Travels in Cambodia

I suppose it’s not an auspicious start to a trip when you spend the first night after arriving running to the bathroom to shit out what seems like double your weight in liquid and then lying on the linoleum to ease the sweats that precede a serious vomit. Multiply this by two sisters with the same symptoms and there you have our first night in Phnom Penh. I agreed to go out around noon to walk to the central market. Along the way I began to get disturbed and disgusted by the inordinate amount of pudgy mediocre white guys holding the hands of tiny Cambodian girls who looked 15. Despite the plethora of open air cafes in the French style in the French colonial city serving cheap drinks and tropical ease, I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to enjoy myself knowing that this is the kind of enjoyment for which people come to Cambodia. Continue reading

Pictures of Inle

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amorphous blob buddhas, covered in gold leaf

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teak wood canoes take one month to make

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final trip on air bagan flight 141

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lotus threads

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anela and kittens in the monastery

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dyed cotton

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nyaung shwe market

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picking up our canoe motorboat at the docks

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they will only take crispy fresh USD in myanmar. it is no joke

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Leaving Inle

Last day at inle and I’m relieved that soon we will get out of the cold and get these pants washed. Whenever I catch a whiff of myself I think this is truly the most bum like I’ve ever been. After being woken by children caroling outside at ten pm, anela started puking in the middle of the night, all through the night, sometimes on the bathroom floor. Then she’d get back in bed and whimper. What is more the bathroom in our hotel room has all the personality of a kill room making the scene even more horrifying. Both of us hardly slept. She also dirtied her ONE PAIR OF PANTS lol. So in the morning I went to find antibiotics but I didn’t have any cash so I had to look for somewhere to change money which led me to the crowded nyaung shwe market around eight am. What a cacophony of colors of produce, flowers, spices and scarves! There was no money changer there so I found an ATM which worked fine and then I found the one electrolyte drink in all of town (it was Vietnamese) and bought two cans and went back to the country doctor next door the hotel. I pointed to the Zithromax but the attendant said it was for baby and I said no baby and pointed to myself and she gestured to sit and wait for the doctor. But as I was waiting dozens of people came in to wait also old ladies and women with babies and normal aged men. So I figured I’d get anela so she could describe her symptoms herself and I dropped off the juice and went to eat breakfast and when I came back she said she was feeling a little better. Then we decided that she had a flu and not food poisoning because I was fine and the one thing she had eaten independently was last night, which was too soon. And she never had the benefit of a winter coat like I did and we were riding all day on a cold lake with cold wind blowing directly in our faces and she was starting to sniffle and cough. So we didn’t need the doctor and I went back out to buy toilet paper and ibuprofen, which were found for ten cents and one dollar respectively. Then she came outside on the terrace in the sun to dry her pants which shed washed off and said she felt a little better so we went for a short hike, having forgone our trekking plan. First we stopped back in the market where I got a bowl of curry that was rich and filling and came with a nice salty chicken soup filled with fresh greens and soybean threads. Then we walked due east along the road crowded with backpackers, bikes, cars and smoky tractors until we reached a dirt road that started to climb uphill very mildly. There were fields of that rice like plant that looks like furry tails and higher up was a school with little monk boys sitting at a pagoda and puppies playing under a house. Probably us girls weren’t supposed to be there so we carried on and passed some more monks in houses and one of them called out to us hello and handed us a flashlight, so we knew we were close to the cave where the man in our hotel suggested we go.  The cave had a Buddha and then another monk followed us inside with another flashlight and pointed us to a dark space and said go. So we complied and were herded by the monk into the pitch black and I started to think it possibly dumb that I was letting a strange man with a cigarette lead two girls deeper into the recesses of a cave where for all I knew was waiting his torture chamber. But I remembered that two people independently told us to go to the cave so we went deeper and deeper into dark recesses with little Buddhas and then in one dark place we turned off our lights and sat a bit in the cool dark silence. But I could hear anela breathing and she turned on her light and we went to follow the monk again, who pointed things out to us in broken English. His light fell on a pile of bats who squealed in annoyance. On the other side of the cave were Buddhas set in a wall overlooking a field of grain and another monk came out and asked where we were from and we said USA and then went back the way we came, passing through the dogs keeping watch on the village and the kids playing with a deflated soccer ball or bathing in a faucet, and oxen chewing bushes. And back down we went over bucolic hillside and through the dusty town. That was the end of our time in inle. We ate a crepe and lassi for dinner and went to sleep. If we had been dressed warmer and in a warmer hotel (the water never got quite hot here) it would have been more comfortable. Otherwise inle is a wonderful and unique place to holiday and stay with friendly people, unique food and handicrafts, and a slow and elegant beauty.

