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.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Oh My Buddha (Part 1 of 3)

Myanmar. What comes to mind when you here that name? For some, very little to nothing (I was in that department only eight weeks ago). For others you can make the connection that Myanmar is Burma, but nothing more. Maybe you are interested in visiting the country yourself and have done a painstaking amount of research about Burma. Those people could be wondering is it safe? What about the military junta? After experiencing much of what this country has to offer firsthand, I can tell you it is very unique compared to other countries I have visited.

While I'd like to jump into my adventures in Burma, our story begins in Singapore, early Saturday morning. The date was November 13th; our flight to Yangon, Myanmar (formerly known as Rangoon) was later that day out of Kuala Lumpur (KL), Malaysia as opposed to Changi Airport in Singapore. For those that don't know this already from my blog about this city back in August, Kuala Lumpur is approximately a four hour bus ride from Singapore.

A couple of us left PGP at 4:45 A.M. (I didn't go to sleep that night) to catch an early morning bus from Johor Bahru to Kuala Lumpur then getting on the 4:30 P.M. flight from Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Things were going pretty smoothly as far as getting to the bus terminal in good time and leaving Johor Bahru for KL. By this point, our group had grown to ten people, all exchange students from a few different countries: three Americans, three Belgians, two Netherlanders, one Finn, and one Canadian. For the ten of us, it seemed we were going to have a no issue getting to the airport on time, until the bus broke down. I woke from my sleep to hear that we had to get off the bus and get on a different one; I still wasn't concerned about missing our flight. Somehow, though, the second bus we got on must have gone to KL in a very indirect manner because the usual four to five hour ride ended became a six to seven hour ride. Now missing our flight was actually a possibility. We all ran for taxis once reaching KL for the airport, which was an hour from the city, and ended up making our flight to Yangon, Myanmar by the smallest of margins. A nice way to start off the week.

The day we arrived in Yangon was actually a historic/notable day in the history of Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the movement for a Democratic Burmese government and 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner, was released from her fifteen year or so house arrest. Did I mention she lives in Yangon? No we didn't see her, even from a distance, nor any protests of any kind during the entire week in Burma. In fact, since I brought it up initially, the city of Yangon as well as the rest of Myanmar felt very safe. If that isn't good enough for you, then Lonely Planet says Yangon is one of the safest cities in southeast Asia.

After landing in Yangon International Airport that Saturday night, we headed for a hostel near the center of the city. We dropped our stuff off and headed for dinner and drinks. The best part of the night was getting taxis on the way back and having all three cab drivers race each other to see who could get back to the hostel first. The cab I was in had the tiniest of drivers who could barely see over the wheel. At each light we stopped at, he would rev the engine of the vehicle, which must have been made in the 70s, but then would never go as fast as the other two taxis once the light turned green. At night, driving around Yangon offers some great views of the many different pagodas at a distance. This includes the most famous pagoda in the country that we were to see that Sunday, the Shwedagon Pagoda.

This giant structure is not nearly as well known as it should be, standing at over 300 feet covered in golden plates with an assortment of diamonds and other precious rocks at its peak. Our group decided to wake up early in the morning, 4 A.M. to be exact, the next day to catch the Pagoda at sunrise. We arrived at this amazing structure a little after 5:00 A.M. to see many monks, buddhists, and the like all praying to structure. For how early in the morning it was, I was shocked to see so many people up already. It appeared during the week in Myanmar that the people of this country live with the daylight meaning waking up and going to bed much earlier than in Western culture. While there were many people there few, if any tourists besides us, were walking around and gazing at the shear size and volume of the Pagoda. The story behind the Shwedagon Pagoda was built sometime around the 6th to 10th century and is apparently an enshrinement of eight of the Buddha's hairs. Nonetheless, to have all ten of us sit on the ground, barefoot like the Buddhists, and look up this 300-something foot creation was euphoric. We walked around the Pagoda and the other buildings that were part of the structure while enjoying the sunrise for a couple hours before heading back to the hostel for breakfast.

The rest of the day in Yangon was relatively mundane (exchanging money*, casually strolling through markets, etc.) before our afternoon bus ride to the land of many temples, Bagan. This trip up to central Burma was going to be no cakewalk, though. By this form of transportation, it is supposed to take twelve hours to get to Bagan, the former capital of Myanmar. Similar to the bus ride in Kuala Lumpur, everything was going to plan on the ride for the first couple minutes. But it didn't take long before Burmese soap operas were being blasted to full volume on the television. This made it nearly impossible to go to sleep in the tiny and uncomfortable seats we had at our disposal. I even tried blasting my iPod to zone out the awfulness that was the television; even then you could still catch a word or two every few minutes when people were in a quarrel.

