Thursday, January 22, 2015

Finishing Up the Vacation


Okay, it's the 23rd of January, so this is a bit late, but it takes some time to make these videos, y'know.

In other news, I've made a decision to re-sign my lease here at this apartment for another year.  Sure, this place has some flaws, but the positives outweigh the negatives. The same goes for this country of Myanmar itself.

Sometimes, I do miss the USA.  Just last night, I had a dream where I was having Thanksgiving dinner with Kyle, Stan, Kenny and Cartman.  It may also be that I watch too much South Park.

So, here are the final two videos of the trip (not including random shots from the dinky little Dawei airport the next morning).

Sunday, January 18, 2015

I Had Tears Rolling Down My Face

This is a really bad time for me to be relatively disconnected from America when it comes to my favorite sports teams. My teams are doing amazingly well this year, and I, here in the land of slow internet, have been tantalizingly close to, but yet unable, to follow my teams' triumphs.

My favorite sport is basketball, and although I can't play it anymore due to my age and back (yes, I've finally recognized this), I can still watch it.  By far, my favorite NBA team is the Golden State Warriors, the SF Bay Area team.  This season, they are the best team in the NBA.  They've got the best record. They've had incredible winning streaks. Reportedly, they're incredibly fun to watch and dominate the rest of the league. Unlike last year in Thailand where I had unlimited high-speed internet for $10/mo, I don't watch the Warriors games on the net. When I got it here, it would have been impossible due to the extremely slow internet speeds. Now, things are faster, but prohibitively expensive.

Expense is no factor when your team is in football's NFC Championship Game. My Seattle Seahawks, whose every game I watched last year from Thailand, played in the game-before-the-Super-Bowl yesterday, and I had to watch.  They were no lock to win, and it was sure to be an exciting game. I plunked down my $30 to the NFL to get access to the Championship and Super Bowl games and was really worried that my internet speed wouldn't be up to the task to stream the game.

Good news: it was.

Better news: The Seattle Seahawks beat the Green Bay Packers in the most remarkable fashion. I won't recap the game, suffice to say they overcame the largest halftime deficit in Championship Game history to win and move on to the Super Bowl.

At the end, the swing in emotion from the deflation of defeat to the joy of victory was so strong that I cried.  I couldn't help myself.  I cheered at the top of my lungs on this Monday morning, screaming YAAYYY as if I were there in the stadium.  With the overcast morning and my AC at its utmost to the point of being cold, it kinda felt like I was in Seattle, my former home.

In the post-game interview, Russel Wilson, the Seattle quarterback, had tears in his eyes and was crying with joy.  He pulled himself together, and although my team hasn't won it all this year, we've gotten to the Super Bowl again.  I'm going to have a party at my place for the event that I've already paid for.  I woulda felt kinda stupid having shelled out half a day's pay had my team NOT moved on to the last game.

Although I'm happy my new internet provider was fast enough to let me watch the game without too many stops and starts, I don't have unlimited internet; I get charged per data downloaded.  It was $5 for the data to watch the game.  Yes, high speed internet has come to Myanmar, but until high speed internet is paired with unlimited access at a reasonable price, it's more like high speed profits for the providers.

Maybe by May when the NBA playoffs start and I want to watch my Warriors win their championship, my internet provider will offer an unlimited package. The way my teams are playing, I'd buy it.

TOday's video is the next part of my holiday vacation in Southeast Myanmar.  Watch to the end. There's a bit of a surprise.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

This is Burma: On da Way from Ye to Dawei

Some notes from the second half of my vacation in Southeast Myanmar...

Foreigners and monks in the upper class car .
You may have noticed from the video chronicling my journey from Hpa An to Ye that I had picked up some traveling companions. This happened to me on more than one occasion in my ten days away from home. There aren't that many foreigners doing the tourist thing in this part of the country, and so when solo travelers meet and talk, there is a natural tendency to glom onto one another. I enjoy the freedom of making my own path at my own pace, but it's also nice to have people to talk to, and in my case, since I speak some of the language, I got followers who liked my ability to negotiate with the locals.

One of these, I called Santa Claus. I met him the day after Christmas. He was older, fat, and had a long white beard. He was from Canada, which isn't far from the North Pole. Never have I met someone who was so oblivious to what he was saying.

