17 September 2016

Scotland, A Wee Bit Wet and Wavering

pluviophile ‎(plural pluviophiles)
1 . (biology) Any organism that thrives in conditions of heavy rainfall
2. One who loves rain, a rain-lover

Courtesy of Wiktionary, https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/pluviophile

So finally I conclude, discerningly that I am, in fact, a pluviophile. This condition is evidently so rare that MS Word angrily underlines the word in red, bewildered at the term. My pluviophile identity emerged only after spending two and a half summers in Tel Aviv. But saying “summers,” is somewhat deceiving because here they last seven grueling, blinding months. Occasionally scattered August clouds tease weather, but they are just mocking. A dark October morning does not rain portend, but an encroaching waterless dust storm.

I first suspected that I held a limited tolerance for the sun when I lived in Colorado. Don’t get me wrong; the year-round weather in Denver is superb: four seasons, with occasional summer in winter, sometime winter in summer, occasional winter in spring and autumn, and well, anytime winter wants to visit Colorado she is welcome. However, sun reigns throughout the Coloradan annum. Bright, bright, blasting high-altitude radiation. But at least the ultra-variable weather will always bring clouds at some point, year round. Not like predictable Tel Aviv. Blah.

Tel Aviv summers are all the more puzzling because of the humidity. Where does the moisture come from??? A rainless dry heat would be so much more bearable in its biological comprehension – but humid scorching months on end without rain??? Where is the sense? Tel Aviv does not have its own unique weather. Half the year, this coast has NO weather; it suffers a lack of weather. It is anti-weather.

Last year I escaped the Mediterranean summer by working in Central Asia for a few weeks. Though thoroughly sunny, the weather in Kazakhstan was cool with occasional scents of ozone. It was enough to tide me over till the November rains returned to the Israeli coast.

This year anyway, I knew I couldn’t make it through the moist sunny furnace without a few weeks of weather. So I went to Scotland.

I flew across the Med and the Balkans, changed planes in the spaceship monstrosity that FRA has become, and then headed out on a quick hop over the North Sea to Edinburgh.

The immigration official was intrigued, and I was intrigued that he was intrigued. I can count on a hand a half how many times an immigration official has asked me any questions. Maybe he was just having a slow day. “What’ch your plans in Scotland?” he smiled inquisitively. “I’m going to do some kayaking up in Kyle of Lochalsh,” I answered. “Ha! Ha!” He chuckled out loud, like I had just told him the punch line of some clever joke. “Kayaking in Kyle of Lochalsh!!!” As I waited for my luggage to arrive, I pondered why he thought that was so funny.

This was my first trip back to the UK in 16 years. When I was here last, I was a third year foreign student at uni, and I studied British politics, specifically with regards to expansion of the European Union and devolution within the UK. Tony Blair was PM, and at that time he was still relatively popular. Since I’d left, they had had two PMs and we had elected two presidents, and just the week before the people of Great Britain had narrowly voted to leave the EU in the time it takes to finish a bowl of a molar-crunching breakfast cereal named Brexit.

The first thing I wanted to do was to get a proper pint of room temperature English bitter and eat some greasy pub fare. But first, I went out to the “Commie Pool” for some 50m laps.

On my way out to the Commie Pool, about two hours after I arrived in Edinburgh, I was walking along the sidewalk when a skinhead said something racist to a family walking along the street. They seemed to ignore him in a way that made me understand that it wasn’t the first time it had happened.

The Commie Pool is actually called the Commonwealth Pool, used during the Commonwealth Games when they were held in Scotland in the 60’s. I rather enjoyed it as it felt kind of like I was swimming laps in an Olympic sized pool built into a terminal at JFK airport in New York.

On my way to the pub from the pool, it started to rain for nearly two weeks.

Over a Guinness that can only taste that good in such proximity to Ireland, I cheered as Wales beat Belgium in the EuroCup. I walked back to my hotel, a converted social club for a Scottish regiment, and watched some fantastic British television as I waited till late, and in vain, for darkness to fall on Edinburgh.

