Vietnam: Hoi An – City of Lanterns

I am hoping for a 5 day respite in Hoi An without any agenda. Our most ambitious plan involves having 2 custom shirts made for Steve and a lantern to take home. We have a comfortable hotel, great room with a balcony, full buffet breakfast and bicycles. We’ve gotten acquainted with the hotel’s happy hour and their Pina Colada is the best I’ve ever had which probably has something to do with using a whole fresh pineapple and fresh squeezed coconut milk. A liquid step in the right direction.

We are just 1 long block from the Old Quarter historic district, far enough to not have noise or lights and yet easy to walk to. We try pedaling through town but we are off the bikes as often as we are on them; streets packed with vendors, market stalls, shoppers, street performers, long chains of Chinese in individual rickshaws. Very busy.A twenty two person caravan – no kidding

Worn out
However, if I went earlier in the day, the streets were more inviting. I could stop and breathe the colors; the magenta sprays of bougainvillea flowing over balconies, lanterns strung across streets and the Thu Bon river running alongside.

Walking the side streets
Rice noodles drying in the sun

We take the bikes for a ride out of town. Friends we met on the Dragon Pearl told us to go to “hidden beach” which of course has no signs or directions. They also told us to do a sunrise kayak trip. Both ideas capture our spirit. So we ride toward the beaches on the East Vietnam Sea. An Bang is the most popular so we avoid it. We pedal on a rough concrete trail through sand and grass for quite a while and see several tiny openings coming off our path. I check some out. No hidden beach. We ride some more and take a fork at some point and come to a sign: “Mrs. Trinh beach- Viet food. Free park”. We leave the bikes in the pine forest and head towards the water. We discover our “hidden beach” and are overjoyed. For 110k dongs ($4.70 usd) we get a fresh mango-pineapple smoothie, empty beach, great surf, two weatherbeaten yet fully serviceable palapas with cushioned chaises, and great fresh food. Us alone, sunshine, hot, quenched, sated, happy. Ahhh. Finally relaxed…

Hoi An is a small city that developed into a commercial trading port in the 16th century but existed 2000 years ago when part of the Champa kingdom. It had a favorable location for trade with Europe and the Far East for centuries but was eventually overshadowed by Da Nang’s industrialization and superior harbor.

We are biking everywhere. Way faster than walking and slow enough to really notice the surroundings. We had a great banh mi at the Queen, biked on and found a tiny shop that makes paper with beautiful designs from a slurry of crushed nipa palm fronds.

We ride out of town where small villages are next to marsh lands. Sadly, the typhoon has destroyed many such villages over the years. We are trying to locate the kayak rental place but without street signs, GPS, current address, or a detailed street map it is proving elusive. I notice a beat up and faded sign saying kayak rentals on a pole next to a chewed up sidewalk along an inlet and since we had been circling the area for 20 minutes I decide to explore. Past trash, a junk yard and nondescript huts I pedal on. I am shocked when a quick right turn at the water produces a shack that is the very place we are searching for. Seems the one on the website is gone, hence the old sign and this shop is just getting started. The sunrise tour isn’t yet part of their tours but the guide is willing to accommodate our request. We agree to be ready by 5 am the next day.

Still fascinated by the small handmade fishing craft and the long carved paddle

We get picked up by motorbike (my favorite) in the darkness and meet Lung our guide. We get our gear, go down the rickety stairs to a makeshift landing. The kayaks are in the reeds and have to be hauled in. Unfortunately the sunrise doesn’t look promising. In fact, it is really just dark. What is cool though is seeing a fisherman row under an enormous net to collect the fish. He lifts the net and drains the fish out a hole and into his boat.

The nets are raised and lowered throughout the day and checked often by the fishermen. Once we head into the broad river, it is windy, the water is rough and the current is strong making the paddling in these well worn plastic boats difficult. I feel like I’m not moving and I’m getting fatigued. I’ve gotten separated from Steve and Lung, who is shouting instructions at me on how to paddle. I’m pissed and muttering to myself, “I know how to paddle!”, and put extra muscle into my stroke. Later he tells us that the current was surprisingly strong. We head into a small harbor where the fishermen are unloading their night’s catch. It is a madhouse of fish and people coming off the trawlers, middlewomen carrying buckets of fish, crab, squid onto the shore where the haggling takes place. We witness a heated exchange between two women fighting over a tray of fish, it tips, spilling the fish and a physical fight ensues. It is women who buy wholesale off the fishermen and then sell a bit higher to other women who’ll then sell the fresh fish at the market in Hoi An.

