Thursday, January 27, 2011

Having Trouble Keeping Promises

Since I haven't been able to write a post recently, here's a fun little map I put together of all my travels from August 3rd, 2010 to January 1st, 2011. Take a look at it; it sums up all my travels in a nice graphic. Here's the link.

In all seriousness, I will post over the week. Peace.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Caught Off Guard

I got off to another late start on Wednesday, December 8th. After having a late breakfast with my Chinese national friend, we headed out to the northwestern part of Beijing to see the Summer Palace. We made the thirty or so minute drive a couple of miles outside the city center (Tianamen Square) before reaching the outer walls that enclose 2.9 square kilometers made up of Kunming Lake and Longevity Hill. As we entered this UNESCO World Heritage Site, an older presumably middle aged Chinese woman approached me and my friend. She began to talk to my friend in Chinese asking questions about me (i.e. where I was from, what I was doing in Beijing etc.). She then said she would be our tour guide as we advanced through the palace, but that we wouldn't have to pay her. I knew she was trying to scam us somehow, maybe pickpocket us when we weren't paying attention, I'm not really sure to this day. She seemed nice, telling us a number of interesting things about the Palace and even taking a couple decent photos of us. Then, after only about ten minutes of walking she vanished. I wasn't quite expecting that, however, I wasn't complaining either since I didn't feel like walking around with my hands in my pockets anymore to prevent thievery.

We progressed down the path that extended around the lake to get a better view of Longevity Hill and its temples overlooking the body of water. Once we reached the foot of the hill, we stopped momentarily to rest before making the climb up the hill we had been walking to for twenty or so minutes.

So here's a story that I hadn't planned on telling in this forum, but I figured another anecdote couldn't hurt. While looking out on the lake and enjoying the view with the mountain range in the background, my friend was asked to take a picture of this attractive Chinese girl and her mother. After taking the photo for them, the mother asked my friend in Mandarin if we would like one as well. We figured a photo of us in front of the temple would be nice so she took the photo for us. It ended up that we ascended the Longevity Hill at the same pace, going back and forth taking photos of each other. Since it was pretty obvious the mother-daughter tandem spoke no English, the conversation my friend and I carried out along the way was about how good looking the girl was and guessing her age. Nothing to serious, I thought was more for the sake of conversation rather than acting on it considering the language barrier (at least for me).

At one point, though, following my friend taking another photo of these two individuals with the scenic backdrop, he started talking to both of them as we traversed up another staircase. While I was paying no particular attention to their conversation, I noticed in my line of sight that the girl looked at me and started to chuckle before my friend stopped talking to them and they walked off. My friend then comes to me and says "Hey I got to tell you something." I could only guess for that moment what in the world he could have said to them to make them walk off so suddenly. He ends up telling me that he told the girl I thought she was attractive, in front of the mom! She then said that I was too young as it turned out she was six years older than me. Now, normally this is no big deal, although, in this case for the mother to hear the whole conversation about me when I had done absolutely nothing caught me off guard. After this scene took place, we didn't see the girl the rest of the time at the Summer Palace. This did not really surprise me.

We continued up to the top of Longevity Hill to see the Tower of Buddhist Incense and the Hall of the Sea of Wisdom. We did end up seeing both structures, displaying more famous and unique Chinese architecture from the ancient world. Furthermore, once reaching the top of the hill, an incredible view of both the lake and downtown Beijing were visible, making the climb that much more worthwhile.


Soon thereafter, we headed back down to walk over to the seventeen arch bridge that stood across the lake from Longevity Hill. Once making it over to the structure, the harsh winds of winter in Beijing forced us to return to my friend's flat to rest up before going out later that night.

Later that Wednesday night, we did head out to one of Beijing's finest dance club's, Mix. Now while nothing not suitable for this blog took place, I will be brief for both your sake and mine in my retelling of the night. It was a very odd experience to be in such a public setting where I had no idea if I would be able to communicate with anyone outside my Chinese friend. It made for a whole new dynamic, especially in my limited clubbing experience (keep making fun of me all you Europeans for not being legally able to drink in my own country).

In my next post, I will talk about my Thursday, December 9th (hopefully include Friday and Saturday, too) when we got lost in Beijing looking for the 798 Art Gallery.

To my readers: I do apologize for a number of things. First, the more awkward time gaps between posts. I have been busy since returning home, but I assure you that I am trying to finish up my adventures through Asia while getting settled at college. Second, I will try to bring back the longer posts that became a staple of mine while still in Singapore. I just want to bring you up to speed as fast as I can. I will attempt to bring those back from this point forward to avoid such stop and start reading. Finally, I apologize for not having a place for you to correspond to me in a non-public setting. If you do have any questions or comments about my writing, travel advice, or anything else, please write to me at the following e-mail address: itsjcoco@gmail.com. Thanks again, loyal readers, stay tuned for my next post!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

One World, One Dream

Tuesday, December 7th. A day where I remember sleeping in until ten o'clock before having breakfast and then heading out to see more of Beijing. First up on the agenda was to see the Yonghegong Temple (also know as the Lama Temple) located in the northeastern corridor of the metropolis. We got on the train and made our way to one of the most important and largest Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in the world. Once reaching this landmark, we headed in to the complex to see the many statues, shrines, and sanctuaries for prayer. Like when I visited the Shwedagon Pagoda in Burma, there were a plethora of individuals who came to the temple not for sightseeing purposes but to come and pay respects to Buddha. Similar to the monastery in Hong Kong, the method by which people would pray is taking incense, kneeling before a temple (there were many at Yonghegong), and bowing three times before putting the incense in a decent sized open container. This ritual made the air smell really good with the different incenses mixing from each temple. Besides the nasal pleasing odor in the atmosphere, it was nice to walk around, read about the sanctuary from various description plates, and watch people in prayer from a distance.

