Next Stop: Burma / Myanmar. All Respect, All Suspect.

“All Respect, All Suspect.”

That’s what the sign said in the security screening and immigration area when we arrived at Yangon airport. Nat and I laughed at the funny English, but during our two weeks in this military-controlled country this little phrase became our shorthand for the situation here.

Someone refuses your $20 bill because it has a tiny tear in the corner? All respect, all suspect.

A military policeman waves a machinegun at you nonchalantly because you photographed the wrong building? All respect, all suspect.

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Myanmar is a hard country to summarize. Perhaps the best I can do is to show you a little bit of what we saw. More detailed posts and thoughts to follow.

In many ways the country is simply stopped in time about 50 years ago.

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Myanmar is run by a military dictatorship – since the elections last November in civilian disguise – and apart from a small number of tourists traveling into the country completely isolated and in every possible aspect cut off from the world. The people here are denied every form of basic freedom:  there is no freedom of speech, newspapers and press are government controlled and basically non-existant.

Copies of Time magazine from 1995 are being sold on the black market in the streets of Yangon.

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Many people are not able to travel freely around the country, let alone leave. People are also not encouraged to speak to foreigners, other than about pagodas and temples. Any public congregation of more than 5 people needs to have a permit first – and around half of the people live on a dollar per day.

Internet in this country is controlled by the government and deliberately slowed down. The few internet cafes which offer access need to apply for a government access license, which ensures that the censorship works for all the “relevant” sites. (Strangely the firewall is easy to get around – for some reason https isn’t blocked.)

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That said during my several months of travel through Southeast Asia I have rarely felt so welcome as a visitor in a country, and so much hunger of the people in the street to talk to us – despite some significant language barriers. People are sincerely interested in anything from the “outside” world and are eager to share their thoughts and feelings as soon as you are in a private setting.

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We have been invited to sit down and eat, sit down and drink tea, sit down and chat an endless number of times – and each one of those conversations has made a very lasting impression on me.

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People – both and men and women – wear an interesting form of makeup on their face, sometimes also their arms. It is meant to protect the skin from the sun, as well as to be decorative. Most people just use a broad stroke or a big dot; this girl was quite creative.

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In Bagan we spent an afternoon in a village – no electricity or running water, a mere 10 minute car ride away from the famous temple area and several 4-star hotels. Nevertheless we were welcomed with friendly curiosity and a lot of smiles.

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For many people in Myanmar, their lives are characterized by the scarcity of everything.

Many don’t have enough to eat, about half of the children are underweight – and people struggle to find clothing for themselves and their family.

A check-up at the doctor’s office costs about $5. To us, this seems cheap, but in Myanmar for many people this is unaffordable. Sending your child to school costs between $10 and $40 a month – which brings most families to their absolute financial limits. Everywhere in the streets you see people handmaking textbooks and reselling used pairs of shoes…

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That said, Myanmar has a myriad of breathtakingly beautiful places and experiences to offer…

There is Bagan – which we explored BBABB.

By Bike…

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…And By Balloon…

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Mandalay, with the longest teak bridge of the world, across which hundreds of monks commute in the morning and the evening…

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People often approach me and ask to have their picture taken – the only thing they want in return is to look at the picture on the digital camera screen afterwards.

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The phenomenon of bettelnut chewing is ubiquitous…

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… and I was overwhelmed by the splendor and energy of the Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon. It is at the same time a deeply spiritual and religious place, but also extremely lively and social. A combination I have never experienced before.

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Next Stop: Trekking in Sapa and the Hill Tribes in Northern Vietnam

After our return from Halong Bay – which I will write about in a later blog post – we took the night train from Hanoi to Sapa, a remote town in the mountains of Northern Vietnam between China, Myanmar, Thailand and Laos. The landscape around Sapa is breathtaking and makes it a great destination for trekking. In addition to that a lot of interesting ethnic minorities live there – different hill tribes, each with their own language, traditional lifestyle and clothing. During our trip there we met the Red Dzao and the Black Hmong people.

