Saturday, June 29, 2013

Myanmar: initial impressions and first thoughts!

We were a little nervous about venturing into Myanmar for several reasons. Is it really the right thing to do? Can we afford it? Do we really have enough mint-conditioned US dollar bills to survive without being able to use ATM machines? Are we really up for the difficult challenges and hard travel involved? We needn't have worried on any account. Things have changed since our guidebook was written and as in all developing countries at a rate of knots. We decided to spread the money we can afford to spend around among the smaller independent businesses rather than spending exclusively with government travel operators so the moral dilemmas about not coming are not so compelling, while simultaneously trying to live on a smaller budget. We will definitely have enough bills and the ATMs are now dispensing Kyat anyway. It is not that difficult and, well, so far the more harrowing journeys are still before us.

From the moment we touched down we felt good: not the least reason for me being that it was turbulent and scary in the latter half of the short flight, but also because it smelt like Asia of old. From the onset in that first taxi ride from the airport we were delighted.  Myanmar seems like Asian fusion to me. There are elements of several cultures: Chinese, Thai and Indian being the most striking but they are all infused with a uniquely Burmese flavor. I guess if I knew my history better that wouldn’t surprise me but it did.

The Chinese traders of gold in the flashy red shops, the street side fresh vegetable markets groaning with produce and their wily business sense are infused with a mellowing Burmese attitude we discovered yesterday in Chinatown. It is near impossible to discern who is who in terms of heritage but I have never heard less Chinese spoken in a Chinatown before and we have been to a good number around the world as we are automatically drawn to them and always end up loving it!

That quintessentially Thai way of presenting fruit in such an appealing and instantly edible way, the quick, easy, genuine smiles and child like delight in the simplest things as well as the face-painting and Buddhist devotion all instantly take me back to Thailand but here they are still somehow Burmese not just a copy. 

The pan chewing, selling and staining of public streets, the henna red hair of the men, the delicious curry, fried snacks and sweets of many of the street stalls, the lilting Indian accented English, and the many Hindu and Muslim places of worship located in the same neighborhoods also project a similar atmosphere to India but still it is not the same.

There is a cross-cultural feel with pan vendors having Chinese faces and Indian street stalls selling noodles and Burmese dishes. There seems to be no animosity and a great deal of not just tolerance but acceptance, harmony and goodwill.

We delighted in seeing the ever-changing vendors pedal their wares on the circle train loop around Yangon yesterday. Pineapples, pan, stuffed tofu with chilli, donuts with sugar and condensed milk, bananas, and noodles were among the few I could recognize but there were more that I couldn’t. Not all on sale was food and 2 shoulder poles of hats and a variety of Buddhist magazines were also available. That is to say nothing of the bags, basket loads and bundles of fresh vegetables going home with their buyers. The vendors mostly carry their goods on their heads and then plop down on the low stool, they carry with them, in front of each customer, once they have indicated that they will buy. One needs to be quick to make a purchase as the vendors swap carriages at each station and they are only a few minutes apart.

 The 3 hours was a wonderful insight into how and where the real people live and the other passengers were as keen to understand us as we were them. The sheer awe on the faces of the children and elderly as we sidled by the airport runaway was a joy to behold. Once we had past the taxiing planes other passengers crowded around to see if I got any decent snaps and a few gave me the thumbs up. The train was excellent entertainment and great value for a $1 fare even though we suspect that was five times the local rate if not more.

There are many other influences from across the Asian continent too. The ever-present remnants of colonial buildings in decrepit and decaying states, lives lived on the streets, the jumble of washing hanging from barred windows in tiny apartments and the construction, demolition and general chaos of all roads and footpaths to say nothing of traffic that does as it pleases most of the time, remind me of Kunming and many other Chinese cities in the 1980s. The style of clothing for both men and women also bears striking similarity to many other parts of Asia. The food is definitely fusion in some instances but also pure and authentic cuisines in others. The Burmese certainly have their own fresh and tasty dishes and a wide variety of fresh produce from which to create them.

The Buddhist nuns here also seem to play a much more prominent role than in other Asian cultures. 

