Friday, December 26, 2014

SNW to RGN to BKK to NRT to SEA to MSP

Last Thursday, we embarked on a lengthy series of flights.  Final destination: Christmas in Minneapolis!

A brief flight brought us back to Yangon, where we revisited our favorite restaurant (999 Shan Noodles) and bar (the Strand).  We also discovered a beautiful new pagoda with an absolutely massive reclining Buddha.

The following day, we arrived back in Bangkok for a stopover of less than 12 hours prior to the longest series of flights.  We didn’t have time for many adventures, except for accidentally having dinner at some sort of Thai version of Hooters.

On Saturday, 22+ hours of flights brought us all the way to Minnesota.  (Despite the lengthy flights, we managed to arrive in the US not long after our original takeoff time in Bangkok -- the international dateline continues to boggle our mind!)

In Seattle, we may have started to hallucinate.  Regardless, we began to get into the Christmas spirit when Rudolph joined us in the Delta lounge.

Here in Minnesota, we’re enjoying time with the family as we decorate the Christmas tree, cook Christmas dinner, and sing Christmas carols at the annual holiday party.  Merry Christmas!

We retrace most our route back to Bangkok tomorrow.  We will celebrate the New Year before anyone else in the northern city of Chiang Mai, Thailand!

#stephandgio (and Lisa)

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Inle Lake and Ngapali Beach

From Bagan, we flew over the mountains to spend three days relaxing on Inle Lake in eastern Myanmar.  Green mountains ring the 13-mile long lake.  It was almost as if we were in Switzerland instead of Myanmar! 

As soon as we embarked on our first boat ride, it became clear we weren’t on a Swiss lake (or a Minnesotan one, for that matter).  Our boat glided through the dense floating gardens lining the shore, where an immense variety of crops are grown via ingenious methods and  are tended via canoe.

From the gardens, we entered the vast expanse of the central lake where the wooden boats of local fishermen were scattered across the water.  The fishermen at Inle are renowned for their unique and unusual way of paddling – with their legs.  We were fascinated by the various fishing methods on display.  Some utilized unusual cone-shaped nets and others snared fish in ingenious traps.  All fishermen, however, wrapped one leg around their oar and skillfully steered their canoe in every direction.  This method freed their hands for manipulating the nets and traps.  As the fishermen simultaneously paddle and maneuver their nets, they look like ballerinas balancing precariously on their canoes.

Some villagers work alone setting to make and set their own traps, while others take a more cooperative approach.

In the afternoon, we spotted several fishermen congregated in one area.  In a horizontal line, they all moved in the same direction while repeatedly slapping the water with their paddles.  Our guide explained they were scaring the fish into the nets hidden in the reeds, which they had strategically placed earlier in the day.  Who knew that fishing would ever be so fascinating?

We motored across the clear blue water to the western edge of the lake and entered a series of canals cutting through the reeds.  Houses and shops perched on stilts lined the canals and were connected by various wooden bridges.  It was as if we had entered a rural Venice.

The canals eventually led to Indein, where our guide docked the boat.  We followed him along the dirt paths until we began to climb a hillside strewn with crumbling brick stupas.  As we made our way up the hill, renovated glittering golden structures began to replace their ruined counterparts.  We entered the main pagoda and realized we had arrived in the middle of the morning prayers, as a monk chanted into a microphone and worshipers repeated his words in unison.  A random middle-aged white woman meditated amongst the other worshipers.  Gio surmised that she was in the “pray” portion of her Eat Pray Love sabbatical.

After winding through a new series of canals, we docked at Phaung Daw Oo Paya in the middle of the water, home to several Buddha statues that are the focus of an annual boat parade on the lake.  The parallel with Venice did not end at the canals; as locals and merchants went about their day inside and outside the pagoda, we felt we had stepped into a Burmese version of St. Mark’s Square.  The pagoda houses five small Buddha statues in a shrine at the center.  Stephanie had to admire the shrine from afar as ladies are not allowed to get too close to the precious statues.  Locals regularly purchase gold leaves to add to the statue – and contrary to the Buddha we had encountered in Mandalay, there is no restriction on rubbing gold on their faces, so the statues look more like large gold eggs than a Buddha.