I am totally absorbed in the fish market scene. Women dominated. Local commerce and keeping it fresh, every day…A bamboo thung chai or basket boat is rubbed with resin and cow dung for waterproofing

Fishing vessel with array of high intensity lights to catch squid at night – impressive rigging

We walk through this fishing village, have noodle soup at a place Lung likes and then pick up our boats and paddle into a smaller tributary of the Thu Bon. On the way, we pass a fisherman laying out his net and his wife beating the side of the boat; the noise supposedly scaring fish into their net. We move further into the river and for us, the solitude, beauty and easy glide of the current is wonderfully peaceful.

Kayaking by the nets in daylight is amazing. The nets are spectacular in size and ingeniously raised and lowered by the fisherman pedaling a crank gizmo from a nearby bamboo platform.

Lung treats us to coffee at a local bistro that he likes. We have shared more than a tour, our stories have made us friends. We say goodbye and ramble through town, exploring, dodging motor bikes, pedestrians, scoping out a camera battery, being part of the local traffic and feeling free.

Hoi An is very pretty with some well preserved wooden homes. The main streets are lively. We eat well, go shopping, visit the markets that are selling the fish we saw much earlier and sweat alot, it is really hot. I bike to my manicure which takes us into another non tourist area of Hoi An. We find Heaven and Earth bike tours and sign up for a 21 km ride through paddies and indigenous villages. We’ll get to use true mountain bikes with working gears and we are psyched. Steve is especially looking forward to a bike that finally fits.

It is a strenuous ride and so much fun. Standing up to pedal over huge stones, vibrating over several bumpy bamboo bridges, trying to stay upright on a single track through paddies. At one point the woman in front of me stops abruptly on sand and I’m launched onto a water buffalo dung patty. Luckily it isn’t fresh. We go past irrigation locks, huge aerating shrimp lagoons, abandoned brickworks, and a water buffalo with twins. Part of the ride is exposing us to traditional crafts in people’s homes that tourism helps keep alive. We visit a village that for generations has specialized in weaving brilliantly colored mats but struggles to compete with factory made. We bike to a village known for making herb rice crackers. A rice cream batter is ladled crepe-like over a rice husk fire in an already hot home, then dried in the sun. The same women get up at 2 am to make rice noodles as well and we are treated to sandwiches of noodles and crackers sprinkled with black sesame seeds, garlic and chili dipped in homemade fish sauce. These are so delicious that people travel from Saigon for them. Interestingly both our guides, Tram and Loc refer to Ho Chi Minh City as Saigon. We bike on and on, each village devoted to their craft; from inlaid mother of pearl furniture, to paddling the woven basket boats (we literally go in circles with much laughter) to imbibing homemade rice wine with blends fermented with centipede (medicine for chickens) to king cobra, the strongest. No one tastes that one. We visit a traditional 2 story house where an ancestral altar occupies the central space. Sleep areas shift according to age and marital status and everything moves upstairs during wet season. The beds are wooden platforms covered by the very mats we’ve just seen and remind me of our Ha Giang guide Khu’s stories of her sleeping on boards growing up in Sapa. Our young guides show us how people repurpose old armaments from the french colonial era and the “American” war. Again I feel shame. Did Americans really need to interfere with Vietnam’s governance to thwart communism?

95, now blind, she knows the pattern so well that she continues to feed the correct color to her son-in-law’s loom. Wish i could have taken one home
Our cutie pie guides
Our cutie pie guides, Loc above and Tram below
While we bike we engage in long personal conversations. We have equal amounts of questions. I share my observation that women are seemingly doing much of the labor while men are sitting in groups drinking coffee, gambling or holding babies while their wives work. Both Tram and Loc, nod and immediately reply, “It is said that Viet men are lazy”.

We have a couple more days in Hoi An before we embark to Myanmar. We shop for lanterns, get Steve’s shirts and I buy shoes, all made in 24 hours and delivered to our hotel. We venture inside some historic homes with water marks 17′ high, the devastating effects of powerful typhoons and flooding. We mingle in the crowds on these hot nights, enjoy the lights on the river, and allow ourselves to be lured onto the dark evening waters of the Thu Bon.

