Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Why I Love Living Abroad

I love days where I feel connected with the local culture and the people of Cambodia. Tonight was the first time I interacted with Ra, a Khmer colleague, outside of work. Usually expats hang out with one another after work but locals tend go home to their families. But today we invited Ra out with us to catch the sunset and for dinner. It was nice to share our experiences and learn more about each other outside of the professional environment. It was such a great learning experience for all of us. We realized that no matter where we grow up, parents are still the same everywhere. Growing up and gaining our independence was a challenge for all of us and where we were raised did not matter.

A colleague’s wife gave birth today and the office was buzzing with excitement. Ra asked me and another colleague from Australia about the terms associated with pregnancies in the west. We ended up explaining what “being in labor” and what “my water broke” meant. It was hilarious and entertaining but also informative. In Khmer, Ra knew special water came out of a woman.  He just didn’t know what that meant. That’s when we realized even though he was 24 years old, he was very sheltered. Men and women are raised very differently in Khmer culture. Young women might have known about this but the young men wouldn’t because of the conservative nature of their society. 

There is apparently a code of conduct for girls and boys. It is called Cbpab Srei for girls and Cbpab Pros for boys. These two books literally outline the way girls and boys should behave throughout their life.  Men are no longer expected to follow it but women are even though it was banned from schools in 2007. The book of rules encourages total obedience to one’s husband and his happiness. They are also told to deal with any physical abuse that comes their way and wait for their husbands to calm down. Girls are also told to avoid eye contact with elders because eye contact signifies disrespect. In the villages and in some aspects of city life, many people still expect girls to behave this way. I am surprised I never heard of this before. Oh and this shouldn’t come as too much of a shock but these rules were written by a man in the 1800s. 

Society is changing at a pace the conservative members of the community can no longer control. It will be interesting to see how this impacts Cambodia within the next five to ten years. 

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Laos: Vientiane and Vang Vieng

Nikunj and I went to Laos over Khmer New Year. Many countries in Southeast Asia celebrate New Year’s during this period including Laos, Thailand, Nepal, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. We took advantage of our three day vacation by adding two more days and exploring a new country before we leave Cambodia in May.

During this annual three day event, Laotians celebrate the last day of the year on the first day, a neutral day on the second day where no one is believe to age, and the first day of the new year on the third day. The celebrations were not slated to start until Monday but the public started celebrating as soon as the weekend started. In case you were wondering, they were welcoming the year 2557.

Sleepy Laos is north of Cambodia and does not get as many tourists as Thailand or Vietnam but is still considered to be a part of the Southeast Asia travel circuit. The country’s natural beauty is what attracts visitors. It is best enjoyed without an agenda. Everyone has their own impression of each city and some just visit Luang Prabang. I would recommend going with an open mind and forming your own opinion because we ended up loving every city for its own uniqueness and for the first time in a while, I felt like I did not give a country enough time.  Our stops for the week were Vientiane, Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang.

Busy with deadlines, we both pushed our luck during Friday evening rush hour traffic and cut it a little too close but luckily our flight was delayed by 45 minutes so everything worked out in the end. We arrived in Vientiane around 8pm and were picked up by our hotel’s shuttle. We decided to stay at Aroon Residence because it provided free shuttles to and from the airport, free breakfast and was centrally located from everything. We were able to walk to the river, the sights and to the restaurants.

On our first night, we explored the main strip and decided to grab dinner at Khop Chai Deu, which literally means thank you very much. This corner restaurant was bustling with energy, live music and was filled with expats and locals. It was the perfect way to immerse ourselves into the local scene.

We spent the next day getting know Vientiane. Our day started at Patuxai, the victory monument. This is a smaller replica of the Arc de Triomphe and is surrounded by a nice park, a fountain and for $.50 you can even go to the top for views of the city. It was too hot to enjoy the grounds but we did climb to the top.

Our next destination was Pha That Luang, a gold covered stupa considered to be most important monument of Laos.  It is also considered to be the center of the city. We did not walk around three times to stay in Buddha’s good graces again because it was too hot. But we did admire its gold from every corner and explored the temples around it.