The day’s final destination was Nga Hpe Kyaung, more commonly known as the “jumping cat monastery.”

Apparently, the monks there have taught the resident cats to jump through hoops and perform other tricks.  Stephanie was pretty excited to visit this tourist trap – maybe the monks would give her tips on teaching Ephraim to follow instructions!  Sadly, although we found several resident kittens and cats lounging around, none were jumping through hoops.  Either the cats had their own agenda or the monks were busier with more important things.  Also, instead of jumping through hoops, we thought a better use of the monks' time would be to toilet train their cats as they used the floor as one giant litter box.

As we puttered back to the hotel in the fading afternoon light, we agreed that there are few things better than spending a day out on the water, be it Inle Lake or Lake Minnetonka!

Back along the shore, we luxuriated in our very own bungalow perched over the water.  At the last minute, we discovered that a brand new five star hotel had opened on the lake and still had introductory rates.  We quickly traded in our prior backpacker accommodation for a lakeside bungalow.  For our three days in Inle, we had the hotel practically to ourselves and we marveled at the views from the fantastic infinity pool as well as the bar suspended over the water.  We had arrived back in the first world!  (Sidenote – our hotel was just one of many brand new construction projects.  You should visit Inle Lake now!)

With bikes borrowed from the hotel, we set out to explore the lakeshore, biking to the nearby Red Mountain Winery to determine which country has worse wine – Myanmar or Madagascar.  For the record, the soil of Madagascar is our least favorite terroir.  To our surprise, Burmese wine was not terrible.  We did not, however, purchase any bottles to replace the Bordeaux at Christmas dinner and continue to think that South Africa is a superior wine tasting destination.  Regardless, we always enjoy a glass of wine overlooking beautiful vineyards!

From Inle, we flew southwest to Ngapali Beach, a gorgeous stretch of white sand on the Bay of Bengal.  Of course, further airport adventures ensued as mists had enshrouded the airport and all the flights in and out were delayed.  Once the fog had lifted, a dozen airplanes landed in quick succession.  To make sure all the passengers boarded the correct aircraft, airport staff marched through the departures lounge with bullhorns and handwritten signs – the signs were significantly more effective than the shouted instructions.  Lucky for us, we followed the correct sign and boarded a southbound flight without anyone ever having scrutinized (or even haphazardly checked) our passports or boarding passes.

Soon after we touched down on a runway overlooking the sparkling blue ocean, we were ensconced under an umbrella on the main stretch of beach.  The outlying islands and jungle-clad coast provided the perfect backdrop to the crystal clear warm water.

We hired a boat to take us out to the offshore coral reefs and spent one morning happily snorkeling amidst schools of brightly colored fish.  Our boat driver joined us in the water to spear a few of the fish for himself, proudly showing us his catch, which mysteriously included two puffer fish.  What was he going to do with two poisonous fish?  We have no idea, but he promised none of the local restaurants would serve them for dinner.

This area is still amazingly undeveloped, making Ngapali an incredibly laidback destination.  The only vendors on the beach wanted to sell fresh fruit and the group of children that offered daily horse rides in the sand really just wanted to spend their time galloping back and forth themselves.  We found various restaurants along the sand selling the catch of the day and we could see the fishing boats heading out to open water day and night.  Towards the end of the day, there was nothing else to do but watch how the setting sun changed the colors in the sky.

Several new hotels, however, are also under construction.  Ngapali can’t remain a small fishing village for long and seems likely to turn into the next Phuket.  Just like everywhere else in Myanmar, we recommend you go now!


Thursday, December 18, 2014

Bagan: Temple Safari!

Last Sunday, we arrived at a pier on the banks of the Irrawaddy before sunrise.  Tickets in hand, we were ready for a daylong cruise south to the ancient city of Bagan (formerly Pagan).  As our boat slowly motored down the river, we had a lazy day watching the activity on the water as barges of logs and oil made their way in the opposite direction.  Local fishermen were busy on the sandy banks and distant pagodas glinted in the sun.