The night train left Hanoi at 9pm and was surprisingly comfortable, and it was possible to get a good six hours of sleep before the arrival in Sapa around 5am. We had a long breakfast, and strolled a little bit through town before we were able to check into our hotel and get ready for a day of trekking.

The landscape around Sapa is beautiful and I was looking forward to my first hike after knee surgery earlier this year.

We hired a guide from one of the minority people, the Black Hmongs, and she picked us up at the hotel at 9am; she turned out to be very competent and a fun person to spend the day with…

We walked 14 kms that day – and I really enjoyed it.

We spent the day hiking with her and two other Black Hmong women – very nice and friendly people. This is one of the other Black Hmong women who came with us on the trek:

The Red Dzao women shave the top of their head and their eyebrows after they get married, as this is thought to be more beautiful and also to bring good luck. They wear striking, elaborate red headscarves with fringes attached to them – the more fringes the more important the person (see also first picture of this blog post above..)

The Black Hmong women wear a really cool outfit that consists of several layers…

They wear the beautiful traditional clothing every day – independent of age…

 

… and they grow their own hemp to produce the material for their clothes. During our hike we were surprised to come upon big patches of tall marijuana plants, which, they told us, are used to make hemp. The women also grow the plants that they need in order to dye the cloth indigo – and that is why they have blue stains on their fingers, as you can see in the picture below…

Many of the minority villages are several hours of walking away from Sapa, and a lot of these women walk to Sapa and back every day in order to sell their handicraft to tourists. They carry everything in woven baskets on their back.

When they have babies they do the same walks and simply carry the baby on their back instead of the basket.

And they learn at a very young age how to do that…

One of the main characteristics about the landscape in Northern Vietnam are the terraced rice fields. The hill tribes are subsistence farmers who live off their land and the livestock they own. They do not pay taxes, but at the same time also do not receive any government pensions or other social services. They grow rice for their families, which is backbreaking labor – and in a bad season the land does not provide enough rice to feed them. In that case the Vietnamese government helps by distributing 300kgs of rice per family to the villages.

 

Water buffalo are an important part of life here…

 

… and even the small kids help with the work in the rice fields… though sometimes more…

sometimes less efficiently…

Sapa has a much cooler climate than the rest of the country, and in many ways it doesn’t feel like Vietnam anymore – some of the minority people speak better English than Vietnamese; but then you look around and find propaganda of the Vietnamese government even in the most remote villages. Note the first billboard below is hand-painted and shows people of different ethnic minorities…

Lately the Vietnamese government has been building schools and has started to provide electricity also for the more isolated areas – which the people in the villages appreciate a lot. We passed one of those schools, and school kids were practicing a dance – obviously overseen by Ho Chi Minh…

 

… outside the school as well as…

… inside the class room.

Also, it seems that money going to UNICEF is actually doing some good in this area…

At the end of the trek we arrived at the home village of one of the women – and her best friend was waiting there for her with a bottle of rice wine. We were invited to try the wine, and it was seriously strong stuff!

The next day I couldn’t resist buying a second-hand Black Hmong outfit to take home with me, and while Nat was climbing Mount Fansipan I had a lot of fun with the Black Hmong girls helping them sell their handicraft to tourists while dressed like one of them.

Next Stop: Phu Quoc

After the bike trip we were in the mood for a couple of days on the beach – and decided to head to an island called “Phu Quoc”, which was only a 1-hour flight from Saigon.

Fortunately booking airline tickets just the day before you want to fly is easy in Asia – and prices do not go up for last minute travel, which very much supports our spontaneous travel habits…

It was interesting for me to notice that most South Vietnamese people still call the city Saigon, not Ho Chi Minh City. That name is much more used by people in Northern Vietnam.

Here you can see the Mekong River at its end point, flowing into the South China Sea. This is a huge river. And it sustains 60 million people. It starts in the glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau and flows through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and finally Vietnam. And ends here.

The island turned out to be the ideal setting for a “romantic retreat” – and surprised us with beautiful and unspoiled white beaches.