After spending a couple hours at this fairly large complex, it was time to move on to what would be the most exciting part of the day, visiting the Olympic complex from the 2008 games. My Chinese national friend used to live very close to these famous sporting arenas but had never gotten up close to these structures the way we did on this clear afternoon in northern Beijing.

Coming up the staircase from the train station, Beijing National Stadium, more commonly known as "The Bird's Nest," immediately popped up into our line of sight. What an incredible experience to finally stand before an architectural marvel while reminiscing about 29th (XXIX) Olympiad. It wasn't just me, by the way; my friend who has lived in Beijing his whole life was also pretty amazed by National Stadium having never gotten such an up close and personal look at the structure that has stood for over two years. We walked around, really sized up how big of a venue it is, and got lost trying to find the ticket booth to get in. My friend even pointed out to me the seven star hotel adjacent to the Olympic complex in the shape of a dragon (Note: I have never heard of a seven-star hotel, but apparently they have them in Beijing).Once we did track down the entrance, we stormed up the uniquely jagged staircase to the top of the once 91,000 seat now 80,000 strong stadium. As if I had been to this stadium many times before, I instantly navigated us towards the tunnel of the upper deck seats. The out of this world experience continued as we sat down and took in the sites. I was just imagining the opening ceremonies from three summers prior and watching it at a friend's house being blown away by the spectacular dances, light show, and fireworks (even if some of it was digitally edited in). All of that took place right in front of where I sat--that and many events with international competitors. In addition, it was a nice change of pace to see a modern structure as opposed to more historical buildings that had made up the bulk of my travels up to that point.

As the sun was setting, we figured it would only make sense to head right across the walkway to another famous sporting venue from the 2008 Olympics, the Beijing National Aquatic Center, also known as "The Water Cube." I have many fond memories of this arena, as well, namely a one Mr. Michael Phelps winning eight gold medals in the XXIX Olympiad. I just re-watched the 4 x 100 relay with the amazing comeback by Jason Lezak; it still is amazing how he was able to catch up to France in that final length. Considering the motto of these Olympics was "One World, One Dream," it is fair to say Lezak helped Phelps carry out his dream of eight gold medals and China's aspirations of holding an exciting and mind-blowing Olympiad. Not only that, but I was once watching a swimming event that took place in the Water Cube with a bunch of friends when a girl who graduated from high school with us just happened to be sitting front row. On top of sitting in the first row of the stands, she was near the famous and retired swimmer Ian Thorpe who was being shown on the screen, thus the friend of mine appeared on the television 7,000 miles away. It became one of those "Wait, was that such and such? Did that just happen?" moments. Otherwise, it was cool to be at the site where many famous and talented swimmers & divers put their skills on display for millions if not billions of people around the world.



What really caught me off guard was on the way into the facility it said you could pay to go swimming in the Aquatic Center, so I figured maybe they let you swim in the Olympic competition pool. How wrong I was. There is a fairly big and very legitimate water park also in the Water Cube that looked like a lot of fun. If I had known better, I would have been very much up for it, but who would have known about that little detail? Nonetheless, we left the Water Cube and walked around the Olympic Green for only a little bit more as it was very cold out (as mentioned previously, December in Beijing from a weather perspective is similar to in New York City.)

Tuesday was a great day of seeing Lama Temple and the Olympic complex; a great blend of the ancient and modern aspects of China. Wednesday, as you will soon find out, had a blend of relaxing at the Summer Palace with clubbing in one of Beijing's premiere night clubs.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Beijing

Yes it has been a long time since I last posted. I apologize for my lack of diligence over the last couple weeks updating the site as I have been to a number of places since writing about my first day in Beijing including Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, New York, Barcelona, and now I currently sit in a hotel room across from the Museo del Prado in the heart of Madrid. The tank is near empty as you can imagine. So back to the story...

The weather continued to be as cooperative as one could ask for with clear blue skies taking hold throughout the heart of Beijing. The agenda on that Monday (December 6th) of my one week stay in the capital of the People's Republic of China was to see the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and Wángfǔjǐng Street.

Following an early wake-up, my Chinese national friend and I walked to the train to take us to the heart of Beijing where we would find the aforementioned attractions of the day. It did not take long before the two of us were walking by the famous Beijing Concert hall located in close proximity to Tiananmen Square. It really struck a chord with me as we reached Tiananman as it holds the famous portrait of Mao Zedong where there has always been a painting of the Communist since 1949. Regarded as the most important painting in China, it was at this point that it really hit me that I was in China, a euphoric moment indeed.