We were a bit confused when the boat decided to make a stop by the side of the river in the middle of nowhere to pick up a few new passengers.  As the crew placed a plank between the boat and the shore, hordes of villagers ran to the riverbank to sell bananas and deep fried snacks.  As soon as Stephanie went to the railing for a closer look, a volley of bananas and samosas was launched in our direction.  Steph immediately ducked given that she doesn't catch and Gio took over the negotiations.  Once he threw back the items we did not intend to purchase, we had to pay – and thus began a game where we floated currency off the side of the boat hoping it would reach the correct merchant.  This process, however, made negotiating much easier.  Another passenger refused to pay the asking price, tossed half the amount of kyat requested, and took his bunch of bananas back inside the boat.

We arrived in Bagan at sunset, so we had to wait until the following morning to begin our explorations.  Bagan is one of Myanmar’s ancient capitals and, more importantly for a modern-day visitor, is filled with temples built in the 12th century.  Thousands of brick temples of all shapes and sizes fill the dusty plains and visitors are free to wander through the archaeological zone to visit any or all of them.

We structured our visits to the temples of Bagan like a self-drive safari, with plans to stop at the must-see temples, just as we had made plans to stop at specific watering holes for the best animal sightings in Africa.  Each day, we plotted out a route in advance but left room to diverge from the predetermined course in case we encountered anything particularly interesting, like a secret temple that the guidebook had missed.  Given there are over 3,000 temples in the area, this was quite likely.  Only about 1% of the temples (if that) are indicated by name on tourist maps and most are simply labeled with a number.

The best time for viewing temples (just like wild animals) is in the early morning and late afternoon, as it is quite hot in Bagan.  With this in mind, we spent a great deal of time seeking out the best sunrise and sunset viewing locations.  Although the guidebook had various suggestions, we were constantly on the hunt for a “secret” location all to ourselves to avoid the crowds.

Giorgio took fabulous photos of the sun setting over the ruins from Pyathada and Buledi temples, both recommended by the Lonely Planet.

Of course, we weren’t the only ones there, as others had discovered these picture-perfect views as well.  Vendors selling t-shirts, bus loads of Chinese tourists, and several Asians with tripods set up camp on the upper terraces with us.  Even in the midst of so many visitors, though, the stunning views were more than worth it.  (We would also note that these two temples were the “less crowded” destinations; the hordes of tourists were actually at Shwesandaw Paya, packed in like sardines on its steep steps.)

We also found what we now refer to as Steph and Gio’s secret temples for a more solitary sunrise and sunset experience.  During our explorations, we came across a few temples set back from the dirt path.  None of them had names and they hadn’t attracted any vendors.  Regardless, they contained hidden stairways tucked into dark corners that led to terraces with spectacular views out over the plains. 

At one stop, we clambered through some of the thorny bushes (always mindful of snakes) and found a temple entrance that was gated and padlocked shut.  However, some previous intrepid visitor had pried open the metal at the bottom, leaving just enough space to crawl inside.  We found walls covered in ancient paintings, a large Buddha statute, and several small Buddhas in various niches.  This unnamed temple was more elaborately decorated than many of the larger, more famous sites.  iPhone flashlights in hand, we found a small entryway to the temple’s staircase and crouched down to climb the narrow steep steps.  We emerged onto the sunny terrace to see Bagan’s magnificent temples arrayed in front of us, including our favorite, Sulamani Pahto.  Taking out our map, we determined that we were at Archaeological Site #761.  Furthermore, we determined that this would be the perfect location to watch the sun set over the plains and river to our west.  Returning later that day, we clambered even higher up the temple’s brick terraces and settled in.  A few horse carts and bikes passed by below, but no one else stopped to join us on our hidden terrace.

Some of the best views of the temples came from above.  We had planned a balloon trip over the temples well before we had even left the US.  Although this was a bit of a splurge, we determined it would be a once in a lifetime experience.  Plus, Gio had never been on a hot air balloon before!  

On Tuesday morning, a pre-WWII Chevy CMP bus, which was partly made of teak, picked us up at 5:20 am sharp.  Along with the balloon’s other passengers, we piled into the unique vehicle.  We arrived at a large football field still enshrouded in darkness and found several uninflated balloons arrayed on the grass.  Our Chevy parked alongside one of these and we alighted to have coffee and meet our pilot.  Once it became a bit lighter out, we crowded around to watch the staff inflate the giant burgundy and gold balloons.