During the day we watched the activities of the fishermen…

…and we obviously had the “best food ever”…

There are very few tourists in the low season…

… but we had good weather most of the time, with the occasional rainstorm in the afternoon, and some ridiculously beautiful sunsets.

We went on a 1-day diving excursion, and were very surprised by the unusually spacious and luxurious dive boat.

The crew cooked food for us on the boat, which was simple but very good. The diving itself was macrodiving (meaning only very small creatures in the water, no bigger fish, turtles, sharks etc – the name comes from the “macro” setting on your camera) with very limited visibility, so we were not too excited about what we saw. Nevertheless we had not done any diving for the last year, so it felt good to be back in the water. And the islands of the dive sites were really beautiful.

But maybe we need to review the sections of “how to use your fins” in the PADI book…

The day after the diving my right ear suddenly started to become red – and redder – and even more red – until it became clear that something was very wrong with that ear and that we should consult a doctor. Nat was joking that I might lose a part of my ear and look like Spock… So we emailed our doctor in San Francisco pictures of the ear – whereupon he replied within 10 minutes, prescribing 2 different antibiotics: “You need to take this very seriously – this infection can destroy the cartilage in your ear, and you can lose a part of your ear as a result of this….”. So Nat’s joke was prescient AND funny.

(My ear is mostly ok now).

Nevertheless we had lovely dinners on the beach…

… and after our 2-day stay on the island had turned into 6 days we realized we had to say goodbye to lazy island life and pick up the speed of our traveling, otherwise we wouldn’t see half of Vietnam by the time our visa runs out…

Next Stop: Mountain Biking through the Mekong Delta

Leaving Cambodia was surprisingly difficult for me – I had really fallen in love with that country and its people.

We decided to travel down the Mekong river by boat to the Vietnamese border, and then continue  by bus to Saigon. This is the Saigon City Hall.

Crossing the border between the two countries on the river was quite interesting – in Cambodia you rarely see a street sign in the countryside – in Vietnam even the river is  regulated with dos and don’ts…

After a couple of days in Saigon – an interesting city, that did not conquer my heart – we decided to explore the South of Vietnam – the region of the Mekong Delta – by mountain bike.

Vietnam is a very heavily populated country in some areas, and the streets can be very busy.

A lot of people wear the traditional conical hat.

During the four day ride, we didn’t see any other tourists, and the locals were curious about our endeavor…

…kids came running into the street to look at us…

The Vietnamese call the Mekong River “Nine Dragons”, as it has nine arms, and countless side streams and canals. As a result there are thousands of different bridges – some of them just an arrangement of spindly logs expertly positioned over the river.

Some bridges are a little bit more elaborate…

We biked for four days and crossed an endless number of  these nerve-wracking bridges on the way.

The biking was relaxing and easy, mostly flat…

and crossing over all these crazy bridges was fun.

Everywhere we went people liked to show us their children and grandchildren…

The biggest challenge was to protect myself from the burning sun during the hottest hours of the day. 

Fortunately I had learned some tricks from the Vietnamese people:

So, here I go…

Statues of Ho Chi Minh and Socialist propaganda are everywhere…

and there are loudspeakers even in the most remote parts of the countryside.

The most memorable moments were when people invited us into their gardens or homes, which happened on several occasions.

These women were playing cards and invited me to join them…

That was great fun, and despite the fact that they spoke no English they patiently tried to explain the game to me so I could join!

All the signs on the cards were in some kind of beautiful script though, which looked very interesting – but all cards looked the same to me. Some helpful color markings saved me every now and then, still it’s good that I did not play for money.

This family invited us into their garden to drink tea with them, and we spent some time chatting and playing with their little puppies.

The men of the family were interested in looking at our mountain bikes…

…the woman were interested in studying my teeth from close up. Unfortunately not many Vietnamese people are able to keep much of their teeth beyond the age of 30 or so…

For many centuries the Mekong Delta was a part of Cambodia, and many people there still speak the Khmer language – and it was very nice being able to communicate with the people with the basic knowledge we had picked up in Cambodia.

