Monday, November 28, 2016

Hanoi Vietnam

In Thailand I was sick for two nights and it took me a full day to recover, most likely from food but can't say it's from street food. It's so easy for food to be contaminated and I was eating at descent places recently. It's humid, sunny, sleep deprived so there's so many other factors that make this such a terrible experience. Luckily, I had my own nice bathroom during this time. 

A few mins before I went to the airport things seemed to stop. It was a full day planes/airports and I  sick free to Hanoi Vietnam. I met up with two friends from sweet little homer, Alaska. We hoped to meet up at some point and we happen to come the same day to Hanoi. Crazy awesome timing.

Hanoi is ruled by motor bikes. You have to just walk right in front of them with confidence to cross the street. There are sidewalks but motorbikes park on them. Surprisingly the streets are pretty clean. It's winter, but super refreshing to feel the fall like weather. Locals looked at me as they wear their winter coats and I wear my dress and sandals. 

We walked to a lake and visited "Ngoc Son Temple, built in the 18th century on Jade Island in the centre of the ‘Lake of the Returned Sword’. Legend describes how an emperor was once given a magical sword which helped him defeat the Chinese Ming Dynasty and in doing so saw the return of the Golden Turtle God to the lake."

Super layers of complex history here. In the afternoon, I visited Hoa Lò Prison built by the French in the late 1800s, colonized this country till 54. The French held Vietnamese political prisoners and later it was used by North Vietnam for U.S. Prisoners of War during the Vietnam war. 

The vietnamese were held in terrible conditions. The loyalty and will of the people, even in prison, was amazingly strong for over 50 years. 

After japan surrendered WWII, Vietnam declared its independence. It Took about 9 years to release the prisoners and 30 years before a united, communist Vietnam became reality."

After dinner we caught a glimpse of some street performance. The vocals gave us a headache. The guys are getting over something worse than I had so they didn't join me on my next stop which is a bummer. 

Everyone says visiting Sapa is a must to do a trek and homestay to see the rice paddies and endless greenery. After two nights, I hoped on a morning bus which is used for overnight. The seats went way back but it's built for small frames. I opted to stay on the second level as I never seen such a bus before. Super excited for my next few days In Sapa. A bit nervous about the cold as its way on the mountains, let's hope the ski clears a bit too.  I won't have wifi for 3 days!!

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Cave & cooking class Inle lake & Mandalay

 One morning I rented a bike to visit a nearby cave. It was only a 30 mins ride through a small village and nice green landscape views. Getting out was the tricky part, biking so close to the cars and trucks. No bike paths here. Everything needs a good cleaning  after Myanmar especially my backpack. 
The cave was pretty big and beautiful with many Buddhas inside and two monks. I don't think I've explored a cave on my Own before. Pretty neat and a tad scarey; iPhone's flashlight worked pretty well as I didn't pack my headlamp for this trip. 

My last day at Inle lake I opted for a cooking class, which was more like a cooking demo. I booked it with a nearby local, small family business called "My Parwnts" who are known for their messages. I wanted a short class as it was my last day; I was her only student. on the way to a local market, I saw a long snake cross our road. She said "lucky, lucky". Whew. 

Her and her family had to do some prep work- setting up the outdoor kitchen, table inside the message area and prepping the food. She pretty much did the cooking while explaining to me, in basic English,  the ingredients and measurements. Very different than the Thai cooking class but this was still entertaining. The family is so sweet, I just love them. 

While waiting, her family put their local root cream, thanaka  on my face that they all wear for sum protection. It was so refreshing at first, after a few hours it dries up and it's slightly uncomfortable. 

A few days earlier, I was here for a message; my first international one. It was a traditional Burmese style. We lay on the floor on a thick matt with our clothes on.  It was a pressure point technique, very thorough all around;  my legs and shoulders badly needed it. They only charge $6 for an hr, I gave them 10. 

I parted ways with my Dutch and Austrian friends and took a 7 hrs bus to the second biggest city, Mandalay, as my fight leaves from there. We were sadto leave this special place and each other. 

