Hello and welcome to our sixth and likely final video dump. This one covers our time in Southeast Asia: Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Enjoy!
First, here are two more videos of the election night celebration in Mandalay, Myanmar:
Next, a Thingyan (New Years celebration / water fight) stage in Yangon:
And now, a "graduation" party we came across where some novice Buddhist monks were celebrating finishing their time at the monastery:
A few seconds of peace with a butterfly patch in a field in northern Laos:
The Vietnamese love their caged birds, and here's one with a unique skill:
Finally, here's some fodder for the pub quiz: Hanoi has the world's largest ceramic mosaic. Here's a section of it (with bonus motorbikes and assorted street traffic):
This oversized grenade of a fruit is a love/hate affair. It has a nasty reputation for smelling like trash, but durian fans are willing to overlook its scent's peculiar similarity to dumpster air in order to enjoy the sweet, rich, custard-like meat.
Our introduction to the fruit was in ice cream format in Myanmar, where we concluded that it tasted and smelled like onions, and was not exactly the after-lunch sweet treat we were looking for. But we gave it another shot in its unprocessed form and ended up really liking and even craving it. It can be found at most markets where other fruit is sold throughout southeast Asia, and can often be bought in sections since it can be quite a large fruit and has a heftier price tag than most other fruits. The taste is sweet and floral, not unlike the mighty jackfruit, but the consistency is what really got us hooked: it's creamy, almost like souffle or pudding, and the sections are big enough that you can take huge bites of it at once, without pesky skin or pits getting in your way. Just don't leave it in your room like we did once for a few hours...afterward the whole place smelled of restaurant trash!
We finally succeeded in being in the right place at the right time: not only were we in Myanmar for their election day, but we also managed to take part in New Year celebrations in both Myanmar and Thailand. The (lunar) New Year is celebrated over several days in mid-April in these two countries as well as Cambodia and Laos. It's probably their biggest national holiday (in many places everything closes and everyone is off work) and it basically involves a multi-day no holds barred water fight. Kids take to the streets with buckets, pouring them on passers-by, people stand outside their houses with hoses and take aim at passing vehicles, and huge Super Soakers help fuel an all out water battle. Everyone participates-- adults, children, grannies, cops-- and no one is spared a soaking, not even farang (white people/foreigners).
However, Myanmar and Thailand certainly differ a bit in their celebrations. In Yangon (Myanmar), where the celebration is called Thingyan, huge stages are set up along the main streets and decked out with dozens of high-pressure waterhoses. Concerts are held on the stages and partiers take control of the hoses, spraying the crowds below. These parites last for FIVE days, which is incredible. The entire country shuts down for Thingyan and literally every man, woman and child participates in the waterfights. We caught the first day of the holiday, so we were drenched with water from kids with bowls, teenagers with waterguns and some of the stages whose hoses were already up and running. We left the country that evening, so we missed the first big night of concerts, but we got the idea. I left wishing that it was always Thingyan in steamy Yangon; being hosed down with cold water actually felt great in that heat!
Songkran, as it's called in Thailand, was a completely different affair than Thingyan. We made the mistake of having already booked and paid for a hotel room on Khao San Road in Bangkok, where Songkran celebrations are at their craziest (this is about as smart a decision as staying in a hotel room on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras). When we arrived to our hotel after our Yangon-Bangkok flight, we had to push our way through hundreds of already wasted partiers, dancing wall-to-wall on the blocked-off street, squirting at us with huge Super Soakers and coating our faces with a chalk-like substance. The walk from where the cab had to drop us off was less than a block, but we were a mess upon arrival. We quickly realized that we had better just get into it, because it's the type of thing that is only enjoyable if you just embrace it and participate; there is no option to stand on the sidelines and observe because you will get soaked!
