Sunday, October 30, 2016

Myanmar, or Should I Say Burma?

Myanmar is a country most people don't know unless you refer to it by its previous name of Burma. This has to be one of the most incredible countries I've ever been to. I hate how so many people have such negative feelings about places they don't know anything about. When I told people where I was going I often got quite dramatic responses. Just like you can't judge a book by its cover, you can't judge a country by its name or its history.

Aung San Suu Kyi's Childhood Home

Myanmar has a turbulent history with 50 years of military rule, but that doesn't in any way make it unsafe to travel to. In fact, I found Myanmar to be one of the safest, friendliest places I've ever been. The people were so accommodating and helpful.

Shwedagon Pagoda Lit Up At Night (as seen from my hotel window)
I started my trip in Rangoon (aka Yangon). This city is not the capital, but it is the largest city and it used to be the capital. Coming from India, I found it quite incredible for several reasons. First of all, you could actually walk places because there were sidewalks and traffic lights. There also wasn't nearly as much honking of car horns as in India. The city almost seemed calm and quiet to me. In the first two days I was in Myanmar, I explored Rangoon. I felt like the tour I gave myself was surrounded around Aung San Suu Kyi and her life. I started off at the house she was born in which was a tribute to her father, General Aung San, Myanmar's national hero. Then I made my way to the Shwedagon Pagoda where I wondered how one would make a speech to a large crowd from the top as Aung San Suu Kyi did in 1988. The second day I was there, I started by walking from my hotel to Inya Lake where Aung San Suu Kyi's house is. This is the house she spent the better part of 15 years in prison in. I knew it wasn't open to the public, but unfortunately you couldn't even see the house itself. I only knew I was there because of the NLD signs and flags outside the compound, but I couldn't see much more than the walls. I also made my way to the Aung San Market where you can buy all kinds of souvenirs. This is where I realized that they really don't refer to her by name very much. They call her "the lady". People also found it comical when I would call her Daw Suu. I don't think most foreigners know enough about Suu Kyi and Myanmar in general to know that terminology that is often used by locals.

Sunset Over the World's Longest Teak Wood Bridge
After Rangoon, I left on the train to Mandalay. I was told that these trains can be incredibly delayed and very bumpy. Luckily for me, only half of that was accurate for my train. We were right on time, but the trip was so bumpy that I could still feel myself swaying even hours after I got off the train. I met a British girl on the train and we toured around Mandalay together. We saw everything. We started by going to the Royal Palace, which on the way I realized was just a replica of the original. Then we had lunch at a road side stand and went in search of the world's largest book. I eventually realized that this wasn't a book in the traditional sense and we had already seen it. We didn't even know it. Then we traveled to the top of Mandalay hill for some spectacular views before making our way to the world's longest teak wood bridge to watch the sunset. This day was so busy, but I'm so glad we saw everything that we did.

The View From My Balcony
My next and final stop was Bagan. I was told that you can't go to Myanmar and not visit Bagan. To get there I took an eight hour boat ride down the Irrawaddy (or as the locals call it the Ayeyarwaddy). This ride was really calm and relaxing. It totally beat taking the bus or train, which probably both would've taken just as long. Once I got there I enjoyed the sunset from my private balcony on the river and made a plan for the next day.

I had heard that the best way to get around Bagan was on bicycle, but after getting there I realized they also had e-bikes, which were basically electric scooters. Riding these on the roads might have seemed dangerous, but considering almost no local people live in the town, there is very little traffic. I really enjoyed this option. Plus it was so hot even though I wasn't biking or walking that it was totally worth any risk.

My Viewing Spot For Sunset
I started off my day by trying to see the sunrise at one the "best" temples for seeing the sunrise. This seemed like a good idea, but there were so.many.tourists. There was even one that had a drone. It was like trying to watch the sunrise with a helicopter flying overhead. Even so, it was a little bit too cloudy for a good sunrise. So after going back and having breakfast at my hotel I set out again. I feel like I saw so many temples that day and only in a matter of about 4 hours.  Despite the recent earthquake most of the temples were still accessible. Considering all I did and how early I had gotten up, I went back to my hotel to relax by the pool and take a nap before setting out to see the sunset. This time I wanted to find a more unique spot. I started by going to this bigger temple not too far from my hotel where I came across this young girl who insisted that I see the smaller temple next door. She showed me the secret staircase to get to the first terrace. Then she helped me physically climb to the next level and climb some more stairs to the top level. From there you could see all the big temples in Bagan as well as the sunset over the river. We must have sat up there for 30 minutes until after the sun went down. This was just another example of the overly helpful people of Myanmar. Turns out that this girl was selling post cards but she wasn't pushy about it at all. In the end, I bought a set of postcards from her to pay her back for helping me find the most amazing sunset spot I could've imagined. She was much appreciative as she was trying to make enough money for her schooling. On my last day, I spent most of the day laying by the pool, relaxing, and packing up. I tried to find a local monastery to see the monks receive alms, but I couldn't find it. I also went to the local archaeological museum where they have a lot of relics from the temples. There were so many Buddhas. Bagan really was the highlight of my trip.

All in all, Myanmar was amazing! It was a shame I only had one week there. I could've easily spent 3 weeks exploring the country. I definitely see myself going back there at some point as it not only fascinates me, but it is such a welcoming place. I can't wait until that day comes!

Friday, October 21, 2016

"Must-Go" List: Top 3

As I've discussed in a previous post, I always have a "Must-go" list full of places that I want to go.  Of course, for me there will always be an endless list of places that I want to go, some of which I've never even heard of.  Below are the top three places on my "must-go" list and why they top the list at the moment.

