Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Days 11 & 12 - January 16 &17, 2008 - Mandalay to Bagan

Down the Irrawaddy River from Mandalay to Bagan

To make a long story short, the slow boat from Mandalay to Bagan took 36 hours instead of 15. We slept on the boat and made new friends among our fellow passengers and the crew.

Here is some video.

All the photos from the river trip are here.

Almost at Bagan, we look like we're having fun even though we spent 36 hrs on the boat and slept on the deck.
Week 3 - On the slowboat to Bagan - Irrawaddy River, Myanmar (Burma)

Monday, October 13, 2008

Day 10 - January 15, 2008 - Hsipaw to Pyin U Lwin

Day 10 - January 15, 2008 - Hsipaw to Pyin U Lwin

Took the train from Hsipaw to Pyin U Lwin, crossing the Gokteik Viaduct in daylight; then got front seats in a pickup truck down to Mandalay.

A train pulls in. Vendors jump on.

The Gokteik Viaduct.
Gokteik Viaduct - near Hsipaw, Myanmar

Our shared pickup from Pyin U Lwin to Mandalay.
Pyin U Lwin Train Station - Myanmar Burma

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Day 9 - January 14, 2008 - Hsipaw - Burma Road

In order to "finish" Myanmar by the end of October, I'm going to start doing a video for each day with a short description instead of a bunch of text.

Day 9 - January 14, 2008 - Hsipaw - The Burma Road

After a fine day of sight seeing in Hsipaw in which we were given oranges and cheroots (Burmese cigars) and invited to the wedding of Mr Food, we decided to head over across the river to catch the sunset view recommended in Lonely Planet. Seemed simple enough; we even confirmed the location with the folks at our guesthouse. Cross the bridge, take a right at the archway and walk up the hill to the Buddhist temples at the top.

However, it turns out that the bridge - over the Dokhtawady River - is on the Burma Road which goes from Mandalay to Kunming, China and there were many large trucks coming from China that can only proceed one at a time over the rickety, one lane, wooden plank bridge.

The sunset spot is in the "China direction" so we waited for 10 or 20 minutes before getting up enough nerve to cross the bridge on foot against the oncoming, one at a time, trucks.

Here's some video.

The sunset was amazing. There were two monks at the temple. One was of Chinese ancestry and spoke Mandarin. He had us sign the guest book; then brought us some tea. We chatted a bit, I smoked a cheroot, then the other monk came challenged him to a game of checkers.

Watched sunset and the sky turn orange, then purple. Walked back to Mr Charles Guesthouse.
Sunset at Buddhist Temple - Hsipaw, Myanmar  (Burma)

Check out this google map for more info.

View Larger Map

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Day 8 - January 13, 2008 - Train to Hsipaw

Day 8 - January 13, 2008 - Train to Hsipaw

Up @ 7:00 AM, ate b-fast, finished packing, and set off to the Pyin U Lwin Train Station in the hotel's van only to find out that the 8:50 train was at least 3hrs late. Bummer.

Back to the hotel. Sat on the veranda. Beautiful sunny day. Inquired about a shared car to Hsipaw; 28,000 Kyat total; too much; we will wait for the train and study our Myanmar guidebooks.

At noon we caught a ride back to the station from the hotel van. The ticket office finally opened at 12:50 or so, but when we tried to buy a ticket, the guys handling the foreigner's queue did not like our $10 bill - too dirty. But it was a ten given to us by the Royal Parkview Hotel as change when we paid our bill. It only had a few smudges of dirt.

Several other "officials" come round, look at the bill with kid gloves and declare "no bank will take this - too dirty".

So luckily I had the business card for the Royal Parkview stuck in my journal and while I guarded our bags, Sun-Ling went to the small market outside, found a phone, called the Parkview and demanded they send over some clean money. Agreed. And a guy arrived at 1:05 or so with a clean $5 bill and 5 ones. But we had received $50 in "dirty" money from the Royal Parkview , so we sent him back and 15 minutes later he returned with 4 clean tens. We traded bills with him, bought 2 First-Class tickets at $4 each, and got on the train at 1:25.

We had been in Myanmar for 8 days and had by chance used only very clean, new US $100 bills. Thus we did not know about the nationwide aversion to dirty foreign currency. We would be on top of it for the rest of our trip. Stay tuned.

So the train pulls out of Pyin U Lwin Station at 2:30 - almost 6 hours late. The train had 6 cars, 2 First-Class and 4 Ordinary-Class, pulled by diesel locomotive DF 1615.

Our First-Class car has opposing wooden benches and is maybe 50% full. There is a squat toilet at each end of car - no signage - that goes straight down to the tracks. There is no glass in the windows, just a metal grate that slides up and down.

We sat opposite a German couple for awhile. Then they moved.