Like any good tourist I began my Saturday morning circuit, powered by some severely craved corporate coffee paired with a sausage roll, waiting in the line of entry at the doorstep of Edinburgh Castle.

I had apparently arrived in the midst of some sort of hubbaloo. The castle would be delayed opening. The Queen was in town. She was down the hill at Holyrood Palace and was to speak at the Scottish Parliament that day. But she needed her Scottish crown and had sent her royal highness’s Royal Second-Nephew-Removed-or-Some-Such up the hill to fetch it. Of course, fortunately for the tourist, this being British royalty, national symbolism and such, this fetching demands some very photogenic ceremony.

First came the Scottish bagpipers. Then some Scottish regiment whose leader apologized for being a bit rusty as this was the first time they had performed in public in years, but the novice I am could judge only a perfect performance. Finally came a police motorcade bearing a royal black car. The motorcade disappeared into the keep for 15 minutes or so, and then emerged with the crown. It was perched atop at eye level on a velvet pillow inside with the car. The Royal Second-Nephew-Removed-or-Some-Such staring at the pillow with his hands placed tightly on his lap in a flawless Eton posture. And I thought I had a strange life.
Edinburgh Castle was interesting but way too crazy with tourists to be enjoyed, so I escaped down the hill to go shopping for scotch.

That night, I walked about Edinburgh. Warm light sprung from the residences and provided captions of daily life like as a picture book. A couple shared a seafood meal by candlelight in a basement tavern. A bachelor party concluded an all-day bender at an ornate dinner table - half the party collapsed unconscious in their chairs, or heads slumped in the crook of their arms while the front door hung ajar.

In Edinburgh and Glasgow, I found I rather enjoyed the air about Scottish cities in summer night. In the ne’er-ending twilight, seagulls soared and sung beneath the clouded ceiling.

Arriving in Kyle of Lochalsh the next day via Inverness and the Loch Ness, a coach deposited me on the doorstep of this windswept village on the Scottish coast.

It was an abandoned Sunday, and Scotrail was on strike, so likewise, I abandoned plans to overnight in more picturesque Plockton, and resigned myself to retiring an early night in a dilapidated inn perched on the foundations of its better days overlooking the Kyle Akin Strait.

On a rainy Independence Day morning, I walked down to the slip to meet the group for my five-day kayaking excursion. Our expedition consisted of two guides; one Scotsman, one Welshman, and five of us: one Englishman, one Scotswoman, a retired Glaswegian couple and me the lone Extra-Commonwealthian.

We drove to a coffee shop and the guides explained out intended route around the southern end of the Isle of Skye. We would put in at the village of Elgol, explore the harbors, caves and coves of the southern part of the island.

On the first day, Monday, we explored the bay off of Elgol, set up camp on the Isle of Soay and had some haggis for dinner. The second day was pretty fantastic kayaking with some of the most variable weather imaginable, and overall made for excellent wildlife sighting. Northern Gannets hunted from the air like feathery meteors and Cormorants dove from the surface like torpedoes, which was appropriate given that, according to the marine map we were traversing submarine exercise grounds. Plovers, snips, sandpipers and terns varied in their opinions at our passage in being hilarious, inconsequential or outrageous. We stopped in for a wee bit of spelunking at the Spar Cave and then transited Loch Slapin to enter the mouth of jaw-dropping Loch Eishort and camp at the far end of the loch somewhere opposite Drumfearn.

People wander the earth for a wide variety of reasons, but I think one phenomenon is universal among travelers. Let’s call it “euphoric exotica.” Euphoric exotica is the fleeting rush a traveler feels when she/he had “arrived” in a far flung corner of the world – that where you are and what you are doing feels quintessentially exotic from what you know or have known. It can be when you’re riding a camel in the Sahara, or sipping a cup of milk tea in a mud cup on the Ganges, or sweating the vodka off in a Ukrainian sauna. It doesn’t last long, but you sigh, smile and marvel at where you’re at and what you’re doing.

Of course, you don’t always have a camera handy when the euphoric exotica occurs. In many cases, that’s probably a good thing. So many tourists spend all their precious time documenting their experience that they don’t experience what their documentation.