Vietnam: Hue – The Emperors Tombs

Incense – a little wood powder, glue, sandalwood or cinnamon rolled into sticks

I am starting to get cranky and tired of sightseeing. It happens. Our pace has been a good mix of taking it all in and letting things unfold. Today my stomach is shaky, I want to be out of the city and be in nature, away from tourists and slow it down. I have loved cycling in Hue (even though a bit busy and crazy) and visiting the Imperial City, achingly beautiful and full of history. Today is also our last day before we travel to Hoi An. We have heard the Emperors’ tombs are amazing and not to be missed. I make the decision to go and as it happens sometimes, I received all that I wanted.

The legacy of the Nguyen dynasty is reflected in the 7 glorious tombs of its 13 emperors scattered around the city. We can only visit three: Minh Mang (reign 1820-1841)), Tu Duc (1848-1883) and Khai Dinh (1916-1925). While the tombs house the emperors remains they are also idyllic places of contemplation, worship and repose as well as romantic and extravagant displays of wealth and architectural style.

Emperor Minh Mang or “bright favor of heaven” was the second emperor in the Nguyen line and well known for his intelligence, devotion to country, Confucianism and staving off imperialist encroachment. At that time, unwelcome French missionaries were inciting rebellions that the emperor’s regime curtailed by expulsion or death. This set the stage for a “justified” French retaliation and ultimately led to increased french exploitation and aggression. Within 85 years the throne was no more than a puppet of the French and the Nguyen dynasty came to end.

Minh Mang died in 1841 and the tomb was completed by his son in 1843. It took 10,000 laborers and artisans to complete the work. The actual crypt is a dramatically austere vault reachable at the end of a wonderful expanse of paths, courtyards and temples with terraced gardens and lakes. As I stroll, I feel immersed in nature, serenity and beauty. The environs of the tomb are indeed a resting place.

Hien Duc Mon entrance gate
Sung An Dien Temple, a Royal place of worship then, a place of remembrance now

Plumeria trees frame the Temple

The garden of Longevity along the Than Dao pathBuu Thanh – Minh Mang’s remains lie deep underground behind iron doors

Emperor Tu Duc, or “inheritance of virtues”, the fourth emperor had the longest reign; 35 years, bloody and troubled. Some stories praise his kindness and education. Others blame him for brutality and poor leadership. He strongly opposed foreign influence both in trade and religion, an isolationist policy that ironically made Vietnam more vulnerable to French and Chinese infiltration. He suppressed an internal rebellion for the throne led by his brother and jailed him for life. He forbade Christianity and executed many missionaries. Ten years into his reign, a Spanish bishop was beheaded which brought invading French forces into Da Nang and Saigon. There were skirmishes with the French and weakness in the monarchy. French expansion, a crumbling empire, the eventual ceding of three southern provinces brought a broken Vietnam reluctantly into the colonial era.

We amble through the gate into his tomb. Tomb is the descriptor for the entire complex which includes entrance “gates” to each area, a “stele”- where the biography is inscribed, a salutation court, honor courtyard, temples, pavilions for pleasure and education and the crypt; all set in a natural setting that highlights Confucian sense of place. It took years to find the exact spot where they wanted to eternally rest and be worshipped. Tu Duc’s tomb, Hoa Khiem (“modest”) Palace is one of the most tranquil and lovely places anywhere. The peaceful atmosphere belies the 4 years, several rebellions, laborer deaths, another coup attempt and monumental expense that brought this memorial into being. He had 104 wives and concubines but no heirs, though he adopted a stepson to continue the line. He designed the tomb and lived long enough to enjoy it as his residence. While his rule was marked by violence and upheaval, (legend says that he is buried elsewhere in Hue and that the 200 laborers who knew the location were beheaded to maintain their silence), he himself was a cultured man and prodigious poet. Many of his 5000 poems are carved into the buildings.

