Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Returning to America 1 - Yangon to Hangzhou

        The only part of my holiday travel that was I was not looking forward to was the long flight plan I had for the first day. There’s very little that’s fun about air travel these days, particularly international travel which requires not only long lines through security, but also immigration. Plane seats are comfortable enough I suppose, but in economy class, they’re not that conducive to getting a night’s sleep.
I always give my plane a good-luck pat before getting on.
Departing from Yangon on a Monday morning, it was a short flight over to Bangkok’s Don Meuang Airport. Then, however, I needed to get to the other airport in Bangkok, the newer one, which is so far away I’m surprised there aren’t flights connecting. A free shuttle made it a lot easier.

From Suvarnaboon (sp?) Airport, after a 5 hour layover (just enough to make the transit and get through all those lines), I flew via Air China to Hangchow, China’s fifth largest city, but when I’d never heard of before this trip.

I was looking forward to China. I’d never been there.
I was hoping that in my 4 and a half hour layover there, I’d get a bit of a feel for the place, even though I thought I would be stuck in the international terminal as I was only making a transit – I had a ticket for a connecting flight out of the country.

I’ve noticed that when you fly budget airlines as I do, it seems that more often than not, the plane doesn’t pull up to the terminal. Instead, it parks on the tarmac, you walk down some stairs and get on a bus to the terminal. It’s kinda annoying. Well, first think I noticed when I stepped off the plane was the cold! I was wearing shorts and a short-sleeved shirt, and here in semi-tropical Hangchow, it was the middle of winter and the temperature was in the mid 40’s F! Brrr…

Shuffling through the airport’s small international terminal (I was
Air China's air safety Panda admonishes you not to smoke
in the toilet.
unimpressed), I immediately found myself at the lines for immigration. Wait a minute. Where’s the international transfer desk? See, unlike every other place I’ve ever been to, China doesn’t allow visas-on-arrival for Americans nor is there any exempt status. I get to the desk and explain to the lady what was going on.

She asks, “You don’t have a visa?”


“And you want to enter China?”

“No, not really, I just want to catch my plane to LAX at midnight.”

“And you have no paperwork showing you have a booking?”

“It’s on my phone” (I had foolishly left my paper itinerary on the shuttle bus in Bangkok).

She makes a gesture and another immigration officer comes and escorts me back to an office. It was ominous feeling. Being taken into a back room by a burly man in uniform in a notoriously oppressive communist country? I wasn’t THAT nervous, but still… He invited me to sit and then we went through the process of connecting my phone to the airport’s wifi. In the end I got my 72-hour transit stamp and left the airport… only to have to step right back into it again to wait for the plane to LA.

As I write this, I’m back in America.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Four Days Until America

This time next week, I'll be roaming around the wildfires of SoCal, being back in my home country for the first time in nearly five years. It's going to be the 3rd time in my life wherein I've returned back home after a long time overseas.

In 1986, I came back to America at the age of 17 having just spent about 5% of my entire life in Jakarta, Indonesia. It was weird. In my 11 months in Jakarta, my mind had gotten used to the pace, the sights and the manners of Southeast Asia's largest city. I felt weird being back in my home country. It took me a while to acculture myself to my own culture.

Ah, I was so young.

Next time I came back, I was 21 years old. Much more mature and having come off a year overseas where I had the most outrageous adventure of my life.. and I ended up selling shoes at Sears.

Now I'm coming back on holiday. When I was 17, I was amazed by the traffic patterns in the USA. American drivers drove in a discipline way. Lanes meant something.

One thing I've repeated over and over in my commentary on living overseas as an English teacher is that you have to maintain your sense of wonder. If you want to be happy, you'll need to recognize the novelty of every situation. OH WOW! A dead rat on the road! Cool! People without bathrooms bathing on the street! Someone selling something you never thought anyone would sell!

When I go back to Amerika, I think I'd be best served by maintaining a receptive mindset. While not as intense as it was when I was a returnee at the age of 17, there's gonna be things about my return that're going to be really weird. 

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Best Night Market in Southeast Asia

I’ve been to night markets all over Southeast Asia. Chang Mai, Penang, Vientiane, Kuala Lumpur, Manado. These are just to name a few. These bazarres have been nightly, weekly or occasionally monthly affairs filled with vendors selling the same old basic stuff throughout. That said, they’re always cool to visit, but sometimes you’re left wondering what’s so special about them. 