So we spent the next few days walking around Bangkok, getting soaked, watching water fights between groups of people dousing each other from the sidewalk, balconies, and the backs of trucks, and stumbling upon outdoor concerts. Leaving our hotel room at any hour of the day meant walking directly into the middle of the city's biggest party, which at times was fun, but at other times made us feel a bit like hostages since there was no way to go outside without being instantly messy. But we still wandered around our crazy neighborhood, stopping to eat street food or grab a can of beer when the mood struck. By the time we left Bangkok though, I was more than ready to stay dry and not have to push my way through huge crowds of drunk people every time we left the building!
We're glad we caught the celebrations in two different countries; it was definitely an experience, to say the least, but our advice to you: don't book a hotel smack in the middle of the country's biggest party! I still have Black Eyed Peas ringing in my ears from the same song being pumped all day for three days straight...
Please excuse our rather minimal number of photos. This was a raging water fight, and we didn't want to ruin one more camera on this trip...
We left Myanmar with smiles on our faces and a warm, fuzzy feeling in our hearts. We both agreed that it was our favorite country out of the 15 we had visited so far on this round-the-world trip. And we've talked to many other travelers who feel the same. So what is it about this country that leaves you feeling like you've just received a tiny puppy on Christmas morning? Sure, there are pretty temples, good food, unexplored mountains, serene lakes, and beautiful beaches, but many other neighboring countries can claim those types of attractions as well. In Myanmar, it is the people you will take home in your memories.
We've mentioned it throughout our posts on Myanmar, but the people left such an impression on us we couldn't help writing about it once more. Time and time again, when least expected, we were surprised by the generosity, openness, and warmth of the people we encountered. It can be difficult as a tourist to really interact with locals when traveling. Sure, you'll always interact with hotel staff, waiters, vendors, guides, and bus drivers, but having conversations with random people on the street just doesn't happen too often.
In Myanmar, all different kinds of people talked to us, wanted to know our story, and even gave us gifts. It's not just the memories of specific interactions with people we didn't know--all the people we spent election night in Mandalay with, many of whom gave us NLD gear and hugged us and thanked us for supporting them; the woman who stopped her motorbike while driving past us on the back streets of Mandalay, only to give us a bag of sugary, coconutty donuts she had just purchased; the small, shy girl near Inle Lake who ran up to me to give me a flower she had just picked; the man who wouldn't let us get on his son's boat until we drank all the tea he made us and took all the cigars he offered us--it's an overall, pervasive feeling that they are generally good, positive, welcoming people. They're happy to see foreigners in their country; they're genuinely curious about you: why you're there, how long you will stay, where you will visit, where you're from and what you do at home; and they're willing to go out of their way to help you for nothing in return.
The people of Myanmar have been through a lot, and their country is on the cusp of change toward democracy. They do not see too many tourists (around 300,000 per year, compared with 14 million in Thailand!), but that is sure to change as the word is getting out about what a wonderful country it is, and with other countries starting to lift sanctions as they view positive changes in the government. Myanmar has a chance to develop a tourism industry that reflects their people's kind-heartedness and good-nature. I've been thinking a lot about how a surge in tourism will affect them, and really hoping they don't turn into neighboring Thailand, where tourists roam the streets of Bangkok in barely more than a bikini, drug and sex tourism seems the norm, and tourists are seen as walking wallets who are just waiting to be ripped off. Myanmar is a long way from that (prostitution is rare, you'd be hard pressed to find a bar even in the capital that stays open past 10 pm, and prices quoted are almost always fair), but with increased tourism often comes greed. Generosity and warmth toward tourists often turns into annoyance, hostility or indifference. I would absolutely hate to visit Myanmar in ten years and see that it has turned into that. So please, if you go (and you should!), be respectful, and show them the same warmth and generosity that they show you.
We pull our bikes up to a building offering longtail ferry transport across the lake. A genial old man with a huge smile welcomes us into the yard and offers us a seat on a bench while the boat is readied.
Old Man: "Would you like some tea?"
Claudia: "Sure, thank you."
Old Man: "Where from?"
Claudia: "The United States"
Old Man: "Oh, this tea is very good for cancer; there's a lot of cancer in the US."
