Friday, March 31, 2017

Myanmar Motorcycle Epic 20: Hey, Mon!

Thinking it would be plenty of time, I woke up at 5 AM, a good 90 minutes before sunrise. First, I needed to ride my motorbike up to the mountain town of Khin Pun Sakhan.

It was still dark when I arrived.  All I needed to do next was catch one of the infamous trucks that drove one to the summit and the pagodas of the Golden Rock, Kyaik Hteeyo. I thought I had enough time to have another cup of coffee at tea shop. 

Well, figuring out how to catch one of these trucks, what to do, where to go, that wasn't so easy. Although lots of foreign tourists do go there, it's not set up that way. There were no signs in English, except one; it heralded the fare for the ride, 2000 Kyats ($1.50) which came with a life insurance policy. Instead, I was one of the throngs of locals, eventually finding an empty seat on a truck, making my way up a harrowing road to the mountaintop. I didn't get to see sunrise.  

Nonetheless, it was spectacular up there at Golden Rock. One gets a 360 degree view of wonderful green mountains; you can see all the way to the Indian Ocean from up there. 

After the Buddhaful time I had up at Kyaikhteeyo, it was a short ride down the head of Myanmar's
Rush hour...err...any hour... in Mawlamyine
southeastern panhandle to the old town of Mawlamyine (Moulmein). I'd been there before, but there's nothing quite like the sunset over the Thanylwin River as it hits the Gulf of Martaban. 

Enjoy the video.  

Monday, March 27, 2017

Myanmar Motorcycle Epic 19: The Worst Road I've Ever Been On.

I work really hard on a video, and after 3 days, it gets 40 views. In this Myanmar tour, after 19 videos, only a couple of these vids have received more than 100 views.  Does this bother me? Not so much. Would it be more satisfying if my travel vids got thousands of views? Yes. 

Here’s the thing. My vids will survive me. Fifty years from now, I’ll be dead, but in that same time, thousands, maybe millions of people will watch what I’ve
created. That gives me a certain sense of satisfaction and purpose in what I’m doing. As much as I might say that creating stuff is its own reward, when you’re doing it for free, knowing that people will see it, that’s something anyone doing this would appreciate.

Also lately, I’ve been questioning how I make videos.  I mean, my style has been pretty much the same for years now. If you follow what I make, after hundreds of these, you might think ‘oh, another Joko travel video.. they’re all pretty much the same’… Understood.
It’s something that’s bothered me too. All my creations are similar to what I’ve created before. Subject matter and location different; style the same. I’ve been uncomfortable with this reality for years, but yet I’ve not done much about it. I still make my vids in the same style.

Tonight, I came to realize something. Did Bob Dylan ever wonder if his new song was just another Bob Dylan song? Did Led Zeppelin concern themselves over whether their new creation was too Led Zeppelin sounding? Now, I am not putting myself on these great artists’ levels, suffice to say, at some point, you forego innovation for recognizing that you have a particular style. This is my style. This is a Joko video, As much as I’d like to do something totally different, there’s nothing wrong with doing things like I’ve always done them.

That missive was a premise to the next travel blog. 

After 240km leg the day before, I was ready for a nice, easy travel day. This I got on  my leisurely journey from Naypyitaw to Taungoo. So easy it was that it doesn’t even get its own video. It gets combined into the next day’s journey.

  When leaving Taungoo, I had my choice of routes to my next stop, Kyaikto. I could have continued down the Old Yangon-Mandalay Highway, but instead I decide to take the road less travelled, turning back to the east, hugging the hills as I headed south down the Sittang Valley. 

Oh, that was a mistake. Sometimes, there’s a reason why a road is travelled. It’s because that road is total crap and barely driveable!

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Myanmar Motorcycle Epic 18: Back to Where It All Started

Leaving Loikaw.
If you're a regular reader, you'll remember how concerned I was before my recent motorcycle tour that I wouldn't be allowed to go where I wanted, that I would be stopped at a military checkpoint and turned back. I'll admit I may have played up those concerns a bit to increase the suspense for my tens of readers because as it turned out, I didn't ever even try to go somewhere I wasn't permitted. 

My original plan
As I was leaving the hotel in Loikaw, my intention was to head south through Kayin State to Hpasawng. When I communicated this goal to my hotelier, she told me I couldn't do that. That road was closed to foreigners at Demoso, some 50 kilometers south of Loikaw. Huh. Well. I suppose that's something I should have researched before I'd left Yangon, three weeks previously at that point. I didn't want to drive a couple hours only to be stopped and turned back, so I needed a new plan. 

The route I ended up taking
I turned around and headed back north, through Pekon, where I'd been before, and just before Pinlaung there was a mountain pass I was eager to explore. My friend Chris Blood had told me about it, this road connecting eastern Myanmar to Naypyitaw. Yes, I was heading back to Naypyitaw where this whole epic had begun 2000 kilometers ago. 

This road was new (maybe 2 years old), and so I expected it to be in great condition. Yeah, not so much. That said, as drove along there were a couple of surprising aspects to it. 