Not so in the case of the night market I visited tonight. I say without reservation that Yangon’s Kyuntaw Road night market is the most interesting, most striking, most varied and extensive night market I’ve ever been to.

This may be because it’s an annual market. It’s only once a year for ten days that Kyuntaw Road here in Sanchaung township gets transformed into a street fair. I may also be singing its praises because it’s my neighborhood. Kyuntaw Road is my cross-street. It’s the main road that my little city street connects to. The night market  begins just 2 blocks south of where my street leads into Kyuntaw.  

Okay, but completely objectively, never have I been to a night market/street fair that has been as energetic, lively and frankly, hokey as the one at the end of my street. It kind of epitomizes Myanmar. 

Before the market got underway, this neighborhood of Yangon called Sanchaung was full of parades.  See, this is an old neighborhood. Each of the local Buddhist temples (pagodas being the preferred translation) have been around a long time, are quite revered and have special days during which the locals demonstrate their reverence by loudly parading (or donating to such processions) up and down every  street in Sanchaung on their way to the  temple. This is why I was able to get some cool video footage of a few examples of this. 

Of note in the video – At 0:38, we see the rare Burmese ladyboy, only the third time I’ve captured one on camera in my time here. Both men and women wear the same garment here on the lower part of their body, the longgyi, the English word would be sarong, which itself is taken from Indonesian.. In any case, the difference in how they're worn is in how they’re tied. At 0:38, this man has tied his longgyi in a woman’s style. No one seems to care. The large collection of banknotes he’s also wearing are donations from admirers of his performance. 

I’m not really sure if this festival is a local or national thing. It doesn’t seem to be connected to any of the major Buddhist holidays. I asked the guy at my laundry service who speaks pretty good English what was happening today, and he said it was a celebration of the local pagodas. 

I hope to learn more about how the Kyuntaw Road night market, the best night market in SE Asia, came about. I’ll let you know what I find out.Enjoy the video.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

I Tried to Exercise Today

I tried to exercise today. 

 To tell the truth, I had kinda given up on exercise. I've had the same view as Donald Trump has had on the body and physical activity. Our president believes that there's only so much activity a body can give, and so if you exercise, you're using up that capacity. No kidding. That's what he thinks. My choice wasn't caged in such illogical sophistry. I'm just lazy. 

 Well, I had an interesting day today, topped off with a refusal to allow me to exercise. My goals for today's errands were to buy some new business shirts. I've recently been given some new responsibilities at work wherein I have to go out and sell my company to corporate clients. I'm not perturbed by this task; selling stuff is what I'd done for 20 years before becoming a teacher. Whilst in the midst of this dressware shopping, I looked up and saw a basketball. 

Basketball. My favorite sport. In my 20's and 30's, I used to go out and play in pick up games two or three times a week. At the time, if I could do nothing else but spend the entire day on the basketball court, I would be entirely happy with that. Basketball was my release. Nothing better than to get all your muscles moving for a few hours, and better than working out a gym. Basketball has a purpose. See, one thing I've never understood about "working out" is that there's no achievable goal. Maybe in the long term, but who's thinking about that when you're on some boring treadmill? With basketball, you do a lot of running; you have to. Point being, it's cardio-vascular with a purpose.

  It's better yet when you're good at shooting the basketball. As I've been doing that since age 11, and have been taught by some pretty good coaches over the years, I'm a pretty good shooter, and I was shocked when I went out onto the court today and shot the basketball for the first time in a couple years. 

I couldn't even make a lay up. After a couple minutes, I realized what the problem was. The key aspect of shooting a basketball consistently is muscle memory. That muscle memory was still in place even though it had been 4 years since I'd played the game. The memory was the same; the muscles had atrophied. I'm just not built like I was before. 

I watch Klay Thompson nowadays and how effortlessly and thoughtlessly he releases his shot, that was like me 10 years ago. Time is the ultimate opponent. I was finally starting to get a feel for how weak my muscles were in comparison to the last time I'd went shooting (again, my technique and stroke were that of that of 35 year-old Joko) when the facility where I was found someone whose English was good enough to tell me to leave. 