On our walk back to the hotel, we experienced our first bout of Pi Mai celebrations. Pi Mai is the local name for the three day New Year celebration in Laos. While we were walking, we saw kids attacking each other with water guns and buckets of water and thought it was cute. Well two minutes later two of these kids ran after us and managed to drench our backs with water. This playful incident prepared us for what the next five days would be like.

After a quick escape from the heat, we headed back out. Our first stop was Wat Sisaket, considered the oldest temple in Vientiane because it survived the Thai invasion. The best part about this temple was walking the cloisters around it. They hold thousands of miniature Buddha statues and each hallway was unique in its own way. This is where I realized that Buddha has a variety of hand gestures and each means a different thing.

By the time we finished, we were starving and decided to head to Kung’s Café for lunch. The restaurant is in the outdoor garden of a family’s home. It took us a few minutes to find it because it is tucked away in a small alley. The wife and mother serve as hostess and cook. The meal was super cheap and very delicious.  It provided a nice escape from the main streets of Vientiane. Rumor has it the restaurant will be moving soon because the neighborhood will be demolished to make way for a new high rise.

Our next stop was Haw Pha Kaew. It was built to serve as the official temple for the Royal Family but was destroyed by the Thais. Its name pays homage to the Emerald Buddha which was stolen and now sits in the Grand Palace of Bangkok. This temple is actually diagonally across from Wat Sisaket but we were too hungry to visit them back to back. 

We tried to visit  the local Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE). Between 1964 and 1973 the United States dropped over two million bombs in Laos, making it one of the most heavily bombed countries in history. A third of these bombs did not detonate and have since been causing casualties across the country. Unfortunately for us, we arrived and found it closed for the New Year.

Exhausted from walking all day, we decided it was best to relax by the river and catch the sunset. We got a tuk tuk, negotiated a price and even managed to get a cheaper price than the one we were quoted for our excursion to Buddha Park the next day. We exchanged numbers and  felt very accomplished to have secured a great deal.                                                          

The riverside area looks pretty similar to the one in Phnom Penh, just smaller. We sat along the edge of the riverwalk to people watch and stare at Thailand across the river. We started to hear music from a nearby restaurant and decided to check it out. We loved that this busy spot was filled with locals and that the band was playing covers of old American songs.  We got a seat on the terrace and had the river and the setting sun as our view. It was a perfect place to unwind after a long day. We noticed everyone getting one particular appetizer and decided to ask the people next to us about it. They said it was a delicious chicken dish and so we got a plate. After about 30 mins, I finally decided to state the obvious. This was not chicken. It didn’t taste bad but it wasn’t chicken. Nikunj and I started laughing and settled on the fact that we just had some sweet and sour fried frogs and were tricked by our neighbors.

The night market takes place every night along the river and luckily, it was right below us. The art was beautiful, the people were kind and the prices were fair. I ended up buying two woodblock prints and a dress for a total of $15. I loved that it wasn’t just for tourists. It was nice to keep seeing the locals and the expats frequent the same places in Vientiane.

After dinner, we walked back to the hotel and asked the concierge to call our tuk tuk driver to confirm our 8am pick up for tomorrow. He said yes, yes and we went to bed. Well the next morning, 8 am came and went and there was no tuk tuk driver. We followed up with the morning receptionist and when he called the tuk tuk driver it turned out last night’s receptionist had cancelled our trip. Lesson learned and we already knew this but this served as a good reminder- yes, yes in Asia never means yes. It usually means they have no idea what you are talking about.

In the end, it ended up working out for us because for an additional $5 we were able to get an air conditioned van instead of a hot tuk tuk. Buddha Park was a strange place. It houses a weird collection of Buddhist and Hindu sculptures but most don’t actually make any sense. And the park provides no context for why things are the way they are so we left very confused.

Vang Vieng
The journey to Vang Vieng was pretty painless and took about three hours. Upon arrival, we were trying to find our hotel and mistakenly asked a local tuk tuk driver for help. He drove us around in a square and we ended up right where we started. He collected $2 for the trip as soon as we sat in his tuk tuk because he knew he was scamming us. Well the hotel was three doors down. We yelled at him and sent a lot of bad karma his way and felt stupid and then let it go because it was only $2.