Luu Khiem Lake
The traditional Honor Courtyard of mandarins, military, elephants and war horses

Dragon riding atop the roof of glazed and clay tiles with royal medallions

Exquisite ceramic mosaic craftsmanship adorns many of the buildings

Peacock flower – Caesalpinia Pulcherima

Lastly we visit the tomb of the twelfth Emperor, Khai Dinh, “augur of peace and stability”. We climb many steep steps to the elaborate entrance. There are Chinese tour busses filling the street. We pass a retinue of beautiful Vietnamese women in their traditional ao dai dress, so colorful and regal posing for pictures. How come they all have perfect posture? Then we see the clusters of Chinese tourists with their selfie sticks, posing all over the tomb grounds. Luckily this is the smallest of tombs.

It is also the most decorated mausoleum. Every surface is covered in bas relief of dragon, demon and floral motifs. In stone, in ceramic, in paint, on pillars, walls, ceilings, roofs.

Ceiling mural

The tomb is set upon a mountainside which accentuates its height and breadth. We peel our eyes away from the grandiose concrete structure and take in the view of the mountains across the valley. The mountain adds dimension and highlights the majesty of the tomb. The grey stone of the monuments and lush green of the hillside pull each other into balance. I imagine this was part of the architects dream to unite human and nature, heaven and earth; uplifting and humbling. Just a guess.

Then we behold the interior.

The tomb room covered in ceramic with Khai Dinh’s remains buried 9 meters below

Khai Dinh did not skimp on luxury. His tomb took 11 years to construct. His reign was relatively short and inconsequential. France had control of the country and when Khai Dinh died, his 13 year old son, Bao Dai, became the 13th and last Emperor and it was he who completed the tomb in 1931. Bao Dai spent much of his life in France ( though his mother remained at the An Dinh Palace in Hue) and abdicated the throne to the Viet Minh in 1945. The first Indochina war soon followed and ended 8 years later at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 with the defeat of the French by the Viet Minh. In our travels throughout Vietnam there are banners and billboards celebrating the 65th anniversary of their hard won independence.

Our last stop of the day brings us up a hill to an overlook above the Perfume River. Hue’s famous 7 story pagoda is a sweet end to an historic day.

Linh Mu-Pagoda of the Celestial Lady
Burning incense

Vietnam – Traveling South: Hue to Hoi An

We hire a driver instead of taking the bus which allows us to slow the pace and traverse the scenic and steep Hai Van Pass between Hue and Da Nang with hopes of slipping into Hoi An by evening. We drive, enjoying panoramic views of the South China Sea appreciating why this winding mountain road is called Ocean Cloud Pass.

We follow the water for a ways before the climb and get to enjoy some of the best oysters ever eaten from a nearby lagoon. A local practice is growing oysters on old bicycle tires, then scraped off and sold. Our driver steers us to his favorite place minus the tires. We can only say yes.

The lagoon

Heaven

Our driver, Dong, takes us into his home village. Languid and deserted, boats are parked on the street with no one around. I walk onto the beach relishing the sand, checking the boats hiked up against a cement wall or marooned in brush. All are rigged with wrapped reed side pieces called sponsons that extend the hull and help with flotation and stability. I am loving the different kind of boats that are used in Southeast Asia and wondering if these belong to early morning or night fishing folk.

Boats parked on the street

An”immigrant” boat with bamboo sponsons

“This style of boat originated in the north during the war years and were brought south hence “immigrant” boats. They have a high overarching bow, a high narrow stern and a wooden hoisting barn door rudder operating through a tall slot in the very narrow transom. They are equipped with a pair of bamboo bundle sponsons to widen them just below the sheer line perhaps to deal with tenderness, or possibly just to provide one last chance to bail them out if overwhelmed or swamped.” -Ken Preston

We continue our climb up to Hai Van pass reaching the summit where French, Vietnamese and Americans have built bunkers and fortresses. This strategic roadway between war ravaged Hue and Da Nang was also called the “street without joy”.

Hai Van Gate

I feel strange seeing the mortar shell holes in the bunkers and towers and climbing through them while simultaneously remembering the wars that built them. I am grateful for peace.

We descend toward the peninsula of Son Tra or Monkey Mountain to visit the Son Tra Linh Ung Pagoda that overlooks the East Sea. Originally a humble Buddhist shrine 200 years ago that protected the fisherman was recently redone and expanded into a park complete with ornate temples, exquisite bonsai plantings and a 67 meter tall Quan Yin statue. It is a serene place with beautiful views and a quiet getaway from the city.

