Friday, March 6, 2015

Myanmar: The cave temples of Hpa-An

Both Anna and I have returned stateside, and there is much we still haven't written about here, and much we will never be able to. Obviously you can never encompass a whole trip on a blog, but I want to be able to look back at this without big swathes or whole cities or areas missing! It feels a bit odd to write about an experience after the fact, so I'm going to rely heavily on the photos we have. Hopefully the timeline of these posts won't be too confusing as they're going to be a bit out of order.

Post-Vipassana/Vietnam, Anna and I met back up again in Yangon, Myanmar. Yangon and Myanmar itself merit their own post - more details on that later. After our time in Yangon, we headed south to Mawlamyine, then on to a town called Hpa-An. On a recommendation, we signed up for a full-day tour of the caves and temples in the area surrounding around Hpa-An.

Temples ranged from the oddly kitschy and theme park-like:

To the natural and serene:

From a boat ride:

To a bat cave:


The tour was a great way to see the incredible surroundings of Hpa-An and to experience the spiritual mixing of nature, culture, and religion that is unique to Myanmar.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Island Living

The beaches of southern Thailand were not part of our original plan for this trip. We were going to stay north and attempt to avoid the well-trodden, beach-vacation route that brings many to Thailand. But after two months of active traveling and more time than expected in our jackets and vests, the white sand and blue water of the Thai islands pulled ever stronger.

After our time in Myanmar, we flew back into Thailand and into a language and currency that felt strangely familiar. We caught a ferry from the coastal town of Krabi to the island of Koh Lanta. Though our guesthouse was overpriced and the beach a bit rocky for swimming, the island was beautiful.

Anna and I spent a full day wandering up and down the beaches.

One night we were lucky enough to stumble upon a snake charmer and a fire show.


My highlight was our day of snorkeling. We booked a full-day snorkeling trip that took us to Koh Rok (along with boatloads of French and Germans). We spent an hour snorkeling, two hours for an island lunch, then another hour at a second snorkeling site.

The visibility was amazing and we saw many parrotfish, sea anemones, coral, even two barracuda!

Both times we were the first ones off and the last ones back on (we had a tendency to wander...). The only downside was that, despite vigorous sunscreen application, we both got a bit fried.

We hopped back on the ferry to head to Koh Pu, a smaller and more isolated island. Visitors are picked up by long-tail boats that come to meet the ferry offshore.

Thus we washed ashore, about 50 feet from the steps of our home for the next three days: Peace Paradise.

Koh Pu is a very small island. There's no electricity during the day and wifi can be found at only a few places on the island (not ours). There's not much to "do" but rest, relax, and enjoy the beauty and isolation of the island.

Desserts in Review

Those of you who know me know that I have a sweet tooth morning, day and night. I sampled desserts everywhere we went, and here is what I found:

Thea and I discovered Mango Sticky Rice early on in Thailand -- it's super glutinous sticky rice drenched in creamy cocnut milk and topped with ripe-to-bruised mango slices. Reliably delicious. However, as the trip wore on, I found that we were consuming so much rice during regular meals that I didn't have the appetite for rice at dessert time too.

We found many Southeast Asia desserts to be unidentifiable blobs of gelatin like these:

They're often beautifully presented like little gifts wrapped in banana leaves, but the slimy texture is a let-down. The white ones probably have a coconut base, but who knows what else goes into these creations.

In Laos, I sampled this popular streetside dessert:

Again, the gelatinous texture, but this time the flavor was a bit more interesting. Greeen tea and coconut, perhaps? They also offered squares of egg custard that weren't too shabby -- and perfect size for a non-committal nibble.

In Myanmar, Thea fell in love with their fresh yogurt for dessert (fresh enough for a barnyard-y aftertaste!), served with a long spoon in glass beer mugs. I found myself smitten with a traditional dessert called faluda, a mug of rose milk with colored gelatin bits and a scoop of ice cream on top:

(And this only cost $1!)

In most places where we tromped around Southeast Asia, we came across bakeries that tempted me with beautiful-looking confections from home:

And even though I knew better after a couple of dry pastries whose texture was inexplicably odd, I succumbed to the temptation to try another one. "Maybe this bakery has it figured out!" I exclaimed to Thea, ever sanguine. "Laos used to be a French colony!" But again and again, I was sobered. Wheat flour is hard to come by, so perhaps the problem was substitutions of rice flour or corn flour. We also rarely saw ovens during our travels. And hey, baked goods are not a local delight.

Another common dessert (and breakfast) cartering to the wandering Westerner that we encountered time and time again was the Banana Pancake:

Sometimes it was a crepe smeared with Nutella and slices of banana, other times it was advertised as a "roti," sometimes it was a thick, deep-fried pancake with banana slices caramelized inside. Sometimes it tasted like Bisquik pancake mix with honey on the side rather than maple syrup.

