Wednesday, April 29, 2009

April 23-29: Yangon & Kalaw, Myanmar (Burma)

Within minutes of landing in Myanmar, or Burma as it's better known, you immediately get the sense that this country is different from anywhere else in Southeast Asia. While the rest of the continent is racing into the 21st century, Burma feels stuck in the 1950s. Electricity in Yangon the capital (Rangoon back in the day) is off as much as it is on, and in other towns they're lucky to get 2 or 3 hours a day. Ice is manually shaved in the streets from big blocks, toast is made on wire mesh over coals, there is no credit card network or ATMs, and the most common car on the streets is a World War II era British jeep. Outside of every building in Yangon is a noisy generator keeping the fans running to deal with the 100F degree heat of April, the cruelest Burmese month. The poverty in Yangon is unmatched by anything I've seen besides maybe Delhi.

This situation and blame are perfectly clear. The military junta dictatorship has run the most corrupt government in the region for decades. The manufactured disparity and control is evident everywhere and the Burmese are eager to talk about once you are away from prying ears in the confines of their homes or car or alone on a trail. There is widespread belief that all post and phone conversations can be intercepted. The mobile phone chips that are required to operate on Burmese networks cost US $2000 while the average Burmese income is under US $200 annually, making it impossible for anyone outside of the government to use them. There are two television channels and two newspapers, both government run. The tax on cars is such that even if I was to give a Burmese a car for free, the taxes would be over US $10,000. Restrictions on international travel make it nearly impossible to leave the country without a significant bribe, and within the country foreigners like us, are only permitted to visit a handful of areas. Internet availability is spreading through the country, but many politically sensitive websites are blocked including blogger, the host of this website. (This post is seeing light post-facto from China - ironic, yes)

This is probably not news to many of you as Western countries are attempting to shed light on the situation through embargos and UN resolutions. (Though because of the 'special' relationship with China, these are for the most part futile.) What we have been consistently amazed by in our short time in this country, however, is not only the gentleness, warmth, and generosity of the Burmese, but also their incredible resourcefulness and self-sufficiency. Faced with taxes that return absolutely nothing to the people they are forced to create their own systems. When the government commandeers a water reserve, the monastery on the hill digs a well. With promises of power never realized, local villages pool money to build a hydro-electric power source (which provides power only for the 3 months of the rainy season). In the mountain town of Kalaw, the local bar (where a glass of whisky is 20 cents, there's always a troubadour belting out 80s ballads set to Burmese lyrics, and where a great time is guaranteed) collects donations for the poorest at the hospital. Throughout our travels we've witnessed the poor taking care of the very poor, but this is magnified here.

I don't mean to make it sound like we're not enjoying ourselves here. First of all the mangos are in season and they're the deliciously sweet Indian variety I remember from my childhood. Much better than the fried crickets. And the Shwedagon complex in Yangon with its 82 golden pagodas is a really atmospheric place to wander around barefoot as the sun is setting.

We also just got back from one of our best trips all year, a two day trek through the mountains of the Shan state near Kalaw, visiting Pao and Danu tribal villages along the way. We spent the night with an incredibly generous Pao family. The two daughters had just got back from selling fried sweet rice at a fireworks festival in a neighboring village. The festival involves each village putting together a massive homemade rocket that they try and shoot at a goal in the distance. We joined them on the second day of the festival the following morning. The mother cooked us the best food we've had in Burma yet, all over an indoor wood fire.

The anachronistic state of affairs also leads to some really comic situations. The money for example. Because there are no ATMs you have to bring in all the money you'll need for your time here in cash and exchange it in the black market as the official exchange rate is less than half what is widely available. More specifically you have to bring brand new, crisp hundred dollar US bills void of any creases, blemishes or nicks. In return for one of those bills you get a thick stack of the foulest, most torn-up currency you've ever seen. (The largest bill is worth about 90 cents.) There's also the strange state of cars. We sometimes joke that we're on the left-handed driving tour of the world, but Burma is the first place we've been where they drive on the right, but the driver is also on the right! This is because most of the cars are left over from British colonial times when the driving was on the left. So, in practice this means that every taxi/bus driver has a guy riding with him in shotgun, to tell him if he can pass or not.