In this case, there are photos out there somewhere of what occurred but I didn’t take them. I was sitting on my camping chair with a broad smile across my face and the best scotch I’ve ever had in my hand. There was a campfire, a double rainbow and a massive shaft of light descending from the heavens, anointing the emerald green carpet of croft. Oh well, a photo would have been useless anyway.

The next morn, I started out with a polar bear swim in the Loch with a severely inquisitive otter. Then I walked to the stone ruins of an abandoned village and bathed in what was once the town centre.

The highlight of Wednesday was a transverse across a cove with dozens of seals poking their Labrador-like heads up around the kayaking party, silently staring at us. It felt a bit interstellar. Is this how future mankind will feel when we land on a planet, and emerge intelligent or semi-intelligent beings to take a gander at our strangeness?

Wednesday tuned out to be a bit of a rough day due to the weather. A strong gale hit us from the south just as we paddled towards Sleat Pointe making for terrible kayaking conditions. At last, we relented and retreated to shelter on a point by the village of Tarskavaig.

That night the gale was so strong I thought for sure it would make nylon toilet paper out of my Big Agnes tent.

Multi-day sea kayaking excursions are wet, even without constant rain. You will spend your existence in a wet suit or dry suit, soaking up infiltrating water with a giant sponge. Waves will smack you broadside when paddling, or front side when launching or from the stern when sheltering. Water from the paddle or its splash will drift up you arms or splatter your face. And all of this is supposing no precipitation, so if it rains, you might as well have embarked on a five day swim.

As they concluded that the gale would persist and the present journey was untenable, the next morning the guides called the outfit to retrieve the cars and portage the kayaks over to an area with more sheltered kayaking.

We left Skye to put in again inland on calm Loch Duich, From there we kayaked past Dornie Castle, did a wee bit of surfing through some fast moving tidal currents into Loch Long where we camped for the final night.

The expedition braved a steady rain to walk the mile down the road it took to reach to the pub in Dornie. A few beers and a few whiskeys later, we shut the place down and returned to our tents.

I awoke with a terrible cold. After five days on the water, I also had a wee bit of a split lip, cut fingers and a back that I had aggravated carrying kayaks to/from the water’s edge.

On the way back, we stopped by Dornie Castle to take a couple of photos. My guide said that this was the quintessential Scotland view: a Loch and a castle – all that was missing was a bagpiper. Right on cue, at that moment a bagpiper emerged on the shore and started playing a ballad. I shit you not.

I’ll never know how mankind ever lived without daily bathing and hot water, but I suppose they simply didn’t know what they were missing. What’s really perplexing though is that modern man who knows both, but are able to swear off such things for months at a time. My guide, who leads expeditions in Patagonia, remarked he once went 30 days without ever taking off any of his clothes. I shuddered violently when thought of that.

Back in Kyle of Lochalsh, a twenty-minute hot shower and a three-course seafood dinner later (The Waterside Restaurant at the train station, I highly recommend it), I slept for 11 hours and awoke to feel like a new lad in the morning just in time for my 5-hour journey south to Loch Lomond and the Trossachs.

Some of the best scenery on this leg of the trip is south of Ft. William, by the Vietnamese-sounding Bidean Nam Bien.

Disembarking at Tarbet, I transferred to the ferry that took me across Loch Lomond to Inversnaid.

I only went up to Inversnaid to do a wee bit hiking off of the Scottish version of the Appalachian Trail, The West Highland Way. It turned out to be atrocious for hiking as it not only rained, but also soaked for those two days. On the first afternoon, I walked along the lake to look at some of the waterfalls. The second day, I hiked out towards the Trossachs to Rob Roy’s homestead and his family cemetery. I believe I acquired the early stages of trench foot and everything I owned was soaked thoroughly, but I enjoyed myself anyway. The bunkhouse I stayed at had a superb collection of pale ale and a Jacuzzi. The EuroCup finals were on that night and everyone gathered around the small TV to watch it. A Frenchwoman sung the Marseilles, and we consoled her as the Portuguese won in OT.