At my hostel, I quickly made friends with two young American guys. It's the longest I spoken to an American since my time in Tokyo 5 weeks ago. With only one full day, we walked for hours. We saw the Royal palace; we didn't go in but saw the massive endless walls behind the moat. Visited  kuthodaw pagado - the world's largest book built in 1868; Each shrine contains a large marble slab inscribed with sacred texts. 

Walked an hour and a half to start walking 1,729 steps up Mandalay hill. Nice views, and met a very cool artist using ink then oil to seal it and make it waterproof but the oil smelled like gas. Either way buying some of his art was the highlight of the day.
I was super tired but went with a few others to the infamous U bein bridge. About 30 mins drive, and the world's longest (.7 miles) teak bridge and oldest built in 1850. The bridge felt old, at times it waved because of the number of tourists waking on it. It was nice to see monks visiting as well. The sunset was gorgeous. 

Myanmar will have a special place for me as it does for many others I met. It's hard to describe it. Yes there's tourists here but it's still not super westernized or developed yet. People are happy to see us and are very kind. It's a beautiful interaction in a beautiful place. It's a bit tough getting around wth the buses and dealing with limited wifi. I wish I had spent more than 2.5 weeks and hope to be back sooner than later. 

Friday, November 18, 2016

Balloon firework festival - Myanmar

Eddy, our Austrian friend whose been here 5x, loves meeting people. He's a photographer and his fb webpage is exit hamster.  He organized two vans for 12 of us to go the the hot air balloon competition to celebrate a national holiday. The festival has been going on for days. it's been raining unusually hard dyring their dry season. We've seen muddy shoes at the hostels and heard crazy fun stories. 

I still wasn't sure what to full expect. We went to the festival on the last day, on the super full moon. We've heard it took  hours to get there vs the normal 45 mins because now so many tourists want to experience this local event. Hotels have been booked up and buses leaving town are now also full.

Internet is still spotty and super slow. I'm so happy I booked everything days ago before I arrived to Inle lake. It's been frustrating to try to save my pix to create space for more and trying to book hotels, bus and air for my next steps. I have no idea how I travelled before smartphones!

The streets were full of vendors,  tattoo booths, games and food with garbage piling up everywhere. Fireworks go off from the actual balloon as soon as they take off. Our first balloon started shooting fireworks down at us and we all ran as if we're in a battle zone, people fall and don't look down.  We were all shaken up, some more than others. We were told that usually the fireworks go up safely but it can happen that they backfire in a way. 

The second balloon was doing ok and then started shooting at us again. In the midst of chaos, I somehow lost the group. I wandered around and surprisingly not so many tourists were in sight, I was ok with that. I managed to find the group later on closer to the balloon action. 

I've never been to burning man but I and others thought of that while seeing people in a circle dancing, singing, drums beating; Wanting to see something catch on fire. The excitement by the locals could be felt by us all. 

Our 3rd balloon caught on fire the second it went up. And we were very close, another chaotic run away. Luckily no one got hurt and they had fire trucks ready to take care of it. I got some pix but the videos do a better job showing what happened. I have videos on the Google album link that is below. 

After that we took a break. Later on we saw the other balloons beautifully lit with candels. After the festival, We were told that there have been deaths, this week a child caught on fire. 

We went on the Ferris wheel that is manually powered by 5 teenage boys that run around like monkies to get it going pretty fast. The seats and box was so small and Blondie is so tall and scared of heights. She was screaming at first and the two locals teen boys sitting with us were entertained. Nice views of the massive crowds; we saw another balloon up with fireworks. The best ride ever!!!

The night ended with some awesome techno music. even Myanmar beats America on the club scene. Again, we were the only foreigners there and this time the local chicks seemed to love us. One asked if I was single. She was happywithbmy response and said she is 28 and single is the best :) we danced with them, took photos, at their request. They kept asking us "are  you happy?"  So cute!! Some were wearing hats and coats. It's so hot here especially at a dance club. It's their winter but I'm amazed they were actually cold. 