It was so cool to capture this image for my own which I had
put on my blog previously from another source. 
He was traveling with a young woman he had met the day before who happened to be Israeli. Twice on that first day of our acquaintance, he talked about haggling, once with a fruit vendor and the other with the Captain, the innkeeper there in Ye. When referring to trying to get a better price, on both occasions, he said, “I'll see if I can Jew him down.” 

Aww, man.

That phrase is offensive and politically incorrect enough as it is, but to make that remark in front of an Israeli? Completely oblivious.

The next day, Santa and I both rented motorcycles, but from two different sources. Santa pulls up on his bike, and the first thing I notice is the swastika on the front splash guard. Now, as many of you know, the swastika didn't start off as a NAZI symbol. It's an ancient Hindu symbol which Hitler hijacked as part of his obsession with Aryan culture (the Aryans conquered India about 4000 years ago and founded Hinduism). You see swastikas all over SE Asia and it has nothing to do with NAZI-ism. Thing is, this bike also had a German war eagle adjacent to the swastika. That changes the context. I pointed this out to Santa, and again, he was oblivious. Hadn't even noticed. He noted that might be why when he offered his Israeli friend a ride, she refused. At least he was aware of that much.

More on what you'll see in the video: The vid starts with me visiting a place about 15 miles outside Ye called Banana Hill. They recently built (and are still building) a gigantic Buddhist monument up on the top of this hill. Something occurred to me as I put this video together during this time of so much worldwide religion versus religion strife. The architecture, the furnishings, the interiors of this shrine were Buddhist, but they might (minus the statues) have been Islamic, Christian of Jewish. If you want to make an impact on people's souls with a place, there's certain ways to do it. As you view the interior of the pagoda, ask yourself, what religion is this? For me, it could have been any religion.

The train ride from Ye to Dawei was interesting and beautiful, but oh, my God, it was long. It was eight hours, but eight hours to go 255 kilometers (160 miles)? Do the math. One online travel guide called it the slowest train in the world.

I spent that first night in Dawei, which I thought made up for the day that I had chosen not to go to Sittwe Beach, part of my original itinerary. When I showed up at the Coconut Guesthouse, the only reasonable accommodation in Maungmagan, they told me I was a day early for my booking. Yes, they had a reservation for me, but it was for the following day. Again, this was the week between Christmas and New Years, not a time to be just assuming there will be vacancies. Fortunately, despite my bad planning, they had a room for me, and I began my stay in Maungmagan.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

This is Burma: Uncertainty in Mon State

This begins the unplanned middle part of my trip which I had been worried about. I was changing my plans a bit. The original itinerary had me leaving Hpa An for Settse Beach, and after that, off to Ye. Well, I'll see Settse some day in the future, but it really would require quite a sidetrack from my general southernly direction, and I didn't really know how to get there anyway.

So, it was off to Ye instead.
The ride from Hpa An back to Mawlamyine was... umm.. interesting. The 'bus', which left every hour, was actually a pick up truck with some seats installed in the back and a canopy thrown over the top. I had begun my journey bright and early, and in the wind of the 'bus' zooming along at... err... 40 mph, I actually got pretty cold back there. Late December is mild in Myanmar.

I didn't know how I'd get from Mawlamyine to Ye, but these were the two biggest towns in Mon State, and I just needed to find the bus. My pick up truck driver was cool. He asked me where I wanted to go and then dropped me at the appropriate bus station to catch a bus to Ye.

As for what I saw in Ye, I'll leave that part of the story to those who watch the video. I got to meet Santa Claus.

Monday, January 5, 2015

A Priest, a Monk and Joko Walk Into a Cave

Merry Christmas!

Okay, today is the 13th Day of Christmas, and so this greeting is a bit late, but I'm still catching up on editing the videos from the long trip.

I spent Christmas morning at the Catholic Church of Hpa An, Kayin State.  There was a lot the familiar at the church.  Prayers, rituals, etc., but there were some uniquely Burmese things about the service as well.  Note the horn symbols - that's a Kayin thing.

Also kind of odd are the clocks on either side of the altar.  Usually, the front of the church is for sacred things, right?  There were a pair of clocks adjacent to the cross.  When people got bored in church, it did keep them rudely looking at their watches, so it does have some purpose. 