Before entering the world's largest surviving palace complex, I noticed on the way that two girls about the same age as myself (who I later found out were both very nice people from Australia) were taking pictures of this little Asian girl. It appeared she was the daughter of two individuals from another part of China who were touring the palace, as well. The two Australians then approached the Chinese couple and asked to take a picture with their daughter. Now I have nothing against Australians and while I do consider myself a backpacker I am in some ways a tourist so I do get thrown into this statement in some respects, too. I really don't appreciate seeing things of this nature in which tourists treat children of the country they are visiting like props. It left a foul taste in my mouth as I watched this scene play itself out before my eyes. I'm not saying I am perfect, nor the ideal tourist, but respect for wherever one may visit should be obliged by all visitors (or at the least the effort would be a nice gesture).

We headed into the Forbidden City to see the many ancient Chinese structures of this former palace for a number of dynasties that held rule in this country. Putting the masses of tourists aside, I saw massive open spaces before impressive Chinese structures full of color and unique designs to anything I have seen in the Western world. Inside many of these buildings were places where the emperors prayed, held court, and resided along with their family. Let me interrupt myself for a moment by saying yes, I am wearing the same Communist hat in this photo as at the Great Wall of China. It was very funny because of the reception I got wearing it in both China and Vietnam (quite supportive as you can fathom) plus it was really cold and windy and it was most suitable for the job. Back to my line of thought: this complex was huge! At times we got lost jumping from one hall to another palace to a corner tower while getting harassed at times by shopkeepers trying to sell us paintings or Chinese flags and such. People kept coming up to me asking if I needed a tour guide and we just would tell them that my Chinese friend was filling that role to make them go away and even then they wouldn't leave so easily. The funniest part about calling my friend a tour guide was that he had not been to the Forbidden City in what I remember him saying was at least ten years if not more. Funny how that works since it is only a ten minute train ride from his house, then again when was the last time I went to the top of the Empire State building? (three years ago). To those in Singapore, "same same but different," to those not, read the first definition here

After navigating through the open plazas, ancient buildings, and flocks of tourists for a couple hours, we left the Forbidden City to see the famous and open spaces of Tiananmen Square. Remember back to my last post that I made ages ago when I said the city of Beijing is structured in a ring system? Well I also mentioned that this ring system is centered around what has become the largest city square in the world, Tiananmen Square. It holds various monuments, the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, and museums about numerous elements of China's history. While many people were in the square at the time the two of us chose to walk around, the area is so spacious it is barely noticeable. It even gave perspective on the Forbidden City as we walked across Tiananman Square. When I turned back, you could still see the portrait of Mao staring back at us with the same expressionless look on his face knowing that behind that very gate stood an enormous, magnificent, and elaborate palace that had occupied our entire morning. With all this open space, it is estimated that it can accommodate up to 600,000 people, surpassing even what Mao had hoped for during his existence.

It was following some quality time spent in the exact center of Beijing that my friend and I decided to walk down the road to the well-known Wángfǔjǐng Street. The site of various shops and food stalls is heavily traveled by both locals and foreigners, alike. En route to this destination, two girls, both probably a couples years older than me, approached us to try and make conversation for a bit. We played along with their charade for a bit, but it became very clear that they were looking to lure us to a coffee shop that had hired them to bring in unsuspecting tourists. So after much conversation, my friend clearly stated we weren't going to any coffee shop and had no interest in being scammed. The girls got the picture and left us alone from that point forward. It is something I had read about as a possible scam I may run into in China and my friend knew all too well as a local. We even got them to believe that he was from Chinatown in New York City even though they thought "[he] looks like a local." When it was all said and done, the joke was on them.

We walked through this tiny street and had many local delicacies like mutton kebabs and the not so popular sheep's stomach. In general, one could say that any living organism ever to walk this planet could be found on a stick here. This includes scorpions, spiders, sea horses, starfish, and many different types of insects. I hope I didn't ruin your appetite. The most disgusting thing I did end up trying was stir-fried liver. Fortunately, we didn't have to pay for it as my Chinese friend taught these two guys running a stall how to say the foods they were selling in English in exchange for a free dish. Without hesitation, I will say they got the better end of the deal. They can now attract not just local customers but foreigners as well, meanwhile I simply regret trying such a gross delicacy. Otherwise, I enjoyed some great dishes and saw even better displays of fruits, pastries, and meat assortments.

Let me remind all of you that this was only my second day in Beijing we are talking about. Another day with non-stop sightseeing from start to finish, seeing some of the most incredible attractions China and planet Earth has to offer. To cap off the day, I had been joking with my friend about being crammed in the Beijing subway during rush hour for a couple days; well I got what I asked for.
As you can see here, there was no personal space to be found on the way back to my friend's apartment, not even the tiniest bit. Based on what I have heard, I don't even want to know what it is like riding mass transportation in Tokyo. At least it was a relatively clean and efficient system.

More to come about the last couple days in Beijing!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Peking

My semester abroad in Singapore came and went. Four months of studying, traveling, and socializing concluded last week when I finished my last final exam on Wednesday, December 1st. That night was the last time that many of us exchange students had the chance to say our goodbyes on the bridge at Clarke Quay. I don't really know how it started, but at one point in the night, people began to jump off the bridge into murky waters below to celebrate the end of the semester. Not being in Singapore anymore, I can confess that I became one of those individuals that took the plunge into Singapore waters. Considering it was another hot and humid night and everyone that did it before me said it was worth it, I figured why not. I made the jump with four others (don't worry mom it isn't that high up) and I must say it was a lot of fun as your body is in free-fall prior to hitting the water's surface. So now I can say that if everybody is jumping off a bridge, I would too.

