Monthly Archives: August 2012
I have not posted for a couple of weeks because my wife and I took a quick trip to the USA. I will get back to finishing my tales about Asia but I wanted to get this trip to the east coast of the USA off my agenda.
A trip to NYC should always include a look at Central Park.
Now, while visiting the USA, there is one thing I always be sure to do.
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Stay tuned for more of Burma!
We left Rangoon by air. We could have taken the train, but our time was limited.
It does not seem to matter which airline you book your flight on in Burma. All our domestic flights were booked on Air Mandaly.
We got to the Yangon airport early. At first it was a sea of confusion, but our guide assured us we were in the right line, although it was definitely NOT Air Mandalay. They took our bags and weighed them on an honest to god butchers scale, with a big hook and everything. They put old style tags on our luggage that read NYU. Huh? Then they treated us nicely and gave us actual paper boarding passes that said NYU, and then they put stickers on us. Apparently we were on Air KBZ. It was too early in the morning to really care.
The stickers we were wearing were for the airline people to tell who was on their plane. There were maybe three flights leaving within the half hour. We all shared one waiting room. When it was time for our flight, a guy walked around the waiting room holding a sign like a pageboy in an old Manhattan hotel. He found people with the right sticker and pointed us to the gate. In the end, a very efficient, if 1950’s, system.
When we got on the plane I read the airline magazine and it told me that Air KBZ has only two planes (ATR 72-500s). The airline is only two years old, but they must have bought this plane from the Bosnian air force. It was sort of beat up. I looked at their destinations, and nothing said they went to Bagan. I mentioned this to Mary Ann in my least possible “worried about it” voice. She gave me that look she does often that says “fool”. She pointed out that the name of the airport we were headed to was Nyaung U Airport hence the designator NYU. That was not fair because the guide had explained all that to her, not me. But OK, I’m cool now. When we arrived at NYU the plane parked in the middle of nowhere. I of course had visions that a coup had happened, but in a few minutes we were safely in the hands of our next guide. You cannot leave the airport without paying a US$10 fee. Not an airport tax, no no. This was an entrance fee to the archeological site, which the airport sits on the edge of.
So we started our drive through Bagan. Our guide had grown up there and was very proud of his ancient city.
I hope by now you are getting the idea that Bagan is a very special place. It was the first capital of a unified area now called Myanmar. It was very prosperous from 900 A.D. to 1300 A.D. Then the Mongolians, under Genghis Khan arrived. They laid waste to everything but the temples and stupas.
I feel incapable of describing Bagan in any form. Let me say this, I have been to Machu Pichu a couple of times, the pyramids of Giza, the Taj Mahal, the Vatican and none of them impressed me as much as Bagan. I have a few more photos to share.
This Buddha is just one example of the magic of Bagan. I have not been to Angkor Wat in Cambodia yet. I hear it too is pretty special. But…EVERYONE goes to Angkor Wat. It gets some amazingly huge amount of tourist traffic every year. Bagan is still sparsely visited, so see it now!
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Next post, the beautiful Inle Lake, so stay tuned.
Burmese Days is the title of a fun book written by George Orwell. People all over Burma try to sell it to you like tiger balm in Kathmandu.
Orwell is lucky he lived and wrote when he did. Ever since a Peking Duck became a Beijing Duck, Asian name changes have caused confusion, dismay, and sold a lot of new globes. I cannot imagine titling a book Myanmar Days. Or a blog post for that matter. My wife was trying to be politically correct and use the new name, but she kept saying Miramar. Hillary Clinton was in the country a couple months ago and she just called it “your country”. So welcome to Burma.
The only airport to get into Burma is in Yangon. This is the city that was Rangoon. Those international 3 letter acronyms used by airlines for cities change slower then maps, Yangon is still RGN, just like Ho Chi Minh city is still SGN. You can fly into Mandalay (no name change there) but only from China.
As you might know, Burma has just recently become a democracy. It had a rather oppressive military dictatorship since the late 80’s. People put up with it until the military killed a bunch of Buddhist monks, and then they picked up sling shots (really) and revolted. The dictatorship was only recognized by the Chicoms, who have exploited Burma’s natural gas reserves and built a pipeline to China. Every other country, and the financial world as well, refused to deal with the dictatorship. Consequently, there is not a single, not one, ATM in the entire country. Beyond that, you cannot even use a credit card anywhere. That means a tourist has to enter the country with enough cash to last the entire trip. The currency is a Kyat, luckily pronounced “chat”. While we were there, the exchange rate was 865 chats to 1 US$. Just recently they introduced a 5000 kyat note, thank you Buhdda! Tourists before us had to carry enough 1000 kyat notes around to get by. Do the math. That is a lot of paper to trek around with. However, they, like everyone else in the world, love the greenback. So if you go, bring US$. And bring brand new ones! If there is much as a inkspot on a bill, or god forbid, a crease in a bill, no one will take it. Mary Ann tried to tip a porter with a US$1 bill. He inspected it and refused it. OK, no tip for YOU!
