Dinner During Ramadan

We are in the midst of the holy month of Ramadan, a Muslim observance that takes place during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar each year. During this time, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. Not only do they refrain from eating or drinking, but also purge themselves of negative thoughts. This year Ramadan began on June 28th, and goes until July 28th. Ramadan ends with Hari Raya, a two day celebration in which everyone opens their homes to friends and family and chows down on everything in sight. Or at least, that’s what it sounds like to me.

Some of Alex’s students invited us to dinner this past Thursday, so I got a little peak into how Ramadan is observed. (If you’re wondering why we were having dinner on a Thursday, it’s because that is the start of the weekend here in Puteri Wangsa. The sultan of Johor, who is a real person, decided a Friday/Saturday weekend really fit in better with his personal prayer schedule and so changed the weekend in our state.)

We arrived at the restaurant around 6:30, and waited about 20 minutes before anyone showed up. This is not all that surprising, since Malaysians tend to be quite elastic when it comes to punctuality. Slowly, his students began to trickle in. About 12 ended up coming, all of them boys around the age of 15 or 16. They all shook Alex’s hand, but most did not shake mine. Muslim men, as a rule, don’t touch unmarried women- though I think this was more a case of shyness than anything else.

Some were less shy than others, though, and this was the first question they asked: “Why aren’t you married?” I wasn’t too surprised, though, as Alex’s kids frequently demand the same of him. In Malaysia, particularly with Muslims, it is assumed that if you’re in your early 20s and are seeing someone seriously, you are married. This has been made abundantly clear because even when I tell people that Alex and I are not married, they still refer to him as my husband. In any event, I explained that people wait longer to get married in the US and that 24 is a relatively young age for marriage. They laughed in my face and all but told me that my biological clock was ticking.

Then they asked me what I do for a living, and what it is that I write. They found my explanations for this to be much more satisfactory.

When 7:17 rolled around, the boys said a quick prayer. I must note that while I was impressed that they prayed even without any adults around to enforce it, they were giggling a fair bit throughout. It reminded me of my brother trying to make me laugh while saying Grace at the dinner table when we were younger- I suppose some behaviors of teenage boys are universal.

Once the prayer was said and the sun had officially set, the boys began passing around a water bottle. I still cannot believe that these kids go all day without drinking anything, with temperatures here exceeding 90 degrees by 10:00 am. Since our food hadn’t arrived, a few of them ran across the street to buy snacks at 7-11. They munched on prawn chips and mini Oreos while they waited.

Finally, our food arrived and we all dug in. The plates ranged from fried rice with chicken to “fried rice USA” (rice with an egg on top) to octopus over rice. Naturally, all vegetables remained everyone’s plates when the meal was finished, because 15-year-old boys do not eat vegetables (though I guess octopus is not out of the question).

We chatted, and the boys invited Alex to play soccer with them that night at 11:00 pm. “If you have a date, though, it’s okay and you do not need to come,” they said. We begged off, given that we’re usually asleep by 11. During Ramadan, nighttime is just about the only time anyone can play sports or do anything physical. Playing soccer in 90 degree weather when you can’t eat or drink is a recipe for disaster (which is why all of Alex’s co-curricular activities are suspended during Ramadan).

I had a fun time hanging out with them, and observing some Ramadan traditions first hand. Alex reported back to me today that news has spread that I’m a writer and some of the girls would like to be interviewed for my blog. The material writes itself!

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A Quick Trip to Singapore

A couple of Alex’s friends spent the night with us in Puteri Wangsa this past weekend. Having exhausted all of the cultural activities in our booming little metropolis, we decided to take a quick trip across the border to Singapore.

Singapore is an extraordinarily well-developed city-state-country-island-nation-I-never-know-what-to-call-it, located south of Malaysia. After gaining independence from Britain, Malaysia and Singapore merged into one country in 1963. Political disagreement and racial tensions led to a split in 1965. Singapore hit the ground running, becoming extremely wealthy, while its neighbor to the north/east remains a developing nation.

While Singapore is a beautiful, clean, modern city that is a welcome breath of fresh air from Malaysia, it doesn’t really excite me too much. Singapore boasts an impressive number of ethnic enclaves, from Tamil Indians to Scandinavians, but feels devoid of its own unique culture and personality. Perhaps I’m judging Singapore too harshly, as it is a young nation, but it feels somewhat sterile to me.