I was done with nature by the time I arrived back in Tarbet, but apparently the Scots were not done with the rail strike. There were no trains to Glasgow, so a nice Swiss couple from Davos and I were lucky enough to snag the last three seats on a coach bound for Glasgow.

In Glasgow, I had some passable Korean food for dinner, walked around this cloudy cool town and went scotch shopping. That’s all I had time for in Glasgow before a night at a nice hotel near the station and making my way to London the next day.

In London, my plans were non-adventurist, but rather touristic. I stayed a four-star chain hotel in Westminster. I aimed to enter no less than three museums in my four days, and swim laps at no less than two swimming pools. I also planned to spend a wee bit of cash now that Brexit had made the pound as cheap as it had been since Margaret Thatcher was PM.

Brexit was on everyone’s lips. In the Tube, in the pubs, in the restaurants. Theresa May took up residence in 10 Downing while I was there. This was a consequential, exciting week in British politics. As a student of British politics, I never thought I’d see a consequential, exciting week in British politics in my lifetime. Notwithstanding, Parliament is much, much more fun to watch then the floor of the US Congress.

This bookend to my holiday was a resounding success. I walked the Tate, the British Museum, the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and even made it out to Greenwich to see the Royal Maritime Museum, something I had wanted to do since I read about the Greenwich clock in a textbook when was a boy. I was inches from Lord Horatio Nelson’s waistcoat, an artifact experience I place in my hall of fame along with George Washington’s telescope and Abraham Lincoln’s hat.

As far as shopping, I bought myself a snazzy pair of English dress shoes, some business slacks, English tea and sweets, biscuits for the ladies at the office, museum books for my nieces and some souvenirs for the fam.

I’m only partially embarrassed that in that week I went to Five Guys for a burger and Chipotle for a burrito since I live in the Middle East and it’s been more than a year since I had either one. I never quite get over the fact that my country’s food culture permeates almost every city in the world like french fry grease through a paper bag.

I swam laps at the Ironmonger Row Baths, a small but classy local pool in the Golden Lane Estate area. Of course, I could not leave London without also swimming laps in the London Aquatics Centre at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

On my last night, I went back to the John Snow, an old pub in SoHo that I visited during my first trip to Europe 16 years ago. “Did the pub shrink since 2000?” I asked the bartender. “I was here a long time ago and it seems a lot smaller than what it was when I was last here.” He shook his head and smiled, “It hasn’t changed for a hundred years or so - it’s always been this size.”

I realized then, that in 16 years, it was the world that had shrunk, and not the pub.

24 April 2016

Bagan By Boat, While You Still Can

(Caption: Crowded real estate for sunsets.)

I first visited a Southeast Asian nation in 2002. On an island offshore, some fool had erected a Starbucks. This place, which was a fishing village as late as the 1990’s, was now a thumping 24-7 beach club-flea market proffering profane T-Shirts, strip shows and made-in-China knickknacks. I didn’t expect to find “The Beach”, but at least some quiet, sunny corner of the world with a few hostels. I had arrived too late.

I’ve traveled quite a bit in the last 15 years or so, but I do not claim to be an expert on international travel. Yet from what I have, I see there to be around seven stages of the “death of the exotic”: 1.) exotic place exists with near-zero tourism, 2.) discovery by budget travelers, 3.) discovery by guidebooks, blogs and budget traveler industry, 4.) discovery by middle income traveler industry, 5.) discovery by chain hotel and high-end travel industry, 6.) infiltration by chain merchandise and restaurant industries, 7.) place ceases to be an exotic destination. It’s interesting that I have found that stages are interrupted in places. Some quiet parts of Europe, in the mountains for example, have successfully arrested various stages of the above with strict zoning laws, building permit restrictions and limits on accommodation offerings. In other parts of the world, stages are frozen due to the remoteness of the location, or due to political instability.

