Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Tuesday, July 29th – A Sunrise Experience in Bagan, Myanmar

Just after midnight I woke up for the tenth time and looked around me.  I was crammed into a slightly reclined bus seat and my legs were numb as they were strangely folded to allow them to squeeze into the wee bit of legroom available.  Actually, the rest of my body was numb too and I was shivering because the temperature on the bus was probably below 20 degrees as the driver had the AC cranked up to maximum.  On the single giant television screen was a horrible Chinese soap opera playing, overdubbed with Burmese, looking like it was filmed with an ancient handycam, with the volume so loud it was completely distorted.  To make things worse, there was some sort of interference from the engine so every time the driver hit the accelerator there would be a sustained, high pitched squealing noise that ripped through your eardrums.  The bus left Lake Inle the previous night at 7 pm and by the time 9 pm rolled around we had already pulled over for a half hour meal break and stopped seven other times, seemingly for the bus driver to stop and talk to his buddies on the side of the road, as no passengers were getting on or off the bus.  I went up and asked the driver to turn down the AC as everybody on the bus was shivering but he simply shrugged and shooed me away.

At 4 am we arrived in Nyaung U, a town in the Bagan region of Myamar, and as we dragged our twisted bodies off the bus we were met by a throng of tuk-tuk drivers, local guides and hustlers, all talking at once, trying to convince us to hire them for whatever they had to offer.  In cases like this, my policy is to shove through the pack, don’t make eye contact with anybody, get my bags from the luggage compartment, then go stand to the side away from all the people and take a minute to regroup.  Three of the hustlers followed me over there and were trying to talk us into coming to their hostel.  I told them we already had a place and just wanted a price for the taxi ride.  Here’s the negotiation:

“Ten dollars,” the ring leader says.

“I’m not paying ten dollars, that’s way too much,” I replied.

“It’s very far to the hotel”

“No it isn’t.  And we paid six dollars for a 90 minute taxi ride in Yangon a couple days ago”

“It’s 14 kilometres to your hotel, very long way,” he says as he motions to one of his flunkies who then pulls out this giant plastic map and shows us how far it is.

“It’s not 14 kilometers, it’s half that distance, I already know that.  We’ll pay five dollars, that’s it,” I told him.

“No, ten dollars,” he counters.

“No thanks,” I say and walk over to another shyster to ask for a price to our hotel.

“Ok, ok, ok – five dollars,” he says as he pursues me.

We load our stuff in the taxi and yet another flunkie drives us to the hotel, along the way passing through a checkpoint where all the foreigners had to pay $15 for a visitors pass to the area.  Along the way, we pass dozens of temples and pagodas, some which are magnificently lighted, making quite an impression.  We arrive at the Thande Hotel in Old Bagan and there is nobody in sight, so we walk into reception and find two employees sleeping soundly on the reception couches.  We wake one guy up, who jumps to life, checks the reservation book and tells us they are completely full and there are no rooms available yet, and may not be one until noon.  As it is now 4:30 in the morning, we weigh our options, and decide that this is probably the best opportunity yet for a sunrise experience, so we check the sunrise/sunset chart on the wall (these are the best times to visit the temples) and hire the driver for a half day temple tour.  The driver says he will be back in 30 minutes, at 5am, to pick us up, so Stella gets our her mini-flashlight and we are led to the pool and shown to the poolside loungers.  We each lay down on one…and it feels glorious to stretch out after the horrible bus ride.

At 5 we meet the driver back in the lobby and he drives us a short ways to a huge, pyramid shaped temple, and instructs us to climb up to the top to watch the sunrise.  There are staircases on each side leading up, so we choose one, and find that it is so steep it is more like a ladder in some spots, but we all safely make it to the top.  The scenery is stunning – there is a great plain stretching as far as the eye can see, and on this plain are hundreds of temples, stupas, and pagodas.  The larger ones are lighted but the smaller ones are not, and as the sun slowly rises, even more come into view.  We are not the only ones there and by the time the sun is actually visible there are probably 60 or more people perched on the east side of the temple.  We decide to climb down before the sun was fully up, mainly to get a head start on exploring some of these magnificent temples, but also because there was small group of Cloggies speaking Dutch extremely loudly, laughing, hollering and making a real racket, which was ideal for ruining the sanctity of the moment and disturbing the peace of everybody else there for the experience.

The driver then took us to three gigantic temples, and we were the only people there!  It was very reminiscent of Angkor Wat but better in that we could explore them on our own instead of as part of a massive group of tourists.  One of the temples we entered had bats flying all over the place, and thousands that were hanging off the ceiling, making a creepy squealing noise.  Stella discovered a bat laying the floor so we did what came naturally – poked it with a stick – and found it was alive!  We poked it a couple more times to try and get it to fly, but it must have been sick because all it could do is drag itself around a few inches.

Though each temple was amazing, visually stunning, majestic, and filled with thousands of images of Buddha, by 7:30 we all decided that we were temple’d and Buddha’d out.  Completely.  I have lost count of how many Buddhist holy places we have been to in the past weeks.  But we have clearly reached the point where they are just not making the same sort of impact as they were before.

We had the driver drop us back at the hotel, and hired him to return the following day to drive us to Mandalay for our return flight.  We had hoped to take a boat from Bagan to Mandalay but the timing just didn’t work out and there were no boats departing in time for us to get there in time.

Fortunately, they already had a room available for us so we got settled in, had showers and went down for breakfast, which was mediocre, especially considering it cost $34.  To try and clear up the head and bad mood from the long ride, we got our suits on, went down to the pool and completely chilled out until mid afternoon.  We went for a walk around Old Bagan to see if we could find a restaurant, but didn’t find much of anything so took a taxi back to Nyaung U, with this obnoxious driver who spent the whole ride trying to talk us into paying him more money.  There were many restaurants and bars so we chose one, had a very uninspiring lunch, and then went for a walk around town in the blazing heat and picked up some snacks for the next day’s five hour ride into Mandalay.

We caught a ride in the back of a pickup truck back to Old Bagan, went for another swim at the hotel, then spent the rest of the day hanging out in the room, watching movies, with no inclination at all to further explore the thousands of temples in our backyard.

Monday, July 28th – Biking in Myanmar

We decided to rent bikes and explore the countryside on this, our last day in the Lake Inle area.  Though Stella recently became proficient on a two-wheeler, she opted to piggyback on her dad’s bike for this trip as it was going to be a fairly long one and the traffic is still much too busy for a beginner rider.  We heard of a hot spring facility that was about 10 kilometres or so out of town so we headed out in that direction and enjoyed a lovely ride on a shady road through some quiet countryside, along the way passing farms, a school, a small village and several other foreigners on their way out there.  About halfway there, poor Stella got her foot caught in the back wheel so we had to stop for mommy to apply a bandage and some TLC, then she was back onboard.  The road got very busy in spots with trucks carrying construction materials as they were repairing several bridges, so we had to get out and walk a few times, but eventually we made it to our end goal.  Sadly, the hot springs were pretty lame – just a fenced in patio with three small, regular looking hot tubs, two of which were much too hot to even think about getting into.  Oh, and the admission fee was a lofty ten dollars each, but since we didn’t bring bathing suits anyway it didn’t matter, though we did wonder how this terribly mediocre place could ever attract enough business with those prices. 

