“EVA Airways Flight 330 bound for Taipei, will begin boarding”. I took my seat at 37A. Every row in every seat was filled. The captain greeted us in Chinese and English. As we started down the runway a tropical rain started. We climbed fast and were soon surrounded by the sun shining and white puffy clouds. I stared out the small oval window and got lost in thoughts of the past few weeks. At sunset the sky turned to beautiful shades of yellows, pinks and plush blues. The seat belt sign is back on; we were landing in Taipei. I dashed off the plane and quickly made it to the other end of the airport to board my flight to Los Angeles. It was now dark with city lights quickly disappearing as the plane left Taipei. I fell asleep and woke to landing in California. I had to board another plane that would take me to DC with a stopover in Dallas. After 30 hours of traveling I was back in DC to a cold windy morning. My skin still feels warm from the sunshine of Asia; I put on my coat and headed for home.
After an amazing three weeks exploring the country I had come to the end of my travels. I spent my last days in Yangon. I said goodbye to my travel partner Ilsa early on Wednesday morning as she began her journey back home. I was lucky to meet such a wonderful person. People were just arriving or getting ready to leave Yangon and I was there to explore.
On my first full day back in Yangon I spent my time shopping around the markets admiring the old wooden puppets, beautiful lacquerware and sparkling gems. Along the way I was distracted by the amazing aromas coming from the food stalls along the side of the road. Once the sun had set it was time to head out to the night markets. My favorite place for food is the Chinatown area. At night, candles illuminated all the food. Staying out until the last vender packed up for the night, I took a rickshaw home. The streets were quiet just a couple of lights on. Rickshaws have to be my favorite mode of transportation. They are slowly disappearing from Asia all together. Each year I see less and less. When I arrived back at the guesthouse, it was quiet and it looked like everyone had turned in for the night, even the front desk. I quietly tip toed up to my room so I didn’t wake anyone.
Very early the next morning I was awoken by the screeches of the neighbor’s cats. They seemed to be in a very heated argument. Well I was up now. What to do? I headed to the market and bought fruit for the Monks. Every morning the Monks walk down the street in a line collecting alms, the offering is a way to show humbleness and to connect to the spiritual. A couple of men walked ahead ringing a bell letting others know that the Monks were coming. People were bringing food and offerings to the streets. The Monks open their bowls accept the offering and walk ahead. This has to be one of the most beautiful and humbling moments that I have witnessed in Myanmar. In the afternoon I decided to just walk, with no particular place in mind. I walked through so many neighborhoods within the city, tasting the street food and chatting with people. I snacked on everything on the way back to the guesthouse but I always saved room for the amazing Naan place next door. Sitting on tiny plastic chairs on the sidewalk I enjoyed sipping green tea and eating warm Naan served with a chick pea dipping sauce.
After dinner I talked with other travelers and we thought we would head across town to the Mr. Guitar Café. It was about a half an hour drive, by taxi. The kind women at the guesthouse had written us a note in Burmese on how to get there for the driver. We passed by so many amazing places. I never realized how large Yangon is and how each neighborhood is unique in its own way. The café was hidden at the bottom of the hill and you had to walk down several steps to get to it. The atmosphere was cool, the lights were low and the room was smokey. Local musicians sang in Burmese, playing guitars, a piano and the drums. The walls were covered in writing, names, designs and notes of love all written with a white marker.
We stayed for hours listening to the music and drinking beers. Around midnight the cafe started to clear out so we hopped in a taxi headed back to the guesthouse.