As economically advanced as Singapore is (with the third highest GDP in the world, taking into account its size relative to other nations), it still holds some archaic social values. The most recent example of this can be seen in the country’s purging of certain childrens’ books, an action which Singapore’s information minister (a position that, to me, raises an immediate red flag) Yaacob Ibrahim helpfully explains: “The prevailing norms, which the overwhelming majority of Singaporeans accept, support teaching children about conventional families, but not about alternative, non-traditional families, which is what the books in question are about.” Translation: We need to shelter our kids from the gays! While I don’t think that Mr. Ibrahim is necessarily correct is his assumption that these views represent those of most Singaporeans (given the outrage about this decision), I do think it’s troubling that the government’s official policy on this subject is so backwards. Singapore is so successful in so many other ways, I suppose I expected more from it. Anyway, allow me to step down from my “I’m-not-angry-I’m-just-disappointed” soapbox and tell you a little bit about my weekend.

We only live about 40 minutes from the border, and it costs 1RM to take a bus there. Unfortunately, the convoluted system they’ve created to cross the border means that it takes closer to 2.5-3 hours to get there. We take a taxi to the bus station–>Malaysian checkpoint, where your passport is stamped by Malaysian Immigrations–>Bus from there to the Singapore checkpoint, where you’re stamped into Singapore–>Bus from there to the closest metro stop, where you can finally begin your journey in Singapore. It seems like it could be streamlined to be faster and more convenient, especially given the volume of people who cross between Malaysia and Singapore each day. The traffic on the Causeway, which links to the two countries, doesn’t help the situation.

In any event, we arrived without incident. I had only been to Singapore one other time, to visit their amazing zoo. This time, I was most looking forward to enjoying some delicious food, because that is the best reason I can think of to visit Singapore. On this side of the world, it’s the closest you can get to an NYC-style smorgasbord of different cuisines.

For lunch, we headed to Orchard Road to hit up the food court of one of its many shopping malls. There I had my first burger in quite some time.

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We actually do have a decent burger place (transplanted from Singapore, actually) not too far from us but the route to get there is incredibly confusing and the near relationship-ending fights that erupt when we’re lost and hangry make it more trouble than it’s worth most of the time. This burger (from Charlie & Co) was decent, but it didn’t bowl me over. Perhaps it’s the hefty American in me talking, but for the steep price I expected something a little more substantial.

This food court was huuuuge and had several enticing dessert options. However, once I spotted Twelve Cupcakes, I knew exactly how I was going to cap off lunch.

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As you can see, there were myriad options. I spent roughly ten minutes debating between Nutella, Salted Caramel, PB Chocolate and the specialty cupcake of the day, Mudslide. Ultimately I went with the Mudslide, which was a chocolate cupcake with chocolate icing and ganache and mini marshmallows drizzled in fudge. Be still, my beating heart. It was freaking amazing and I almost went back for another. However, in an exercise of extraordinary self control, I refrained.

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After lunch, we headed over to Little India to check into our hostel. The subways in Singapore, by the way, are spotless.

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Which makes sense, because…

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…the fine for eating and drinking is enormous. Clearly, not all members of our party got the memo.

After a quick nap, we set out to explore our surrounding area. If I had to describe Little India in one word, it would be colorful.

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Tamil Indians make up 5% of Singapore’s population, so it stands to reason that they occupy a sizable chunk of real estate.

After our walk, we wanted cap off our day in Singapore with a great, not-too-expensive dinner. Our search led us to Muchachos, a burrito joint in Chinatown. Mexican is one of my favorite cuisines, and I will accept it under most conditions (i.e. authentic Mexican is great, but you can melt cheese on pretty much anything and I will eat it). That said, passable Mexican food is difficult to find in Asia. I was pleasantly surprised by Muchachos. Apparently the owner had spent some time in San Francisco and knew a thing or two about Mission burritos.

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No complaints on size here. This thing was massive! And the fresh, creamy guac made me incredibly happy.

After dinner, we wandered around a bit more before the threat of thunderstorms chased us back to our hostel for the night.

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I enjoyed the day (especially the food!) but I’m not in any rush to go again. I would like to check out the Botanic Gardens, and possible do the night safari at the zoo. Otherwise, I feel like I’ve seen what I wanted of Singapore. However, I wouldn’t turn down another one of those cupcakes…

Myanmar: Final Thoughts

I had an amazing time in Myanmar. The country is beautiful and the food was delicious. Almost everyone was exceedingly kind and friendly; in most places, I felt welcomed with open arms. While I am very glad to have had the opportunity to travel through Myanmar, I did have some reservations about going. I’ve continued to grapple with them having visited and come home, too.

First, an extremely condensed version of Myanmar’s modern history: the country, then Burma, achieved independence from Britain in 1948. The man responsible for this incredible moment in Burmese history was the revolutionary General Aung San. He was assassinated just six months before Burma saw independence from Britain. Aung San (colloquially known as “Bogyoke” by the Myanmar people) is still widely loved and his legacy has been carried on by his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi. But more on her later.

The transition to independence was tumultuous. 1962 brought a coup d’état by General Ne Win, leading to the establishment of a military government. There were several student protests against the government throughout the 60s and 70s, all of which were violently suppressed. Ne Win remained in power for 26 years.

In 1988, there was the 8888 Uprising (so named for the fact that many of the events occurred on August 8, 1988). It began with university students in Yangon, and quickly spread throughout the country. Unfortunately the call for democracy was not fulfilled, and these protests, like the ones of the prior decades, were suppressed by the military. The Myanmar government claims 350 people died in the protests; everyone else puts that figure in the thousands. Aung San Suu Kyi, a prominent figure in the National League for Democracy, was placed under house arrest. 6,000 other supporters of the NLD were detained as well.

In the 1990 elections, the NLD won 392 of 495 seats in Parliament. Additionally, they received 59% of the national votes. Of course, the junta (military government) declared the election null and void, and remained in power. (Aung San Suu Kyi, by the way, remained under house arrest for 15 of 21 years, and was only released in 2010.)

When the 2010 elections rolled around -surprise, surprise- the Union Solidarity and Development Party (aka the military) won. Although this coincided with Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest, the NLD chose not to participate in the elections. In 2012, international powers were invited to monitor the elections for fraudulent activity, which was met with varying success. It did, however, lead to the lifting of economic sanctions the USA and Europe had long imposed on Myanmar. This also meant that American and European citizens now were allowed to travel to Myanmar.

Thus a booming tourist industry was born. For the past two years, this industry has greatly expanded and has injected new life into Myanmar’s economy. The question is, how should one feel about traveling to a country with a history (and present) of such gross human rights abuses?

Suppression of democracy is not Myanmar’s only problem, either. Their treatment of certain ethnic groups, such as the Rohingya Muslims, is appalling. These groups of people are made to live in concentration camps, and the violence against them is terrifying. The New York Times has had several excellent articles that explain the situation much better than I can.

Since the government controls everything, including the tourism industry, most tourist dollars go directly to the government. You’re asked to pay a fee for entering certain zones (such as Bagan and Inle Lake). Although they tell you that this money goes toward the preservation of the area, you can be sure that most of that money goes right to the junta. The same for hotels: many hotels are government owned, and even the ones that aren’t still must pay a heavy tax to the military.

At the same time, there are ways to support the people of Myanmar. By booking tours through private companies (and tipping at the end, since all of that money goes to the guide), and buying handicrafts from markets and street vendors instead of in large, government-owned stores, you can direct your dollars to the people who need it the most.

It’s also important to remember that the views of the government do not necessarily reflect the views of the people. Aside from our insane taxi driver who spewed his hate for Muslims, I did not encounter any hostility like that from anyone else. Ko Min, our trekking guide, freely discussed how he is a firm supporter of the NLD and that the government is incredibly corrupt. It’s not exactly a secret, after all.

I am very glad that I was able to see Myanmar for myself. Yes, giving money to a government that I do not support in any way is a tough pill to swallow. But going there allowed me to learn much more about the country, and most importantly, to see its changing political climate with my own eyes. I believe that large scale changes are on the horizon for Myanmar, and I sincerely hope that all issues, from basic human rights to democracy, are addressed.

Anyway, this concludes my recaps of Myanmar. I’ll be back soon with some life-in-Malaysia stuff to share!

Mandalay

Our last stop in Myanmar was a whirlwind, one day tour of Mandalay. Mandalay is the second largest city in Myanmar, located about 9 hours north (by bumpy bus) of Yangon. Mandalay is home to the Royal Palace, as well as the highest concentration of monks in Myanmar.

Since we had such limited time there, we decided the best way to see the city would be renting a taxi for the day (with another of Alex’s friends and a friend of his). The four of us flagged down the first guy we saw, and negotiated a $32 tab for the day. A pretty good deal, right?

That was, of course, until we found out about our taxi driver’s political leanings. He kicked off the ride by showing us a video on his phone of an Israeli parliament member espousing the evils of Islam. After a brief and bizarre misunderstanding of his thinking that we were all Muslim, he quickly backtracked and told us that he was a simple working man who didn’t involve himself in politics. All of this before 10 am.

Anyway, our first stop of the day was the Mandalay Royal Palace. In case you had any questions about who’s in charge…

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“Tatmadaw” is the official name for the military in Myanmar, which also happens to serve as the government. How convenient.

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The Mandalay Royal Palace, as I mentioned before, is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Mandalay. It was built between 1857 and 1859, and served as the palace for the last monarchy in Myanmar, the Konbaung Dynasty. It was first occupied by King Mindon, and later by his son, King Thibaw.

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This is the Mandalay Palace Watch Tower:

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And here are some views from the top:

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Overall, it was a cool attraction but not worth making a specific trip to Mandalay.

Moving right along, our next stop was the Schwenandaw Monastery. It was built in 1880 by King Thibaw, who dedicated the space to his father.

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Those are teak carvings, which are commonly found in temples, pagodas and monasteries around Myanmar.

Next we visited the Kuthodaw Pagoda.

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Our last stop before lunch was Mandalay Hill, which is actually how the city got its name. This was my favorite site of the day so far, as I’m a sucker for a great scenic vista.

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We were just about gnawing our arms off at this point, and made our way to Spice Garden Restaurant for lunch. We stuffed ourselves silly with delicious Indian food, of which I took exactly zero pictures. What can I say? We ate fast.

Our lengthy morning of sightseeing combined with an enormous lunch made us quite sleepy, but we did manage to squeeze in one more stop on our tour.

If you were wondering where you could find the longest and oldest teak bridge in the world, the answer is Mandalay. U Bein Bridge, a 1.2 km walking bridge, was built in 1850 and is every bit as rickety as you would expect.

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It was a nice way to end our marathon day of sightseeing, even if we had to endure a rambling account of our taxi driver’s many illegal transgressions (including but not limited to dealing heroin and pimping) on the way back to our hotel. A colorful guy, indeed.

I’ll be doing one more post on my final thoughts about traveling to Myanmar, addressing some issues that I mentioned in my introductory post awhile back. Stay tuned!

Trekking Through Myanmar

I still have a couple more Myanmar recaps coming your way (slowly, but surely). Today, I’d like to tell you about my favorite part of the trip: our trek through the countryside.

Incidentally, this was the part of the hike to which I was least looking forward. Alex loves to hike. I do not. Hiking is essentially just walking uphill, so I guess that’s partially why I don’t really understand the appeal. Of course, it’s all worth it when you reach the summit and you can Instagram the beautiful views, right? Anyway, over the past couple years, I have become less averse to hiking as I’ve started to do it more and more. That said, I was still not sure that I was up to the task of trekking (read: walking) 36 miles over the course of 3 days. But Alex was dying to do it, so I womaned up and accepted the challenge.

We started in Kalaw, where most of the treks begin. There we met up with a couple of Alex’s friends, one of whom had arranged a guide for us. Our guide’s name was Koh Min, and he was awesome. Over the next three days, he would lead us through woods, over mountains and past many, many farms to Inle Lake, our final destination.

The cost of the whole trip? $36 for three days. This included food, housing and Ko Min’s services. So if you’re looking for a cheap way to see Myanmar, trekking is a great option.

So we set off on Thursday morning, hiking for about 2.5 hours before breaking for lunch. Some shots from along the way…

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A little break for lunch…

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Chapati and pickled cabbage

Chapati and pickled cabbage

View from the farm where we ate lunch

View from the farm where we ate lunch

So with our bellies full, we headed out into the heat of the afternoon to finish up the day’s hike.