The only entertainment I deemed as quality the entire ride was unexpected and I still have no idea to this day why it happened. Early on in the bus ride, some guy gets on the bus, walks to around the sixth row and starts yelling at this guy in Burmese. The guy standing then slaps this dude across the face before continuing on with what he had to say. The victim here didn't even retaliate, despite the fact that this guy gave him a pretty good open hand shot to the cheek. The man standing then left the bus while the passenger looked down in disgrace. A couple of hours later, an old Burmese woman comes on the bus and starts doing the same thing: screaming at this dude before giving the same guy another authoritative slap to the face. Like the first time, no retaliation. This person must have really done something wrong, that's one thing I am sure of. Finally, the real icing on the cake to an awful bus ride was how many people the driver kept picking up. At one point, people were sitting on fold out seats in the aisle because it got that crowded. You can imagine how much of a relief it was when we arrived in Bagan at around 4:00 A.M.

*Regarding exchanging money, Myanmar has a ton of funny and odd rules about this subject. First, when exchanging dollars (USD) into the local currency (kyat, K), the bills have to be new, crisp, and in mint condition meaning no ink marks or creases. Second, the rate the government gives for the conversion is very different from the one you get in the black market (i.e. don't exchange your money at the airport). The rate the black market gives is about 890K to $1 while the government I believe uses a rate of 490K or something of that variety. Finally, it wasn't until last year that the government started to produce 5000K bills, but I only saw three of them the entire time I was there. Why does that matter? Well the next biggest bill, 1000K, is only worth approximately $1. So that means you get to walk around with a wad of cash feeling like you are really rich when in fact its the same amount of money you had before but split up into monopoly money, essentially. The picture seen here is all our money pooled together in kyat after we converted only half the USD we had brought for the trip. Each pillar with a rubber band around it was how much each individual to walk around with (no it did not fit in our wallets as you can imagine).

Stay tuned for parts two and three over the next couple of days!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Expect the Unexpected

Classes are over! Sorry I had to get that out of my system. Nonetheless, I'm sitting in the television lounge as we speak, it is three hours before I leave for Myanmar. Located right next to Thailand, China, Bangladesh, Laos, and India, it is one of the most interesting and yet misunderstood countries in the world. In fact, I am going to have to honest with you that I read an article the other day comparing the state of Myanmar with that of North Korea. No, Myanmar is not a dangerous place visit; according to Lonely Planet Traveler's Guide, Myanmar is one of the safest places to be in southeast Asia. This can be accounted for because a vast percentage of the population is Buddhist, therefore stealing and such goes against the religion of such individuals as they believe in being good in this life in order to look forward to the next one. In addition, the government hands down harsher than normal penalties to those who cross paths with tourists. I expect it to be the most unique experience among all the trips I will make in Asia based on the vast cultural differences the Western world shares with this country. Our itinerary is going to involve a lot of traveling by bus (like 50 hours worth over the next week!) but it will be well worth it.

We plan on hitting up a variety of places and attractions including Yangon and the Shwedagon Pagoda, Bagan, Kalaw, and the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda also known as the Golden Rock. Of course, there will be a fair amount of studying that I will be partaking in during my downtime on this trip as there will be quite a bit with the bus rides and such as I have four finals to take once I return back to Singapore. For now, I have more packing to tend to. Expect the unexpected in my next blog post as I plan, as usual, to give you a full and in-depth recap of this week long trip to the Union of Myanmar. Stay tuned.

J Coco

Friday, November 5, 2010

Closer Than You'd Think

It was a just a normal Wednesday in Singapore: I picked up my tourist visa for China early in the morning, hung out in the t.v. lounge for a bit, and did a fair amount of studying to top it all off. At about 3:00 P.M. in the afternoon, a friend of mine told us he had a room at the Marina Bay Sands hotel downtown for him and his girlfriend adding that we should join them later on. While it was Wednesday, the biggest night of the week to go out in Singapore, this was an incredible opportunity that only a fool would shy away from. It was decided that the other three of us would meet up with our pal and his lady friend at the hotel in time to catch sunset from the pool.