I heard about this festival when I landed here but didn't intend to go until the Dutch girls invited me on their journey. Happy I came and experiencd a crazy cultural event. Below is some info I found online about the holiday and balloon festival. 

"The Tazaungdaing festival, also known as the Festival of Lights and spelt Tazaungdine Festival), held on the full moon day, is celebrated as a national holiday and marks the end of the rainy season."

"In Shan State, particularly in Taunggyi, hot air balloons lit with candles, are released to celebrate the full moon day. The balloons are released as an offering to the Sulamani cetiya in Tavitisma, a heaven in Buddhist cosmology and home of the devas, or as a way to drive away evil spirits, although the origins of the tradition date back to 1894, when the British first held hot air balloon competitions in Taunggyi"

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Inle lake: floating market boat trip and biking to winery

It's a great exchange between us, visitors, and the locals, as they smile and wave their hands to us, we wave back, take a photo and they take photos of us. On the train ride here I saw a sign showing two people kissing and an X over it. I later read showing display of affection is prohibited, again not sure for the reason behind it. 

The main attraction is a wooden boat trip on the lake with options to see the floating tomato garden, pagoda, monastery, and markets. There's a local market and than the tourist market. We opted for local and passed on the silversmithing, silk weaving and the long necked ladies. 
Long neck women are still sprung though I sense the young girls are forced to do it for the tourist, which is why we passed on it. However when we visited a handmade umbrella place, 4 long neck women were there. Two were teenagers. They also had a metal ring below each knee, not sure of that purpose. I was told the weight of the neck rings pushes their shoulders down creating the long neck. They never take it off. The girls looked miserable and i thought to myself they are prisoners. I didn't take a photo of their misery; just a pix of this artwork I saw elsewhere. 

In the early morning, we saw the famous one legged fishermen. Unfortunately, they don't fish anymore. As soon as they saw us they started posing, which is nice of them and we got some great shots. But i felt like I was at a zoo trying to give a banana to a monkey to do tricks. There are real fishermen on the lake but look pretty regular. Learning as I go. 

On our first dat, we rented bikes for $1.50 for the day to visit a nearby teak monastery. It was so beautiful at night We stumbled upon an old pagoda that was pretty unique with little statues with a person's name on it and the date and their state and country. We have guide books but they don't list everything so we don't know much about what we are seeing. 

In the afternoon, we biked 30 mins to a winery. Great biking except you are side by side with the trucks, motorbikes, huge buses making us extra dirty. It's been pretty cloudy here but still humid; lucky for us he rain stopped after our first night here.  We arrived sweaty and ready for wine. It wasn't the best wine ever but drinkable for some, including me. Still it was a great ride and views!

Pix link of the floating market and so much more on the lake 
Pix link of pagado and winery

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Kalaw to Inle lake - Myanmar

I took an overnight bus to Kalaw. Though it was super plush with a bathroom,  nicer seats and even a neck pillow, I just don't sleep well and it will be my last night bus. 

 two Dutch girls, from my hotel in bagan, invited me to join them after only exchanging a few words. We hoped to do a day track but we decided not due to a very rainy day. we drank beers (the first at 8:30 which is new to me but locals were drinking too), ate yummy Indian food and got to know each other better. 

Being up for 24 hrs and loosing my mind after  hearing about trump was a rough day. I felt sick and it was hard to normalize. So far travelers have been treating me nicely, just asking me how this could have happened. It's crazy because sometimes foreigners know and care more about our foreign policies than we do. 
I think for those who don't leave their homeland, and/or don't have foreign friends, they don't realize how big of a deal this was/is to the world. I will leave it at that. 

Thankfully, I was able to buy headphones and phone charger. I've noticed many of the sellers, even our waiters, are children. Like under 14,  not in school. It's weird to ask your child server for a beer! 

There's a small Indian population in Kalaw; the food has been great but still very oily. This will be the closest I get to India as I don't have a desire to travel there. 

One Dutch girl is super blonde; she's the celebrity with people asking for photos and offering her fruit on the train. We did a short hike up a hill to see the view and saw a monastery with a school for kids. when they are a teenager they can choose to leave.