A woman separates out green tea from her farm.

A woman separates out green tea from her farm.

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We passed by a school at one point, and it just so happened to be recess. All of the kids immediately ran over to the guys, wanting to play a game of “Helicopter.”

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Since boys rule and girls drool, I didn’t get to partake but I did get some good photos! They were total hams for the camera.

As we walked, we did make a few stops to rest. The drink of choice was always hot tea, which makes sense given that it grows everywhere, but strange because I never think to drink hot tea in hot weather (though this is common in Malaysia as well). Here’s a shot from a roadside tea stand:

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Later on, we took a snack break shortly before reaching our destination for the evening. On the menu? Fresh yogurt with a little sugar and sliced banana. Given my stomach troubles earlier on in Myanmar, and the fact that I don’t equate dairy with being the most refreshing thing on a hot day, I was a little wary of it. Ko Min seemed to sense that, and assured me that it was “safe to eat.” Good to know. It actually did turn out to be a nice little treat.

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Around 5 or so, we reached our homestay, located in a small village of about 100 people. Families receive a small stipend for allowing us to stay, and we get to see how Myanmar families live.

There was no electricity, running water or indoor plumbing. Instead, they had a giant battery hooked up to provide a couple lights upstairs. Showering was done outside with a bucket of water. I did not end up showering because I actually wasn’t quite sure how to go about it. Women usually wear a kind of towel cover-up while they shower, but I didn’t have one. Nor did I think to bring a bathing suit, which probably would have been my best option. Oh well. I contented myself with make-up remover wipes and being quite smelly for the next few days.

These were our beds (excuse the blurriness)…

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The view from our room, both when we arrived and by sunset, was absolutely gorgeous.

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We were absolutely exhausted, and were all asleep by 7:30. Which was fine, because we were up-and-at-’em early the next day…

This breakfast was delicious: tons of fresh fruit, and crepes with chocolate. And tea. Always tea.

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We needed it, too, because Day 2 was the most grueling day. I think we did around 14 miles altogether, but the morning was especially long (around 8.5 or 9 miles).

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As beautiful as Day One’s mountains were, I think I liked the scenery of Day Two even more. Between the farms and rolling hills, I half-expected Maria von Trapp to pop up and start singing.

This complex of pagodas was planted in the middle of the woods, and we randomly happened upon them.

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Almost there…

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We made it to our second homestay, with a steaming hot cup of victory tea waiting to be imbibed on arrival.

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We awoke the next day for our last day of hiking, which would bring us the shores of Inle Lake. Admittedly, I was both physically and camera-ally fatigued at this stage, so I don’t really have many pictures from the last push.

Here is the amazing Ko Min, though, as we were ferried across Inle to our hotel:

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As lengthy as this post is, it’s an extremely condensed version of all the amazing things that we saw in our trek. It was long and tiring, but completely worth it.

If you’re looking for an excellent guide for your own trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake, please consider booking with Ko Min. You can email him at kalawcountryside@gmail.com, or find him in Kalaw right next to the Honey Pine Hotel (it’s a small town and is easy to find).

 

Bagan

After a harrowing 9-hour bus ride from Yangon, we arrived in Bagan at around 4 am. Bagan is a city located about 3 hours southwest of Mandalay, and is known for having the highest concentration of Buddhist pagodas and temples in the world. There used to be over 10,000 such structures in the Bagan region, and 2,200 of them are still standing today. 

In order to enter the Bagan Archaeological Zone, you must pay a $15 fee. I’ve been trying to determine how much of that money goes toward the preservation of Bagan, and how much ends up lining the pockets of the government. The notorious corruption in Myanmar leads me to believe a significant portion of that money goes to the military. Nevertheless, the fee is unavoidable (even if you roll in in the wee hours of the morning). 

I also have another glowing review for the hotels in Myanmar. The Zfreeti Hotel allowed us go to our room as soon as we arrived, despite the fact that it was about 10 hours before check in time. Given our sorry state, we were eternally grateful.

