oh,” he remained quiet for a moment adding, “many many tourists do NOT take train.”
Twenty minutes to departure, two porters made a bee-line to us, one taking the large suitcase and the other carrying our hand luggage. We waved to One and Ten and climbed aboard. At first I thought there had been a mistake, because we’d purchased not “regular” or “first” but “superior” class for a cost of $20 more ($10 each). The porter swung our heavy bag up into the flimsy overhead rack. I continuing surveying the filth, and seeing our seat number sat in what resembled a chair. They were chair-shapes bolted to the floor covered in green-brown blankets. It might have been green, but brown with dust and dirt.
Putting the good ‘ol girl face on, I sat but it was impossible to remain upright because the seat tilted forward. I tried the other chair, and it was the leaning Tower of Pisa. Con watching it all decided he should speak with someone and left the train to negotiate something better. Returning moments before the train’s departure, he said, “Great improvement! We’ve been granted the two seats here,” motioning the seat in front. They were facing forward, so that was a tremendous improvement. I switched seats, my right cheek sucking deep to the right, flipped up my broken arm rest attempting to center my body, but it fell limp like a broken arm would. Well, not bad, leaning back, the upright portion stayed upright. Con sat in his, it leaned the other way. I shoved my sweater into the seat and relaxed into the chair. Whipping out a wet one, I made a swipe over Con’s arm rest, and ignoring the dirt and grease stains. Well prepared, I whipped out a wet one to wash Con's arm rests, and with one wipe, it was black. We burst out laughing.
The whistle blew and the train chugged and clanked loudly, forcing us to jolt forward and back, and we were off. It chugged some more, rocked, then began bouncing, and then rocked so fiercely back and forth, I thought it would topple over and off the tracks! But then it started to gallop, and continued much like a pogo stick. Con and I bounced so high that my crossed leg was swinging. I uncrossed it.
The floor was as filthy as the windows, of course, because they don’t close, neither do the car doors; they bang with a semi steady bang-beat filling my head with dozens of songs. I moved into the broken seat for a moment to get a better view and bent down to see where the cigar had rolled from the window ledge near my feet and at that moment, our heavy suitcase lifted up with a bounce and down hard on my back leaving a nasty bruised rib and pulling the muscles across my back!
Con lifted it off. I squeezed back tears of pain, but they made trickled down my cheeks leaving a track of dirt. When watching eyes lifted, I used the back of my fingers to wipe the dirty tears from the bottom of my chin. Stiffness began to close in on my muscles and thankfully, I had IB Proven and swallowed them for the next 16 hours easing the pain.
The train continued its forward momentum chugging, rolling, leaping, and sometimes pounding down incredibly hard on the tracks. It was the Impossible Train. The cars rail gage are nearer to the centre than the outside which is cause for the dramatic movement. I brought reading material, but it was nearly impossible to read from the bouncing. Taking out my laptop would have been laptop suicide. Talking was also impossible because you cannot be heard from the noise. I gazed out the window, and in retrospect, that was the most wonderful part. We observed “people and oxen” powering everything. Nothing is automated. A tractor would be out of touch for these people because the price of fuel is $4.50 CND a litre. The soil is sandy and fertile, and when the monsoons arrive, the low lands are covered in water.
Monsoons happen two times in the rain season, at the beginning of the season and at the end. There are three seasons: winter; summer; and monsoon. We’re visiting during the winter when it’s the coolest and the temperatures are a sweaty 32 C each day.
Jungle separates property lines, and rice is the common plant cultivated. Family’s live in palm-leaf roofed and bamboo houses on stilts. In some areas, the houses are dismantled during the monsoon and the families relocate, returning after the monsoon. People live along the train tracks and use the tree tops as their roofs. Young and old squatted around campfires near the tracks. The smell of burning jungle wafted into the train from time to time. With our top speed about 50 KPH, I leaned my arms against the window, and my arm hair singed from the campfires.
The train slowed down for each town and sometimes stopped for a short while. Vendors by the dozens jumped on whether the train was moving or not. They carry goods for sale: meals, drinks, and tobacco and are fantastically organized and incredibly talented. Con and I could barely walk having to crouch and hold on to whatever was in front of us to move in the car. The vendors keep their head and shoulders steady balancing their wares on top of their heads on large flat trays and use their hands to receive and make change. They step up on chairs to get around debris in the aisles and move with the rhythm of the train. I leaned over to observe a beautiful tall, slender (but they all are) and elegant woman gracefully execute the aisle. Her longhi doesn’t interfere with her graceful moves as she climbs up and over chairs sometimes with people in them and her sliced watermelon remaining upright in her large tray balancing on her head.
Trays of samosas, watermelon, oranges, beans, pitas, water, beer... enter, the vendor does a sing-song call walking through the cars and when the train begins to pick up more speed, they jump off! Not one person tripped or spilled anything and there were delicate dishes with sauces and liquid. It’s the Impossible People on the Impossible Train! The whole thing reminded me of The Cat in The Hat book when the cat visited “Sally and me” unannounced and balanced one foot on a ball with a chair, and a rake and at the end of a rake was a fish in a bowl… “So we sat there us two and didn’t know what to do. Oh, our mother would not like it, not one little bit.”
Our cabin had a few military men with at least three stars on their uniforms. They must have qualified to travel in superior class, and slept for twelve hours! The rest of the soldiers traveled in cars behind and seemed to be tumbled all over each other. We wondered if the soldiers were going to the north eastern area where unrest was going on with one of the tribes, specifically, the tribe where the women wear rings around their necks, stretching them into disability. The car filled up by two in the afternoon, and those who weren't sleeping were staring at us. If they noticed that I saw them staring, they’d smile and keep staring. By about 2 pm, the flies boarded and the temperature rose. Sweat dripped from my forehead and nose.
I put it off as long as I could, but I now had to use the bathroom. I walked like a drunk down the aisle, opened the flimsy warped wooden door and stepped onto the soggy wooden floor that felt like a forest of wet pine needles, and stepped into a challenge. I pulled the door closed and slipped the rusty latch into the hole – barely. (Con latched the toilet door but it unlatched while he was peeing and the door opened.) Even though the door is closed, the warping leaves big gaps. I could see the young people sitting at the open train car doors while squatting. The toilet is a hole in the floor with a unique view of Myanmar. Wishing to touch just the bare minimum while balancing with the train’s bouncing, I turned to position myself and stepped on the handle of the water pot spilling it over my legs and in my shoes. I hoisted up my dress, squatted, and bounced through the whole procedure managing to complete the task rather professionally.