So we arrived in Yangon, Rangoon, whatever. We were met by our tourist agency Myanmar Shalom. I thought Shalom must be a Burmese word, but no. The agency is owned by a gentleman named Sammy Samuels who is one of the last 16 Jews in Burma. As you might expect, he brings in a lot of tourists from Israel. We found him on the net. His prices were extremely good, and it turns out the guides he hires are first rate.
When Myanmar moved the capitol, they simply abandoned big buildings that were once ministry offices, and had been since English colonial times. So right now, there are quite a few beautiful colonial buildings standing empty. A couple are being converted to hotels. One ofthe buildings is not so fortunate . The head honcho of the ministry occupying it was being investigated for corruption, so he lit the building on fire. When the fire department arrived, he bribed them to not put out the fire. He went to jail for bribing the fire department.
Chapter two of Burmese Days will cover Bagan, which is quite simply one of the most amazing places I have ever been. Historically, spiritually, and architecturally, it rivals Machu Pichu and the Taj. So stay tuned. Please share this with your FB friends (all you have to do is click on a button, and type “read this” ) and I will appreciate it!
We were warned that the Paro airport in Bhutan is visual only, and the least level of incremental weather shuts it down. Which seems only right because it is surrounded by mountains. They tell you to make any connecting flights with a day lapse in case you cannot get out of Paro. Well, we arrived at the airport on a cloudy morning with drizzling rain. Nothing that would stop an Airbus 320 anywhere else.
However our flight was delayed hours, waiting for perfect weather. Druk air served us lunch and tea in the lobby so that people would not be absent if the clouds lifted.
Our flight was back to Kathmandu. We were not on an 320, but a small prop plane. That meant we should have gotten a great view of Everest.
We got back to Kathmandu on a nice afternoon. We went back to the KGH. We just relaxed for the next day. We spoke with people who had tried to get into Tibet. They actually had their permits and/or visas. But when they got to the border, the Chicoms turned them around, with little or no reason given. We spoke with our travel agent about a visit to Tibet someday, but he was as perplexed by the Chinese constantly changing the rules as we were. Maybe someday we will be able to go, and maybe someday pigs will fly.
We left Kathmandu for Bangkok. We had both been there a few times before, so we looked for something different to do. We signed up for an Intrepid Travel Tuk Tuk tour. It was fun. We saw some interesting and different stuff.
We left BKK for KL. That is Kuala Lumpur. We flew Air Asia, which is an excellent low cost airline that covers that part of the coconut. I hear that the main terminal in KL is beautiful, new and efficient. The low cost terminal is, well, tired.
The KL airport is 1 ½ hours away from KL. We were only going to stay in KL overnight, and leave the next morning so we stayed at a hotel only a ½ hour away, which obviously exists to serve people in transit.
We flew Air Malaysia to a city called Sandakam in the state of Sabah. We were still in the same country, but it was a 2 ½ hour flight, definitely the longest domestic flight I had ever taken in Asia. It was like flying from NY to Chicago. Amazingly, when we got to Sandakam, we had to go through immigration! Oh well, at this point another stamp in my passport is just another stamp.
We were now officially in Borneo. I am not sure just what I expected. Headhunters?
Our tour was arranged through AMAZING BORNEO TOURS. They picked us up at the airport. Our lodge was n the Kinabatangan river, about two hours away. For the next two hours we drove through nothing but palm oil plantations. Miles and miles, thousands and thousands of hectares of land that used to be jungle, is now producing palm oil. It is definitely the cash crop of Sabah. Why all this palm oil? Is this a good or bad thing? Go here to find out.
We got to the lodge after a the long drive. The lodge was OK, nothing to write a blog post about. Our adventure in “wild” Borneo was to start the next day.
The first thing on the agenda was Orangutans. I was thinking that this was the third endangered species I had seen this year, kinda cool. We went to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center. This one of those places that somehow get orphaned or injured critters and raise them until they are prepared to go back into the wild. They showed us an interesting video of their work. I noticed a glaring error and afterward tried to bring it to the attention of the docent. No big deal, but they ought to get their facts straight. I’m no biologist, but I know the film was flawed. This place was billed as a chance to see orangutans play together. After a 45 minute wait at a staged area, in the Borneo heat, we saw ONE. He was led to the feeding area by a refuge worker, and did not look all that enthused about being on display.
we transferred to another lodge where we took trips on the river. On one trip we actually saw Orangutans in the wild, and my favorite, the Jimmy Durante of primates, the Proboscis monkey, on another.