While Alex was still feeling under the weather, I felt well enough to go on a short walk that afternoon…

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It was so oppressively hot that I was only out for about 30 minutes. Strolling around, I realized, is not the way most people see Bagan. It’s far too hot and sprawling for that. Still, it was a great taste of what we would see the following day.

By the next day, with both of us back in tip-top shape, we hired a horse cart to take us around to the different pagodas.

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Our first stop also happened to be my favorite pagoda of the day. The caretaker (and seller of souvenirs) told us a little bit about the history of it, and let us take in a view of the region from the top.

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This painting of Buddha is over 800 years old, and made it all the way to 1975 without much incident. An earthquake that year did significant damage (we heard a lot about this infamous earthquake throughout the day).

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And to answer your question, yes, our feet were quite grubby even after just one pagoda (you always take your shoes off when entering a Buddhist temple). 

Next up was the Thatbyinnyu Temple, one of the tallest pagodas around at 216.5 feet. 

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Roundabout Pagoda #6, temple fatigue was hitting us hard. We were sitting outside of (another) pagoda, when a woman told me that I looked very hot and motioned for us to come with her. She mixed us up some thanaka, a paste made from ground bark that women put on their faces as make-up. It also has the wonderful side effect of being a protectant from the sun and cooling on the skin. It’s not uncommon for little kids, or even men, to wear it as a facial sunscreen.

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We both felt much better and ready to take on (a little) more sightseeing before lunch.

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I know I don’t have a whole lot of information about individual temples, but they all started blending together a bit. I wasn’t interested so much in the individual architecture of each one as I was in the overall feeling of Bagan. It felt so different from Yangon: though touristy, it was quieter and better suited my mood for the couple of days that we were there. What I’m trying to say, even though it’s incredibly cheesy, is that Bagan felt magical to me. I was enchanted by the landscape, and the continued kindness of the Myanmar people. 

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Yangon

After a two-week(+) hiatus, I’m back from Myanmar/Burma with pictures and stories and fun facts to share. I mentioned in my last post that I had something prepared about the ethics of visiting Myanmar, but I’m saving that post for later on. I have some new insights that I’d like to add in, and I’m still gathering my thoughts on the whole experience.

But first, let’s backtrack: Alex and I have been in Myanmar, formerly Burma, for the past two weeks. Our trip went like this:

May 30th-June 1st: Yangon (formerly Rangoon, and formerly Yangon before that. Colonialism makes things confusing.)

June 1st-4th: Bagan

June 4th: Kalaw

June 5th-7th: Trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake. I remember exactly zero names of the villages we passed through on the way…great when you’re writing a blog, I know.

June 7th-10th: Inle Lake

June 11th-12th: Mandalay

If you’re sitting there thinking, “Wow, I don’t know a single thing about any of these places at all,” then you’re about where I was about a month ago. I was aware than Myanmar is a country located somewhere near India (right next to it, as it turns out), and that Yangon is the nation’s capital. I didn’t find out until I got to Yangon that it’s not actually the capital. 0/1 on my Myanmar trivia.

But Yangon is the only city you can fly into from Kuala Lumpur, and so it was our first stop. Despite no longer being the nation’s capital (it was moved to Naypyidaw in 2006), Yangon remains the largest city in Myanmar. It is chaotic and congested in the same way as many Asian cities. The sidewalks, crowded with everyone from tiny monks no older than seven to street vendors hawking tempting bites of fried food, must be carefully navigated in order to avoid bumping into anyone. The acrid smell of exhaust fumes permeates every breath one takes. Traffic, needless to say, is a nightmare.

That said, Yangon appealed to me in that it is the least Westernized city that I’ve ever visited. There were no McDonald’s or Starbucks dotting every corner (or any corner, for that matter). Aside from a few foreign visitors in the city and an apparently increasing number of donut shops, the West has not yet arrived in Yangon. I found this refreshing, though I doubt it will remain this way for long. While most people were welcoming, I also got the sense that a sizable number of people resent the rapid arrival of tourism in their once-isolated country. Mixed in with the kindness were more than a few disapproving looks. Though it’s difficult to describe exactly why, I found this weirdly refreshing.

Spending a couple days in Yangon was a great introduction to what the rest of our experience in Myanmar would bring. Here are some of the highlights.