We’d brought a lunch, having purchased it in Yangon -- bananas, crackers, water… Recycling has been introduced to Myanmar, but it’s a slow behavioural change and we watched people throw whatever and everything out the window. We had a big bag of garbage and wondered where it should go. The cabin man offered to take it, "Chezooba," I said, and watched him shove it down a hole -- a hole like the toilet hole and then came back for a tip.
Dust engulfed everything we'd brought aboard, and it smelled curiously of incense. Pondering the Incredible Train and the Incredible People, a bird’s light-weight feather blew in the window and landed on my arm. I blew it away casually as if that happens all the time. At that point, I’d say I had adjusting to life aboard the Myanmar Train.
An adorable child, about two, but likely four since the people are much older than they appear had a smile that would melt your heart. “Minghalaba,” I said and her smile filled her face.
“Hello,” she blew me a kiss. I blew one back at her. She blew another. I blew one back. This went on for a while. About an hour – or three – later (time moved but the sense of it was lost) I turned around again, “Hi madam,” she said in her sweet little voice and reached out handing me 1000 Kat (about $1.25 CND). I took it and said, “Chezooba” and then tried to return it, but the game changed and she wouldn't take it back. Eventually I tucked it under her leg. Her mother was beautiful, smiling whenever I turn. I think she wanted to talk, but it was too hard to be heard from the noise and I was exhausted from sitting.
After my third sleep, I look out the window again at the bamboo huts built right up beside the tracks. People were sweeping leaves from their yard, hanging up blankets, cooking, even a barber giving a haircut with the chair facing the train. The train is loud! I had to wonder why they lived so close. Further along the land opened up again and we crossed a river. Two large oxen were pulling a cart with the wheels half submerged in the river.
I had another sleep and when I woke, night had moved in. Almost there, almost there, almost there became the chant that accompanied the banging of the train doors, the bouncing of the cars on the tracks and blended with the vender’s sing-song.
Finally, Mandalay. We arrived on time, 10:30 pm and our new host “Nine” greeted us at the station along with driver, “Mean.”
We had just a few hours of sleep before Nine returned to collect us to begin our tour of Mandalay, a city of more than a million people located in the centre of the country. We stopped at so many pagodas, monasteries, and temples. The Kuthodow Pagoda was remarkable, with 729 stupas, and is referred to as “The World’s Largest Book,” and set in stone with 1,460 pages set around the golden pagoda. There was a statue of a woman holding her breast in her outstretched hand. The legend is that she loved and admired Buddha so much and being poor had nothing to give, so she removed her breast and offered it to Buddha.
January 31 – From temple to pagoda to Buddha and all over again
Because the sites are sacred, people are not allowed to wear shoes. We moved from one site to another slipping off our shoes, climbing stairs, walking on the hard concrete. Once back in the vehicle, we used the wet wipes to clean our feet before putting our shoes back on. The wipes had become the most useful items in our suitcase. By the end of the day after exploring the fascinating Mandalay sites and sights, we collapsed in bed while visions of Buddha danced in our heads.
The next day, we visited another town and monastery paraded passed the monk’s showering openly as they got ready for their walk through town. They carry bowls to collect rice and money. Both are put into the same pot, along with candy bars, pencils, and other odd things people drop in as they move through the street in their humble, silent bare-foot walk. We were invited into the lunch area to watch them eat in silence.
We're learning a lot about the Buddha religion and the more we learn, the more we realize we don't know. Our guide, "Nine" is wonderful, his English is easy to understand and he generously shares stories, points out trees and shows us their fruit, and takes us to places not necessarily on the tourist's list. That's important to us, so we can experience the "real" Myanmar. Our lunch, for instance, was a local buffet feast, with tastes that please our pallet. Our bill, including Nine and Mean's meal came to under CND$9.
Nine received a degree in economics from the Mandalay University, "Most graduates," Nine said, "cannot find in their field and do something different, but I always wanted to be a tour guide."
The day's itinerary was a five-hour drive through the countryside to Mt. Popa, where a monastery to the "spirits" called "Nats" sits a kilometer up a mountain, 777 stairs. Along the way, we stopped at a very special "Nat" where our driver, Mean, purchased a basket of banana, coconuts and flowers for one of the Nats.
In Buddha culture once again, we took our shoes off, in fact you can’t enter if you don’t the sacred temples, and various dwellings if you don't. These dwellings are overrun by naughty, thieving monkeys. We’d walk sometimes for kilometers – barefoot – through monkey pee! Fortunately, the solids were swept away. It was filthy! Gag-like filthy! Going for the full experience, even if it meant picking up some God-awful disease from the monkey pee, we marched right through. We were told to tuck away our sunglasses, jewelry, and hold tight to your purse because the thieving monkeys will snatch them and run.
Later while on the road, Con asked Nine to have Mean pull over when we passed a village market. It was a highlight for us, walking through stopping to sample things, communicate with smiles to the vendors and villagers. They were as curious of us as we were of them. MSG is alive and well here and sold in great big bags. No wonder our food tasted so good! We passed a man peddling his bike with live chickens hanging from every possible space on his bike. Can’t get much fresher. Once it’s butchered, the chicken is placed on a Palm Leaf mat in the 35-degree direct sunlight. People don’t mind. There is no refrigeration in their bamboo/palm-built homes. An old woman maybe 100, maybe 50, sat on her mat selling the betel leaf tobacco giving us a red mouthed, toothless smile. She rolled her betel smoke into a great big stogie. Lots of produce and hand-made products were available in the market, most arriving via wagon and oxen. People seemed content in their minimalist lifestyles.