Our hotel was amazing. We booked a room at Inthira because it was in a great location and looked very cozy. We decided to have dinner at Sanaxay restaurant. We chose it because it was packed with people and everyone looked like they were having a good time.  We ordered Chicken Laap with sticky rice and Tom Yum Soup. Laap is a Laotian staple and I highly recommend it but everything we had was delicious! The group at the table next to us were  visiting from China and invited us to join their party as we were leaving. Nobody spoke English. Their party of 12 kept taking turns to get a picture with us. After a few minutes of laughing and enjoying the randomness of this experience, we decided to say goodbye.

We were only in Vang Vieng until 3pm the next day because everyone had described it as a party town. In hindsight, I would have ignored these comments and given myself at least two nights in Vang Vieng because it is absolutely beautiful. Yes, there is tubing on the river. But it is so much more than that. There are amazing caves and great hikes and lots of local villages.  

View from the toll bridge
The next morning was the first day of the New Year and the city had transformed over night! Everyone was on the streets dancing and throwing water at anything that moved. Young, old, foreign and local, it didn’t matter. We strategically walked through the town in hopes of avoiding the water attacks. When we crossed the toll bridge, people in pick up trucks and bikes were getting drenched with buckets of water. Luckily, they spared us because we were on foot. We finally crossed the river and had no idea where we were going but knew we wanted to hike up a mountain. A young boy noticed us and was sweet enough to take us to a path we would have never found on our own. He told us we would reach the top of the mountain within thirty minutes.

I had not been on a hike since I left America and man was I out of shape. But the fact that there was no marked trail (or so we thought) made it worse. We were jumping and climbing up things we probably should not have been and were about to give up when Nikunj spotted a plastic bag on a tree and figured it was the trail. Luckily it was! Our trail markers consisted of plastic bags and really thin strips of orange fabric. We made it to the top one hour and twenty minutes later. If you look at the picture above, we climbed up the mountain on the far left. The view was totally worth the trouble. We could see the surrounding mountains and all of Vang Vieng. It was a little uncomfortable to sit and enjoy the view because of the sharp limestone rocks. We did the best we could to take pictures but left with blisters and bruises.

The hike back down was much easier and we managed to reach the base in a little under forty minutes. It was amazing to have seen a different side of Vang Vieng. We were drenched in sweat and to cope we were requesting kids to throw water at us! During our walk, we discovered a small lunch spot overlooking the river. We grabbed a table and ordered Chicken Laap and enjoyed our remaining hour staring at Vang Vieng's beautiful landscape while watching locals sing and dance to their heart's content. It was absolutely perfect. 

Thursday, April 24, 2014

10 things I have learned during my time in Cambodia

Today was the start of my final 30 days in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Over the last 24 hours, my feelings have been jumping between excitement, fear, and nostalgia. I started to think about what I would say if someone asked what I learned during this experience.
  1. Value your freedom. We are so lucky to live in a country with basic human rights (well almost all of them). It is very easy to criticize our system but at least we have one. What about those who have no voice? Think about how they live.
  2. Our passport is an asset. We get treated differently because of it. I have seen so many friends get extra scrutiny at the airport simply because their passport is from an unfamiliar country. 
  3. Just do it. It sounds simple but it really is that simple. There are so many people in my life trying to figure out what to do next and which idea to choose but the reality is you wont really know until you try. And it really isn't that scary after you take the first step.
  4. The little things we complain about on a day to day basis seem so trivial when people around us are just trying to survive. 
  5. Access to information is a luxury that many don't enjoy.
  6. Surround yourself with people that inspire you. It is so important. It is easy to get depressed during this process but the people around me made all the difference.
  7. Optimism is healthy. The work I do is challenging and the impact is questionable at times but the small wins are just as important as the big ones.
  8. I am not going to miss my bathroom! Everything is in one space and whenever I take a shower, the entire bathroom floods and it is really annoying to use it afterwards. 
  9. Never say there is nothing to do, no matter where you live. There is always something to do. I am finding myself discovering new things even this late in my stay. 
  10. This is a really tough experience. If you do it right, you challenge yourself and really get to know your limits. You grow and have to be honest with yourself. It is life changing.
There is no way I can describe my experience in one sentence but if you want to hear stories, I am more than happy to share :)

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Myanmar: Bagan & Mandalay

We arrived in Bagan at 4am. Our eight hour bus ride was actually one of the most comfortable over night bus rides we have had. The seats reclined, we had blankets, and we got snacks and drinks. And we arrived on time. We were expecting delays because buses never arrive on time in Cambodia.