After two days to clean up my room, pack for my three weeks of traveling, and catch up on sleep, my friend from Switzerland and I headed for Changi International Airport one last time for our 9:30 A.M. on Saturday, December 4th to Beijing.

I had just pulled an all-nighter to finish packing up and was absolutely exhausted in the cab ride to the airport, yet the driver was really testing me at 7:00 in the morning. The man, most likely in his fifties, asked both us where we were from for the sake of conversation. When my friend said he was from Switzerland, the driver made some small talk that was mostly positive about the country, nothing out of the box. However, when it was brought up that I am American, the man started going off on how the United States is a terrible country because of X, Y, and Z citing false information to support his claims. I chose to just sit there and close my eyes as the man rambled on and on for an extended period of time expressing his hatred for our country. I will just say he is lucky it was early in the morning and exhausted; I may be upset with the current state of our government, but you don't go off trash talking someone's country in front of them like that. Not the best start to the last leg of my travels in Asia.

I left the taxi in a bad mood following the episode in the taxi; no matter, the two of us continued our travels through Changi Airport. For the last time, I made my way through Singapore customs to go to the terminal where we would board our Air China flight. Of course, this was not to be a normal morning for myself as while I was waiting for my Swiss friend to get a tax refund from the Singapore GST, a magician came over and started pestering me to watch him do a trick. I let him do his thing and eventually got a funny picture out of it (it wasn't taken on my camera so hopefully I will see it again in the near future). Right as the magician walked away, two people came up to my friend and me asking us some questions for a survey about the magician and the rest of the airport. I really just wanted to run away and get on the plane. Thankfully, the people at the check-in counter had put us in the emergency row so we had ample leg room so I was able to sleep five of the six hours we were in the air.

I was now, and still am as I write this, in China. It feels weird saying that, especially when I think back to a couple years ago when I thought seeing this part of the world would happen, but not so soon. I had no idea what Beijing would be like excluding all of the great things I had heard about the capital from friends back at NUS who had traveled here previously.

The two of us walked through Beijing International Airport, expanded only a couple years ago for the Olympics, to meet up with our Chinese friend and his dad who live right in Beijing. Once we met up with our friend, we made ways toward the city to throw our stuff down somewhere and head out for a late dinner. The moment we walked outside the airport, cold air immediately began to blow with a fury against us. How good it felt to finally feel a cool breeze for the first time since climbing Mount Kinabalu. To give you an idea with how cold we are talking for Beijing at this time of year, the city is just about the same latitude as New York City, so not unbearable, but definitely worthy of a winter jacket. As we drove towards the heart of Beijing, pollution was very visible in the air not making for the best first impression one could ask for. Luckily, the coming days would be much windier resulting in little to no pollution hovering over the city.

Our Chinese friend's dad drove us to the hotel where my Swiss bud would be staying before heading out to have a traditional Chinese dinner on famous "Ghost Street." Before dinner, though, there was the business of getting some winter clothes after having been near the equator in Singapore for the last four months. While the shopkeepers spoke English, my Chinese national bud ended up doing the majority of the haggling. I eventually got a decent knock off of a Billabong full-zip for 105 yuan or about fifteen U.S. dollars, not too bad. Then we headed to the restaurant, the four of us met up with our friend's mom for what would be a splendid Chinese meal. It was evident from the outset that this was no touristy kind of place as my Swiss friend and I were the only Caucasians in the entire establishment. This was truly how the locals went out to eat in Beijing; the various foods we ate were all delectable from steamed cauliflower to scrumptious dumplings and even some kind of very tasty fish. I managed to survive the meal only using chopsticks, but at times it did get difficult picking up certain types of food namely rice. Hopefully, my skills with the sticks will improve as the week progresses.

Once we finished eating, the three of us being an American with Swiss and Chinese nationals, drove around the city for a bit to see Beijing at night. The structure of Peking is based on a ring system with Tiananman Square being the center. Different rings have been formed by huge highways around this area that indicate how far from the city center you are (i.e. the second ring is the closest enclosure to Tiananman followed by the third ring and so on). We drove through Tiananman Square and saw the perimeter of the Forbidden City that bears the portrait of the People’s Republic of China’s founder, Mao Zedong.

We dropped off our Swiss friend at the hotel and headed back to where my Chinese friend lived to sleep off the day prior to our journey through the Great Wall the next day.

The next morning, we got an early start in order to reach the Great Wall a little before lunchtime. Depending on which part of the wall one would want to go on, the Great Wall of China can be anywhere from ninety minutes to three hours away from the center of Beijing. With that in mind, we woke up at 8 A.M. on Sunday and were out the door by 9:00 A.M. to pick up our friend at the hotel then make ways towards one of the seven wonders of the world.