Driving further, Con tapped Mean’s shoulder, “Pull over!” We just passed a tiny village. Nine nodded to Mean and he turned around. Nine looked a bit nervous as this wasn’t part of the programmed tour. Jumping out, Con casually walked across the street to a fenced yard, and then continued inside saying, “Hello,” to the woman who was standing in her yard speaking with another woman. In sign language he asked if we could visit their house and see how they live. Graciously she agreed. I stayed at the fence with her and the other woman (maybe her mom) and attempted-shared conversation. Nine joined us and translated, smiling, seeming delighted for this encounter. We exchanged compliments: hair, earrings, clothes, and shared our ages. She was seven years younger than me. She motioned for me to see her house, so I walked further in the yard joining Con. School kids were arriving and a crowd gathered by the fence to watch us. The woman joined us. Her home was immaculate, and made of palm wood and straw. She showed us their beds -- mats rolled up with a blanket on top; her kitchen -- clean pots on the balcony; and stove – a fire pit outside.
The kids moved in closer, laughing and calling out, “Hello!” Their school uniforms are green pants or longhis and white shirts. One small boy so excited having visitors was jumping up and down holding back tiny screams.
I called to the kids, “How are you?” They’d mimic me and giggle. I said the few Burmese words I had been taught which brought more giggles. The kids waved and blew kisses at our van as we departed.
Nine took us to a palm tree sap processing enterprise, where he said I'd be able to purchase the palm candies I'd tasted that were delicious! They're 100 percent palm leave syrup, and tastes rather like fudge from maple tree sap. I purchased four palm leave baskets filled with the little treasures, all for about $5 and the young boy threw in an extra basket. I then bought a palm flower book marker for maybe 75 cents. The boy then ushered us over to the oxen milling peanuts into oil and invited Con and me to work with the oxen handing us a palm stick. First he showed us how to coax the oxen, then Con tried. I followed realizing that you had to put effort into it. We had a blast.
The palm tree is extraordinary. The people build their houses, waterproof roofs, make furniture, mats, baby bassinet's, art work and on and on. They use the coconut to make juice and distill into liquor (both are not bad). We walked across the dry dirt (which is everywhere and swept like we vacuum our houses) to where a dozen women were pounding dried tamarind shells to get the seeds which are later milled into chutney type food.
The weaver bird nests were in the trees, they’re fantastic upside down nests to keep predators away.
February 1 - 3 – Each day starts early and runs long into the evening as we continue our trek across Myanmar learning as much as we can about the people, traditions, and especially the importance of their religion. We have visited the reclining, the sitting, the living, the tallest, the longest, the newest, the oldest, and the standing Buddha. We’ve driven and walked through deserts, jungle, and forest lands, through markets and up and down dusty streets.
There is internet in Myanmar and we were pleasantly surprised by that, but it is very very slow.
The Golden Rock
We moved along to the Mon State to see the Golden Rock, a Buddhist pilgrimage to a small pagoda built on the top of a boulder up high on top of Mt. Kyaiktiyo. The whole thing is covered in golden leaves purchased by supporters and pasted on layer after layer. The legend says a strand of the Buddha’s hair in underneath the big bolder. To get there was a feat in itself. Dropped off at a small town where the only business it seems is to transport people in dump trucks to the highest point of the mountain they can drive. Benches are bolted (I think) to the back of the truck. They pack in as many people as they can and off they go winding up up up through the jungle to a spot where we’re deposited. Sherpas of some sort then carry your luggage (and you if you can’t make it) up the rest of the way on foot. It was a grueling journey on foot, but the poor guy carrying our heavy suitcase had it the worst.
Once at the top, we checked into our hotel where porters waited eagerly to take our bag to our room. Our guide gave us a few minutes to settle and then scurried us up further to the Golden Rock.
Squatters populated the area, laying out blankets where whole families appear to have been living for a while. The rock defies gravity on a tremendous lean ready to topple. The irony of our great journey to the rock was that it was undergoing maintenance and was covered by scaffold. The rock is the third most important Buddhist pilgrimage in Myanmar. First, Schwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, second Mahamuni Pagoda in Mandalay.
We have a new driver and our guide Aung Swe. He's, a fascinating likeable guy and a member of Aung San Suu Yui's party and proudly wears his political jacket, “Always,” he says. He whetted our appetite for more details about the country from the smallest details about the plants and animals, mythology and especially their political situation now and during the military dictatorship take over.
Aung Swe has been a monk (twice) and been sent to jail three times. He said of the jail in a low voice, “It was just awful.” He was a student union leader in high school involved in the 1989 clashes with the military accusing them of brutality and corruption and was met with tear gas. The soldiers clubbed many of his school mates to death and raped others. Aung Swe was beaten and sent to jail for a while. His second jail time was because he was involved in helping transport monks during the Saffron revolution in 2007 to the Shwendagon Pagoda in Yangon. That was a non-violent clash with the military when they removed subsidies on fuel and people protested resulting in hundreds being imprisoned.
Today, Aung Swe is the vice leader of the tour guide guild in Bagan, and until as recently as last week, restrictions were lifted where before groups more than five people could not gather. It might seem like small things to us who are used to these freedoms, but in this country this is progress.
Aung Swe showed us the most impressive Stupa temples of the more than 3,500 in this area. Spectacular! He led us through the local market explaining the various vegetables and there are lots of them, fruit too. His father-in-law is a naturopathic doctor (as most of the doctors are here) and he was well versed in various medicinal properties of the plants and trees. "For example," he explained, "mixing this plant (naming it and showing us) with the sap of the palm tree, with..." will cure (and he named a myriad of health problems). In this country, it's important to rely on nature and what it provides for medical needs, as it's not easy to receive pharmaceuticals.
He told us that the distribution of NGO’s AIDS pills has been banned by the government and anyone attempting to receive the medicines will be jailed. Incredible! The AIDS pharmaceuticals are being offered at no charge. A local woman was dispensing them quietly out of her back door (working with the NGO under very secret conditions). It was learned by the military dictatorship and the dispensing was shut down and she was jailed.
We enjoyed another great Myanmar lunch, fried rice with chicken and veggies, a plate of fried cashews, and a plate of pork and chilies. The tastes are wonderfully flavourful. Our restaurant sits on stilts, with the river about a mile behind us. When the monsoon season arrives following spring, the river laps up at the balcony.