I shot some photos and video of the landscape, two trains passing by in the opposite direction, and our fellow passengers as we lurched and rolled over the narrow gauge tracks headed mostly west but sometimes north and sometimes south.

Out the window we saw herds of cattle, a few goats, and people tending the fields.

Made several short stops and then at 4:45 parked at a small station. After 15 minutes and no motion, I pulled journal and noted the local children were selling water from a pail, young monks were quietly watching, and that none of the kids were begging, just shyly waving at us.

As we sat and sat, I began to wonder if we would pass over the famous Gokteik Viaduct in the dark. That would be a bummer as it's an engineering marvel at 320 feet high and 2250 feet long, built in 1899 by the Pennsylvania Steel Company.

The sun set, went down, and we finally pulled out at 6:30. Now it was cold. We put on all of our outer gear including rain pants. We make friends with Sandy across the aisle, an American, who visiting Myanmar for the 5th time. She is taking the train to Hsipaw just to see the Gokteik Viaduct as she has previously been to Hsipaw, but not by train.

After a brief stop, we go over the GokTeik Viaduct. Not much to see in the dark.

Then stopped in Kyauk Me Town. The German couple has had enough and get off with a tout who owns a guesthouse in town - he leaves me his card.

Finally, at 11:15 we arrive in Hsipaw. There is no announcement, no nothing, and so we inadvertently get off on the wrong side of the train. After scrambling back to the correct side we head off with Sandy with our flashlights down a dirt path towards town.

It's pitch black, there are no signs, but with the help of a nice man on a motorbike we arrive at Mr Charles Guesthouse and for $15 get a double room. Crash.

Passing a freight train.

Fellow passengers stretch out.
Settled In  - Train to Hsipaw, Myanmar (Burma)

Water seller.
Water Seller - Train to Hsipaw, Myanmar (Burma)

Crossing the Gokteik Viaduct at night.
Gokteik Viaduct At Night - Train to Hsipaw, Myanmar (Burma)

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Reflections on a summer at home

We started traveling on 1/1, came home on 5/30, and are leaving on 10/30. Just as our five months of traveling was a first for me (understandably, since we had never traveled for such an extended time), these last five months also turned out to be a first.
  1. I lived the life a hermit. It was as if being home is an antidote for being on the road where we encountered the unfamiliar, were exposed to the elements, and subjected to the unpredictable. Most days this summer we stayed at home by ourselves, working on our house, studying and reading, and surfing on the Internet. Granted we did spend a whole month, in total, visiting family and friends out of town although we still have not managed to see all our friends around town. Before, we were always out doing things and getting together with friends....
  2. The Danish word Hygge (hu-gah) is a feeling or mood that comes from taking genuine pleasure in making ordinary everyday things simply extraordinary. It's about owning things you only truly love or that inspire, being present in yourself and your life, putting effort into your home without being Martha Stewart or buying a bed in a bag. Words like cosiness, security, familiarity, comfort, reassurance, fellowship, simpleness and living well are often used to describe the idea of Hygge. -- Alex Beauchamp.

    I found hygge - word I learned in Copenhagen - at home. Before, we spent our vacations traveling and our holidays visiting family. We were never around home enough, let alone hygge. This summer John and I both had lots of projects around the house, both big and small. Now I walk around the house feeling peace rather than anxiety.

The hallway.

Our corner desk.
Corner Desk and Chair

Making yogurt.
Preparing to Make Yogurt

Friday, October 03, 2008

Day 7 - January 12, 2008 - Pyin U Lwin Walking Tour

Day 7 - January 12, 2008 - Pyin U Lwin Walking Tour

Up at 8:30 after a very good night's sleep. No heat in our room but the inside temperature only got down to 15 C.

Had breakfast outside in the sun (jackets on): 8 pieces of bread with butter and jam + good coffee w/hot milk + fresh pineapple juice + fried eggs.

Spent the rest of the morning relaxing on the veranda and studying Bagan and other parts of Burma. Since we are out for 6 months, we don't need to go-go-go every day like we used to when all we had was our yearly 3-week trip.

Had the front desk make a reservation for us on tomorrow's morning train - 8:05 AM - to Hsipaw (Thipaw).

Left for some sight seeing at noon. First stop is Candacraig, the Colonial Era Hotel built in 1904 and famous from Paul Theroux's books The Great Railway Bazaar and Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. Not many rooms. Well maintained lawn with tennis court.

Then over to the Chan Tak Chinese Temple which is both Buddhist Temple and old folks home. Sun-Ling chatted up 2 old men who came to Pyin U Lwin from Yunnan China in the 1950's as small boys to escape troubles. We sat, talked, and drank tea.