But there’s a reason why it is still worth a trip to Waikiki or Goa even though these places have long reached Stage 7. They are still beautiful and interesting places, but they are no longer exotic. I disagree that tourism always ruins a place. Tourism can provide for jobs and infrastructure, it can preserve an ecosystem, make abundant clean water and tax revenue. But it can also bring crime and exploitation, it can erode culture and in later stages, denigrate small and family businesses. Mass tourism almost always introduces the dull, yawning uniformity that white washes many of the beauty, quirks and blemishes of which made it special in the first place. So if you have an open window in space-time to see an exotic place before it is completely altered by tourism, best buy the ticket.

Myanmar has been on my bucket list for a long time. I knew that Myanmar has been on the backpacker circuit for decades, and that it was opening up to mid-range tourism. For example, Myanmar now issues tourist visas online and the approval process was almost as fast as buying a pair of socks on Amazon. But I was fairly certain Myanmar was still lingering momentarily in the exotic, at least for the time being. For the bulk of the journey, I was generally proven correct.

After an evening sojourn with Thai food at an efficient [chain] airport hotel in Bangkok, I flew across the wet forest then dry tropic plain to Mandalay.

The Mandalay airport is tiny, and therefore extremely convenient. After I received the nicest smile from an immigration officer that I can recall in recent memory, my bags were waiting for me and I was in a taxi heading into town within 14 minutes of wheels down.

Mandalay is a modest, friendly city with some terrifically unique attributes. Imagine if Central Park in New York had a moat around it with a high 25 foot wall and a fantastic reconstructed palace in the center of the park? Now picture if the whole park except the palace was an army camp that is off limits to the public. That’s Mandalay, and worth every penny of the journey and the $8 admission fee for foreigners.

On the first evening, I hopped on the back of moped taxi to the center to grab some delicious duck and greens. It took a bit of time to muster the courage to hop back on the back of a moped again and try not to squirm as the driver maneuvered between speeding trucks, launching over potholes in the evening diesel fog. Secret is to not pay attention to the physics of what's going on around you. That, and be properly insured for a medevac.

My only full day in Mandalay was packed with visiting the Buddhist temples atop Mandalay Hill, down below at Kyauktawgyi Paya and Sandamuni Paya and the Mandalay Palace, the non-forbidden site in the center of the forbidden fortress.

Nighttime in Mandalay is quite photogenic, as the walls of the mighty fortress are highlighted with flood lamps, and the temples atop Mandalay Hill are headlined above the darkness with neon and colored lights reminiscent of Christmastime in Vegas.

Then it was off to Bagan by boat. This journey consists of treading the well-worn waterway of the 10 hour powered-float down the Ayeyarwady River from Mandalay to Bagan.

I had been really looking forward to this leg of the trip. What better television than to recline in a wicker chair and watch the river and her people float by? Along the banks of the Ayeyarwady, water buffalo pull plows, women beat clothes clean on the rocks, men shovel, or fish or smoke, children run the banks and swim. The river traffic impatiently plods the waves, from barges laden with pottery, to massive tugs of happy hues and small fishing craft tending their nets. All the while, the banks gleam in gold jewelry of payas and temples well into the horizon, sweeping in both directions East and West. Chanting and bells prose softly to the gutter throat refrain of the boat engines.

We docked along the muddy banks in Old Bagan, and I shared a taxi with two Brits I had met along the way. I managed to stay awake through a curry, a cold beer and some sort of traditional puppet show put on by the hotel, but collapsed before 9 in the jet lag that had finally overtaken me. Puppets danced with me in my sleep. When I tried to sing along with them, they winced, putting their tiny puppet fingers in their ears.

On Wednesday, I explored Bagan. The guidebooks recommended that I rent an “e-bike” to get around Bagan, due to the distance between temples (Note to file: In some sort of latter day animism, Brits say ‘hire’ instead of ‘rent’.) An e-bike however is not an electric bicycle of the sort that are harassing Tel Aviv. They are actually electric mopeds with a bit more horsepower – getting up to a top speed of approximately 50 km per hour.

