Saturday, May 11, 2013

Angkor: the lost city

Yesterday we flew from Danang, Vietnam, to Siem Reap, Cambodia, after three days in Hoian. Cua Dai Beach in Hoian was a welcome respite after the craziness of Hanoi. We spent a day of R&R enjoying the sun, white sand and warm, gentle waters of the South China Sea. We rode around on a scooter for the day, Pierre braving the crazy drivers here who dart around, using their horn as a signal. Once we got used to it, it was a good way to get about in this heat. The rest of our time there was spent visiting the old city on foot, enjoying the history of this port, and then a day biking in the countryside around rice paddies, fishing villages and shrimp farms, learning about life in the country.
We are really on the last leg of this long trip and beginning to pine for home. However we may have kept the best for last.
It is hard to believe that we can now visit Cambodia less than thirty years since the civil war and POL POT's regime of the Khmer Rouge destroyed the country, killing over 25% of the population. Today Cambodia is trying to put those terrible years behind it and to move on as it restores its infrastructures after years of war. There is still corruption and poverty, easily visible in the city and surrounding area by the number of children and many handicapped people selling trinkets at the Angkor sites. But we are told that things are improving. This warm, gentle people want a better lives for themselves and their families.
Much of the rebuilding has occurred with the help of NGOs that are a fixture here now. Tourism has increased in the last twenty years making it a major resource in the country. Siem Reap, about four hours north of Phnom Penh by bus, has undergone a building boom, new hotels springing up to deal with the number of tourists who flock here to visit the temples of Angkor.

                                                               Grand Bayon temple

We have spent the last three days temple hopping, starting with sunset over Angkor as seen from
Phnom Bakheng. Because I was wearing a sleeveless blouse I was not allowed to climb to the top so I could only see the view of Angkor through Pierre's eyes and camera. We had better luck on our second attempt. We spent six hours, starting at 5am, visiting several sites with the help of our tuk-tuk driver. The temperature is about 38 degrees Celsius and it becomes unbearable after a while. Dreams of ice cold water and a swimming pool brought us back to the hotel by noon.

                                            View of Angkor Wat from Phnom Bakheng

These sites are spectacular as they rise from the forest around them. We are reminded of visiting Tikal, Guatamala in 1974, when it was first opening to the public after many years of being hidden in the jungle. Some of the ruins at the Angkor site are covered with plants. The roots of trees wind around many of the old structures. There are piles of stones that have been numbered and are awaiting placement in their rightful position as archeologists reconstruct temples that were built, some over 1000 years ago. There is a sense of awe at the spirituality that surrounds these temples. Many thousands of people built them and spent their lives here, governed by the kings who had the temples built in celebration of their beliefs and their own greatness.

Pierre's reaction when we entered the first of several temples was that he was reminded of Indiana Jones as he searched for lost treasure. Sure enough, our tour guide confirmed that not only were we walking in the steps of Harrison Ford, but also those of Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider and Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. These temples have had some illustrious visitors over the years.
Climbing to the upper levels of some buildings gives a great view and allows one to see arches, doors and murals at the upper levels. But the stairs up are treacherous, with narrow steps that are worn down with use over time. Even in places where they have built wooden steps up it is a steep climb and in some places we declined the opportunity to get to the top. In fact, we were not too disappointed to be refused entry to the upper levels at Angkor Wat because those  steps only open at 8am. I am not sure that once I got up there I would have wanted to come down!

                                              Descent from the heights, clinging to the sides in fear

For our third visit we hired a guide as well as our tuk-tuk driver. What a privilege it was to hear the stories about these sites. Having a guide also brought us to temples that are not as crowded with tourists and allowed us to know the best times to avoid the crowds. We feel much better informed about the development of this huge area of temples and the religious beliefs that motivated their construction.