Today is my last day in Myanmar; I decided what better way to spend it by going to Schwedagon Pagoda at sunrise! I headed out at 4:30am. The roads were dark. I walked up the stairs barefoot and found small crowds at the top starting to gather. People were scattered around the Pagoda meditating and I could hear women singing in the distance. I stayed for 5 hours I wanted to take it all in. I wanted this moment to last a lifetime. I returned to the guesthouse at 10am and joined friends for a late breakfast. I still had plenty of temples left to explore. With a map in hand I set off on foot trying to see them all. As the sun began to set I headed to the Chinatown area, everyone was getting ready for the night market. I enjoyed eating as much food as I could; fresh fruit, picked vegetables and sweet pancakes. After several meals I slowly walked back to the Lower Pazundaung Road. Some kids across the street were playing jump rope, I decided to grab my Polaroid camera and join them. I had 3 packs of film left and I wanted to share the photos with the people in the neighborhood that I called home for the past several weeks. Slowly everybody started to turn in for the night. I stared off into the streets, took in all the aromas, sights and sounds. I was the last one to turn in for the night. The next morning it was time to say goodbye. The ladies at Motherland, they told me I should come back for the Water Festival, very tempting…
I leave with thinking about this quote from one of my favorite writers; “This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about.” Rudyard Kipling
Piling back in the car from our wonderful lunch we left the city of Bago and headed down the long straight highway back to Yangon. Exhausted from the days adventures I took my seat in the back, resting my head on the side of the window I fell fast asleep. I awoke to our car slowing down and the soft sounds of music off in the distance. Parking alongside the road; our driver said “parade coming” with excitement we quickly hopped out of the car and joined all the other spectators along the sidewalk
The month of November brought cool dry weather after months of monsoon rains. It was the perfect climate and the farms flourished. And with this wealth it was time to give back to the monasteries. To get the attention of donors kids would walk through the cities wearing funny costumes, playing music as they danced there ways into the people’s psyche. You couldn’t help but smile and reach for your wallet.
With December fast approaching the donations had all been collected and now were being delivered to the Monastery and presented to the Monks.
Women dressed in beautiful silks marched in a straight line as they held neatly folded saffron robes for the Monks, young girls carried decorative fans made of money, and large trucks with wooden platforms passed as performers stood on top singing traditional songs. An array of men and women danced and skipped through the streets wearing masks and costumes that had helped days before to raise the money. Young kids giggled as they watched the comedians passed by, teenage girls looked with envy at the beautiful silk dresses and our driver cheered and smiled.
Patrick, Ilsa and I sat along the road with eyes of amazement and filled with emotion as this was the end of our journeys and how for the past month we have witnessed this fun display. It was wonderful to see all the donations make it to their destination.
One of my most cherished memories of Bago was not of the Temples or historical sites. It was a small café off the highway heading out of town. That morning Ilsa, Patrick and I had been busy seeing all the sites so it was nice to stop for lunch and rest our feet. We were greeted by a little boy and a girl with menus. Later we found out that they were the owner’s grandchildren. Taking a seat outside underneath the awning we ordered. As we sat waiting we were entertained by the children’s laughter and playing. A couple men sat across from us drinking beers and smoking cigarettes as they enjoyed their day off from work. Inside families were glued to the television watching football. The waiters were walking quickly from table to table serving food and getting orders
Deciding to grab my Polaroid camera I snapped some photos to give to the kids. Before I knew I became the official photographer for this restaurant. I took pictures of every patron. Everyone enjoyed the photos. I enjoyed watching as everyone waved their photos back and forth trying to hurry the processing and then the smiles once the images appeared.
Presented with a bowl of soup bigger than my head, I knew I had my work cut out for me. Huge vegetables mingled with the noodles in a chicken broth. But the food didn’t stop there… The waitress brought over fresh fruit and a little vegetable salad with a fiery sauce..
After lunch I melted into the more comfortable chairs. The restaurant was starting to calm down. The kids were getting sleepy and the men and women left the kitchen to watch the game, everyone was taking a rest as the afternoon approached.
Our driver cleared his throat and pointed to his watch. That was our que to leave if we wanted to make it back to Yangon tonight. The owner’s grandchildren waved and followed our car as headed back down the long highway. I sank into my seat as we sped up and thought about how amazing the afternoon was. I’m constantly reminded of the kindness and warmth of the Burmese people. This was is what I always remember about my trips, those quiet afternoons in a local café.
