Saturday, December 20, 2014

Exploring Southeast Myanmar: Joko's Christmas Journey

The journey into the unknown. Exploring the heart of darkness. Taking the road less traveled. Boldly going where few tourists have gone before!

Okay, I may have engaged in a bit of hyperbolic cliche there, but the places I'm going for my holiday break certainly qualify as the unbeaten path at the very least. This trip, which begins in just a couple of days, has me very excited and a bit nervous. None of the places I'm going are currently 'dangerous', but they have been in the not too distant past, and most of my journey is to parts of Myanmar that foreign tourists weren't even permitted to go to just three years ago. Consequently, as I've done my trip planning, scant information exists about them and my itinerary is somewhat loose. The southern road down the Isthmus of Kra is sort of on a slowly developing tourist path, but the online tools I've normally used when traveling around SE Asia have been somewhat useless.

For the 9-day journey, I've only made accommodation reservations for five of eight evenings, and those were made on the phone and aren't even paid for yet. Two of my stops don't have hotels with phone numbers that I could find on the internet, and definitely no way to book them online. I only know I can even stay there because of bare-bones, 100 word entries on My only booked transportation is a flight back home at the end of the journey after I reach my final destination. I know what trains I'm taking and when, but I don't have a seat. There's a stretch in the middle where I've told myself, “Well, there's gotta be a bus between those two towns. I'll just ask around when I get there.” For many intrepid travelers, even this level of planning is more than they'd do. More meticulous planners would be aghast at the uncertainty in my journey. Me, as much as I'd like to say I'm a fearless wanderer who points a direction and just follows his nose 'that way!', in reality, I'm a bit uncomfortable heading out alone with these big gaps of unknown in the middle of my itinerary. I'll make the best of it, I'm sure, and in a way, the uncertainty makes it more exciting.

So where am I going? Let me share the plan, such as it is. 

Somewhere near Mawlamyine.  Myanmar's biggest Reclining Buddha.
 1. December 23rd: Yangon to Mawlawmyine. Formerly known as Moulmein, my first stop is the capital of Mon State and a fairly big town. It's got a lot of history, as it was once the capital of the British Raj early in their takeover of Burma. The Mon are one of several 'nationalities' living in Myanmar. They speak a language completely unrelated to Burmese and have their own culture. There are things to see and do in Mawlamyine, but I can't tell you what they are the moment. I just realized I left my notebook with my itinerary at work, so the details for the rest of this blog will be vague. In any case, Mawlawmyine is a 5 hour train ride. I depart first thing in the morning, and I have a hotel 'booked' for the evening.

2. December 24th-26th: Hpa-An. An early morning ferry sometimes goes from Mawlawmine up the Thaniyin River to the town of Hpa-An, my next stop. See, it's a sometimes ferry because it's not used by the locals any more. They recently improved the road between the two cities, and a two hour bus trip is far more preferable to the locals than a five hour ferry trip against the current. The ferry service makes it's way north 'if enough tourists sign up to make it practical', and I'd think that on Christmas Eve Day, there will be enough. No worries. I'll take the bus otherwise.

Hpa-An is another old, famous city. It's the capital of Kayin State, home of the Myanmar tribes of the Karen people (who also live in large numbers in neighboring Thailand). I'm spending two to three days there, depending how much I like it. I plan on renting a motorcycle and tootling around the surrounding mountains. I hear the scenery is spectacular. I won't repeat my mistake that I made in Indonesia and do any vigorous hiking, but there are several accessible physical sites to visit.

The Karen people are almost all Christians, and so for 25th, I plan on doing something I haven't done in a couple of decades, attend church for the Christmas service.

4. Dec 27th: Hpa-An to Kyaikkami/Setse Beach- Here's where the uncertainty begins to kick in. I'm not sure exactly how I'm getting there, but I know there's buses from Hpa-An back to Mawlaymyine and then from there, it's not too far to this pair of seaside resort towns. Kyaikkami is the former end point to the notorious 'Death Railway', the rail path cut through the hills and jungles to Thailand by Allied POWs under the Japanese during WWII. About a year ago, I visited the Bridge Over the River Kwai in Thailand, so this historic, old, colonial town (formerly known as Amherst) seems like a natural destination on my slow slog south. I'm not sure where I'm staying there, but as it is also a popular getaway for the locals, there's got to be a lot more facilities than the one place listed in my three-year- old Lonely Planet guidebook. Setse beach seems to be quiet.