                                             Tree roots taking over the ruins at Ta Prohm

                                                     The lady's temple (Bantay Srei)

On our return back to Siem Reap we stopped at the Land Mines Museum and orphanage. This added a sobering reality to our trip here. The testimonies of ordinary people whose lives have been changed as they continue to farm areas where unexploded mines remain, break my heart. Reading their stories and seeing the art work that depicts their experience was very moving. This enterprise is run by a former member of the Khmer Rouge recruited as a child, but who now works at de-mining his country and supporting victims of the land mines. It was heart-warming to learn that a Canadian NGO is supporting the de-mining operations in Cambodia. To add a personal touch to this, our guide, who at age 33 lived during the civil war, showed us a bullet wound on his leg resulting from being shot at while working in his family's rice field. How fortunate we are to live in a country such as Canada where we have known only peace for over 70 years. This thought will be carried home when we return in 3 days. May it last forever.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Wrong hotel, right place

One of the joys of independent travel is the unexpected surprises that sometimes come at you. Such was our surprise upon arrival in Hoian, the beautiful historic trading town on the South China Sea. Hoian is just south of Danang, best known for its uses as a landing base for US troupes that first arrived in 1965 at the beginning of the Vietnam War. Our plane arrived in Danang and we were pleased to be greeted by a driver from the hotel I had booked on line while in Hanoi.
Our choice had been the Cua Dai Hotel, given its location between Cua Dai beach and  the old city.  Frommers gives glowing reports of wicker chairs in cozy lounge areas, lovely rooms with mosquito nets, set around an inviting pool. When we were dropped off at the hotel, we found a barrack-like building beside a large school with dormitory-type rooms that were huge and very cold. Where was the pool and the lovely wicker furniture? Not to speak of the other tourists....there were none!
We slept poorly our first night on a rock-hard mattress, kept awake by bright lights in the corridor that never went off. Next morning we asked about the pool. There isn't one. Walking around the area, we realized we were miles from town, there were no bikes for rent, and the surrounding buildings all appeared to be abandoned hotels. It was at this moment that Pierre suggested that perhaps we had not got the hotel we had originally chosen. A quick Google search confirmed his suspicions. We were not at the Cau Dai Hotel, but at the Cau Dai Beach Hotel! When I looked at the Trip Advisor site for the first hotel, there was a quick switch on-line showing pictures of the Cua Dai Beach Hotel. Such false misrepresentation is hard to believe, but we were not the first, as there were other reports on Trip Advisor describing the second place as a nightmare and something out of a horror movie.
A quick reversal of plans and we were out of there. Luckily a taxi drove up into town to the Cua Dai Hotel where a friendly receptionist was pleased to offer us a choice of rooms. After that first disappointment we chose a poolside room with a small terrace where we can sit and enjoy the garden.

So on to Hoian. Yesterday we spent the day walking around the old city. It was established as a trading centre with China and Japan given its proximity as a sea port. Many of the old buildings of wealthy merchants have been restored to their original state. These were mainly Chinese homes and throughout the town the Chinese architectural style is predominant.
Last night for dinner we ate at an old restaurant on the riverfront. The owner and chef, Mr. Kim. is an elderly Vietnamese man who speaks good French. The restaurant food is very original and always a surprise. Mr. Kim comes to your table to show you how to eat the carefully prepared food. Jacques Brel songs were playing on the radio, along with those of Georges Brassens. There is a picture of Mr. Kim with Brel, Brassens and Leo Ferré, when he was a chef in Paris. Pierre felt quite choked-up listening to the music that reminded him of the songs of his youth. All this for the modest sum of $20.
The other activity in Hanoi is to the many shops that make shoes and tailored clothes. Both of us had cheap sandals made. I treated myself to a well-deserved pedicure and Pierre had a barber cut his hair, shave his beard, and deep-clean his ears, a specialty at all the barber shops. Now he can hear what I say even when I whisper.

Trekking in Sapa

Our last excursion was to Sapa, after spending several days in Hanoi exploring the old city and of course paying our respects to Ho Chi Minh who lies peacefully in his mausoleum, worshipped by the Vietnamese people.
Sapa is in Ha Chiang Province, eight hours north of Hanoi by train. If you continue further north you arrive at the Chinese border. The overnight train was clean and confortable, getting into Lao Cai at 6 am. There a taxi drove us up the winding road to the town of Sapa. This has long been a place to visit going as far back as the French colonizers who came here for cool mountain air and beautiful vistas. The Tonkinese alps that stretch all the way to China are very impressive. Rice paddies are built in terraces cut into the sides of the mountain. They are presently in various shades of green, depending on whether the grains have just been thrown and not yet seeded, or whether the seeds have taken and the tiny plants have grown big enough to be transplanted.