In case I have at all led you to believe we were “explorers” in wild Borneo, this next photo should cancel that idea.
We were treated to a great sunset.
The next day we left the lodge and the river. We drove through palm oil plantations for another hour to see the second cash crop of Sabah, birds nests. Yup, this is the primary source of birds nests for birds nest soup, of which the Chinese are apparently quite fond. They pay a LOT of money for these nests, harvested from a cave.
Well folks, that was it for Borneo. Is it worth your time and treasure to go? Only if you want to say you have been there!
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Bhutan, besides being a country of happy people is a country of almost unparalleled beauty. As you can see, even the money is Bhutiful
We only saw a quarter of it in our week there and a lot of that from the back seat of our sedan. I am not sure how many times I asked the driver to stop so I could take in a vista, and take some photos, but the simple fact that I took close to 700 photos in a week should say something.
Bhutan is of course a mountainous country with plenty of rain. The combination of the two means nice rivers.
I started wondering about fishing, so I asked. Yes, you can fish in Bhutan, with a special permit. They sort of frown on it because Buddhists don’t take the life of creatures, including fish. So I asked “what type of fish are there in these rivers ?” The guide said trout. I started putting two and two together.I figured if nobody fished, and never really had, these rivers must have some lunkers. So I asked the guide “big trout?” He said “some”. The driver, who was a very communicative young man shook his head and said “huge trout”. He related a story that about a year ago he had guided five Texans into the mountains to do some fly fishing. He was happy they practiced catch and release. He started telling me about them landing 8 to 10 pound trout all day long while he fished with a bamboo pole and a worm on a hook. He said he caught the biggest, and so that is the one they ate for dinner. This is one reason, among many, I would love to return to the land of the Thunder Dragon.
If I were a birder, I would definitely find Bhutan a destination of choice. Bhutan has many tour companies specializing in birding. This is one I only chose that one because I stole the following photo from their web site.
Not that I was always ready to get good bird photos (which is an art in and of itself) but I did see many bhutiful birds during my stay.
Bhutan has some marvelous detail work on their buildings.
I have made a big deal about Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness. They take a census and publish the results, and then take action where needed. The idea is catching on. The UN is talking about it, but most amazing is that so is the US Fed Reserve. Don’t believe me, read this. Be sure to read the mention about Bhutan half way down the story.
Another reason they might be so happy is their music.
One weird thing I saw in Bhutan, and no where else I have been, is using a Phallus as a talisman against evil.
OK, so the government of Bhutan will not admit it, but I happen to think that one little reason for the happiness is this; pot grows wild all over the place.
So I asked the guide, who of course works for the government, if this was perhaps a factor in the happiness thing. He denied it and said that the marijuana is only used for pig food. Don’t believe me? Read this.
However, the driver who was a bit more irreverent (had to love him) said that the young people, because of the influence of TV and movies have discovered they have a natural source of happiness growing at their feet, and yes, they are feeding the pigs less.
That is it for Bhutan. I strongly suggest that the more adventurous readers/travelers go to experience this place yourselves. You can only get there through Thailand, Bangladesh or Nepal. I suggest Nepal. The best guy to set you up with tours or trekking in both places is Mr. Pandy, who you can contact right here.
Thanks for reading, share with a friend, make a comment, or better yet, plan your own trip!
This post will cover the two most spiritual things I have ever experienced. I was deeply moved by both of them. Bhutan is a deeply Buddhist country. I have mentioned before that if I ever decided to convert, as if I were disciplined enough to try, it would be in Bhutan. I found that the Tantrayana sect of Buddhism appeals to me for some reason I cannot fathom. Maybe it is just that it seems unspoiled by outside influences, much like Bhutan itself.
On the longest touring day in our itinerary we drove through beautiful mountains.
Prayer flags for our loved ones.
Our drive took us to a place called Punakha Dzong located at 3050 meters.
When I came back down the hill Mary Ann let me know that there was a Monk there who sold strings of prayer flags. That is exactly what I had just wished for. I do not care if I am in a Christian church, a mosque or a temple, I always say a prayer for the sole of my departed son. I really wanted to hang a string of prayer flags for him.
Hearing the Voice of Buddha.
From here we drove further until we reached what is called the most beautiful valley in the Himalayas.