In the afternoon we visited a lacquer ware workshop. Dozens of people work outside, under the shade of a palm-leaf roof and bamboo-sided huts weaving baskets or other objects from thin strips of bamboo or horse hair. These are then treated with all natural products like clay, ash, resins and sawdust in a lengthy process taking almost a year to complete. The process is entirely made by hand and dates back almost 1,000 years. The workers are paid between 2000 and 3000 kyats - 2.50 to 3.50 USD. Jobs are handed from mother and father to daughters and sons.
The average size of a family is five children (seven in the family) and in the household you add grandparents, and sometimes aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews.
While walking through the market a teenaged girl offered to put the yellow ground-up bark on my face, quite delighted with her handiwork.
The next morning, up early, (of course) we were chauffeured to the airport for our flight to the north and eastern area in the mountains and lakes -- a cooler area of Myanmar. The airport was an open building and the flight announcement happened when we spotted a man walking around with a placard indicating time to board. Monks had first rights, and everyone else kept back until they were comfortably seated and the rest was a free for all.
Once in the north, we were driven to a hill along with our guide “Sopa”. Climbed it and inside was a cave rich with mythological stories, and you'll never guess what's inside. Did you say "Buddha?" Oh yes, more than 92,000 of 'em and they're deep in a fantastic stalactite cave. Of course, out of respect for Buddha, our shoes came off, and we walked through the dark cave BAREFOOT!
Later we were driven to a factory to learn about the mulberry trees and the goods they make from them. Again – incredible! Outside under the shade of a canopy, any hands were at work making paper umbrellas. A mulberry branch is mashed by hand into a pulp, and spread out on the rack, Mulberry flower peddles are added, and after it dries in the sun, a beautiful paper is peeled off.
Using the bamboo trees, the handle and clasp are hand carved. In another section they were making paper lamps. We bought one for our boat.
Our day ended with a walk around the town and watching the incredible jobs the people were performing. One man was heating the tar wearing thongs on his feet with a child standing nearby. Another man swung a heavy pick breaking up the ground, also wearing sandals. He works right behind a cloud of black diesel smoke coming from the steam roller. How long will his lungs stand for that? The women gather rocks from a pile, load them onto trays balancing on their heads, walk to the road (also in thongs) and then spread them out. The man with the tar job scooped it out of the container and spread it. There is no such a thing as a wheel barrel here, or hard-toed shoes! How much easier would it be if there was even ONE wheel barrel?
At the end of the day, women washed their clothes in the lake and the later themselves (fully clothed) and the men washed themselves further up the lake.
We rose early again on February 3rd, for our second day with Sopa, touring this area requires a lot of driving. We’re suffering from too much driving, too many Buddhas and not enough stopping to visit villages and leisure time to explore on our own. Renting a car or motorbike in Myanmar as a tourist is not allowed. Our Dutch neighbours (in the room beside us) are cycling -- a bit too adventurous for us. They must report in when they leave their hotel and have the next destination logged with the police. When they checked into one hotel, the police arrived and told them they must leave for a different place. It was dark and they said that it was not possible. The police ordered it and a taxi and they were taken to the other hotel.
Almost every foreigner we've met has been sick from bad food and/or water, and even Con had a bowel upset for a few days. It's common here, and eating is like Russian Roulette. You never know when you eat the bad thing.
February 4 -- Sometime during the night, an owl hooted so clearly as if it was on the porch of our hut-like room, a dog/coyote howled like it too sat on our porch, and then at 4 am, the monks began chanting. They didn't quit until sometime in the seven o'clock hour. By 8:30 am, we were half-way across Inle Lake in a long boat pushing through crushed water hyacinths.
As a child in the 60s I watched the Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom with my dad, hanging on every wild wonder they’d expose in this glorious world. I was mesmerized watching the Long Necked people and the vision of them is as vivid today as it was as a child. You might guess where I’m going with this… In our long canoe, we stopped at a weaving shop on stilts over the water, and there they were! They come from the tribe in the south east of Myanmar, but these two were on Inle Lake selling their wares. The older woman, because she's 61, is carrying the most weight--8 kilograms! She never takes the rings off, and showed me how she sleeps with them. If she were to take them off, she would have no neck muscles to hold up her head and her neck would snap. The tradition goes back many years. Some say it was to identify the women of the tribe so neighbouring tribes wouldn't raid. Others say it was to protect their neck from lions and tigers. They wear the rings on their legs too, in order to stretch them.
ONE FOOTED FISHERMEN
Zooming across the lake in our boat, we passed the one-footed fishermen. For centuries, they fish using both hands to set the net and one foot to steer in any direction with great balance. Once the net is set, they pound the surface of the water with their oar and the fish scare and swim into their nets.
We motored to a pier tying on to the family-run Lotus Weaving factory, all made of bamboo and on stilts in the water. It took many hands to make the wonderful silks used in the most beautiful clothing. It starts with the Lotus plant as women painstakingly cut the stems off the plant and pull about six inches of lotus (like silk) from the centre and eventually it will fill a spool. From there, it's woven into scarves, longhi's, and tops.
Passing people washing dishes, clothes, and bathing in the lake, all from their porches, the village unfolded around us. The children could be heard from a primary school, their outhouse a hole with the pipe about two metres from the water level where waste is sent directly into the water. When the monsoons arrive, the water level will reach the toilet pipe. There was a house with a pig pen, above water, the waste going into the river. A few hundred years ago, the King moved four tribes to Inle Lake to live on the water and had to make do with all resources possible to them. They cultivate their food on floating gardens, made from floating hyacinths and other grasses spearing them steady to the lake bottom with bamboo poles so they don't float away. They're among the poorest in Myanmar. Further along, we witnessed how the blacksmith makes the tools. A man sits behind another one squatting who holds firm to the heated tool, fanning the fire with his feet using an air pump. The flame keeps steady at 800 degrees. Then three men pound the metal using a bang, bang, bang beat until it's ready to be sharpened and a handle put onto it.
Later that evening, back on the mainland, we walking around the town followed by the local kids trying to make contact with us, “Hello.”
February 6-7-- HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO THE MAN WHO ROCKS MY WORLD! We celebrated Con's birthday with breakfast in Myanmar, lunch in Thailand, and dinner in Cambodia. Three countries in one day for the birthday boy!