 Just outside the monastery, there were about 30 dogs with skin issues and scratching nonstop, including the poor pups. You also notice pregnant/or just gave birth dogs with the ribs showing :(

 We took a 3 hr train to Inle lake area. Originally I was going to do an overnight hike and homestay but I can do that in Vietnam. I later learned from a traveller, it was the highlight of her trip and better to do a 3 day trek. 

We arrived at the train station 2 hrs early to get a ticket and attempt to avoid the rain clouds we saw coming in. Observing the locals was pretty nice.  There was much confusion about the tickets. They said seats were full with only standing room available. They told us we can buy tickets at 1, train arrives at 1:15. So how are the seats full if you can't buy tickets till 1? No answer. 

The slow moving, old train filled with locals showed up 30 mins late, which isn't so bad for here.  I was hoping that we at least get on the train but we managed to score seats; Comfy ones too and enjoy the beautiful views on a cloudy day. 

The Dutch girls met an Austrian, whose been to Myanmar 5x now, when they first got here. We met up with Edward on Kalaw and will travel all together for the next few days. he's been super knowledgable on where to stay and arranging plans for all of us. 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Bagan - ancient romantic city of pagados

 We took another 7 hrs bus from Yangon to Bagan, their old Capital, with 2,000 pagados remaining from 10,000. The bus played a dvd with random Asian chicks covering romantic songs in their lingo. Then they played a violent British old mob  movie. So strange cuz this was a local bus with children on board. I couldn't event watch it. 

Finding your bus and being on the bus is harder than  back home. It's like every simple task is a real mission and that's my new job now - to just make it to the next place. I spend so much time reading hostel reviews, looking at maps, comparing prices. It takes an hour to book a place after all that research. It just wears on you u after a while. 
How the hell did I do this 20 years ago, even 15 years ago before I had an iPhone. I so date myself while I talk about my past travels with the younger travelers I meet now. iPhone traveling is such a new and amazing handy tool for me. I left my phone chord last night and I worried so much about that on top of the trump news, I couldn't sleep. 

The phone does it all for me. At least I have my phone but I can't even find floss here, so I thought this might be difficult. Luckily It was not difficult. Shellie departed today to carry on with her schedule. Very sad but happy for the times we had. And I connected with two Dutch girls and we are on the same route to Kalaw and then Inle lake. 

Biking to the old pagados, working on the tan and doing an activity besides walking was such an awesome experience. Felt like I was somewhere in France for some strange reason. Pretty romantic but tiring in the strong sun. When we stopped to look at the map, I started sweating instantly. When we biked the breeze was a relief. 

Dhammayangyi Pahto,  a red brick temple, is the largest one and only built In 3 years starting in 1137. We learned it's rare to have two Buddhas side by side and this is the only one here. Bagan is known for earthquakes and they constantly have to repair these ancient structures. They didn't do the repairs like the oringials so the world heritage org rejected this magical place. 
Ananda Pahto temple was built by 1105. Our first temple in bagan. Super busy and popular,  we were heavily approached by the vendors. We went to another one that was on The map but not mentioned In the book. It truly felt abandoned. No noise. Lots of beauty. I even got to pee for free in the bushes! My kind of place. 

Ive seen ruins and temples in turkey and SE Asia but this was such a different atmosphere that we've seen so far on our SE Asia tour.  You could rent an e-bike (one step down from a moped) for cheap. They go slow and seem ok but we played it safe. 
We did a sunset on a pagado, on the way back it was super hard to avoid the huge puddles and mud. We got a free mud feet bath though. What a day!

Monday, November 7, 2016

Myanmar - the Yangon and chuang thar beach

 As soon as Shellie got her visa in Vientenne, we booked our flights and a hostel for Bangkok enroute to Yangon in Myanmar, formerly know has Burnma. It won Its independence from Britain in the 40s and they renamed their country in the 80s. 

Shellie didn't know a thing about this place but she had time and was game. I've been planning to come here and knew the places to hit. Sadly she had a tighter schedule but we worked up a good plan. Amazingly it seems hotter here and right away u can feel how different this country is compared to Thai or Laos. 