Tomorrow we head to Inlay Lake, where the bus ride will be another adventure of continuous honking and Burmese soap operas played at deafening volumes. Fortunately, it's only three hours away. Much like how it takes two hours to get between any two points in New Hampshire, it takes 15 hours to get anywhere in Burma, Inlay Lake the one exception. Thankfully.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

April 20 -22: Bangkok

Continuing our not so direct route around the world, we ended up with an impromptu stop in Thailand for a few days to get our Myanmar vias. Our journey was a little touch and go as political protests and riots broke out in Bangkok a few days after we bought our plane tickets and a few days before we were due to travel.... But peace returned in time for our trip.

Planning on the stop being not much more than logistical, we actually ended up having a wonderful few days - checking out temples while touring the city in a tuk-tuk, re-charging our backpacks with some cheap new clothes, and exploring the night markets. Oh yes, and eating some delicious food of course :)

Saturday, April 18, 2009

April 11 - 19: Guangxi Province

Our time in the southern province of Guangxi was filled with days spent biking, hiking and boating amidst the spectacular beauty of a truly remarkable countryside.... Karst peaks surrounding Guilin and Yangshou, staggaring rice terraces built on the "Dragon's Backbone" near Longsheng.  It all set the backdrop for some amazing explorations that even a few rainy days couldn't damper. 

I'll let the pictures tell the story of our explorations and focus this narrative (for anyone who reads it, we know most of you are just here for the pictures anyways :) on a few themes that seem to have emerged in our early days in China: touts, technology, tour groups and time.

Touts (or simply, people trying to sell you things you don't want or need) are a reality of travelling and have been a pervasive theme of much of our year.  But the touts of China are of a unique ilk and we've found as much humor as annoyance in their presence.  Firstly, they seem to be mostly women.  After 6 weeks in Indonesia where women are often subjegated to more subservient roles due to religious beliefs, it's refreshing to see such enterprising ladies of all ages, many as old as 70 or 80 years it seems.  Secondly, their tactics are diverse and at times quite creative.  The two men who coaxed us into having a tea tasting with them at a local shop so they could "practice their English" (we knew they were trying to eventually sell us seats on their boat trip but enjoyed learning about the tea ritual all the same).  The woman who followed us on our bikes at a respectable distance through the rice paddies of Yungshou and then just "happened to be there" when we needed directions (we never would have found the fabled Dragon Bridge we were searching for with out her and so also didn't mind her presence too much).  And our favorite strategy of the street vendors -- when you tell them you're "just looking" in an attempt to get them to back off, the respond in turn screaming "JUST LOOKING!" or sometimes "LOOKING!" or occasionally "JUST!".  Check back in a few weeks and we may have had our fill of these touts but so far they're mostly just a funny distraction along the way.

Technology is quite simply everywhere.  Train and bus tickets are printed instantaneously from any random travel agent you visit.  We have yet to stay in a hotel that didn't include WiFi in our room.... Yes, this includes our lodging in the small mountain town of Ping'an where there are no roads and traditional farming techniques are still used in the fields.  The owner of our little guesthouse there appeared to be day trading in his free time.  Our wonderful host in Yangshou, Mr. Wei was seeking advice from Nader on how he can better optimize his search capabilities on his guesthouse's website.  Everyday technologies -- from how subway cards scan to the design of wall outlets are just a little smarter and better than those back home.  Tic-toc goes the clock on the U.S. empire....