After a small break we headed back into town, which made it the longest bike ride Magnus has ever done and the longest I’ve done in about twenty years.  We found a great little café called The French Touch and had a delicious lunch, followed up with a couple games of foosball on the free table.

After returning the bicycles, we went for a walk in the market and found a barber, so both Magnus and I got haircuts and came out a few pounds lighter and looking a lot less scruffy!  We then whittled away a couple hours at a different café closer to our hotel writing journals and talking, and then returned to the hotel, had a quick shower, grabbed our bags and went to the station to await our overnight bus to Bagan.

Sunday, July 27th – The Ultimate Day Trip - Lake Inle, Myanmar

Yesterday we booked a lake tour for today so by 8am we were at the designated meeting point and were met by our 16 year old driver.  He led us down to the jetty and we boarded the long boat.  These boats are very particular to this lake and are approximately 30 feet long, just wide enough to fit in a row of wooden sitting chairs, and have a fully exposed gasoline engine at the back of the boat and a curious steering mechanism that allows the driver to raise and lower the prop and rudder as required.  Strangely, when the boat is underway the drivers’ preferred position of the prop seems to be slightly out of the water, producing a huge spray at the back of the boat.  I don’t know why this is, as I’d assume it would be more efficient with the prop fully in the water, but must have something to do with the angle of the adjustable prop.

We blasted off down the river and our driver expertly threaded the long, speeding boat through the wooden piles of the bridges above.  After a few miles we reached the open lake and were greeted by two traditional fishermen, or at least they used to be traditional fishermen until they learned that they make ten times as much money by posing on their nifty boats with their giant fishing cones and showing off their single leg rowing skills for the tourists that pass by, then asking for donations.  Later on in the lake we did see men actually fishing and they have this amazing ability to somehow hold the paddle with their leg and fan it in the water in sort of a figure eight pattern, which allows them to maneuver the boat while keeping both hands available for setting the fishing net.  We also saw them violently smashing their paddles against the top of the water, which we learned was done to scare the fish towards the underwater nets.

Our first stop was at the floating garden – an expansive area where they have somehow built thousands of rows of floating tomato plants.  This explained the dozens of boats we saw crossing the lake which were loaded well above the gunwales with giant bags of tomatoes.  After this we continued down the lake and came to a town of hundreds of buildings built on stilts and we zipped through the narrow channels at full speed and soon came to a huge pagoda which was the site for a big weekly market.  Our driver let us off the boat and pointed us to walk across a rickety, wooden bridge that crossed one of the channels and let to the market.  The vendors there were very aggressive, and almost without exception looked desperate to sell something.  We negotiated on a nifty horse puppet for Stella and Ana picked up a stunning laquerware serving tray for a friend.  Magnus found at least six different knives he wanted to by – from a full sized machete to a concealed double dagger – but we decided he’s not quite ready for that yet.

After the market, our driver wound the boat through the town and made several stops, including a small factory where they manufacture fabric from the threads of the lotus plant, an operation where they hand roll cigars made from tobacco and an interesting mixture of banana leaves, honey and spices, then to top it all off we arrived at a building that sold all sorts of handicrafts but, most importantly, had two women from the small region in Myanmar where they use brass rings to elongate their necks.  I remember being in the basement of my cousin Jason’s house back when I was a little kid and looking in wonder through some of his dad’s National Geographic magazines (we never could find the Penthouse stash and God knows we tried) and the one issue I was always fixated on was the one with the Burmese woman with the neck rings and long neck.  And decades later here I was, sitting on a bench beside one of these beautiful women, in her country, having a conversation with her and exchanging smiles.  It was a very special moment for me as I never in my wildest dreams imagined I would ever get to actually meet one of these women and see them in real life.  But here I was!

After that mind blowing experience we headed for the driver’s favourite lunch place (thankfully speeding right by another eatery along the way called “Restaurant Mr. Toe”) and had a cold beer and mediocre lunch along with a bunch of other tourists.  We made it a quick stop and were soon back on the water and our intrepid driver maneuvered us into a smaller channel which went for miles and miles, along the way shooting up through several steep rapids caused by wooden dams that had been build for some purpose we never did figure out.  After a lovely cruise he finally docked the boat on the band and pointed us a direction in which to walk and said “Pagodas, come back in an hour” so headed off walking and soon found ourselves in the middle of a busy village that had a school, many homes, shops and several roads.  It wasn’t clear which way we were supposed to go, but anytime we looked confused one of the locals would simply point in the direction we should be going.  We soon arrived at a gate and after paying a small camera fee of fifty cents, began what turned into a very long walk up a gradual incline with ancient pillars on either side and hundreds of vendors selling all sorts of stuff from menacing war helmets to Buddha statues to swords to fabrics to tapestries to you name it.  But when we finally reached the top…we were well rewarded.

We entered the hilltop temple, walked up to the giant Buddha image and all four of us sat down, cross legged, and sat in silence.  It must have been some sort of Buddhist miracle, but the children actually stopped talking for at least five minutes which, as far as I remember, has not yet happened on this trip.  Without anyone saying anything, or deciding anything, we just sat there and listened to the sound of bells chiming in the wind, distant voices, fans whirring, and the sound of ourselves breathing.  Though it was brief, it was powerful and set the stage for what was to come.  We walked outside the temple and were confronted with hundreds of individual stupas, which are brick or concrete towers that contain an image of the Buddha.  Some were coloured gold, some were grey, some were blue and others still were ancient and coloured by moss and disintegrating brick.  Most of the stupas had a gold tower on top which was hung with bells or chimes that jingled and sang in the slight breeze.  We walked around the pagoda and found there to be not hundreds of stupas, but over one thousand of them, spreading out far from the main temple.  There was nobody else there besides us and a couple of locals who were at work restoring some of the old stupas.  We wandered around, taking photos, allowing ourselves to be dazzled by this incredible site.

When a few more tourists arrived we started making our way back down, and before long were back at the boat.  Our young driver had been sleeping and his hair was sticking straight up in the air, but we were glad he had his afternoon nap while we were away so he was fresh for the ride back home.

We had one more stop on the way back up the lake and this was at the Jumping Cat Monastery.  Until recently, the monks who lived there trained the local feral cats to be performers and they would do all sorts of jumping tricks to the delight of the tourists who stopped by.  We were told that these monks who did this recently left this monastery and there either wasn’t anybody else who knew how to train the cats, or perhaps they just weren’t interested.  In any case, we had a nice walk around the impressive building, and found a long series of wall paintings that told the story of the Buddha.  After exploring a bit we returned to the boat and were soon blasting off back up the lake and about an hour later we were back at home base.

As that didn’t seem to be enough for the day, we stopped at the roller skating rink and the kids rented skates and gave it a go!  There was another family there – from France – who had three children and we struck up a conversation with them and ended up going for drinks and dinner together.  They were such a lovely family and Magnus and Stella did so well speaking French all night.  They are also heading towards Thailand so we are hoping that we may meet up with them again somewhere along the way.

