No traffic in Naypyidaw and thousands of temples in Bagan

Too much has happened in the last five days to NOT write…

First, Yangon was great. I met up with a Smith alum who kindly offered me a place to stay for two nights and took me around in the sweltering heat all day Saturday. Burmese food is delicious, and I had coconut noodle soup for breakfast, lots of curries or Indian  biryani lunches, and endless MANGOS for snacks. The pictures below are of sweet Burmese tea in a classic tea shop.

It is mango season in Myanmar, folks, and I thought I knew mangos before this trip after living and traveling in other sub-tropical countries. This was until the delightful sien ta lone, or “diamond mango”, entered my vocabulary and stomach. This mango, small but plump, is unlike any mango I’ve ever tried before, and I think I’ve discovered the gold standard for mangos. I will recreate the famous marketing phrase (diamonds are a girl’s best friend) and say that diamond mangos are a Hannah’s best fruit. One day, I ate 4, without blinking, between noon and dinner. I got a lot of stares from Burmese fruit vendors as I peeled the mango skin away, like a banana, and ate the mango meat like an apple, leaving not one drop on the seed. “This weird white lady,” I expect they thought…

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From my mango awakening in Yangon, I took a bus (the only foreigner going) to Naypyidaw, where I contacted a Fulbright alum who had studied public health at the University of Texas, and is now working in Naypyidaw. He picked me up from the bus after a 5-hour bus ride (with a mango break), and was so generous with his time. And Naypyidaw is a WEIRD capital city. There are 6-lane highways and not a soul on them, and lining the highways are well-groomed lawns and landscaping, with the occasional giant government building or hotel.

While my friend/Fulbright contact worked one morning, he dropped me at an elephant camp, assuring me that the elephants were “happy”. I quickly discovered, after he left to work with a promise to pick me up in 3-4 hours across the river at an ecoresort, that these elephants were not the happiest. Granted, they are not hauling teak wood anymore (the adults used to haul logs of up to 2 tons!), but they are now used as a tourist attraction to give rides. I watched some other Burmese tourists get on the elephants and get walked around, and I was a little more than disgusted. This is an example, I think, of a westerner assuming that something is absolutely, without question, wrong, and seeing it through a local’s eyes where they might think that my wrong is just “way better than it used to be!”. So, I fed the elephants corn and sugarcane, pet their muscular trunks, napped on a bamboo platform, and crossed the river in a boat, to a refreshing dragonfruit juice while I waited to be picked up at the ecoresort.

I hopped on another Hannah-is-the-only-foreigner bus from Naypyidaw to Bagan and seven hours later, with I-don’t-know-how-many stops in small towns along the way, I arrived in scorching Bagan. Still, on the ride to my hostel (Ostello Bellowhich I would HIGHLY recommend to any solo traveler!), we passed monument after monument popping out of the surrounding vegetation. I arrived, did some sunset yoga with a group on a sandbar island in the middle of a river, and went to bed early.

This morning, we left the hostel at 4:45 a.m. to see the sunrise from a temple about a 10-15 minute e-bike ride away. We climbed up to a higher level in the temple and sat facing a cloudy sky, watching temples illuminated in the background as the sun rose. After breakfast, I went on a tour of some of the different monuments with a guide from our hostel (a FREE tour! Another brilliant thing about Ostello Bello!). We learned that in Bagan there are 4000 monuments, some of which date back to the 11th or 13th centuries, and cover 55 different kings. There are 5 different monument types: pagodas (which you can go in and also walk around), temples (which you can enter), stupahs (which you cannot enter), monastery (for the monks), and ordination hall (school for novices).

Several earthquakes in Bagan’s history have destroyed or damaged hundreds of monuments. Some are in repair, and it is crazy to see original stuccos or frescos from the 11th or 13th centuries next to original Buddha statues. The tour was from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m., with a lunch break, and by 2 p.m., if felt like we were e-biking through an oven.

I have one more full day in Bagan, where I hope to climb Mt. Popa with some new hostel friends. Next stop is Kalaw, and a 3-day trek to Inle Lake, with more mango stops (yes, I got one today in the market on the way back from the tour), more sweaty time gawking at natural and man-made wonders, and hopefully onto a slightly cooler climate than Bagan!

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Massage school, Malaysia and sandy toes

A few  weeks ago, I finished the Thai Massage Level I (30 hour) course at the Thai Massage School of Chiang Mai. I now know where NOT to press while giving a massage, and have a basic understanding of where energy lines are, how to properly apply the correct amount of pressure, and have a full appreciation for how tiring Thai massage can be! I was thrilled with my experience at massage school. Not only did I bond with the fellow massage students, but the course was hands-on and professional, and we learned a lot within a short 5 days. Some of my friends stayed on to complete the full 3 or even 5 weeks of the course and receive a full certification, and while part of me wishes I could have done that too, other parts of me were eager to continue on my adventure.