Inle Lake

We caught an eight am flight to heho, flying over quilted farmland. The chaotic yet small heho airport of two or three rooms immediately reminded me of china, as did the look of the people standing outside. They wore woolen clothing and had a coarse weathered look like an ethnic group you’d see in the southern parts of china, yet many are Shan who are related to the Thais. Even though we were still in Myanmar, it was a reminder that national boundaries are arbitrary, at least in this part of the world.

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Bagan, land of 4000 temples

From Yangon we caught the six am air bagan flight to bagan. The Yangon domestic airport was a big room with a few big red scales and some booths. There were no computers only paper. After checking in, which consisted of getting a sticker on our shirt and a boarding pass stamped with times, we all waited in a big room and when it was time to board a man would affix our flight number to a sign that he waved around while shouting in Burmese. So we got on a bus to a set of planes lined up at big intervals and then we got on a half empty plane that was at least twenty years old and probably flown every day. We flew at 16000 feet over flat and monotonous countryside. After about an hour we descended and could see all of the temples below. They were at all intervals sticking out above palm trees like a Mayan plain. Here there were once cities but only the temples have been preserved. They were built a thousand years ago.
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Upon landing we walked to the airport and waited in baggage claim which is merely standing around waiting for someone to get your bag from the hold. We were then led to a booth where we paid 15 usd each as entry fee to the temple area. A taxi driver who spoke good English, learned from his schoolteacher father, took us to our hotel. Our hotel is a larger tropical complex with a big central restaurant with a round roof, and inviting swinging benches. After dropping off our bags we rented two bikes for the day. We stopped for breakfast at a cafe next door, asking for noodles and bread, which is a fried donut. The Shan noodles are rice noodles served in a sweet rice flour gel slightly thicker than duck sauce, but with a pleasant heat and garnished with nuts and garlic. It was only 8:30. Young men play a game like hackey sack here with a ball a little smaller than a volleyball. It turns out that this is a professional sport played in doubles across a badminton sized net.

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The temperature was only around 65 and sunny, perfect bike riding weather. Soon we turned off the paved road and followed a dirt road to a stupa. Everywhere in the planes of grass are these red brick huts, some just tiny enough to house one regular sized Buddha, others with room for a big one and some prayer. They would be towered above at some distance by pyramids and monuments, each in different styles, some with towers of gold, some white, some looked Japanese others Indian others faintly Aztec. We followed a path to where some people were farming and a few big white oxen were chewing bushes. Then we found a large square house where we had seen some tourists on the roof before, and we creeped around in its shadows like characters in a video game until we found the dark passageway of stairs that led to the top. There we had our first view of the rest of our day. It was exhilarating and cool, exploring these restored places, seemingly abandoned, out in the middle of nowhere for people to explore. Nobody is around and all you hear is grass swaying. In the distances all around are towering monuments to religion. 

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We continued down the paved road stopping from time to time to discover something new. It was always so quiet and crumbling and peaceful. Then we found the road leading to old bagan and started looking at temples there. These tended to be more crowded with tourists and pilgrims and hawkers selling handicrafts. The hawkers are only slightly annoying, mostly little kids asking you where from. My favorite was a five story pyramid with steps as high as my knees and an awesome 360 view. The place is bordered by a river and on the other side is a mountain range. 