Located in downtown Yangon, the Sule Pagoda is said to have been built over 2,500 years ago. In addition to being a Buddhist place of worship, it also served as a meeting place during the protests of 1988 and 2007.

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The Shwedagon Pagoda, not to be outdone, is said to be over 2,600 years old. It is the most significant Buddhist site in Myanmar, boasting the largest pagoda in the country and an impressive array of smaller shrines. We went for sunrise one morning, witnessing the complex coming alive for the day. It was one of the most memorable aspects of the entire trip.

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Yangon was also where we were introduced to Burmese food. My favorite dish was a bowl of rice noodles, topped with a spicy peanut sauce; cilantro; crispy, fried onions; raw onions and cabbage. It costed $0.50 on the street and even came with a bowl of soup. I had it on our first night, when it was pitch black out, but here’s a picture of a similar dish (because clearly I need to show you what a bowl of noodles looks like):

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Unfortunately, our luck with food took a turn for the worse. On our last night, we went to 19th Street to enjoy some of its famous grilled “street meat.” Essentially, you choose from a wide array of skewered meats and vegetables (which have been sitting out for an indeterminate amount of time), which the restaurant then grills and serves to you. Well, that turned out as well as you’d expect. We both got food poisoning, which lingered for the next couple of days, and nearly caused us to miss our bus to Bagan the following night.

Luckily, the hotel (Hninn Si Budget Inn) where we were staying was owned by the nicest woman in Yangon, Khine. Not only did she let us stay way past check out time, but she even gave us medicine, electrolyte drinks and chicken soup. We wouldn’t have made it to Bagan without her!

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While our last day in Yangon was sidelined by sickness, I found that our first two days there were enough to see the major sites and get a feel for the city. If anything, it made me anxious to leave the city and see what else Myanmar had to offer.

 

Weekend In Pictures

So, Alex and I are going on a trip to Myanmar (formerly Burma) in a couple weeks. In order to do this, we had to go to Kuala Lumpur this past weekend and apply for a visa. I made the mistake of writing “Freelance Writer” for my occupation, which immediately raised suspicions and prompted questions about what I write, and if I’ll be writing anything “sensitive” or “political” about Myanmar. 

Wouldn’t dream of it!

Here is a nice, boring post of pictures from the KL Tower:

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(We did get our visas, by the way.)

Singapore Zoo

Anxious to get as many stamps in Mercedes’ passport as possible, we decided to take a quick day trip down to Singapore last weekend. It’s incredibly easy to get to Singapore from where we live; I can’t believe we hadn’t yet made the trip. You grab a bus at Larkin Bus Terminal, make a transfer at the Singapore border, and take another bus the rest of the way in. We didn’t hit any traffic on the way home, and the whole trip took less than an hour.

After choosing the worst customs line ever, getting questioned about every single stamp in my passport (methinks he was just very impressed with all of my travels), and nearly getting some feminine products confiscated, we were on our way to the Singapore Zoo. The 69-acre Singapore Zoo consistently ranks as one of the top zoos in the world, with a heavy focus on natural habitats and cage-free environments.

Here’s a walk through our day at the Singapore Zoo. (Warning: This post is super long. Feel free to bypass my commentary and just look at the pretty pictures, if you’d like.)

This tapir greeted us as we walked in. He was behind glass on one side, but as we rounded the corner, we realized his space was completely open, save for a bar and a pool separating us from him:

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Next up is Omar, the fiercest white tiger in all the land. The only thing that kept Omar from eating our faces was a big moat. That didn’t stop him from stalking us, though, and he looked damn good doing it:

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Next we saw some dueling hippos…

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And fed some giraffes!

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My favorite part of the day was the Fragile Forest, a rainforest recreation that’s entirely free range. It’s a little bit like snorkeling on land: you become part of the habitat as you roam around alongside all of the animals.

I could have watched these butterflies for hours, but settled on photographing each one from every possible angle.

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We also saw the Malaysian flying fox aka one of the biggest bats in the world, with a wingspan of up to 2 meters. I was standing underneath a branch of fruit, and constantly felt like I was going to get dive-bombed as they swooped in for their snack.

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We also made friends with a few ring-tailed lemurs. The males use their fancy tails to attract a mate.