Around 5:00 P.M., we met up as a group at the hotel and made it upstairs as a group of five to settle down in the room for a few minutes. The room that our friend had been given was on the forty sixth floor of the fifty seven storey building, offering to us a fantastic view of Marina Bay. Once we made it up top to the pool area, we were able to take in one of the best views an individual can get in Singapore. A 150 meter long infinity pool stretched across one side of the roof of the building with much of the Singapore skyline in our line of sight. It was a very enjoyable couple of hours spent in the pool area, watching the sun set, taking photos, and seeing the city's skyscrapers lit at night. A quick tangent here: I was joking around with everybody that I was an "expert photographer" because of how many pictures I was taking of the skyline and everyone else. A stranger who overheard me came over and asked me to take a photo of him and his wife since I was such an "expert." I gladly played the role of professional photographer and snapped a shot or two of them. Afterwards, he asked me if I was American (everyone in Asia seems to know I am American just from my accent). I replied that I am and that I was in Singapore as a student at NUS studying Civil Engineering. Turns out this guy was a Civil Engineering professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, which I have been to before. He then enlightened my friends and I for a few minutes explaining some of the architectural features of the building. Following his mini-lecture of sorts, I said he had stimulated my interest in the field of engineering more in that moment than any teacher or advisor I have had in my time at college. He had a good laugh after hearing that.

Later that night, we went for a walk around Marina Bay for dinner at a nearby hawker center. I cannot recall if I have mentioned to my readers back in the States what a hawker center is so I will describe it here whether it is the first time or not. A hawker center is pretty much a food court that is outside containing many different stalls of inexpensive food. Recently, one of my Singaporean buddies has told me about ten specific foods that I have to have in this country before I leave. With less than a month to go I have only had two up this point, one of which I had at this hawker center. Known to be a true Singaporean dish, I had chicken rice; the dish is pretty much what it sounds like with the addition of various Asian sauces and spices thrown to the mix. After our meal downtown, we had some more friends join us in the room at the Marina Bay Sands to play drinking/card games (it only seemed appropriate on Wednesday night in one of the nicest hotels in Singapore). I ended up coming home earlier than I normally do on a Wednesday after leaving the hotel at a time when it was too late to go clubbing. Even so, it was still one of the best nights in Singapore.

A couple days later, that same friend who had the hotel room, his girlfriend, and I headed to the northern portion of Singapore to see the Singapore Zoo. It has been said to be one of the best in the world, making it a staple for any trip to this country. By saying this, I am admitting that it took about three months of being in Singapore to finally become a tourist here. August to November was pretty much studying, traveling to other countries in southeast Asia, and clubbing. Not a bad three months if you ask me. I had not been to a zoo in years, the last time probably being either the Bronx or Beardsley Zoo sometime ago, but I could tell this place was huge. They had all the animals one could ever ask to see (minus gorillas, I would have liked to have seen them) in addition to numerous gardens and views of calm and tranquil waters. For the animals that were there, we pretty much saw everything the zoo had to offer including penguins, pelicans, baboons, zebras, giraffes, rhinoceroses, lions, jaguars, pythons, turtles, elephants, kangaroos, and many more. Three highlights in particular I will point out to you: first the sea lion show we saw at the end of the day that included Stan the Sea Lion balancing a ball on his nose, catching frisbees, and doing backflips like the one here. Another highlight was seeing so many orang utans swing about the trees in an open environment above everyone watching from the ground. We also got to see one of the people who worked at the zoo playing around with the orang utans. He pretty much would hit them or tickle them at the belly, then the orang utan would come back at him by giving the guy multiple five fingers or open fist slaps to the back. It made for good entertainment to see this go back and forth between both the guy and the giant ape for a couple minutes. The final significant moment of the trip, at least for me, was when I was taking a picture of a butterfly over railing.

All of sudden in my periphery, I saw something approaching me. Next thing I know, whatever this animal is, I found him about a foot away from me just going about his business. It scared the crap out of me not that I thought he would harm me at all but just for the fact that he startled me and his demon eyes aren't the most welcoming.

Overall, it was a great day that validated to me, for the second time in one week, that you don't have to leave Singapore in order to have a good time (without clubbing) in southeast Asia. I will also note here that my Bali trip did in fact get cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances. I do still have my week long trip to Myanmar starting this Saturday to look forward to after my final week of classes. Crazy how fast the semester has gone by...