Perhaps most of the Asian desserts we tried were so lack-luster because locals don't need to produce a light and buttery croissant or a dense brownie when Mother Nature produces the best dessert around, in a myriad of vibrant colors and sweet, tropical flavors:

Eaten raw or blended into a fruit shake, some of our favorites were papaya, mango, tamarind, coconut, and the Queen of them all: the Banana. Bananas came in a slightly different shape in each country we visited, and although they were often bruised or brown on the outside, the flesh was always scrumptious and in perfect condition. (7-11 also sold great "solar dried" bananas for dirt cheap.) Thank you tropical climate for this fresh plenitude of fruit!

But, I'm still looking very forward to my first bite of 70% cacao, in a matter of hours now as I write this from the plane!

Your Diplomat of Desserts,

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Ten Longest Days

Acccording to Burmese lore, the Buddha's teachings of "dhamma" that aimed to liberate practitioners from suffering were diluted in India five centuries after Buddha's death by different religious sects, traditions, and beliefs. However, the pure torch of dhamma was carried on in nearby Myanmar by a few lineages of teachers. (We met an anthropologist in Yangon who is studying Buddhism, and she said that most scholars outside of Myanmar dispute this notion.) Either way, it's a concept that the Burmese are very proud of, and indeed, Buddhism seems to permeate their lives in many ways, from their warm, open smiles and generosity towards strangers to golden pagodas poking up through the landscape, urban or rural, wherever you go.

For example, Thea and I visited the world's largest reclining Buddha a couple days ago, which is in the south of Myanmar:

So taking a meditation course in Myanmar in the tradition of vipassana, the form of meditation taught by Buddha, was truly a gift from the universe. The course itself was identical to vipassana courses worldwide, which were originally started by Burmese vipassana practitioner S.N. Goenka in 1969 in India and gradually spread across six continents. Goenka, who passed away in 2013, filmed and recorded himself so that his teachings are identical across all the centres, although Goenka emphasizes that one's own experiential learning during meditation is the ultimate truth to take away, not what the Buddha or any teacher says.

The courses also all follow the same rigorous timetable:

4 am: wake-up bell (gong, GONG, GONnnnnnnng)
4:30 - 6:30 am: morning meditation (Thankfully Goenka chants for the last half hour, but it's very hard to stay awake.)
6:30 - 8:00 am: breakfast (typically some kind of delicious Burmese noodle soup with veggies and a piece of tropical fruit on the side)
8::00 - 9:00 am: group meditation
9:00 - 11:00 am: meditation in the hall or in the pagoda cell
11:00 am - 12:00 pm: lunch (again, fresh vegetarian Burmese fare, rice with various curried vegetables, fermented tea leaves, soup, and banana for dessert)
12:00 - 1:00 pm: break (nap, do laundry, walk back and forth along the grounds)
1:00 - 2:30 pm: meditation in hall or pagoda cells
2:30 -3:30 pm: group meditation 
3:30 - 5:00 pm: meditation in hall or pagoda cells
5:00 - 6:00 pm: tea break (actually Burmese version of Tang and a sugar lump cookie)
6:00 - 7:00 pm: group meditation
7:00 - 8:15 pm: dhamma talk (Goenka's filmed lecture)
8:15 - 9:00 pm: meditation
9:30 pm: lights out!

You read that right: No dinner! And 10 hours of meditation a day. It was one of the most difficult and most rewarding things that I have ever done. The group of 20 foreign women all had various aches and pains from sitting in proper meditation posture with crossed legs and a straight back most of the day, and on the fourth day, we were asked not to change our position during the 1-hour group meditations. It's not masochistic: it helps make the mind more firm and stable in order to observe and accept the sensations that arise and disappear in the body, which is central to re-training your mind to accept impermanence in all areas of life. The 30 Burmese women who were taking the course with us were impressive and stoic sitters, foregoing any extra cushions to prop up aching knees, hips and ankles like us struggling foreigners. And then there's the challenge of being alone with your mind and wandering thoughts for ten days, as we are required to take a vow of Noble Silence for the course!

This was the entryway to the vipassana centre, which transported you into a peaceful, tree- and bird-filled world from the bustling streets of Yangon: 

And these were our dormitories, two women to a room (I shared a room with a lovely, tiny Japanese gynecologist):

One of the biggest take-aways of the course for me was the power of my mind over my physical body and pain, as well as over my attitude regardless of what might be occurring externally in life. I learned that simply by observing rather reacting to a painful pins and needles sensation in my leg, the sensation faded away on its own, though the leg remained numb. Soon the sensation did not arise at all during meditation. It felt nearly magical and got me thinking about why meditation couldn't be used more for pain management in a healthcare setting. I could go on and on about the course, but everyone has a unique journey, though we all emerged with bright smiles and the calm presence of a quiet mind. I highly encourage everyone to take the time out of our busy lives to embark on a course: it is 10 days of quality time with yourself, free from distractions, interactions and responsibilities besides the discipline of meditation. All the course info is at www.dhamma.org.