Following a brief safety presentation, we climbed into the basket and slowly ascended to over 2,000 feet.  As we floated over the temples, Giorgio conquered his fear of heights to take several amazing photos.  There were no crash landings and about an hour later, we touched down to celebratory champagne alongside a few rice paddies and peanut fields.

The following morning, we woke up early to catch the sunrise and watch the balloons float south over the temples.  In the dim light, we scooted back to another “secret” temple we had found while off-road exploring the previous day: Archaeological Site #854.  After a brief scare entering the temple when we stumbled upon a local sleeping in the corner, we climbed the narrow stairway to watch the sun rise over the mountains.  One other couple biked across the dirt road and spotted our secluded spot.  They eventually joined us on the terrace and we all settled on the temple’s northern patio for the real show: watching (instead of riding) the balloons over Bagan.  The winds had changed since the prior morning and the balloons were clustered much closer to the temples.  From afar, many appeared to come close to crashing into some of the taller spires.  Some of the balloons did, in fact, crash land alongside Dhammayangyi Pahto, missing the second half of their journey.  We have no idea what went wrong (a change in the wind?) but did see the Balloons over Bagan Chevys speeding back north to catch up with the pilots and passengers.

Balloons, of course, were not our primary means of transport to explore the thousands of temples dotting Bagan’s vast plains.

Many tourists rent electric bikes (you only need to pedal if you feel like it), but Steph’s biking skills are precarious at best and she wasn’t sure she could handle the responsibility of a bicycle with its own power source.  With this in mind, Giorgio rented a small electric scooter from the stand across from our hotel for our three days of explorations.  Unfortunately, there were no trustworthy Japanese products on offer, leaving us with a slightly less dependable Chinese scooter.

Noting that “Lefu” was emblazoned on the bike’s side amidst various Chinese characters, Steph christened our scooter “Le Chien Fu.”  Every time Gio turned the scooter on or off, it would speak to us in Chinese.  Was it telling us to stay safe and have a nice trip?  We aren’t really sure, but that’s what we like to think.  As we headed back to our hotel in the dusk following sunset on our first day of explorations, we discovered (the hard way) that our scooter had other things to tell us in Chinese.  As we became repeatedly mired in the sand, Le Chien Fu would startle us with three sharp beeps and a previously unheard stern warning.  It would then refuse to proceed unless Stephanie got off and walked.  Perhaps it was telling her she was too fat?  This process repeated itself several times, and at the same time we managed to become hopelessly lost in the growing darkness.

When we came upon a village and paused in the middle of an intersection to peer at our map, various children and adults appeared to direct us to the highway.  With their help, we were back on the tarred road in no time and driving back to the hotel.  Our scooter, however, was quickly running out of power and resumed her endless beeps and dire warnings.  One final hill was simply too much for her to handle, and we both had to get off and walk the rest of the way to the hotel.

As we explored the temples of Bagan on our marginally trusty scooter, we were able to discover the vast archaeological site on our own.  Even though Bagan is one of Myanmar’s busiest tourist sites, none of the temples were as busy as those of Angkor Wat and many others were devoid of visitors entirely.  We noticed a great deal of construction and are sure that Bagan won’t stay this way – go now!  The most popular temples can get a little crowded with tourists and hawkers repeatedly insisting, “you buy, good price for you; first sale, lucky money for me.”  But the vast majority of temples remain havens of peaceful solitude with no one else in sight.  Also, just like the Tsingy in Madagascar, we are convinced that many of the temples will have predetermined paths and areas will be closed in the future due to preservation (some upper terraces are already closed to the public).

We saw countless temples, so many that we can’t pick a favorite, let alone describe them all.  Each was unique in its own way – we found elaborate paintings hidden in dark corners, incredibly detailed stonework adorning entryways, and innumerable Buddha statues of all shapes and sizes.

Some temples had their own key keepers, meaning that a local who lives in the area or on site can open the temple gates for you and show you around.  We met one young key keeper who showed us all around and happily practiced her English with us, asking if Giorgio was from China and what our favorite colors and fruits were.  Fields of corn and peanuts surround the temples, and we found ourselves in multiple traffic jams caused by herds of goats and cows. 

After four days, we traded the magic of Bagan’s temples for the tranquility of mountain-ringed Inle Lake, in eastern Myanmar, followed by the endless white sand beaches of Ngpali.