Being in a country that is heterogeneously Buddhist is intriguing. There are shrines everywhere; hotel lobbies, gas stations, inside or in front of people’s homes and stores, on the roadsides, on a street corner. Monks, too are everywhere. Wait a few minutes and one or two or twenty will appear. Out of a forest, on a path, in the market, in an airport, at a monastery. I have heard the Buddha life story multiple times with little variation though sometimes with a bit more embellishment depending on the depth of knowledge of the speaker, interest of the listener and the region. In Myanmar and I imagine elsewhere in countries that practice Buddhism there is a rite of passage ceremony that marks the boy’s entry into the Buddhist community: Novitiation, the honor of becoming a novice monk.
As we were driving back from Hsipaw into Mandalay , I spotted a procession with riotous color and golden carriages pulled by oxen riding alongside a wall of ruins. I asked to stop the car for a photo and Sithu says, “It’s a Novitiation “. I’m thinking, O.K. that’s cool, and then I see an elephant all decorated in gold and red at the head of the procession and Sithu and I jump out of the car and start running to catch up with the elephant. I want to take a picture of the costumed children in the cart but Sithu grabs me and says come on. He stops a motor bike driver, he says something, I jump on and we are off riding down a village road tailing the elephant. The mahout slows the beast and lets me take pictures. Steve and Sithu have corralled another bike and have arrived at the scene. The boy in white in the howdah is the only son of the donor who is sponsoring the whole village’s children’s Novitiation. All the golden carts with oxen, the food and entertainment are paid for by this boy’s parents.
The bike driver motions me back on the bike and we scoot into the center of the village where the music is blaring and the entire village throng is in their best dress walking towards their pagoda. The carts are now empty of their young passengers. The children are made up to be as beautiful as a prince and are transported in carts so their feet do not touch the ground. It is connected to the Buddha life story when Siddhartha Gautama was a prince and as royalty was transported by carriage. He ultimately renounces his kingdom and leaves the palace to pursue his path for truth. That is what tomorrow is about for these young people.
For now, the party is just beginning. The parents lead the adults into the pagoda; the dad carrying the alms bowl and the mother holding the folded red robe of the novice monk. A Novitiation takes a couple of days. We are seeing the beginning of the ceremony with the entourage and village feast. Tonite there will be dancing and a bigger feast. Tomorrow their head is shaved, they are consecrated, and they don the robes and depart for the monastery where they will live with monks and learn the Buddhist doctrine for a week at least. We learn that beginning of summer when school is closed is when these ceremonies usually take place. It is a rare spectacle for an outsider to witness and we were the only foreigners. It does not happen every year. It is so expensive that brothers and sisters (girls have an ear piercing ceremony) and all boys who have not been novices yet no matter their age can participate. The whole village volunteers with food, cleanup and logistics. The children can be five or younger especially if an older brother is going to be a novitiate. Sponsoring one event per family is enough.
We could not believe our luck. We finally said goodbye with a fullness of spirit and gratitude.
We get to go to the Bawgyo Pagoda festival. I can’t believe how lucky we are to be here. Auspicious. The place is packed with Buddhists from all over the region. The religious aspect centers on the four figures of Buddha being on display, newly gilded with gold leaf inside the pagoda. Outside on this warm, black night, sprawled over acres, are the jewelers, food sellers, home goods merchants and pavilions packed with families chowing down all this good and greasy food. Everyone is dressed up. Hipsters in western clothes with orange and yellow dyed hair. The young and old don their traditional wear. Gambling, usually forbidden is in full swing during festival days. We watch a Mandalay singer performing and can’t quite appreciate the dissonance. Then we hear a Shan singer and wonder who stepped on the cat. The crowd is loving it. Men with blinding headlamps are moving through the audience hawking snacks. It is a great big party. Everything is over the top. Sound, food, smells, colors. Girls are doing hip hop routines and there are carnival rides. In fact the most unbelievable sight is the Ferris wheel. It is not mechanized. Several young, strong, agile men scramble up the internal framework and by balancing and tipping their weight bring the cars into motion. Then they gradually bring the cars to a halt jumping onto the moving cars and countering the centrifugal force. We couldn’t stop watching. What a fun night.
And we go again the next morning to view in daylight. Totally different, equally wonderful. We spend time inside the pagoda. Many people are praying and others are picnicking heartily on the floor. It is a truly a festival of the heart and soul.
The bulging eyes caused by numerous gold leaf wishes for eye healing
We snake through the crowds to exit the festival. As always, the coordination between our guide and driver is precise; we step away from the festival and into the car in one motion. We will be taking the train that traverses the Gokteik Viaduct on its way into Pyin Oo Lwin, It runs once a day and we have some distance to cover.
This railway system provided one more link for the British to expand its influence in Myanmar connecting Lashio in the north and the British summer capital of Maymo (now Pyin Oo Lwin) in the south. Nowadays it provides foreigners and locals a more pleasant ride than traveling the gorge with its steep switchbacks and hairpin turns. We drove that hellish route from Mandalay a few days go, wedged between caravans of melon filled trucks going to China in the north. Not that long ago, soldiers rode the trains to protect passengers from skirmishes between government and Shan forces.
Sithu got us tickets in “ordinary class” (about 700 kyat or 50 cents) as opposed to an Upper Class compartment where the luxury is soft, no longer reclining seats and a neck cushion instead of our wooden benches. I am good with it. We are waiting at Naung Peng station after leaving Hsipaw, and a train is already on the tracks waiting to depart towards Lashio. Women are selling food and trinkets to passengers through the windows, dogs are hanging out by the steps of the cars.