Goenka ended each meditation with a rumbling, sonorous Parli chant of Bhavatu Sabba Mangalam, which means may all beings enjoy true peace, harmony, and happiness. We answered with a chant of Sadu, or "Well Said."
Extending these vibrations your way this morning/evening,

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Hoi An, City of Silk

As "Tet", the Vietnamese New Year approaches, I don't think I could've chosen a more colorful and festive place to be than Hoi An. Famous for its silk and hand tailoring, Hoi An attracts people from around the world, though its distance from both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh keeps crowds around here small.

I spent 6 nights in Hoi An and was able to watch as the town was decked out in colorful lanterns and flags for the New Year.

The New Year is a BIG deal in Vietnam - the celebration lasts a full week and preparations started months ago (no joke!).

I stayed at a place called "Under the Coconut Tree" (yes really) that was outside of town near the calm and quiet An Bang Beach. Getting into tpwn was a 10-15 mn bike ride that took me through beautiful rice paddies.

After seeing so many places these past 6 weeks, I decided to stay in Hoi An for a stretch to rest, relax, and regain some inner balance.

The Coconut Tree

Oh, and get scuba certified!

Huang (my instructor) and I after our open water dives.

Cham Islands, our dive site.

Post-dive lunch at a mindblowingly beautiful beach.

Hoi An was a beautiful place to slow my gears down, read, write, meditate, get sick, eat pho, get better, eat more pho, and really reflect on my travels and many other life questions.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Rewind: Slow Boat on the Mekong River


Monday, February 9, 2015

Vietnamese Traffic: A Rough Guide

Traffic in Vietnam is not for the faint of heart. Motorbikes are by and large the main mode of transportation here. Whether you are on foot or on wheels, see below for a rough guide to traffic in Vietnam:

1) Disregard everything you have ever learned about what to do in traffic. You are about to do the complete opposite.

2) There is never a "good" time to cross the road. You must step directly into the path of oncoming traffic or you will never leave that curb.

3) If you are biking on the right side of the road and you see a motorbike headed straight towards you, chances are they will make a left turn before hitting you. Probably.

4) Don't be concerned about knowing when you are about to be passed, you will be honked at before it happens.

5) Traffic lights are mere suggestions.

6) You will either come out of this with greater faith in humanity to function without rule, or not at all.

Good luck, and may the odds be ever in your favor.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Vientiane: A Soul-less City?

"Vientiane is a city without a heart or soul"

Harsh words from someone I met at my hostel. Anna and I arrived in Vientiane Tuesday afternoon and spent the day wandering around the city. It was not the charming, European-esque, riverside capital city we had imagined. For starters, the Mekong was quiet dried up, so the "riverside" was about 100+ meters from the Riverside Promenade.

Anna left Wednesday for Myanmar for a 10-day Vipassana course, after which I will meet up with her in Yangon. In the meantime, I am headed to Vietnam! My stay here in Vientiane was a little extended due to waiting on my visa to arrive, which means I will have spent about 3 days here - about 2 days longer than what one should allocate if visitng Vientiane. 

Vientiane itself is not much of a destination but rather a transit point for those traveling in and out of Laos. It's not a pretty city and I left with the feeling that it was a place struggling to build a sense of cultural identity. I have spent my time here wandering the city, learning about Laotian cuisine, and taking the opportunity to catch up on correspondences and emails. These past 36 days have been go, go, go, and you don't realize until you're really alone with your thoughts how exhausting that can be (I'm sure Anna will have more to speak to this after her Vipassana!). I am grateful for this opportunity to slow down, but in a place like Vientiane, I am getting a bit stir-crazy.

The most interesting thing I have experienced here was the COPE Rehabilitation Center (www.copelaos.org). COPE stands for Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise. Founded in 1997, COPE opened a visitor center in 2008 that aims to increase awareness about disability and highlight the work being done to bring quality care to those with disabilities.

For many of my generation, the Vietnam War (or "American War" as it is known here) is an event of the past, something we've read about in school or seen in movies. Another misconception is that the war affected only Vietnam, but here in Laos the effects of the war are still very real. The map below was made from US Air Force data. Each red dot represents a bombing mission. The number of bombs varied, but over 580,000 US bombing missions were carried out over Laos.