Herein I am inaugurating a new word and calling it templing. Templing (pronounced “temple-ling) is what you do when you want to go see Hindu or Buddhist temples, or temples from other religions, more than one in a 24 hour period. You are therefore going templing. What I pictured as templing when I was seven; using my whip to traverse a treacherous gap in the floor, wiping tarantulas off my back or outrunning a giant rolling boulder; is actually more like visiting the Lincoln Memorial on a Sunday except that it is hundreds of years older and you sometimes have to take off your shoes.

more enthralling.

Like you usually do on a multiweek vacai, I had a few errands to run before I could start my templing. I rode the 10 km or so up to New Bagan and booked onward bus fare to Kalaw and a plane trip later in the trip. The owner talked me into a half day excursion with his friend the next day to Mt. Popa, what would amount to a private 100 km round trip journey for only $30.

Errands completed and awarded with a sense of accomplishment, I set about exploring the hot and dusty plains scattered with thousands of temples borne by my fully charged, fluorescent green e-bike.

So, these are just some pictures. I’m not to adept at explaining places that are so mind-boggling famous and for good reasons. The pictures aren’t going to convey the awesome feeling of a city of massive, beautifully carved 1000 year-old temples. It’s like I enjoyed Tikal or the Roman Forum: smiling, walking, some climbing, all the while, looking up.

I appreciate how everyone, old and young, foreign and domestic, important and ordinary, must take off their shoes before they walk into a temple. Walking quietly, barefoot in these holy and ancient places, I felt so much more reverent and connected to those who had padded along before me. As a guest in Buddha’s house, it seemed only proper to take off your shoes before entering.

More than a dozen times, I caught some locals trying to sneak a picture of me with their phones. When I caught them, I was sure to pose for them. Sometimes, when they saw I was willing to pose, the family members would take turns in having their picture with me. It was fun to back in Asia, to lose one’s anonymity and become a nameless celebrity once again.

I ran into my British shipmates and we rode our ebikes out to a non-descript temple on the river to watch the sun set over the western hills. There we found some friendly locals drinking whiskey, smoking traditional cigars, singing and playing the guitar. The music lent itself to a speechless backdrop as dusk settled on the river.

Driving home at night from a restaurant with temples lit up on either side of the road is most excellent fun. The headlight expired on my ebike just as I was entering my hotel, not as I was driving 50 km down a dark road, so all was working out swell. Back at base, I recommended to the attendant that he provide my ebike full medical leave.

My private driver showed up at 8am sharp and we headed down the road to Mt. Popa, stopping along the road at a cottage industry setup for some shopping of sugar cane cookies and date candy that I thought would make fine treats for the office back home in Tel Aviv, but ultimately failed to travel the twelve days in my backpack with the delicate tastes of refined palm sugar preserved.

The driver did not speak English very well, but he, like many Myanmar people I noticed, were considerate and drove very sensibly (or was I just comparing to my normal?). I asked him why Myanmar was the only country of the entire swath of dozens of countries, from New Zealand and Australia, to China, to Japan to Thailand and India, that drives on the right. He said something like that was just the way of the Myanmar people to be different. I asked him why his steering wheel was then on the right hand side of his vehicle. He replied that in Myanmar, it was much cheaper to buy a vehicle that conformed to the rest of Asian standards. I looked out the window and daydreamed on the moment the world decides on international emission standards to fight global warming and restrictions on fishing, they might as well also arrive on a common conclusion as to which side of the road to drive on, and which kind of electric plug and current everyone will use.

Mt. Popa is a mad house of a mountain top monkey temple, and I mean that in the most very endearing way possible. Like the Old City in Jerusalem, Mt. Popa is a flea market maze, touting serious religious icons aside t-shirts and coffee mugs. While Jerusalem is mostly flat, Mt. Popa is vertical and involves climbing an awful lot of stairs. The people bought newspaper rolls full of Monkey seed that were then thrown the monkeys. One offered alms to the men who staked out a claim of a dozen or so stairs, and cleaned them. Some monkeys get tired of Monkey seed and eat flowers instead. Maybe they have a nut allergy, but I did not think to ask.
My driver offered me a $5 upgrade to stop at Mt. Popa Mountain Park on the way back. Seemed like a fine deal. He slept as I spent an hour or so in the forest. I started walking up towards the top of Mt. Popa, with no intention of going very far, as I was in flip flops and had no water. Then I ran into the Myanmar Boy Scouts – all 1,000 or so of them and provided, as free public service, English lessons to each and every one of them as I ascended and then again as I descended.