Chinese tour groups are also pervasive.  The guide, with her little yellow or red flag and high-tech microphone system leads a group of 10-20 Chinese tourists who seem to be checking off the sites off there list of "must dos" with a quick photo and lots of chatter.  This was a piece of China that I was most expecting and prepared to find terribly annoying.  But, surprisingly, it's actually incredibly refreshing to see an country filled with it's own tourists.  So much of our year has been spent in developing countries where the places we visit are too expensive for locals and have been turned into foreign playgrounds catering to young backpackers from richer nations.  I'm reminded most starkly of the salt flats in Bolivia -- breathtakingly beautiful but not a single Bolivian amidst the droves of tourists.  Here in China, the tour groups are a sign of the large and growing middle class.  Sure, the crowds can be a bit tiresome at times (see if you can spot Nader hiding amdist the group below), but it's energizing to be in the presence of such growth and opportunity.  Also, since they all seem to be following a prescribed route and the script of their tour guide, we've found that if you hike or bike about 15 minutes off the beaten path, you can still find the solitude of a beautiful countryside.

And finally, time.  It's been our biggest asset this year.  I'll never forget that freedom and excitement that we both felt on our last day of work and then when the movers came to take all our possessions into storage.  Over the months that followed, we embraced this freedom of space and time as our new reality as the novelty wore off a bit.  Though deeply enjoying and immersing ourselves in each new experience, we perhaps lost a bit of the appreciation for the gift of time.  Without discussing it, we both have found ourselves in the last week cycling back to a feeling of gratefulness for the time and space that we have.  With only 10 weeks left in our travels, each day starts to feel precious yet again.... Not only the sites that we will see but also those morning where we can lie in bed reading books or those afternoons spent on buses and trains watching the countryside roll by.  We feel very lucky....

Saturday, April 11, 2009

April 9-10: Guangzhou

I'm sitting in an underground internet cafe with about 200 gaming teenagers.  The two girls to my right are furiously clicking away at a Chinese version of Dance Dance Revolution, while the guys to my left are watching movies while loudly video chatting and surfing the web at the same time.  This is more or less a microcosm for what we expected all of China to be like.  With the notable exception of places of congregation, like internet cafes and train stations, our first stop in China has been a pleasently surprising revelation.

So much of the experience of travel has to do with expectations.  One of the main reasons people travel is to experience new things, whether that is a foreign culture, an awe-inspiring vista, or a curious meal.  Over time a traveller's expectations become more and more concrete, because a) you've seen more of the world, b) the abundance of travel media, whether they take the form of travel guides, documentaries, or travel blogs, and c) the world is getting increasingly globalized and places are sadly (to the selfish traveller) losing some of their uniqueness.  This is why travellers every year are searching out ever more remote locales. 

We had done a decent amount of research into China, but at least based on our first two days, pretty much all of our expectations were wrong.  Times like this are why I travel.

Guangzhou is a large city in southwestern China with 11 million people, one of the many cities in China with over 10 million people that most people have never heard of.  We picked it as our entry point into China purely because it was in the region we wanted to start in and it had the cheapest flight from Singapore. (My China visa was about to expire so we came here before Burma.)  I expected a brash, crowded, dirty, hectic city void of personality.  There are a lot of people, but there is also plentiful common spaces, with large squares, wide sidewalks, numerous parks, and a nice walking strip by the river.  It doesn't feel crowded.  The metro system is probably the best I've been on anywhere in the world; a train comes every 2 minutes, it's clean, fast, cheap and goes everywhere you want to go, including inside the train station.  The neighborhood we stayed in, Shamian, is leafy and calm, older women doing some form of synchronized paddle dancing in front of the colonial buildings in the mornings, people of all age using a badminton birdie as a hackeysack in the afternoons, middle aged guys using the public outdoor gyms.  The focus on public exercise is pervasive.

Guangzhou is better known by it's former name, Canton, and is the heart of Chinese Cantonese culture.  Which to us means we won't begin to learn the language, and more importantly delicious food.  Every meal in China so far has been a treat, the majority of them from the various street stalls serving up delicious freshly cooked treats, from dumplings and buns, to pick your own ingrediant soups to mystery meats that we generally steer clear of.  Every restaurant has a veritable zoo of caged animals outside.  Some you wish you hadn't seen, like snakes and turtles, others you just really have no idea what they are, like some sort of spiky armadillo.