                                                            Rice fields near Sapa

We were able to walk down to the next village of Cat Cat  on our first day and see the local Black Hmong as they work in their fields, tend their animals or sell weaving and trinkets in little stores. These Hmong are dressed in dark colours. They carry baskets on their backs and walk to Sapa market everyday to sell their wares. Some of them accost you in the street and ask you to "buy from me"or "where you from?". They are persistent sellers. On our way down to Cat Cat, one woman followed us for about 1 kilometer until she finally gave up on us buying anything. Then she climbed back up the hill and waited for the next person to come down. As these women walk, they spin hemp that is wrapped around one hand, twisting the fibres with the other to make a thread fine enough to eventually be woven into cloth. The thread is dyed with indigo, which grows abundantly in the hills. The clothes of the men, women and children of the black Hmong are thus very dark blue or black.

                                                Indigo dye from leaves rubbed into hands

                                                    Cat Cat village with Tonkinese alps

Our trek on day two started out in the rain, and we were in clouds most of the day, although every so often they lifted to allow us a view of the mountains and valleys. We climbed through the forest on a narrow path used by the villagers to get to Sapa town. We saw cardamom, yellow berries like raspberries, pumpkins, hemp fields, indigo plants and of course rice. Once we reached the top and were on a plateau, the clouds lifted for a while and we could see the beautiful Tonkinese alps around us. Little villages are built on the hills and workers tend their fields, with the help of water buffalo who break up the earth and move it around. The water buffalo roam around the roads as well, sometimes herded by little children, sometimes not. Although we were reassured that they are harmless animals, it was a little nerve-racking to meet one as we walked down the steep narrow path. A baby buffalo ran after us part way down, and as we walked to our picnic spot I slid on a big pile of buffalo poo. and fell....adding a little spice to our day.
This area abounds with waterfalls. After the rain, water was rushing down the mountains. Walking  for the last part of our trek was difficult as we trekked down over rocks, muddy paths and rivulets of water.  It was slippery and dangerous at times, requiring vigilance at every step. What a relief it was to get down onto level  ground again.

                                         Flower-wreathed trekker followed by baby buffalo

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Typhoon in Halong Bay

Today is April 30, the date in 1975 on which Saigon was liberated and the war ended after ten long years. This is a holiday here. There are flags and banners everywhere to mark this important date in Vietnam history. For those of us who were alive during that time, the Vietnam war is a distant memory. In Canada it was lived mostly through the news of massive demonstrations against the war as well as the arrival of draft opponents in Canada, plus movies and songs on the subject. Last year when we were in Washington DC for Memorial day to see the huge parades of Vietnam veterans, we again were reminded of the horrors of that war. Here in Vietnam we can feel the pride of the people in their victory and independence after so many years of oppression and war.

Another hallmark of Vietnam is the mysterious Halong Bay. It is on every tour agenda in Vietnam; a must-see according to tourist books. The Bay has Unesco World Heritage status. The water is emerald green. Three thousand islands composed of tall limestone cliffs jut out of the Gulf of Tonkin. The weather is unpredictable and there are days where the Bay is engulfed in cloud and rain. You take your chances, as do the millions of others who come to Halong Bay.
Pierre has longed to visit Halong Bay, ever since he first saw Catherine Deneuve in the film "Indochine" where she sails dreamily between the breath-taking mountains in the myst, searching for her fugitive son-in-law. Today he was to fulfill that dream with an overnight stay on a replica of a Chinese junk, floating over the bay, between the limestone towers.
We took an early morning bus for the four hour trip to Halong Bay, along with many other people, both tourists and Vietnamese people who were enjoying a holiday.
Half-way there, our tour guide announced that the coast guard was not allowing any boats to stay overnight on the Bay because there was a risk of  typhoon. But, we were told, we would get our money back, minus $50 per person, to cover the cost of the bus and the day tour of the bay. What a disappointment, but what could we do? We boarded our boat and were greeted warmly. The boat circled around the harbour for what seemed about 2 hours while we were fed a delicious Vietnamese meal of prawns, squid, rice and vegetables.
There were many other boats doing the same thing. We all were anxious to get out further into the Bay and enjoy its beauty. More people boarded the ship and off we went to visit a huge grotto. These caves are formed in the limestone karst, as we had seen in Laos. The area around the grotto was a mass of tourists boats, honking to get others out of the way.