The temple had a mix of Chinese Buddhist tradition like the Laughing Buddha, and Kuan Yin, and Burmese Architecture. There were some interesting paintings around the inside top of the main temple building, the likes of which I had never seen in a Chinese Buddhist Temple, but we did not take the time to study them or ask questions, but they show up in my photos (see below). Wish I had asked some questions.

Walked up to the top of the pagoda for some photos, then over to the vegetarian canteen (snack bar) for some lunch: cold thick bean noodles with spicy sauce + vegetarian chicken + fried bean flour @ 1000 Kyat. The one old man from earlier ate with us and said that the temple is building a vegetarian restaurant next door to the canteen. Two young kids who spoke very good Chinese delivered our food and we learned how to say "vegetarian food" in Burmese: "duh-duh-loo".

Then on to explore the Main or Central Market. Sun-Ling said it seemed that 90% of all business (and businesses) in Pyin U Lwin was in this Market. "It's size and selection is not seen anywhere. You can buy everything there." She meant "everything" available in PYin U Lwin was available here - food, rice, textiles, baskets, sugar, packaged food, watering cans, etc., etc., - spread over several buildings and joining sheds with night food stands that set up after 4PM. There were not many other stores in town although there was a Safeway (with the usual logo).

We bought: bean & peanut dry mix + 6 oranges + peanuts + bread; all for 2000 Kyat.

Toured downtown area: Purcell Tower, an antique barber shop, the Art Deco Yuzana and Myoma cinemas, a Mosque, several Chinese Restaurants, and the former National Press building. Bought more snacks and tried to buy a souvenir at Soe Moe but no deal.

Back to Golden Triangle: papaya juice + 2 x 8-inch veggie pizzas + cookie to go @ 5650 Kyat.

Back to hotel.

SLHOTD: Reading and studying Bagan on veranda.
JHOTD: Art Deco Cinemas.

Candacraig - Pyin U Lwin, Myanmar

Sun-Ling chatting with man at Chan Tak Buddhist Temple.
Chinese Temple - Pyin U Lwin, Myanmar

Chinese Buddhist images.
Chinese Temple - Pyin U Lwin, Myanmar

The very cool Art Deco Yuzana Cinema.
The Yuzana - Pyin U Lwin - Myanmar (Burma)

Downtown with a traditional horse cart at right.
Pyin U Lwin - Myanmar (Burma)

Bicycle Restaurant - Food Cart.
Pyin U Lwin - Myanmar (Burma)

Market: Watering cans, stoves, etc
Market - Pyin U Lwin, Myanmar

We bought some snacks from this lady. You can just make out Sun-Ling at left. And check out her yellow longyi with palm trees. Cool!

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Day 6 - January 11, 2008 - Mandalay to Pyin U Lwin

Day 6 - January 11, 2008 - Mandalay to Pyin U Lwin

To and Around Pyin U Lwin
(pronounced like "pying oo lwing")

Up at 6:45 and downstairs for b-fast @ 7:05: bananas, toast, juice, fried eggs, and coffee.

Finished packing, brushed teeth, toilet, etc., and checked out @ 7:55. Paid bill of $95 (US Dollars) for the room and 100 kyat for a phone call and 14,000 kyat (about $6 each) for the shared taxi to Pyin U Lwin. We paid the hotel for the shared taxi. Not sure how money gets to the driver or his company.

The Shared Taxi is a Toyota Corolla Wagon with right-hand-side steering - guess it came from Japan - even though Myanmar drives on the right side (left-hand-side steering wheel). Made a pickup east of Mandalay Palace - a woman and two, small, very well behaved children.

Gassed up on the outskirts of town after driving through some typical third-world rush hour traffic; lots of bicycles and motorbikes, all going in to Mandalay as we were headed out east on the main road into town.

The gas-up was novel to say the least. Gasoline is poured into a gallon container set on a stand. The container has a filter - like a big coffee filter - and gravity does the rest. Take a look at this video.


 The ride to Pyin U Lwin - a former British Hill Station named Maymyo - took about 1.5 hours; slowly uphill at first, then a section of switch backs, some rolling hills, then a few more switchbacks, then into town. The roads were good, not 100% smooth, but no potholes and with a decent shoulder. For the switchback sections there was actually two distinct roads; one for uphill, one for downhill, separated by a huge natural "median". Very safe. We followed another shared taxi most of the way whose driver paid the 3 tolls for both vehicles. Two of the "tolls" were just a guy in the road next to a shed, but one was a real tollbooth with gates and an LED sign that said 100 Ks as we passed. Sun-Ling listened to music stored on her cell phone while I watched the driver and the scenery.