The traffic was heavy with bikes, cars and scooters as people were heading out of Hpa An for the night. Ilsa, Patrick and I were just arriving after spending the whole day exploring caves and the landscape of Kayin State. We pulled up in front of a small guesthouse close to the river. From what I could tell we were the only guests. Exhausted from a busy day we were in search of a big dinner. And we found it. Most of the restaurants were closing for the night but one café across the street from our hotel was still open. The place was small and family run and specialized in traditional Burmese dishes. I’m not sure what I ordered but the plates just kept coming. As soon as I finished my plate it would be full once again. I was fully stuffed and ready for bed. By the time we left the café the streets were quiet and most of the lights were off for the night. I fell asleep staring out my window, gazing at the faint silhouettes of the mountains.The next morning I awoke before the sun. With only having a few hours to explore, I quickly headed out the door with map in hand. Ilsa, Patrick and I all headed in different directions. We all had separate list of places we wanted to see. I set off on foot to the Shweyinhmyaw Pagoda, which overlooked the Salween River and beautiful mountains. Long boats traveled down the river-taking people to and from different ports. This temple was quiet, with just a couple of Monks in deep meditation. The walls were adorned with beautiful designs made from mirrors.
Making my way slowly through the city, I enjoyed looking at the architecture; the buildings were painted in beautiful pastel colors.The crowds began to grow as I was approaching the market. Baskets full of exotic fruit,
colorful flowers and fresh fish lined the walkways. People haggled over prices and large wooden carts were being pushed down the streets as people filled them with their purchases. The market was in full swing. My stomach began to rumble. It was time for breakfast. I met back up with Ilsa and Patrick at a small teashop for breakfast. I enjoyed a hot bowl of noodle soup with a side of small pastries to dip into my tea. The time flew by and before we knew it was time to head to Bago. I had full intention of seeing more of the city but was distracted by the morning market and taking photos.
With our legs still wobbly from the decent down from the Golden Rock. Ilsa and I found Patrick and the driver waiting for us. We piled back in the car and headed down the mountain. Yesterday we visited the sacred Golden Rock high above and now today we will be exploring the caves in the Kayin State. We had been driving for several hours when we pulled up to a dirt road. We traveled down it for about 3 miles when we came to a tunnel made of vines. Ilsa, Patrick and I got out of the car and walked down this shady path that opened up to hot springs and colorful Pagodas. And there were monkeys staring us down. I knew I couldn’t take another step until I gave them an offering. Once I passed them the snacks they looked up at me with approval and got out of the way. The architecture is more Hindi style than Burmese; colorful buildings with funny shapes were at the base of the mountain. A staircase made out of stone went up the mountain. A young Monk waited for us at the top of the stairs with a flashlight. Buddha statues were everywhere; the cave was dark but small candles illuminated the beautiful designs. When we walked back down the monkeys were hungry again (how much food do they eat or do I have Sucker written on my forehead). Luckily I planned for this and saved a couple of crackers.
We got back in the car and headed for more caves. I could see what looked like a rock that was floating in space with a small Pagoda on the top. What was this? I quickly asked the driver if we were going there and he quickly replied “yes”. He said it is called Kyauk Kalap Pagoda. This rock stood proudly in the landscape. It was tall, narrow at the bottom and round at the top. Ilsa, Patrick and I crossed a long wooden foot bridge with incredible panoramic views. I was still curious about the rock. Once I found some steps that would take me to the top, I started climbing. They got more and more narrow as I made my way to the top. An older Monk sat in deep meditation. His soft singing could be heard as I made my way “almost” to the top. With a feeling of accomplishment I stayed up there for a while to enjoy the nice breezes and views.
Our next stop was Kawgun Cave where we were greeted by several elder Monks. There was a small fee which I gladly paid. The Monks then pointed to two translation books if we had any questions about the cave. Large Buddha’s line the walkway to the entrance and thousands of terra cotta plaques covered the walls. They ranged in sizes; some were no bigger than 4 inches and others were as large as three feet. The plaques depicted Buddha images in different poses; earth-touching poses referred to as Meditative, Reclining and Standing. It was so quite and peaceful. I could hear the sounds of bats way above and the tropical birds singing. A huge reclining Buddha awaited us inside the cave and was surrounded by smaller statues depicting the act of offering.
