Deep in the rice paddies

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_34e7February 27th 2017

At the other end of the Halong Bay geologic formation the Karst towers of Ninh Bin erupt out of rice paddies rather than the ocean, but the image is still iconic. The 6-hour journey is ample time to reflect on the ticketing agent’s parting comment “be careful where you get off the bus madam, your hotel will be nowhere near Ninh Bin” – shades of Burma? it is clearly called the ‘Ninh Bin Valley Homestay’. But no sooner have we pulled into Tam Coc (Nam Coc? it’s not on the map) I am hauled off the bus by a rather severe young lady with a clip board, and after a quick phone call with no input from me settled in a pick-up truck apparently en route to NBV-H, which turns out to be nowhere near anywhere at all, let alone Ninh Bin.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_3504NBV-H is located beside a lake at the very end of the very furthest rice paddy in a narrow valley hemmed in by Karst towers that are populated by a herd of goats desperately and unsuccessfully attempting to answer their hormonal drive to mate (evidently the herd doesn’t contain any males) and so is somewhat noisier than its bucolic setting might suggest (thankfully management acquires a male goat next morning, which calms everything down somewhat once he is released into the mountains). NBV-H accommodations don’t disappoint – bamboo huts, each with its own lakeside terrace, jaunty hammock and mosquito net over the bed because there is no glass in the windows and the walls leak like a sieve. Its single shortcoming is that it is so remote from the elusive Ninh Bin (and everywhere else) and the road between the rice paddies is so narrow, it would be positively dangerous to venture out once the sun has set, leaving us at the mercy of the spectacularly untalented on-site chef. The two millenials who appear to run the establishment are cheerfully unapologetic about the menu’s many failings until they sense a revolt is afoot, then they try to mollify us with the promise of a goat barbeque, which (maybe unsurprisingly) is a specialty of the region.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1684Bright and early after breakfast I steer my bike through the mist rising off the rice paddies further into the Karst to the Na Trang river. Na Trang is a well-kept secret, advertised only in Vietnamese and unlike the more touristy and apparently meager 1 hour boat ride out of Tam Coc, is a 4-hour tour that traverses no fewer than 9 caves.  Most of the few other tourists are Vietnamese so I endeavor to elbow my way onto the only other boat with Westerners – Chelsea from Cedar Rapids, Mike from South Dakota and his Vietnamese guide Xum (in response to my inquiry as to whether this is his first trip to Vietnam, Mike replies ‘Oh no I’ve been coming here since 1969’).

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_167fWe are under the command of a dowager equally adept at rowing with her hands or her feet, which comes in useful since each of the 9 caves has only one feasible route which she must navigate to within an inch of her life, while the ceiling lowers and plunges around us. Thank goodness for Xum who can translate her indistinct murmuring as ‘Duck! Now!’ enabling us to prostrate ourselves hastily on the bottom of the boat (our dowager is so much tinier she doesn’t have to). UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1685

On the way back, I notice that dead goats have materialized for sale beside the road. Every single one looks as though it has fallen off a mountain and lain in the heat for several days. Even the vaguely sketchy guys selling them look a bit embarrassed. I’m only slightly sorry I’ll miss the goat barbecue, the day after I leave.

 

 

Cat Ba Island

February 25th 2017

Should Tolstoy have had the opportunity to visit Cat Ba Island’s main town, he would surely have found a way to expand his famous “All families…”:  UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_35e7Because all seaside towns, particularly during off season, are also dispiriting in their own way. As one who was born and raised in a seaside town I can immediately see how Cat Ba – looming out of the mist that has accompanied the dusk – fits in: The aged trees along the promenade strung with dim and dusty fairy lights; the badly lit seafood restaurants with uncomfortable chairs and the same mediocre menu; the thoroughly unwelcoming bed and breakfasts promising tepid water, thin toilet paper and damp sheets. This being Vietnam another layer is the battalion of backpackers currently changing guard at the bus station, one cohort moving out to be replaced with the second moving into the restaurants in search of dinner for less than a dollar. Out come the jungle drums, and within five minutes we are all congregated around a convivial table swapping travel tips (I have been enfolded to this elite group by virtue of inadvertently staying at one of the most dispiriting Stalinist era B and Bs in town.