Once we got in, we got in the back of a pickup truck taxi and headed to Mya Thida hotel, a quiet hotel in New Bagan. We were totally caught off guard by our first glimpse of the temples. They came out of nowhere and their beauty left us speechless. We couldn’t believe where we were! We kept turning right and left to observe them all in the predawn light. Suddenly, our desire to sleep and shower went away but we knew we had the next few days to explore so we decided to continue on to the hotel.

After settling in and napping for a few hours, we freshened up and headed out to explore in the afternoon. We grabbed a quick and cheap local lunch before securing our rides for the day. We decided on renting bicycles and figured it would be help us stay in shape while getting us from one sight to another. Needless to say, after 30 minutes of biking we realized we should have rented ebikes instead. Lesson learned- don’t try to get in shape after being lazy for 3 months.

It was also really hot. We were advised to stay in between 12-3 because the sun’s heat becomes unbearable. We finally realized why men and women wear skirts in Myanmar, better known as Lyongis. You can get them in many fabrics but for day to day activities most people use cotton. The fabric is tied around the waist and runs down to the ankle. Men tend to fold it up to their knees when it’s too hot. Now we konw why.

Back to our excursion. It was so nice to explore on our own and stop whenever we felt like. We rode from New Bagan to Old Bagan without any real itinerary. When we stopped to look at Thatbyinnyu Pahto, a young man approached us and asked if we wanted better views. Without hesitation, we said sure and followed him. He took us to a smaller, less known temple next to Gawdawpalin Pahto. As a gesture of respect, we took our shoes off before entering and followed our new guide. He helped us climb to the top for the beautiful view. It was just about time for sunset and we had 360 views of the river and the temples around us. We were not alone. There were loads of local kids there and once we said Ming la ba, hello in Burmese, they couldn’t stop giggling and asking us a lot of random questions. It’s amazing how much of a difference an effort to connect in the local language can make.

After enjoying our view, our guide took us to a nearby temple for another sunset view. We felt totally spoiled and like we were living in a dream. Before saying goodbye, Zimoe (our guide) offered to show us some of his art. We happily agreed to look at his work and were blown away and ended up buying a few pieces. We thanked him again for showing us his favorite temples and for providing us with a great first day. After another local dinner, we headed back to the hotel. Once we got back, we met our German neighbors in the room across and discovered they were heading to Mount Popa the next day. We wanted to visit the extinct volcano and asked if we could join them and their friends. They were very sweet and said of course.  

Our day started bright and early at 7:30am. After a quick breakfast at the hotel, we headed off with Sylvia and Jutte and their two friends. We never expected to spend a day with German ladies in their 60s but it was so much fun. The two friends were a bit reserved and cautious because we challenged their definition of normal. But we didn’t care because Sylvia and Jutte made us feel at ease.

Our tour started at a Whiskey distillery outside of Bagan. I have absolutely no interest in Whiskey and took this time to just observe the people and the process. I was amazed people could even try Whiskey at 8:30am! Besides the whiskey, there were vendors selling local crafts, candy and one woman was putting thanaka on guests. Thanaka is a yellowish paste made from ground bark and the Burmese (both men and women) apply it to their face as a form of sun block. Naturally, we followed and got some on our faces as well. Initially, it did have a cooling affect but I’m not sure if it actually protected my skin all day.

Thirty minutes later we were on our way to Mount Popa. Our first sight was a spot 15 minutes away from the mountain. This was the perfect photo op spot because it offered views of the mountain while highlighting how high we were about to go (5000 feet above sea level). After taking in the view, we carried on and arrived at our destination. This sight is definitely not just for tourists. Locals are the primary visitors because the mountain is a pilgrimage sight. There are numerous temples at the base and on top of the mountain. We climbed up 777 steps to reach the top and it was an underwhelming experience for me. The views from afar and the journey were much more interesting than the actual temple.