Claudia: "Yes, it's horrible"
Old Man: "Here, have this cheroot" (a mild cigar made with tobacco and other aromatic herbs)
Claudia: "Oh, no thank you! We like these, but we already have a lot in our hotel room."
Old Man: "Please take it." He forces the cigar into my hand. "You like? Here, take more." He gives us about six more.
Claudia: "Now you're trying to give us cancer!"
Old Man: "...Drink more tea!"
This is the type of goodhearted and incredibly generous welcome we received time and again in Myanmar. And the fact that we still had interactions like this at Inle Lake, one of Myanmar's most-visited tourist attractions, speaks to just how warm and outgoing a people the Burmese are.
Inle Lake feels like a different world, and it claims a spot on almost every traveler's itinerary for a reason. It's a large, sprawling lake whose water level can change by several feet between the wet and dry seasons, which necessitates that all the houses be built on stilts, and that everything the locals need be accessible by boat.
We spent a day taking the requisite boat tour of some of the lake's important sights: a lakeside market, a variety of different craft workshops located in stilt houses where the skills are handed down through the generations (silversmithing, parasol making, weaving with thread made from the lotus flower, cigar rolling...), a hill covered in buddhist shrines, and even a floating monastery where the monks have trained cats to jump through hoops!
More interesting than most of these sites, which were all pretty touristy, was the ability to see the lake-dwellers go about their everyday business. As I said, everything necessary for their everyday lives must be accessed by boats, so we saw restaurants, bars, and bodegas floating above the lake's traffic; we saw schools and temples, farms and markets. Toward the end of the day we passed through a huge area of floating gardens; more like an entire communal farm that must have spanned many hundreds of acres, all in neat floating rows of crops. We were awed to watch the farmers peacefully manuever their canoes down the rows to tend to the huge garden.
Of course, for a community that lives on a body of water, much of their livelihood is produced from the lake. In all parts of the lake we saw scores of fishermen setting or retrieving nets, or harvesting seaweed from the lake's floor to use to fertilize their crops. Probably the most famous thing about Inle Lake is the unique style of paddling that has been developed. The fishermen stand in the front of the boat, and wrap their leg around a single oar's long paddle, anchoring it in their armpit, leaving their hands free to work with the nets or other equipment.
Other than zipping around the lake, the whole area provides for some nice, flat bike rides through rice paddies and small towns, so we biked around part of the lake one day, stopping at a winery along the way. Wine in Myanmar? Yup (it was started by a French guy)! To top it all off, we stayed in an amazing hotel in our own very comfortable bungalow, with a lovely pool and some of the nicest owners and staff we've encountered on our travels. We had to tear ourselves away!
- If you find yourself visiting Inle Lake, stay at the Princess Garden in Nyaungshwe. Huge, spotless, and comfortable en-suite bungalows, a lovely pool, a huge breakfast, and incredible service for $35 for a double. It was the best value hotel we stayed at in Southeast Asia so far. You will not want to leave!
- A standard boat trip from Nyaungshwe costs 15,000 kyat (and can go up a few thousand if you want to go to the southern villages) for a boat that holds up to 4 or 5 people. The prices are set and every boat driver will take you to the same places for that price-- there is no need to haggle with them. Go directly to the boat launch to book a trip; there is no need to go through a travel agent who may overcharge you.
A popular activity in most southeast Asian countries is trekking to minority hill villages. So we left enough time in our Myanmar itinerary to head northeast from Mandalay to a town called Hsipaw, from where we could trek and overnight in nearby Palaung villages that are said to be largely uninfluenced by Western culture and visiting them is a nice insight into their way of life.
We were a bit disappointed when we arrived in Hsipaw to find out that there's really only one village the guides go to, and they suggest only going for one night. I had pictured a multi-day trek staying in a couple different villages, but as our guest house told us, "it's too hot to go for more than one night during this season." Wow, were they not kidding! So we went ahead and organized a guide to take us to a Paulang village a few hours hike away.