My fourth-floor room may have a balcony that overlooks the sea, but I can’t see it through the mist and to get to it I must navigate the most uncomfortable bed in South East Asia, a faux tempurpedic that takes a full 8 hours to acknowledge the presence of my body; I have not yet been able to identify toilet paper). The backpacker contingent is a vast symbiotic organism that inhabits the even more rancid hostels. They know all the deals, all the scams, all the places to go and to avoid. If only I could remember a tenth of this information my travels would exist in a completely different orbit.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_3582The next day a significant subset of my new BP friends, plus two other ladies of a certain age (a grumpy woman-splaining Swede and a fierce Spaniard) embark on a 9- hour boat tour of Lan Ha bay. Halong and Lan Ha bay provide those iconic Vietnamese images of massive limestone Karst towers thrusting out of the turquoise ocean, but while Halong is wall to wall Chinese tourists in obnoxiously noisy packs, Lan Ha, because it is only accessible from the more remote Cat Ba Island, remains largely unexploited. When the sun makes an unexpected appearance, our guide suggests a couple of hours kayaking through the caves and lagoons. I see him expertly weighing up his senior contingent, and not surprisingly he asks me whether I want to canoe with him. UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_3579Fortunately, I can rebuff him for Grace a clearly capable 20-something from Berkeley who has taken me under her wing. We give each other a quick J and C stroke refresher, seize headlamps to ensure we don’t brain ourselves on the roofs of the caves, and we’re off! What a blast! The icing on the cake comes as (no thanks to me) we emerge expertly from one cave into a remote lagoon to a family of critically endangered Cat Ba langurs (current worldwide population about 70) sunning themselves on the beach. The guide too is ecstatic he tells us even he only sees them every couple of months. Poor guy, he has ended up with the lazy Frenchman who is preoccupied with Ambre Solaire, and who has put his feet up and refused to paddle. By the end of the day we are all even faster friends and they suggest ending with a night of karaoke. I regretfully decline in favor of my intransigent tempurpedic, and an early start tomorrow for Ninh Bin.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_354c

Ho Ho!

February 24th 2017

I have signed up for the ‘Hanoi walking food tour’UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_15dd in the hopes that I will get dinner without having to press-gang some random hapless diner into conveying me home, however the experience is not starting well. Jacelyn (surely not her real name) the guide has sent transportation to pick me up, and I soon realize the only thing worse than crossing the street in front of a wall of oncoming motorbikes, is being pedaled slowly into the wall on a bicycle rickshaw driven by a man who appears to be much, much older than me while only about a third of my size. However, when I disembark, things begin to look up. The thirty-something young man who is the other participant coincidentally comes from near my home town, so we can bond over things Northern and have the customary moan about Brexit.

k0zkFUOGTsGvqm7igdb7yQ_thumb_15ecFirst things first: ‘Crossing the Road 101’. Counter-intuitively, when confronted by the motorbike wall the key is to freeze in place rather than make the terrified dash for the curb. Jacelyn grabs our hands in the middle of the road to make the point; once I have cautiously opened my eyes again it is evident that, as she predicted, they have indeed simply flowed around us like a limpid albeit noisy stream. This revelation itself is worth the price of admission, since we can now focus on the main point of the outing – eating. Over the next 5 hours we will visit about 10 street food stalls that cook their specialty dish on the sidewalks of the Old Quarter. The drill is the same – pull up a low plastic stool and inhale. About every third stall we alternate with Hanoi home brew. By 10:30 we are ready to roll home.

drxRhnarR0mmBc6jtipt3A_thumb_15e0Starting off with the hard-boiled duck eggs that come in a bowl with a bit of tasty ginger broth. Unexpectedly right there beside the egg yolk nestles quite a substantial, and equally hard boiled, duck embryo.  Can’t deny it looks gross, but honestly tastes just like chicken (well OK duck).