As I've written about before, I was very excited to see that a well-maintained basketball court was 1 block from my house. That was 6 months ago. It was only today that I strapped on my Nikes and went to play. 

The facility was actually a seminary. A Chinese Christian seminary in the midst of urban Yangon. And these double-minorities couldn't see fit to allow me to exercise for the first time in a long time. I got chased out after barely breaking a sweat. I think I need to contact the head seminarian. If I explain, tell them I'm an English teacher, that I'll share my English teaching with them, they may let me stick around and shoot some hoops.  

I remember the high-schooler who lived across the court in Dallas when I was just akid. We had the only hoop on the street. He told me, whilst coaching me how to the play the game, that you never leave the court without hitting your last shot. It's bad luck. 

The Myanmar guy was smiling while telling me I had to leave. I ignored him and concentrated on my free-throw. On my second try, and first and last make, I adjusted for the muscle memory and swished it. 

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Returning to Amerika?

From my 2nd to last eg, and perhaps the most scenic.
The Lao trip has been over for a while now, and I've finally gotten around to finishing up the video series. Scroll down to the bottom of the blog to see the latest videos. 

The end of one journey, for a perpetual traveler like me, means really just one thing: where to next?
My next holiday will be in December. the The 11th through the 31st. Three weeks! 

Where to go? Places I've never been before come first to mind. Vietnam. China. Sri Lanka. Maybe Nepal, Bhutan or Mongolia. These are all places that aren't that far from my home here in Burma. 
Having a beer over the river.
That kinda epitomizes my time in Lao

Then I read on Facebook that my sister and her family would be going to New Zealand for Xmas and New Years. Well, let's check out the prices to go to New Zealand. Relatively speaking, that's not that far away either. Less than $500?!? That's cheap! 

Thing was, there was a big offset in our vacation times. I was off two weeks before they'd be in NZ. What to do with that time? My first thought was to go to Indonesia again. I've been there 4 times in the last 3 years, but it's such a huge country, there's lots of it still to be
A gaggle of Chinese men in suits at 6:30 Am. Huh?
explored. I looked into it, and even though it's halfway to New Zealand, it would have been costly. 
Money is always an issue. 
Another thought. What about going home? Back to America? 
Trans-Pacific flights are a competitive business these days, and I was able to book a Bangkok-Los Angeles flight for less today than it cost me to come to Asia 5 years ago. What a deal! Yes, I'm going back home. 

A rough pic of my December itinerary. I'm going to spend a lot time on planes.

In 6 weeks, I'll be back in America for the first time in almost  years. Here's what I'm looking forward to, in no particular order:

1. Fast food... sure, you can get McDonald's, Burger King or Wendy's in a thousand places in SE Asia, but it's not the same. It tastes... different. 

2. Southern Californian Mexican Food. Again, Mexican food itself can be had all over the world, but there's nothing like a Roberto's carne asada burrito from San Diego. 

3. Being able to go into pretty much any clothing shop and finding something that fits. Sure, I'm a bit of "big and tall" shop guy, but the very idea of what "2XL" means in Asia is very different. 

4. Seeing the family. My nephews are on the verge of the adulthood. Mom and Dad are in their golden years.

5. DVR. This one's kinda strange, and I don't plan on spending a lot of time watching TV, but I got my first Tivo box back in 2002. I've had access to a VCR since the 80's. Here in Myanmar in the 2010's .why is it I have no ability to "pause" what I'm watching so I can go pee? I can't program a device to watch something later on TV. I suppose that nowadays, with on-demand streaming via the Inernet, this recording ability itsn't so important. I can watch, for a fee, lotsa stuff when I want to, but how is that recording technology isn't here? 
Hang on, I gotta go pee. 

So here's part 12 of the Lao journey. 

Part 13 was my first "final episode" edition that didn't have any airport footage. 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Wow! It's Lao 11 - Phonsavan to Vang Vieng

Bringing it on home here in the final stages of the Lao journey. After a day of rest in Phonsavan, it was time for the longest leg of the journey, still just a modest 234 kilometers. I thought it might be boring, being in the heart of the country, not that far from the capital.
Something in me thought that you had to head to edges of a country to find it's most scenic places.

Not so! All of land-locked Laos is a hilly country and this part was no different. Simply amazing landscape. 