There’s no sense of urgency and I’m wondering when our train will arrive and then we notice a second train hidden behind this one and it is ours. We scramble up this train’s steep steps, cut through the car and jump out the other side to board our train as it is readying to pull out. We take our seats, breathe deeply and look out the open window…
The train rocks and rumbles over the worn tracks. Clickity clack, the sound is lulling, the sceneryepic and the soup of conversation blankets the train’s steady cadence. Men sell soft drinks and women carry baskets on their heads piled high with snacks swaying with the movement. The whole experience feels dream like and as I look out the open windowI see people leaning out, touching branches and waving to each other, laughing with the adventure of it all.
The viaduct built around 1900 with Pennsylvania steel, is the second longest railway trestle in the world at 689 meters or 2240 feet and 100 meters high. The river is a long way down and we wave to a tiny farmer who waves back. After three hours, we are back in Pyin Oo Lwin, greet our stalwart driver and depart Shan state to head back to Mandalay.
I am glad we are leaving Mandalay division for a couple of days and heading north to the hill station of Pyin Oo Lwin in Northern Shan state. It is at a higher elevation, 3500 feet, and will be cooler which was why the Brits established a military post there and made it the summer capital of British Burma. They called it Maymyo after Colonel May during the British time and up through the 1970’s. Burmese know it as Pan Myo Taw or City of Flowers. It is the current military regime that renamed it Pyìn Oo Lwin. I mention it as the naming and renaming of villages by royalty, the military, the Brits doesn’t erase the indigenous name. No one forgets which is which.
It is generally accepted that the Brits exploited the country’s resources, interfered with their governance and crippled the native economy while making themselves rich. The British occupied from 1824 to 1948. Steve and I both just finished reading “Burmese Days”, George Orwell’s 1934 novel inspired by his experience being in the Indian Imperial Police for 5 years. It profiled the attitude of British superiority that accompanied colonial rule and allowed terrible things to happen setting in motion a systemic break down of the culture that still reverberates today. Myanmar is not peacefully unified. It is made up of various “states” that reflect majority ethnicities. Bamar (Burmese) the largest, includes Mandalay and Yangon. Shan states, where we are now is more central in the east. The Palaung are in northeast Shan and embattled. Some of these states are stable but many others are fighting. Not all parts of Myanmar are open to tourism.
We’ve been fortunate to have real conversation and interaction with our guides, their friends and locals. It gives me some perspective and makes my experience that much richer. I feel like I am a receiver of a long oral history. It is clear they love their individual cultures and country as a whole. Our guide, Sithu is Bamar married to a Shan woman and shares with us some cultural differences with the cautious laugh of a married man.
In this hill town we see Moslem, Indian, Buddhist, Christian. It feels strange to see city streets, sidewalks, a central clock tower, a mosque, and horse and carriage. Ironically, I’ve gotten used to the Burmese village life, food, climate, dirt, toilets and from the outside Pyin Oo Lwin looks like any medium sized town in the States; civilized, comfortable, nondescript except for that mosque across from the clock tower.
An Indian gent
Horse and carriage tradition from colonial time remains unchanged
Pyin Oo Lwin with its milder climate is also known for its gardens. The Kandawgyi Botanical Garden was established in 1917 by the British and architected by a botanist trained at Kew Gardens. Interestingly, the laborers were Turkish prisoners of war.
The cooler temperatures and being among flowers is a pleasant relief. The floral area is nice but not exceptional. I am drawn to the pine forest and its smell reminiscent of home. A twinge comes and goes. It is wonderful to walk through a giant bamboo grove and observe a nesting swan with her mate primping the nest.
We head to Hsipaw, an old town in northern Shan state where the last Shan crown prince resided. Other than that I know nothing except I like to say the name: “See-paw”. I cannot decipher our itinerary. That, coupled with not having any prior knowledge has me open to all that unfolds. What a nice surprise to have a private bungalow on the Duthawaddy, a cousin of the Ayeyarwaddy. A peaceful spot with our porch facing the river perfect for enjoying the wine our travel agent gave us. Being on the water makes me happy. So does wine.
We ramble through the village of Hsipaw, just walking among villagers doing their lives and as the houses peter out, we walk farm land, acres of cultivated, irrigated fields to the horizon and hills beyond.
On the way to Festival
We walk through another village…
Most everyone we meet is going to the Full Moon Festival at Bawgyo Pagoda several miles away outside of Hsipaw. I think the Buddhists have worked out their religious practice to celebrate as many events as possible. This is the biggest festival in Northern Shan state, an extravaganza that lasts 3 days and happens only once a year. Bawgyo is one of the most well known in the entire country and we are itching to go.
As we walk, Aung Soe keeps filling in history and current events of this Shan province including the rapid change in farm rights vs. land rights and the illegal means that trick local farmers to sell their land for development. We feel fortunate to see this countryside now before the inevitable. It is a great, long walk and it is really hot. We are heading to the river to catch a boat for a trip up the Namtu where it meets the Duthawaddy.
Laundry, bathing, boating, fishing, playing in the Namtu
A surprising and initially startling thing here is how often we get pulled into a photo op with the locals. As soon as I climb out of the boat and go up the hill an older woman latches onto me, puts her hand in mine and pulls me aside for a picture. Aung Soe says it is a pride for them to be photographed with a westerner and that often the picture is posted in their home like family. It is a new experience and very sweet.