Leaving Myanmar after twelve days felt about right. The dust, smoke and ash in the air had plugged up our sinuses pretty good. The roads in the small towns and villages are dirt, and the routes between towns are a mix of pavement, dirt, or one-hundred-metre-long patches of road building which meant the air was filled with burning tar. The major cities, Yangon and Mandalay, like in all things in Myanmar have two conflicting sides. Beauty and charm; dirt and poverty.
On our way to the airport, we followed the local bus full of people hanging on wherever they can get a grip, or at have at least one foot on the bus. We were off to another country, leaving guided tours behind us. We will tour Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam on our own at our own pace.
Our first impressions of a country are always the sharpest while our receptors are fresh and open to all the wild and wonderful sights and smells. Arriving during "rush hour" in Phnom Phen, Cambodia blasted those receptor wide open. Our taxi blended with the chaos of motorcycles, bikes, buses, trucks, and tuk tuk's all moving (forget traffic lights, stop signs, or one-way streets). It was like water chaotically gushing and blending together in a race over the falls. In the Kingdom of Cambodia, a densely populated country of 15 million ruled by a constitutional monarchy. A king chosen by the council is actually not a “blue blood” but he is the longest reining non-monarch in the world.
Our hotel in Phnom Phen learned of Con's birthday when we snacked in the lounge, and two adorable young men secretly planned a surprise for him. First they got my attention away from Con and asked my permission, and then turned down the lights and sang "Happy birthday," delivering two delicious gourmet cakes with candles burning. Later, when relaxing in our room, there was a knock on the door and the hotel reception delivered yet another cake and a basket of exotic fruit to help us celebrate. As always, it's the people in a country that make it beautiful.
The number of zero's in these country's currency sharpens your math skills. Myanmar: 850 to the US$1; Thailand: 30 to $US1; and Cambodia: 4,071 to US$1. It makes for thick pockets. Perhaps our Canadian government could share some useful tips since yesterday they officially stopped minting the Canadian penny (one cent), wise since my so smart brother-in-law Hugo said that it costs 1.3 cents to make it.
Crowds have been gathering in Phenon Phen for the burial of their beloved King who died yesterday, February 5th at 89 of a heart attack. The palace and National Museum were both closed out of respect. The Killing Fields and Museum was open, but we passed. It showcased the genocide that took place between 1975 and 1979 killing more than a million innocent Cambodians and burying them was too gruesome for us to tour. That was the time of the Khmer Rouge.
The “old king” who just passed away aligned himself with Russia and China to keep Vietnamese from invading following the departure of the French in 1954. General Pol Pot became the Communist Ruling Dictator creating Cambodia's most tragic and horrific violence. Twenty-five percent of Cambodia was murdered. Anyone opposing the government, holding a professional position, or simply educated were executed. People were pulled out of the hospitals, out of their homes, separated from their families and forced to work in the fields. During the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese used Cambodia to get into South Vietnam, creating a rein of bombs from the American's on Cambodia's soil. More bombs were dropped here during that time than in all of WWII.
Walking through the congested city of 2,300,000 people in 38 degree weather was challenging with sweat dripping down our bodies under our clothes. The other challenge was that where a sidewalk existed, either a barbershop, food stall, or a vendor of some kind was using the space, and if not, cars would use them for parking. We had to resort to walking in the street, which was lethal. Cars, motorcycles, Tuk Tuk’s and any on wheels went any which way. We took a Tuk Tuk back to our beautiful hotel, changed into our swimming suits and enjoyed a more leisurely afternoon.
February 8--The American dollar is as common as their own currency, the riel and often a mix of the two is given in change. You have to be on the ball calculating your change back quickly.
I found an organization online that supports women trying to get out of the sex trade. We walked there and purchased some of the items they make by hand that helps support a different lifestyle.
The National Museum was open today. It holds artifacts from the Ankor Wat area six-hours away by bus north of Phnom Phen. The museum building is an Asian-looking house where the museum circles the garden in the centre is across the street from the King's palace which is still closed as Cambodia mourns the loss of their "old" king. Some of the King's ashes have been scattered along the Mekong River (that runs passed our hotel).
IN SIEM REAP
February 9 -- Arriving from the Siem Reap bus station (after a six-hour comfy ride from Phnom Phen) and got into a Tuk Tuk to the hotel (about six kilometres) for $2. Turns out it was the same price as my thirty-minute foot massage later that night. Our hotel is called, "Encore Angkor" and you're not allowed to wear shoes in the hotel! Everyone's shoes are left outside the door and we walk around the hotel barefoot. While looking for the hotel laundry prices, Con read a note in our room, "Dear Guest, the hotel is not responsible for any stolen property by prostitutes." The hotel staff upon check in said, be sure to look for crocodiles out your window. I thought about them all night, and first thing in the morning, I took a look. Unbelievably, there were crocodiles directly down from our window!
Last night, while laying back in the chair enjoying a foot massage I watched a lizard overhead and he POOPED with the excrement landing on my head!
February 10 -- Our Tuk Tuk driver returned to our hotel early this morning to take us for an all-day tour of the Angkor Archeological Park to the largest Hindu Temple which is also the largest religious monument in the world. Built in the 12th century, as a Hindu Temple, the King eventually changed to Buddhism and so did most of the country. Today, nearly everyone is Buddhist. The temperatures were in the high 30s and humid, but it was perfect under the canopy of the Tuk Tuk. We visited nearly all the sites. The Wat is encircled by water which has kept the jungle out and the site in near perfect condition. However, General Pol Pot apparently took the heads off the Buddhas and sold them to Thailand. One of the Wats was left for the jungle to eat it alive, and it nearly has.
The Ta Prohm is the site of the filming of the movie "Raiders of the Lost Ark," and it's mysterious, creepy even. The trees are powerful and surround the temple complex. We quietly stepped over tumbled down walls and squeezed through narrow temple walk-ways in awe of nature. Looking overhead, I spotted a spider the size of my fist waiting patiently in his web. Birds with long tails sang from their spots even higher in the trees. Con is tucked into part of the trunk to give you an idea of the size. This tree is the average size of the trees around us. The roots are quickly pushing apart the walls and from the inside out and the outside in.
Con's been salivating for fresh coconut milk. He selected a coconut from a heap freshly ones the man who just shimmied up the tree collected. Using his big machete, the man sliced open the top and plopped a straw inside handing it to Con.