Mooooove out of the road!
First of all, it was deserted. With the exception of a couple of small towns, there weren't any settlements along this major thoroughfare. It hasn't had hundreds of years of being a road to develop communities along side it. There were fewer people around and less traffic than I'd experienced since Chin State, and I was only 50 miles from the capital of the country! 

This lake and bridge don't exist on Google maps
Secondly, Google maps nothing of this road. It exists on the map, but the biggest feature on it isn't there at all. About halfway through this mountain pass, there's a valley with a hydroelectric dam and a huge lake. This lake doesn't exist on the satellite imagery. I guess it's relatively new. 

At 250+ kilometers, this was one of the longest legs of the journey. I was a little forlorn as I drove because I knew this was the last time I'd be crossing a major mountain pass on this trip. From Naypyitaw, it would be all valley heading south.  

 A big change in the videos. You may have noticed a musical theme in the first 18 episodes. All of them have featured music from my favorite video game, Civilization V. Alas, I have run out of compelling tracks from the soundtrack to that game, and so this one has Coheed and Cambria, one of my favorite bands, for the background music.


Friday, March 17, 2017

Myanmar Motorcycle Epic 17: Taunggyi to Loikaw

In the Myanmar language, taung means mountain and gyi means large. So the town of Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State, is named for being on a big mountain. It's not the mountain that it itself is located on (and it is), it's named for the mountain above the town. It's this place that I visit at the start of this video. 

I wasn't thrilled to be going back to Loikaw. It's a nice enough place. The capital of Kayah State here in Myanmar is a place not many people have been to. But I have. These motorcycle tours are about visiting new places. If you'd like to see more of Loikaw, watch this video from a year ago when I went there the first time. 

That said, I was going to Loikaw by a different route than before. New road; new experiences. New ancient pagodas to visit. 


Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Myanmar Motorcycle Epic 16: Crossing the State of Shan

When I started this journey, I didn't know whether or not I'd be allowed down this road. The original plan had me heading into territory that was even more forbidden. However, I decided to play it safe and go down roads that I knew I could. Even though I only learned I could go this was when I was in Hsipaw. 

See, large parts of Shan State are still under armed separatist control and they do a lot of business in the opium trade. Not areas the gov't here wants foreigners roaming through. 

Of all the roads I traveled through during the epic, this stretch, Hwy 43, connecting northern and southern Shan State was one of my favorites. Quite deserted. Sufficiently windy. Paved to my staisfaction. 

Not much else to see on this road other than the road itself. Consequently, the video is the most me-driving of the collection so far. 

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Myanmar Motorcycle Epic 15: The Big Pivot

This was the high point of my recent journey. By high point, I mean it was the northernmost place I visited. After a couple days in Hsipaw, it was time to turn around and make a pivot southwards, back towards Yangon and home. 

Still though, there were some things to see and do in Hsipaw. As was the case in my last big motorcycle journey through Myanmar, there was a bit of literary tourism in this journey. A couple decades back, Twilight Over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess was published by Inge Sargent. Hers was an unusual tale. She was an Austrian aristocrat who was courted and wooed to marry by the last prince of Hsipaw. That being unusual in of itself, the fate of the prince makes it more so. I really need to avoid political stances here on Leaving Amerika, even on stuff that happened 50+ years ago. Suffice to say
that after the 1962 change of government here in Myanmar, the Prince of Hsipaw disappeared, and his fate has not been definitively determined since. I visited his last home before his disappearance and am entertained by the wife of his nephew. 

It was then on to the next leg of the journey. As I was a bit out of Hsipaw itself, getting back to the main road allowed me go down some backroads. Through rice paddies and narrow paths. 

The road between Goke Hteik and Naung Cho is one I will never forget. It was my second time passing through it, having come that way on my way up to Hsipaw. Knowing what was coming, twenty-some 180 degree hairpin turns, through steeped roads full of trucks making coming from China, made it that much more interesting. See, I didn't think of it as a nasty bit of traffic to endure, instead it was a challenge to be overcome. The many trucks weren't obstacles; they were a puzzle.

Mainly due to the realities of the map, being at the junction of the road road to Taunggyi, I spent the night at the only hotel in Naung Cho. The Naung Cho Hotel. Cheap. Nice. This mountain town hasn't made it onto Lonely Planet or Trip Advisor yet, although it's got everythinh Kyaukme has.
Ain't no tourists visiting Naung Cho. That night, I shared dinner with a Burman-Shan-Nepalese football club that was coming off winning a regional tournament.

Enjoy the video.  

Friday, March 10, 2017

Monday, March 6, 2017

`Moving from Hledan to Sanchaung

Three years ago this week, I entered the pink doorway of my Yangon apartment for the first time. Today, I moved all my stuff to my new place. Well, to be honest, I didn't move it. I had it moved.

This was a first for me. I misspoke in the video. I'm only 46 years old. But even then, never before in my life have I had movers. Guys who picked up all my stuff and put it in a truck. I didn't have to lift a finger. However, I did. I moved one small batch of crap to the truck. Symbolically. Better yet, these same mover guys took all my stuff up to my new place.

