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.

30 August 2015

Kyrgyzy does it: Kochkor to San Kul Lake.

On a Monday morning in Tel Aviv, a two week detail over to Kazakhstan to help out an understaffed colleague office with some end-of-the-fiscal-year-headaches was cleared by my boss. It looked like I’d be on the road by that Sunday. Later that night though, I was leaving Gordon pool after evening laps when I received an email from friends who lived in Central Asia: 'We’re going hiking in the Tian Shan Mountains in the Kyrgyz Republic this weekend – can you fly in a few days early – and into Bishkek instead of Alamty?'

I was going to spend the three day Independence holiday weekend lounging on a beach on the Med, but I gathered that I could do that anytime. Spend the long weekend trekking in Central Asia, sleeping in a yurt. Sure, why not?

Off I went on Thursday night via Istanbul. After a maddening slow deplaning using STAIRS and BUSES (really? really?) I was left with mere moments to spare in sprinting through the familiar moving sidewalk maze of IST to catch my connection due east. The smooth descent into Bishkek revealed the wide, green steppe on both sides of the aircraft, gradually interspersed with steep brown hills, and then- snowcapped mountains.

The Kyrgyz Republic has a 60 day visa-free regime for many countries; a strong message of common sense to the outside world that your country is open for business, that you welcome tourists – their curiosity and their money and, that international borders should be magnets, not walls for ideas and opportunity.

The plane arrived a whole hour early and had to swat off some swarming taxi drivers with my rusting Russian, but soon enough my friends showed up and off we went into the Kyrgyz countryside.

In the first couple of hours, I could make out two distinct impressions: 1.) what is novel and exotic, 2.) what is known and familiar. As for the first point, the mountains of Central Asia had a unique texture. Also, after months in the sticky air of Tel Aviv, the Kyrgyz air was wonderfully arid. And what was with all of the old Audis on the road? Where did they all come from? As for the second point, I marveled at the fact that we had traveled nearly 3,000 miles from Ukraine, yet here proliferated the same or similar Slavo-Turkic comfort food that I feasted on in Crimea for two years, identically oppressive Soviet architecture (both old and new), similar summer clothing and even the same shade of bright blue used on the cottages and fences.

The road winded through canyons until high mountains appeared on our left, bordering Kazakhstan to the North as we made our way towards the heart of the nation. We had to locate a small building in the little town of Kochkor, where a local community-based tourism organization was headquartered and where we would hire guide and transfer need to undertake the three nights, three days trek. This took up a bit of time, as none of the streets were ostensibly named and few of the locals knew the name of the street we asked about, even though it was in the center of the municipality.

The hike would start on the road west from Kochkor, spending the night in a yurt just north of the A367 Road, then traveling the next day south, over the mountains to a yurt somewhere between the road and Song Kul Lake. Then on the final day traversing another mountain hurdle and down onto the plain surrounding Song Kul Lake and terminating at a settlement on the northeast side of the lake.

After paying little more than $100 each for the three day, three night hike inclusive of all meals, guide and transfers the four of us piled into an old, what else - Audi station wagon, and lighted out onto the highway West from Kochkor. By late afternoon, we arrived at the yurt chateau where we spent the first evening.

Night 1, schedule of events: First, enjoy tea, jam and bread, jam and bread. Take a scenic walk and pet the goats. Watch the cows watch you. Enjoy the breathtaking scenery. Try not to step on the chickens. Enjoy the breathtaking scenery. Eat a tremendous dinner of pasta, cabbage and cheese. Change into winter clothing and go to sleep, having traveled from the land of Moses to the Land of Genghis Khan with five time zones and with twenty minutes of slumber in between.

Morning 1, a hearty breakfast of eggs and bread fortified the company for what would be a fairly arduous 10km over one mountain, through a river valley and halfway up a second stair of foothills.

One can see what an average Kyrgyz nomadic camp looks like. Soviet trailer and vehicle seem to make most camps car-accesible, although after we encountered something like this in the middle of the Tian Shan Mountains, I would try to trace the tire tracks to see how within the current known laws of physics some guy got his car out here in the middle of no where. Not a few times I concluded that I was the object of an elaborate Kyrgyz practical joke involving a heavy lift helicopter and a hidden camera.

Over the mountains and through the, eh, treeless wilderness, we went to our next yurt. Except that we had to find it first.

This was the first time that I was ever on an expedition to locate our camp for the evening. It went something like this. Our guide would yell out to a family encampment. The inhabitants would emerge quizocally from their yurt. The guide would yell out something in Kyrgyz like - 'where are we?', or 'where is so-and-so family located?' Then the family would yell back a response - 'you're about here,' and 'I think the so-and-so family went a that a way...' It went like this for three or four times until we finally rolled into the correct establishment just as the sun was westerning.

Night 2, schedule of events: First, enjoy tea, jam and bread, jam and bread. Take a scenic walk and pet the goats. Enjoy the breathtaking scenery. Take a bath in a frigid mountain stream. Try not to step on the chickens. Enjoy the breathtaking scenery. Eat a tremendous dinner of goat meat and stew. Change into winter clothing and drink some wine I carried 10km to celebrate the Fourth of July and an independence long declared from anything approaching a life predictable.

Morning two began in a hurry because a storm was approaching and we had to, ah, get over that huge snow capped mountain over there before it started thundering and lighting. While the four of us foreigners were decked out in the latest REI and North Face gear with the requisite 3 liters a piece, our tiny Kyrgyz guide, a 20 year old college student, wore tennis shoes and carried a school backpack about the same size and weight as a soccer ball. She did not carry a drop of water whatsoever, beat us to the top of every pass and punctuated the end of every fleeting rest with "OK! Let's go!" It made us thirty somethings feel a bit old and overdressed.

Rain joined us just below the foot of the summit but did not linger. The rest of the day was a sunny walk in mountain meadows filled with flowers as we descended onto the north shore of the secluded San Kul Lake. At a hut for lunch (in a place known as 'Angry God') we encountered dozens of tourists on horseback, and I appreciated what a fascinating thing the Kyrgyz Republic has going for it in the vein of ecotourism. The lakeside huts were no longer principally used by nomadic people for herding goats or cattle. They were used for herding nomadic tourists. As we walked the final stretch to our last camp, I pondered what it meant to be a cash cow, staring unabashedly at everyone and everything with big wide eyes, my 20 year old guide and herder commanding me 'OK! Let's go!'.

The final night, a rainbow bloomed over camp at sunset after a violently icy dip in San Kul Lake. An attendant stuffed our stove with dried cow dung and we fell asleep to the sounds of Bishkekan urbanites celebrating the final evening of their lakeside weekend.

Monday was a long but fun travel day. A trusty Toyota station wagon arrived to take us back to Kochkor. As we departed San Kul Lake I began to further appreciate how secluded the place still is, despite the ecotourism. The vehicle had to cross a deep river stream and provided the condition of the road, the journey had to be impossible half to three quarters of the year.

After picking up the car in Kochkor, we drove north to the Kazakh border and onto the Great Steppe where I would spent the following two weeks working in Almaty, eating horse meat and satisfying long-standing cravings for Georgian food and shashlik.