Next, we duck down a gloomy side alley to a gloomy guy steaming snails with lemongrass and chili and serving them with mushroom turnovers. Check. The old crone down another alley specializes in 3KMYzqQrR0Kl%pO6HbDELg_thumb_15e6steamed bao filled with unnamed but exquisite organ meats. Check. And on (and on and on) via all sorts of combinations of noodles and grilled meats to a dosa-like pancake and fried catfish. We top it all off with egg coffee – a kind of zabaglione of egg yolks and condensed milk that tastes like dulce de leche, floated on coffee. Many, many revelations. I graduate with honors and permission to cross the horrifying intersection by my hotel on my own, the Hanoi home brew keeping my stress levels nicely in check.

3+qkgQ1dQqKgXZwz0auSKA_thumb_15bdTopped off the trip to Hanoi with a visit to Ho Chi Min’s mausoleum. Everything the final resting place of a major dictator should be, a concrete brutalist monstrosity complete with lines around the block, patriotic songs blaring out of the vintage speakers, throngs of schoolkids in neckerchiefs waving flags assiduously and best of all, grimly spotty young soldiers in ill-designed and executed uniforms conveying conflicting instructions – hats on; no, hats off; cameras not allowed; no, small cameras allowed (huh?); two lines; no, single file etc. etc. Most of all no lingering to ogle the actual body (or is it called a mummy?). Apparently, H-C M is shipped off to Russia for refurbishing (according to the Swedes behind me in line there is one Russian who takes care of all the dead dictators on an annual basis –Uncle Ho too). Since this is the low season, maybe this was merely his waxen effigy?

kdSPs52DQkSzml5AH7PRkQ_thumb_15bf

Bus, boat and bus tomorrow for a 6-hour trip to Cat Ba Island in the La Han bay, another UNESCO site. But this being Vietnam, where watches are all set ahead so tourists are always late, this is accomplished simply and expeditiously by buying a single ticket at the bus office. We’re out of the third world!UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_15e9

 

Hello Hanoi!

February 22nd 2017

Hanoi is wild! Think Delhi traffic, without the squalor and the smell, Tokyo bling without the 22nd century tech, Paris cafés without the refined insouciance, and of course Istanbul with its endless ‘Street of the Remote Controls’ ‘Street of the Medium Sized Rattan baskets’ ‘Street of the 7 inch brass pipes’ etc. etc.  I soon learn that the existentialist crisis involved in crossing the road is amped up to an 11 in Hanoi. Fully 95% of Hanois appear to be under 40, and they are all riding motorbikes. In fact, the only folks who are not are the over 80s, but they have been so successfully culled that the chances of finding an experienced local to cozily tuck myself in behind is effectively zero. The millenials in particular seem to be working something out and have perfected a killer combo of the 1000-yard stare coupled to very subtly revving up as soon as they even sense a pedestrian. As I tentatively take my foot off the curb I feel like nothing more than grabbing their ears and giving them a twist while yelling ‘DUDE! I’m not YOUR mom!’.

iXR2OfZuSXWeoXwsv7OM%g_thumb_157e

Still I do manage to make it to the Hanoi Hilton and back althoughUNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_15ab I am so shaken that

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_15a8

by dinner time at the fried eel café I find it necessary to shanghai the nice gentleman who has been forced to share my table (for $2 a private table is not an option) into shepherding me across the particularly horrifying intersection en route to the hotel. He’s from Hong Kong and seems as terrified as me, although more convinced that we aren’t going to get mowed down.

More tomorrow if I make it back alive from Ho Chi Min’s mausoleum.

Au Revoir Yangon!