We reached the bottom of the Badaling section of the Great Wall around midday to see the beginning of this spectacle in person. It was quite euphoric to have finally reached this man-made creation after months of planning and traveling.
When you get up onto the wall, it was a sight for the ages to see the Wall go on for miles and miles stretching across the peaks and valleys in the mountains. The three of us walked along the wall for a couple hours taking in the scenery, which included signage from the 2008 Olympic Games, more of the Great Wall, and mountains that went on to as far as the horizon. I am still impressed with how steep the Great Wall got a certain points since the steepness of the structure matched the contour of the mountains they were built on. It was a little bit of a hike, but our trio reached the highest point of the Wall and looked out to see practically everything. One could not have started off my week in Beijing any better. In addition, I received a text from my mom that UConn had barely beaten USF on our decent from the mountain making for a great day in multiple facets. The only bad part of the whole experience was finding out I had been giving counterfeit money at some point during the last day and a half. Thankfully, it was only a 20 yuan bill (worth about $3), but never before did I have to worry about fake money reaching my wallet.
It was then time to head back to city in order to meet up with our Chinese friend’s parents for dinner once again. For a second night in a row, my Swiss friend and I were in for a real treat. The restaurant we went to was a Chinese Opera house near where they lived. The combination of the amazing dishes of food with the amusing show going on in the background made for a one-of-a-kind experience. I had some of the best tasting food in my entire life including famous Peking duck, squirrelfish, sweet & sour noodles, and fried dumplings. Besides the entertainment taking place on the stage, we saw about thirty guys around the age of 40-50 at tables nearby getting ridiculously drunk. Apparently, they were part of a firm that had recently completed testing for one of, if not the, fastest train in the world. My friend’s parents were explaining to me with the use of my friend as a translator that in Chinese culture, one gains “face” or respect from another through excessively drinking when in celebration. At least, I think that’s what I got out of that conversation. Either way it looked like a bunch of kids my age drinking alcohol like it was water while screaming things in Chinese before chugging what was left in their glass. Definitely made dinner and the entire day that much better.

Don’t think that it was all downhill from here in Beijing. The Great Wall was an out of this world experience, however, Peking has much more to offer including Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City, and Wang Fu Jing Street; all of these attractions were on our itinerary for the next day.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Oh My Buddha (Part 3 of 3)

The huge comfy beds at the hostel made for a very much needed 8+ hours of sleep. After that bus ride from hell, all ten of us had very much been looking forward to some time to heal ourselves from the mental and physical pain endured during the previous night (some people did come out of that bus ride with bruises).

The sleep was good, the complimentary breakfast was up to par, and the views from the roof of the hostel were phenomenal as you could see during the day how Nyaung Shwe was sandwiched in between two large mountain ranges. Since we were to lose one member of our group the next day because of an early final back at NUS, it was in our best interest to get a boat tour of the northern part of the lake that Wednesday.

A little before lunchtime, our group set off in two boats to see Inle Lake. One could not have asked for more perfect weather: sunny skies with giant puffy clouds scattered about complimented by warm weather with relatively little humidity. As the boat pushed through the marshland leading up to the lake, the anticipation was growing to see what was in store for us once the river opened up. It took fifteen minutes before we finally reached the northernmost part of Inle Lake; few words were spoken as we were busy trying to take in the panoramic views on display. Those two mountain ranges that I mentioned before were out in the open as they are split by the gargantuan lake. All around one could see fisherman going about their business in addition to many boats being run by children as young as eight and nine years old. There a handful of other tourist boats that would pass us by, but in general there were very few Westerners around outside of our group. The driver of our boat had us continue forward across the lake towards the many villages on stilts that exist at Inle. I got a feel for how big the lake was as it took roughly thirty minutes before seeing any of these homes above water. There was no shortage of entertainment during this period of time between taking in the landscape and racing the other boat to our destination. As we found out based on our boat travels for the rest of the day, the other boat's driver had no idea where anything was so we always won the race as they had to follow us to get anywhere.

We eventually made it across the northern basin of Inle Lake and sure enough there were houses built one after another on stilts. It was really interesting to be able to watch the people who live there go about their daily routines from afar. Although, as soon as we entered their line of sight, they immediately would stare at us; the older generations did not seem too enthusiastic with our presence while the children appeared very happy and friendly as they would wave to us from their abode, boat, etc. We cruised through the many "streets" that held these different households seeing the infrastructure of how these villages were built. Our first stop of the day was at a sewing shop in town that had many locally made (we think) blankets, bags, articles of clothing, and so on. The owner of the business immediately took us through the store to show us how such goods were made. We walked around from person to person sitting at these wooden contraptions; it looked like it required great precision by an individual to use such machinery to create some of the products we saw for sale. After some of us made a couple purchases at the shop, our guide drove us to the nearby cigar shop. It really was something to watch as three girls were lined up on the ground sitting cross legged methodically churning out one cigar after the next. While it didn't seem as labor intensive as the last shop we were at, it didn't seem like the best of situations to be on the hard wooden floor all day repeating the same short process over and over again.

It was around 3:00 P.M. at this point so the ten of us were taken to a restaurant nearby for some Burmese cuisine*. Following lunch, it was a quick boat ride to the Phaung Daw U Pagoda in the middle of the village. Once we got inside the pagoda, we were presented with an interesting scenario: there was a platform that held sacred golden statues of Buddha, but only men were allowed on it. So the seven of us guys gallivanted around the steps while the three girls watched from below. The story behind the golden blobs that were at the top of the platform is that there were three statues of Buddha that overtime had gold leaves stuck on them for good luck until they eventually turned to nothing that would resemble Buddha. About thirty minutes went by of seeing much of what the pagoda had to offer before moving on to our next stop.