Once inside, after a climb up steep stairs, there is a disney-like atmosphere complete with coloured lights shining onto the stalactites, to say nothing of the hundreds of people walking though the cave. The cave is spectacular despite the numbers of people who are testimony to the popularity of this tourist attraction. But did we really need to be part of that crowd? We certainly asked ourselves that question many times.

Back on the boat we were taken a little further into the Bay and were able to kayak among some of these impressive structures. Some people chose to travel in Vietnamese bamboo boats, rowed by lovely Vietnamese women who row up to 8 people per boat. What strength! We passed fishing villages consisting of a little houses on rafts of large barrels. These are then anchored by long cables hooked onto the rocky formations in the Bay.

                                                       Fishing village in Halong Bay

                                                        Bamboo boat with rower

We got back on the boat, after about 45 minutes.  As we watched the sun begin to set over the Bay, our boat, along with all the others, headed back to the harbour, only about a mile from where we had been. We piled back on the bus and endured another four hour drive back to Hanoi. In the end, it did pour  rain and there was plenty of thunder and lightening, a slight comfort for those of us who were doubtful that there would be a typhoon. We will never know what it was like on the Bay but we are reassured that such precautions are taken to prevent a disaster that could involve many people.
By the time we arrived back to our hotel, not having eaten since lunch, it was 11pm and most restaurants were closed. Equipped with umbrellas we ran through the streets of the Old Quarter, dashing through puddles, past women closing up their street food stands. At last we found a small place where we could eat. To complete this somewhat upside-down day, a big rat scurried across our path as we picked our way through the dark streets on the way back! The joys of travelling...each day brings new surprises, some good, some not so good. 

Friday, April 26, 2013


Three days in Luang Prabang, with its French influence, was a wonderful experience. Here we could have good coffee and croissants for breakfast and Lao food for supper. The town is full of old colonial buildings squeezed beside those of Lao origin. The buildings have been carefully restored over the last 30 years as this beautiful country has begun to open up to the world. The French influence is strongly felt, although France withdrew many years ago and the country is now governed by a socialist government. The country is officially known as the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic.
Scattered throughout the city are many temples (Wats). There is a large monastic community here. The morning rounds to gather alms is a daily ritual. Devout buddhists make merit by offering rice and other foods to the monks. The sight is impressive as hundred of saffron-robed monks of all ages walk down the street at dawn. Locals kneel to put alms in the alms bowls carried by the monks. The ritual has become a major draw for tourists, somewhat spoiling the anticipated serenity of the scene. Despite written signs appealing to tourists to be quiet and not to stand close to the monks and their devotees, the opposite seemed to occur.

There is a beautiful palace where the last king actually lived until he was exiled to a reeducation camp sometime after 1975. You can see the old cars used by the royal family: Lincolns, a Citroen and a Ford Fairlane, including pictures of  drivers of the court that worked until that time. In the centre of town is Mount Phousi on the top of which is a temple and lower down a monastery. The climb up is worth the effort because it allows a view of the town of Luang Prabang, the surrounding area and the two rivers, the Mekong and the Nam Kong that bisect the town.

Luang prabang street

During the 1970's eastern Laos was victim of an American secret bombing campaign, and was hit as the US targeted communist bases and the Ho Ch Minh trail. It is said that from 1964 to1973 more bombs were dropped here than on the whole of Europe during WWII.
We visited Kuangsi water fall, 25 km outside of Luang Prabang and were able to climb 3/4 of the way up. There we found pools of turquoise water, a great relief after the hike up. There are many caves and water falls in this country. 70% of Laos is mountainous, covered with forests where rare wild animals live. Laos is called the country of 1 million elephants. It is also the less populated country in SE Asia, with just over 5 million people.

