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.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Temples and Nats

We spent 3 days in Bagan, known for its more than 3000 payas (temples) built during a building frenzy from the 11th to 13th century. The first were built at a time when Buddhism was  spreading into this area from other kingdoms. The building styles change as time passed, proof of the influence of new beliefs and styles.
 There are many stories about the area’s temples. The most gruesome is of the king who felt guilty after killing members of his own family, noteably his wife because he discovered she was worshipping Hindu images. To atone for his sins he built a huge temple. But he was a cruel task-master, insisting that the bricks be laid so tightly together that a needle could not pass between them. Those workmen who did sloppy work had their arms cut off.  There are stone chopping blocks still at the entrance to parts of the temple.
                                                              Biking in Bagan

The payas and paytos are spread over a 25 square mile plain and can be seen from anywhere in Bagan. We spent a morning cycling over the dirt roads, riding between these buildings, some of which are still in ruins, others rebuilt, often in a fashion that does not always respect archeological norms. But the result is still beautiful. By biking around and stopping periodically to go inside some of the Payas, we got a good feeling of past dynasties and their beliefs and culture.

                                                                Bagan Temples

The temperature in Bagan is hot and dry, over 42 degrees by noon. Cycling was hard in the heat, especially with a bike that has no gears, making for a very slow, arduous ride. The pool at the hotel was a welcome relief. Morning and evening are the best times for pagoda visiting, with gorgeous sunsets over the many payas.
Many Myanmar people worship spirits and have found a place for them juxtaposed with their strong Buddhist belief. We visited Mount Popa, a volcanic mountain that is the home the the 37 Nat(spirits) of Myanmar belief. There we climbed to the top, on stairs that pass many small shrines where offerings can be made to the many Nat. It is believed that by doing so the Nat will protect you from harm. Throughout the country one can see signs of Nat worship in trees where little shrines are built and offerings made to the Nat of the tree. In the museum at Mt Popa where all 37 Nat are displayed, we saw the Nat that protects children, among others that include a happy fellow on a horse who is an admitted drunkard and the Nat for those who like to imbibe. Perhaps he could be the Nat for Pierre!

                                                       Lord Kyawswa (aka Drunken Nat)