Saturday, July 26th –Lake Inle, Myanmar

We arrived at about six in the morning after a bumpy, but uneventful overnight bus ride, but didn’t have a clue where we were.  The guidebook made it sound like the bus dropped people off at a junction quite far away from the town we were going to, called Nyaung Shwe.  There was a tuk-tuk there who knew our hotel and said he would take us there for four dollars so we, along with several other tourists, jumped in and were then told that we had to buy a tourist ticket for the Inle Lake area which was 10 USD each.  Once we paid all that, we took off down the road, only to be dropped off at our hotel which was two blocks away!  Scam artists.

Our hotel was called the “Hotel Amazing Nyaung Shwe” and looked absolutely lovely.  We checked in but were told the room was not ready so went to their open air patio where they were serving breakfast.  As we were eating, one of the staff members came over and told us we had to pay an extra 20 USD per night for the kids.  We pulled up our reservation and showed her where it clearly said that kids under 12 stayed for free if using the existing beds, which we were.  She flatly said that wasn’t their policy and we had to pay so we told her to call her head office because we weren’t paying.

Grrrr.  During breakfast we discussed our Myanmar experience so far and agreed that this is the first country on this trip where they seem quite intent on shafting foreigners.  We have seen very little of this during our time in the other countries.  The regular people are very friendly, curious and welcoming, but it seems that anybody who has any regular contact with tourists is primarily trying to squeeze as much money out of them as possible.

The room ended up being very nice, with a giant king sized bed and a side sofa which Magnus laid claim to.  We had a round of showers and started feeling human again, so went out to explore the town, and on the way past the lobby were told that we didn’t have to pay for the kids, which was gratifying, but we were already in sort of a sour mood after our early morning confrontation.

The town is raw, dusty and walkable, surrounded by soaring hills on all horizons and has interesting sites around many corners.  There are clearly many more tourists here than we saw in Yangon, but still only a tiny percentage of the people you see in the streets.  I can imagine that within ten years, this town is going to look very, very different with the inevitable influx of tourists this region is bound to receive.

We wandered down to the riverfront and saw a large number of the long boats they use for getting to and around the lake.  The area was pretty gritty, with dirt streets, vendors and a bit of garbage laying around and it was clearly much more of a working jetty than a tourist one as there were people loading and unloading huge bags of what looked like tomatoes and limes out of the boats.

We continued exploring the town and in the doorstep of one building we saw a mother cat with two fresh little kittens.  When Stella spotted them she excitedly exclaimed, “Look, two kitties!  And they’re undamaged!”  She is clearly used to seeing the cats around Yangon, all of which were ragged and burdened with all sorts of unsightly afflictions.  A bit further down the road we came across an old school roller skating rink and saw some local 12 year old hot dogs rocking the pad with their slick moves to the sounds of the techno pumping from the giant speakers.  Sort of made me think back to when I was 12 and used to go to the Saints Roller Skating centre in Saskatoon in my very own home hood of Fairhaven.  I remember skating round and round, trying to look cool, as they played Men At Work’s “Who Can It Be Now?” and the Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams”.  Though I never did get too skilled with the old roller skates, my abilities certainly peaked around that age so I wasn’t planning on trying it out again thirty years later, especially since the largest skates they had were about six sizes too small for me anyway.

The rest of the day was pretty low key – the mother figure had a nice nap in the air conditioned room while the kids and I played successive rounds of cards.  In the evening we went for another walk, stopped at a restaurant for dinner and enjoyed the free entertainment of stray dogs mating passionately in the doorway.  I think the kids are starting to catch onto our standard, “Oh look at those animals doing battle” line.

Friday July 25th –Yangon, Myanmar (Rangoon, Burma)

I awoke early, grabbed the computer and went down to the lobby to have a coffee and do some writing.  It was quiet, except for the one Chinese looking fellow who was sitting across from me labouredly hacking up phlegm balls then walking over to the lobby door, opening it and hoarking the gobs onto the sidewalk.  He would then sit down and stare at his smartphone as he worked up another goober, then would loudly repeat the process.  We’ve learned on this trip that Asians sure love hoarking up loogies and spitting on the ground for everybody else to step in.  Yuck.

After rousing the troops, we went down for breakfast, which was pretty good, then headed off to tackle Yangon.  We worked our way towards the city centre and found a busy, bustling city jammed full of people and traffic.  Though there were a few smartphones around, they still have the streetside vendors who have landline telephones you can rent for a few minutes to make calls which is quite a change from the other countries around here – such as Malaysia – where they surgically attach a Samsung Galaxy smartphone to every child’s right hand when they reach the age of 9.

In the centre we found a few grand, amazing buildings including a 2,500 year old temple right in the middle of the largest roundabout in the city.  We decided to go to have a look and after paying 2 USD each (only foreigners pay, locals get in for free) we wandered around and found really not much of interest.  On the way out we had to pay another buck to the lady who watched our shoes that we had to leave behind, then spent another buck to liberate one of the caged birdies that a different lady was holding captive.  The idea is that by buying a bird and releasing it you are awarded with a bit of Buddhist karma which will balance off a bad thing you may do later, such as writing that the 2,500 year old temple in Yangon really sucks.

We walked over to the nearby travel agency where we had to pay for and pick up our bus tickets to Inle Lake.  After this initial look at Yangon, we decided to expedite our departure and changed our tickets on the overnight bus to leaving this evening instead of the next.  There were about five girls working at this agency, all who were smiley and very helpful.  We also found that this is the first place we’ve been to on this trip where the locals on the street pay attention to you as a foreigner.  There were so many times during our walk that random people would either smile broadly at us, stop to talk, or come over and touch the kids and tell us how beautiful they were.  And they call Magnus “boy” while they use the word “baby” for Stella!

We jumped in a taxi and sat in a traffic jam which seemed to last forever, but finally made it to the Shwedagon Pagoda, which is the largest and most sacred Buddhist temple in the country.  Though the Lonely Planet guide said the entrance fee was five dollars (we discovered soon that this most recent guide to Myamnar is hopelessly out of date and much of the information is incorrect) we found out it was eight dollars for each of us, and Ana and I each had to purchase a skirt to cover our legs right to our feet, which were five bucks each.  The sticker shock was too much for Ana (especially since we just paid to see a crappy temple) so her and the kids went to a nearby park to wait for me while I went in.

Well, the pagoda was remarkable and I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much gold in my life!  There is a giant, 350 foot golden dome in the middle which is surrounded by dozens of individual temples and prayer areas.  There are images of the Buddha everywhere you look and hundreds, if not thousands of people praying.  Shortly after I entered it began to pour and I mean really pour.  The water was coming down in buckets, and in one spot the water rushing from a higher part of the ground surface created a small river several inches deep cascading over the tiles.  I would rush from one covered temple to the other, look around for a while, and then sprint through the rain to the next one.