Someone has to trim
We are back at sea level once again and stop to see the skyline of Da Nang City from Man Thai fishing village where large trawlers, single boats and the traditional rattan basket boats work their trade.
The perimeter of Da Nang seems thriving, crowded with white upon white hotels along its coastline replete with marinas, water sports, palm lined boulevards. Our driver uses one word to describe what we see: “Cronies”. We have heard the term in Hanoi to describe the corruption that allows these mega modern hotels to be built. Luckily we are driving through but the difference of a few miles and development is startling.
Last stop before Hoi An is a visit to Marble mountain, a huge limestone outcropping with steep convoluted paths through caves and underground shrines. Of course we decide to hike into one of the caves that promises a magnificent vista.
Once inside however, it is dark, steep, slippery with sharp ledges and crowded with two way moving bodies. We skinny up. We take a different way down.

Vietnam: Hue – The Imperial City

Dragon boats moored on the Perfume river, Hue

Going to Hue is what most tourists do as they travel south from Hanoi. It is located in the middle of the country, about 8 miles south of the DMZ. We heard that the Imperial City was magnificent and Hue a lot calmer than Hanoi; two really good reasons to visit. I was also just beginning to grasp how Vietnam separated into north and south in the mid 1600’s following millennia of clan conflict and civil war. As a typical American I was only superficially aware of Vietnam until the war demanded the immoral draft of my generation, the killings at Kent State, the bombing of Cambodia and Laos, and the horrific atrocities committed therein. I had little appreciation of the depth of the country’s long history and culture.

Hue, is a city located on the Song Huong or Perfume River. Years ago, the blossoms from the orchards upriver scented the river earning its name but we have been told that industrialization has usurped that bucolic time. It is however, the site that Emperor Gai Long of the Nguyen dynasty chose when he moved the capital from Hanoi in an effort to extend his influence over a unified north and south Vietnam in 1802. He built the Citadel, a walled city surrounded by a 4 sided defensive wall with each side a mile and 1/2 long surrounded by a moat. The Imperial City became the epicenter of culture, learning and worship in the country. The southern end of the city housed the Royal Palace, gated courtyards, pavilions, gardens, library, temples and “The Purple Forbidden City”: the emperor’s personal spaces, lodging for each of the four Queens , his 102 concubines, their 142 children and the eunuchs that served them.

The Imperial City prospered for about 50 years until the Vietnamese attacked the increasingly aggressive French who then retaliated and burned the Imperial library and stole all the valuables within. It continued to be home for the following 13 rulers of the Nguyen dynasty, each becoming more ineffectual as France’s influence grew until 1945 when the last emperor of Vietnam relinquished his throne to the Viet Minh. A significant part of the Imperial city was bombed by the Japanese. But the most damage occurred when Hue was attacked in 1968 by the North Vietnamese troops during the Tet offensive and the three weeks of fighting reduced much of this historical masterpiece to rubble.

Of the 160 buildings only 10 remain. 50 years later, partly restored, ruins covered with grass , the Imperial city still impresses.

One of the four palatial gates: entrance to Hung To Mieu Temple

Purple Forbidden City Gate of Manifest Benevolence – Cua Hien Nhon

We are subdued by the beauty of what remains. As we exit we notice a small park enclosure with a display of captured tanks, artillery and a jet from the “American War”. It is a chilling reminder of the war, defeat and that I am on foreign soil.

We are biking throughout Hue and while there are less motorbikes than Hanoi, it is still very stressful navigating through traffic, pedaling over narrow metal bridges caught behind rickshaws and cars squeezing through non existent lanes, everyone hurrying. What a relief to get off and wander the outskirts into a grassy area where beer is served on tiny round tables alongside the river. We stretch out and watch the dragon boats traverse the brown river in the afternoon. It is one of the best parts of the day; the rhythm we fall into when touring is done and just being happens.

We bravely decide to get back on the bikes to find the Queen’s residence, An Dinh Palace, back over the bridge inside the city. It isn’t easy but we are rewarded by being the only foreigners viewing this hidden palatial gem, home to the last king who ultimately moved to Paris with his family while his mother, Queen Nam Phuong chose to remain in Hue.