So far our favorite activity has been just walking the streets checking in on everyday life, sampling teas, watching calligraphers, joining the crowds around impromptu checkers matches and jesting with the hawkers. Guangzhou is large enough that nobody notices you, which is nice. We've had perfect spring weather and with the good value accomodation and food, we're really enjoying our time here so far.

Monday, April 6, 2009

April 3 -8: Singapore

Air conditioning, a proper bed with clean sheets, hot showers, flushing toilets, drinkable water, cooking dinner, wine, scotch, yoga mat, elliptical machine, TV shows, movies, trashy magazines, fast internet connection, shopping malls.

Singapore seems to fall behind only one country in the world regarding hedonistic consumption.... Which makes it feel very much like home :)

It's been a wonderful little first world break as we're almost halfway through our Asia journey. THANK YOU to Crispin and Ali for letting us stay in their apartment while they're back home in South Africa.

Off to China on Wednesday.... Mixed reports on whether blogger is blocked there or not so it may be awhile until our next entry.

Indonesian Recommendations

Bali (all in Ubud)

Honeymoon Guest House - a bit more expensive than a backpackers budget but still very reasonable with great breakfast and a nice pool area
Gusti Garden Bungalows - a cheaper hotel in Ubud which was still very nice
Sedona Spa - $8 massages in a beautifully clean and comfortable spa... Not bad.

Borneo Expeditions - Organizes multi-day trips into Tanjung Putting National Park to see the Orangatuns. You pay a bit of a premium to book through them (versus spending a day hunting for a boat and guide down at the dock) but Danson, the guy in charge is extremely responsible and organized. He can also book your flights for you which proves invaluable if you don't speak Indonesian.

Reefseekers - an EXCELLENT dive shop for exploring Komodo National Park. We dove two days with Kath. It had been awhile since either of us had dove and she made us feel completely at ease, even with the currents that Komodo is famous for. She was incredibly knowledgable about the sea life and we loved the briefings before each dive. They are building upscale bungalows on an island in the area and we're already planning our next trip to Indonesia around returning to visit :)

Lombok (Kuta)

Surfer's Inn - is a great place to stay even if you're not a surfer (although, warning, you will be subjected to endless hours of surf videos at the bar and strange looks as you head off to the beach without your board in tow).
Ashtari Restaurant - an amazing vegetarian restaurant perched in the hills above Kuta. You'll need a motorbike to get there.

Lombok (Gili Air)
Blue Bar - Dean, the owner, is great. Wonderful sunset views.
Italian Restaurant - We can't remember the name but it's the only Italian restaurant on the island, recently opened (as of March 2009) and run by Italians who make their own pasta. It was a delicious break from Indonesian cuisine.

Sumatra (Danau Toba)
Samosir Cottages. We visited many of the hotels in town before settling on this one. Great swimming area and rooms
Jenny's Restaurant. Delicious food (especially the beef rendang) and Jenny was so nice.

Sumatra (Pulau Weh)
Norma's. Best place to stay and eat in Iboah. Norma and the rest of the folks there are a real treat to be around.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

March 23 - April 3: Sumatra

Sumatra wasn't on our initial itinerary, but after meeting several travellers who said it was there favorite destination in Indonesia, we decided to add it to the mix. As it's the 6th largest island in the world, covering all of Sumatra in the two weeks we'd alloted would be a bit aggressive and so we decided to focus on the North. Getting from the airport in Medan to the bus station, we added a new form of transport to our lengthy list -- the sidecar motorbike, where we rode next to the driver in a covered seat with my pack strapped to the front.

Our first stop was Lake Danau Toba, the largest volcanic lake in the world. We spent 5 days on the island of Samosir (which itself is bigger than all of Singapore) located within the lake. At a higher altitude, the climate on Samosir was wonderfully mild and the lake was a refreshing temperature for our daily swims.