My routine on the motorbike was the same throughout the whole journey. Ride for 60 to 90 minutes, then take a 15 minute break.
I found lots of little restaurants and resting places between towns in this otherwise lightly-populated country. 

At first glance, dog or cow? 

The town of Vang Vieng was not on my original plan. My Vientiane guide suggested my final route, and I was not disappointed.
Just outside Vang Vieng
See, Vang Vieng has a bad reputation, at least for anyone 30+. Back in the day, this was a backpacker haven - a place for drunken gap-year travelers to flout local customs and be a bunch of besotted boobs. After a bunch of tourist deaths, the gov't cleaned things up.

The Lao backpack. Strap a basket on  your back.

I remember a friend, Anthony, telling me about Lao before I went there. He told the story of locals running down the street, waving bags of marijuana in the air, trying to sell it to him. Well, that friend looked like a hippy. Me, nowadays, not so much. Still, I'm actually a bit disappointed that not a single offer came my way to sell me weed. Do I look that old?  

I was not disappointed by Vang Vieng. There's a good reason why a place becomes a tourist destination - in VV's case, it's the tremendous topography. 

Enjoy the video.  


Thursday, October 5, 2017

Wow! It's Lao 10 - The Plain of Jars

After several days in a row of traveling, it was nice to stop someplace and not go anywhere. I was able to get my laundry done, enjoy the finest hotel in Phonsavan and go on a remarkable day trip. 

That day trip was out 30 km or so to Site 1 and 2 of the Plain of Jars. I dunno how they say it in Lao,  but the jars are very large stone receptacles. The Plain of Receptacles doesn't really roll off the tongue.

A tree has grown up through one of the jars. Amazing!

These 2000-year-old stone buckets were used to... well... that's still a matter of debate. 

Watch me visit the mysterious Plain of Jars here...



Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Wow! It's Lao 9: Xieng Thong to Phonsovan

Being a former French colony, Lao is known for baking pretty good bread, which I thought I would sample for breakfast. Simple stuff, my French roll was served with sweetened condensed milk - instant donut! 

I was a bit worried as I mounted the motorbike for this next leg of the journey. The guy I'd rented the bike from back in Vientiane had cautioned me that this route, particularly the second half on Hwy 13, could be problematic. Being so high up, it's subject to mudslides blocking the road, which he described as quite narrow. Furthermore, the rain clouds tend to stall and cling to the hills, meaning I'd likely face some bad weather. 
Driving through the clouds.

As it turned out, I saw a few mudslides, but none were insurmountable on my fancy enduro bike. The road showed signs of recent widening, and although I drove through a lot of fog, the weather was wonderful.  

I rolled into Phonsovan in time for lunch, and being a bit of tourist town, there were several nice restaurants on the main strip.
I didn't realize it until after I'd been sitting there a few minutes, but the decor of the restaurant (Craters) was bomb casing themed! This part of Lao was heavily bombed during the Second Indochina War, and un-exploded ordinance is everywhere. 

Having traveled a few days consecutively, I had given myself two days to explore the Phonsovan area, which you'll see in the next blog and video. 

Enjoy Part 9. 


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Wow! Its Lao 8 - Nong Khiaw to Xieng Thong

This leg of the journey took me to the least heralded place of the whole trip, Xieng Thong, or Muang Hiam, or Thakon... so many names for one place... 

Pigs, water buffalo, cows, goats, dogs... the most dangerous road hazards in Lao were on 4 legs.

in any case, it was a stopover on the road from Nong Khiaw to the Plains of Jars, which you'll see in the next video, and so whereas there wasn't much to do at the destination, the road there was beautiful. 

I visited the Nam Et National Protected Area, the site of Laos' last remaining breeding population of tigers in the wild. 

After visiting the protected area, what else was there to do in this multiple named town? The market was the obvious choice. 
Finally, I found a nice riverfront restaurant that had a menu in English, and I enjoyed a nice dinner of larb. 
My waitress,
Larb, or laab, is the national dish of Lao. It's minced meat with seasonings. 

I asked that they made it not too spicy. Maybe they understood that and toned it down, but in any case, I still found myself in tears finishing it. 

Enjoy the video. 

Returning to America 1 - Yangon to Hangzhou

        The only part of my holiday travel that was I was not looking forward to was the long flight plan I had for the first day. T...