The Ayeyarwaddy or Irrawaddy is a river, the lifeline and liquid thread that stitches the country together. It runs north to south for 1350 miles through the entire country. Villages sprouted along its bank, dynasties were launched and crushed along this river, fishermen net its marine life, tradespeople transport goods, fields are irrigated, people clean and wash everything in it and tourists enjoy the flow of history and local life.
The heat is very strong today and when we say, “it’s really hot” and locals agree then we know it is the start of the Burmese summer. School children are on break for 3 months. April gets so hot that farmers are idle ; harvest is over, fields are furrowed and dotted with manure piles in readiness for May planting. The rains come in June and then crops start growing.
For now people are in high spirits anticipating Water Festival, the celebration of the Buddhist New Year in mid-April. It is 10 days of holiday. Families reunite, eat communally, visit the pagodas and most importantly, enjoy the water rituals. Think of thousands of people publicly splashing and dousing themselves enthusiastically while cleaning their karma, washing away the sins of the year. A brilliant concept: public holiday, great food, staying wet during the hottest time of year and cleaning up one’s act.
We are headed to the Ayeyarwaddy and pass by the ” brown village” home to the black market for opium, gambling, drugs, prostitution in Mandalay district. It is on both sides of the river and is predictably a slum, an entrenched poverty that stains generations. Sadly there are children here. We pass by numerous small shacks that house people who have migrated into the city from their farms, finding work in the city outskirts making bamboo walls, mats, industrial sized baskets.
Girl scraping bamboo slats smooth￼
Everywhere I look, there is something that catches the eye. Sithu and our driver cooperate with my photo inclinations and open the sun roof while I stand up and shoot.
We finally get to the boats, no dock, just down a sandy hill, across a few rotted boards and climb aboard one boat and walk across the bows of two other boats to get to ours.
We get on the Ayeyarwaddy and are blessed by the breeze of boat travel for the hour to Mingun about 10 km north of Mandalay. The river is very shallow and we pass dredgers and the temporary villages that house the workers and their families. The light is clear and sharp and we are drawn to a stunning white shape in the distance.
King Bagyidaw built this pagoda in 1816-1819 to show his love and to memorialize his first wife’s death in childbirth. Her name was Hsinbyume (white elephant queen). The second name of Mye (emerald) Thein Tan (100,000) references the 100,000 emeralds used to complete the pagoda. Not too shabby for the Konbaung dynasty. At the top it is so white and the sun so brilliant people cover up to avoid eye strain. Others choose covering to avoid darkening of their skin, Chinese women are the most committed.I am intrigued and overwhelmed by the foreign names, stories, history and legends that surround what we are physically seeing. I feel I am inside a fairy tale, i.e., like hearing the true story of Cinderella and simultaneously touching the pumpkin coach and her glass slipper. The way I remember places is often by what I’ve bought or eaten. While resting after walking up and down the Pagoda steps and drinking a glass of watery iced coffee I notice the colorful umbrellas nearby. It is so hot I bargain for one and am immediately gratified and shaded by my purchase. I now remember Mingun as where I got my grey flowered umbrella with tassels.
A short walk brings us to the world’s largest unfinished pagoda. The base was finished at 50 meters but the entire structure was meant to be 150. It is colossal. King Bodawpaya had the workers ferry the stone and brick across the river to this location even though the materials were available close by. His insistence exhausted the local resources and laborers. The King lost interest. 50 years later an earthquake damaged and split the structure. I can imagine the populace repeating “what’s comes around, goes around”. Our guide comments that his many “eccentricities ” and demands made him greatly disliked.
We head back on the river and its glorious cooler air. We have a date with a cart and donkey ride around Ava, the ancient imperial capital of 5 centuries of successive Burmese kingdoms also located on the Irrawaddy. Steve and I are a bit squeaky about doing such a tourist thing and it turns out that the roads are also ancient and besides walking, bicycling, and the occasional motor bike it is the local taxi. It is a bucolic setting, our cart is quite charming, our donkey and driver around the same advanced age.
We see remains of an old kingdom in a field of sunflowers, a golden spired stupa in a banana field, a leaning tower and a cute baby. At one point I got out of the cart to photograph a road sign and unbeknownst to me a bullock cart was coming up fast behind me with the driver tsk,tsk-ing me out of the way.
I feel I am time traveling, between the information of centuries ago and what remains standing today. As the day draws to a close, we drive past rice paddies til we come to Bagaya Monastery, a 400 year old large wooden structure not far from Ava.
It is 200 feet high and 100 feet wide built with 267 huge teak posts (one is 9 feet in circumference). Loads of ornate carvings recently coated in crude oil for preservation. I didn’t know and touched a carving and I was done for the day.
I had really wanted to write about our trip chronologically but long periods of no WiFi, loss of power, bumpy roads and boat rides have kept elongating the process. It’s been a couple of weeks since we’ve left Vietnam, having had a wonderful time in both Hue and Hoi An before we took off for Mandalay, Myanmar a week ago. We are having such an eye opening experience that I didn’t want to wait any longer to write about it. This is epic.
As true for all the Southeast Asian countries we’ve visited, it seems each has a long history filled with conquests, being conquered, monarchies, political upheaval, civil wars, colonialism, (excluding Thailand) division and unification, tribal hegemony, nationalism, advanced civilizations and their destruction, cultural literacy and rice. For most of the countries there has been severe growing pains to reach a national identity. Myanmar is still engaged in that fray.