On our way to the next site, we stepped aside to let a few elephants pass.
February 11 – We flew from Cambodia to Laos, (a Marxist communist government), and checked into another beautiful hotel in Vientiane, the capital. This is our third country in Southeast Asia, a landlocked country but full of water from the Mekong River. This country is more modernized than Cambodia which is more modernized than Myanmar. We ordered drinks, something we wouldn’t have done in the other two countries not sure of the water/ice contamination. Con had a mint, lemon, and honey (like a mojito) and I had an iced cappuccino. The whole bill was $5 -- expensive by standards here.
February 13 -- It was a dog day afternoon, perhaps logging a dozen kilometres on our feet in 30+ humid temperatures. These dogs had it right, claiming their spot in the shade of the That Luang Temple.
The Victory Gate is situated in the centre of Vientiane, built in the 60s commemorates the liberation from the French. Kind of ironic that it's fashioned like France’s Arc de Triumph.
It's sad how many Lao women/girls are in the sex-trade industry here. Probably in Cambodia too, but it's quite prevalent here. We had Indian food tonight and sat at a table on the sidewalk across from the Night Market and watched so many "couples" walk by -- a white man aged 50-60 and young Lao women (not sure how young) to maybe 30. Most women were without expression in their eyes. The men for the most part are pretty unappealing. A man tonight was trying to pull a young girl up off a park bench (she looked 12 and scared) and he was fat, with about six teeth, saying to her, "Come on, happy f@ck." We walked by, not sure what to make of it. We overheard two older men this afternoon at the temple say (about their two Lao women), "We pay for them and they bloody well f@ck off on us."
On to Luang Prabang, Laos
Thirty-five minutes by air from Vientiane, we arrived at the beautiful UNESCO site, Luang Prabang located in the north central area of Laos. A town of 50,000, swollen with tourists, but nevertheless, delightfully quiet. It's situated where the Mekong and Nam Khan River's converge, making it beautifully picturesque. The Mekong runs through and the Nam Khan intersects. Temperatures are hot and humid, in the mid 30s, and during our morning cycle around the peninsula, we stopped at the river for a refreshing coconut water drink, Con’s favourite. For a $1 a man hacked open a small hole and stuffed in a straw. Last night, walking through the night market we stopped to inspect the 10,000 Laos kip ($1.20CND) buffet. Unfortunately, we'd had a late lunch and couldn't indulge. We passed the eggs on a stick -- too much competition with the flies. The trees here are covered in a grass-like moss that's not a moss, since it covers the whole tree. Our hotel bed is completely surrounded by mosquito netting.
Sleeping with Geckos
So, I guess Con and I are considered lucky... we've have at least one gecko-lizard living with us in our Laos hotel room. He feasts on the mosquitoes and makes strange, loud noises in the night. Con has a nasty cough -- a hangover from his cold, and when he coughs, the gecko chirps back at him! It's cute, but creepy knowing that this nocturnal reptile is responding to Con in the night. Nevertheless, Con sleeps through it all it -- coughing, gecko noises... A marching band could come through our room and he'd sleep through that too. I'm self-appointed "security" for the family, and investigate all noises and goings on in the night. I like sleeping in an enclosed mesh canopy. We can see some mosquitos on the outside, but they haven’t found their way in. The gecko hangs out in the bathroom.
Nam Khan & Mekong Rivers
Yesterday, we crossed the Nam Khan River on a rickety bamboo bridge and today, we hired an old guy to take us up the Mekong River in his long boat. It’s a slow pace here in Luang Prabang and we like that. We bravely crossed the bamboo bridge that crosses the Nam Khan River and walked through a small village. A small shack acts as the toll booth. Sixty-five cents CND will get you a two-way crossing. No guarantees though... It's made of bamboo, each step felt like walking on a trampoline. The bridge is up for just a few months each year, because the water is too high during the monsoon season.
Last night, a cat used its fiercest growling noise which lasted about 20 seconds and then he was cut off. Something killed him in the night. A snake? We're in a jungle, surrounded by the most beautiful trees and shrubs in our eco-friendly hotel. They've tried to keep the grounds as natural as possible, and during every daylight hour, a team of people sweep and groom the ground. They use palm-tree brooms. During breakfast, overlooking the beautiful grounds, we looked way up into one of the tallest palm trees at a man who was comfortably squatting in the centre of the branches. With his machete, he hacked away the dead palm branches and then tied down the coconuts. At one point, he hacked off a coconut and in two more chops had a small hole and tipped his head back drinking the delicious good-for-you coconut water. "Can't get much fresher," Con said with envy.
The grass is different, almost like two-inch-long clumps of dark green rocket lettuce. And, there's a confused rooster that lives on the grounds next door. He sings during the night and at various times throughout the day. It's as if he has laryngitis, but he keeps trying.
It seems the nasty what-ever-we-ate-or-was-in-the-water-used-to-wash-the-food bug has attacked my intestines today, so chillin' here in our hotel for the day seems about right. Tomorrow, February 19th, we fly to Hanoi, Vietnam, our fifth country in Southeast Asia.
We passed street checkers, drawn on a rock using right-side and upside-down bottle caps for markers.
It's Tuesday -- we must be in Hanoi!
Enjoying our last few hours in our eco-friendly hotel puttering on our laptops in the warm Laos shade of our room patio, Con casually commented, "Humph, I wonder if we need a visa for Vietnam?" Our flight was in a few hours and without it, we wouldn't be able to leave the airport. Hmmm. We're both super calm in chaos and turned our attention to “Google” for the answer. The key question: “How to get a visa for Vietnam in three hours?” Websites advised, “Three days.” Con located a company, that for a fee could do it and with 20 minutes before our Tuk Tuk collected us from the hotel, for the airport, we had our visa in hand.
Our flight to Hanoi: 1 hour
Visa & Immigration at airport: 8 minutes
Wait luggage: 1.20 hours
February 22 -- Walkin' around Hanoi
We touched down in our fifth Southeast Asia country, Vietnam. The country is an oxymoron. It’s communist, but experiencing the highest growth rate. Our hotel was in the centre of the capital, Hanoi. We stepped out into the thousand-year-old "Old Quarter" district stopping for Vietnamese coffee and then fresh mango juice, walking on taking in all the noises, smells, sights, then into a busy restaurant for lunch. People sit on upturned crates, or use them as tables and the crates spill out into the streets. Traffic drives around them. People claim their space either parking, eating, or driving. Inside the restaurant anything you discard from your dish you simply spit onto the floor. Chatter is a constant. Noise. Motorcycles zip around everywhere and are piled high balancing in the most improbable way. Following a month in temperatures in the mid-30s and higher, arriving in drizzling rain and 15-22 degree temperatures was chilly.