Here so many men still wear the traditional attire, whereas elsewhere we have been in Asia it is predominately the women who continue the traditions. Last night’s monsoon dinner show us just how versatile those “longyi” wraps the men wear are. As we sat at our outdoor table under the awnings, the skies opened up.
Our little umbrella was no match for the torrential downpour and the one the restaurant offered soon supplemented it. We managed to finish our meal without it floating away but eventually relocated to a slightly better protected table and watched all the men adjust the length of their “skirts” to accommodate the flood waters under the tables and across the road and footpaths while the women just became as soaked to the skin as we were. Just as we had laughed our way through dinner they too giggled their way home and appreciated the cooling and purifying effect.

Today's visit to 14th century Shwedagon Pagoda, the iconic Budddhist symbol of the nation was serene and calming. It is truly a haven of spirituality and a source of national pride. One cannot help but be moved by the beauty and devotion so obviously enshrined in the site and the people, who have protected, restored and revered it for so long. 

Things are looking good for the rest of our 3 week stay and the travel adventures will no doubt shed more light on this very charming, welcoming, playful and respectful culture.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

A new daily challenge

Recently I have had a lot more time than usual on my hands. This motivated me to take up a new challenge. I have long been an advid collector and reader of quotes; most especailly inspirational ones and this prompted me to download the book "101 Life Changing Quotes" by Tim Beacham and to spend some time as per his instructions contemplating and writing about the quotes he proposes.

Early in the book there is some advice from the author from which I have selected the following.
“Here is my step-by-step instructions on how to leverage the power of this book and to transform your life........Take a few minutes and truly think about what the quote means and determine how you can apply it to your life......... The Daily Quote Journal is just a means to approach your goals with a positive outlook.”

While I do not intend to include all 101 in this blog I thought I would occasionally add some of my ramblings as an adjunct to the travel tales and a suppliment to the photo a day challenge I regularly publish. So without further ado I will begin and invite anyone who feels inspired to add their own opinions, ideas or comments.

2. “There is no education like adversity". - Benjamin Disraeli

I cannot one hundred percent agree with this. Fundamentally I believe that we all grow and  learn when we are challenged and extended beyond the comfortable range of our normal experiences but education takes many forms. It can and should be a positive, enjoyable and enriching process that doesn't have to be tied to adversity. Many such experiences are just as powerful in the knowledge we acquire from them. I acknowledge that some of the most valuable life lessons are acquired facing hardships and difficulties but not all. I can list as many positive learning experiences as negative ones, if not more. Yes the struggle to come to terms with communism in China, borderline xenophobic attitudes in Japan, overt cruelty and violence in the devoutly Buddhist cultures of both Thailand and Bhutan and widespread and overbearing poverty and its many heath and social complications in many different developed and undeveloped countries, have taught me great lessons and are adversities. That is to say nothing of the personal challenges life has thrown at me. There are however equally positive interactions from which I have learned equally valuable life lessons. How can one fail to respect or not wish to emulate the perseverance and determination of the Chinese, the work ethic and appreciation of aesthetics of the Japanese, the gentle, smiling grace of the Thais or the resilience and self assuredness of the Bhutanese. Through admiration and the desire to emulate these profound qualities we are educating ourselves from the joyful, respectful and harmonious aspects of life not only the adversity. Yes there are always lessons to to learned the hard way but they are not the only lessons. In fact there will always be education with or without adversity. Commitment to life long learning and not only formal institutionalised learning is a must and life doesn't only consist of struggles.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Our own little slice of soul restoring paradise- A photo essay

spectacular gardens

stunning sea views

fabulous swimming pools

amusing towel origami 

elegant entrances - not to the basic room like ours though 

tropical blooms

quiet and calm

low tide and low season

lush vegetation

happy customers

serene night scenes

Who could ask for anything more?

Monday, June 10, 2013

Train, bus, ferry and a van.


We love train travel. This is a legacy of the epic journeys across China that we shared in our early days together and the sheer joy of moving on the ground and being able to clearly see the scenery outside change before your very eyes. Actually on the Shinkansen Bullet Trains in Japan the ability to see out the window evaporated due to the speed and tunnels but we still love those trains too.

We were in our absolute element boarding train 85 from Hua Lamphong in Bangkok. What could be better than first class sleepers with bus and boat connections that take us all the way to the pre-booked island resort of our choice? Well only a longer journey on the train as it turns out.