A restored grand dining room

Restored hand painted wallpaper

Balustrade

A plea for help

Myanmar: Last stop, Yangon

We fly to Yangon, our last destination in Myanmar. Once known as Rangoon, capital of British colonial Burma for 100 years, it was reestablished as Yangon in 1989 when the Myanmar military came into power. The capital has since moved to Naypyidaw though Yangon remains the largest city and commercial center of the country.

We are picked up by Desman, our guide for the next and last 24 hours of our time in Myanmar. He takes us to a local tea house for lunch where I try milk tea, much like a chai beverage and naan with peas while Steve has fried fish wantons. All delicious. We go to tourist attraction #1: Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda that houses a huge reclining Buddha image with exceptional feet; 108 segments representing the 108 auspicious characteristics of the Buddha painted on the soles. I also learn the difference between the reclining and the merely relaxing Buddha. One shows his acceptance of his death while the other is at peace in a leaning pose. Who knew???Desman is orienting us to this both marvelous and crumbling city: its wide tree lined boulevards and narrow cross streets; the beautiful parks with blooming lotus ponds, the tidal Yangon River, with ports to the sea and its riverside markets, the upscale neighborhoods with gates and alarm systems, art galleries, government housing for civil employees, the colonial buildings struggling to survive their age and disrepair and the huge monastery complexes that are intimately connected to the Shwedagon Pagoda, the most sacred of them all.

Egg plant decoration on a city street
Apartment building on electronics row
Classic colonial buildings repurposed and still standing

We are fortunate enough to find the Musmeah Yeshua synagogue open, the one and only in all of Myanmar. The original wooden building was built in 1854 and renovated in 1896 for the 2500 member congregation that enjoyed services until they left during WWII. Only 20 families remain. The temple does Shabbat, the high holy days and holidays. Usually closed on Sunday, they opened for a presentation and tour for an Israeli delegation and it seems for the Feldman’s, too.

Hanna Samuels, of the family that has maintained the temple for generations

I am excited to be finally going to Shwedagon Pagoda, the jewel of Burmese Buddhist shrines. It is believed to be 2500 years old, the oldest in the world, completed in the 6th century by the Mon tribe. We climb the ancient steps, pass the giant mythic leoglyphs, leave our sandals at the East gate, and wander in on the cool marble tiles that cover the entire complex. I feel like skating across the polished surface. The atmosphere is immediately one of peace and timelessness and awe of the beauty, the scale and the spiritual.

I almost float from one stupa to the next, the space is so airy and light. The large pagoda sits on a hill and is visible from many parts of the city. Like most stupas, it is made of brick and covered in gold. This most auspicious pagoda has many relics, including 8 hairs of Gautama Buddha. The spire at 330 feet, is topped by a parasol about one and a half stories tall and contains about half a ton of gold.  It is covered with over 5,500 diamonds, 2,300 rubies, sapphires and other gems, and 4,000 golden bells donated over the centuries by monarchies and the populace. I imagine a gold surface studded with jewels while in reality it is a structure laden with layers of people’s jewelry; earrings, necklaces, baby bracelets, goblets and the like. The very top is studded with a 76 carat diamond; all the gemstones a symbol of devotion and merit. There is a protective mesh covering the pagoda that, with earthquakes and time, required reinforcement and re gilding, the gold coming from the very business in Mandalay we visited 3 weeks ago. We are a week premature for the unveiling.

The Shwedagon pagoda dominates the central area but the numerous stupas and buildings along the perimeter make it cozy like a community park as well as a place of worship. People stroll, relax, honor their ancestors, their birth day, give donations and enjoy the day with family. There are novitiations happening for both Shan and the rarely seen Mon ethnicity.

A Shan novitiation

A Mon novitiation procession in traditional red and white

His novitiation is several years from now

We continue our explore around the city, lingering, taking it all in, knowing these are our last moments in Myanmar. My heart hums with overflowing appreciation and a twinge of awareness of the imminent nostalgia from experiencing something very precious.

Myanmar: The Beach

As it happens, our three month sojourn is coming to a close. We will be back in Vermont’s snow and mud season in 8 days. I wish there was a way to store house the Myanmar tropical beach warmth so we could cocoon ourselves from the cold and damp of home. Alas.