For a buck and a half, we taxied to the Ho Chi Minh residence and mausoleum. It's also the place, where in 1945 he declared the North Vietnamese the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, the communist party. His body is embalmed in a room on display, surrounded by honour guards. (No laughing, no talking, no hands in pockets, and no pictures!) We ignorantly cut into the long procession of visitors (probably cutting a hour off our line-up wait) walking in an orderly two by two slow march passed his body lying in a glass-enclosed coffin.
Walking through the streets back into the thousand-year-old neighbourhood where we're staying called the, "Old Quarter" we passed incredible sights. It's an eclectic group of French colonial and traditional Vietnamese buildings. Before we could say, "No thanks," the fruit was placed on my shoulder and the hat popped on my head. The price for a picture: a bag of fresh pineapples and banana's. We ended the afternoon with a two-hour massage each! The price tag: $30 CND each. It was glorious!
Vietnam War! What is it good for...
The damp temperatures are bone deep here in Hanoi which matches my spirit after touring the "Hotel Hilton" prison. First, a mini history lesson:
The Geneva Convention written in 1954 was to achieve a few things; a peaceful evacuation of the French who had occupied the country for 100 years; and for Vietnam to set up a new government. The Accord divided Vietnam at the 17th Parallel (about half way). Ho Chi Minh led the Communist party in the north, and a democratic president led the south. (The Accord gave them two years to sort this mess out.)
Things went rotten fast. A North Vietnam coup assassinated the South Vietnam President in 1963 and in 1964, Ho Chi Minh attacked two USA destroyers in international water. Remember, at the time, Communism was a real threat to the west, parts of eastern and western Europe, Australia, and Indochina. The next year, the USA retaliated with heavy bombing in North Vietnam. The north (Viet Cong) were attacking towns and villages that had been invaded south of the 17th Parallel. By 1968, there were 540,000 USA troops in Vietnam. A withdraw began under Nixon's administration in 1969. Unfortunately, it heated up again when Ho Chi Minh died and in the spring 1970, the North Viet Cong invaded Cambodia to get into South Vietnam. The USA ordered attacks on Cambodian soil which created tremendous negative outcries around the world and in the USA.
The Paris Peace Accord was struck in 1973 and two years later, North Vietnam invaded the south and they surrendered. Today, Vietnam is a communist country.
Back to our tour of the "Hotel Hilton," (coined by an American prisoner sarcastically) is so thick with anti-USA propaganda and justifying North Vietnam in their pursuit of South Vietnam. BUT, they can write their own history, and as I overheard a man say, “The winning team gets to write whatever they want.” The museum shows how the Vietnamese prisoners were horrifically treated by the French under their rule, and then they show a joyful place (the prison) for the American's. Pictures and videos of them carrying in fish for cooking, and prisoners with pineapples on their trays as if there was a huge choice of food. The films states, "Vietnam's people were hungry and poor, but the US prisoners were treated well and fed well. Once we taught them simple things (they were sweeping) that all children are taught in Vietnam, they got to know the people they were committing the crimes against." (They showed pictures of US soldiers smiling over the bodies of dead villagers.) Other reviews (outside Vietnam) show those same prisoners were tortured to admit that the USA was wrong in invading and those statements were used as their war tool, "propaganda." Torture was in the form of broken bones, being fed rice with animal and human feces in it, not being treated for infection, etc. Senator John McCain was shot down during the war and stayed in the "Hotel Hilton" for five years. His parachute suite and other items are on display.
Tonight, we attended a Traditional Catru Concert. It's an ancient and beautiful art that nearly disappeared in the chaos of the latter part of the 19th century but revived in 2009. The musical instruments are unique. Bamboo chopsticks drumming on a stone; a chopstick on a coconut-like drum; and a guitar-like instrument that they claim is the longest necked string instrument in the world. The eerie voices of the women become the vocal instrument.
February 24 -26 -- DaNang to Hue and back to DaNang settling into Paradise
It's not possible to rent a car in Vietnam, and our best option to get from DaNang to the Imperial city Hue pronounces Way" was in a hired car. For $85 US Ha, our Vietnamese driver picked us up at the hotel and drove us over the Hoi Van pass and into Hue. Unfortunately, it was raining and overcast so our ability to see the famous pass required imagination. Our first stop in Hue was at the main sight, the Nguyan Citadel. Without an umbrella, we set off on foot to explore the Dynasty. Hey, once you're wet, who cares about the rain -- it was warm.
It was spectacular, a gloriously peaceful place to wander. Despite having seen heavy battle during the Vietnam War during the Battle for Hue (destruction in the photo below), there are many temples, gates, long hallways, moats, with beauty everywhere you look, in the artfully placed lotus and magnolia trees, Zen-like gardens, water features, and Asian architecture. It's situated on the edge of the Perfume River, which in itself sounds extra special, doesn't it.
The Citadel is 10 km square, and in the centre is the Forbidden Purple City where the Emperor and his family lived. From the Citadel, we traveled further along the Perfume River to the Tombs of the Emperors. The Thien Mu Pagoda, the symbol of Hue was remarkable.
SOUTH CHINA SEA: DaNang AKA PARADISE
We crossed the Hahn River checking into a hotel on the South China beach, where the white sand is so fine that walking on it is like walking on a cloud (or so I can imagine what walking on a cloud might be like). Our hotel room comes with two massages each per day! Yesterday, Con had a scrub and a few hours later, a full body massage. (This is the man a few years ago that was unable to relax for a Turkish Bath -- and that's a whole other story!) I had a facial and full body massage. Decadent, I know... Our biggest decision each day is which massage to have. We could be very happy to live in our hotel rooms for the rest of our days. (See photos) There are three large sliding doors leading out to our own backyard where two palm trees, two patios, bamboo against brick stones gives us total privacy to swim in our VERY OWN SWIMMING POOL!