People are darker, real slim and guys wear a wrap like a long skirt called a longyis. There's hardly any sidewalks and when there is one, it's mobbed with street food vendors. 90% Buddhist makes this ccountry and we have been trying to respectful covering knees and shoulders. 

Not much English is spoken here as tourism is still ne and English was discouraged after they won independence from Britain. In the early 80ss, visitors were restricted to stay only 7 days then they closed themselves off to the world for 20 years. 

We traveled by bus and only spot 5 white travelers a day. I think there's more Asian travelers, specifically Chinese. 

We spent a day in Yangon, visiting the drug ellimination museum, learning how opium from India crippled Myanmar and they recovery in the 70s. Then we had an unexpected and challenging task of finding a travel agent to book many buses. Electricity goes out frequently here throughout he country, even in the big city. Lucky for us it went out just after we sorted out our bus tickets and routes, which took 1.5 hrs to do!

First overnight bus experience for us to chuang thar beach. 7 hrs freezing in the air con and The road is so bumpy and winding, you can't even sit in your seat let alone sleep. 

Spent a lovely two sunny, hot days at the beach and in the warm Bay of Bengal. Ate local fresh fish for $6.  Hardly any tourists here compared to the nice more expensive beaches. Locals came up to us to stare, say hi, take a pix with us. We felt like celebratities. 

Locals swim with their clothes on so we felt very weird  and naked in our bikinis, but covered up a bit when we came out. Teenage boys would follow us in to the water to take a pix. At first we were a bit unsure what the heck was going on. 

Our last night we went out for a beach sunset and stumbled upon a rock concert for free. Iron Cross is their most popular band since the 80s. We were totally the only white chicks and the boys just loved us. They played some cover tunes we recognized and we sung it in English. What a crazy, fun night. 

The boys asked if we were ok. People smile. The stares feel awkward but they are innocent and we are pretty new for these peeps. I'm so happy I didn't come here alone though. Traveling here is a tad more difficult as they are trying to catch up with the times. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Party pretty Vang Veing and Capitol Vientenne

 Another 7 hrs minivan ride we got to Vang Veing. We read and heard it was a party town but it was also one of the prettiest places in Laos with heaps of outside activities. When I hear party I think booze. Boy were we wrong. 

There were a few special places that sold pot, but a closer look at the menu, you will find mushroom tea, opium tea and even ice, not for soda. What really meth? No thanks. Lucky for us this place was even crazier 5 years ago and many bars have been shut down. I can't imagine the mayhem. 

There's corruption involved, like  if u smoke pot at your hostel, they will call the cops. And for $600 you get your passport back and need to leave the country. Really not worth it. We kept hearing stories and warned everyone we met. 

We stayed 6 nights at a super cheap, beautiful bungalow just outside the crazy center. It's the longest I stayed in one spot since I left Alaska on 8/8.  We visited the blue lagoon and dove in to it with a rope type swing, so much fun.  We also went  tubbing on the Mekong river, which is more about visiting two bars than being on the water for long. 

Such a weird experience to grab on to a plastic bottle tied to a rope that a 10 yr old launched so my white ass can visit a bar by the river. It's so weird being that tourist person and I feel for the locals who see us here ruining their space and culture and they must think we have it all to be wasting it all and they are not wrong to think that. 

Another day we walked in the painful sun to visit a famous cave. "Tham Chang is considered one of the most important caves in town because it was a refuge during the Chinese Haw invasion in the 19th century, and home to an entire village seeking protection during the civil war."

The last day we went cave tubing which was a very neat experience. Overall you can party in this spot with just drinks but if you have a good location, you can avoid the craziness. We went out for dinners and I was asleep by 10. One night the cow bells on the property woke me up at 2am. 

We did go out dancing one night and that was fun to do something I would have done with my friends in homer and haven't done in a month. Can't do touristy stuff everyday while on such a long trip :) 2.5 months left. Agh.  

Many pix links: