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I had never spent much time thinking about that "other" Italian island until last year when I was looking for a destination in Italy that would have pretty beaches but other activities to keep my husband (a hiker, a climber, but not a beach bum), my mom (a beach bum and culture enthusiast), and myself (all of the above) happy for ten days. Italian beaches, from my experience, are disappointing--small, crowded, rocky, with polluted water and overpriced real estate (a lounge chair and umbrella can set you back $25 for the day). But to my surprise, I was finding nothing but great reviews of Sardinia's white-sand beaches with turquoise waters, many only reachable by boat, some backed by imposing limestone cliffs or huge sand dunes on all sides.
I was intrigued by the island's history of occupation which seemingly has left Sardinians proud and fiercely independent, their culture and traditions intact over the centuries (they still speak their own language, Sardo). It seemed like a rugged, intense, but still welcoming place. And the more I researched, the more I realized that this semi-autonomous Italian island might just be the perfect place for all of us: tales of world-class rock climbing, hiking through mountains on uncrowded trails, more archaeological sites than one could ever see in a single visit, SCUBA diving, gorgeous (/perilous) mountain drives, and quaint towns had me convinced that I needed to look no further. Watching an episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations in which he (of course) eats his way through the island with his hot Sardinian wife pretty much sealed the deal for me. Mom and I decided we had found the perfect place for her celebratory 70th birthday trip.
With high expectations, my mom, my cousin Sara (she barely needed the twist of an arm to be convinced to join us), Nick and I found ourselves in sunny Sardinia this June. The three ladies spent our first three days in and around Cagliari, the capital of Sardinia, and a city on the southern coast that proved to be much more than just a convenient base for day trips. We started each day with espresso and croissants at a sidewalk cafe, then hit the road to explore the southeast and southwest areas of the island, stopping at gorgeous beaches each day and enjoying our picnic of delicious tomatoes, crusty bread, and mozzarella di bufala while gazing at incredibly blue waters. We hiked in the Monte dei Sette Fratelli, where we saw no other hikers during our 5-hour trek.
While Cagliari is perfectly located within an hour of some of the island's prettiest stretches of sand and therefore serves as an ideal base, we found ourselves really enjoying the pace and feel of the city itself. I expected it to be sleepy, but was surprised at not only how many locals we encountered at the town's may cafes and piazzas, but also by the large proportion of young people (the economic crisis has caused many young Sardinians to seek work on the mainland and beyond). And the seafood- THE SEAFOOD!- was to die for. I have never eaten so many different kinds of fish and shellfish cooked in various ways, all for the wallet-friendly price of less than $20 per person for all-you-can eat hot and cold appetizers, brought to your table seemingly fresh from the sea.
On the fourth day, Nick joined us, and after a rental car snafu that may or may not have been caused by me burning out the clutch on an Alfa Romeo during rush hour in a crowded roundabout (no really, I am still not sure if it was totally my fault or if the car was a little screwed up to being with...), we were back on track and driving up into the rugged Gennargentu mountains toward Cala Gonone, our home on the east coast for the remaining week.
Until relatively recently, Cala Gonone was inaccessible by car and only reachable by sea. It's a pleasantly laid-back holiday town, beautifully situated on the Golfo di Orosei, arguably one of the island's most breathtaking stretches of coast. Huge limestone cliffs are interrupted occasionally by postcard-perfect beaches that are almost all only reachable by boat. Some of the island's best rock climbing can be found in this area, so we were basically in heaven. We chose a different adventure each day: hiking between beaches, or bringing our climbing gear and reveling in the jaw-dropping views that rewarded us after a tough ascent.
We drove on roads with switchbacks that would be highly illegal in the US to reach our destinations. We hopped on a boat to check out a grotto one afternoon, and hiked through a gorgeous river valley to explore one of Europe's deepest canyons the next. In the evenings, we either cooked delicious dinners in our apartment and spent the evening drinking local wine on our cozy balcony, or we tried the local delicacies at a restaurant. Each night we went to bed with huge smiles on our faces--we were tired, full, and happy; excited to see what the next day would hold.
My Umbrian family wouldn't be happy hearing me say this, but I think Sardinia is my new favorite region in Italy (if not in all of Europe). Somehow, I don't think they'd be too offended, because Sardinia might as well be its own country; I almost don't feel that it should be compared to anywhere on the mainland. The slow pace of life, the proud but friendly people, the strong sense of tradition, the striking natural beauty of the place--sure, those things can all be found in Italy, but there is just something incredibly special about this island. Trust me, go there, and I promise you will not be disappointed.
Oh boy, where do I begin? Northern Vietnam had hands down my favorite cuisine of the 20+ countries we visited over the past year (note: I do not feel it would be fair to include Italy in the running for this title). While we've loved a lot of the Southeast Asian foods we've sampled, Vietnam's was so consistently delicious that all we really wanted to do while we were there was eat. And then eat some more. In fact, on our last full day in Hanoi we had a meal on the way from breakfast to lunch, just so that we could fit in all the food we wanted to try before we left. Most street food vendors in Hanoi are one-dish wonders, meaning that the stand (or hole-in-the-wall restaurant) only serves one thing, and they do it well. The ingredients -- whether it be noodles, veggies, or meat-- are fresh, often cooked before your eyes, many dishes are served with piles of fresh herbs, and most dishes have a great balance between salty, sweet, and sour. Textures were widely varied as well. And the best part? It's not heavy like many other Asian foods can be. So, sit back, grab a snack if you're already hungry, and read on. We've described some of our favorites here and included the name and/or address where we ate them in case you ever find yourself in Hanoi (pro tip: pack fat pants).
This might have been my favorite: grilled pork patties and slices of pork belly in a bowl of smoky, slightly sour broth that surely took hours to simmer to perfection, served with a pile of vermicelli noodles (conveniently cut for you at your table with a pair of scissors), a larger pile of fresh herbs such as basil and mint, chopped garlic and chilies, and crab spring rolls (we weren't sure if we should dip these in the soup or eat them separately, so we did both). Add the ingredients as you make room in your bowl and boom: one of the tastiest pork dishes I've ever eaten. We went back to this place for a repeat.
Bun Cha Nem Cua Be Dac Kim, 67 Duong Thanh
Bun Bo Nam Bo
Another dish composed of the winning combination (noodles, freshly cooked meat and herbs). This salad starts with thinly sliced beef that is stir-fried fresh to order, to which noodles, bean sprouts, carrots, fried shallots, lemongrass, garlic, green mango, fresh herbs, and a tangy dressing are added.
Bun Bo Nam Bo, 67 Hang Dieu
We quickly realized eating the free breakfast in our hotel was a major mistake as soon as we discovered banh cuon, a thin, freshly made rice pancake filled with minced pork, shrimp, and mushrooms, and only served in the morning. One serving contains about 10 of these darling crepes, which we found to taste more like dumplings. They're topped with fried shallots and basil, and served with a dipping sauce. If the filling isn't breakfasty enough for you, you can ask for one to be made with an egg inside instead of the traditional filling.
Banh Cuon vendors: 14 Hang Ga; also in alley off of Au Trieu (next to St Joseph's Cathedral)
This is the one Vietnamese dish that is well-known around the world, but not surprisingly, it tastes best in Vietnam. It seems that pho joints take up almost every other hole-in-the-wall storefront or alleyway. Pho is served with either chicken or beef most of the time, and we definitely preferred the beef variety (pho bo). We soon learned that we had always eaten southern Vietnamese pho in the US, which is served with bean sprouts and piles of herbs on the side, and also with a thinner, rounder noodle than in the north. But both varieties start with a delicious beef broth that takes at least eight hours to make, to which soft, fresh noodles, thinly sliced onions, herbs, and tender slices of beef are added just before serving. Pho is usually eaten for breakfast, but can often be found later on in the day too since it's such a popular meal.
Pho Bo vendor, alley off the east side of Ly Quoc Su, near intersection of Ngo Huyen
These Vietnamese sandwiches are probably the second most famous Vietnamese street food (after pho). However, we had assumed that banh my referred to a sandwich with specific fillings (thinly sliced red roasted pork, mayo, lettuce, carrots and cucumbers), since that is the only Vietnamese sandwich I've ever seen on a menu in the U.S. Turns out banh my is actually just a term for the French-style baguette so ubiquitous in Vietnam, and it can be served with numerous fillings. Old habits die hard though, and the pork variety is still our favorite.
Banh My stand, on Hang Ga just north of the intersection with Hang Phen
I wish I could tell you what was in these savory fried snacks, but I have no idea. What I do know is that you cannot go wrong with one of these tasty treats. Vietnam's version of the Indian samosa is served with plenty of fresh herbs and a tangy dip made with fish sauce and pickled veggies.
Ban Ghoi vendor, 52 Ly Quoc Su
Xoi is sticky rice, and a popular way to fill up on the cheap. Many fast food xoi joints can be found in Hanoi where you pick a kind of xoi (plain, with corn, etc.), and then choose from a list of meat and veggie toppings. We tried plain sticky rice with cinnamon pork, plain sticky rice with corn and chinese braised pork, and sticky rice with corn, chicken, and mushrooms. The third bowl was probably excessive, but we indulged nevertheless because it was too delicious!
Xoi Yen, 35b Nguyen Huu Huan
Although it's not a street food, cha ca deserves a mention here because it's such a typical Hanoi dish. There are a couple very old cha ca institutions in Hanoi, and they serve only that. The morsels of turmeric-dusted juicy catfish are cooked at your table with fresh dill and green onions, and are served with noodles, more fresh herbs, fish sauce, peanuts, and chilies. At first we didn't get what the big deal was, but as soon as we bit into the fish, we understood this dish's popularity: the fish was some of the most tender and flavorful that we've ever had. I know I won't be able to re-create this dish at home, so I guess we'll just have to return to Hanoi if we ever want to taste it again!
Cha Ca, 21 Duong Thanh
Some like it sweet: the Vietnamese certainly do. They make their coffee strong and mix it with almost an equal amount of condensed milk (they call it "sweet milk"), which is sinful but addictive. Caphe trung takes this to the next level: condensed milk is whipped with an egg white until it reaches a consistency nearing mousse, and this is poured on top of strong iced coffee. You eat it with a spoon, because let's be honest: this drink is not coffee, it's a decadent dessert. I'm shocked Starbucks hasn't hopped on this train ("Vietccino" doesn't have the best ring to it though).
Cafe Pho Co, 11 Hang Gai
With our time in Vietnam running a bit short, and having gotten our exposure to the countryside and mountains on our motorbiking trip, and to city life with a few days in Hanoi, we decided what was missing was some time on the coast, so we headed to Cat Ba Island, home to a large national park, some stunning limestone islands dotting an expansive bay, and of course plentiful and delicious seafood of all kinds.
The highlight of our time there was a day-long tour of the bay, which started with some time cruising by the many floating fishing villages: ramshackle huts built on large floats where whole families live (including small children and dogs who are often afraid of water). Then we jumped into a kayak to explore the otherworldly scenery of sheer cliffs, enclosed lagoons, and deserted beaches. Next came the day's main attraction: a few hours of "deep water soloing", rock climbing off small boats without any protective gear. Here's how it works:
You take the motorboat up to the base of a sheer cliff and the guide points to where to put your hands and feet. You time the swells of the waves so that you can jump off the boat's deck and onto the route's first holds, then the boat putters away and you're left clinging to the side of the cliff. You work your way up the rock, usually climbing for about five or ten meters, or a bit more if your vertigo hasn't gotten to you yet.
Then you find a secure spot, look below you to make sure there aren't any boats, people, or fish, and jump towards the plane of water below...
Standing on the side of the cliff and looking down, you're full of anxiety, you kick yourself for having climbed so high, and don't think you'll be able to jump, then you tell yourself it's the only way down. You muster up your courage, take a few deep breaths, count to three, and let go. The anxiety is followed by a moment of fear and excitement of falling through the air, then a moment of complete calm and silence as everything around you freezes in place before the impact. Before you know it, the water has arrested your fall and everything around you is blue and light. You float to the surface, blow out the few gallons of water that seem to have gotten forced up your nose and into your ears, swim back to the boat and get ready to do it all again.
In my 15 or so years of climbing, this experience was the purest and most exhilarating way to practice the sport I've tried yet. When climbing this way you're unencumbered by worry about the gear, the ground below you, the next few moves, or whether your partner is paying adequate attention. It's just you, the rock, and the sound of the waves beneath you. The downsides are waiting for the boat to drop you off at the right spot, then being forced to jump on the wall quickly; and the fact that if you have trouble with a move or get tired out, there's really no second chance.
It's a different challenge and a different reward from other types of climbing, but a truly wonderful experience.
Before visiting Southeast Asia, we weren't big motorbiking enthusiasts; in fact, Claudia's motorbiking experience consisted entirely of a few anxiety-ridden hours in Europe many years ago, and mine consisted of crashing a small toy bike into a fence in Portland, Oregon in 2009. However, taking a multi-day motorbiking trip in the north of Vietnam is somewhat de rigeur, so we always had the idea that we might take such a trip. As we got closer, we began to hear more and more buzz, and we warmed up to the idea. We're sure glad we did: our six-day trip through far northern Vietnam was more than a good introduction to the country, its people, food, language, and dress, it was also jaw-droppingly beautiful and a thrilling adventure for our introduction to the pastime. When we talked to people in Hanoi, the trip's jumping-off point, and to the few other tourists we came across along our route, we realized that we lucked out with our choice for our first motorbiking trip: many people said that it was the best loop in southeast Asia, and one group of seasoned Australian bikers, who had ridden all over the world, said it was the best trip they had ever been on.
We met our charming guide, Hoa, who outfitted us in biking jackets, gloves, and helmets, and introduced us to our bikes, then it was off through Hanoi's crowded streets and into the country. Throughout the trip, Hoa was a capable and friendly guide, perfectly gauging our comfort and choosing our route and speed accordingly, and doing a wonderful job of understanding our interests, and translating for us so that we could have short conversations with the local people we came across.
Our first two days involved straight and easy roads through the verdant farmland outside Hanoi up to the northern hub of Ha Giang. We saw a small pond full to the brim with white ducks, many people wearing the iconic rice hat and working in endless fields of rice paddy, and many fellow motorbikers transporting produce: cages precariously placed on the back of the bikes, containing enormous (live) pigs, ducks, and even dogs. But most memorable was the bright green color of the rice paddies, a green that is so vibrant it's hard to believe it's natural.
We also stayed in two charming homestays where we were given spartan accommodation of thin mattresses in a large shared room, but our best memories of these days are of the huge communal dinners shared with the friendly and outgoing families. We shared heaping bowls of rice, fresh grilled fish, savory-sweet pork in at least two or three styles per meal, delicious stewed bitter greens, and an omelet for good measure, all dipped in pungent and delicious fish sauce, the Vietnamese national condiment. Add to all that a local, homebrewed rice wine of which everyone in the family insists on sharing a shot (and one more...and one more...and this is the last one...and one more "last one"), and these two meals were certainly some of our favorites from all year.
Day 3 was the real show-stopper: 200km of thin and windy mountain roads with sheer drops that look out on endless valleys full of terraced farmland in various shades of green, red, and beige. We even made it all the way to the small town of Lung Cu, just a few kilometers from the Chinese border, and boasting a hill bearing a Vietnamese flag from which you can see clear to China. Unfortunately we didn't have time for the climb...
The last three days saw us attending a lively and colorful Hmong market, seeing even more breathtaking scenery, and making a half-dozen thrilling and precarious crossings of streams by rickety bamboo bridges. We also took a leisurely boat ride on Ba Be Lake, Vietnam's biggest lake and the center of a popular national park.
While the scenery was incredible, as usual for our trip, it was the interactions with people that we'll remember the longest. Every day we took two or three breaks during the ride for a cup of tea, Vietnamese coffee, and a puff from the traditional bamboo water pipe (yes, it's just tobacco!), often sharing a table with a group of older Vietnamese men, and invariably surrounded by many sonorous caged birds.
If we were hesitant motorbiking novices before, you can fully induct us into the sport now. We loved the feeling of the wind in our faces, and the connection to our surroundings: not being enclosed in a car, bus, train, or plane means that we could look at the scenery all around us (at least while keeping one eye on the road). I think that a bicycle is the perfect way to see a city, allowing you to move quickly through it, but affording you the opportunity to stop, linger, take pictures, and to experience the city on a human scale and pace. If that's true, then motorbiking must be the perfect way to experience the countryside: it's more open and adventurous than a car or bus, making you feel much more connected to and integrated into your surroundings, but you can cover much more ground in a day than if you were bicycling or hiking.
Our first stop in Laos was a three-day adventure in the Bolaven Plateau in the southern part of the country. After an all day bus trip from Phnom Penh (Cambodia), we crossed the border and arrived in Pakse, a sleepy riverside town in southern Laos, from where the trip would start.
We spent the next three days with a friendly Australian-Vietnamese family of five and our three guides, hiking through the jungle and ziplining between huge trees through deep river valleys. The three kids' excitement and hyperaciveness entertained us and got us even more pumped for each zipline as we whizzed past gorgeous waterfalls, over rivers far below us, and through dense jungle. The longest zipline we did was 450 m and took close to a minute from start to finish!
In the afternoons, we hung out at the main treehouse, overlooking one of the most beautiful waterfalls I've ever seen. The pools below the falls were perfect for swimming and playing around.
We slept in a private treehouse that was only accessible by a short zipline, which really made us feel like we were in the tree canopy.
On the last day, we abseiled from the top of the big waterfall down to the bottom, and then started hiking back to the village where we left from two days before, using a via ferrata (a system of iron cables, ladders, or steps built into a rock face or mountain that can be used to ascend or descend) along the way. It went much better than that time on the Ampitheatre hike in South Africa: we had harnesses and ropes and there were no crazy wind gusts!
Tree Top Explorer was a really fun way to get deep into the jungle-- which illegal loggers thankfully have not ravaged yet-- and see the area from a different perspective. We wore harnesses and there were plenty of safety measures, so it wasn't scary at all (well, unless you're scared of heights and then you should probably not sign up for this!).
Back home in Washington DC, one of our favorite summertime treats is to head toward the Chesapeake Bay and spend a day eating Maryland blue crabs until our stomachs are stuffed. So when we learned that there was a city called Kep on the eastern end of Cambodia's coast whose waters were teeming with crabs, our interest was piqued. Throw in some world-class pepper from neighboring Kampot, and the deserted beaches of Rabbit Island just minutes off the coast, and our fate was sealed. Off to Kep!
Crabs-wise, we weren't disappointed. The crabs themselves were about the same size as the Chesapeake ones, and the meat was just as tender and delicious, but the shells were the big difference, being much thinner and softer than we're used to, enabling us to crack them open with our teeth (the minor dental problems Claudia is having didn't even deter her!). I think we had six servings of crab in three days, in nearly every possible preparation: steamed crabs, grilled crabs, crab curry, tiny deep-fried crabs served as a beer snack...but the best was the simple preparation in a spicy, syrupy sauce featuring fresh green peppercorns still on the stem. And the pepper itself was a revelation. We didn't realize we'd been eating only average ground pepper our whole lives until we tried something a step up; fresh, flavorful, and spicy, it's good enough to eat on its own. We had many dinners in Cambodia made up of nothing more than meat or seafood with a dipping sauce made from fresh lime juice, ground black peppercorns, and a pinch of salt. When we visited Kampot we picked up a kilo of the delicious spice so everyone back home can try it too!
Our last afternoon in town, finally able to tear ourselves away from the oceanside crab shacks, we borrowed mountain bikes to tour the city's vast expanse of crumbling French villas. During the last years of French colonization of Cambodia, Kep (or, as it was known then, Kep-sur-Mer) was the seaside destination for the French upper class. In the 1950s and 60s, it was billed as a top vacation destination, and saw a huge upsurge in construction. As the country fell into civil war in the late 60s, however, the villas were abandoned seemingly overnight. The intervening decades have seen roofs and floors crumbling, and vegetation growing unchecked. What's a loss for a few wealthy French families is our gain, as we spent a few hours wandering through the modern ruins, trying to imagine the city at the height of its decadence, and wishing we had the money, time, and construction knowledge to refurbish one of these midcentury masterpieces.
Our last diversion away from Kep was an overnight stay on nearby Rabbit Island. As all good island stays should be, ours featured nothing of note more than copious hammock time, fresh seafood, and a stay in a sub-ten-dollar bamboo bungalow. Life doesn't get much better!
For more information about Kep and Kampot, check out the recent NYT article here
We gather all our patience, attention, and--yes--courage for the final push. It's not going to be easy: slogging through the damp and dimly-lit passageways; pulling ourselves up the mountainous formations, the sun beating down hard on our backs. It's like the final three miles of a marathon (or the final three miles of a three-mile run for Claudia). You're probably as sick of hearing about temples as we are about talking about them, but take a deep breath, gather up your remaining fortitude, make sure you're well hydrated, slam a GU, and join us.
Siem Reap, a large and cosmopolitan city in western Cambodia, is located just a few kilometers away from dozens of pre-medieval ruins, the only evidence left of the powerful and far-reaching Khmer empire of the 9th to 15th centuries. We spent two days biking and tuk-tuking between the historical temples, abodes and worship-places of the god-kings: first the expansive and impressive Angkor Thom; later the beautifully crumbling Ta Prohm, midway through the process of being engulfed by the dense jungle surrounding it; and finally to Angkor Wat, the largest religious building in the world, and an enduring symbol of devotion first to the Hindu deities, and later to the Buddha.
Angkor Thom is impressive and almost inconceivably huge. The last complex built by the Khmer kings, it is centered on the impressive Bayon, a monumental structure with numerous four-sided spires brandishing the malevolent faces of Khmer deities. On entering, it seems like a claustrophobic and haphazard jumble of un-unified features, but after doing a lap or two, its symmetry and the architectural prowess of its designers becomes ever more apparent. It's easy to wander through the dark tunnels and turn a corner only to unexpectedly come across a small shrine with burning incense and a few worshipping devotees, or to pass through a doorway and look up to find yourself faced with an eight-foot god-head looking none-too-pleased by your presence.
Just a bit north stand two regal terraces. The first and larger terrace of the elephants was used by the Khmer kings to observe processions and sporting demonstrations in the field below. It contains some magnificent stone carving, especially (predictably) of figures of elephants, as well as some stonework that was undoubtedly mis-reconstructed at some point, looking more like a mismatched jumble of kids' blocks or a clumsily solved jigsaw puzzle than the meticulous and deliberate artistic statement that the Khmers were capable of.
Surrounding and protecting the whole complex is an expansive moat, only passable through four gateways at the site's sides. Each contains an ominous three-spired archway featuring more god-heads, and a bridge flanked on either side by dozens of muscular representations that we understand to be gods and demons locked in a tug-of-war over the "Churning of the Ocean of Milk", part of a Hindu creation myth.
Quite a change from Angkor Thom, instead of the wonders of human devotion and engineering, what's on display here is a somewhat more solemn message of the power of nature and the inevitability of collapse and destruction.
Perhaps it was left too long to decay before any serious reconstruction effort was underway, but the trees are clearly in control here, and not the humans. The temple is covered, choked, and strangled with the bulbous roots of tall trees. The root systems climb over spires, straddle walls, and pull individual stone blocks out of place one by one in their endless search for fresh soil.
It's a humbling display of the power of nature, and also an experience that leads me to question how much restoration and upkeep have taken place with the other historical structures we've visited: If this is what's possible in less than a thousand years, then how much does the well-intentioned but sometimes mistaken efforts of a few decades of historians, archaeologists, and modern engineers affect our experience of once-momentous structures?
Fun fact: much of the Angelina Jolie vehicle, Tomb Raider, was filmed at this temple.
Finally, the best-known and probably most technically impressive structure in the area: Angkor Wat. Massive in scale, the building towers over its surroundings; and yet meticulous in detail, it draws the eye to the hundreds of meters of detailed carvings no more than an arm's reach away.
Angkor Wat's scale and symmetry can be deceiving, even disorienting: after making a few laps of the various levels of interconnected terraces, it's hard to tell how high up you are, and where in the expansive floorplan you've ended up. It's the ultimate expression of Khmer engineering, and deserving of all the accolades bestowed upon it. It's one of those places, like the Taj Mahal, or Machu Picchu, that looks impressive and almost impossibly beautiful in photos, and equally as impressive in person.
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.
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.
After washing the Holi dye off our bodies (actually we would continue to find it in our ears, nose, and between our toes for a few days to come), we set off for the main attraction of our Nepal trip: a five-day trek through the Annapurna Conservation Area, a part of the Himalayas well known for its trails and endless trekking possibilities.
We took a taxi to the trailhead, about 1.5 hours away from Pokhara, and set off with our packs. This seven-hour day of trekking started off hot and dusty, and ended with two hours of steep stairs up 400 meters (out of a total elevation gain of 1000 m for the day).
Day two was a little easier, with an elevation gain of "only" a little over 800 m. The trails passed through rhododendron forests, and some of the trees were in bloom with beautiful pink flowers. During our tea stop, and on and off for the rest of the afternoon, there were snow flurries, reminding us of how quickly the weather can change with elevation. The day ended in Ghorepani, a town (basically a cluster of blue and white lodges or tea houses) blessed with lovely views of the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri mountains that were covered in clouds when we arrived.
However, the next morning, when we awoke at 4:30 am to hike up 45 minutes to a higher and popular spot for sunrise called Poon Hill, we looked out the window to find a completely clear sky and impressive 8000-meter mountains, seemingly in grasping distance, lit up by the almost full moon. We strapped on our headlamps and climbed up the path leading to Poon Hill, arriving second only to the chai-walla (the tea seller). Our eagerness was rewarded with a bone-chilling 45-minute wait until the sun actually started to rise and the crowds started to arrive. The full moon was directly west, and from 180 degrees opposite rose the sun, lighting up the bright white peaks and coloring the sky with a hazy pink hue. From east to west we could see an impressive 13 peaks, most of them between 7000 and 8000 m in height. To say that it was stunning and humbling would be an understatement.
After we were satisfied that we had more photos and video than could ever be useful, we headed back down to our tea house and took a rest day. Nick's dad wasn't feeling great, and we were more than happy to spend a lazy day sitting around the fire, reading, and playing hearts (which was more like "watching as Claudia tries and fails to shoot the moon"), while gazing out the windows at the mountains.
The next day turned out to be our favorite. Already having over-indulged on snow-capped views, we weren't expecting the views to get better, but they did. The hike took us up in elevation first, leading to a viewpoint called Gurung Hill that topped what Poon Hill had shown us the previous morning. In addition to all the mountains we had seen before, we could also see the endless foothills and valleys in the other direction, and the view reminded me a bit of a scene from the Appalachian or Smoky Mountains in the Eastern U.S.
With huge smiles on our faces, we weren't too bothered by the up and down path that took us to our last and final tea house in Tadapani, where we were blessed with more amazing views from its patio, and where we sampled something called a "Snickers Roll", which was essentially a Snickers Hot Pocket, except fried, not microwaved. We felt very American!
On our final day, we awoke to a beautiful sunrise, and then got started on the long haul back. It was hot and annoyingly downhill, as final days of mountain treks usually are, with a total descent of 1600 m. Our knees were shot, but we were glad that we pushed through and couldn't have been happier with the beautiful peaks we spent the last few days gazing at.
You do not need to hire a guide for this trek, or other treks in this area, since the signage and other hikers you'll see make it impossible to get lost. However, it is not a good idea to hike alone. Hiring a porter to carry your bag is also possible either in Pokhara or in most of the villages you'll pass through. While the Ghorepani-Ghandrunk trek wasn't exactly an unbeaten path, it's popular for a reason: it affords gorgeous views in as little as 3-4 days (if you're a fast hiker or short on time). We did it in 5 days, but that included a rest day on the day we saw the sunrise at Poon Hill. Taking it really easy, or lengthening the route by going north to Chomrong or east to Landruk, you could turn this trek into 6 or more days. Altitude shouldn't be an issue, since the highest point is around 3200 m (but the highest point you'll have to spend the night is 2800 m).
Get a massage at the Seeing Hands Clinic in Pokhara Lakeside South after coming back from a trek. The organization trains blind Nepalis in massage therapy, and the massage was one of the best I've ever gotten. It's a good value too, at around $15/hour.