After church, I drove out of town to visit a couple sacred Buddhist caves.

Like many sites in SE Asia, the macacques were out in force.  I don't think local vendors were offering proper snack choices for the visitors to feed the monkeys, but I can't help but love this picture.  The way he's holding the bag is like he's shooting a commercial.  Macacques everywhere prefer Blue Dolphin Brand shrimp chips!  It's no Monkey Business!

Enjoy the video.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

This is Burma: It's Hpa-An-ing Again!

I've written before about the preparations I'd made for this journey. Well, getting ideas down on paper and then executing them are two different things. It is certainly harder to accomplish the latter if you forget to bring the former with you.

Particularly in a place like Myanmar where things are changing and opening up so rapidly, guidebooks are of limited value nowadays. Instead, I had been browsing various travel websites, researching the various places I wanted to visit and bookmarking the pages. Ultimately, I copied and pasted the pertinent information into a 6 page Word document: my own personalized guidebook.

Guess what I left on my desk, unpacked on that early morning while rushing to the train station? Yup. My personalized guidebook. No worries, I thought, I still had the document on my computer, which I had brought with me.

So far on the journey, you've seen my on a train, in a boat, in the back of a tuk-tuk and finally, on a motorbike. I had arrived in Hpa An, the capital of the Kayin State, and first thing after settling in, I rented a motorcycle. Out on the road, I quickly got lost even though Hpa An is a small town of only about 50,000 people or so.

Fortunately, there was one significant landmark that I could navigate by: Zwekapin Mountain. The mighty rock featured prominently on the horizon and also in my video. Perhaps the most amazing looking mountain I've ever come across.

It's limestone, and I'm confused about it's geology.  Like other mountains that just jut right out from an otherwise flat landscape, I gotta figure it's a product of erosion wearing away the earth around something harder, leaving a mountain.  But how could limestone be deposited like this, in a relatively small footprint?

After staring at the mountain (It's climbable, but it's 2000 feet up and takes about two hours of climbing), I made my way to what was labelled 'Waterfall Village' on my hand-drawn tourist map.  There were a lot of colorful characters at the village, but no waterfall (must be because it's dry season).

Back to Hpa An for sunset over the river and relaxing on Christmas Eve.

I heard the most amusing thing from my hotel room window.  Someone out on the street was singing a new Christmas carol.  "Merry Christmas to you... Merry Christmas to you... Merry CHRISTmas, merry Christmas... Merry Christmas to you," sung to tune of "Happy Birthday".

Friday, January 2, 2015

This is Burma: From Mawlamyine to Hpa An

I wasn't expecting Mawlamyine to be so beautiful... not until that train roll into town.  The last couple shots from the previous video were taken from in front of my guesthouse on the Strand Road, along the river.  My host called it the most beautiful sunset in Myanmar, but of course, he has a vested interest.  If I had known Mawlamyine had more to offer, I would have given it more time on my itinerary that just the one day. I didn't. Day two was about getting up to Hpa An in Kayin State.

I'm an early riser, regardless of the circumstances. More so now as I'm getting older. I can no longer sleep in until 11 or noon, as I used to do as a young person.  Impossible.  If I get up at 8:30 AM, that's sleeping in for me. My situation is exacerbated by being in a hotel. I was up and about and able (sort of) to explore Mawlamyine very early in the morning. I think I got some good shots from the hilltop temple.

Then, it was time for the tourist ferry to Hpa An. I like boat rides.  Years ago, before they improved the road from the capital of Myanmar's Mon State to the capital of Myanmar's Kayin State, everyone took the ferry.  Nowadays, there is no longer a public ferry even offered.  Instead, people take the bus. Tourists take a little, rickety tiny boat that in no way could be considered a 'ferry'.

What can I say? This is a TRAVEL blog! It's about going from one place to another, and for the first two days of my recent vacation, that's all I did: travel!

And get in altercations with French people. When the train dropped me off in Mawlamyine Station, I got a one dollar mototaxi ride to my guesthouse, the one that was recommended on LonelyPlanet and Wikitravel, ground zero for tourists in Myanmar's third largest city.