I think I'm going to like my new place a lot. It's newly built, and when it comes to things like cockroach accessabilty, leaky rooves and doorways, overall fit and finish, new matters. I'm the first person to live in my flat. It's a place of flickering (at least on video) lights and really slippery floors. At least, Badger found them slippery.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Myanmar Motorcycle Epic 14: In Awe of Hsipaw

Exactly two weeks into my time off, and I was at a high point, both geographically and in spirit. Hsipaw, Shan State, was as north as I was going to go. The following day, I was turning around and heading back south again. As for how I felt about the trip, I couldn’t have been in better spirits than I was up in the Shan Hills. I’d seen some incredible sights over the previous two weeks. The bike was running great, and physically, it seemed I was pacing myself well as I wasn’t tired of riding in the least. 

Still, I had budgeted myself some rest days, and Hsipaw was definitely a place worth spending an entire day. 

Another traveler. Looks a bit like Knut.
As I began my sightseeing for the day, I ran into someone eerily familiar, but completely unexpected. I didn’t catch his name, but here on this little village road well south of Hsipaw proper was a German tourist, on his own, touring on a rented motorbike (I even knew the rental company where he’s got it) with a GoPro camera on top of his head. There in the rice paddies, we exchanged
pleasantries, stories from the road and well wishes. Then we went our separate ways, he a bit faster than I. How strange to run into another foreigner doing the same thing I was doing out in the middle of nowhere like that. 

First thing on my list of stuff to do was visiting “Little Bagan”. I doubt the local Shan people like having it be called that, Bagan being the former capital of the Bamar people, but that’s what it’s called on the tourist maps. Before finding it, I came across an
These ladies are writing their wishes onto little
strips of paper to be offered, along with incense
and money, to the Nat god.
unusual temple, absolutely bustling with activity. Nominally a Buddhist shrine, there was a Buddha in the main hall, what it really was a center for Nat worship. The Nats are the traditional gods of Myanmar, ancient spirits whom the locals have revered since before Buddhism arrived 2000 years ago. Nowadays, the Nats have intertwined themselves with the orthodox Theravada Buddhism, and you’ll find places like where I was all over the country. Note in the picture, Buddha on the right, a Nat on the left. Which image has more offerings? 

Little Bagan itself lives up to its name. Like its namesake, it’s an area just jam packed full of ancient stupas and temples. There were some subtle differences, which I talk about in the video, and whereas the Shan and Bamar people have been at odds off and on for centuries, you can see how much they’re linked by viewing this architecture from hundreds of years ago. Even more so than in Bagan, I was a bit taken aback by the crumbling nature of these ancient monuments.  Sometimes, the ruins can be
fascinating, like this tree growing straight up out of a pagoda. On the whole, I think Little Bagan is in dire need of preservation. 

  Next on the agenda was visiting a waterfall a ways out of town. It took me a bit to find the little country road that would take me the ten miles off the main road to the waterfall, and after about a mile, when I stopped to admire the view and contemplate the road ahead, I stopped and turned around.
See, I had just visited a beautiful waterfall the day before and endured a horrible road to get there. My full day in Hsipaw was supposed to be about rest, and so when I came to this junction, I turned around and headed back to town. Discretion is the better part of valor. 
By then, it was time for lunch. I visited an overpriced resort on the other side of the river, and then had lunch at the Club Terrace, a wonderful riverfront restaurant with reasonable prices and delicious food.

A couple people, myself included, noted after the first few videos of my Myanmar Motorcycle Epic that my camera was pointed too low. You got to see a great view of the pavement, but little of the countryside. That’s a result of using a camera that is a little cube, 5 centimeters on a side. No viewfinder. You don’t really know what you’re recording until after you download it and look at it, which in this instance, is a month later. The rest of my video in Hsipaw was beset by two problems: the camera being angled too high (you get a great view of the sky but can’t see the pavement) and the lens got dirty. I think it’s food residue from my lunch. 

I am a Moslem. I don't like Trump.
The dirty lens led to a bunch of interesting shots not being in this video. It also accounts for the angelic glow coming off this man’s white shirt. I try to abstain from politics here on Leaving Amerika, but this was an interesting moment.  I mentioned the comments I got in a Facebook post, so I’ll just save some keystrokes here. 

Finally, it was off (again, they were closed the first time I was there) to what was labeled on the tourist maps as the “Shan Palace”, like a king had lived there. Well, Shan hasn’t ever really had a king. Perhaps it’s not surprising given  the similar topography, but Shan has historically been a bit like Switzerland. Lots of different ethnic groups. Lots of
The wife of the nephew
of the last Prince of Hsibaw
different princes in this valley or that. But never really a kingdom. There’s never been a unified Shan nation. That said, one of the most important local hereditary chiefs was  the “prince” of Hsipaw. The “Shan Palace” was his last home. 
But by this point in the video, I had reached the seven minute mark, and since the next part of the story, the story of the last Prince of Hsipaw and his Austrian Princess wife is quite remarkable, I stopped and will present that in its own vid, Episode 16. 
Enjoy the video.

Discovering Northwest Myanmar 16: Kataung to Mandalay

I call them "Burmese Doughnuts". They've got another name, but essentially, it's fried bread. The three-week adventur...