We land in Mandalay and it is 35C (96F). We console ourselves that baking in dry heat is better than melting in moist heat. Our guide Sithu immediately teaches us, “Mingalabar” which is hello (actually “auspicious to you all”) in Burmese and “Chey zu ba” for thank you (or kyei zu ba). “We accent the first syllable”, he tells us. Don’t ask. Money is now kyat or “ch-yet”. Bye bye to remnants of Vietnamese rolling around in my brain and to my feeling of accomplishment handling dongs so well ( that’s Vietnamese money not anatomy). No time to lament. We are off to the royal palace but can only see a corner being restored, the rest hidden beyond a huge brick wall and the moat.We are underwhelmed. Mandalay, capital of kings 170 years ago, is a large, sprawling city without an apparent center . Not especially beautiful along the avenues we traveled but a lot less motorbikes and cars than Vietnam. Centuries of treasured history are alive here. We ask Sithu tons of questions, about the Rohingya crisis, the government, Burmese history. We are swimming in facts, dates, numerology, and the 4 Noble Truths of Buddhism within minutes of flight fog and dehydration. We don’t know anything about Myanmar. We are absorbing as much as we can as we drive to Amarapura, the ancient capital before Mandalay. It seems the “penultimate king” moved all the royal buildings from Mandalay to Amarapura, stayed a few years, received a prophecy of his death and moved them back to Mandalay much to the people’s consternation.
The entire country, more or less is Theravada Buddhist, with strong discipline and worship peppered with varying local cosmology, e.g., the formation of Magic Lake in Pindaya was created when celestial beings helped a hunter-prince kill a humongous spider that had sequestered seven princesses in the cave after capturing them bathing in the lake. This is told with integrity and belief as we drive by the lake. Everywhere there are Jatakas, the Buddha life story, manifested in painted murals, bas-relief sculptures in wood, gold, or sandstone in countless pagodas, stupas, monasteries and temples.Shwenandaw Monastery jataka in gilded teak 150 years old
Stupas are solid stone, brick, or stucco structures, basically mimicking the bell like shape of the Buddha with his statue in a niche along with other holy relics. Temples are open inside so people can worship and can be quite large and unbelievably embellished with gold, glass mosaic, jade and gems.
Pagodas can be both open or solid depending upon which part of the country you are in. Monasteries are where abbots, ordained monks and novices live, eat, teach, study and sleep. We visit the Maha Gandayon Monastery, our first, in Amarapura outside of Mandalay. It houses over 1000 monks and novices. Twice a day they queue up and walk this particular street, always barefoot, in their red robes holding alms bowls to receive food, cash and gifts from the multitudes that line the streets. At the final spot, donors spoon out mounds of rice, an honor they sign up for a year in advance. It provides them great “merit” according to Buddhist belief. Building a stupa provides even more merit. Building an enormous temple , even more merit. There are two benefits to acquiring merit; one is in the teaching of the path to nirvana and the other is to offset your non-meritorious behavior in hopes of reaching nirvana. As we get further into the country and deepen our understanding we really start to appreciate the significance of merit. It is a core belief.
Our guide found us a good viewing spot until a group of Chinese tourists inserted themselves into the same space nearly knocking me over. All this tumult on the steps, jockeying for position, shoving and noisy, juxtaposed with monks walking solemnly gathering all the food that will feed them this day.
They come in all sizes
We stay til the end and the crowd disperses quickly and we roam through the monastery. The purple robed novices are perhaps 5 years old. They too collect alms daily and learn the discipline. This monastery is known as the most abiding of the scrolls. The head abbot was known for his generosity, wisdom and protection (he provided shelter for villagers during the many war years). Over time he became renowned and the monastery grew exponentially. The monks are from all over the country and most come as orphans from those wars.
We go from the monastery to arts and crafts. I enjoy these workshops. We’ve seen how it can help keep an artisanal skill alive through tourism though honestly sometimes I feel captive to the demonstration and follow up gift showroom. Here in Myanmar it’s not only about extracting dollars from tourists. These crafts are part of the local economy and trade and is really how they still do things. We visit a gold leaf making workshop where they beat a paper thin piece of gold into an even thinner one with a heavy mallet hitting precisely in the correct spot for a specific time measured by a gourd filling with water. It worked hundreds of years ago and the same family continues the business. This place is the supplier of gold leaf for all the country’s temples, pagodas, Buddha images and palaces. That is a lot of gilt. We had no idea what this meant until we went to Maharmuni Temple. The application of a sheet of gold leaf onto the Buddha image brings merit to the wielder. Additionally, it is hoped that placing it on a specific part of the body may grant your wish for healing that part. In all temples this is a male only honor. Of course the more gold leaf the more merit.
As we are exiting the temple we hear commotion and see an explosion of color. Sithu gets excited and steers us toward the activity. A novitiate procession of 150 children completing the rite of passage ceremony that will bring them into the Buddhist community is in progress. We follow them through the temple and just stare at the beauty of these faces in their regalia in this amazing place.
We make a late afternoon visit to the magnificent wooden Schwenandaw monastery, last standing vestige of Burmese royalty in Mandalay. The building had been moved to Amarapura along with the entire royal city and shortly thereafter it became inauspicious to remain and the entire city was moved back to Mandalay. However, because the prior king had died in this monastery, the son, now king, was fearful of daddy’s spirit so he relocated the monastery to Mandalay hill outside the royal city gates. Interestingly, 2 Anglo-Burmese wars sacked and damaged the entire Royal Palace and bombing by the Japanese in WWII destroyed it completely leaving just this monastery intact 175 years later. Karma.