The Saturday after massage school ended, I boarded an overnight train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok. I had booked my ticket through 12goAsia and the process was seamless. I had a load of snacks from the market and 7-11 on hand (more on the marvel of 7-11 in Thailand at a later date), and the train left right on time. I rode in the Women and Children’s car, which had AC, and I was glad I brought along a sweater. Around 7:30 p.m., an attendant came through the car and made the beds (I had the lower bunk). It was as comfy, if not more comfortable, than a hostel bed, with a curtain for privacy. I fell asleep and only woke up to the 5:30 a.m. announcement that we had to get our beds turned back into chairs for arrival. I would highly recommend the overnight train (just bring your own snacks/meal!) for the journey from Chiang Mai to Bangkok!

I only spent a day in Bangkok, and during the day I met up with an alum from my school for lunch. We ate at a family restaurant and sampled tons of dishes, and I was so happy to have someone order in Thai. Plus, the restaurant had a very cute chicken-theme going on (left picture above). After lunch, I walked through Chinatown and saw a GIANT gold (real gold) Buddha. After gawking [respectfully] in the Wat, I wandered through the night stalls of Chinatown, oogling steamed buns and bowls of soup, finally settling on a simple, brothy, but delicious bowl of noodle soup that looked heavily frequented by locals.

The next day, I had a wild time getting to Don Mueang airport, trying first to take the train (delayed an hour) and a tuk tuk, and finally in a minute of desperation at the side of the highway next to an overheated tuk tuk, a taxi. I made my flight just as we were boarding, and landed in Trang, flying over rubber tree plantations and abundant jungle greenery. My friends met me at the airport, and we ate and explored for the next few days (shout-out to Sara and Emily for another fantastic tour of a city, food, and wonderful travel mates). Sara and I explored a cave while Emily went to work one day, and stumbled into a cave (no entrance fee) with the story of a baby elephant that had gotten lost and had its tail cut off ages ago. We were awed by the stalactites hanging down, sometimes so far that they joined with the equally impressive stalagmites growing from the floor into massive columns. We followed dimly lit pathways into chamber after chamber, and were glad to be walking together as bats flew down from their roost to check us out.

We ate a lot, and one of the wonders was a dessert called bingsu– a pile of ice cream but with a snowy, fluffy texture. We had mango bingsu to celebrate Emily’s birthday, and we poured coconut milk and condensed milk over the stop. It took four of us to finish the massive pile. For bingsu, go with friends! Also seen was a Mister Donut, which I have only ever seen in El Salvador, and apparently, now in Thailand!

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We now come to the most tragic part of my journey: After a wild bus ride from Trang to Hat Yai (I would recommend just booking in Trang, and not try and book in advance as I did), where I scrambled to transfer to my bus to Penang, I arrived desperate to eat in the foodie capital of Malaysia. I wandered through Little India, excited for mango lassi, naan, and curry. This was my only meal in the two days I was there, because immediately after arriving at the Air BnB for the night, I had terrible food poisoning, and enjoyed the delicacies of butter crackers and Sprite the entire next day. It had to happen, and on my final night in Penang, I did manage to go out with a friend to eat some rice porridge near the Clan Jetties (congee, I think).

After a puddle jump over to Kota Bharu on Air Asia, I got an airport taxi to the pier (about an hour taxi, for 60 ringgit). I was dropped in front of a tour company, where I booked a seat to and from Perhentian Kecil for 35 ringgit each way. The boat dropped me off at Mari Mari, a lodging option constructed entirely out of recycled materials. I met my friends on this pristine beach, with brilliantly colored parrot fish swimming just offshore and monitor lizards handing in the trees. Eddy, the owner of the hostel/resort/shacks cooked us group dinners each night that we were able to help prepare. The beach community was easy.

I snorkeled two separate days, and saw black-tipped sharks (I was totally dismayed that some guides of other groups baited the sharks with some fish), turtles, dolphins in the distance, and schools of colorful fish. My friends and I took some island jungle walks to different beaches, and to a beautiful camp high up on the island with sweet coffee, and where we talked Malaysian and USA politics for a few hours. The mosquitoes were the biggest menace, but we burned some incense and stayed in our mosquito nets during the worst hours.

After four days of sandy toes, we took two flights and are now back in Bangkok, using internet to make plans and sign acceptance letters and eat pad thai before I head over to Myanmar to trek, gawk at temples in blazing heat, and sit in tea houses.