I got back at mid day and had plenty of time to some more templing. Here you go. All the virtual templing you can possibly handle.

These temples were all interspersed with some very fine eating. Burmese curries. Chinese food. Indian masala. When I got tired of rice, I escaped into a very commendable wood-fired pizza establishment washed down with a cold Coca-Cola. On the Exotic scale, I’d give Bagan a 4 rating. It’s certainly been discovered by the mid range industry, and while there are some hotels that charge high end rates, there’s no way the towns that make up Bagan (New Bagan, Old Bagan and Nyaung U) have fallen to anything that resembles high end resorts, mass tourism or chain industry. Hens still cross the road and their husbands still roar like mad in the morning.

On an early Saturday morning, I hopped a crowded mashrutka to Kalaw. Why am I calling a Mercedes passenger van a mashrutka when I’m thousands of miles from the post-Soviet universe? Because I found the %*$&#& van to be to the exacting standards of torture of a Former-USSR mashrutka. Precisely three inches too short to accommodate my 6’1” frame, over crowded beyond capacity (the driver’s cabin boy rode on the roof with the luggage) and possessing absolutely no shocks or struts whatsoever. It was a horrendous 10 hour drive along pot holed streets, up the mountain passes to Kalaw.

I was originally going to do a three day overland trek starting the next morning to Inle Lake, but was recommended to keep it to no more than two days. However, when I arrived, the guide company I had been in contact with apologetically said that they had no more two day trips available, only three day trips so I gladly booked a one day sojourn into the surrounding woods with a local guide. After ordering a massive dinner at a local Nepalese establishment, I stopped by a local watering hole, “Hi Snack” for a refreshment. It was literally a dark hole lit by candles – with a small, oval shaped, actual bar (very rare in Myanmar) that took up most of the tavern. The specialty was local rum sours mixed up by the proprietor, and the clients varied widely: Myanmar truck drivers chewing betel leaves, two English backpackers who looked like they were 15, an Irish biochemist grad student and an American bloke who volunteers at a local NGO.

The trip up into the mountains the next day was a fairly low key walk into what basically consisted of a steamy piece of protected parkland skirting a reservoir surrounded by villages set into cultivated mountainsides growing rice, tobacco and oranges. I asked my guide, if, in his several years of guiding experience if he’d ever seen a cobra. “Only a dead one” he replied. After lunch of the best guacamole I’ve ever had outside the Western Hemisphere, me and my guide walked into the woods and looked at water buffalo, sleeping pot bellied pigs and some kids playing a local version of marbles with balls of tightly pressed clay. As we were nearing the edge of the forest, my guide jumped back into to me in horror as a huge, black cobra shot through the tall grass in front of us.

Anxious as I was to get down to the resort I had booked at Inle Lake, I skipped the local train which would have been much longer, but much more atmospheric and took local transport by incredibly uncomfortable van once again down the mountain to the cross roads at Shwenyaung where you hire a taxi to Nyaungshwe and Inle Lake beyond. I recommend that every take the train, if they can afford the time.

I had already known that Inle Lake was at least a 5 or higher on the Exotic scale because I had booked two nights at an internationally branded resort complete with an infinity pool, spa and crappy restaurant that sells horrendously imitated Western food. I was in fact, fleeing from my own brand of middle-aged Western tourism. You see, in the middle of my trip, I wanted a few days in the middle of my journey to sit by a pool, swim some laps, read my 50’s dime store sci-fi novel and get a massage. I certainly did not want to eat the toxic sludge the restaurant conjured up, and naturally the resort was far from any town or connection with the local people or community. I could actually spend no more than 48 hours in such a place without going bored out of my mind so that’s exactly how long I spent there. Just two days, just to relax.