Amarapura is a pretty area, quieter than Mandalay with narrow streets, the chosen site for the ancient royal capital. It is now most famous for the U Bein bridge built in 1850 to span Tuangthaman Lake. At 1.2 km, it is the longest teak wooden bridge in the world. U Bein was the Mayor at that time and loyal to the king. There is a sordid history filled with suspicion and superstition that explains the execution of U Bein by the very king who asked him to build the bridge. We find over time that there are many similar type stories woven throughout the Burmese royal lineage, the government, the military and in tribal culture.
Happily, Amarapura is also known for a particular kind of silk weaving, wood working and tapestry making. This city is representative of these works that are only made here and circulated through the rest of the country and for export.
I try to find a longyi, a bolt of cloth wrapped and knotted worn by both men and women of Myanmar. Anything that could be cooler than pants in this heat is desirable. It is also a modest country so while bare flesh is tolerated it is not respectful. So if a longyi is climate proven I want to try to find one. Part of the bummer of being on a tour, even a custom one, is that there is no time to “schmy”. I am briefly let loose in a textile warehouse, fabric from floor to ceiling creating bands of color that entice and tease as I view helplessly without language and time.
We head to Kuthodaw Pagoda the site of the world’s largest book. I’m imagining a giant book complete with pages and spine. What we see is 729 marble tablets inscribed both sides with all the teachings of the Buddha written in ancient Pali language, each protected in their own stupa. The King built the Kuthodaw to leave a great work of merit for future generations. It also created an opportunity for a beautiful woman to apply thanaka cream to my face. Wearing thanaka face paint is a 2000 year old practice in Myanmar. The tree is ground to a powder, mixed with water and brushed on daily for health and cosmetic reasons. Children of both sexes wear it as well. An organic sunscreen. It seemed strange at first but every Burmese woman wears it and while I might notice, it is just how it is.
Our guide has arranged for a sunset gondola trip by the U Bein Bridge. In rainy season, the water is up to and sometimes over the bridge but for now it sits high on teak and concrete stilt like posts.
The pier is surrounded by hawkers and food vendors. It is a summer carnival type atmosphere with tacky decoration, kids screeching for treats and foreigners walking over pieces of wood to avoid the muck as we find our boats. I’m loving it and still can’t believe we are in Myanmar.
We are one and 1/2 days in, exhausted and blown away by the intensity of our immersion. I am visually overstimulated and awed. I am sponging up the history and trying to bring it into the present. We question the human rights issues with Aung San Suu Kyi, whom they call “Lady” or “She” and are glued to the explanations of the military regime, British colonization, the effects of the three Anglo-Burma wars, the present fighting, corruption, how the government is set up and the tenets of the national constitution. People openly talk with us about the state of the union and all seem in agreement. All are hopeful that the civilian government will gain power and the military regime will stop attacking and provoking the different ethnic groups. Myanmar has 135 ethnic groups, each protective of their varying customs and territories. There is active fighting going on in various parts of the country now and only certain areas are open to tourists. Aung San Suu Kyi heads the civilian branch administering the economic, agriculture, education and immigration ministries while the ministries of defense, border, and home affairs belong to the military. In essence, she has little to no power but to the people she represents hope and a deterrent to outright military rule. There is hope and fear for their nascent democracy.
There is an extraordinary place way up in the northern mountains of Vietnam called Ha Giang. It is a big province of mountains beyond mountains, rivers, rice and corn terraces, cultivated valley farm lands, several ethnic minority tribal villages and views so dramatic that one feels “exposure” just looking out at the vastness. Mountains of 2400 meters or 7900 feet that rise up so steeply it seems some greater power pulled them up out of the earth like thick taffy. The narrow and twisty roads seem to hang off the slope sides spiraling higher and higher as they wrap themselves around the mountains.
We slept in a home stay first night in the foothills of Ha Giang. Our guide, 24 year old Khu, herself a member of the H’mong tribe, guided us through villages of black H’mong and Dao peoples .
We walk along rice paddies, through jungle, to a waterfall and visit another village that takes us into dark. We come home to a veritable feast of local dishes: banana blossom salad, pumpkin leaf with garlic, zucchini and yellow squash, ground pork wrapped in bamboo shoot petals (my personal favorite) morning glory greens, smoked sausage, fried fatty pork, beef with veggies, fish sauce with chilis and 2 scoops of rice. Khu tells us most seriously that taking only one scoop is unlucky. We are introduced to “happy water”. Our driver, Mr. Phon teaches us , “mort, ha, bai, gzo” (one, two three, drink) and we slug a shot of homemade rice wine. After 6 rounds, Steve is hailed as Vietnamese. And we are indeed happy.
We venture further into Ha Giang , through Heaven’s Gate, the highest point of this mountainous province, Meo Vac, Dong Van, small cities with outlying villages nestled in deep valleys or clinging to steep hillsides. The mountains are of limestone origin, the same karst as in Bai Tu Long Bay only earth bound. We watch families work the slopes, planting greens for their livestock and corn for themselves. Some of these folks are so poor, they have corn for every meal, sleep on corn husk mats and drink corn wine. We were invited into this family of five’s home; a small, dark hovel with dirt floor, unvented smoke and no windows; the only light is through the door opening.Young children are caretakers for younger children
Our guide Khu was a sweet young woman from Lao Cai, in the Sapa region of high mountains, and while she only finished 8th grade she learned English from tourists when she sold goods to them as a teenager. She also spoke Vietnamese and a common dialect of H’Mong. One day we trekked the Skyland Trail and came upon some noisy and colorful activity at a juncture in the path in front of us. Khu says ,”wedding” to us and after a few exchanged words and smiling invitational gestures we were asked to join in the wedding celebration. We were ushered in, to sit and eat sunflower seeds with them, pose and take pictures with them while awaiting the bride and groom. I was elated to not only be part of this H’Mong festivity but to be up close with the local people in their native finery. The area was decorated with a multicolored ruffled canopy large enough to cover a hundred people, tables covered with red cloths, food constantly being brought to the tables in readiness for the feast to come. We watched in awe as villagers came from near and far, some on foot, some on motor bike with gifts and one with a freshly killed pig.