Con says, "How ironic, in a communist country we've never had such luxury!"
After having eaten Asian food for the past month, we've both lost much needed-to-be-lost weight. Waking this morning to the hotel's breakfast (included) it was so appealing. I tried all the delicious treats and later lost them all in the hotel toilet. My body wasn’t used to the fat and rejected it. Tomorrow, I'll be much wiser.
Too Lazy to be Tourists
On Day 4 in our Spa Resort on the shores of the South China Sea in DaNang, we ventured away from the luxury to tour Hoi An. Arriving just after 9:30 am, we stepped out of our air conditioned van and the heat nearly knocked us over. I was able to take three, maybe four steps and by the fifth, I could barely lift my leg from heat fatigue. We dragged ourselves around the pretty little town for 45 minutes and climbed back into an air conditioned taxi -- $20 US later, we were in our private backyard swimming pool. Hoi An is too touristy. Once we crossed this bridge, we were inundated with locals asking, "Madam, buy from me..." and "Madam, boat ride for one hour..." We smiled and said kindly, "No thank you." By the fiftieth or so request in as many steps, let me tell you how hard it was to say it kindly.
At the market, people had bowls of sea shells and toothpicks. They poked into the shell and pulled out a tiny snail, eating them like M&Ms. The woman at the market asked if I'd like to try a grub. I declined and thanked her for the offer. She picked one up in her two fingers and popped the whole thing into her mouth and said, "Good for you." It's common to see people with covers on their faces, both to keep the sun off, and to avoid breathing in pollution. A man was pinching the live chicken, sizing him up for dinner. The chicken was not impressed. The boat rides were being offered by little old ladies in a boat like this one pictured above, and men were asking us to buy a ride in the larger ones pictured below with the blue cabin.
TO HO CHI MINH CITY
March 3 -- We're in hot and humid Ho Chi Minh City, formerly called Saigon with a bursting population of nine million people. This part of Vietnam was once anti-communist, with an elected president from 1955 - 1975 but when the US troops left, the North Viet Cong moved in.
Last night, we took in the traditional Water Puppet Theatre show which dates back in tradition to the 11th century. In the morning, we sauntered over to the War Remnants Museum, a heavily one-sided view of the complex and gruesome Vietnam War. As expected, it's full of anti-US propaganda and no mention of why the USA entered into the conflict. Floor after floor are filled with painful displays and stories of what the Communist government calls, "The USA's crimes, and cruelty against ALL Vietnamese." It's very disappointing that such propaganda is mandatory teaching to all the school students. It's very sad viewing the pictures of the innocent (US soldiers, some look like boys) and the many Vietnamese people caught in the conflict of Communism vs Freedom. The museum neglects to point out that the USA was fighting along-side the south Vietnamese (anti-communist government) with forces from Australia, New Zealand, and South Korea, against the north Vietnamese communist government.
A group of teens outside the museum interviewed us, asking many questions (to practice their English). All our responses were filmed, "Are we American?" "Do we like Vietnam and what would we change here?" We told them, “We liked everything.” You thought we'd say, "The way the war is depicted."
VISITING CHU CHI TUNNELS
The Cu Chi story as told by the Viet Cong: "We dug these tunnels using tools supplied by the Amaaaricans that's right," our Vietnamese tour guide boasted. "They dropped bombs, we collected the scraps and built tools, mines, booby traps, and killed the Amaaaricans!" The tour started with a mandatory film where they showed the peaceful Vietnamese people of this area (just north of Saigon -- now called Ho Chi Minh City) cultivating their fields. Then the "Amaaaaricans bombed our crops, killed our trees, and killed our people. The film carries on, "Meet (a 12-year-old girl) she killed Amaaaricans during the day and during the night." The film was painful. No mention of course about the Viet Cong illegally invading South Vietnam in an attempt to create one communist country and forcing their country into a civil war. The message: Their government is kind and good; Americans are bad. The Cu Chi people were forced to dig tunnels along with the Viet Cong. The tunnels barely fit a regular sized person and the entrance is even smaller. They were filled with scorpions, snakes, and many living in them died of malaria and all of them suffered from some kind of intestinal worm.
Today, the area has reverted back to jungle butting up to cultivated fields. It's hard to know if all visitors and the locals believe all the rhetoric shoved at them. "The Amaaaaricans fought in the day and partied in the night, so we enjoyed the jungle like this," motioning the killing of Americans.
The tour led us through disgusting tools they used in their warfare against the Americans. Traps would catch the soldiers down holes filled with bamboo or refined metals from the bombs. The ambushes were meant to torture them, the victim would call for his comrades and the Viet Cong would wait until many had gathered, and as the guide said in a sing-song tone, "Kill the Amaaaricans one by one." It was a tough tour.
Back in Ho Chi Minh, it was business as usual. Con took a photo while the bikes crossed the road. Hundreds of bikes bunt up at the light and like a tsunami move across the street. People just step out in the middle and weave themselves through to cross the street. The chaotic lack of order seems to work. Most women cover every part of their skin from the sun. They wear masks, and gloves up to their shoulders and skin-coloured socks. Being white is considered more appealing.
Temperature: 38 degrees
March 6 – SEVEN WEEKS IN SOUTHEAST ASIA
We touched down in Bangkok seven weeks ago, anxious to begin our tour of Southeast Asia. Our world will forever change having experienced such a remarkable part of the world. I can’t begin to tell you how many kilometers we’ve put on our feet alone, but my shoes tell all. I bought these in Bangkok, Thailand on our first day – seven weeks later, I said, “Tam biet -- good bye my good friends” -- leaving them in our hotel garbage can. They saw this part of the world from a whole other angle, walking through dusty towns, villages, on thousand-year-old neighbourhoods, and over sidewalks where nine-million people call 'home,' passing animals, rodents, cockroaches, lizards... They've shuffled through dirt, drying concrete, puddles of unknown substance, food, rain, rivers, sea, up a steep hill to see the Golden Temple... In fact, the only break they had was when I visited the temples and had to leave them outside. Bye bye good friends.
In two hours, we'll board our flight for Taipei, change planes to Eva Air, landing in Vancouver, and hoping on another short flight to Victoria. See you soon mom!