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1583February 20th 2017

Last day in Yangon, and the unnecessary complications with my Vietnam visa have been cleared up so I can turn my attention to some final souvenir shopping. The hotter than hell index is well over a 10, so a taxi is in order. Alas, the market is soundly shuttered and padlocked. ‘It’s closed’ I observe. ‘Yes’, agrees Mr. Anadeh my taxi driver sadly ‘always closed Monday’. Our 5-word limit prevents me continuing the conversation to its obvious conclusion, but fortunately his wife saves the day by cell phone, instructing him how to get me to where the artisans actually make the stuff.

My guys at the ‘No Pornography Inn’ have more on their minds than where packaging supplies can be obtained and can only feebly suggest the market; nevertheless against all odds a package does materialize, and I am instructed how to tell the next taxi driver ‘Post Office’ in Burmese.GIVUfNutSF21L9Uy5%U5Rg_thumb_3aac Miraculously, since its Monday, the ‘Pôt Offee’ is neither shuttered nor padlocked. Indeed, it is an impressive remnant of the Raj with ineffectual fans on the 30 foot ceilings stirring the air around the abundance of carved stone pillars and along the dusty marble floors. As only to be expected there are fully 5 International Parcel desks, but less expected since it is only 1:15 and Pôt Offee’ is advertised as open until 6:00, no customers. ‘Close 12:30’ the man behind desk says firmly ‘Custom go home’ and both he and the battleaxes in the Greek chorus at Desks 2-5 turn on the classic 1000-yard stare perfected by bureaucrats everywhere.

I decide to go down fighting and burst into tears.  ‘What will I do I?’ I wail loudly and pitifully eliciting great interest from Domestic Packages. Let it be said that in any self- respecting Western totalitarian society this rather obvious strategy would indicate that battle had been engaged, but would not be sufficient per se to induce any actual reaction. Surprisingly, Desks 1-5 quite literally blink, refocus their eyes and leap to attention. Turns out, of course, that Customs is in fact standing right behind me eating a snack. She hauls my package onto her head and we traipse around the corner to another Raj behemoth where her boss immediately deconstructs it. ‘Ancient?’ she pounces accusingly on some Buddhist mantra I was coerced into buying at yet another pagoda ‘Not at that price’ I parry and we’re soon done. Junior Customs shoulders it up again, and the crew at the Pôt repack it into an official box with official tape and then handily sew it into an official burlap sack.

‘Surface or air?’ I ask. ‘Only air’ he says, and smiles sardonically, clearly having read the Lonely Planet’s opinion of Myanmar Mail.

FAyDWgfpRwWc8cgvXc7+OQ_thumb_efc

WwZ%u6AQTq+UckueQiEDTA_thumb_f1a

Last train to Yuma

February 19th 2017

Well today has finally made me accept I am too old for the full Gonzo backpacking experience. It all started auspiciously enough with nice Mr. Pyae Yar Hotel agreeing to drive me to the local station (took about 45 minutes, cost about $10). Since our combined w%vWhtxiQh6WDKLGOJ%wbA_thumb_1566vocabulary may well be in the double digits, our conversation can now plumb unexpected depths. I am asking him whether the key to understanding the Burmese mentality is indeed ‘Anadeh’ that my guidebook (which considers itself culturally aware) defines as the pervasive avoidance of doing anything that would cause offence. ‘Yes and No’ says Mr P-Y H. ‘Also not tell you what you don’t want hear’. I ask for an example. ‘Example’ he says ‘Everyone say to you easy get from Thazi Yangon, no?’ ‘Not easy?’ I ask. ‘They crazy’ he says with great satisfaction. ‘Never find train, never find bus, you in Thazi for ever!’ ‘And Thazi…..’ we are at our conversational limit ‘Is hellhole?’ I intuit. ‘Exact’ he says with a self-satisfied grin.