                                                                Kuangsi Waterfall

From Luang Prabang we took the VIP bus (why VIP we could not figure out other than it being much higher that the regular buses) over a winding mountainous road to Vang Vieng. This is a bumpy six hour ride, over high ridges then plunging down to fertile valleys. The view is magnificent. Tall limestone mountains, called karsts, jut out abruptly as the road goes higher and higher. The town of Vang Vieng is surrounded by these mysterious hills. Pierre is reminded of Jurassic Park and Avatar, which may help you visualize the effect.

And today we are enjoying a heavy downpour, cooling things off. It will be a day of getting laundry done, perhaps a massage by a local woman down the street and just relaxing. As I write this, the mountains are beginning to appear out of the mist. If the weather holds we can explore the area on scooter. Then tomorrow we are off by bus to Ventiane, with destination Hanoi, Vietnam after that. 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The SLOW boat down the Mekong River

Leaving Chiang Mai we packed into a minivan with eight others, all backpackers. The road from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong, on the border with Laos, takes about 6 hours. Pierre and I, along with an Irish woman, were the seniors on the trip. This gave us lots of opportunity to listen to the adventures of backpackers who have been travelling, some for months, visiting Asia and other parts. It is a life of making new friends discovering hidden gems and living new adventures. I feel privileged to be able to talk and share a bit of our lives with them.
In Chiang Khong we stayed in a basic guest house while our visas for Laos were processed. It was a bit  anxiety-provoking to leave our passports overnight with the hotel manager/local immigration official, and we were relieved to get them back the next morning. This goes against the advice of never letting your passport out of your sight. But everyone does it. The next day, a boat took us across the Mekong to Huay Xai, Laos, a little town that appears to live off the profits of the travellers who take the boats up and down the river. We, along with all the others with us, gave over our passports once again, as well as any money we needed to change into Laos Kips. The agent was a smooth talker, convincing us that we could get no better exchange rate and that we absolutely needed Kips in Laos! So, like sheep, we all trusted this man, and each gave him money to change, along with our passports. 10 minutes before the boat was ready to leave his runner came back with our passports and our Kips. None of us had time to count. Laos currency is very complicated. Once on the boat, after counting, we realized that we were all short by about 30%! All we can say is that this has been a lesson learned and we are thankful that it did not add up to large amounts of money. We figure that if he does this every day, with the thousands of gullible travellers passing through, he is a wealthy man.  One US dollar gives you 8000 kips, so we are now carrying wads of bills that are really worth very little. Every country in SE Asia has their own currency. So far we have gone from Kyats to Bahts to Kips, and we still haven't seen them all.

                                                     Long Boats at Pakbeng, Laos
The boat that took us to Pakbeng, Laos on the first day, was a very long narrow barge, fitted with old car seats that are removable so the boat can be used for other purposes. It was about 2 meters across, making for cramped legs, as we touched knees with those opposite us. Those that got on late had to sit on the backpacks piled at the rear of the boat, behind the open motor. The noise back there was awful, enough to deafen you after any length of time. We were all glad to get off the boat after six hours. Thankfully, the boat that took us from there to Luang Prabang the next day was wider, although there was still not enough room and those who slept in were stuck in the back again.

The Mekong is a long winding river, the longest in SE Asia. It goes from the Himalayas in China down to the Ocean at the delta below Phnom Penh and Saigon. It has quite a current, with rocks and eddies visible all along.  The further south you go, the more breath-taking the scenery becomes. The river winds between tall hills and rocky cliffs. Tiny homes are perched on the hills. There are beautiful sandy banks all the way along. Women can be seen washing their clothes in the river, their children splashing in the water beside them. Men fish from their canoes or wade into the river, unfurling their nets by throwing them over the water. The Mekong is quite shallow in most parts, with rapids requiring skilled manoeuvering by the captain.

