If you ask anyone about a highlight of Burma, most will answer that the people are some of the friendliest they have encountered. And with good reason. One will never know when a meal will create a conversation with a local, or when waiting at a bus stop will turn a frustrating moment into a photo shoot with a family. I’m pretty sure this is the only country in which a women whose picture I am taking will offer me some of her noodle dish at the market.
The journey to Myanmar didn´t go smoothly. It involved several hiccups over a twelve hour period that ended on a connecting flight in which I was seated in the midst of Burmese men, all staring in my direction (something I will grow accostomed to quickly). But alas, make it to Myanmar I did. Still being in southeast Asia, yet in a country whose government has prevented the constructive growth of tourism and so has experienced the prescense of foriegners on a lesser scale, I wasn´t sure what exactly lay ahead. I spent my first 36 hours in Yangon, and these are my first impressions of a country unknown to so many.
To the international community, Yangon is known as the capital of the country, but in fact the military government built a new capital by the name of Naypyidaw, located in a more central region of the country. According to some, this drastic (and expensive) decision came after an astrologer warned of an attack on Yangon.
My first impressions of the city are that it´s more developed than I had anticipated. There are actually stoplights and crosswalks with computerized machines telling me when to cross. Much different than the process of stop and go, zigzagging my way through herds of motorbikes that are so prevelant in other Asian countries. This is by no accident. Motorbikes aren´t allowed in this city and the reasons range from a motorist handing out pro-democracy information on his motorbike to one military officer getting into an accident and wanting to prevent any further embarrasments. For whatever asinine reason, they are not allowed, and this has posed a huge problem to the city due to the traffic created by the deluge of expensive, foreign cars and the lack of an effective public transport system.
Yangon is a city of blended traditions. There are reminders that India lies just next door with women in saris, men in their longis (full length sarongs that are tied around the waist). Curry is a popular dish, though it is flavored neither like the Indian nor the Thai curries that you can find on Burma´s borders. Though Buddhism is the most predominant religion in the country, traces of Islam and Hinduism are also evident.
Betel Nut is chewed by everyone. Sold on virtually every corner, this stimulant is enjoyed by men and women alike. It´s a tobacco that is paired with a white paste and various spices and then rolled into a green leaf. The result is a slight high and mouths and teeth painted red (the aftermath of the ingredients). The roads and sidewalks are stained with the leftovers, which are spit liberally among the population. This creates a distinct smell that wafts its way over the crowds and through the alleyways, an aroma that is similar to musty inscents that sticks to the humid air.
In Yangon, the sideways glances are a constant reminder that I am a single, white, female in a land that isn´t used to foreigners. On one occasion I am greeted with several pairs of eyes as I park myself at a make-shift food stall serving an array of noodles and cheese. Before I could fully inspect the food that lay before me, a crowd of mostly men gathered around me, and they continued to observe as I took my first bites of this hearty dish (whose name I never could figure out). As I dove deeper into the bowl, the stares continued and I took advantage of the attention and received my first lesson of the Burmese language when one man told me the word for delicious. Yet, no matter how friendly this gathering seemed to be, it´s never a comfortable situation to be eating in front of an audience, and so I finished my meal at a pace faster than usual before going on my way.
The streets of Yangon are lined with faded buildings, laundry hanging from windows and electrical wires weaving back and forth until they inevitably get lost in the dark abyss that form at various posts, so dense that the sight of black lines become one with the cloud formations above. A woman walks down a quiet street with a basket over her head, her stong voice bellowing out melodic rythms of the items she has to sell. On another street, children are dressed as novice monks and walk in lines as they receive their daily alms. Most trees on sidewalks are covered in shrines that are dedicated to one deity or another.
My second meal of the day was another noodle dish, called Mohinga. It was at another food stall, and when I struggle to convey that I am a vegetarian, the woman next to me helps. Through basic English we converse throughout the meal, and when I am finished she pays for my share. I will realize that this is customary in Burmese tradition, as they take a lot of pride in how their country is represented and how their visitors are treated. I see this as well when on different occassions I ask to use a bathroom and people look at my light skin and unlock the stall that houses a westen toilet. One man goes to the length of cleaning the bathroom before I enter and when he is finished asks me if that will be good enough.