We knew it wasn't going to be a nature walk through pristine forest from what we had read, but were still surprised to see how completely deforested the small hills were. To make matters worse, it is burning season, so the few trees that normally cover these hills were being burned down for agricultural purposes. This made for a pretty hot, sunny and at times smokey hike; I thought I was actually going to pass out at one point.
So, while the walking was uncomfortable, we really enjoyed staying in Pankam village, where we walked around and chatted with some of the residents. This is tea country, so each evening, the villagers return from the tea plantations and sort, boil, and lay the leaves out to dry. As we found elsewhere in Myanmar, almost everyone we met was happy to see us and welcomed us into their home. We stayed with a family who cooked us delicious vegetarian meals, and let us sleep on their floor, and our guide, a young, energetic and funny gentleman named Asai, was great to spend time with as well.
Despite this being the main village that most backpackers visit from Hsipaw, we didn't find it completely overrun with other tourists (as we've heard is the case with similar hill villages in northern Thailand), but there were about five other backpackers staying in the village that evening as well. The experience was overall a positive one, but it left me once again thinking about the whole "trying to get off the beaten track" dilemma. Every traveler strives to get off the beaten track and away from his fellow travelers to see things that aren't on everyone's whistle-stop itinerary and to interact with people who aren't yet sick of tourists, but it can be a difficult thing to do, especially when you don't speak the local language and so much of your information comes from a guidebook-- the same guidebook every other backpacker who's trying to get off the beaten track is using! It's funny, because Nick and I both felt like the back streets of Mandalay, a city with a couple million residents, felt much more "undiscovered" than this small village of a few hundred, which has no cars and is a 4-hour walk from the nearest bus stop or internet connection.
After returning to Hsipaw from our 2 day/1 night trek, we spent our remaining time biking around the small city and its surrounding rice paddies, sampling delicious shakes made with local strawberries, eating more noodles, and stumbling upon THE BEST STEAMED BUNS OF ALL TIME. Almost daily, I still think about these delicious morsels of goodness that came filled with chicken, sweet bean paste, and coconut!
- While the guest houses will strongly urge you to take a guide, if you're really on a budget or just like to be alone while hiking, it is possible to hike to Pankam by yourself. The folks at Mr. Charles Guest House, while very friendly and generally helpful, will only give you their set options for treks, which all go to this same village. Inquire elsewhere if you'd like to visit a different town; perhaps an independent guide could take you to different villages.
- The aforementioned delicious steamed buns can be found at the tea house on the corner of the Main Street. Coming from Mr. Charles Guest House, make a left onto Main St., and the tea house is the one on the first corner on your right. You'll see the huge steaming pots full of these goodies out in front of the tables!
I don't think we knew what to expect from Myanmar cooking, but we ended up finding some gems during our culinary exporations. Burmese meals often consist of a buffet of meat and seafood curries sitting in a ton of oil that you pick by pointing at what you want, and are served with a vegetable soup (the ones we had were sour, leafy, and actually quite tasty), rice, a big plate of fresh veggies and herbs, chili and fish-based dips, and vegetable side dishes, which ranged from delicious pumpkin curry to cabbage that tasted as though it had been fermenting in cheap beer for a bit too long. In sum, these buffets were pretty hit or miss, and every time we found ourselves at one that looked less than appealing, we always felt it would be rude (and too late) to walk out of the restaurant, so we definitely ended up eating some underwhelming and over-oiled meals a few times.
However, we had read about the various noodle dishes from Shan state, a large state in eastern Myanmar where we spent about half our time. We sought these out at hotel breakfasts, from street shacks whenever hunger would strike, and at tea houses, and we were never disappointed. The noodles were soft and chewy, the broth was simple but tasty, and the ingredients ranged from sliced pork to fried chicken to fish balls. Throw in a few sprigs of herbs and top if off with as much chili powder as you want, and you have a delicious meal! Here are a few of the dozens of noodle bowls we happily slurped up:
Another Myanmar specialty worth mentioning is laphet, a fermented tea leaf salad. The tea leaves are mixed with other ingredients such as peanuts, cabbage, sesame seeds, crunchy fried peas, and lime juice, and it actually makes for a refreshing and tasty salad with a satisfying mix of crunchy and soft textures. The only problem is the caffeine: I spent a very sleepless night after eating this dish at dinner one night!