I have plenty of time to contemplate these revelations since the renowned slow train to Thazi takes about 11 hours to cover 110 miles (but only costs about $2). H0PulvqzSTS+e0hg4Q7M%A_thumb_152bThe obvious calculation (about 10 miles an hour) may induce certain conclusions about Myanmar Rail, but wait! Not only are we plastered to the side of various mountains and negotiating the tricky bits uses zig zags in which one engine at each end alternate pulling the train; but our own corps of engineers (no military detachment this time) leap off at each frequent stop to attack the wheels with increasingly massive hammers. Under the circumstances 11 hours seems like a bit of a miracle, but in the event, some fancy main office inspector is making the rounds so his official ledger can be stamped by local staff in their Sunday best at each station, and we even arrive an hour early. Let it also be noted that the trip is totally worth it since the mountains encircle isolated valleys peppered with farms from time immemorial. At many points, not only the train track is breathtaking.

Ngpsr9gkQxq8ObAXCkM%Ow_thumb_155fI am ecstatic. A whole extra hour will give me plenty time to evaluate plan A (express train to Yangon) vs. plan B (express bus to Yangon) especially since Mr P-Y H has revealed that the bus-station is located 45 minutes away from the train station. ‘But Yangon bus leave 7:15’ he said sadly, knowing the train should get in at 7. ‘You go to Yangon often?’ I had asked. ‘No, never’ said Mr. anti-Anadeh.

I haul myself over the tracks to Platform 1 (not so easy, Thazi station is crammed with people so anxious to leave town they actually appear to live on the platforms, complete with beds and full cooking and dining paraphernalia). The ticket office is appalled with my request for a sleeper ticket to Yangon. They need clearance from central office, so come back in 40 minutes. Sadly, this means abandoning plan B (because all the taxis have left for the bus station already). No so fast, I need to wait some more (not surprisingly – I have been sitting in their line of sight and there has been no intervening communication with anyone, not even themselves). Ten minutes before the train arrives they tell me there are no sleepers, but they are reluctantly prepared to sell me an upper-class seat. I can only pray that the reclining mechanism will be broken since it is now 8pm and this will be another 11-hour trip (cost $7).

As anticipated the seat is fully reclined so I can stretch out, and because it is broken the person behind can’t complain (the train is packed). There is also a full complement of food services and I can avail myself of noodles and the beer I’m going to need to get through the night. Unfortunately, seat A1 is positioned directly behind the toilet, so me and the equally over-fastidious gentleman across the aisle in seat C1 need to take turns to shut the door whenever the smell becomes too overbearing, which is constantly. At least we do until about 11pm when we both give up the ghost and fall asleep. Somewhat remarkably I sleep until about 5am, when we turn into an even more packed commuter train to Yangon. We arrive on time at 8am and within half an hour I am positioned under a hot shower for more than 15 minutes. The main artwork in my hotel room is a sign that says in English and Chinese ‘Pornography, gambling and drugs prohibited’. But that’s another story.