In Yangon, I realize that the Burmese are people who genuinely want visitors to have a good experience and to show them the meaning of hospitality in a place where such an idea has been hard to practice in the past. It´s with these first impressions that I carry on to other parts of Burma, and my experiences with these warm-hearted people will continue throughout my three weeks here.
Easy Rider. When I say this I think of Harley Davidsons, Dennis Hopper and nothing but open roads. So when hearing of these increasingly popular Easy Rider trips in Vietnam, specifically through the northern part of the country, we decided to make our last days count and sign up for one. Five days, one guide (Ngoc), two bikes. Two small bikes, with small seats and small tires. To be clear; NOT a Harley Davidson. And no leather jackets. However there was plenty of open road, and despite these minor setbacks this was the cherry on top, the grand finale.
Day 1: 230 km
It was cold, grey and rainy. I was seated on a small seat of some bike made in Indonesia, called a Zonox 110, doubting whether this tiny mobile could hold the weight of my bag and our bodies combined. Questioning why the hell this sounded like a good time, wondering if this was how I would see the end of my life as we swerved between passing trucks. 30km after it all started we popped a wheelie in front of oncoming traffic. Not a good start. Lunch was had in the town of Thai Nguyen, where happy water (local rice wine) was served, among other things. This was very good as it calmed my nerves and warmed the blood flowing through my shivering body. Scenes included women walking along the worn roads, trousers stuffed into their knee high rain boots, knives tucked away into the satchels behind their backs. Other women worked in the fields that filled the landscape, their cone-shaped straw hats reflected on the water laden rice paddies. The day ended at Ba Be National park, at a home stay with a local family serving local food and, because there was no hot water, lots of happy water.
Day 2: 160km
With a full day behind us, my nerves had relaxed considerably, though my arse was already sore. Throughout the day we were greeted with the rural countryside, tribal women with bright pinks, yellows, and oranges; their hairlines shaved back as a symbol of beauty, to appear more attractive. These tribes were more shy, more hesitant to return our hellos. During a break on the side of the road, we talked about the Vietnamese alphabet and discovered it was created in the 18th century with French influence in an effort to create an alphabet that the Chinese wouldn’t understand. The roads on this day were rough, unpaved in some sections, and we moved at a slow pace along the winding roads that were only feet away from the steep edges of the mountains we drove over.
Day 3: 120 km
The third day we finally saw the sun and were able to shed a few layers for our ride. This region of Vietnam is from another world. We drove through the Rocky Plateau, an area that is comprised of steep, jagged karsts protruding thousands of feet from the ground, each one distinctly separate from the other. Each karst is split into sections used for farming and the farmers who occupy this land are no bigger than specks of neon tribal colors from a distance. Ngoc waited patiently as we stopped numerous times to take in the beauty that surrounded us. A group of three young kids appeared from a hidden path that led down a mountain to hang out with us at one of our stops. They hopped down these steep mountains in bare feet and, to our wonderment, with such ease. Throughout the day we pass out candy to the kids of different tribes. Some were patient and polite ,while others mobbed the bikes and pushed each other out of the way, reaching into my bag for more. After a day of visual sensory overload, we arrive in Ha Gieng, where we spent the night.
Day 4: 150km
Too much happy water from the night before has everyone feeling a little sluggish on this morning, and we get a late start. But not before Johanna and I make our way to the weekly market that brings all the local tribes to the city in their Sunday’s best. This is one of the most authentic markets I have experienced. A whole pig being butchered on a single table, the blood hung in a plastic bag nearby; women and girls comparing traditional fabrics. We take interest as a women seems to be haggling a medicine women for a skinned squirrel-like animal.
As we make it out of town and back into the countryside, we see the road lined with the tribal youth dressed to the nines; young lovers embraced, boys in matching attire with their arms crossed behind each other’s backs, young girls holding hands. As the day progressed the misty clouds hover above us. For awhile we drove alongside a river that was made of emerald green water with the mountains of Dong Van Karst Plateau as its backdrop. The scenery was stunning, and every now and then I found myself doing a little shimmy on the back of the bike.