This is a coffee break at a local roadside coffee shop with Kevin, the other member of our little cycling group.

People are much better off in Vietnam than in Cambodia – kids are wearing earrings…

…have bikes their own size and ritzy schoolbags… all of this was rare in Cambodia.

This family invited us to drink some rice wine with them – a very strong concoction that resembles more a “schnaps” than a wine 🙂 and it was dangerously strong after several hours of biking right before lunch…

This was a typical lunch stop…

… we were happy to just sit in the shade and eat our food…

and when I asked “where I could wash my hands” (as the British say) this is where they led me…

Sometimes the paths were really muddy though, and almost impossible to bike through.

At some point Nat was giving a helping hand to some workers on a truck which they found hilarious and they insisted on taking photos of us with their mobile phones…

Here is Tico our guide wearing a Grapefruit on his head… He was a very competent and funny guide, born in the Mekong Delta, with a fascinating family story – and he seemed to know every single path and trail out there by heart…

Tico also told us that some of the locals asked him why “we are doing all that…” – meaning – “why are they biking on the tiny, muddy roads in the burning sun through the villages when they have a wonderfully air-conditioned van at their disposal???”

We all consumed a ridiculous amount of water during the day…

… and at the end of four days of biking we were tired but very happy…

– and already making plans for the next bike trip!

Next Stop: 2-day Elephant Trek through the jungle in Mondulkiri

After a night in the Nature Lodge in Mondulkiri (the very mountainous Eastern part of Cambodia)…

…we set off for a 2-day elephant trek through the jungle which was absolutely awesome; this was our elephant:

We did roughly 5 hours of elephant riding that day – broken up by a short lunch – in order to reach a waterfall somewhere deep in the jungle. This is the village from which we started – where the elephant “lives”, so to speak…

The intensity of colors and sounds while moving through the trees is amazing and becomes stronger and stronger the deeper you come into the jungle.

Sitting on an elephant also provides you with a whole different perspective. From way up there, for example, you are able to observe, and to pass through, many diverse spiderwebs with enormous spiders in them.

After a couple of hours I decided to ignore everything that fell or crawled on me with a diameter of less than 3cm… (yes, I know what you are thinking – and yes, I surprised myself as well …:-)

At one point the elephant suddenly stopped and refused to move any further. The elephant “driver” – this is what the locals call him in English – and our guide looked around, trying to figure out what the problem was, and then the guide pointed up to the tree right in front of us.

And there it was. A large green snake, perfectly camouflaged in the leaves.

By coincidence a local Bunong man was coming up right behind us in that moment and seemed quite excited to see the snake; he used his machete to cut a very long branch from a nearby tree, and then swung it violently at the snake…

… so that it fell to the ground…

… and then – while staying far away with his long stick – killed it by hitting it several times, and then cut off its head with the versatile machete.

As he marched off with the decapitated snake, I called out and asked what his plans were with the snake; he grinned from ear to ear and said “soup!!!”

Later I learned that snakes are quite expensive here, so this was obviously a real catch for him.

Elephants are very intelligent creatures and it was fun to watch the elephant tackle all kinds of really difficult terrain. He can go up and down really steep, slippery, muddy hills, and we crossed several wide rivers with all four of us sitting on the elephant.

This is where we had lunch, and after 2 to 3 hours on the elephant I was happy to stretch my legs and walk around a bit. People live in this hut when they tend to the ricefields right around it. It’s basically a small farm right in the middle of the jungle, only accessible by a single track walking trail, and cut off by a river.

The night in the jungle was very exciting. We slept in hammocks covered by a mosquito net and completely sealed with zippers. With the number of creepy crawlies around us, that was a good thing to have 😉

When Nat was putting up the hammocks he had to be very careful, as scorpions were sitting behind the wooden bars of the hut.

The guide used water from the river to cook some rice and vegetables for us – and we were extremely delighted to have a warm meal. Meanwhile it had started to rain very hard, and after 30 minutes our little hut was completely flooded with water.