We’ve said goodbye to Soe at the airport in Heho with hugs and exchange of emails. We fly 40 minutes southwest to Thandwe in Rakhine state and the airport is even more low key than Heho. We walk on the tarmac past beautiful bougainvilleas into a big room and wait by the door as the luggage is hand carted and pushed inside. It feels like a small bus terminal. We gather our belongings: the day packs loaded to bursting with our essentials and valuables, the conical hats, umbrella, sand paintings are in one hand tied up with a krama bowline. I heft a large woven bag over a shoulder, itself a souvenir, making itself useful filled to the brim with baskets, shoes and jackets. Lastly we roll and carry our 3 little suitcases gorged with clothes and souvenirs. We greet the hotel shuttle and bounce and sway past several villages, fancy hotel entrances, acres of stinky fish drying in the sun and turn onto an almost imperceptible road, pass a school and finally enter the Yoma Cherry Resort, Ngapali Beach. It is very hot. We respectfully remove our shoes, drop our stuff and endure another 30 minutes of a lengthy check in (they hold our passports hostage for two days) and eventually are shown our room; a second story suite with a balcony overlooking a garden of palms and green lushness all the way to the sand.We leave our stuff and hit the beach so quickly the sweat flies off our skin.

Nice beach. The Yoma Cherry is the only hotel in this cove and the geography provides safe harbor to fishing boats anchored at the shore. We top off our daiquiris, swim in the warm Andaman Sea, cream on the sunscreen, and mellow in the shade of our palm frond palapa.

I’m not much of a beach lingering in the sun person, so I stroll in the early morning up and down our cove that is rimmed with black rocks that stretch like fingers into the sea being careful to avoid the anchors embedded in the sand. I walk before footprints and tides erase the busy sand life. There are tiny formations of sand jewelry, ephemeral necklaces of sand beads strewn around tiny crab holes with pendants of little shiny silver fish left over from last night’s catch.The fisherman go out around 6 pm and return 12 hours later. We see village men emerge from the jungle carrying their dinner pails and gear slowly walking towards the boats around 5.

There is a lot of waiting, milling around and then somehow the timing is right and they roll up their longyis, wade out, climb up the sides like ants over the gunwales and take their places. Preparations are made, engines are engaged and one by one the boats launch out to sea for the night of fishing. The boats are strung with high intensity lights that draw the small silver fish into the nets, night after night. It looks like a little city spread out along the horizon. It is also a lovely time to swim.We walk barefoot to dinner at Coconut Beach Restaurant about 20 meters from the hotel for freshly caught fish. The first night we have white snapper, the second grouper. We are in heaven. Steve is really expert at separating flesh from bone. The fish is tender, succulent, a gift from the sea. It really doesn’t get any better than this.

We are awakened early by a musical ruckus outside our door. We are astounded and thrilled to see another novitiation , this time in Rakhine at the beach, no less. A wonderful way to start the day. We rent bikes today to travel to Thandwe bus station about 10 km away for me to buy some palm leaf fans. It seems this is the only place that sells them. Off we go, traveling back past the same fancy hotel entrances, the acres of stinky fish, the several villages until we reach the junction for Thandwe which begins the long uphill slog. My bike is stuck in one gear so I am straining and sweating so hard I get dizzy and have to stop to rest. It is midday and really humid. Steve’s hands go numb. I concentrate on the road, trucks come close and I stare ahead noticing the Jackson Pollock like splotches of orange betel nut spit on pavement.

I actually tried the betel nut at Indein market in Inle Lake. The ingredients are sold everywhere at the markets and the vendors make a little cube like package for the customer. It has a sweet menthol like taste as it sits in my cheek becoming saturated with saliva. I’m told to chew it and besides being crunchy, not much is happening other than my mouth is filled with beteljuice and I have to spit. I don’t know why I am shocked by the volume of bright orange juice hitting the ground. Like any bad habit, you’d have to work at it to want to continue.

We hang out and watch beach life. Fishing, sleeping, rolling tires, eating, swimming…

Last night’s catch

Our last morning at the beach arrives, breakfast on the veranda, last swim, I buy my fourth and last conical hat across the way. I see a man hike up a coconut palm, and following some serious leaf shaking and rope rigging, he lowers his coconut booty to the sand. We chat with the hotel manager whose mother, Vera Thompson started the English speaking school next door. We watch the fisherman attempt to move their overladen truck out of the rutted sand using palm fronds to gather some grip. We do pet the dogs against all the rules. And we say goodbye to the beach in Burma.