Men and teenagers
They’d walk up to the donation table with their offerings, usually cash and have their gifts registered. It is culturally expected to give a donation to the new couple and is recorded so at future weddings a gift can be given in kind. Steve and I also donated and were recorded with date, amount and “Steve and Marian ❤️” which drew happy expressions and hand clasps all around. Now we were legitimate guests.
When the tables were overflowing with food, the bride and groom showed up. Sweet.
Then just as swiftly as we blended in, we got up, exited unobtrusively and continued on the path into town. What a morning…
A commentary on the four elements in Southeast Asia.
EARTH: Ground is everywhere. From the bumpiest roads to modern streets. A piece of country earth floats into the city. There is always dust and particles of some sort permeating the air. In the cities, dirt and exhaust from vehicles is the air we breathe. Almost everyone wears a mask. Me, too. In the mountains, with innocent air, the roads or paths are dirt and get kicked up by motor bikes, animals and field cultivation especially in dry season. By the end of a trekking day, I am covered in a layer of grit, my clothing heavy with silt.
Then there is some of the most gorgeous earth on the planet.
WIND: The wind determines how much and how fast the dirt will travel. It also contributes strongly to my well being. A breeze is so welcome on these brutally hot days. The soft wind brightens my mood and dries my sweat. The air carries the news of my surroundings; what’s cooking and what to avoid. Jasmine or BBQ wakes up the olfactories and pulls me towards the source. A food market may be a visual cornucopia but a whiff of offal and putrescence may shorten the visit. And when I’m in the mountains or on the sea I fill my lungs up with the pure goodness of forest and brine.
The air and sun dry the rice noodle, the rice cracker, the shrimps for fish sauce, the chilis for everyday seasoning, the bamboo for weaving baskets, sleeping mats and basically everything for home and livelihood.
And it dries the nets.FIRE: Fire is integral to SE Asian life. In the cities there are countless street food vendors cooking fabulous dishes. That’s a good thing. That they sometimes let their charcoal fires smolder is not such a good thing. Wafting smoke fills the air and we have to move out of its way or choke. In the country, farmers burn fields to make way for new planting. In Laos, when people smell smoke they know it’s February. It is now illegal but as most things go, tradition surpasses regulation. The air remains eye watering smoky for miles. In villages and smaller cities, people burn rubbish, plastic and all, anywhere.
Dry season is also fiery hot. 35-38 C (95-100F) with 100% humidity. I become so sticky that I stick to myself. My hair has curled so tightly it has knitted a frizzy nest on top of my scalp. My clothing feels like band aids, adhesively attached to my skin. On a bicycle tour my shorts became so glued to my skin that I couldn’t bend my legs. I had to hold the cloth off my skin so I could pedal. Last night I bumped into a woman in the crowds and made contact with her bare arm. I could feel my skin peel away from hers as we moved apart, like separating two pieces of bologna. My clothing has been cyclically soaked in perspiration and evaporated by wind so many times that they are perpetually cloying and damp. Most things have not been able to regain their shape even after washing. It has caused me to shop for replacements (how is that for a rationalization?). Yesterday was our last day in Hoi An, Vietnam and we elected to skip the beach and relish the hotel A/C. Heaven.
WATER: is a double edged sword in a region that has only 2 seasons; wet and dry. It brings the necessary rains to a parched land and makes the rice flourish but in lowlands rainy season rivers can swell upwards of 5 meters causing serious destruction. Entire island villages outside of Hoi An have been swept away in storms. In Hoi An, there has been disastrous flooding depending on how potent the typhoon is. We’ve seen marks on buildings showing the height of the water and photos of people paddling through the streets where only the top floor of buildings were visible. In wet season, temps are cooler, the countryside is lush. But in dry season, water irrigates the newly planted paddies, washes the motorbikes and cultivates fields. Bridges are rebuilt, construction booms and foreigners kayak and hike and enjoy watching the fishermen at work.
We also drink a lot of water as dehydration is a real threat. We refill as often as possible but bottled water is usually all that is available. Bottled water creates a tremendous plastic problem on land and water. The volume has exceeded the infrastructure for removal, recycling or introducing other technologies. Our kayak guide Lùng , created a clean up Hoi An volunteer program 3 years ago that removes plastic but hasn’t resolved how to get rid of it. He dreams of creating a rubbish museum besides improving the environment,
I toast him and others who do the work to clean up their villages. We hope responsible tourism will take hold wherever we travel and in the rest of the the world. There is after all, only one Earth .
We spent 3 days in one hotel in Hanoi, changed hotels for a night, left our extraneous stuff, souvenirs and the like and took off for a voyage on the Dragon Pearl. Think Johnny Depp and Pirates of the Caribbean. Instead of a tall ship, this Pearl is a 3 story handmade junk. 10 lucky folks and us boarded the Indochina Junk for a 3 day cruise through Bai Tu Long Bay. We left Hanoi euphoric that we still had all our body parts, a little concerned about our malaria meds not showing up and excited about being on the water for 3 days. Hanoi weather had been cool and cloudy with morning drizzle so the hope of seeing the famous karst formations in the sunshine was fading. We told ourselves it will still be great on the water on a beautiful boat. And it was.