Once everyone had their fill, we headed back to Bagan. We were all tired and ready for a nap and a shower. Our German friends were done exploring for the day but after a quick rest, we decided to head out for the sunset. This time we opted for ebikes. These motorized scooters were a dream. They were fast and didn’t require any effort from us!

Shwesandaw is recommended for sunsets but it is filled with tourists. We drove around and chose a smaller temple nearby with equally amazing views. The sun started setting just on the time and the views were incredible. We were all silently staring at the sky because we had no desire to do anything else. We also met a lovely couple from England at the temple. They had been to Burma in the seventies when they embarked on a road trip from Calcutta to London in a beetle. The best part of traveling is meeting fellow travelers and exchanging stories from your favorite trips.

We drove back to New Bagan and met our new German friends for dinner. They were so intrigued by our rides that after dinner, we gave them all lessons. It was a little scary but we all had a blast. One of them really enjoyed it and decided to rent an ebike the next day. 

We had an early start on our last day. We woke up at 4:30 in order to catch the sunrise. We got on our ebikes and went back to the same temple from our first day. We didn’t realize we could get there from the main road and ended up taking a dirt road there. This quickly turned into an adventure because a stray dog started chasing us. I think because we woke him up. It was really scary because it felt like he was going to jump on the bike and start attacking us. To make matters worse, our bikes were not steady on the dirt path. When we finally got on the main road, we quickly parked and ran up the temple and climbed up to our seats. While waiting for the sun, we saw the dog come up the steps! We could not believe he followed us in! By this point we were trying to figure out how to scream for help if it came to that.

Luckily, the same kids from the first day also came to catch the sunrise and chased the dog away. The sun started to rise and slowly lit up each temple one by one. It was  breathtaking. And then the hot air balloons started coming up. We just smiled and watched. Ill never forget this sunrise.

We headed back to the hotel for breakfast and mapped out which temples we actually wanted to explore from the inside and headed back out with an ambitious itinerary and a tiny lonely planet map. Our first stop was Dhammyangi followed by Sulamani and Pathyda. All three were very well kept and because we went at an odd time, there was nobody there. We literally had the best temples all to ourselves! Dhammyangi is the largest temple in Bagan. Sulamani is one of my favorites because of the well preserved frescos inside. These murals are from the 12th-19th centuries and were absolutely beautiful and really do transport you to another time.

Pathyda was by far the best for the views. No matter how many times we saw the temples, the view never got old. We had to take a lot of dirt roads to get there and it was totally worth it. This huge pagoda has the largest open terrace up top and is in the middle of the plains. The fact Jenny and I had it to ourselves made the experience even more special.

We finished our day by driving through Old Bagan and exploring the other side of town and the river. After a quick lunch, we left our hotel on a pickup and said goodbye to the temples one last time. We had an absolutely amazing time in this magical city and would highly recommend you go before it is transformed by the tourism industry.

Our trip was slowly coming to an end as we headed to Mandalay, only a short 3 hours away. After settling into the hotel, we headed out for a quick and cheap curry and paratha dinner at a local spot. We didn’t really connect with the city on our first night probably because it was late and things quiet down pretty early in the evening.

Our plan was to take a local shuttle boat across the river for a day in Mingun. We were told the jetty was about 15-20 minutes away so we decided to walk. After walking through the local markets and seeing the hustle and bustle of Mandalay we realized that 20 minutes had already passed but we saw no sign of the river. We asked again and were told just another 10 minutes. It ended up being a good 45 minute walk and we missed our ferry by 5 minutes. The people of Myanmar are extremely punctual.

This is when we met George. He felt bad for us and wanted to help and one hour later, we had our very own taxi for the day for only $20. We spent the hour learning about his city and his life. I am not sure what we would have done if he had not helped us.

Our taxi was a pick up and so we jumped in the back and started our very bumpy but fun ride to Mingun. Mingun is 90 minutes away by car and is known for its unfinished temple. The unfinished temple literally has a pile of bricks inside. The outside frame also has giant cracks from an earthquake. The construction was stopped because of a prophesy that stated the country would be destroyed once the construction was completed. This wasn’t very exciting so we proceeded to the Mingun bell. People say it is the largest working bell in the world and the builder was executed in order to prevent him from making anything similar. We poked our heads under the bell and got some nice photos.