Desserts were hard to find; we saw the occasional Indian-style milk-based sweet vendor and stumbled upon a few ice cream shops (found out the hard way that durian ice cream gives you onion breath), but we kept seeing this multi-colored concoction being ordered by the locals, often in plastic bags with a straw sticking out, and decided to give it a shot. Turns out it's called shwe yin aye, and it can be described as a deconstructed pudding jello salad smoothie. What, your mouth isn't watering yet?! Not to worry, it was actually not that bad. The puzzling dessert drink contained what we think was strawberry-flavored milk (but it could have easily been red dye + coconut milk), tapioca pudding, gelatinous fruity syrup(s), chunks of soft white bread, Jello, fresh coconut, raisins, ice, and probably a couple other ingredients we didn't even recognize. While it probably won't be winning any international culinary praise any time soon and is more likely to turn up in a hospital cafeteria, we were glad we sampled this mysterious refreshment!
We talked a little bit about the Mustache Brothers show in our last post, but it's such a spectacle that we thought it deserved its own post. There are three brothers: Lu Maw, Par Par Lay, and U Lu Zaw, but it's essentially a one-man variety show with Lu Maw, the only English speaker, on the mic most of the time. While the jokes themselves are not always hilarious, it's not meant to be a stand-up comedy show, and it's more about the seemingly random and ridiculous mish mash of dancing, one-liners, skits, and Lu Maw's jabs at his wife, the government, and tourists. Two of the brothers have even spent time in jail as political prisoners due to their political commentary, but these days the government turns its head and allows them to keep performing; it's mostly a show for tourists anyway. It's just one of those performances that doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but it's enjoyable, and it would be a shame to pass through Mandalay without witnessing it!
Without further ado, here are some of our favorite photos and videos from the performance!
We were lucky enough to be in Mandalay for a historic event: a by-election in which Aung San Suu Kyi ran for a parliamentary seat, the first election she has stood in since 1990. There were 44 parliamentary seats being contested by her party, the National League for Democracy. We started spotting tee-shirts and other Suu Kyi gear for sale as soon as we got to Myanmar, but as Election Day approached, we began to see a pro-NLD tee-shirt on almost every other person.
On election day, there was a great energy in the air in Mandalay, the country's second biggest city. Excitement and hope were in the air. Around 6 pm, after the polls had closed, we started walking around town. Everyone was out, sitting on street corners, in front of their shops, riding their motorbikes around town, many with huge red NLD flags flying from the rear of their bikes. As people saw us walking by wearing our Suu Kyi tee-shirts and NLD headbands, they looked genuinely surprised and excited to see foreign supporters. They grinned, pointed us out to each other, and we would all cheer, laugh, and thumbs-up together.
Not long after we began to wander, a young man pulled up next to us on his motorbike and told us (in perfect English) that so far, the NLD was projected to win 42 out of 44 seats! We high-fived with him and from then on, the celebratory mood began to mount. We grabbed a couple beers and some delicious grilled meats at a beer garden, and then headed to the Mustache Brothers headquarters.
The Mustache Brothers are an a nyeint troupe, practicing a historical blend of jokes, song, and dance; the closest comparison is probably a vaudeville variety show. The brothers are also outspoken opponents of the military regime; two out of the three of them spent six years in jail as political prisoners, but they still present their show every night, unintimidated.
It should not have been a surprise then, that when we arrived, they were blasting a folk song about Aung San Suu Kyi and there were trucks and motorbikes full of NLD supporters on the street decked out in their NLD gear. People were dancing, hugging, cheering, and generally ecsatic about the presumed win. Lu Maw, the main Mustache Brother (and the only one who really speaks English), pulled us up on the balcony to watch the scene from above, treating us as special guests. This is just one example of how the Burmese were constantly treating us like royalty. After some more celebratory dancing, the Brothers put on their show, which was a wacky mix of singing, dancing, cracks at the government, costume changes, and English idioms (Lu Maw has a better grasp on these than Claudia does, which perhaps isn't saying too much, but still!). The performance is done in his house, with a couple dozen audience members sitting on plastic chairs in his "living room".