5. Dec 28th:- Ye- How could I not stop in a place with this name? Ye
(pronounced Yay!) has the shortest name of any place I've ever been to in my life. It's about halfway between Kyaikkami and my ultimate destination, and despite being a fairly big town, it's rarely visited by foreigners. There's a wonderful park and lake in the middle of town where I'll rest on my way south. Instead of looking for attractions to visit, I suspect I'll be an attraction myself in this unheard of town.

6. Dec 29th to Dec 31st: Maungmakan Beach- About ten miles northwest of the provincial capital of Dawei (Tavoy) is a beautiful, quiet beach on the shores of the Andaman Sea. Again, I plan on renting a motorbike and exploring the scenic coastline, the city of Dawei itself and maybe go snorkling or fishing. I've got my hotel booked for this part of the stay, and I'll be getting there via rail from Ye to Tavoy, and then a bus. I expect it to be a peaceful place to just chill and relax.
Maungmagan Beach

7. January 1st, 2015: Back Home  I've got a midday flight from Dawei back to Yangon. At
$108 for a one-way, one-hour flight, I certainly could have saved some money by taking the train all the way back which would have only been $10. Thing is, the train ride all the way back takes 30 hours... Yeah, I'll be trained-out by that point.

What's odd about this itinerary is that none of it includes any of the “Big Three” of Myanmar tourism: Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake. Those three places is where all of the tourists go when they come here. I've had other foreigners react in utter disbelief when I tell them I've been here 9 months and not been to any of those places. Bagan, in particular.

See, when I thought about where I wanted to go, three criteria came to mind. I wanted to visit mountains, beaches and historical/cultural attractions. There are mountains around Mandalay and Inle, the latter being a big lake which might be thought of as beach-like. For sure Bagan is one the premier cultural attractions anywhere in Asia, and I hear its absolutely mind-blowing. That said, all of those places are very far away from one another, and here on this holiday week, are sure to be packed with tourists. My journey off the beaten path fulfills all my criteria in a relatively small corner of southeast Myanmar. That's why I picked this plan.

The world famous plains of Bagan
Besides, I get back on the 1st. I don't start work again until the 7th. Depending on how I feel, I can always make a quick trip up to Bagan in the time remaining.

For now, it's back to thinking about what I'm sure is going to be a trip I'll never forget.

Let's throw a video on the end. Two nights ago, it was my company's Christmas party. Santa showed up and appointed me the Chief Elf. 


Friday, December 12, 2014

Making Guacamole in Myanmar

Living in the tropics, fruits and vegetables are far less seasonal than they are in temperate climates, but they are still seasonal.  November was avocado season.  They were everywhere!  Huge, green, tempting haas avocados.  Here they use them for making smoothies... They don't eat them.  They drink them.

Me, when I think avocados, I think guacamole, one of my favorite foods.  It's also one of the first dishes my mother taught me to make when I was but a boy.  I share her recipe (some people add lemon or green chiles to guac; not in our recipe) with you in a couple of videos.

First I had to buy the ingredients... these aren't available in the local supermarket.  For produce, you gotta go to the market not the supermarket. 

In HD for your enjoyment...

Now that I had the five components of guacamole, it's time to share how to make it.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Naked in Bangkok

I'm writing to you today from the coolness of my hotel room in Bangkok. It's time for my once-every-10-week sortie out of Myanmar for the purpose of renewing my business visa.  Two and a half months is as long as they'll let you stay before you have to do a 'step out, step in' visa run, and Bangkok is the closest, cheapest place to do that.

I do feel a bit naked.  See, this is the first time I've gone anywhere significant in years without bringing my video camera with me. The camera is kind of bulky, and I wanted room in my backpack to bring back stuff I haven't found in Yangon. I used to live in Bangkok, and although this city is HUGE with lots of interesting sights around every corner, this time, I thought to leave the camera home.

It's weird not recording everything.  It's like I'm undercover. I've gotten all the shopping I wanted to do out of the way, and since I've got some time to kill this afternoon, I can at least show you some photos.

Of my hotel...

I'm staying at the Suda Palace Hotel in the Saphan Kwai district of Bangkok.  It's on the north side of town, an area I didn't get to much when I lived here. I chose it because I could book it online, it's relatively close to the airport I was flying in and out of and it was cheap ($15/night). 

From the photos I saw on the internet, the place looked huge!  The reviews I read said it felt a bit rundown, but the service was fine, the wifi was fast and it was clean enough.  Fine by me.  I like older, large hotels. It makes you feel like there's some history to the place. 