I joined the rest of the family at Happy World – a small amusement park next door to the pagoda and the kids played a few games, tried a ride and we rented paddle boats on the small lake.  We had a quick, terrible lunch at a café in the park, then returned to the hotel, had showers, and grabbed another taxi to the bus station, which ended up being way out of the city and with the terrible traffic, took us over 90 minutes to get there, but somehow only cost six bucks.  The terminal itself was basically one long, dirt covered, grimy street with vendors, people and busses coming and going.  We met a lovely Burmese family and Magnus and Stella gave their children some of their toys, which made them all very happy.

The bus arrived and was a real beauty with reclining seats and individual seatback televisions that played cartoons on one channel and non-stop English adventure movies on the other two.  I watched the third Indiana Jones movie and made it partway through the fourth one then was out.  Magnus also fell asleep early, but I remember waking up around 2 am and looking over to see him sitting there pie-eyed watching “The Mummy”.  He claims that he stayed up all night and watched the whole trilogy!

Thursday July 24th – Arrival in Yangon, Myanmar (Rangoon, Burma)

We spent the previous night at a Bangkok hotel not far from the airport.  As we didn’t have to leave the hotel until 1pm we had a leisurely morning hanging around the room, going for a workout and swim, and furiously catching up on the daily journal writing.  We took a taxi to the airport, got checked in and as we were going through security they flagged two of our carry-on bags.  As we’ve been travelling by bus most of the time we didn’t have to think much about liquids in our carry-on bags so were obviously sloppy when readying the bags for the flight.  From my bag, she plucked out the last of our mosquito spray and sunscreen.  But Magnus’ bag held the real treasures – she lifted out his beautiful buffalo bone carved knife and sheath and his quintuple action, elastic shooting wooden gun.  The only banned item that Magnus didn’t have in his bag was a durian fruit!

The security double checked with her boss but they simply would not let them pass so we watched in despair as she dropped the knife and gun into the discard box, then walked sadly to our gate.  It’s funny – no matter how many times you do something, and no matter how well you know the rules, sometimes you just screw up.  To cheer him up we told Magnus that we would pay to replace these items as we were sure we’d be able to find something similar along the way somewhere.

After a short flight we dropped into Yangon or, as it used to be called, Rangoon.  Myanmar, or as it used to be called, Burma (I promise I will stop doing this) has a rich, turbulent, shocking history and is one of those places that people just generally don’t know much about.  For the past several decades the country has been led by a socialist military government that has resulted in economic stagnation and misery for most of the population.  When you are a military junta running a country, you can do some pretty neat things, such as change the names of a bunch of the cities and even the country, change the location of your capital city on a whim, get yourself a new flag, and gun down student protestors.

Since 2011, the government has started upon the path of reform and the pace has become blisteringly fast and the country is heading towards some form of real democracy, resulting in many of economic sanctions imposed by other counties being lifted.  One of these reforms is allowing much more access to tourists, and this is one of the reasons we decided to come here as we expected to find a country that is like what the surrounding countries were like twenty or thirty years ago.

The immigration process was easy and straightforward (especially since this is the first country on this trip where the immigration people speak English) and the airport was clean, new and well organized.  Despite all our research pointing to the contrary, there is indeed a “Visa on Arrival” process where you can get your visa when you land.  And it looked like the visa cost $30 instead of the $120 we paid getting our visas issued in Canada.  We were confused by the time showing on the clocks, but soon figured out that Myanmar must have stolen a page from the “Book of Newfie” and they were only half an hour back instead of the standard one hour as you travel west across time zones.

We exchanged our crisp, new US dollars at one of the many currency exchange desks for local currency at a rate of 970 to 1.  It is true that here they do not accept any US money this is old, wrinkled, folded, ripped or anything less than perfect.  We got a taxi for 8 dollars and headed into central Yangon through incredibly dense traffic.  Here, for some reason, they drive on the right hand side of the road but the vehicles have a British style wheel on the right.  There are also no motorcycles allowed in the city.

We arrived at our hotel – The Yangon Regency, and as we stepped into the blazing hot lobby we were hit with the aroma of a hundred sweaty men eating fishy food, drinking beer, smoking, and sweating profusely.  Seems the lobby is transformed into a restaurant several times per day.  I looked over to Stella and have never seen such a horrified expression on her face.  The man at the lobby was very nice and assigned us a room so we took the small elevator up to the sixth floor, opened the door to a windowless room and found two small, single beds, a terrible smell….and not much else.  I looked over to Stella to see the most horrified expression on her face (even worse than three minutes previously) and her eyes were saying to me, “You can’t be serious!”  I guess these kids have become accustomed to the royal residences that Ana has so far been able to procure for us so this current option was well below the minimal acceptable standard.  Stella said, “This is worse than the Fragrance Hotel!” which was the very first place we had in Singapore and quite basic.  After pulling back the sheets and finding little fleas hopping around, we went back down and got another room, which smelled better and had no evidence of bugs.  Sixty bucks doesn’t get you much in Yangon.

After a short adjustment period, we went for a walk to try and find somewhere to eat.  We were staying right in the middle of Chinatown and the streets were jam packed with vendors of all sorts so we snaked our way through the durians, raw meat laying on boards, fried crickets, bbq meat stands, and flower sellers until we found something that looked like a restaurant, but which actually turned out to be a hotel lobby with chairs and tables.  We ordered food, which was quite good, and I washed it down with a Myanmar beer which was decent.  After eating, we started making our way back to the hotel, and on the way back found a little bakery where we bought dessert for the kids.  We also encountered quite a sad sight, and Ana nearly burst into tears.  There was an older lady, blind, and very dirty, being led around by a small girl carrying a pot to collect donations.  The lady was singing a haunting, beautiful song with a strong able voice, standing amidst a hot mob of people and cars coming and going.  That is an image one won’t easily forget.

We returned to the hotel, crammed ourselves into the beds and settled in for our first night in Yangon.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Wednesday July 23rd – Back to Bangkok, Thailand (The Journey)

As today was a grueling, 14 hour travel day taking us from Siem Reap, through the filthy border crossing then finally ending up in an hour long traffic snarl in Bangkok, I will instead write about backpackers. 

If you have been following our journey you may recall that back in Luang Prabang we met an American couple named Alex and Angel – she was the one who was sporting a giant shiner after the previous night’s drunken encounter with the edge of a toilet seat.  They were an interesting pair and Alex, like us, had been noticing the backpacker fashions and introduced me to his own theory on it, which he called “The Journey”.  The idea was that most young backpackers were on a similar journey of self-discovery, and you could tell how far along in their journey they were by what they looked like.

As I love stealing other peoples’ ideas I have taken “The Journey” concept and ran with it.  Taking a typical 20 year old female backpacker, here is what happens on The Journey.

At The Airport
Our English backpacker – let’s call her Emma – leaves her home wearing new, clean multi-pocketed khaki shorts, a freshly ironed shirt and comfortable jogging shoes.  She is sporting a new backpack, carries a small cute purse, is wearing some light makeup and a dab of perfume, and has her hair tied back in a tidy ponytail.  She does not smoke, has a single tattoo of a butterfly on her shoulder and, while not overly concerned with her finger and toenails, does keep them clipped and usually polished.  She is at the start of The Journey.