Now this next part of the trip was one of the more depressing parts as we had done a thorough amount of research from the Lonely Planet guide before coming to Myanmar. We stopped at a souvenir shop that was in a different village on stilts to see a girl sitting in a chair with rings around her neck (this is similar to the ones worn in African tribes). That isn't the issue as there are tribes in Myanmar that follow this same practice, as well. The sad part is that this girl was most likely taken from her tribe to sit in that chair all day to have her photo taken by tourists and lure those same Westerners to buy stuff in the shop. In short, such people are treated as farm animals. Let me backtrack for a second by going back to the bus ride from Bagan to Inle Lake. At numerous points during this nine hour ride we saw many women paving new roads and building walls. Unfortunately, this is more than likely the result of forced labor implemented by the government. It was a very painful reminder of the country we were in, as beautiful as it is.

I will break up this not so nice imagery by telling a funny story about what happened after leaving this souvenir shop. In many of these stilt villages, there are people in tiny boats trying to sell souvenirs to tourists. When we walked out of the building we saw one of these individuals was hanging onto the other part of our group's boat. I got a good laugh that she was going to start selling them stuff and being very obnoxious for a portion of their ride. As their boat jetted off with the lady continually asking people if they wanted to buy stuff, the five people in our boat got on and moved out in the same direction. Only about a minute into our ride did we see another smaller boat on a collision course for us. Our driver was gunning the engine at near full capacity and yet this lady was so determined to sell us something that she was risking her boat getting destroyed from the collision. Luckily, she and her boat survived the impact and none of us were tempted to buy any of her trinkets so it wasn't long before she left us alone and let go of our boat.


One of our finals stops on our boat trip was to the infamous floating gardens we had heard a lot about prior to reaching Inle Lake. It seemed like there were never ending rows of plants being grown like the tomato garden seen above. All of the gardens are patches of soil that are held in place by, you guessed it, stilts. It was remarkable that such massive gardens were being grown on the water's surface with the Shan Hills in the background making for an outstanding scene. The driver had our boat glide through the narrow passageways of the garden seeing the locals maintain their crops before we headed to the Jumping Cat Monastery located not too far from the gardens. There were plenty of cats to be seen at the monastery, although, the monks were sleeping in and around the building upon our arrival resulting in us not seeing any cats take flight. We ended up having a relatively short visit to the monastery before rushing out to catch sunset on the open waters of the lake. Our boat just caught the sun setting over the mountains in the west as we came to a stop in the middle of North Inle. No sound of the engine, no words spoken, no other tourists in sight, just the sound of water crashing against the side of the boat. The sun settled below the many peaks of the Shan Hills and our driver then put us on course to make it back to town before dark. It was during this period of time that even more magnificent colors took the skies as clouds took on tones of pink and purple. This made for a very relaxing thirty minute ride back to the docks as the five of us on our boat took in the view from all directions one last time. Clearly, this was one of the better days we had in Myanmar for all the natural beauty we saw and being able to see and interact with the locals of the many villages on stilts.

Upon our return, we cleaned ourselves up at the hostel before having another standard Burmese dinner comprising of sweet/hot & sour chicken, chicken curry, or fried rice/noodles. The town of Nyaung Shwe got very quiet at night, which meant it would be an early night (at least by our standards) as well. Considering all the traveling our group of ten had endured up to this point, it wasn't such a bad thing to get some more rest.

Night came and went; when we all woke up the next morning, one of our friends took off back for Singapore for her final. Our now group of nine carried on, nonetheless, as we had one more full day to hang out at Inle Lake. The plan for that Thursday was to get some bicycles and go around the lake to get some superb views from various mountaintops.

We biked out of town around eleven o' clock and headed off towards the many hills that go along Inle Lake. Along the way, we got up close with many locals that were hanging around on the side of the road. In one instance, we stopped where some children were standing on the other side of the road. I for one moment reached into my pocket to make sure my stuff was there; almost instantly, the children reacted and starting coming up to me asking for money. This is 100% a by-product of older tourists impetuously giving away money to kids who won't know what to do with it (Lonely Planet suggests to only give money to their parents). We also wanted to go in hot springs that were on the path. When we arrived, they looked like nothing more than just small hot tubs carved up out of tile and cement. Anyone of us in our group would probably agree that this was the biggest let down of the trip.

No matter because we eventually made it to the bottom of a huge two hundred-something step staircase that would lead us up a knoll overlooking the lake. We trekked our way up the steep and crumbling stairs knowing that if anyone were to fall or slip, it would be quite some time before help would get here. I read in our guidebook that in the event that tourists are seriously injured or sick that you get airlifted to Singapore for medical care. Those of us who chose to go all the way to the top did make it there without incidence, luckily. We spent some time at the top looking out in all directions seeing many scattered villages, pagodas, and an infinite amount of vegetation. Twenty minutes later, the nine of us came down from the hill to continue biking further down the path into more villages full of Burmese people that would stare at us the second we entered town. It was not because they didn't like us that we would get so much attention, but more out of curiosity, at least that's what I reckoned. There was a small restaurant that we ate at in which there were only two items on the menu: fried noodles or fried rice. It was a very good meal, as most were pretty decent in Myanmar, just with very limited options. For the entire meal there was this little dog that was sitting at my side the same way mine do at home; eventually it decided to sit under my chair reminding me even more of my dogs at home that I haven't seen in almost four months. It was a heartfelt moment having now been away from the States for quite some time.