                                                       Fisherman on the Mekong

After eight hours the second day, we were all very relieved to get off the slow boat, climb the steep hill up to a ticket office and then hop onto a shared tuk-tuk that took us into town.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Bangkok to Chiangmai

Three days in Bangkok after leaving Yangon, gave us more time to explore that fascinating city. Our hotel was right on the river Chaya Prao and we could sit on the deck watching the water taxis and other river traffic zip up and down the river. It is a very efficient and cool way to travel in a hot, busy city. We could see the beautiful Wat Arun(temple of dawn) from our room and curiously it is called the temple of dawn but it is most beautiful at sunset.


Bangkok is called the street food capital of the world with good reason: Pad Thai, satay, noodle soups, spring rolls and many other delights are available at every street corner, along with loads of fresh fruit to quench your thirst. This is a foodies paradise!
In order to visit some of the sites outside of Bangkok, we did a bike tour with a company called Spice Routes. We did about 30 k, and visited Ayutthaya, the former capital of Thailand. There are old ruins of former temples and monasteries, destroyed by invaders over the centuries. Our bike ride was great fun, with four others from the USA and a Canadian living in Bangkok. The only problem was a major downpour while we ate lunch. Although the sun came our before we headed out again, the roads were very muddy, making for a very dirty ride. I will never wear white to cycle again.



 The night train to Chiang Mai was very comfortable. We enjoyed our double berth, having been less than comfortable in our berth in India that we had to share with two other men. Besides a few little bugs that scuttled across the floor periodically, it was very clean and confortable. Thai food is served, along with fruit, juice and beer, very civilized and much better than the fare on Canadian trains.


The countryside towards Chiang Mai becomes more green and hilly. The area is surrounded by mountains but they were not clearly visible because of the smoke from all the fires that local farmers use before the rainy season.
We joined a group to visit a local elephant sanctuary where about 10 elephants live and are cared for. Thailand has a long history of domesticating elephants, using them in the past as war vehicles and in the teak industry. Now they are mainly a tourist attraction, although there are still wild elephants in the north that remain prey for poachers. We learned basic elephant language: "que,que" means turn with a knee jab behind the ears;" bye-hun"(like a grunt) means go forward; "toy" is back up and "how" is stop. There was a 9 month old baby, who was still nursing. He was very interested in the bags of bananas we brought, as were the adults who could swallow a whole bunch in one gulp. The biggest challenge was climbing up onto the elephant's back. This is a rather unglamorous procedure unless one is very limber and could clamber up alone. In my case it involved a lot of pushing a shoving.
Riding an elephant bareback is quite a feat and takes a lot of practice. I have a lot of respect for the Thai and Burmese warriors of old that fought their battles riding on elephants. They must have had amazing balance and skill to remain upright on these huge beasts.




Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Beach holiday in Myanmar

To finish our holiday in Myanmar before returning to the busy pace in Yangon, we spent three days on the lovely beaches of Ngapoli, in Rakhaing state. Ngapoli reminded us of the pristine beaches we had found in Mexico thirty-five years ago. White sand, small huts where women cook and serve delicious fish on the beach and long open spaces where development has not yet started to spoil things as in most beach resort areas.The water was warm and wonderful to bathe in early in the morning and all through the day. Further down the beach there are bigger hotels hotels being built but so far they respect the environment and  buildings are low, hidden discretely among the palm trees.
The main industry here is fishing. Every evening hundreds of wooden boats head out to fish small fish and squid. Their lights dot the horizon all night long. In the morning, walking through the little village down the road, we saw women spreading the tiny fish out on large blue mats so they can dry in the sun.
The smell of drying fish was strong everywhere. These will be stored and used during the rainy season, when the boats cannot go out as the seas are too rough. That is from about June to September.

