Southeast Asia, Part IV: Entering Myanmar Proper

I’ve connected with a friend-of-a-friend who is a certified tour guide in Myanmar. She’s going to show me as much of the city as we (read: I) can absorb in 24 hours, before I continue on to Inle Lake and Bagan. There are 3 imperatives on the list: 19th Street (Chinatown), Shwedagon Pagoda for sunrise, and the Rangoon Tea House.

The taxi drops a nitrogen-weary mermaid at her hotel in Yangon, and it’s like night-and-day to the Bates-esque experience of the previous night. I check into the Yuzana Garden Hotel (which I’ve booked online for maybe $5 more than what I’ve just paid in Kawthaung) and feel like I’m walking into a renovated palace with its 15-foot ceilings and wood and marble finishes.

N.B. For this trip, my hotels average ~$25USD per night, and this one (very much in the price range, thanks to Agoda) is by far the snazziest!

After getting settled, we head out on foot to wander the streets of Yangon, not aimlessly, but since it’s later than anticipated, the anticipated market is closing for the evening so we walk past one of the city’s “Christmas in Yangon” stages that have been set up for tonight’s celebrations.

I say a private Happy Birthday Dad and we walk on, then jump in a cab and arrive in Chinatown for a beer and Yangonese BBQ on 19th Street, which, I’m told, has become one of the only decent places for young people to hang out together in this city. And so it seems: the street is bustling, as millennials (plus only a v small smattering of tourists) line the restaurants, drinking beer served up by the beer girls from Myanmar and Chang, and chatting up a storm over BBQ. You fill a basket with skewers of every imaginable thing, from chicken feet to quail eggs, squid to sausages, and hand the basket to the BBQ guy who sends it to the kitchen to cook, and the meal is delivered to your table with rice and a fantastic dipping sauce.

We don’t have much of an agenda tonight so we wander the streets of Chinatown and beyond, eventually making it back to the area where Christmas is in full swing, and we arrive at the same stage we were at earlier to catch local renditions of Feliz Navidad and Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Is he? I wonder… We’ve been talking tonight of the monumental changes taking place in this country since the Regime was ousted only 3 years ago. It’s like a new lease on life for many of these young people here, and the significance that we’re on the street after 9pm watching a modern-clad local songstress belting out Western Christmas music is not lost on anyone in the massive crowd, myself included.

Next morning, we head out before dawn to Shwedagon Pagoda. This is the most sacred Buddhist site in all of Myanmar, and as such attracts devotees and tourists from across the globe. We arrive well before 6am, and while there are no tourists here at this dark hour, there are streams of worshippers at every possible corner of the place.

There are no words that can describe it here: the air smells of jasmine and incense and wood smoke. My ears are buzzing with the sounds of chanting and individual mantras, all in languages I cannot decipher, but that join together in a soundscape that melds with the nag champa. The rising sun turns the mesmerising 100 metre-tall gold leafed stupa first pink, then a vibrant, lustrous gold that seems to drink in the morning’s rays.

It’s said that 8 hairs of Gautama Buddha are encased in this stupa, archaeologists estimating that it was erected c. the 7th century, though legend says it was built 2000 years before that. And while I’m not a practising Buddhist, one cannot help but be drawn into the story and embraced by the surroundings here.

As we exit the temple, a market of sorts is set up, selling materials for prayer offerings and myriad other goods from refrigerator magnets to local handicrafts to idols. What gives me pause is the wicker cage full of songbirds that are on offer: you purchase one in order to set it free, symbolic of releasing one’s attachments and so forth. It hurts my head and heart to think about the contradictions. And my guide agrees with my disdain: they’ve found a way to usurp the teachings for their own profit. Prophets, they are not…and my skepticism of organised religion continues.

We continue on to brekkie, more wandering, a ride on the railway, the bus, and a local ferry across the Yangon River to Dalah, just to make sure we’ve hit all modes of transport here. We visit another pagoda and admire their reclining Buddha, its soles telling Gautama’s horoscope. And of course, lunch at the Rangoon Tea Shop, rounding out the musts for the visit here.

My impression? There’s not a lot to do in Yangon, but Shwedagon is literally awe-some. The food is excellent, and I note the Indian, Chinese and Western influences in nearly everything we’ve managed to inhale these past 24 hours. I find it amusing that at every meal so far I’ve been asked, you can eat spicy food? or told, very concerned, that’s spicy. Yes, I reply, donning my chopsticks and smiling.

Bonus: I’ve also managed to find custard apples, an Asian fruit I’ve only ever seen before in India. Now, onwards to the next (next) part of the journey that begins with an unexpected jolt.


Inle: They say what doesn’t kill you makes for a good story after-the-fact, right? Just so, because as I was worried about flying Myanmar National Airlines, I was not worried at all about the taxi I’d take from little Heho airport to Inle.