Month 1
After the first month, Emma has ditched the shorts and boring shirts and wears MC Hammer clown pants and beer singlets every day.  She has purchased four fabric bracelets, one from each country she has visited, and wears two on each wrist, and is looking for more for her ankles.  Her jogging shoes are at the bottom of her pack as she finds flip flops to be the ideal, multi-purpose footwear.  She changes clothes every few days.

Month 2
Emma has discovered Canadian men are amazing lovers (with Australians a distant second), and has purchased one more fabric bracelet for each dude she’s bedded, which has added six more wrist and ankle bracelets.  She hasn’t washed or combed her hair in a couple weeks and she threw out all her makeup and beauty supplies to make room in her bag for purchases of incense sticks, pottery and books on Buddhism.

Month 3
Dreadlets are starting to form in Emma’s hair and armpit deodorant is a distant memory.  She has been through several pair of MC Hammer clown pants, but since every night market sells dozens of different types, it is never a problem buying more.  She has taken up smoking and got an awesome neck tattoo of a groovy Chinese symbol a couple countries ago.

Month 4
Emma no longer wears shoes and the bottoms of her feet have developed a brown, leathery texture that is completely resistant to sharp edges, hot pavement, and soap.  She picked up some full length fabric skirts, which were required for getting into temples, and quite liked them so they have replaced the clown pants.  Her armpit hair is long and luscious.

Month 5
Her hair is completely dreaded out and she can’t remember the last time she wore a bra.  She carries a natural fabric satchel wherever she goes and has gone vegan, or at least as vegan as possible.  She now rolls her own cigarettes with local wrapping papers and tobacco.  She chews off her fingernails when they get too long, and the toenails seem to take care of themselves with all the barefoot walking.

Month 6
With wrists and ankles laden with fabric bracelets, body clothed in natural fibers, hair in a full rasta-doo, a passport out of unstamped pages and a bank account balance approaching zero, Emma has achieved full transformation and The Journey is complete.

Now you may think that the sarcasm runs deep in this little posting, and I suppose it does, but it seems not long ago that I was a young backpacker with ideals, no responsibilities, no family and so many possible futures.  I traveled around by myself, tried new things, attempted to be different but still fit in with the other travelers I met (although nobody wore those MC Hammer clown pants back then - not sure when those appeared on the international backpacker scene), and went through my own transformation, similar to Emma.  And it was fun!  All the young people out there traveling now and bravely taking on the world know that eventually the trip will be over and they will be propelled into a more regular life, where you need to take a shower most days.  But there’s no rush.  And they are at the perfect point in their lives to do this.

We have met a lot of young backpackers on this trip and I think we were able to relate to them well and not come across as a couple of lame older people.  Though our approach has changed (notice the four star hotel pictures….) the reasons for travel have not: seeing the world, learning about other cultures, meeting people, trying new things, challenging our own beliefs, expanding our minds and trying always to understand who we are and why we do the things we do.  On this trip there has been an additional dimension – introducing the kids to a wider world, which has become the most important goal of all.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Tuesday July 22nd – Siem Reap, Cambodia

Though we purchased a three day pass for Angkor Wat we decided to spend our final day in Cambodia exploring the city and surrounding areas.  Yes, we could have easily spent another week exploring temples, but we felt we had seen enough already and wanted to see what else we could find in and around Siem Reap.

We took our last bicycle journey into town and went to the Angkor Artisan Centre where they had a free shuttle bus that takes tourists out to their silkworm farm, about 16 kilometres outside of the city.  As we waited for the next shuttle we had a look around the facility and found dozens of local craftsmen doing intricate carvings on sandstone and wood.  They seemed to be carving mainly Buddha heads and elephants and as the workshop was wide open you could get up close to see how they were doing it and what sorts of tools they were using.  We learned that this institution had been part of one of the temple restorations and had carved a large number of sandstone blocks to be used where the original ones were either too damaged or could not be found.

The silkworm farm was simply amazing.  We were taken on a guided tour where we saw the process of silkmaking right from start to finish.  We saw the mulberry tree nursery which feeds the worms, then the worm eggs which were hatching, then the baby worms, then the mature worms, then the cocoons and the entire extraction, spinning and weaving process, which is all done the same way as it has been for centuries.  The final products were all on display and for sale at a gift shop at the end of the tour.  I was tempted by a dashing grey, shimmering silk suit, but since I’m not David Bowie or my brother Curtis, I decided not to purchase it and left in the same cruddy shorts and sweaty t-shirt.

In the afternoon we returned the bikes then explored some bookstores, more markets, had a snack and some drinks, then returned to the hotel for an afternoon swim.  As we had a super fast internet connection we made some Skype calls to the family back home.  After it had cooled down a bit, we tuk-tuk’d back into town for a final night in Siem Reap and on the way had a wonderful experience which really says it all about the Cambodian people.  It had started to rain heavily, but as the tuk-tuks are covered we were able to keep dry.  As we motored down the busy street, a motorcycle pulled up beside us, and on the motorcycle was a family of four, all drenched to the core, and all giving us these huge, joyful smiles.  This simple, genuine moment was so touching, as here were two happy families, from two different worlds, sharing a brief moment during a downpour.

In the past we’ve found that when you have a major tourist draw like Angkor Wat, the nearby city is more often than not an appalling place, existing primarily to rip off tourists.  But Siem Reap is truly the exception as it is a vibrant, authentic and exciting city and worth visiting in its own right.  I must admit, at first I wasn’t sure, but after spending a couple days here it has really grown on me.  I also learned that Cambodia is known as a real party place as they allow the bars to stay open as long as they want, while in some of the surrounding countries such as Laos and Thailand, the bars must close after a certain hour.  One of the other things I like about Seam Reap is there is nowhere near the level of “seediness” that we found in Chiang Mai.  This is one thing we are actually a little anxious about for our visit to southern Thailand as we’re expecting to find a whole lot of this and don’t want to traumatize the kids too much (though if they are not traumatized by now I think they should be okay!).

Saying all that, as you walk around Siem Reap you do notice a number of older, white gentlemen with young Cambodian friends.  During dinner we looked over to a nearby table to see a classic scene.  A sixty year old English man was sitting at a table with what looked like a nineteen year old Cambodian girl.  He was trying to look natural, making small talk to her as she ignored him completely and occupied herself by playing Candy Crush on her tablet.  It is quite a pathetic display and I’m sure those old perverts feel pretty ashamed, though obviously can’t help themselves.  I’m sure when their trip is over and they are broke and no longer a globetrotting super-stud they return to a depressing little bedroom in their mom’s house and spend most of their time alone.

After a terrific meal, where we had a lovely chat with a Malaysian family sitting beside us, we wandered around the buzzing streets and Magnus decided he just had to have another fish spa.  I convinced Stella to give it a try too but the whole thing was just too creepy for her, so she just sat beside her brother on the aquarium bench, and Ana and I looked on, enjoying a drink and soaking up the surroundings on our final night in Siem Reap.