Sure enough, the Suda Palace definitely looks like it's seen better days. Apparently, they added another wing to an existing hotel, but kept all the same intricate woodwork throughout the entire building.  I think I'm staying in the older wing.

Here's what the outside looks like close up.  Look at the cool fillagreed columns!  The place has old-school class.

What I didn't know is that the Saphan Kwai area is also well known for it's go-go bars, strip clubs and prostitution.  Never heard about this area during the whole time I lived here.  These places and this district aren't world renowned like the sex-industry zones more in the heart of Bangkok because Saphan Kwai caters to local Thai clientele.  I've barely seen any foreigners around, nor did I patron the clubs last night. 
bars, strip clubs and hookers.  Directly across the street from the Suda Palace are two of largest go-go clubs in Bangkok.

Anyway, back to the hotel.  One thing I noticed is that in my 'wing' of the hotel there are a whole bunch of unmanned counters, places where workers would sit when the place was in its heyday, but no longer.

Again, I loved the woodworking throughout the place.  Even around the elevator doors and at the door to my room.

As you can see, they put me on the 2nd floor, which is nice because I'm not a big fan of climbing stairs. The wing I'm in must be at least 8 stories tall, but I don't think anyone is staying very high up. 

Why?  Yeah.

Finally, the interior of the room.  Again, it really adds to the old-school feel of this place.  The furniture dates from a previous century when hand-carved, intricate woodworking was inexpensive in Thailand.  Definitely nicer than any other 'budget' hotel room I've ever been to...

I've also never seen anything like this.  It's some kind of ancient bedside remote control.  The radio doesn't work. The buttons to control the volume and channel on the TV are gone, but the light switches on the right side of the console still work!  State of the art 1960's technology!

Monday, December 1, 2014

Three Events in Four Days

Sweet December to you! That's the greeting I've been hearing today, December first. I'm not exactly sure why people say “Sweet December” here in Myanmar, but I suspect it has something to do with the weather. The rainy season is well finished. It's cooler, and going to get cooler yet. It's a sweet time of year.

I've been busy these last few days. I've attended three significant events in the last four days. In this blog, I'm going to detail them for you.

It started on Friday, when I was invited to attend a thank-you dinner for the “Alliance family”. The Alliance for HIV/AIDS in Myanmar is an NGO here in town where I teach English. They're one of my school's corporate clients. The event was being held at what I thought was a pretty fancy restaurant, and me wanting to present a respectable face, representing my company, I thought it would be important that I dress very formally, as you see in the picture.

I bought a fancy 'longyi' (pronounced: long-jee), a sarong which is the traditional male garb here. At least 80% of the guys wear them everyday. I had never worn one outside my home before that night. See, I wasn't good at tying them around my waist, and even just around the house, my longyi would always come loose and fall down. One of my co-workers taught me a new tie it, the 'chubby man's way'. Tie it ABOVE the belly line, and it'll stay up all night.

I arrived at the dinner, and everyone was very complimentary of my fancy Myanmar attire. Problem was, I felt way overdressed. Most of the rest attendees were in jeans and t-shirts. Or sequins and heels. As I mentioned, the NGO is active in the HIV/AIDS advocacy community, which includes a lot folks subscribing to alternative lifestyles. There were two full tables full of drag queens who entertained us all with lip-synching performances of 70's disco tunes.

On Saturday, I went with my company to the KBZ Music Run, a '5K' run (walk) event which was quite a big event here in Yangon. I didn't know what to expect, and frankly, when I signed up to do it with everyone else a month ago, I wasn't sure I'd be physically able to walk 5 kilometers. You know, the whole back thing I've been going through. As it's turned out, my back has been a whole lot better these last few weeks. A few bits of discomfort in my leg every so often, but on the whole, I feel really good.

As for the event itself, I'll the video show you... In two short parts.

Lastly, from this morning, my friend Beau's wedding. Yes, one of the teachers here has gotten hitched to a wonderful Burmese lady who we all like very much. This was my first Myanmar wedding, and I didn't know what to expect.
At least it gave me a chance to wear my nice Myanmar attire again. Perhaps this was more 'ring ceremony' than formal wedding. They got their wedding rings (not put on each other, but by other people...)

I wish Beau and Nila 100 years of auspicious marriage.

I've got video of the event... I hope the happy couple enjoys it.  It's kinda sweet.

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