The air here is fresher than Yangon, and a smoky evening mist is settling. I get in the mini-van and we start driving down the steep 2-lane road that winds up and over the small mountains that surround Inle Lake. The views are stunning in the waning light. About 15 minutes in, my driver starts slowing down and veering towards the edge of the road. There’s a nice scenic overlook where others are stopped, so I think he’s slowing to give me a photo opp.

Problem is, he doesn’t stop.

Before I can figure out what just happened, we’ve crashed into the white and red safety pylon thing that separates us from the 100+ metre drop-off, which at this point is directly in front of the vehicle. The driver has either passed out or fallen asleep at the wheel, and the jolt wakes him enough to look back at me with these hauntingly glassy eyes (and for me to ask are you okay?). I think I’m in a bit of shock, because it takes a moment before I realise I must get out and get help. Immediately.

My mind is racing but I am not moving. I can’t even imagine what would have happened if we were going any faster. It’s almost sunset. I’m in Burma. The absolute only place I know I DO NOT WANT TO GO on this trip is a Burmese hospital. Will the post hold? I just read a book about the opium trade. I wonder if he’s on opium. Get. Out. Of. The. Van.

I drag myself out of my own head and get out of the vehicle.

The post is holding back the van; it’s bent over, and the vehicle does not look good: there is a massive dent in the front bumper in which the post is now embedded. Time feels somehow warped, slow but too fast, and as I put my hand out to flag down a passing taxi, he is already pulled over. He gets out, checks the car, checks the guy, points to his cab and says, Get in. Get in now.

It takes me a moment to remember to grab my bag from the back, but we get it loaded and there is a very nice and very concerned older Swiss couple in the back seat. Glad to be safe, we continue onward and the taxi driver calls the authorities.

Shaken, but not deterred, I profusely thank the driver and the lovely Swiss duo for rescuing me and getting me to my hotel in one piece. Still, part of my brain is also wondering what to do about the glassy-eyed driver.

The rest of the evening goes better: this hotel is lovely, and a hanging garden full of orchids and greenery lines the pathway to my room.

Armed only with a guidebook and a hotel reservation (and Burmese fisherman’s pants), I know how to say hello and thank you, and I’ve got no idea what to do first here, but this is my launch pad for the next few days as I explore the famed Inle Lake.

I silently wish my co-adventuring Calvin were here to continue the journey with me. I make a cup of tea and try to shake off the recent events and doubts.


Demain est un autre jour…the lake awaits.


Read more: [Part I] [Part II] [Part III] [Part V]

Seychelles, Part II: Into the (semi) deep, a climb, surrender, and the reward

[Seychelles: Part I] [Seychelles: Part III]

This morning, we load up the bikes with dive gear and the day’s necessities and point ourselves towards the dive shop. The sky shines a vivid, almost musical blue, and the sea competes with an azure rainbow; variegated cyan delineating reef from sand.

20180501_135055-1We had seen the rocky mound of an island from land, its sole palm reaching for the sky as if trying to escape Poseidon’s wrath. Ave Maria, it’s called; there’s no use attempting to mix metaphors here. This is our first dive site.

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The Seychelles’ reef system has suffered much the same fate as others in this ocean: a bleaching event a couple of years ago and a subsequent coral die-off, which leaves me sad but not surprised that the vibrancy isn’t as I’d hoped. It seems to be trying to come back, though, and the fish are here to stay. We see a few green sea turtles, and some decent-sized schools of fish; moray eels, humphead wrasse, unicornfish, triggerfish, butterflyfish and puffers; octopi, cowfish, un petit requin (black tip), moorish idols, and that silly-looking yellow and black one with stripes and spots whose name I’ve forgotten…we’re even graced with the appearance of the elusive pipefish. Clownfish are few, alas, as there are few anemones in which they live. But we tally 5 adventure points for the dives, including C’s earned by fending off a rogue sea urchin. This mermaid’s fins are sated for now.

Back on land…

As if the day’s humidity weren’t enough to sap one’s strength, we decide to ride our (15ish kilo) bikes up the island’s highest hill to take in the view at Nid d’Aigle. The road winds its way up, the hills at a 45° angle to the rest of the world; the humidity rivalling the consistency of, say, lobster bisque. Biking gives way to pushing said (leaden) bikes, which eventually leads to surrendering to the elements (we are, by this point, more liquid than solid humans; sweat becoming just another layer on top of sun cream), depositing them at the side of the road to climb the rest of the way à pied. This is one of the steepest roads I think I’ve ever been on, but the reward here is the view (bonus: also the restaurant, Belle Vue, from which we’re vue-ing makes the best fruit juice on the island). We make reservations to return the following night for dinner and sunset (transport inclus), then continue upwards on the gnarly trail behind the place to the mountain’s peak (hint: the view from the restaurant 350 metres below was better).