New Zealand
Ever since I was a kid I wanted to go to New Zealand.  I was inspired by my grandfather.  He always had a list of places he wanted to see in his life.  It wasn't until later in life that he had the means to travel the world.  Despite how old he got, he never let that stop him from seeing all the places on his list.  So when he and my grandmom were in their 60s they decided to go to New Zealand to hike the Milford Track.  He loved it so much, he went back and hiked it again with a friend of his a few years later.  That is what inspires me, because even as he got older he loved New Zealand so much that he felt the need to go again.  I always wanted to go and see for myself what made this place so special.

My aunt is from Cambodia and we've talked about going.  I think she wants to show us where she came from and the many wonders it has to offer.  Cambodia is one of those places that I want to go to, but I don't feel like I could ever go without my aunt.  I would love to see where she came from.  Someday we'll go.  It's just a matter of time.

Now that relations between the U.S. and Cuba have eased, I'm just waiting for Congress to lift the travel ban.  I think it would be amazing to travel just 1000 miles South and 50 years back in time.  As most Americans, I'm fascinated to see what this forbidden land has to offer.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Sights, the Sounds, the Colors of India

India. This country contains nearly one-fifth of the world's population. Made up of over two-thousand different ethnic groups. The eighth largest country in the world. I recently traveled to this amazing country for work and I stayed for 5 weeks.

I was told by coworkers who had been there that it would blow my mind. I also got many warning before and after arriving to be careful traveling alone. Additionally, I was told many times how brave I was for doing so. In many ways, I just didn't get what the big deal was. How was India going to be so different than all the other places I've been? The fact of the matter was, it wasn't. At this point I've seen so many incredible places, India wasn't much different. That's kind of a good and bad thing.

It's bad in the sense that I've seen so much, that new places struggle to amaze me. This is nothing negative about India. It's just that I'm hard to impress these days. To me, India seemed much like Uganda, except wealthier. It had that same post-British colonial feel to it. Plus with the massive income gap in India, you saw much of the same poverty that you did in Uganda. The feeling of being somewhere so similar to Uganda was familiar. It made me feel at home.

There were some things that were different that I found quite interesting. First is the honking of car horns. You will have trouble feeling like you're in India unless you hear car horns. It's interesting to me how the honking is not always aggressive in India. There are different kinds of honks. Some make it seem like a language the cars use to talk to each other. A driver might honk as he passes to make the other driver aware of his movements or he might honk to ask another vehicle to move over. And then, of course, there are aggressive, get-out-of-the-way honks. All these honks are different. I imagine it taking years to learn the subtleties of each one.

Another thing I noticed here is the harassment, or should I say lack thereof. We've all heard the stories in recent years about the harassment and assaults of women, especially foreigners, in India. However, it seems as though the Indian government is doing what they can to curb that. I've seen signs on trains and at major tourist attractions outlining specific activities that are forbidden. Some of these signs specify that they are in regards to women and others seem more pointed at how foreigners should be treated. It is against the law in India to give women unwanted attention. This includes teasing, yelling at, and singing to them. Individuals are also not allowed to take photos of others without their consent. This might seem odd, but it is way more common than you may think for someone to approach a foreigner and ask for a selfie. White people are novelties and Indians want photos with them. But the law prohibits this unless the foreigner consents. All of this has led to me receive (at least what I consider) very little attention (outside of the occasional selfie requests). I think this is great; however, it may lead to a false sense of security. It could be that there are attacks and assaults here and you just don't see the actions that typically lead up to them. But then again, maybe not...

All in all, I enjoyed my time in India and I would like to share with you one particular side trip that I found particularly amazing.

The last weekend that I was in India happened to be Labor Day weekend.  In India, that doesn't really mean anything, but to me it meant that I got a three day weekend to travel to one last place before leaving the country.  So I decided to take that weekend and make a trip to Kerala in the South of India.  Kerala is a place known for houseboats, good food, and a relaxing way of life.

Instead of doing my usual figure-it-out-on-my-own thing, I decided to just splurge and book a tour.  I wanted to experience these houseboats I had been hearing so much about.  The tour I booked included one night at a "resort" and almost an entire 24 hours on a houseboat.

My houseboat for the day
So I flew into one of the largest towns in Kerala, Cochin.  From there I was picked up by a driver and taken to my hotel, which was about an hour and a half ride.  When I got there I realized that their idea of a resort was a mediocre hotel with a nice pool.  Considering I was still suffering from a cold I had caught the week before, I was mildly okay with that.  I spent most of my time in my room sleeping and watching TV or laying by the pool and swimming.  At first I thought no one else was staying there, because all day the place was deserted, but by dinner a few more people showed up.

MMMMMM Prawns!
The next morning my driver came back for me to take me to my houseboat.  By noon that day we were cruising away.  Turns out I had the whole boat to myself.  It was a one bedroom boat with a three man crew who were just waiting on me hand and foot.  When I originally booked this trip, I thought there was a chance that cruising around on a boat all day could get boring, so I brought a book.  Turns out, I didn't read it at all.  It couldn't have been more fascinating watching daily life on the canals and seeing all the other houseboats pass us by!  It seemed as though no two houseboats were the same.  At one point we stopped at a fish market, where I bought two of the biggest prawns I had ever seen and later that day my cook prepared them for me for dinner.  Let's just say that the food I had on that boat was probably the best I had in all of India.

By 9 AM the next morning it was time to leave, but I could've spent days on that boat.  In the moment, nothing could've made me happier than cruising around the backwaters of Kerala.  I may not have been the biggest fan of India in general, but I absolutely adored Kerala.