Buddha statues were everywhere as we pulled up to Kaw Gon. They were mountains, in the caves and scattered in the landscape. It is also known as Cave of the Ten Thousand Buddhas (I’m not sure if there were 10K, I tried to count but lost track after a hundred).
After leaving Kaw Gon we traveled down a narrow paved road we came to a tall gate covered in lavish gold designs. A man was at the very top cleaning small replicas of famous Pagodas. Once we passed through the gate we came to a field of countless Buddha statues with the mountains in the background. The Buddha’s sprouted out of the waist high grass. Then small dirt paths led us around the garden. I wanted to run through the field; it was so beautiful.
It was the late afternoon; the sun was starting to set and giving everything a beautiful golden sun splashed tone. We were headed to one last cave before heading to the city of Hpa An. We traveled down a dirt road for several miles. The road went from dirt to mud. We tried tirelessly to make it down the path but the car got stuck and from what we could tell the road didn’t get any better. Once the car was out of the mud we headed back the way we traveled. I saw this funny vehicle approaching. It looked like a farm vehicle but was connected to a wooden cart and had large tires. The father at the steering wheel and his wife and son on the back. Their son couldn’t have been more than three years old and he kept waving to us, so I hopped out of the car to say hello. The family was very sweet. Our driver translated for us; they were coming home after a very busy day at the markets in Hpa An. The son showed us all his treasures that he found that day. It was a nice ending to such an amazing day.
The Golden Rock and Hpa An were on the top of my list of places that I wanted to visit. Luckily this was Ilsa’s as well. Before we set off for the beach we left a note on the bulletin board at the Motherland Inn, seeing if anyone one else wanted to join us. We learned that the best way to get there and further south was by car but we were in search of one more person to share the cost of the journey. When we got back to Yangon we saw that someone had responded; Patrick from Switzerland. That night we discussed all the places that we wanted to go in the next four days; with our routes planned we hired a driver.
The next morning we left Yangon in the direction of the Mon State. First stop was the Golden Rock located on Mt. Kyaiktiyo 3,600 feet above sea level. Legend has it that the rock is perched on a strand of Buddha’s hair.
At the bottom of the mountain we hopped out of our car and into the back of a truck. We sat on wooden benches and were packed in like sardines, with the Monks and Nuns in the front and all the families in the back. We were all laughing of how close we were to one another. As we sped up and down the twisty winding roads it felt like a rollercoaster ride. Some locals thought it would be fun to put our arms in the air.
The truck took us half the way up and the rest we had to go by foot. The Lonely Planet was right you would be cursing the whole way up the mountain but once we finally got to the top, we took off our shoes felt the breezes and the touch of the cool marble tiles on our tired feet. We walked to the Golden Rock. It defied gravity and glistened in the sun. Men surrounded the rock bringing gold leafs and praying. Unfortunately this is the one spiritual place that women are not permitted. I joined the other women; as we sat across from the Rock. They were chanting, lighting candles and incense and offering fruit. As the sun began to set the crowds grew and the rock began to change from yellow to golden with hints of red. With the sun gone the air became cooler and kids were being bundled up in winter jackets. The Rock glowed against the night sky. Patrick was brave because he walked all the way back down the mountain that night. Ilsa and I on the other hand dreaded the hike and booked a room for the night. We headed back to the hotel around 11pm when we noticed some college kids in front of the dorms playing their guitar and singing. It was so lovely. That we decided to sit with them and listen. That night was the first time on my trip that I needed blankets.
The next morning the clouds moved in and we walked up to the Golden Rock once more before we headed down the mountain. Traveling down is a lot easier than climbing up! We made it down in an hour and then boarded the “Roller coaster Truck” for the ride down the mountain.