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Real Hong Kong (Part 2 of 2)

Considering it was a Monday night, I was rather impressed with the number of locals, expats, and businessmen that were working the various bars of Lan Kwai Fong. The two of us being exhausted from a long day of train and bus rides with quite of bit of walking, as well, didn't put us in a position to have a late night. Instead, we propped up Clarke Quay style on a concrete wall and enjoyed a beer reminiscing about the long day that was. Walking back to the MTR station afterwards, we ran into a guy who was on the same flight as us from Singapore, who also corrected my pronunciation of "thank you" in Cantonese in the airport (in case any of you care it is "M̀h'gōi", pronounced as "Mm guy"). It was the only word my friend and I knew going to Hong Kong, but is very powerful because it also means "excuse me." This is essential when traversing the crowded trains of Hong Kong, especially during rush hour when everyone gets to know the people next to them a little bit better than they would like to. Back to the main point of me even mentioning this individual. He was a fellow New Yorker (I do consider myself a New Yorker having being born in Manhattan and living there for a few years plus it is easier to explain to people here than to start explaining what Connecticut is), who we shared a friendly conversation with about Hong Kong, future plans, looking for some good New York style pizza, etc. It is always nice to see a familiar face, even for the short term, in such foreign places. We then caught the train back to Kowloon to crash at the same hostel as the previous night.

The third and final day in Hong Kong had us up bright and early once again. That Tuesday we spent the majority of our time between two islands. The first place we went to was Lamma Island, an easy twenty minute ferry ride from the central business district of the city. Having gotten there so early in the morning, there were few tourists, if any, out and about. This made for hassle free trekking through the island. Lamma Island was a very chill and laid back, which made for a real change of pace after being in the middle of the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong for two days. Once the ferry dropped us off at the docks, we made off for a beach that was twenty minutes by foot. From our walk, it seemed like much natural beauty to be found through the random villages that popped up here and there. When we did make it to this beach, it was pretty much deserted (as expected at 9 A.M.). This was great for relaxing and taking pictures of the landscape. So we perched up on these rocks off to the side of everything and took in the outstanding view of the South China Sea. An hour or so passed by before making ways to the pier to catch a 10:30 A.M. ferry to the mainland as we had even bigger plans in store for the day.

The second half of Tuesday was devoted to Lantau Island, adjacent to Chek Lap Kok Island where the airport can be found. One of the big attractions of Lantau Island is the cable car ride, which provides tourists with breathtaking views of the South China Sea, the mountain range, and the airport. More importantly, it was critical for us to see the former biggest Buddha statue in the world that was at the end of this journey to the village Ngong Ping.

It was a one of a kind experience to climb the 268 stairs that led up to this shrine to get to see what is still a place that people go to for prayer. The statue itself was remarkable up close as we both sat there pondering how it was built and the symbolism behind Buddha, himself. There were amazing views of the bay close by and Lantau Peak, the second highest in Hong Kong to provide further entertainment. What sealed the deal was getting to see real monks strolling around Buddha, going about their daily lives. In fact, we almost got to ride the cable car down with them; this could have made for an interesting conversation if we had been given the chance.

With spare time left on our hands, we began walking to Lantau Peak in search of anything of interest. We found more than we expected at the base of this mountain. First, leading up the side of a nearby knoll were many long pieces of wood with Chinese characters inscribed in them. I immediately thought of it as a "Chinese Stonehenge" of sorts. We read the description about it as having some relation with learning about one's self and a deeper meaning of life as we know it. We walked up and through this area to observe the many structures before looking to get to the other side of the hill. At the top, we had an even better vantage point of both Lantau Peak and the bay we had seen at the Buddha statue. This probably was the highlight of the trip as we were able to enjoy our final few hours in Hong Kong with an incredible view of the bay with Lantau Peak to our left and Buddha off in the distance to our right. We had gone so far off the beaten path to get to this point that few people were in the surrounding area, making for an even better experience. We stayed and looked out over the foliage and sea from these giant boulders on the mountain for quite some time before heading to the airport in time for a 6:10 P.M. flight home.

Mission Accomplished. We had seen as much as one could have seen in roughly three days on Hong Kong and its many islands. From the inner city to being up in the mountains and hanging out at a relatively remote beach; we had seen every type of terrain that Hong Kong had to offer. It was a great experience in every way and I do hope to go back to this economic hub soon to be able to see the things I missed out this time around and get to interact more with locals, too. As with almost everywhere else I have visited up to this point, I highly recommend a visit to Hong Kong for both NUS exchange students in Singapore and to any Westerners at home deciding where to travel to in Asia. Thanks for reading about this three day extravaganza I got to take part in, stay tuned for posts about my trips to Indonesia and Myanmar in the coming weeks!