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,