Day 5: 230 km
Our last day as a foursome, we got started at the decent time of 7:30. For lunch we have a feast made by a friendly family in the city of Lao Bac, where we can see the Chinese border. We do good time until one of the bikes runs out of gas going up a mountain. But we didn’t lose so much time that we couldn’t have a photo shoot overlooking the mountains that surround Sapa to represent the Martha Vineyard Times. When it took longer than anticipated, Ngoc commented that he now understands why American movies are so expensive to produce.
By the time we reach the outskirts of Sapa, a thick fog has covered the mountain roads making it hard to see more than a couple of yards in front of us. It’s Johanna’s last night and the three of us spend it cozied up in a nice hotel room, drinking nice wine to celebrate our last six months together.
Day 6/7: Sapa
Two days were spent in Sapa, roaming the countryside amongst the Hmong tribe, who seem to have altered their indigenous routines to profit from tourism. The town itself is set on the edge of a mountain and caters to the western palette with loads of pizza and italian food and heaps of knock off North Face shops, feeling more like a ski town than a place in northern Vietnam. So we filled our bellies with doughy deliciousness, stocked up on North Face, and got on our way.
Day 8: ~220km
With half of our group gone, Aaron and I started our non-direct route back to Hanoi, heading southwest to Sonla. The bike was given to us by Ngoc, who didn’t want to pay the fee for bringing the bike back on the bus. The day was beautiful with the sun shining high in the sky as we descended down the mountain. I was amazed by the number of kids who line the roads or frolic in the lime colored rice fields, playing games like soccer or bocci ball.
We took a short cut to Sonla. Along the way we stopped in a small village to get more gas. The people here were so intrigued by us; it seemed the whole village came out and surrounded the bike as Aaron bartered the price of gas. When I took out my camera, they crowded behind me to see what I was capturing, in awe of the images of themselves that stared back at them.
Day 9: ~235km
Our last full day on the road was uneventful. Except for the bike crash. If there’s one thing to know about roads in SE Asia, it’s that they aren’t consistent and paved roads may cease to exist without any warning. We learned this the hard way, accelerating up a hill to be greeted with a nice patch of gravel at the top, sending us on our way and off the bike. Fortunately, neither of us got more than a couple of scratches and bruises.
Another thing about SE Asia: the locals love inspecting bikes. Especially when there are two foreigners on them. So when our bike refused to start, there was not shortage of mechanics inspecting the damage. Luckily, mechanic shops seem to be on every corner, and (lucky for Ngoc), his engine was replaced for a mere $15.
Day 10: 70km
With such a short distance left we took our time, yet still found ourselves racing to get back before sunset. The intention was to find a pagoda on top of a mountain, but the roads on the map weren’t well indicated so we instead headed for a cave that sat on top of a hill, but it was locked and the entrance fee was ridiculous by Vietnamese standards. With the night sky well upon us, we arrived to our final destination of Hanoi experiencing some sort of culture shock of being in a big city with white people again.
The experience was something I have never experienced, and not quite sure I will ever experience again. It showed another side of Vietnam and was a welcome change from the saturated trail of tourists that runs along the Vietnamese coast. Every bit the right way to spend one’s final days in Vietnam.
Tet. Vietnam’s version of the Chinese New Year. Not convenient for anyone traveling through the country as prices for everything travel related seem to double in price and booking last minute (something Johanna and I always do) could leave you stuck in one place for longer than intended. Even though the actual holiday lasts only a couple of days, these travel conditions last for the majority of the month, which happened to be the exact time we would be in Vietnam.
The actual new year found us in Dalat, a cozy and quaint mountain town in the central highlands, whose architecture and hilly landscape reminded us of Europe. The market was busy with those preparing for holiday celebrations, scooters packed tight with families and mandarin trees, which are placed into entry ways of Vietnamese homes to bring good fortune in the coming year. Shops and restaurants closed down, and this coupled with the cooler, grey skies allowed us to engulf ourselves in the holiday spirit that we had missed out on last December.