The people in the Lake Toba region are Batak, a traditional culture known for it's unique architecture and traditions, specifically regarding marriages and burials. We spent several of our days exploring the island on bikes. I got to join in with a traditional marriage dance demonstration which involved circling around a water buffalo while bowing in respect to each member of the other family (as an aside, I'm not quite sure why I always get sucked into these things while Nader sits back taking pictures.... that's going to change going forward I've decided :).

Due to Dutch and German missionary influences, most Bataks are devout Christians, and therefore very much in the minority within the staunchly Muslim island of Sumatra. At least partly stemming from this reality, the Bataks seem to embrace travellers in a more authentic manner than we'd experienced most anywhere else. We immediately felt welcomed and at home within this friendly community.

What was most interesting about Samosir was its existence as a traveller's ghost town. Huge hotel after huge hotel, most of them completely empty. There were approximately 50 travellers on the island while we were there. We estimated the capacity to be closer to 5,000. Danau Toba was a hotspot on the hippie travel trail back in the 60s and 70s. For whatever reason - perhaps the growth of party spots in Thailand and the number of disasters (both man made and natural) that have hit Indonesia recently - travel to the region has rapidly fallen off a cliff. Many of the travellers we did see where noticably older than who we usually encountered -- folks in their 50s who were perhaps coming back to revisit their memories of yesterday. It was a fascinatingly unique view on travel, and also meant that we (again) had a beautiful slice of Indonesia mostly to ourselves at a very cheap price.

After Danau Toba, we ventured into the Aceh region to the island of Pulah Weh, chasing what we'd heard was some of the best diving in Indonesia. The Aceh region has not exactly experienced happy times in recent history. The region has been highly instable since at least the 1970s when the Free Aceh Movement was formally established. Stemming primarily from a desire to control natural resources and Islamic law, Free Aceh members have fueled a separatist movement which fanned into a full fledged armed conflict in the early 2000s.

And then, the Tsunami hit in December 2004 with its epicenter just off the coast of Aceh devistating the region harder than anywhere else. It's hard to wrap your mind around the devistation caused by this disaster, even after visiting the region. 225,000 people died. That's 80x as many people who died in 9/11 and 120x as many people who died in Hurricane Katrina. We have visited the sites of both of these U.S. disasters, spending time at each taking formal tours and honoring the dead at memorials. In Banda Aceh, we found little in the way of formal rememberance -- apparently there is one museum but it's often closed according to other travellers. We did visit a massive oceanliner that still sits where it was carried by the storm, 7 km inland. Comparing the scale-to-response ratio of our national disasters versus those of this country was a stark contextualization of what it means to have the privledge of being born into one society rather than another.

The Tsunami sparked a tenuous peace agreement between Jakarta and the Free Aceh movement, one that's been in place since 2005 until the present day. For the past 4 years, Banda Aceh has had a relatively peaceful and international face -- with the myriad of international NGOs co-leading the reconstruction efforts. But now the region seems on the brink of entering it's third phase of recent history and it's anyone's guess how the cards will play out. This coming Thursday (April 9, 2009) are the Parlimentary elections in Indonesia. There is strong speculation that if the separatists win enough seats, they may launch another offensive. The military was increasing its presence in the region in anticipation. Coincidently - or not - most of the NGOs visas are also running out this week. Most foreigners were leaving the region just when we were for the dual purpose of renewing their visas and being off site for the elections in case any uprising ensued. It was an interesting time to be in the region and we'll be watching closely what happens.

The little town of Iboah where we based ourselves on the island of Pulau Weh was completely isolated from anything described above. Remarkably, Pulau Weh was mostly spared any devistation from the Tsunami. And being a small town mostly fueled by travellers, they are able to live outside the strict confines of Sharia Law, which has been in place in Aceh since 2003. (In an ironic relationship that often typifies this type of scenario, they buy their beer "for the tourists" from the police, paying a bribe which ensures they won't be caught). We stayed in a basic bungalow overhanging the ocean where we happily traded running water or a flushing toilet for a million dollar view. The diving was incredible and afternoons were spent lazing in the hammock. Norma who ran our guest house cooked up delicious communal meals for us in the evening.... It was a hard spot to leave.