The most terrifying thing? Many of the bombs remain unexploded. While there are efforts around the country to detect and detonate unexploded cluster bombs, this is an issue that affects the lives of the people of Laos everyday.
Some facts below:

So while I wouldn't recommend vientiane as a destination, there is much to learn here. For now, it is time for me to move on and say goodbye to Laos. I'll soon be catching a 24-hour overnight bus to Hue, Vietnam. After a night in Hue I am headed to Hoi An, where I plan on spending a chunk of time before flying out of Hanoi to meet up again with Anna. I have heard stories about tourist transit scams in Vietnam, so fingers crossed this bus ride goes smoothly!

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Viva la Vang Vieng

Last week we decided that it was time to cross borders and adventure into a new country: Laos. We traveled from Pai to Luang Prabang, Laos for two days on the "slow boat" down the Mekong River. This boat journey merits its own post, but I wanted to focus on the present moment of where we've been for the last two days in Vang Vieng, famous as an outdoor adventure hub for tubing, backpacking, rock climbing, biking, and caving.

Given that reputation, I was expecting a down-to-earth Laotian cousin of Telluride, but we could not have been more shocked and a bit appalled when we arrived at night to rows and rows of bars lit up with neon lights, guesthouses, and restaurants playing reruns of Friends and The Simpsons on large flatscreen TVs at all times of the day. Gone were the charming artsy cafes and organic restobars of Pai -- we had been spoiled. Even the street food menus were entirely identical and unappetizing to our veg-loving, MSG-weary bodies:

In the morning, we realized that we were indeed in a stunning area of natural beauty, albeit from the vantage point of a town that seems to have been designed from a teenager's fantasy. I went for a run out of town, crossing a ricketly bridge to the Banana Bungalows, past verdant rice fields, and on to a dirt road notced with rocks and potholes. I followed signs for a cave and tromped through what seemed to be fallow rice fields towards these stunning, steep mountains:

So,  I was feeling much more optimistic about our stay in Vang Vieng once I returned to our hostel. The day only got better and better as we rented mountainbikes to venture along a dirt road out of town to the Blue Lagoon and Tham Phu Kham cave. We relished spectacular views of the steep, bulbous mountains, rice fields, and tranquil village life. Thea waited while some Aussie beefcakes finished flexing for photos on their motorbikes and sped off to capture this stunning contrast of colors:

The Blue Lagoon was overrun with tourists jumping into the water from a thick tree branch overhead, so we continued up to the cave, which had the scale and architectural magnificence of a cathedral:

We carefully hiked 30 - 45 minutes back into the cave, slowly leaving behind the chatter and clatter of other tourists and the bright light of day. We turned our headlamps off at the back recesses of the cave (where we could see no way to proceed) and embraced the strange fear of darkness so complete that it seems to penetrate and rob you of sight forever.

After a quick dip in the Blue Lagoon, we stopped at a restaurant that is part of SAE LAO (www.saelaoproject.com), an NGO aiming to improve and sponsor education for local children and to support more sustainable agricultural practices. Their menu explained that the adverse impacts of tourism on this tiny town, such as destruction of the environment to build more infrastructure and easier access to alcohol and drugs for local youth, motivated the founder Sengeko Frichitthavong to undertake this work. The food was fresh and delicious (a pure fruit shake without condensed milk or glucose syrup!), so we were surprised that the restaurant was empty even though it's only a few minutes from the busy lagoon. It seems most tourists opt for the standard fare sold waterside.

Today we had another magnificent nature adventure. We were scheduled to go rock climbing in the afternoon, but when we arrived at Adam's Climbing School, it turned out that the guides thought we were signed up for the morning half-day and had already left. We decided to explore some caves near Vang Vieng instead. In trying to show Thea a cave that I had found on my run the other morning, I got us lost in a thicket of brambles and burrs, but we ended up on a trail with a few markers of orange cloth tied around trees (like the monk's path to Wat Pha Lat in Chiang Mai). We were accompanied by a flea-infested, but very sweet dog/spirit guide we named "Patches." The path took us straight up a mountainside through boulders and under winding tree branches, but we persisted with the hope that our efforts might pay off in a stunning view. And an hour later, they did:

Vang Vieng seems plagued by the contradictions of stunning natural resources and ready-to-party, let's -drink-while-we-tube-down-the-river tourists. We went to a bar two nights ago that offered free drinks from 9 - 10 pm and balloons filled with laughing gas. A giant crane excavating the earth for more hotel construction blocked yesterday's stunning sunset over the mountains:

On Wednesday I leave Thea to embark on a 10-day silent meditation retreat in Myanmar while she continues on to Vietnam, so this will be my last post for a short while. Happy February and happy full moon to all!