Monday July 21st– Angkor Wat, Cambodia

For our second day at the temples we chose some of the less popular and less restored ones.  When Angkor was discovered (or really, “re-discovered”) in the 19th century most of the temples were in ruins as they had been left to rot in the jungle for centuries.  Once the potential of the site was realized, the process of restoration began and has been ongoing and will continue indefinitely.  The restorations are funded by many international organizations and countries and are physically done by teams of locals and foreigners and take many years, or in some cases, decades.  One of the temples we visited was in quite poor condition, but because of that (additionally there were very few tourists at this one) it was one of the best sites and most enjoyable, because we really could imagine we were discovering it for the first time.  Because the ceilings had all caved in there were huge sandstone blocks, some of them with intricate carvings, scattered all over the site making it very raw and very real.

I must say I am reluctant to say too much about Angkor.  I am not usually short of words, but in this case, it is just such a remarkable place that nothing I could write would do justice to the sense of awe and wonder that hits you when exploring these inspiring places.  It is a place you could never prepare for and will never forget.

By the fifth or sixth temple, the sky was clear and the sun was raging so we decided to call it a day and were back at the hotel by 1pm for a nice backpacker lunch and swim at the pool.  I actually went for a workout at the hotel gym and found a Dutch variety show on television that had some of the worst singers I’ve heard for quite some time so it was not a long session.

At 5 pm I jumped on my bike and went to collect the laundry I had dropped off at a local place the day before.  For the first three weeks of the trip Ana insisted on hand washing all our clothes in the hotel sinks with shampoo, then hanging the sopping wet items all over the towel bars, shower wall, chairs, tables, doorknobs, balcony, televisions and any other above-ground object that had a corner.  It basically looked and felt like living in a goddamn gypsy caravan.  When the time came to leave the hotel, if the clothes weren’t dry, she would get the hotel iron and spend a few hours steam-drying everything while the rest of us watched tv or slept.  Or sometimes I would enjoy a beer or two on the balcony but I had to stand up because there was underwear hanging all over the chairs.

She claims that it’s because she doesn’t trust anybody else with our clothes, but I think she is just super cheap.  And there’s this Portuguese thing where the women don’t know how to relax so they spend all their free time cleaning stuff (clothes, shoes, floors, couches, the cat, etc) and when the cleaning is all done they pluck hairs out of their face while waiting for some more dirty clothes to appear.  The kids and I did what we could to make her clothes washing routine easier, for example only changing our shorts weekly, but after weeks of this ridiculous routine (“Kris, we need to get back to the room so I can transfer my moo-moo to the sunny side of the balcony”) I finally demanded that we take a load of dirty clothes to a local place so once I wrestled a few items out of her grasp I ran to a laundry, dumped them off, then returned to report that full laundering costs a dollar a kilo.

Well, the clothes came back perfectly clean, nicely folder and enriched with an enchanting scent of lemongrass or something like that.  She was thrilled with the results, and a whole bag only cost a few bucks so since then our life has been much easier and I’ve been able to actually sit on a balcony chair while enjoying a beer.

We took our final death-defying bike ride back into the centre and I found a nice streetside café to drink a couple beers while the rest of the gang wandered through the old market to look for bargains.  On the drink menu the first two items listed were Angkor beer and Anchor beer, both at a dollar a glass.  Now since these two words sound virtually the same, and Cambodians don’t generally speak English that well, I have no idea which one I got, but any beer you pay a buck a mug for is tops in my mind.

Stella got sick of shopping so came to join me while Magnus and Ana continued their wanderings in the market.  As we sat enjoying our cold drinks Stella spotted a bug vendor across the street so I walked over and bought a small bag of bugs.  We got three deep fried frogs, six deep fried crickets, and two big deep fried grasshoppers.  The vendor boy showed me how to pull the end bits of their back legs off (too crunchy to eat) then gave it to me and ordered me to eat it, which I did.  I know the idea of eating bugs sounds gross, but these bugs are deep fried, obviously for a very long time, because there is really no juice left in them and they taste quite like a dry, salty nut (with wings).

I brought the bag back to the table to proudly show off my purchase.  Though initially eager to try a cricket, upon closer inspection of the creature Stella’s resolve began to waver.  I showed her how to pull the back legs off then I ate one, and found it to be tastier than the grasshopper.  By this time Ana and Magnus had returned and Magnito eagerly grabbed a cricket, ripped it apart then asked me which part was better – the head or the ass.  I told him to eat the ass.  He did.

I handed Ana a cricket but, like Stella, her early indications that she might be up for it were shattered when she actually touched the bug and visualized popping it in her mouth, then it was a non-starter.  I ate the crunchy legs off one of the frogs, and those were actually the best of the lot as they were a bit meatier and tasted like fried chicken.  I urged Stella to try these, and she was able to muster up the courage to lick one of the legs, which was good enough to make it into her daily journal!  Later on in the night we discovered fried tarantulas, water bugs and cockroaches, but I took a pass on these, though we might have another go at it later in Thailand.  I’d really like Stella to eat a cricket.

Siem Reap truly explodes at nighttime.  As we wandered the streets we found multi-coloured neon signs (PUB STREET! NIGHT MARKET!), at least a hundred restaurants, thousands of locals and tourists having fun, live music, tuk-tuk drivers looking for business, streetside vendors selling everything from dried fish to Rolex watches, little kids running around and plenty of free agent dogs roaming the busy streets looking for action.  We chose a restaurant at random, sat down, ordered drinks, then simply watched the party unfolding around us.  Shortly after our food arrived, Magnus pointed up at the wall and said, “Look, two chee-chucks are getting ready to do battle!”  They were getting ready to do battle all right, of the male/female variety.  So together as a family we watch a frantic, speedy session of gecko sex, and as they were going at it, Ana noticed a gigantic toad at her feet similarly looking up to get a view of the action.  Now this is the kind of entertainment that is just not available in Canada!

After finishing our delicious meals we wandered back to one of the many fish spas as Magnus was eager to try it out.  So he jumped up on the tank, dangled his feet in, and let those hungry little fish go to work nibbling his feet and toes.  I don’t think they truly are able to eat the dead skin off your feet as the little fish don’t have any teeth so they are probably just sucking off whatever crud they encounter, which was surely plentiful on his feet as he’s been wearing this closed in loafers with bare feet every day, so now his shoes and feet smell so bad he has to wash his feet before he’s allowed to stay in the hotel room at the end of the day.

During the suicidal, frantic pedal back home, narrowly avoiding collisions several times, we saw a car smash right into a motorcycle knocking both guys off and nearly squashing one of them.  Fortunately, we made it back in one piece and returned to our room tired, sweaty and exhausted after one action packed day on the road.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Sunday July 20th – Angkor Wat, Cambodia

We woke up to an overcast day in Siem Reap, which was a blessing as we planned to spend the day exploring the temples of Angkor Wat.  We had a delicious buffet breakfast then I went outside and easily hired a tuk-tuk driver to drive us around for the day, at a cost of fifteen dollars.  We piled in the tuk-tuk and were soon put-put-putting down the road, along the way stopping for gas which was delivered from an old Coke bottle from a roadside vendor.  The entrance to the park is only a few kilometers outside of town so after a short ride we were at the gate and bought our three day tickets for $40 (kids under 12 get in for free) and continued along to the main road, which was full of fellow tuk-tukkers, people on bicycles, people walking, large and small tour busses, lots of motorcycles and even a troupe of monkeys wandering around the side of the road looking for handouts.