Surprisingly the jungle was probably one of the noisiest places I have ever slept. There were insects out there making noises like a chainsaw (I am not kidding…) and I have to admit I did spend a little time wondering whether we’d be visited by any tigers…

We got up with sunrise the next morning – and during our 5-hour journey back home we learned that our elephant was 105 years old. Born in 1905. What has this elephant seen in his lifetime….!

Next Stop: Kratie and the Mekong River

Next we had planned to do a elephant trek in the jungle, and on the way to the Wild Wild East we had a stop-over in Kratie. Kratie is located on the Mekong river…

… and is famous for the endangered Irrawaddy river dolphins. Going to see the river dolphins by boat means walking a fine line. One the one hand, it is important to make sure the boatsman does not disturb the dolphins by approaching them to closely.  On the other hand the increasing interest of tourists in these beautiful creatures has stopped the locals from hunting them and has lead to a strong desire by the locals to protect the endangered dolphins. Selling dolphin souvenirs and charging for the transport / boatride and food and water during the trip (today there are only 30 to 70 Irrawaddy dolphins left) is a big source of income for the locals.

The little riverside town is quite atmospheric in the evening.

And we found a couple of nice cafes at the riverside and enjoyed hanging out there, catching up on email and drinking superb fruit shakes.

Once again I had *so much fun* participating in a riverside dance class in the evening…

Kids in Kratie have figured out an innovative way to generate some income: they are running around carrying scales – offering tourists to weigh themselves, prices are negotiable between 25 cent and 1 dollar for that service.

I witnessed a very funny episode, though, when the kids approached a group of American tourists who were sitting at the restaurant at the table next to us – and the kids found out the hard way that not every female traveler is keen on weighing themselves right before dinner 😉

We rented bikes and the next day a scooter to explore the little town, and that was a lot of fun…

… and of course when asking for helmets during the rental process we were only rewarded with friendly but enigmatic smiles…

We stayed at a nice guesthouse called Balcony (you can see where the name comes from….)

and had a perfectly fine room for $4 a night (though breakfast was not included 😉

In the evening we had an awesome time with the kids living there teaching them funny little games…

… and deploying Nat’s “indispensible” travel equipment!!

Next Stop: Overland trip from Battambang to Kratie

We rented a car (which in Cambodia is only possible including a driver) to get from Battambang in the Northwest of Cambodia to Kratie in the middle of the country. Driving through Cambodia is never boring, with total chaos on the streets and a very beautiful landscape.

The land is completely flat, with emerald colored rice paddies everywhere, and sugar palms thrown in for good measure.

The typical Cambodian house in the country is made out of wood and built on stilts to withstand the rising water levels during the rainy season.

Houses like these in the pictures are typically inhabited by 10 to 15 people, with several generations living under the same roof; in the shade underneath the house the family keeps their livestock (chicken and pigs mostly).

You often see small kids taking care of even smaller kids, 5-year olds carrying 2-year olds on their hips.

And this is how people protect their kids from the rain…

Our driver was great – in his mid-fifties and thus in his teenage years during the Khmer Rouge period. He blew us away with his account of how he survived the terror regime – living in labour camps and witnessing friends and most of his family being murdered or dying from starvation; only 2 of 8 family members survived.

I asked him at the beginning of the car ride how he managed to survive the terror regime and following that question we had a 3 hour conversation with him about that very complex and interesting topic. I have recorded most of that as he was extremely open to talk about his experiences – I think almost pleased that foreigners like us are interested in what he has to say.

He said that surviving the Khmer Rouge came down to two things: (1) Always eating clean food, and (2) getting the easiest, least physical jobs possible. So instead of picking rice in the field, he got the job of ploughing fields with the oxen doing all the hard work. When he got malaria for three months, he said he was cold for one hour and then hot for two. His skin turned yellow. And he knew that if he got diarrhea, he would die. So he cooked all of his food several times, “until all the water out,” so that he wouldn’t get sick. “That’s how I survive.”