5v2ODIM9SR+9a9WCyZAQvw_thumb_157c

R & R

February 17th 2017

There comes a time in every trip when the mere thought of an outing to yet another spectacular UNESCO world heritage pagoda elicits only a slight narrowing of the eyes.7rAy2M4RS+etLjj%%rNiWg_thumb_1303 Inle lake, with no historical significance other than the old ladies selling odd vegetables at the market, is perfect for a few days off, and I couldn’t ask for a better place to put my feet up than the Yar Pyae, where it feels like I’ve got the best room in the house – a corner with two big windows and a balcony, conveniently near the rooftop bar, so the nice old man who brings hot water for tea or beer is only a wave away. So, in between the tea, the beer, my book and the domestic dramas across the street I find myself so much revitalized that the next day I can commit to a desultory bike ride around the lake for a lounge in the hot springs. By the time I’ve polished off two mojitos and a fish curry I’m fully restored.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1310Just as well. My boatman has sent word to be ready and waiting at 7:15 and luckily I am because at 7:16 he’s already hoofing off to the jetty with me in hot pursuit. Considering he has organized a full 9 hours on the lake and what we’re going to see has been in full swing for hundreds of years the reason for this rush is not at all clear. UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_13b6We poke along the highways and byways of the lake (they look like nothing more than the canals of Venice) in his wooden longboat (with an outboard motor but steered by standing on the back exactly like a gondola) in and out of villages on stilts, where we see the school run being enacted in 3hi0vNT5SwiNM4k3bm6d5Q_thumb_37fddugout canoes (aggressive double parkers are found in all cultures) through floating farms (built on mats of water hyacinths and weeded from the same dugout canoes via an awkward sideways motion) and into weekly markets (more old women and even odder vegetables plus staggering amounts of exquisite indigenous crafts that leave me paralyzed with indecision as usual) as well as the rickety workshops where the crafts originate. Perfect warm hazy weather. A tour de force, and it goes without saying, also a UNESCO site.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_14eaL5coZd7OR5qizppMkfwykQ_thumb_3778

CEH9KqqkRwSORyOLqdIfaw_thumb_1520

With only one day left to figure out how to avoid that bus ride down the mountain while arriving in Yangon in time for my flight to Hanoi, plans have still not coalesced.

Plan A avoids the bus with a world-class train ride from Inle to Thazi a mere 100 km (but 11 hours) away. Thazi to Yangon – less clear. The original train does go on to Yangon but is particularly old, rickety, slow and without sleepers. It arrives in Yangon after another 17 hours – not so appealing. However, while this train is stopped in Thazi the bona-fide Mandalay-Yangon ‘express’ (with sleepers and much faster) passes through with a 5-minute stopover. Provided we have arrived in Thazi on time (most people are deeply skeptical this can happen) it should be possible to transfer to the express. However, no-one – and this includes the station master at the Inle lake station – knows whether the station master at Thazi is allowed to write a ticket for the Mandalay-Yangon express. In fact, since all tickets are handwritten, it seems highly unlikely, how on earth would he know what seats are taken already? Even the ‘Man in seat 61’ that definitive source of information for train transport worldwide asks somewhat plaintively “please let us know any updates on the Thazi-Yangon situation”.

As for a bus from Thazi to Yangon (flatter and therefore less hair-raising) the internet can only come up with helpful hints such as ‘On the train I ask an uncle and he send me to [place that is clearly lost in translation since it can’t be found on Google]. I wait on the road and at 10pm bus comes’ which doesn’t sound like a solid strategy. It should be said that the one tour office in Inle that claims to have international status does believe such a bus exists, although they can give me no concrete details of where it might stop in the middle of the night. So, in the (seemingly likely) event I am stuck overnight in Thazi, I have the option of either the ‘Moonlight’ or the ‘Amazing’ guesthouse, both of which are characterized by (usually overly optimistic) websites as ‘Rooms not up to much but very friendly’. Moreover, they will happily send their ox-carts to pick me up at the station.

Watch this space.

Upward to Inle

February 15th 2017

Oh, Inle Lake! It’s not surprising that those who escape here from the searing heat of the plains find it difficult to leave. Legitimately in the mountains and deliciously cold at night, think lake Titicaca transplanted to northern California with bananas and bougainvillea. And even though it too is at the end of a dry and dusty winter the water flows freely and for once looks clean.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1418

 

Of course, the other reason for not leaving is how one gets here in the first place. The trusty hotel guys (Bagan version) have assured me that the ‘JJ’ bus is the way to go. It certainly looks the part. Massive and thoroughly air conditioned, the staff of 5 starts the Valentine’s Day trip auspiciously with chocolates all round and for three randomly selected couples an extravagantly wrapped gift of plastic Hello Kitty bowls with odd looking spoons (at least one pair of lucky recipients do not fall into the ‘couple’ category to their intense embarrassment).