                       Fish dinner on Ngapoli beach, Myanmar wine and boats on the horizon

                                                   Women selling fruit on the beach

Then  onto Yangon for the two last days in Myanamar. And no better time to visit than during the Water Festival, where all of Myanmar goes crazy, spraying water from hoses, water guns and water bottles. Every is happy, the stores and tea shops are closed, and water stations are on every street corner. Truck loads of people drive through these stations, music blaring and hoses spraying them until everyone is soaked. The majority of people were dressed in Western clothes, a big change from what they wear the rest of the time, when traditional longyi is the norm. No one is spared. As we walked through the streets of Yangon we were doused with bottles of water that were pored down our necks, or by buckets that were thrown at us. On the train that we took to drive around the outskirts of Yangon, and that stops at 38 stations, water was poured into the wagon at every station. There are no windows on these old trains so everyone got soaked. And even in our taxi on the way to the airport, the taxi driver kept his window down. Once again we got drenched and were wet for the trip to Bangkok! This truly was a very special way to end our time in this very special country.

                                                              Thingyan Water Festival

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Inle Lake

One of the best known areas in Myanmar is Inle Lake, a long narrow lake stretching north to south in the Shan Hills. We reached the lake after our 30 mile trek and were met by a long boat powered by a noisy motor that sounded more like a Harley Davidson engine than a motor boat. These boats are used as the means of transportion between the many small villages that dot the lake. The motor is attached to a long rod with a propellor at the end, designed for use in shallow waters. 

Most of the lake is covered with floating masses of land on which people live in houses built on stilts. 50% of the lake is taken up by floating gardens, cultivated by the people who paddle between the floating gardens in long dugout canoes.

                                           Child helping his mother work among the gardens

The Inlay people live on and around the lake. They fish and cultivate their gardens for a living. Some of them work daily at raking seaweed from the lake. This is taken to farms where it is used as fertilizer.
What is particular about the Inlay people is the way they have of standing on the back of their canoes, balanced on one leg, using the other leg to row by wrapping that leg around the oar. This way they have both hands free to manage their fishing nets or other tools needed to work on the lake.

                                                                Inlay leg rower

To ride over the lake was a magical experience. We were taken into small villages, between gardens where small dugout canoes were hidden amongst the reeds and the people in them were quietly tending their crops. They grow tomatoes mainly, but also squash, cucumbers and other plants we could not identify. This is a wetland sanctuary for birds. Although we saw many kinds of birds, we could not hear them singing because of the noise of the motors on the boats. Our hotel room was built on stilts over the water. We could see the Inlay people out on the lake early in the morning, using their canoes. This was the only quiet time. The rowers in the canoes was a site to behold as they glided quietly over the water.
The Myanmar people smoke cheroots, a green-coloured cigarillo, made from various types of grasses, herbs, spices and a bit of tobacco, all rolled into a dry leaf. Making cheroots is a cottage industry in one village we visited, where women make them in their own homes. We visited a cheroot factory where many women sat on the floor  choosing the leaves, filling them with the dried ingredients and then quickly rolling the cheroots with great dexterity before labeling them.
In another village, weaving is the main industry. Many homes own looms made from bamboo on which they weave silk, cotton and lotus cloth. The lotus cloth is very rare and this is one of the only places that knows the technique, using the stalks of the lotus flowers growing on the lake, taking the delicate fiber which they they spin and weave.

                                                              Sunset on Inle Lake

                                                                    Raking seaweed 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Trekking among the Smiling People

We were woken on Sunday morning by the sounds of chants and gongs, as the village of Kalaw came alive. The novice monks were gathering alms as we walked through the streets of this former hill station in the Shan hills. Here there is a mix of cultures and religions. There  is a mosque, a Buddhist temple and monastery, a Hindu temple, a large Catholic church as well as an Anglican and Baptist church. Kalaw was developed during the time of British colonization when workers from India and Nepal came to build the railroad and then stayed to live and mix with the Shan people who had lived here for centuries.
                                        Novice monks in Kalaw return from collecting alms

Kalaw is now the stepping off point for the many trekkers who come to visit this part of Myanmar. There are trails throughout the hills, some that pass through more remote areas going as far as tribes like the Palaung of the long-neck ladies. Our trek of 2 days was from Kalaw to Inle Lake. We were accompanied by a guide, a Shan native himself, as well as three porters from the local Danu tribe. One of these was our chef, the other two were porters who offered to carry our back packs if we were too hot .  We were hot and had sore feet, but did not ask to have our day packs carried. A question of pride! Our overnight bags were driven on to Inle lake and we carried only basic requirements for the night.
The trek took us through villages where the local children ran out to greet us. The Burmese are known as the smiling people with good reason. Our guide talked about the strong sense of community in this area.