As we were leaving our beach paradise Ilsa and I decided to stop in Pathein for a day or two. The city was about a two hour bumpy drive from the beach in the Ayeyarwady Region. We arrived in the early afternoon and were greeted by friendly smiles. A rickshaw took us to the Tan Tan Ta Guesthouse. As we were making our way through the city I noticed the majority of the architecture was painted in beautiful vibrant colors.First things first; now that we have dropped off our bags it’s time for some much needed Chai and Samosas. Now that we were caffeinated and our stomachs satisfied it was time to explore. We wandered around the markets and streets. The streets were peaceful, filled with more bicycles than cars.
We made our way to the Shwemokhpaw Pagoda. We climbed the sea of steps. The temple was adorned with beautiful mirrors and gold. I was taking a photo of a child and her mother when I felt a tap on my shoulder and older man said to me “Cute Baby come see”. I felt intrigued and followed; he pointed to a rather large cat and said “my Baby”! He wanted me to take a couple of pictures and so I did. I tried to pet the cat but he was very shy and walked away. When we were leaving the temple we noticed the same man carrying his cat on his shoulders and then carefully placing him in a basket and bicycling away.As the sun began to set we headed into one last market before they closed up for the day. The light was peeking through cracks in the roof. The old wood glowed and created beautiful shadows along the walkways. From the looks of it everyone was packing up and heading out of the city. The sun had set. We pulled out our Lonely Planet to find out what happens in this town at night. Ilsa and I read about bustling night markets along the waterfront. After first walking in the wrong direction we finally found the market. The streets were full of people. Stalls of fresh fruit, colorful flowers and the smells of grilled delights filled the air. We stopped at one place that had everything from bats to vegetables. We weren’t feeling adventurous that evening and decided to have the chicken but we were told that “bat taste like chicken but better”. The roads were empty by the time we got back to the guesthouse. There were no lights in the stairwell as we made it back to our rooms. I opened the curtains, although the electricity began to dim around the city the Shwemokhpaw Pagoda still shined dominating the skyline.
The next morning I was awoken by horns honking, sounds of doors opening, people chatting and the early morning light sneaking in. The markets below were getting ready to open up and everybody was starting to gather to grab up the best produce. Ilsa and I set out in search of breakfast. We came across a small café. A woman cooked outside the shop showing off all her fresh food. We had huge bowls of noodles for breakfast. I mean huge, no lunch for us. The noodles were cooked in a sweet soy sauce mixed with lots of fresh vegetables. After breakfast we walked off our meal in the morning markets. They were packed. Fisherman brought in their fresh catches and started working hard to clean the fish. Older women with colorful curry powder lined the walkway. Some venders had set up small stores in the inside markets. My favorite, the plastic store has everything that is aesthetically pleasing to the eyes, so many colors and shapes. (When I got home I realized I bought way too many small colorful containers). We filled the day with markets and more markets. The afternoon was fast approaching and we had to get back to Yangon that night. We took a small bus back down the bumpy roads to Yangon. Pathein is known for its beautiful parasols but I was so distracted that I completely forgot to buy one. Next trip…
I have found paradise and the name of this place is called Chaung Tha in the Ayeyarwaddy Division. I spent four amazing days at this wonderful Bay. Ilsa and I traveled very early in the morning from Yangon. The roads were bumpy and the bus was old and worn. Most people got on and off very few people traveled the whole six hours to Chaung Tha. Before we got to the beach a man jumped on the bus with pamphlets of his guesthouse. The pictures showed palm trees, quiet beaches and fresh seafood. We couldn’t pass that up. We checked into a cozy blue bungalow with a huge porch and two trees spaced just right to put up a hammock.
We arrived just in time for lunch! The café overlooked the Bay of Bengal. While we were enjoying our food we noticed no one was swimming, but the café and porch bungalows were full of people. We wondered if the water was cold… We however decided to check it out. The water was warm and soothing.