As the steering wheel is on the right-hand side, the driver has to be especially cautious - and ours was - while overtaking traffic on a two-lane road. We passed tanker trucks, bullock carts with hay, and school kids walking or biking. Entered Pyin U Lwin, dropped off the woman and kids, and after passing a golf course, we were dropped off at the Royal View Hotel.

 Now, for a very detailed description of our room, #201 at Royal Parkview Hotel No. 107 Lanthaya St Pyin Oo Lwin, Myanmar Ph 085-22641 / 21905 email: r_parkview@myanmar.com.mn #201 is a Standard Room The normal price in $30 US for a double (breakfast included). They offered $28 as a discount, we countered with $25 which was accepted. Maybe we could have gotten $20 as we appeared to be the only people in the place - well there was one set of golf clubs on the veranda so maybe there is one other person. [They also have Deluxe Rooms with bathtubs.] Room #201 has
  • Wood floors and a high ceiling
  • Twin beds with crispy clean sheets, extra blankets and a night stand between them
  • TV with ESPN and Cinemax plus Myanmar channels
  • Writing desk w/light and chair - very nice
  • Wardrobe, fridge, ceiling fan, and wall exhaust fan
  • 2 sitting chairs and a small table
  • Large bathroom with shower only, nice sink, western toilet, and very luxurious white bath towels and hand towels
  • Hot water in thermos, loose tea in plastic bags, and 3-in-1 coffe mix
  • Complementary apples
  • Flip-flips and minibar
  • Small veranda outside by the front door
Room #201 - Royal Parkview Hotel - Pyin U Lwin, Myanmar

 It's definitely cooler in Pyin Oo Lwin than Mandalay. You want to be sitting in the sun in the mornings with long sleeves, long pants and jacket to ward off the chill. Set out at 11:30 or so to explore town using the map given to us by the nice English speaking young lady at the front desk. She marked the Main Market and the Golden Triangle Bakery (run by Americans). The RPV hotel is on the south end of town - at least a 30 minute walk from downtown - but Sun-Ling observed that it really had the Hill Station vibe; that is, laid back, quiet, and good service.

 Walked to the Market, passing some Colonial buildings. A beautiful walk; sunny, just a few clouds, and 70 F. Continued through the market, made a wrong turn, but bought 6 samosa and fried dough w/filling from a local shop. Then headed east to Mandalay Road and finally found the Golden Triangle Bakery. The menu was Coffee, Pizza, Pastries, Juice, etc. Bought a baguette and Danish for 700 Kyat. Oh, the samosas had already been devoured. Later, when we ate the Danish, Sun-Ling suspected that it was made from goat butter as it was buttery and not too sweet.

 Left Golden Tri at 12:35 and made it back to RPH at 1:00 Pm - longer walk than expected. Grabbed our swim gear, water, flashlights, towels, extra shirts, guidebooks and headed south on foot - 45 minutes - to the National Kandawgyi Botanical Gardens: admission $4 US per person plus 1000 Kyat camera fee. It's a very, very, nice, beautiful, well-maintained botanical garden, built in the early 20th Century. Right inside the entrance is an L-shaped swimming pool that did not look inviting enough for a dip at 70 F. At 20 degrees hotter I would have been in. Spent almost 4 hrs in the gardens. Highlights:
  • Eating our Danish by the lake
  • The Orchid Garden
  • Pagoda Pond with swans
  • Arranged tulips and cymbidiums
  • All the lakes
  • Blue delphiniums
  • Red and yellow poinsettias trees
  • Rain Forrest elevated walk (5 meters high)
  • Seeing an elephant
  • Aviary with Great Hornbill
  • Rock garden and swamp garden
  • Bamboo groves
  • Fishtail Palm Tree
After all that activity, we were beat and ready to pay for transport back to town but none of the traditional Pyin U Lwin Horse Carts were to be found so we hoofed on back to the hotel and marched directly to the dining room: fried peanuts + 2 bowls of veggie noddle soup + hand cut ridged french fried potatoes + large Myanmar Beer for 7500 Kyat, our most expensive meal in Myanmar so far.

 SLHOTD: Great Hornbills kissing (John has video to prove it)
 JHOTD: Gassing up

The Market
   Pyin U Lwin, Myanmar (Burma)

Colonial Era Church
 Pyin U Lwin, Myanmar (Burma)

Relaxing at the National Botanical Gardens. National Kandawgyi Botanical Gardens - Pyin U Lwin, Myanmar (Burma)

  More of the Botanical Gardens. National Kandawgyi Botanical Gardens - Pyin U Lwin - Myanmar (Burma)

  The Great Hornbill (photo now - video to be inserted later). Great Hornbill - Pyin U Lwin - Myanmar (Burma)

Playa del Carmen, Mexico

From Aguascalientes, there is a very convenient direct flight to Cancun.  Since the wedding is at a private beach south of Playa del Carmen,...