After the hour-long act, Lu Maw invited us back across the street to continue the celebration. While the street had calmed down during the performance, as we left the show, several trucks and tons of motorbikes full of revelers arrived almost immediately: a much larger and even more energetic crowd than before! It is difficult to put into words the energy in the air, but we were greatly moved by seeing everyone genuinely thrilled at the results and excited at what this meant for their country. Pride, hope, exuberance, and a sense of great achievement beamed from every man, woman and child's face. And the funny thing was, even though this was completely their celebration and we were expecting to be invisible spectators from the sidelines, they kept pulling us in to dance and cheer with them, as if we had done something to help achieve their victory by merely being present. They thanked us for being there and they loved that we were showing our support. They even gave us gifts: a little boy in the back of a truck gave me the NLD headband off his head; two women approached us and pinned an NLD pin on each of our shirts; another woman stuck her hand out of a truck and gave me a sprig of green leaves. We were incredibly humbled. Here we were at their celebration--a huge moment in their history--and they were treating us like the special guests of the evening!
The celebrations that day and the days to follow reminded us a bit of the energy and hope in the streets on and after Election Day 2008 in the US, when Barack Obama won the presidency: so many people coming togather, hopeful for the future, and proud that their country is finally taking a step in the right direction. Smiles stretched ear to ear, cheering and honking filled the streets as everyone basked in the triumph. This was a huge moment for Myanmar, a country where less than five years ago, a gathering of more than five people was illegal and where the government responded to open support for an opponent and calls for change with violence against its own citizens.
While we all know that things in Myanmar won't change overnight, the fact that this election was held, that the NLD overwhelmingly won, and that Aung San Suu Kyi will soon be taking a seat in the parliament are huge signs of progress, and indications of steps in the right direction. The strong, generous, and graceful citizens of Myanmar deserve as much hope and positive change as possible. We will never forget what an amazing experience it was to see the people of Myanmar celebrate their well-deserved victory.
By now you are probably sick of us telling you about temples. Your eyes start to glaze over, you wonder when we might post something about food again (soon, promise!), and you close the tab before reaching the end of our post. We can't blame you, since we were still nursing a serious temple hangover from India and Nepal.
But we knew we'd kick ourselves later if we skipped over the plains of Bagan, where over 3000 Buddhist temples are scattered, in various states of disrepair. Many are almost a thousand years old, and some are still actively used as religious pilgrimage sites. So we took an overnight bus from Yangon, arrived in Bagan, tried to ignore the fact that we were already sweating through our clothing at 9 am, and hopped on some bicycles to explore the area.
The neat thing about Bagan is that even though it probably recevies the most visitors of any site in Myanmar, it's so big and spread out that you can often feel completely alone and even off-the-beaten-path. There are so many temples, stupas, and shrines that there wouldn't even be a point in putting most of them on a map. We spent two days just biking through the plains on dirt paths, stopping to enter a temple if we felt like it, but passing many more by, since it would simply be impossible to stop at every one. Many of them are crumbling and overgrown with weeds, serving more as a snack spot for the goats than as a tourist site. It is possible to wander the plains for days and barely bump into another tourist. Not a single tout asked us if he or she could be our guide, and only a few of the more important temples have vendors in front of them.
Bagan is not a place for anyone who wants to be stunned by one single, dazzling temple in perfect condition. It is one of those places where the whole makes a much stronger impression than the sum of its parts. You can climb dark and narrow staircases through dusty temples, reach the top, and be the only person there while taking in the sight of hundreds of temples in every direction, as far as the eye can see. If you have the opportunity, go now, because we're sure that within a decade it will have the unfortunate amusement park feel that many of its neighboring countries' sites have: tourists in every direction, as far as the eye can see.