When we were back in Canada trying to decide where to go on our big trip, our initial plan was not Southeast Asia.  I picked up a travel book from the library and after Ana and I saw pictures of Angkor Wat, and all the other amazing sites in the region, our decision was made.  So we were both very excited to finally be here and on the verge of experiencing this exceptional site.

As this area was the home of over a million people which endured for several centuries, the geographical area is massive.  Fortunately most of the restored and most magnificent temples are within a comparably small area, in fact it is quite possible to explore by bicycle if you are willing to put in long days and are able to take the heat.

I think it is fair to say that it’s simply impossible to do justice to this incredible place with mere words and photos.  It is a place that has to be experienced in person and, for us, I think it was better that we did not do a lot of research beforehand and really did not have any expectations as this allowed us to be completely blown away.  For this first day we were able to explore about eight individual temples including the godly Angkor Wat which is huge, magnificent and otherworldly.  Of course, this is a very busy place so there was no moment when you could feel like Indiana Jones discovering a forgotten ruin for the first time, but if you timed your photos carefully you could get some stunning shots sans people!

Most of the guide books recommend starting your day with a dawn sunrise experience at one of the temples and continuing to dusk, but I seriously can’t imagine being able to put in that long of a day.  By 3pm we were all completely spent so we tuk-tukked back to an area called “Pub Street” in the central part of town and had a big lunch and some cold drinks.  We then wandered around the busy streets and found a place to rent bicycles – after our lovely biking experience in Luang Prabang this was our new preferred method of transport.  We found out immediately that there are only two rules for vehicular traffic in Cambodia:

1. Drive on the right (when it’s convenient)
2. Avoid death

The roads are chaotic and when you are on a bike with a kid balanced on the back, with no helmets and not knowing where you are going, you find yourself in an adrenaline fueled, eat or be eaten, heart pumping race for survival.  We did manage to get back to the hotel unscathed, but knew right away that bicycle transport here was not the way to go.

After a refreshing swim and a couple hours at the pool we returned to our room and had a backpacker supper (noodle soups, lunch leftovers, crackers) but supplemented with some freshly boiled corn I was able to buy from a street vendor at a big music festival that was happening just down from the hotel.  He was also selling fried crickets, but I had promised Magnus we were going to sample those together so I held off on bringing a bag of bugs back to the room.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Saturday, July 19th – Arrival in Cambodia

We arrived in Bangkok at 6 am to a confused, dirty, rough looking bus station and had to wind our way through narrow passageways past dozens of vendor stalls to get to the main terminal.  We bought tickets on a bus headed for Siem Reap, Cambodia, leaving soon, so bought some quick sandwiches at the 7-11 (yes, the legendary 7-11 has survived, and is prospering in SE Asia, thank-you) and awaited our bus.  The ticket agent gave us a sheet of directions for the journey.  It was to be a four hour trip to the border, then an hour to get through border control, then another three hours on a different bus to our final destination, which is the jump-off point to Angkor Wat – an archaeological marvel and one of the key reasons we decided to make the trip to this part of the world.

After an uneventful ride, and several unnecessary, lengthy stops, we reached the border five hours later and, after doing the paperwork and paying the fee for our Cambodian visas, were led by a guide through the border.  This border area was beyond nasty, and was on par with the worst border crossings I’ve seen in South America.  It was utter chaos – dusty, dirty, motorcycles zipping around everywhere, dodgy looking characters eyeing you up, armless beggars, loaded lorry trucks spewing diesel exhaust, desperate vendors, and many young hooligans wearing facemasks.  At one point we were following the guide across the street, through traffic, when Magnus was inches away from having his foot run over by a motorcycle – thankfully his mother’s scream got the attention of the suicidal rider.

We went through several checkpoints, having to wait at each one, then were loaded on a bus in the midst of a torrential downpour (good thing, that whole border area needed a good wash) and driven to a different bus station where we were instructed to wait.  After a while a different bus arrived and we were packed into it for the final leg of the journey.  We drove for an hour and a half then pulled into another roadside restaurant, then were unceremoniously instructed that this was our lunch stop and we wouldn’t be leaving for 30 minutes.  The restaurant was completely open on all sides and was being whipped by the wind and rain so everybody stood there for a few minutes wondering what to do.  I asked the driver how far the town was and he said it was 90 minutes away, so most people then ordered some food since skipping this unnecessary break and pushing on did not seem to be an option.  Obviously, the low price of the bus tickets is supplemented by these rest stops where the company surely gets a commission on whatever is purchased.

Finally, we were stuffed back into the bus and 45 minutes later we arrived in Siem Reap and were dropped off at an unspecified guest house to a legion of aggressive tuk-tuk drivers.  By now I was getting real grumpy, as it had been a 12 hour journey, and as I was bitching to Ana about this young English chain smoker on the bus, I realized that the kids hadn’t complained once all day and seemed very content with the whole trip.  Then I remembered one of my life maxims – you can’t control what happens to you, but you can control your reaction to it.  And I forced myself to quit being a whiner and brighten up.  This mood transition was helped when we reached our hotel – a wondrous four star affair where, upon arrival, they served us sweet lemongrass tea in bamboo cups and offered us little cold, rolled up towels to wipe the grime off our faces.  Ana looked so happy, in fact, you will never see Ana so happy as when she steps off a dirty tuk-tuk into a fancy hotel!  She is one classy bird.

After settling into our spacious, clean, beautiful room, the kids tried on the luxury bathrobes and I took a few Jedi photos, then they threw the free slippers at each other and around the room while we had a shower.  We then wandered out and found a Kymer BBQ restaurant and were treated to a must unusual and delicious meal.  They brought out a giant, metal cooking bowl heated by live hot coals, which had a raised cooking dome in the centre and a moat around it where they poured boiling chicken stock and dumped in a pile of fresh vegetables and uncooked noodles.  They delivered bowls containing six different types of raw meat (beef, chicken, crocodile, pork, fish, and shrimp) as well as side dishes of rice and dipping sauces.  We then used chopsticks to put the meat on the cooking dome where it sizzled away, then ate each piece as it was done cooking, and replaced it with another.  Soon, the moat of soup was done so we ladled it into bowls and it was delicious, especially with all the bits of meat that fallen in while cooking.

So after our 24 hour land journey, our bellies were full and we toasted our fortune at being here together, safe and sound, in a brand new country with so much to explore in the coming days.  Magnus was clearly not quite satisfied with day’s accomplishments, so when he got back to the hotel he ripped out a loose molar then, five minutes later, yanked out another one.  So it might be back to frog porridge for that boy for a while!