The best part about Mingun is Hsinbyume Pagoda, otherwise known as the white temple. Its wavy exterior is striking and unique. It has seven tiers which represent the seven mountain ranges around Mount Meru, the center of the universe in Buddhism. The view from the top includes the Irrawaddy River and the surrounding hilltops.

On our way back, we stopped in Sagiaing for another great panoramic view and then headed to U Bein bridge. The bridge is laid over Taungthaman lake and is made entirely of teak wood. This was an extra special place for me because it is on the cover of the Lonely Planet Southeast Asia book I purchased two days before moving to Cambodia. U Bein is actually in Amarapura which is only 15 minutes from Mandalay.

The bridge is busy all day since locals use it regularly to get from their homes in Taungthaman village into the city. We arrived around 3pm and crossed over the almost 4000 ft long bridge. Our first stop was Kyauktawgyi Temple. There was barely anyone there aside from a few monks. We decided take some time out and try to meditate. It was a calming experience even if I could only do it for about five minutes. Jenny stopped at ten minutes.

After exploring the grounds and watching a few locals weave baskets, we headed to a lake front café to wait  for the sunset. We recounted our favorite parts of the trip and how amazing the whole experience had been for us. And then the sun began to set. It was so bright and golden. The sun just bled in to the sky and we had one of the best views overlooking the lake and the bridge. After we were fully satisfied, we decided to head back but noticed the staff of the restaurant throwing empty coconuts into the lake. They asked us to join and we did along with one of their children. The laughter from that experience connected us all and it felt like a very intimate experience.

When we began to walk back, we noticed a group of monks getting out of a van and heading towards the bridge. Jenny quickly ran to take pictures and then somehow we became monk groupies. They started asking us a lot of questions and we all began to walk on the bridge together. Two of them spoke perfect English and were telling us about their temple in Yangon and their trip to Mandalay. The other tourists on the bridge were staring at us with confusion because they couldn’t understand how we managed to infiltrate the group. It was refreshing to hear that they were just like us and want the same things in life, they just also happen to be monks. Halfway through, they began to head back to their car and we said our goodbyes. This is where we met the pakora man and almost began to cry. 

After we crossed back to Amarapura, we found our driver and headed back to the hotel. What was supposed to be a day in Mingun ended up being so much more. It really goes to show that you never know what will come your way. You just need to be ready to experience it.

Our flight back to Bangkok was late in the morning so we grabbed a quick breakfast at the hotel and then made our way to the free Air Asia shuttle. They don’t advertise this too much but it is such a helpful service.

Jenny and I finally said our goodbyes and it was really hard. We had formed such a close friendship over the last 3 and a half months and had really become emotionally dependent on another during our time in Cambodia. We both left knowing we will see each other again and that we had gained a sister from this experience. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Myanmar: Yangon

Our trip to Myanmar began bright and early on a Saturday morning. Jenny and I met in Bangkok the night before as a precautionary measure since our Air Asia flight was at 7am. Air Asia is a budget conscious traveler's dream! The airline really does make the inaccessible accessible and I am so grateful I got to see Myanmar because of their low cost flights. Everything went off without a hitch and we arrived into Yangon bright and early at 8:30 am.

As soon as we landed we noticed a huge difference from Cambodia. Taxi drivers stated the fair price from the beginning and we didn’t have to fight! We arrived at Cherry Guest House, our lovely hotel near Sule Pagoda, around 9 am but were not guaranteed a room until 2pm. The manager was pretty nice and said he would make sure to have a room ready for us by noon.

We decided to drop off our bags and explore for a few hours. Our first stop was 999 Shan Noodle Shop for breakfast. This little hole in the wall spot was a block away and really easy to find. I ordered the Shan Noodle with Chicken and Jenny got the Shan Noodle with sticky rice. To our surprise, the meal started with a free bowl of delicious soup with crispy wontons. We literally finished our serving in matter of minutes but didn’t think the servers would take this as a sign to refill our bowls for free! Our meals arrived with our second serving of soup and we were slightly overwhelmed. Both of our noodles were so flavorful! We were so excited by our happy taste buds that we finished everything and left completely stuffed.  The noodle shop was recommended by the New York Times and we were so glad we followed the recommendation. We ended up coming back the next day!