I heard music coming from the distance I walked further out onto the beach to investigate. I saw a group of men pulling three large wooden carts, one for donations, the next speakers playing fun music and the last generators connected to the speakers. Kids arrived dancing carrying silver Alm bowls. They had painted faces and fun outfits and they were collecting donations for their Monasteries. Everyone on the beach enjoyed the music and the dancing.
Fisherman began to walk down the beach selling their catches. We picked out some seafood which they took to the café to prepare for our dinner. It seemed as though most locals do not like to go out in the heat of the day but as soon as the evening temperatures dropped the beaches were packed. Kids grabbed inflatable floats, parents biked along the beach and college students played football along the surf. Once the sky had turned to dark blue I put down my camera and headed for dinner. I had grilled prawns with chili, with a beautiful garnished plate. I wish I had taken a photo but I quickly took a bite as soon as the plate touched the table. After dinner Ilsa and I enjoyed some cold Myanmar beers and the sounds of some college students playing the guitar and singing into the late hours. That night I fell fast asleep with the lights on and my book in my face.
The next morning I was awoken by the sounds of the waves crashing. I got up to watch the sunrise. The beach was quite popular early in the morning as people enjoyed their morning exercises. After breakfast I decided to explore. I could see there were a couple of small Pagodas perched on top of large rocks along the beach. I wandered for miles until I came to the end of the beach. There was a small island across the way. I took a boat to get across. It was home to small bamboo houses and fishing boats. Kids played along the water, while the women and men were tending to large fishing nets. I walked up to the Pagoda, where a kind woman sold me offerings of flowers, incense and candles. With my shoes off I climbed the steps. The Stupa was small and beautiful, with tiny Buddha’s surrounding it. There was a snack shop just past the temple that had benches that overlooking incredible scenic views. I had a cold soda and relaxed while a shopkeeper played his guitar. As I walked down I had gotten the attention of the kids on the island because they were curious about my camera and wanted to see my pictures. I thought I should definitely come back tomorrow with my Polaroid. I walked all the way back to my bungalow. At this point the temperature was rising; the only thing to do was go swimming so I rented a raft and cooled off. Before dinner a group of us decided to walk in the opposite direction of the island and see how far the beach stretched. We came upon a small Stupa and we decided to climb the steps and watch the sunset. Dragon flies danced in the sky as the sun changed from yellow to red to purple till finally disappearing into the horizon. Now that the sky was getting dark we couldn’t wait to get back for dinner. Just thinking about all the seafood definitely turned my walk into a jog. We ate at the same café but ordering something different and again enjoyed the sounds of college kids singing as we dined.
Vacation had finally set in; I slept through my alarm clock and leisurely got up. This was our third day here and we haven’t walked into town once. We followed the parade of kids collecting donations. I wandered through the markets, the streets were narrow and found very few cars were in town. After a nice lunch and tea Ilsa and I headed back to the small fishing village. With 30 Polaroids and extra batteries for my camera I stopped at the first woman with a small baby and took their photo. She really enjoyed the picture. We walked along the other side of the Island; it was mostly rocky but had beautiful views and then back up to the Pagoda for a cool breeze. When we came back we were greeted by several women and their babies. The one woman showed the other ladies the photo that I had taken of her daughter and they were hoping for a photo too. All the children were dressed in their finest outfits. I snapped a ton of photos and it seemed that word spread fast because before I knew it I had a line of children waiting for their photos. It was really fun; I really enjoyed seeing their reactions to the photos. Once I ran out of film I waved goodbye and hopped back on the ferry.We walked back in the dark. People were setting off small fireworks on the beach and that helped us to see. We were greeted by our favorite fisherman; I looked forward to the fresh seafood every day. I wanted to order two meals the food was so good but instead I got some Mandalay rum and a whole coconut for dessert.
The next morning I got up before the sun. This was my last day at the beach so I relaxed with my feet in the sand. Feeling invigorated after four days of pure relaxation, Ilsa and I boarded the afternoon bus to Pathein.