Subsequent to everyone finishing up lunch, we took a short boat ride across the width of the lake with our bikes. It was a pleasant experience to once more get out on Inle Lake and take in much of the natural beauty it has to offer. We then reached the other side pushed forward on our bike tour around Inle Lake.

Almost immediately, we ventured to another monastery in the area to walk around and see the another one of the many shrines to Buddha we encountered on this trip. Soon thereafter, we rode further down the path back towards Nyaung Shwe. The riding experience ended up being a mix of enjoying the nice scenery to playing the game "Scapegoat" where the object is to cut people off so as to make them possible fall. Of course, one unlucky person did have the honors of tasting the ground courtesy of playing this game. Following much biking down the long narrow path, we came across a vineyard that was situated up in the mountains; with time to spare before sunset we decided to check it out.

It turned out they had wine tasting at a very good price so the group decided to try out a couple different kinds of the wines up till sunset. We got to try a number of drinks with an impressive view of the lake, mountains, marshlands, and town in our line of sight. Not a bad way to end another long day of sightseeing and such. Later that night, all of us were tired of eating chicken and rice so we went to an Italian restaurant that was a little pricier compared to everywhere else we had eaten in Burma. The funniest part about this restaurant was the Burmese guy at the door tried to use an Italian accent when talking to us. Then he took all nine of us back into the kitchen to show us where the food was made. To top it all off, he used very descriptive yet hilarious adjectives to describe the food as if it was all straight from Rome ("mozzarella straight from Italy" and "fresh cut tomatoes" to name a few examples).

The next day, it was time to gather our things and catch a bus back to Yangon so as to make our flight back to Kuala Lumpur the day after that. We endured a very long bus ride, fourteen hours to be exact, that went through winding roads in the mountains, dirt paths, and a highway that went through the capital. This was a much more tolerable bus ride than the previous ones as it did not have any Burmese soap operas blasting in our ears nor was it that bumpy.

Our arrival in Yangon came at approximately 6:00 A.M. on Saturday. Having very little energy left to spare, we headed back to the hostel from earlier in the week and slept for a couple hours. When it was time to wake up at noon, we said our goodbyes to the few people not coming back to Singapore since they didn't have finals. The rest of the day included walking around town and checking out the many markets that the former capital has to show for. Finally, it was time to head to the airport for our night flight home.

Now based on my research before our trip, I had read that electricity can be an issue in Burma, especially when traveling outside of Yangon. For the week in Myanmar, there was no such issue as far as the electricity not working, until now. We were sitting in the airport just about to go through security when the airport lost power. Keep in mind this is the biggest airport in the country and yet it for whatever reason had the lights, machinery, and equipment shutdown. Fortunately, it was short-lived and we were able to go through security without issue, but it was still incredible to see a major airport lose power like that; when in Myanmar...

Not to end the story abruptly, but we made it to Kuala Lumpur and took a bus to the border between Malaysia and Singapore with few issues, if any. The last five of us coming back to Singapore made it to PGP at 7:00 A.M. on Sunday morning. What a trip.

I will conclude this thesis of a blogpost by saying that it was a phenomenal trip that encompassed everything one could hope for: the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, the temples of Bagan, and Inle Lake. A truly magnificent trip that was even better than one could imagine because of our group of ten having a great group of people, which made for a great dynamic during every part of the trip. Besides the things we saw, the people of Burma were very kind and hospitable to us and I appreciate that very much. Let me add one more story about that here: before we caught a taxi to the airport to leave the country, we had a lot of extra kyat to get rid of. So we gave it to this random store owner outside of the hostel; he looked at us in amazement, but almost as if we were crazy. As we jumped in the back of the taxi, I looked back to see that the store owner was approaching us with water bottles in hand and giving them to us. Our good deed had now been negated by another one. It was little things like that during my stay in Myanmar that made me feel comfortable and safe, despite being in a place that is under sanctions by the United States and other Western powers. In closing, Burma was awesome and I would love to go back in the future to see the rest of the country that I was unable to check out in one week.

*I am letting it be known that I did eat/drink something funny while in Myanmar that got me very sick in the stomach upon my return to Singapore. It left me in very bad shape during my finals as I would have to run out in the middle of them to go to the bathroom. I am writing this with six hours to go before leaving for Beijing and I have made a near full recovery so look forward to a healthy J Coco writing about my adventures in China, Vietnam, and Cambodia in the future.