I arrived in the morning, found out I was occupying one of only 12 occupied rooms out of 100 at the resort, so of course I could go straight to my room. I only left to go across the street to a store to buy beers from a local grandmother for $1 a piece instead of paying a hilarious $5 for a can half the size in my hotel minibar. Capitalism certainly has its discontents, but times like this, the invisible hand totally rocks pure concentrated justice.

The morning of the second day, I hired a boat and skipper for the day to head out onto Inle Lake.

Yes, Inle Lake has certainly already been discovered by international tourism. It is only a matter of time before it is more than longtail motorboats plod the waterways with sunburnt Westerners in shorts and umbrella-toting Chinese package makers. There will be air-conditioned glass covered boats like they have in Amsterdam, seaplane rides and nightclubs thumping their bass away across the lake.

However, there is certainly still plenty of exotic left on the shores of Inle Lake. Whole villages exist on stilts surrounding the lake, like a Venice of the Orient. Enjoy the peace of nighttime on the lake while there’s still curfew. See the local women actually weave before it’s all just an offshore operation with fanciful demos for the look-n-see’ers. See the local water taxi passengers smile and wave, and then return the gesture.

After taking me to silver smiths and weavers and tobacco rollers, my skipper took me up river to do some more templing. The locals had a fascinating infrastructure in the river that were like locks in a dam, except that there was an opening in the center which allowed boats going both up and downstream to traverse the lock – upstream boats patiently yielding to downstream travelers.

All in all, my conclusion Inle Lake is similar to many must-see tourist destinations in the world. There’s a reason why people impress themselves in a tube and catapult themselves into the troposphere for 12 hours with dog food for supper. It’s to see glorious places like this, and this lake is worth every minute of the discomfort of economy class air travel and ever-escalating risk of deep vein thrombosis.

Nyaungshwe is a big tourist town on the north shore and it marks the beginning of what will soon become Ocean City, Myanmar. A swanky brewpub operated by a European just opened up and ATMs can be found on every street corner. I hired a bicycle and rode out through rice paddies to the hot springs, the current quality of which will be very challenging for tourism to ruin, but I’m sure it will try in earnest.

The next day, I flew down to Yangon to visit friends and sit in traffic. The plane was a turboprop, filled to capacity and from what I could tell, mostly foreign tourists.

After I dropped off my luggage and started a load of laundry at a friend’s apartment, I set off to do a bit of site seeing. I headed to the mighty golden spire of Shwedagon Paya and then hopped a taxi over to a massive reclining Buddha a mile away before calling it a day. Yangon seems to list wildly like a top-heavy galleon in rough seas between the frenetic and the tranquil. Shwedagon was like an outdoor golden library that everyone wants to see – bubbling with motion, but calm and orderly. Outside, a taxi ride runs through a churning, deafening turbulence of the city, before depositing me adjacent to Chaukhtatgyi Paya, a silent chasm filled with cerebral Buddha save the sound of intermittent beeps of photographing cell phone like crickets, and the shuffling footsteps of wanderers.

The next day, after a bit of shopping for wooden sculptures and the mandatory T-Shirt or two, I enjoyed looking at some rather dingy, yet seemingly immortal relics of the British Empire. As the temperature soared into the 90’s with a similar grade of humidity at mid-day, I pulled down the flag of adventure and retreated into air conditioning.

I preferred gazing at Yangon at night - from the distance of my friend’s balcony while a smoked a hand-rolled Burmese cigar I had picked up from Inle Lake. The lights reflecting on the gold spire of Shwedagon provide a sort of Olympian mystique. In the daylight, Yangon felt a bit like stifling, roaring Calcutta. In twilight, the city was more apparently a bubbling river of light topped by a magic golden pyramid that seemed to float on the haze of the horizon.

After catching up with a friend over two dinners, one of Korean fried chicken and the other of Chinese soup dumplings (2 thumbs up + 2 thumbs up), I hopped a morning flight on plushy Singapore Airlines down the Malacca peninsula to Singapore for a brief, 30 hour layover.