Like excited school children we were at the station a good 2 hours before departure and had thoroughly inspected the waiting area, departure platform and amenities long before our train pulled in. There was the usual crowd of backpackers, dubious characters, locals carrying all manner of boxed items and precious little luggage and gentle, smiling Thai officials. One very young boy who appeared to be a street urchin took up a seat between us and 3 young foreign travellers and proceeded to devour his KFC meal and belch loudly at each of us in turn, taking obvious delight in the reactions he got.

By the time our train rolled into the station, we had positioned ourselves on the platform at the point we estimated our carriage would be and were feeling smug about having just small backpacks and less luggage than we have travelled with in years. (Mainly due to the mountain of things now stored in the hotel we love to frequent in BKK) Of course we were the first to enter the carriage and were nicely settled in air-con comfort by the time the 14 high school graduates poured on with their well-wishing parents. A graduation trip and at least one Indian parent was glad to hear that those 14 girls had a couple of high school teachers placed smack in the middle of their group in terms of berth allocation.

When we purchased our tickets, we had been assured that there was no need to worry about the 4.13am arrival time in Chumphon, as the train would certainly be late. Reassured, we resigned ourselves to only fleeting glimpses out the windows as night fell and we departed Bangkok. The conductor confirmed for us that he would wake us before our destination and within no time we were soundly sleeping.  The regular rocking movement and repetitive sounds of the tracks is actually comforting and a lullaby for someone (like me) who usually doesn’t sleep deeply or soundly. True to his word we were woken by the same conductor just minutes before our arrival and we felt somewhat cheated to discover that it was just before 5am and only just getting light. We stumbled sleepily along the platform only to be herded into the bus zone feeling that the journey was over all too quickly.

Like clockwork, less than an hour later we were cruising towards the ferry port on a luxury bus with about 60 other likeminded tourists. After the same smooth transport transition, the high speed ferry then began depositing scantily clad backpacking youth at the first of the 2 islands and we were feeling very pleased with ourselves at having chosen the less popular and more distant island of Koh Phagnan. Unexpectedly as we alighted Ian spotted a driver for the Salad Buri Resort as we stepped up to retrieve our luggage and what do you know, within minutes we were the only passengers in a van heading past the ramshackle port town of Thongsala, with its cafes, bars and sweltering heat and directly towards our little slice of paradise!

We are now perched on a hillside in absolute luxury, by our standards, with views over the aquamarine ocean, sandy white beaches, and a swimming pool and time to enjoy them.

Why is this the first time we have ever stayed on an island in Thailand?

Friday, June 7, 2013

Bangkok and beyond!

We have now been in Bangkok for almost a week and things are certainly looking up! For the first few days I felt completely lost and panic and anxiety threatened to overtake me, then as a plan began to evolve my confidence started to return. I am still not my old self and the bewildered and betrayed feeling is subsiding.

“What to do la?” as the Bhutanese would say.
“Move on!” comes the firm reply.

We have cut ourselves some slack and decided to do a bit of travelling in S E Asia. Top on the list of places we would like to see and have never been before is Myanmar and close behind is Vietnam so that’s where we are bound. There is nothing like a completely new experience to stimulate the mental processes and activate the adventurer within.

Just before we rush off into the great unknown, we have set our sails on a bit of an island adventure in Thailand. Despite the many times we have visited here we have never been on a beach and now that it is low season and we are rather at a loose end it seems like the perfect opportunity.

As much as possible we hope to travel by train, bus, ferry or on foot but for Myanmar at least having evidence of flights in and out is a prerequisite for the visa application. Hopefully now that that process is complete we can kick back and relax until our randomly selected departure date rolls around.

Up until now this blog has been a record of places in which we have lived but it seems set to become something of a travelogue for at least the immediate future. No time like the present for a complete change.

Inspired by Nancy Strickland’s offer we are once again considering spending a year in the Thunder Dragon Kingdom. We want to be sure that that is really what we want this time so we will mull it over and as we consider our options and keep our eyes and ears open to what is still available out there or is that out here! If there is one thing that we learned in Bhutan it is that we are all responsible for our own happiness and that is going to be my focus for the next few months….. pursuing happiness.