Adventure points earned: 1 for biking up the absurd hill on leaden bikes; 2 for surviving without suffering heat stroke; 1 for hiking into the jungle, to the top of la montagne, and not falling to the same fate as the storied German*.

One final adventure point is earned for wildlife encounters on the way down: a free-range tortoise greets us, out for its morning stroll (at a tortoise’s pace…arriving to us in the height of the afternoon), enjoying a snack of freshly-fallen mangoes. C befriends the beast and they share a moment.

☀️☀️☀️

20180504_120636-354.jpgThe next day’s dives are similar to the first, with a parallel state of corals and ditto sea critters. They are nice dives with fun swim-thrus and more interesting granite structures than the previous day, sea flora painting the rock its underwater patina. This being a nice but unimpressive dive overall, I was not prepared for what we saw next. As we exited a swim-thru and rounded a corner, a massive, majestic, magnificent marbled ray defied not only the m-adjectives, but my expletives as well, by making itself known. It was nestled between two rocks, flanked by several smaller stingrays, seeking or providing protection, I am not clear. We stayed close, watching their behaviour, the smaller rays coming and going, fawning over the larger in almost a caress; nature never ceasing to amaze. It is at these times I feel fortunate to be a diver, experiencing the undersea world in childlike awe and wonder, as if given special access to explore another planet.

Back on dry land, we bike to the north and then to the east (La Digue map), to where the road ends at Anse Fourmis; jagged rocks teasing the way to a jungle path we are determined to explore when we’ve got more hours (not tonight, tho, we’ve got a date with a sunset). The surf is wilder here, the rocks sharper: testament to a more exposed coastline on this side of the island. The views no less spectacular, and we’re awed anew.

Adventure points earned: 10 for the diving (attributed mostly to the ray and its entourage) plus one for the evening: a lorry ride up and down the giant hill, a sunset dinner and an overall lovely day. I fall asleep with a smile on my face and can’t recall the last time I road a bike with a basket in a bikini.

More diving the next day and a half, adding a handful more adventure points to the tally. The sites are good, but Pemba is still at the top of our list of favourites. We see dolphins from both the room overlooking the ocean, and the boat during the surface interval off Grand Soeur island. There are small black-tip shark sightings, barracuda, moray eels (one more massive than most!), swarms of Indian ocean fish… A collection of fun dives with more granite rock formations to swim thru and sea turtles to swim beside. There’s also a lovely little yellow frogfish, adding to the list of sea critters I’d not seen before this trip.

The diving has been fun thus far, but the end of the road calls… back on La Digue, we mount bikes and head for Anse Fourmis again, and our quest to reach Anse Cocos. It’s like a Monty Python meets Indiana Jones meets Bear Grylls: we’re not 200 metres into the jagged, rocky, jungly trail as the clouds decide to open and release monsoon-like rains. We can continue on and risk life and limb on the rocks and jungle brush, or play it safe and return the way we came. Opting for the latter, the bike ride home is like a 7-year-old’s dream: fat, warm raindrops form giant puddles through which we splash, laughing. We’re soaked to the core when we come across one of the local roadblocks: a massive tortoise, looking spic and span in the downpour. They’ve not yet become a novelty, so we stop to share our oranges with this friendly beast. It is not possible to be more drenched than we already are.

Adventure points earned this day: 1 for the dive, another for a remora that took a fancy to C and remained our dive buddy for the entire dive; add one for bushwhacking and jungle hiking in the rain.

☀️☀️☀️

It is only in hindsight that we declare, “do not eat the chef’s special.”

We return to Anse Banane by bike in the inky darkness, a headlamp and a torch lighting our way through the still-damp night. We’ve come to a highly-recommended restaurant, with its charming décor and seating facing the ocean, the storm-fueled waves crashing fervently across the way. The meal, a lovely smorgasborg of salads and fish of all styles: curry, fritters, grilled (chef’s special), with a home-made banana cake for dessert.

The day, the dives, the hike and the silly soggy bike ride: excellent. The night: not so much. We both wake in the wee hours, reeling from what can only be food poisoning. Details spared, this dashes our last diving day (my 1.5km bike ride to the dive shop to let them know we’re half-dead nearly does me in for good) and has us horizontal, indoors, for the day. With one foray to the beach in a failed attempt at a swim, we retreat to the relative safety of the hotel to recuperate and commiserate. This is not how we wanted to spend our second to last day here…I know C is cursing the elephant. Survivor points: 5.


*About the German: local lore tells of a German tourist who hiked up to Nid d’Aigle with his fellow travellers, spotted a house he wanted to see again, and went back up the mountain on his own. He was never heard from again; search teams and dogs couldn’t even find him. We heard this over lunch from the owner of a café on our way up to Nid d’Aigle…whether the story has morphed into island legend, we’re not clear.

[Seychelles: Part I] [Seychelles: Part III] [C’s recount of the week]