Sule Pagoda was only a short walk away so we headed there next. This quiet pagoda serves as a major intersection in downtown. There is a $3 admission fee and in hindsight we probably would not have visited it had we seen Shwedagon first. The temple is small and can easily be be viewed in 30-45 mins. We decided to sit and take in the experience since we were in no rush.

Afterwards, we decided to explore the old colonial buildings around us. Maha Bandula Park sits in the center and is surrounded by the old city hall and the high court. It was too hot to appreciate the buildings so we decided to take shelter in the park. It was the weekend and there were a lot of people out and about. I don’t know about you but I was expecting the Burmese to be reserved and somber after years of military rule. But they were the opposite. They like to sing cheerful songs. They like to smile and have beautiful smiles. They are affectionate. They hold hands, they hug, and they kiss openly and without a sense of shame. It was lovely to see. Their happiness was contagious and we felt so lucky to be able to experience it with them.

We met our first set of monks and really enjoyed our time with them. One of them was the cool monk from the last post. They were up to date on  world news and were asking us about Germany, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and the United States. It was refreshing and it made us feel like we had been in Myanmar for days.

By this time our room was ready and we were very excited to shower and escape the afternoon heat with a nap. When the sun’s rays were calmer, we headed back out and at the end of our street a man selling sweets stopped us. He asked were Jenny was from and was so excited to hear that she was born in Sri Lanka and could speak Tamil. We promised him we would stop by on our way back to have a proper chat.  We continued on to  Bogyoke Aung San Market, the largest market in town, to do some shopping. The souvenirs and crafts were colorful and unique, we couldn’t help but admire everything. Afterwards, we explored the streets of Chinatown and the simplicity of life around us. The houses had so much character, each was rustic and colorful and I felt taking a picture of every single one.

Photo by Jenny 
Our walk ended in the Chinatown night market where you could get fresh skewers of meat and vegetables with a cold drink of your choice. We decided to grab a snack and enjoy the sunset with a cool beverage. After interacting with a few locals, we headed back to our hotel and were pleasantly surprised to see loads of new street vendors preparing dinner. Naturally, we wanted to try everything. Our first stop was for some paratha with lentils. OMG. I cant still taste it. At 200 kyats, it cost close to nothing but was the most delicious snack. We were tempted to buy more but decided to be reasonable because we wanted to save room for all the other stalls.

Our next stop was for kebabs. We were attracted by the smell but were not sure what everything was and the man next to me sensed my confusion. He not only explained what each dish was but he also bought our meal. Pakistan came up during our conversation and him and his wife were so happy to meet a fellow Pakistani! They began to refer to Jenny and I as their daughters. I told them I really missed Faluda, a delicious dessert from Pakistan, and they immediately said you have to come with us to another restaurant. We went and they ordered me a Faluda and insisted on paying for it. Their love and generosity were humbling. They also invited us to their home for lunch the next day but unfortunately, we were unable to attend. 

By this point, we were beyond full and so happy. We had one last stop to make and that was dessert with the lovely Tamil man on our street. He fed us more servings of sweets than we could handle and we were happy to oblige because of the joy on his face. Knowing we had an early morning ahead of us we politely excused ourselves once we finally finished all the pieces of sweets on our plate. 

After a quick rest, we headed back out to meet a fellow University of Birmingham alum. Pyone had kindly agreed to meet me for a drink and to welcome me to her city. We did not study together but our love of international development and Myanmar made the conversation really engaging. It was fascinating to learn about Myanmar’s diverse ethnic groups and rich political history from a local’s perspective. We met at Sky Bistro, a lovely restaurant on the 20th floor with views of the city. We could see Shwedagon Pagoda from miles away and were captivated by its golden beauty.

We woke up bright and early at 4:30am the next day to catch the sunrise at Shwedagon Pagoda. This beautiful golden temple defines the city’s skyline. It has been part of the Burmese identity for over 2500 years and contains eights hairs of the Buddha. It’s huge! You could easily spend hours exploring each and every corner, which is exactly what we did. First, we sat and just observed the ceremonies. We were surprised to see how many people were there to pray so early in the morning. It was a very calming experience. Next, we walked around full circle and were lucky enough to catch the sunrise reflecting on the gold plates.