Getting lost and waterfalls. Two things I look forwards to when traveling. The former because that’s when the unexpected happens and the stories are made, when frustration makes way to laughter. It’s one of life’s lessons to just roll with it. The latter because is there anyone who doesn’t like waterfalls? They’re a universally appreciated wonder of the world, and we continuously find that we put ourselves into questionable situations in order to find them; taking a rented Ford Focus off-roading, following complete strangers down a forested path, hiking to the edge of a steep mountain cliff just to catch a glimpse.
So it seemed all too appropriate to spend our Tet getting lost on motorbikes in search of Elephant Waterfalls. And lost we got. Several times. The first time we ended up at a cemetery, the next we took a wrong turn at a fork, leading us to a botanical garden of some sort. The third time led us down an unpaved road and we decided to stop only when the motorbike could no longer move forward. This also happened to be in front of a building in which men appeared to assist us with directions. These directions turned into an invitation inside to have typical new year’s fare and beer. Our ability to understand each other was quite limited, and so the recurring silences were interrupted with enthusiastic “YO” (Vietnamese for ‘cheers’). At this point we were well behind schedule but it didn’t matter. This short period of friendship with these Vietnamese people who occupied this random building up this god-forsaken road doing Lord-only-knows what, eating some kind of animal made it worth the delay.
With the hours of sunlight dwindling away, it was time to move on. Three hours after our journey had begun, we found Elephant Waterfalls. It has to be said that I have been spoiled by waterfalls, and because of this I often feel underwhelmed by some that I have encountered in Asia. Not the case here. Here, I was reminded why waterfalls are so glorious. Water pouring over a cliff above, its current so strong that the mist can be felt dozens of feet away. The surrounding rocks covered in green grass that has grown through the crevices. Rainbows forming arches above our heads, butterflies fluttering a stones throw away. Every bit worth the journey.
Chuc Muong nam Moi (Happy New Years)!
I made some wonderful memories in Cambodia. However I also left the country with a certain heaviness. Cambodia’s borders have only been open to outsiders for roughly a decade and it’s still one of the poorest countries in the region. With each new city that we ventured to came a greater understanding of just how far the country has to grow.
We started our tour in the northeastern city of Banlung. There, a chance encounter led to dinner with one Cambodian by the name of Hian. We heard his story of survival during the Khmer Rouge, the radical guerilla group that took over and mutilated the country in every possible way during the 1970’s, killing a third of Cambodia’s population in one of the world’s worst acts of genocide. Hian told us about the last time he saw his father, in a university at 8-years-old. The last thing his father told him to do was leave for the countryside to find his mother. He walked for a week before being captured by soldiers and sent to the countryside to join several other children his age to farm the lands at one of the army’s forced labor camps. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Hian was finally able to find his mother, although the two of them would be the only surviving family members out of 80. It occurred to me during the meal that any Cambodian Hian’s age (~40) or older would have a story similar to his; families displaced and disappeared, childhoods lost.
It was also in Banlung that we saw how some turn to alcohol to deal with a broken society with parents who age at a rate beyond their years because of a lack of sufficient nutrients; to deal with the uncertainty of their government, who is still controlled by some members of the Khmer Rouge. A young man had provided us with everything; motorbikes, car rides, a guide to lead us through the surrounding hills. Unfortunately, once we gave him the money for his services, he disappeared into a local bar and was three sheets to the wind by the time he came back to pick us up later that afternoon. Shoes missing, head soaked in water, mouth unable to form coherent words, we opted to take the safer option and hitchhike back into town. As we walked down the road, his only response was that this was “the Cambodian way.”
After Banlung we made our way to the capital city of Phnom Penh. We liked this city. It’s a city brimming with culture; amazing food, plentiful galleries, and a large expat scene that, mixed with the locals, made an eclectic landscape. However, underneath the surface lies issues that eat away at Cambodian society. One documentary that we saw taught us of the atrocities that happen throughout the city. The country is one of the worst in the world for sex-trafficking. Young girls are plucked from their homes in the countryside, sometimes by their own family members, their own mothers, who are too poor to care for them. They are brought to the bigger cities and forced to work as Karaoke girls, in massage parlors, or as prostitutes- all selling sex. The most disturbing thing in all of this is that virgins are considered most valuable, as a man genuinely believes that taking a young girl’s virginity will give him youth and vitality. Even if he knows it will destroy their life by bringing her shame and preventing her from being accepted back into her village. For these girls, life is nothing but a long series of acts against their will; a life that is not lived until old age, but until their bodies succumb to HIV/AIDS.