Ha Long Bay borders on the Gulf of Tonkin and is a major tourist destination. All boats depart from its harbor and the scene is so congested it resembles a water version of Hanoi traffic. We read about a bay further north which was far less travelled, the karsts only slightly less dramatic and claimed minimal tourist and environmental impact. We signed on and took a breather from Hanoi.
We were absolutely in love with our boat. Weather, schmeather, we could hang out anywhere and pretend we were members of an Emperor’s entourage. Drinks on deck, delicious chef prepared meals, big windows, fresh sea air and incredible views.
We also met 10 other delightful people from Brisbane, Winnipeg, and Stockholm. We were on a 2 night- 3 day cruise that allowed us to go out the furthest from Ha Long Harbor. We played making fried spring rolls, kayaking, swimming, caving, sleeping on a beach after BBQ, and drinking as previously mentioned.
What a shock coming into Hanoi following the somnolence of Don Khong island in Laos. The traffic went from water buffalo to Formula 1. I tucked away my 10 words of Lao and exchanged kips for dongs. Temps went from 35 degrees Celsius (94 F) to 12C (54F ). It was cloudy, drizzly and cold. I had to buy gloves, a jacket, wear all my clothes and cover the bundle with the raincoat. And still surprisingly humid. Had to open the pit zips.
And here I was in Vietnam. I didn’t anticipate how my college anti-war experience would intersect with my current travels. Pinch me, I am in North Vietnam. Haiphong, Da Nang, Sai gon, Hanoi, Hue, the Mekong Delta, My Lai and the DMZ; names I associated with atrocities in an illicit war. I felt the dissociation of time collapsing. I expected thatched huts and jungle villages where guerillas fought our troops. Instead there are high rises, a booming economy, gigantic billboards, fancy hotels and crazy traffic replete with motorbikes, SUV’s and tour busses. The population is overwhelmingly young, all post war. The American war, as they refer to it, was their victory. It is weird to see the captured US tanks, various artillery and bombers next to a UNESCO tourist site. Vietnam has a long turbulent history; 1000 years of Chinese occupation, 100 years of French rule and the seesaw expansion and loss within the peninsula for thousands of years before that. I feel a shadow of shame being an American and remembering our country’s machinations in this region. Interestingly however, at first blush, people seem more apt to highlight the Viet victory at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 when they kicked out the French than the Vietnam war. We see banners, posters and pennants everywhere in cities and towns commemorating their 65th year of independence.
Hanoi’s is like an enormous village that left home and went to the city. If you could banish all motorized vehicles and mingle with what’s left, it would look very similar to country life; families, friends, neighbors congregating on sidewalks to eat, drink, shop, gamble and banter.
We walk around these human clusters often becoming wedged between active traffic and motorbikes parked on the sidewalks. Our first rickshaw ride was suspenseful with some eye popping near misses. Hanoi rules of the road: one way streets are only a suggestion, traffic lights are also a suggestion and sidewalks are also roads. Crossing streets requires declaring your intention and guts. Once you step into traffic, the whole organism operates like a school of fish, flowing around obstacles (like you) in its path. Unnerving yet after your initiation becomes commonplace.
Hanoi is very noisy, music so loud your chest thumps, smells so strong you either salivate or gag, dirt, fumes, pushy Chinese (sorry, it’s true) and the damn motorbikes. It is also colorful, stimulating, and beautiful with its tree lined streets, french influenced architecture, and vendors selling their goods off bicycles and carts. Fruits, flowers, fish, clothing, junk.
I am fascinated watching the women in conical hats hauling 2 heavy baskets with the wooden yoke over a shoulder. They walk quickly, the yoke bends and bounces while the woven baskets sway with their stride. How could you not love a culture that still delivers goods this way? I have seen a wok, oil bubbling in one basket and the condiments, dishware, cloths and bags of food in the other being carried while moving down the street. As it happened one of these women set up a pop up food venue on the sidewalk in front of me and filled the air with what’s cookin’. I point at the patties in her wok. She smiles and nods. Her friend grabs my arm and pulls me down while pulling out a tiny stool for me to squat on and the woman hands me a scalding freshly fried sticky rice and bean cake on a thin napkin. Sweet, greasy and I couldn’t stop smiling.
There is an Old Quarter of Hanoi that has been around about 2000 years and still operates much as it always has. It comprises “36 streets” (really 54), a net of narrow streets each representing a craft or function. Our second hotel was on Hàng Ga or chicken street. We didn’t notice any poultry except cooked carcasses hanging on hooks. Easy to get lost in this twisty nest of alleys until we realized we were near the intersection of bamboo and silk streets.
I really liked party goods and flower streets while kids gravitated to toy and candy streets. There is jewelry and baby streets, upholstery and shoe making streets and around the corner from our second hotel was metal and hardware accompanied by a cacophony of banging, drilling and welding.
And then there is Railway street with a train or two that comes through in the evening but otherwise a quiet respite with homes, cafes and food stalls along the tracks.One of the nicest places in Hanoi is Hoan Kiem, a large lake with 2 Buddhist temples on small islands. Beautiful walkways surround the lake and buffer pedestrians from traffic. Our first hotel was across the street and we enjoyed the serenity of the lake.