We did notice two funny things that reminded us we were in 2014. On one end of the temple there was an ATM and another had a free wifi spot. We couldn’t believe it! Lol.

Finally, the most memorable part of our visit was a group of monks coming to pray together. Yes, there were monks everywhere but this was different. These monks came together to worship and varied in age from the young to the old. We sat behind them and just observed the peaceful setting. 

We left feeling so lucky to have experienced everything we had seen and felt in the last two days. We decided to head back to 999 Shan Noodle for another delicious breakfast before taking a quick nap. Our remaining few hours in Yangon were spent walking through strand street, the riverside and admiration of more of the old British buildings. Along the way, we discovered some local art galleries and and of course some more street food for a late afternoon snack. We had an evening bus scheduled for Bagan and loaded up on some snacks for our eight hour journey. We absolutely loved our time in Yangon and were sad to say goodbye so quickly but we were very excited to visit the city that inspired our trip. 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Faces of Myanmar

Before I tell you about my trip to Myanmar, I want to introduce you to the people that defined my trip. They welcomed me to their country with a smile and made me fall in love with Myanmar and its people.

Photo by Jenny 
While exploring a local park in Yangoon, we came across this monk and thought wow he is bad ass. At first, we were afraid to approach him but Jenny finally got the courage and asked if she could take a photo of him. He said yes and then proceeded to smile and have a conversation with us. He was our first introduction to the hospitality of the Burmese people. This picture also goes to show that the Burmese are not afraid to show their own sense of style, something we saw repeatedly during our trip. 

Meet Mr. & Mrs. Iqbal. I was exploring the food selection of a street vendor and wasn't sure what some of the items were and Mr. Iqbal sensed my confusion and just jumped right in. He not only explained what each dish was but he also bought our meal. Pakistan came up during our conversation and they were so happy to meet a fellow Pakistani! They began to refer to Jenny and I as their daughters. I told them I really missed Faluda, a delicious dessert from Pakistan, and they immediately said you have to come with us to another restaurant. We went and they ordered me a Faluda and insisted on paying for it. Their love and generosity were humbling. They also invited us to their home for lunch the next day but unfortunately, we were unable to attend. 

Similar to the story above, this man took a liking to us because of Jenny's Tamil origins. He was so happy to practice his Tamil with someone! Known to us as the sweet shop man, he invited us for sweets and we ended up having a 30 minute conversation with him about Myanmar and its treasures before saying goodbye.

Silvia and Jutte (front left) were traveling from Germany and staying in the room across from ours in New Bagan. After Jenny said hello in German, they immediately took a liking to us and allowed us to spend the day exploring Mt. Popa with them. When we were leaving for Mandalay, both sisters gave us a big hug and blessed us so we would remain safe during journey. What I loved about them was their sense of adventure and openness to new things. Their two friends on the right were the exact opposite which made us appreciate Sylvia and Jutte even more! Their advice to us was, "always try new things and don't be afraid of the unknown."

Photo by Jenny 
Meet George. We met George after missing our ferry to Mingun by 5 minutes. We ended up spending an hour speaking with him and within the hour he arranged a private taxi for us and enabled us to see Mingun and many more sights for less than our budget. We were so grateful for all his help and the fact that he did it without expecting anything in return. Another example of the generosity of the Burmese people.

Photo by Jenny 
We met this man on Ubein bridge in Mandalay. He asked if I was from India and I said no I'm from Pakistan but I can understand Hindi. He immediately welcomed us to his country and was so happy to meet someone Hindustani. He told us his wished he could go back to India for Holi but meeting us was the next best thing. His family has been in Myanmar for over 200 years and he dreams of his ancestral land.
Naively, I told him he should go visit and then he explained his reality. Uneducated and without a real job, he cannot afford to so he sells pakoras to earn a livelihood and settles for just his dreams of India. He gave us a batch of pakoras and we insisted on paying and he responded, "don't stop me from doing the little I can." He left us in tears. 

Finally, my trip would not have been what it was without Jenny. She taught me how to truly embrace new experiences and how to handle change. I have grown so much as a person because of my time with her.  

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