Maybe it is because I've been living alone for the these last 8 years or so. Maybe I'd had a few too many Myanmar beers.  Whatever.  I was settling into my $10/night room at the cheap backpacker hostel in Mawlamyine and needed to take one final pee. These rooms did not include en suite bathrooms. I walk out my door and was immediately accosted by my French neighbor. She attacked me for being far too loud in my settling in.  Mind you, I was on my own.  I wasn't talking to anyone, just making my natural settling in noises.  I wasn't being loud, or even if I were, it would end quickly when I went to bed. I had no idea what she was talking about. I stood there and withstood her scolding for a full minute or so.

Finally, I just told her: Fuck Off. 

Her husband came bustling out wherever he was hiding and got in my face. He was three inches shorter than me, and I outweighed him by at least 50 pounds. "WHAT DID YOU SAY TO MY WIFE? HOW DARE YOU?!?"  Jesus Christ.  If your wife wasn't such a bitch, maybe you two would making noises of your own.

Regardless, as other guests and the hotel staff started to crowd around us in hopes of avoiding a possible fistfight, I decided to half apologize. I said that instead of telling the guy's wide to fuck off, what I should have said was 'I'm sorry'. He took this as an apology and we all went to bed.

C'mon, lady.  I'm sorry if I farted, blew my nose or made grunting noises beyond your ability to handle it, but for $10/night, whatchya expect, the Hilton?

As I've already said, I rode the tourist ferry up to Hpa An.  Guess who happened to be seated directly in front of me in the two-seat-wide little boat for four hours?  That same French couple.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

This is Burma - Travels in the Southeast

I'm back in Yangon, rested, tanned and with a whole lot of video in the can waiting for editing. It was an unforgettable vacation. I saw what I wanted to see. Did what I wanted to do, and met lots of interesting people along the way.

It didn't start off very smoothly. I thought had everything prepared. I wasn't going to forget anything, and although I had some misgivings on the exact itinerary at some points along the journey, I wasn't worried. I went online to review a couple of items I had seen before, and I found an alarming passage regarding train travel in Myanmar. It advised that I should buy my ticket at least a day beforehand as during peak times, trains will fill up.

Uh oh. I was figuring I could show up half an hour before departure, and it wouldn't be an issue. Panic! Fortunately, I was anxious enough that I had woken up with the sun and could still make it to the station well before I thought I needed to.

I shoved the last items into my new, oversized backpack bought just for the journey, zip it up and POP! One of the zippers broke. The closing thingie popped right off. Fortunately, it was one of two and I was still able to close the bag. If that happened to other one, it would make the bag unusable. More panic.

I got to the station and stood in the crowd surrounding the ticket office (they don't queue up very well here). When it was my turn, I bought the last available ticket in the upper-class car. The cost was $3.50 versus $2.00 for ordinary-class, and I didn't want to sit on a wooden bench for eight hours. The next lady in line behind me wanted a seat in the same car; she was out of luck. I got the last seat, but if I hadn't shown up really early, I would have been the one demoted to the cattle car.

As for the trip itself, train travel in Myanmar is slow, bumpy and filled with
unexplained delays and stops. It's also an amazing way to get around as the land is beautiful and fascinating. You also get to appreciate small differences between the regions. For example, once you're east of the Sittaung River, Myanmar looks different. It's dry. Full of hills. As evident by things like the motorcycles baring license plates from Thailand if any at all, it's a little lawless and wild. Even monks are out riding.

Nine hours on a train is a long time, and I was made more disoriented by the fact that my seat faced backwards. I sat facing the back of the car. When the car stopped, I'd look out the window and I felt like was still moving. The scenery seemed to be moving even though we were stationary. A weird felling.

Finally, we rolled into Mawlamyine. When hills, rivers, islands and greenery come together around a city, our planet has the ability to make some pretty spectacular scene. I thought Seattle was a lot like this in combining all these elements into breathtaking vistas. Mawlamyine is even more beautiful. Combine all these things coming together with a beautiful sunset from atop a long, elevated bridge and I can't remember ever seeing a more beautiful site in my life.

Enjoy the video.


I thought I was going to retire there. I was the senior staff member. I'd been there longer than anyone. It. Is. Not. Fair.  But on the ...