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Possibly my favorite animal in the Fragile Forest was the two-toed sloth. After watching a zoo employee petting him, we sneaked in a couple head pats ourselves. So spiky! This guy is the slowest mammal on the planet – so much so that algae grows on his fur.

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While we probably could have spent much longer in the Fragile Forest, we still had a lot of zoo to cover.

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Anyone who knows me well, knows that it took a lot of guts to take the above picture. But he looked cool and reminded me of Kaa from The Jungle Book. So I sucked it up.

To shake off the willies from the reptile house, we headed over to the white rhinos in time for their feeding.

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We learned how properly to feed the rhinos: with our left hands, by sliding the fruit down their horn and into their mouths.

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Next up were the lions, who were also receiving a little snack:

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Om nom nom.

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Moving right along…we happened to wander by the baboons during their feeding time as well. While I tried scoring a free banana to throw to them myself, I settled for watching them instead.

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Our last stop of the day was the elephant show, though I must say that we were dragging by this time (mid-afternoon, after waking up at 5 am to catch our bus). So while I don’t have many pictures of it, it was very cool. I was also happy to learn that their elephant training program is overseen by an animal rights group, which checks to make sure the elephants are being treated appropriately.

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Okay, so I was sort of too tired to take any pictures during the show, but you get the idea. We peeled ourselves out of our chairs and stopped in the gift shop on our way out. I coveted an adorable penguin wearing earmuffs, for the low low price of 22 Singapore dollars (roughly 18 USD). At which point I said – “Take me back to Malaysia! Where I can afford the stuffed animals!”

I highly, highly, highly recommend visiting the Singapore Zoo if you’re ever in the area. The Bronx Zoo is usually the standard against which I hold other zoos, but this one far surpassed it. I love the focus on creating real habitats and natural barriers, so that even if the animals are technically caged in, it doesn’t feel like it. You’re still able to get so close to them – sometimes very close, as in the Fragile Forest – that it almost doesn’t feel like a zoo at all. It was a fantastic experience, and I’ll definitely be back.

Railay Beach

Welcome to my final post on Thailand, and perhaps my favorite day of the entire trip (okay, they were all kind of my favorite, but you get the idea). When you party as hard as we did (half a Heineken at 8:30, out like a light by 9:00), it can sometimes be difficult to get up early. Somehow we managed, and were on Ao Nang Beach (the one right near our resort) by 8:00, ready to catch our longboat to Railay Beach for the day.

We waded into the water and boarded our boat for Railay, a skinny peninsula that connects Krabi Town and Ao Nang. It also happens to have some of the most phenomenal beaches in Thailand/the world. We quickly learned that on the boat ride over…

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 All of this before 9 AM. Then we arrived at Phra Nang Beach, and it was gloriously empty.

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While Mercedes swam out to that rock/cliff, I read my book and sneaked a selfie…

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Unfortunately, our solitude didn’t last. As the morning wore on, more and more boats arrived with tourists and our private beach filled up. We decided to take a walk to the other side, to check out West Railay Beach.

In order to get there, we walked along Phra Nang at high tide. The beach was lined with resorts that had guards posted to make sure no one cut inland from the beach, so our only choice was to wade in the water. We clearly didn’t enjoy ourselves very much:

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We reached the end of the beach and found Phra Nang cave, which you can pay to enter…or just snap a few pictures as you walk by:

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When we finally reached West Railey Beach (it was quite a journey), we were starving. Mercedes was feeling adventurous, and ordered this:

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This is miang kham, a popular snack in northern Thailand. Chopped shallot, ginger, garlic, chili, lime in its rind, peanuts, dried shrimp, and ground coconut are wrapped in a betal leaf, and topped with palm sugar sauce. It was sweet and salty and crunchy and really delicious.

We grabbed some coconuts to-go and headed back to the beach.

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By mid-afternoon, it was unbearably hot and we were jumping in the water every five minutes to cool off. We said a sad goodbye to Railay Beach, but enjoyed our boat ride back to Ao Nang.

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That’s it for Thailand! I highly recommend Krabi to anyone who’s looking into traveling to Thailand. It’s beautiful, has plenty to do and is much less crowded than Phuket.

And if you’re not convinced, I’ll leave you with this:

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The perfect end to an excellent vacation!