Friday July 18th – Chiang Mai and onwards through Thailand

Chiang Mai is a centre for many half day, full day and multi-day trips into the surrounding countryside for zip-lining, elephant trekking, hiking and so on.  But we just didn’t find anything that felt right, so instead we decided to explore the city a bit more then head to the gigantic mall to see a movie.  This time, we saw “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and it was awesome.  It is just hard to believe what those CGI guys can bring to life on the screen which, in tandem with an intriguing storyline, makes for quite a show.

After the movie we chose one of the dozens of interesting restaurants in the mall (the mall was large, fancy and modern, though not quite as “over-the-top” nor busy as the ones in Kuala Lumpur) and enjoyed a delicious dinner of Japanese food including the best sushi we’ve yet.

By 7pm we were at the bus station to catch our overnight ride to Bangkok.  Thankfully it was a double decker with fully reclining seats and an onboard toilet.  After settling in, the attendant came around and offered us snack boxes, drinks, blankets and pillows, and before long we were all fast asleep, in part due to the Dramamine pills we had all taken, just in case the road was windy and rough.  Strangely, we made a meal stop at two in the morning at a gigantic, roadside cafeteria, owned by the bus company.  The idea of eating at that strange hour kept us on the bus, but I felt compelled to go to have a look and found hundreds of people chowing down on noodle soup, rice curries, mystery meat and other unidentifiable food items.  I returned to the bus, dropped into my seat and was instantly asleep.

Thursday July 17th – Chiang Mai, Thailand

To tackle a new city, it is fun to simply wander and that is what we did.  The old city of Chiang Mai is a perfect square and bounded by a moat and the ruins of what used to be a giant wall, so it is not hard to imagine what this city may have looked like hundreds of years ago.  Now, it is a densely packed, vibrant, bustling, modern, and thoroughly touristic city, but with a small town feel as the guesthouses and hotels are located in a comparatively small area in and around the old city, outside of which appears to offer nothing much of interest.

With the help of a tourist map we explored the old city on foot, finding some remarkable temples, one of which featured a large pond and a resident population of catfish which you could feed.  A handful of snacks thrown at once in the pool produced a boiling, aggressive, slimy collection of large catfish mouths groping for the crunchy morsels of food.
We noticed the temperature was definitely more tolerable than what we were used to, but after a few hours of walking we were getting a little exhausted and, to be honest, weren’t really finding too much else of interest, so we had a light lunch then head back to the hotel for a lovely afternoon swim and nap on the loungers.

We had arranged to meet the friends we were with yesterday at the Muay Thai fights this evening at the stadium which was very close to our hotel, so after wandering around the night market (at least the rest of the fam jam wandered the market – I was smart and went for a five dollar foot, neck and shoulder massage instead….ha ha, fools!) we went to the stadium.

The ring was in the centre of a long series of small bars, some of which were identified clearly as Lady Boy bars, though there were indeed lady boys, prostitutes and all sorts of gender indeterminate people, many in the arms of balding foreign men, in all of the pubs.  Thankfully, it was still early in the evening so there was nothing really racy going on quite yet, but I was imagining things would heat up the further into the evening, which may prompt some difficult questions from the kiddies.

The ring had been surrounded by a feeble fence meant to block out the non-ticket holders from seeing the match, but surrounding the fence was our little group, all squatting on the floor looking under the shields, in true cheapo backpacker style.  Magnus and Stella decided to get a bit closer so they slipped through the fence with two of our new friends – English girls - and got comfortable seats to watch the fights, while Ana, me and the rest of the group enjoyed some cold Chang beers outside.  Before long, one of the ticket collectors invited us into the area so we all ducked under the fence, grabbed seats and stated cheering for the fighters.  The fights were great - very clean, no nastiness, and young and fit fighters.  One of the matches was between two girls, and it was probably the best of the lot as it went all five rounds and ended in a decision.  Magnus and Stella were enthralled with the matches, and were making predictions for each fight then cheering on their chosen warrior.  There were also chatting happily with their new friends and it reminded me just then that this is what traveling is all about – putting yourself (or finding yourself) in completely new and unexpected situations, enjoying them, rolling with the proverbial punches and really, truly, honestly living in the moment.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Wednesday, July 16th – Arrival in Chiang Mai, Thailand

The trip to Chiang Mai was supposed to take just over four hours but it somehow took closer to seven.  You never quite know what to expect when you book longer distance land transport, especially when you are crossing a border.  Our path went like this : Tuk-tuk to Lao immigration post.  Walk through immigration, clear customs.  Loaded into mini van.  Driven to Thailand immigration.  Walk through immigration, clear customs.  Loaded into different mini van.  Driven through the town to a backpacker guesthouse at the end of a dusty road.  Instructed by driver to grab baggage and walk through guesthouse to the other side.  Walk through guesthouse lugging backpacks, pass the pool, follow the fingerpointing of guesthouse staff, eventually find the way out and discover yet another mini-van.  Load into minvan, drive for hours, get dropped off in Chiang Mai at unknown guesthouse in the old city.  Get directions from guesthouse lady, walk an easy ten minutes to our lovely hotel.  Collapse on bed in air conditioned room for a few moments to catch breath.  Simple!

After freshening up, we went out to explore this brand new city in this brand new country.  Chiang Mai is the largest city in the north of Thailand and the centre for a lot of tourist activities such as elephant trekking, zip lining, cooking schools, meditation retreats, jungle trekking and so on.  The currency in Thailand is called the Baht and each of the bills has a portrait of the king who, if you use your imagination a little bit, looks very much like my father, so every time we pull out cash I almost feel like dad is here with us!

We head out for a big walk, and find that there is definitely a seedier element to this town than we are used to seeing in Laos.  There are many, many bars, and in those bars are some interesting characters – lady boys, prostitutes, old men holding hands with young girls, and other disturbing sights we’re not quite ready to explain to the kids yet….but we do because they are asking, at least in general terms.  We’ve never been much for sheltering our kids from life.  Throughout this trip they are going to see a few things that are maybe not too age-appropriate, at least by our squeaky-clean Canadian standards, but so be it.  They can handle it and so can we.

We ran into some backpackers we met on the slow boat and joined them for a couple drinks then wandered around the gigantic night market for a couple hours, which had a great mix of knock-off goods as well as handicrafts.

Stella had two great moments today.  When we were waiting in line at the border she looked up at the sign that “Foreign Passports”, thought a bit, then turned to us and said, “If you take the ‘P’ out of Passports, what do you get?”  Magnus seized the opportunity to blurt out, “Assports!”  When we were in Chiang Mai the kids convinced us to take them to McDonalds, and we did as there didn’t seem to be any of them in Laos and two weeks of noodles and rice were starting to wear them down.  So Ana and the kids at there, and later on I grabbed a local dish from a roadside vendor.  As I was eating with Stella beside me, she looked up and said, “Daddy, I feel bad about eating at McDonalds.”

“Why?  What’s wrong with that?” I asked her.

“I don’t want to be a tourist.  I want to be a good backpacker and eat local food,” she answered.

I told her she is the best little backpacker in the world and lots of good backpackers eat at McDonalds now and then for a little treat.  She is such a sweetheart.