Adios Singapore, until next time. J Coco out.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Oh My Buddha (Part 2 of 3)

Tired from the half day of traveling, we immediately got rides to a hostel in town courtesy of cycling rickshaws that can be summed up as a seat attached to the side of a bicycle. For about a kilometer, my driver/cyclist was booking it, all for just 1000 kyat, yet once I got to my destination and paid the man, his face lit up displaying his overwhelming level of happiness for making the equivalent of $1.10. This was really a shock to get a feel for how the people of this country live on day by day basis making such little amounts of cash to show for their work. Anyway, we crashed at the hostel for the rest of the morning until waking up at 9:00 A.M. to enjoy breakfast on the roof. Soon thereafter, we were on bikes heading toward Old Bagan to see the many famous temples that carry on for what seemed like forever.

We reached the outskirts of this sacred land; I soon realized that wearing shoes was a mistake as every temple we entered required taking them off. Biking around from one structure to the next was very enjoyable with the great weather we had all week long. It actually became a problem with how many temples there were as we would ride around for two minutes before deciding we had to stop and see another ancient ruin up close. It was a good problem to have. At one point, a local took us up to the top of a temple to offer up a view of another kind; we got to see that these pagodas go on for as far as one can see.

Once we took advantage of the photo opportunity atop this temple, we came down and resumed our bike tour of Bagan. For the next couple of hours, we carried on seeing more temples, each with its own unique design varying in size, shape, and color. It was a one-of-a-kind experience to just go from one shrine to the next all made in the name of Buddha. Most of these temples were made between the 10th and 13th centuries, with minimal reconstruction, effectively standing against the test of time.

At one point, we made it to the biggest temple that one could find within the sixteen square miles of Old Bagan and were told of a less travelled temple nearby that would be a prime place to see sunset later on. We made the short bike ride to this less touristy place to find a completely empty temple with no one soliciting us to buy anything and no other people in sight. Even better was that we were able to navigate to the top of the edifice and get another great panoramic view of temples in every direction. We spent some time exploring the ruins and fully examining the landscape surrounding us. One temple that caught our eye was one with a golden top off in that distance that we thought would be nice to see up close. With some time before sunset, we biked towards the golden structure, which took about fifteen to twenty minutes.

When we arrived outside the walls of the ancient ruins, it was around dinner time so we decided to squeeze in a quick dinner before heading back to our secret temple. There were two little restaurants that were literally fighting over the ten of us to eat at their facility. It seemed like things could have escalated if we all went to one place so our group of ten played the role of mediator and split five and five at each eatery. It was funny yelling across the bike path about what our restaurant had compared to theirs; to no one's surprise they were pretty much identical. Before the food was ready, we explored the temple with the sun coming close to the horizon making for nice scenery. After having a delectable dinner made by the family-run restaurant, we made haste getting back to our lesser known temple to catch the sun setting. When we arrived back at the site, we saw many old French/Belgians tourists had occupied the premises. No matter, as they failed to reach the greater heights of the temple that us twenty-somethings were able to get to. The colors that came to fruition in the sky were a real treat with the many temples taking on a new look under the red and orange sky. Sunset came and went, meaning that we had to hustle back to the hostel before it got dark out.

We made it back to the hostel to clean up after a long yet exciting day of biking and touring the temples of Bagan (formerly known as Pagan). Later that night we enjoyed drinks and banana pancakes (two people in our group had an obsession for them the entire trip) for a few hours before heading back to base camp for the night.

The next morning, I got up early and wanted to see a gold temple that was close to where we living before leaving Bagan. I grabbed a cycling rickshaw and headed to the Shwezigon Pagoda. When I arrived, there was some sort of performance going on that included Burmese dancing and singing that attracted a huge crowd. I watched for a few minutes before going to the main attraction. Unfortunately, the site was more touristy than anywhere else I had been in the country meaning there were many beggars in the area. Having read the Lonely Planet guide thoroughly I knew not to give money to kids because they will waste the money, but it was advised it is better to give to their parents. I had not donated any money up to this point in the trip so I gave 1000 kyat to this woman who was begging, which is a lot for a local as evidenced from the rickshaw driver the day before. Instead of getting a "thank you," she said to me "That's not enough for food," I looked at her in disbelief and just walked away. Talk about ungrateful. I made my rounds moving through the Pagoda before catching a ride back to town.

Upon my return to the hostel, the ten of us bought a private bus for us to take to the Mount Popa and Inle Lake. Mount Popa is a volcano that hasn't erupted for centuries and sits an hour outside of Bagan. Its main feature is a volcanic plug on the side of the mountain that stands well above ground level. Similar to climbing the stairs at the Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur, there were many monkeys running around the staircase to the top of the volcanic plug. The little guys were fun to watch as they scavenged for food in and around town.The Buddhist monastery at the top had nice views of the Burmese landscape, but otherwise nothing too special about the area. It was interesting to see the hill from afar because of how it stuck out like a sore thumb from the huge mountain.

Then came time for another dreaded bus ride from the mountain to Inle Lake. This nine hour bus ride was a harrowing experience as the minibus has zero suspension causing the passengers (aka the ten of us) to be tossed around like a salad in this thing. By the time we reached the town of Nyaung Shwe just near the lake, my ears were ringing like we had just been to a rock concert. It was nice that since it was our bus, we were able to stop whenever we wanted to, so we did at one point stop at this farm in the middle of no where. Some local children were staring at us as we walked around where some chiles were drying up to get a good view of sunset. The kids were looking at us as if they had never seen Westerners before. Once in Nyaung Shwe, we crashed at a very nice hostel to rest up for another long day that was to come.