The existential crisis begins not five minutes into the nine-hour trip when we are reminded of the major difference between bus and train travel, namely the lack of on-demand bathroom opportunities. Fortunately, and in the nick of time, a gentleman further forward begins to bitterly regret the mutton curry he had for dinner last might (I personally avoid the ‘mutton curry’ for the simple reason I have never seen an actual sheep). Too bad for him, but all the over 50s are cheering en-masse for the frequent unscheduled stops that will ensue. Meanwhile the millennials sleep like babies, as they will for the entire trip, thus preserving their life expectancy.

The road up into the mountains is pretty much a single lane; luckily it is mostly paved, and in some areas even built out a bit so that oncoming traffic has at least a fighting chance of passing safely, although when the vehicle is about the same size as ours, which is often, this seems hardly assured. Our three drivers change out every hour to cope with the stress of having to navigate and lean on their horn simultaneously. Fortunately, from time to time what seems like a random guy with a cell phone halts traffic in one direction for 15 minutes or so that the other can proceed without, or more precisely, with less, anxiety. On the plus side, the total number of crazy drivers encountered somewhat unbelievably is zero. Indeed, the craziness crown must go to the pelleton (presumably French) in full fluorescent spandex spotted 2/3 of the way up, and therefore with not a hope in hell of reaching anywhere meaningful before dark.

Then, at precisely 4:45, five minutes after the young Vietnamese woman sitting in front of me suddenly realizes that her returning tardily to the bus after lunch is also going to make us arrive in the dark too, I reach the conclusion that only one thing in the world could be worse than this journey up into the mountains; at least I now have 4 days to make a plan.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1189

Slow boat along the Irrawaddy

February 12th 2017

It is surprisingly nippy as we set sail down the Irrawaddy before dawn and I scramble to locate long-neglected fleeces and socks. There are a couple of options to reach Bagan by boat: The local boat will be more interesting but this is the dry season and it is navigated through the increasingly shallow river by a boy on the prow with a depth stick, so it will inevitably run aground. At best this means the arrival time is aspirational, at worst a night on a sandbank. My hotel guys steer me to one of the tourist boats. Not the one with teak loungers and signature cocktails, unfortunately, instead they book me on the one that sits highest in the water and has sonar even if the other passengers are French and Belgians, who would rather talk to me than each other, a mansplaining Canadian lady who has evidently not talked to anyone for a week, and my first Americans. A nice young family from Eastham of all places, doing spring break in Burma before decamping to the Canary Islands to sit out the Trump era.

8lb+90w6RkCA0mVlVC6mcw_thumb_120b

The Irrawaddy is splendid in the shimmering heat that soon develops and even with necessary zigzags we make it in a mere 12 hours, cruising smugly past other boats listing sadly, stuck for who knows how long in the treacherous shallows.

OyppKTeBQdepBFD98qAEjA_thumb_120f

Bagan, which is currently scoring at least an 8 on the hotter-than-hell index, must advertise itself as the fairy light capital of the world, but we are here to experience the 2000 plus temples scattered throughout the Bagan plain.

Bt9GmTZTQy+whjcEgfR+Yg_thumb_12a1

The sheer vastness raises the inevitable question of access and the inevitable specter of the e-bike. In its Chinese version, which we have here, the e-bike resembles a Vespa more than a bicycle. Since the dawn chorus, dominated by Buddhist chants, begins at 4:30 in Bagan I have had plenty time to contemplate my deeply ingrained instinct to grab the accelerator handle and speed up when confronted with a crisis. After a couple of trips up and down the lane, the nice old e-bike man and I reach the mutual conclusion that this old dog is unlikely to learn the new trick in the time available, and points me to the normal bikes.  I examine every single one before finding the killer trifecta of functioning brakes, more than one gear and inflatable tires. He insists I take his phone number.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_105cThe heyday of the Buddhist Empire these monuments celebrate was in the 11th century, so some wear and tear is anticipated. It has been hastened along by a 2016 earthquake and not ameliorated by UNESCO pulling out of the renovations in a huff. So some of the temples are sheathed in bamboo scaffolding and others by piles of bricks. This will be the last season we are allowed to scramble on them willy nilly.