Artists, caricaturists, musicians and food vendors line the promenade. it’s almost like being in Paris. The architecture and the cafe’s…Having coffee at a Hanoi cafe ( or street stall) is an experience. You can do the barista, latte, cappuccino route or do Vietnamese. Grab a stool, enjoy the street scene and settle in. It takes a long time to filter, brew and drip the coffee and it is worth the wait. Vietnamese coffee or “milk coffee” is rich and deep. Make it with espresso and it becomes “Ca phe fin”, the brew floating on a layer of condensed milk. 3 glorious sips.
Or try the iced version, “ca phe sua da” on a hot day, which is everyday. Lastly there is “egg coffee”. Steve thought it was a typo and meant coffee with breakfast. Egg coffee is a delicate, smooth yet dense concoction made with whipped egg white on top of Ca phe fin. OMG.
On weekends, vehicles are exiled from the lake and roads become “walking streets” . It is an amazing transformation from stress to joy. It is like a Carnival came to town with games, street food, free play, dance, marionettes, juggling, hackey sack, flash mob, acrobatics. We hear music everywhere as we stroll around the lake. So much laughter, children and adults playing, making art, building block towers, picknicking and dancing. We see a huge crowd and hear loud music. A teen dance competition is in progress. It seems each song has its own choreographed routine and they know all the moves. The song segments come on more quickly each round, people drop out and the winner is the last one dancing. It was great. Hanoi teen culture is huge. School, work, family, cell phones, motorbikes, make up, and fashion ( which is hard to believe because they wear a lot of “Hello Kitty” clothing and accessories), and SELFIES.
While it may seem that we are having adventure after adventure there is a whole lot of in betweens. Travel days are usually a wipe out, complications, delays, gate changes (we almost missed a flight), layovers, no A/C or toilet paper and cramped buses on really bad roads.
Not having a set itinerary grants us freedom but invites a few restless nights. At the end of January we had nothing in place except 2 months of imagination. We have since spent considerable time “puzzling” what we want to do and where, literally and figuratively. Booking things often involves lots of circular miscommunication, dead ends and correcting assumptions. Credit/debit cards don’t automatically mean you can pay a bill or use an ATM. I am useless and cranky after 11 pm. Steve may still have his phone on researching and emailing. There have been frustrating moments. We can’t always agree. Hopefully the pieces fall into place. So far we’ve been fortunate.
There are little mechanical things like plumbing anarchy that occurs in every lodging. Like a “bum gun” so powerful it could ream a new orifice or a trendy sink that doesn’t drain or has no room for your face. Then there is the shower-toilet combo; two functions sharing the same space. After you’ve taken your shower the floor is wet and if it drains poorly or not at all then you are sluicing through water every time you use the commode. Gross and slippery.
Another not quite small thing is steps and stairways. Every country, city, village brings different edges, ledges, walkways, and rules of the road. I thought steps were generally standard but in SE Asia they are often at different heights and pitches within the same staircase. When “steps” are carved into trails, down embankments, or ancient ruins foot placement becomes a conscious consideration.Hiking a good section of viewpoint trail, Nong Khiaw
My hiking sandals have worn out their soles so I slip and slide a fair amount. The locals fly down the mountain. One day we hear lots of laughter and movement above us on a particularly narrow, steep section. We quickly jump aside as 70 Lao teenagers come into view, descending posthaste in their flip flops.They stop to practice their English. They are bubbly full of questions. We chuckle when they all ask, “How old are you?”. We tell them and think this is unusual, a bit forward and obvious; Steve has white hair. We find out later that it was a real question of respect; greetings in Lao differ according to age. A little big thing.
What stands out is the genuine kindness and generosity of the people. Not just towards us as foreigners, but with their village, families, friends, elders and each other. A really nice big thing.Pheang and Phe, Sopjam
There have been countless spontaneous connections with wonderful people. Helpful, enjoyable, informative, funny. At some local swimming spot a Cambodian man says hello and offers some of his sugar cane. His English is welcome and we keep talking and he pulls out more of his lunch for us to try. Our drivers, guides, hotel staff have gone out of their way numerous times to arrange things and intervene as interpreters even while not officially at work. Keo took us to his home village on his day off. When I was sick in Battambang, Robert and Morrison, the proprietors of Bric a Brac hotel, personally made me tea with a home remedy and literally held my hand while we commiserated about getting sick in Southeast Asia. It helped. When I thought a manicure at a nearby salon would up my mood one of the male staff volunteered to accompany me. He had never been and he did his best to describe a French manicure. While his awkwardness was obvious, he told me that this experience might make him a better husband someday and he thanked me.
The best of the little things are the children. All ages. There is so much laughter, giggling and playful engagement. Even when they are not smiling, or tussling, or have snotty noses and dirty clothes they have captured my heart.Ban Hin Sio village
Our pilot on the Mekong River
Today our 31 year old guide, Phet, took us to his family home. We biked 9 km away to an island village in southern Lao. It was a first for him to bring foreigners home, too. When we arrived, sticky and hot, he brought us palm sugar juice (an acquired taste) and a glass to an aged neighbor. He introduced us to his mother. She and I had a laugh as we recognized we were the same age, smiled knowingly and we clasped hands in pleasure.
Then his nephew boated all of us across the river to his sister and brother in law’s beach place to go swimming and hang out. People generally swim in their clothes. I did too and it brought a sweet revelation. I transitioned from labeling myself “tourist” to “foreigner”. The veil between local and foreign became more transparent, less separating somehow. It may always require working through a language difference but the humanity part is the same. My philosophizing for today.
Phet ‘s family fed us and when it was time to go, they insisted on a family photo with siblings, grandchildren, cousins, baby, mom and us. What a delight. It is the little things…