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View from hills on opposite side of lake

We had covered a lot of ground and were getting a little buddhad out. We dropped off our bikes and walked over to restaurant row, which held the highest concentration of white backpackers at their cafés with free wifi. The menus offered a variety of Asian and western food. We had Nepali and Tibetan food from one and two large beers to cap off the day. The food was hot and freshly made and our meal was 10 usd. I was overcome with sleepiness and slept at 7 pm. It became very cold in the night and I woke up shivering.

On our second day in bagan we took it relatively easy. We got our trusty bikes and rode south to old bagan. On the way we stopped at a few lonely pagodas, watched over by families of dogs and puppies. In the town, we hired a boat for 15000 kyat ($15) for a trip across the river. At the other shore our driver led us through a village to where the road to the pagoda began. The village was made of houses of woven straw. Kids were yelling in the school and babies were perched on grannies laps. Up hundred of stairs in the hot sun, cacti climate and environment. Reached the pagoda that glistens from the far shore, bright white with a golden dome. Napped on cool linoleum. It was a quick run down, then back across the river. Stopped for a lunch of fish soup with noodles, mohinga. What a rich broth, spiked with those tiny green chilles.

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At sunset we hired a pony driver to take us to a pagoda. We sat on the back of the clippity clopping cart watching men with women on the back of their mortorbikes, or sometimes with woman child and grandma, and women walking with pots on their head, all the people that you would see in any undeveloped town in 2013, while the sun began to set amidst the palms and palaces. On the stupa we chose were a grip of white tourists taking shots with their fancy slrs. We rode home in dusk that turned to night.

Impressions of Rangoon, Burma 2013

At 8:30 am the streets are full as any asian city, workers hurrying along with their tiffins, crows settled on every wire. Chains of monk schoolboys with orange napkins on their heads are scurrying somewhere. Blistered flatbreads come out of a coal oven, men eat noodles at plastic tables spilling into streets and everywhere, food is being fried. The wares are coming out–watches you might find at American Apparel for $30, except these are meant to work. On market streets, women sit with piles of produce on cloth, or yellow chickens, legs splayed and pointing at the sky, writing eels, bloody fish heads popped off with one whack of a heavy cleaver. Here you will see hardly any western dress, save the occasional visage of taylor swift on an ed hardy shirt. Nor is English spoken here, for there are few tourists, and pantomime, meaningful looks and laughter rule the day.

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Here are the crumbling colonial facades, the gridded street plan of the British empire. Women watch from windows and piles of books are sold on sidewalks, odd titles from the garbage heap of America. Take the requisite break in an old colony hotel that sits on the Strand, sipping singapore slings at the wood panelled bar. Rest in the grass at the civic park, wet by sprinklers. Yangon is more developed than expected, more organized on the streets, like Bombay without slums.

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And in the midst of city life buddhist pagodas of seafoam green and gold, cooled by palm tree breezes, provide setting for rest and prayer. Schwedagon, north of town, is the most awe inspiring of these. An enormous compound built at the top of a hill, accessed by stairs and escalators as though taking you to heaven. Golden stupas, marble walkways and inlays of colored glass house every buddha imaginable, often with LED lightshows behind their heads, broadcasting meditative thoughts into our skulls. Despite all the gold, it is somehow not garish, but peaceful. Bells on a secondary stupa are played by tropical tress and people doze off on the wooden floors. One can go into a trance here amidst the ambience of humans striking lucky bells, backed by dirty stone.

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Sunset is long and beautiful in this smoggy city. At Kan Daw Gyi Lake, lined in the distance by tall apartment buildings, couples canoodle in cars by the edge of the lake. Men are talking in cafes at plastic tables, drinking tea.

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Kan Daw Gyi Lake

My 2013, from a plane

transit haze, cloudless night
flying over diffuse lights
people huddled together,
south of the himalayas

2013, from a plane, was my year

streets of st germain
adriatic, by catamaran
snowy peaks with summer blooms
saturated renaissance rooms
burning man, 30 bands
3 affairs with decent men
sale of property, quick profit
quit the job, didn’t love it

i lived for myself
i wanted to change

sun rises, blue and gold
picture us falling, clouds below
of icy wings, mans hubris
in my grasp, happiness