We walked across fields being plowed by hand, and saw women and children hoeing the ground before planting. The soil is rich here.  They grow potatoes, mustard, wheat (for export because they do not eat bread) and other crops. Each villager has fields that he works and then he helps his fellow villagers work theirs. The men do the planting but the women then tend the fields while the men make bamboo baskets to take to market. As we walked we saw scenes that could be from another century., The people smiled and greeted us, as they slowly worked in the baking sun.

                                                                Pa-O woman

Our lunch the first day was taken in a small home belonging to a local man and his daughter. Our chef started chopping vegetables, garlic and shallots, and then when his fire was ready he cooked gourmet Shan food. We sat on the floor and devoured the feast. I wondered where all the food had been hidden when we were walking. Our guide told us that they had stopped at the market earlier and bought basic necessities. This was repeated at supper and again for lunch the next day. It was simple Shan food that tasted like 5 star restaurant fare. All washed down with green tea.
We spent the night in a monastery, where in a large room curtains were hung for our privacy and mats spread on the floor. The 15 novices were spread out on mats throughout the room, as were our porters and guide. The monk was off on monastery business so the novices ages 8 to 14, were on their own until a local village man came to settle them for the night. We could hear them giggling and whispering before falling asleep. Our guid tolde us that this would not be their routine if the monk were there. So « when the monk is away, the novices do play ».
The funniest part was when the resident cat caught a huge mouse. The boys were very excited, and ran around and under the Buddha image in his shrinei, chasing the cat. These boys from the mountain villages live at the monastery where they get an education. They are far from their families for very long times. This seems to be common in Myanmar. The boys were like any other children of that age, despite the rigors of their monastic life.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Heho: City of Oxcarts

After a short flight from Bagan, we arrived at Heho airport to be met by our trekking guide. We were pleased at the plane that we flew on today. It is one of only two that belong to a small company, used as a flight-share with the company we were actually supposed to fly with. There was a moment of panic when I saw our bags being put into the hold of a plane that bore the name of another company. Were our bags going back to Yangon instead of on to Heho? We were not the only ones worried, but all worked out in the end, and we learned that this is how it works here between the small airline companies. At least this plane looked in good shape The flight was comfortable and the staff efficient and friendly. The flight we took from Yangon to Mandalayhad gone well, but when the armrests on all the seats are held together with duck-tape, you become a little anxious!
A slow walk through the market at Heho, which means city of oxcarts in the Danu language, was a visit to the way things have been done here for many years. This is a 5-day market, one in a cycle of markets in small towns in the Shan hills. Every 5 days the market comes to Heho, as it does to other towns. People from the hill tribes  come to the town to buy and sell. They arrived today mostly in trucks loaded with people from their village. Some still come by oxcart, which are parked in the back alongside the trucks. We saw a refurbished (with wood) WW11 truck that is used to transport people and goods.

The women from the Pa-O tribe wear black longyhi and tops. Their heads are wrapped with colorful plaid scarves. They carry baskets over their shoulders to fill with fresh produce before returning to their villages. The market is a lively place for buying, selling and socializing. It was hard  to move through the narrow passages between the stalls. Many people were buying flowers and pots to use next week to celebrate the new year. This made the market busier than usual. As we sat in the center of the market at a tea shop, which is a collection of little tables and miniature plastic stools of the kind one would see in a daycare at home, we were surrounded by smiling people, talking, sipping sweet tea and discussing daily affairs with their friends. This is what we love.
While the women shop at the women’s market, the men are further down the road at the men’s cattle market.  We wandered over the dry field between the animals, tied so they could not bolt.  Several water buffalo were for sale. Small groups of men, some dressed in traditional black longyhi, sat on the ground beside their respective animals, bartering until a deal was made and the buyer and seller happy. These animals are used in pairs tied to a wooden plow that works the fields, a method that remains the most ecological and efficient.