In Siem Riep we saw the architectural wonders that make up Angkor Wat, spending the day riding bikes and avoiding the masses as we made our way through the large complex. We also happened to come across a seminar put on by local expats to inform visitors of the scams that exist in the orphanages throughout the country. Often times, parents send their children to these places to provide a better life for them; education, food and clothing that they wouldn’t be able to receive at home. Unfortunately, more often than not these children are exploited, forced to put on a show for visitors. More unsettling is that many people will volunteer at these orphanages under the guise that they are contributing to these children’s lives, however in reality the money from volunteers only goes in the pockets of those that own them. According to the speaker of the seminar, only two out of the hundreds of orphanages throughout Cambodia could be considered legitimate ones.
Sihaukavile was a dirty town overrun by tourism and old men with faded tattoos hanging off their sagging body parts. It felt like a washed up spring break with a heavy influence of Russian mafia. All these characteristics combined made us itchy to move on to islands off the coast, however we first spent a day at the beach, hassled by backpackers and locals alike. Many of the locals were young girls selling bracelets. We wondered why they weren’t in school, and their charm eventually got a dollar out of my pocket for one of these bracelets. It wasn’t until I read on a menu later that night that I had just participated in child exploitation, a major industry in the city. Once again, these girls are forced to exploit themselves at the profit of someone else.
Cambodia has issues. And they have a long way to go before they become a society in which the majority are living an acceptable way of life, of a life in which the children can live as children and experience their youth. With continued awareness, responsible tourism, and the continued effort of the NGOs progress in the future is a possibility.
A rooster is crowing. A man’s hammer smashes his bamboo branch to construct a new boat. Another boat’s engine can be heard going down the Nam Ou River. In the distance, karaoke is bellowing out of speakers. The sounds are the exception of an otherwise quiet afternoon as I sit in the hammock on my bungalow’s balcony.
It’s Christmas Day and I am in Muong Ngoi, a small village four hours north of Luang Prabang in northern Laos. About 800 people live here and there is only one unpaved road that cuts through the town. A Buddhist temple lies at one end, with a bar at the other and in-between women weave scarves on their looms, daughters help their mothers serve local dishes on tables that line the street and men sit huddled together, fixing something or other and chatting the day away.
We woke not to the fresh smells of cinnamon rolls and pine wafting from the living room, but to Mama (head of the family run bungalows), a pot of local tea and a plateful of fresh papaya. An older woman joined our table and we listened to the two chat away in their native language, catching up on what we concluded to be the day’s gossip.
Usually on this day we are surrounded by ones that we love, however in Muong Ngoi we find comfort in the locals, having breakfast at a wooden picnic table that is lined with deep dishes of steamed noodle soup, sliced limes, green beans, cilantro, and chili peppers. This dish is called ‘Fu’ and is a popular meal to start off the day in Lao culture.
Growing up on this day, kids all over the western culture are tearing open pristine-wrapped boxes, smiles shining over their faces. In Laos, it’s just another school day, although the smiles are still there. We go to the local school and find ourselves exhausted after 30 minutes of play-time with a room full of uncontrollable tugging, hugging, screaming, and crying kids. Recess allows us to meet the older kids, who walk us around the school grounds and let us join in their soccer game.
The most universal holiday tradition, and perhaps one our our favorites, is the ability to eat unlimited holiday dishes, stuffing our gluttonous bellies to levels beyond comfort. Luckily, this can be achieved in any part of the world. Double luckily, in the small villages of Muong Ngoi, buffets are all the rage, and so we are able to end the day in true fashion, clutching our stomachs after multiple servings of spring rolls, pumpkin casserole, mashed potatoes, fried rice, and green beans.
The final hours of Christmas Day ended just as most other days have ended on this trip. But it will be one Christmas that won’t be forgotten.