As spiritual as beauty can be sometimes, in Bhutan you just never know what comes next
What we saw inside was a very large court yard surrounded by “dorm” rooms for a considerable amount of Monks. In the middle of the court yard was a temple. It was completely full of both Monks and civilians. They were all intently listening to an elderly Monk speaking a lesson. We peaked in, but did not feel like making a scene and trying to enter the crowded floor space. The man’s voice sounded wonderful, It sounded soothing. People were paying rapt attention.
When we left, our guide said how lucky we were to have heard the voice of Buddha. He could see by the look on my face that he owed me an explanation.
He went on to explain. In the Tantrayana sect of Buddhism, at any time there are three men walking the earth who are Lamas. One carries the spirit of Buddha, one the mind of Buddha, and one the voice of Buddha. That is who we had just been listening to. This was his monastery, these were his Monks. He is in his eighth reincarnation. His first life was in 800 A.D. Apparently he has clear memories from each of his lives. This is basically how they know he is a venerated Lama.
I was feeling very privileged. After seeing something like a million statues of Buddha in the last few years, to magically be transported to a place where I could hear his voice, made me start thinking…”am I destined for Buddhism?” Probably not, there is no way I could tolerate a mosquito biting me without killing it.
That is it for spirituality for the day. Time to go beat my wife’s cat for scratching the couch. Share with a friend, subscribe, comment, anything. Just let me know you are out there!
Bhutan Protects the Timeless Knowledge
There were three floors of the “old” library, each with a shrine to the Buddha.
Bhutan Enters the Digital Age!
Just outside of the capital city of Thimpu, there is a brand new IT Park
Space inside this building has already been leased to Microsoft and other international high tech companies. It will also serve as a start-up bed for Bhutanese entrepreneurs.
The Project Manager for the construction phase is an Australian that goes by the name of Shax. he keeps an interesting blog about the project and life in Bhutan. I suggest you read it, here.
Next post, A sacred ceremony Mary Ann and I performed which was the highlight of my five weeks in Asia.
Please share. Please return. Please comment. Please enjoy.
Yes, Bhutan is a happy place. I mentioned before that the government actually does a yearly census to evaluate the level of happiness and look for ways to make people even happier, now THAT is a wonderment.
I also mentioned that there is a US$250 “tariff” you must pay to visit Bhutan. This is actually a good deal because it includes everything except beer and souvenirs. So, it cost us a bit more ;-). That tariff is actually in place to keep Bhutan from becoming over run with back packers like what happened with Nepal, India and Thailand. I know it sounds snobbish, but thank Buddha they figured that out. The result keeps everyone happy! OK backpackers…snipe away in the comments.
One thing every country wants you to see are the handicrafts. Weaving, carving, and paper making. I always enjoy going because you know what…it is always different in every country, not to mention the best place for souvenirs. (My wife and I have a sort of unspoken but over riding rule, if we see something made, we are going to buy it.)
Besides the crafts, tours in Asia always make sure you see the temples. I know I have been in more Buddhist temples than 95% of the Buddhists on the coconut. But like the weaving, they all have a certain distinctness to them. You have to look hard but it is there. In our travels I have seen the worlds smallest Buddha, and now I have seen the worlds largest under construction Buddha. When he is done, he will just be a big beautiful Buddha, not the worlds largest. Some very rich man from Hong Kong is paying for this project. I wish I could be there when they consecrate it because I am sure it will be a spectacle.
The next post will take a quick look at Bhutan old and new. The ancient library and the brand new technology center. Whatever makes you happy! Stay tuned, share with a friend.
These two events were not on our tour agenda.
On our first full day in Bhutan, we found two towns involved in an archery tournament. Archery is the national sport. I was simply not prepared for what we saw.
These guys were all first rate archers, who had earned the right through years of experience to compete for the town they are from. What I found particularly interesting was that when others were shooting, they would drift away and drink beer and smoke cigarettes! What a cool sport!
As you might imagine, when an archer actually hits the the target it is cause for song and dance. No really, song and dance! Play the following video for “proof”.
I am going to jump ahead a few days. The day of the week is important here. It was a Tuesday, which is “Walking Day” in Bhutan. Private cars are not allowed to be driven. The king asks his people to get off their duffs and walk to work or the market.
In a small town in the mountains (well, Bhutan is mostly small towns in the mountains, but…) we ran across a tournement of taxi drivers playing each other in the second national sport of Bhutan, darts. I am not talking about darts like in some pub. These were serious darts.
They were thrown by serious men!
Like the archery this was not an easy sport.
They really had to chuck it The effort resembled a baseball pitcher.
Of course when they hit the target they sang and danced. Only here, the opposing team members got to harass them a bit!
Next post…hmmm…well, all I’ll promise is more from the land of the Thunder Dragon. Stay tuned.