.

Myanmar: Laying Back in Kalaw

We spend a great two days in Kalaw before we embark to Ngapali Beach in southern Rakhine state. Kalaw is a town in central Myanmar where not much is happening. It has a pagoda, a cave filled with Buddha images that haven’t achieved relic status according to Soe, a mosque, a market, a meditation center, an Anglican church, an old cinema converted to an event hall and an active railroad. It is another British hill station of the last century and there is not much in this village that makes it tourist famous and we are glad for that. There is a nocturnal howling dog concert that goes on for hours but no other night life we know of. We ask Soe for a non-tour day and decide to bike around the village in the cooler temperatures, slow things down and enjoy that sense of freedom and happenstance when we are on our own. We get a cup of coffee and a sweet and cycle to the market for people watching.

Alms

We ride past the landmark British clock tower and admire the purple jacaranda trees lining the street. We ignore the pagoda and cave and are not even slightly tempted to sight-see. The railroad station however is way cool.

In the warehouse attached to the station house there are people counting and weighing potatoes, onions and beans in readyness for transport throughout the country and beyond. People are waiting on benches for the twice a day train. We can hear the whistle blow and the tracks rumble. The barrier gates are pulled across the road by one man. And we observe our first fully English sign, an event not seen in a long time.

Soe and Me

We are enjoying biking through the small city until we come to a detour for the local construction of a Chinese funded road bridging Chiang Rei, Thailand to Mandalay, Kalaw, Yangon in Myanmar and into India. The presence of Chinese financed infrastructure is powerful. We have seen many Chinese initiatives on our trip from road and casino building in the take over of Sihanoukville in Cambodia, the war zone in Ha Giang, Vietnam and dam building in Laos. We have been told of border areas of northern Myanmar, Thailand and China that harbor prostitution, gambling and narcotics. Border areas of southeastern Myanmar and Thailand are similarly bankrolled by China and our conversations with locals sadly report that area is likened to a cancer that is feared and cannot be treated. It is obvious that the Chinese are meaning to be the dominant world culture and they have a strong anchor hold in Southeast Asia.

It is a distressing reality that is visible here in Myanmar. This section of road is made by Myanmar laborers pounding rock into gravel with sledge hammers. They are melting tar in oil barrels with open fires underneath to spread over the stones. Electric power will be off most of every day for the next two weeks during this phase of construction. We already know that jobs are scarce in Myanmar. High inflation and unemployment often means young people must migrate and families are separated. People with education seek work in Korea, Japan, Australia or Singapore. The more menial work attracts Burmese workers to Thailand and Malaysia.. Soe says that the Buddhist New Year and water festival time reunites families and contributes greatly to the joy of the celebration.

We continue cycling and notice another sign in English, “Seed Sprouts Cafe and Yoga”. I actually have to stop and look again and experience a brain hiccup as I realize I’m reading English. I am drawn in like a moth to a flame and am compelled to check out this Vermont sounding enterprise. We meet the proprietor, an American, who created this place to train locals in cooking and tourism. He has many years experience working with Burmese orphans and wanted to teach them employable skills for when they are on their own. This current NGO hires them at the cafe and at the farm that sources the ingredients while earning a livable wage.The food is excellent, the space charming, funky and organic. The signs readable and atmosphere relatable. What a find. We hang out with a young New Zealand woman for a long while feeling the call of home.

We are staying at the Kalaw Heritage Hotel that has been around for over a hundred years. Initially built by the British in 1887 as an administrative office until occupied by the Japanese army for 3 years during WWII. People remember that time with anger and sadness. After the war the town and building were retaken by the British and has endured turns as a missionary school, girl’s convent for the Shan chief’s family, an army hospital and a hotel. In 1960, foreign hotel guests were restricted to Indian and Chinese nationals. Other foreigners were banned. Over time the hotel was forgotten and neglected and locals called it the “ghost place” until the 1990’s when the Burmese military occupied it. In 1996 the country opened to tourism and the Kalaw Heritage Hotel came back into being through private ownership. It is a lovely, simple place, no frills except for the tennis court, small pretty gardens and killer ginger margaritas.