Still, the huge area engulfs the few tourists and most are deserted, leaving the vendors forlorn. At some remote spot, I find myself enticed into buying a sand painting which the artist assures me is washable, although not in the machine, a selling point I have never yet encountered for artwork. He also assures me it can remain folded in my suitcase for years, secure in the notion that even if I did come back to argue the point I would never be able to find him.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_387a

5Po2SkPZQR6IMcQTUQin%g_thumb_105d

 

The death of the Raj

February 11th 2017

No one symbol confirms the absolute futility of Colonialism than the Hill Town. Desperate to escape the unwelcome heat of the sweltering plains, the British headed for the hills to fashion fake Tudor bungalows and teak paneled panels bars into a mirage of Croydon or Slough. It has been my life’s ambition to find one intact, and I have not yet succeeded. Inevitably at the very moment the Raj dissolves the populace swarms back, armed with fairy lights and the unfortunate paint color du jour, locks the regimental cemetery and throws away the key. Pyin U Lin does not disappoint. The Cotswolds have been cheerfully repurposed as bad Thai restaurants and the only remnant of the Burmese Raj is a peculiar version of Victorian municipal landscaping. I am unable to find the floral clock, but it surely exists.

g1tM3vSiScuf7XtieqNmsw_thumb_3933This backdrop invites the full spectrum of foreign tourists. In our demographic, apprehensive Germans and Dutch, firmly tethered to their Burmese guides are being herded into the bad Thai restaurants and forbidden to go into the market. Timid Brits, though usually not in tour groups, travel in pairs tethered to each other and never seem to talk in public. The French are either in loudly discordant groups arguing about which of the 2 versions of Burmese red will go best with the Thai chicken they don’t yet realize is unbearably bland, or in couples where le homme affects a no-nonsense bandana and unnecessarily complex backpack, and la femme is impeccably turned out in an insouciantly couture longyi. They have many conceptions (both pre- and mis-) and debate them endlessly. There are no shopping opportunities in Pyin U Lin, so all the Chinese are at the Botanical gardens taking selfies and ignoring the no photographs sign in the world class butterfly museum. There are no Americans.

4A6P71LEQACnH6V+B2gPvg_thumb_fb0Most of us Europeans are not here to reflect on the death of the Raj but to experience its most enduring relic – the half hour train ride across the Gokteik viaduct, engineered and constructed by the British, and since they disappeared lackadaisically maintained by the Burmese.

TOOJQim2RsikWUr41wKPkA_thumb_1028As Paul Theroux writes “A monster of silver geometry in all the ragged rocks and jungle…its presence there was bizarre, this man-made thing in so remote a place, competing with the grandeur of the enormous gorge and yet seemingly more grand than its surroundings which were hardly negligible – the water rushing through the girder legs and falling on the tops of the trees, the flight of birds through the swirling clouds and the blackness of the tunnels beyond the viaduct.”

JH%9Xk1ATcmwzEsdmtc8JA_thumb_fe7It should be pointed out the reason Burmese train travel resembles a horse ride is the disconnect between the gauge of the tracks (British) and the current trains (ancient Chinese, no doubt bought cheap). Managing this disconnect is no more crucial than 1000 feet above the rushing river below, and doing so requires the train travel so much slower than walking speed, so we have plenty of time to reflect whether guard rails didn’t make it into the maintenance budget, or the British already realized they would be futile, or it is irrelevant to the Buddhist Burmese whether life ends because of a gust of wind. Most tourists can recover as they continue onward to points north, but I must leap off the train at the first stop and join the returning train to Pyin U Lin. Seated once more in Ordinary Class, I realize the Burmese deal with near-death experiences by eating lunch and watching videos on their iphones.