I posted this on my Medium page, not knowing if it falls under “Travel Writing” or plain essays. In any case, I’ll cross-post here and hope for the best!
There’s something of an art to balancing over-planning a trip and have it be so much I’ll just wing it that the trip becomes a logistical nightmare once you arrive. And as I didn’t do a wrap-up post for my Southeast Asia Adventure, I’ll let this one stand in its place.
It begins like this…
I’ve just returned from 3 weeks in Southeast Asia. It had been a rough few months at work, with an overload of “on”: meetings and projects and deadlines, and too little of the quiet, nature-filled and people-free moments that enable me to adequately recharge my batteries. So when the opportunity to visit my uncle in Bangkok over the holidays presented itself, I seized the day, as it were, to carve an itinerary around that visit.
I’m also the textbook definition of an introvert: I avoid parties and am exhausted by small talk and crowds; I’m very careful about who I share my thoughts and feelings with, and I need my “alone time” to recharge and feel human again. I plan and read and write and consider…and I often find destination inspiration from mythology or historical fiction or travel writing. And it seems strange, but I tend to bump into my kind of people when I’m travelling. Once away, there is little time for small talk, and there are usually mutual reasons for being in that place; so conversation, even with complete strangers, doesn’t feel like a burden or a chore. I don’t feel judged or awkward or out of place because, well, I am out of place…so that thing is an immediate known, and it is therefore immediately off the table as a source of anxiety. This is the contradictory and backwards logic which rules an introvert’s life (yet confounds many an extrovert), but also that which makes so many other things accessible in far-flung places.
I’d seen photos of this place for years: its ancient temple-tops peering out over the jungle canopy, fog burning off across the landscape, a sea of relics strewn across a massive plain, a centuries-old board game interrupted by the future. Like something out of an adventure movie, Bagan called to me.
And so it was that I travelled from Inle Lake to Bagan to start this leg of the journey.
I arrive in the evening (a far less traumatic taxi ride than the last), my taxi depositing me at the hotel, a gardened temple replica tucked behind a tour bus-filled street thronging with supping masses. A pit of dread lodges in my stomach as I hope my experience here wouldn’t be this, erm, crowded. The staff: doting; the room: miniscule. Luckily, I wasn’t planning on spending much time inside anyway.
Bagan is an ancient sacred Burmese city, named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the summer of 2018. That means protection and restoration (and the climbing of temples now prohibited), but it also means it’s not an under-the-radar destination anymore. I’m glad I’m seeing it now.
Essentially, the Bagan Archaeological Zone is a minefield of temples and stupas and pagodas and monasteries strewn across a 100 sq km area, encompassing over 3500 complexes built between the 11th and 13th centuries. In its day, there were over 4000, and by some estimates there are/were over 10,000 individual structures here.
My first day’s mission was to see some of the larger sites. I hired an e-bike and set off. You pay the equivalent of about $5 for a day’s rental of a silent scooter to shuttle you about Bagan. It’s necessary, I soon learn, as the place is enormous, and the air is hot and dry. If nothing else, the breeze is refreshing as the red dust nestles, well, everywhere!
I make it to the Shwezigon Paya early-ish, and the market is not yet in full swing. A pushy but not unfriendly woman points out a good place to park my scooter, and duly notes a good place to leave my shoes while I wander the site. She comments that I should come visit her shop in the market on my way out. Similar to Shwedagon in Yangon, this paya is thronged with tourists even at this early hour, so once I’m done, I bee-line it out of there to get to some of the other sites before the mobs do. The experience walking through the gallery on the way out of the pagoda made me feel not unlike a piece of meat: vendors, like dogs, drooling and nipping at me to get me to buy something; some more rabid than others.
Annoyed by the time I get to the door where I left my shoes, I was verging on incensed when I realised they weren’t there. The lady at the shop has them I was informed. My shoes are being held ransom I thought. After gathering my shoes from the woman, at the risk of being hexed for not making a purchase, I hastily make my way out of there.
I was not enjoying Bagan at all as yet.
The thing about Bagan is that there is a temple of some sort pretty much every 20 feet. So I head down the main road towards Old Bagan, joining the melange of motorbikes, horse-drawn buggies, taxis and e-scooters going my way. In the process, I found some pretty amazing sites. I also tracked down the only Hindu temple in Bagan, which is also said to be the oldest here, built in the 10th or 11th century. It is a temple to Vishnu and houses statues and wall paintings not only of Vishnu, but also of Brahma, Shiva and Ganesha.
I spend the rest of the day alternately cursing tour buses (and their occupants) and gaping wide-mouthed at the temples large and small, as I maneuver around the sites on my e-bike. It is really no wonder they’re here (the tourists, that is), but the crowds also make for a less-than wonderful experience. The afternoon wanes, and in trying to escape the throngs and hawkers and sleazy tour mongers (want to see the sunset? … want to buy this [trinket/bauble/blanket/hat/postcard/painting]?…want to go to a secret spot to climb a temple?), I finally find a hilltop from which to watch the sunset (empty when I arrive but full as the sun dips below the horizon).
I end the day not overly impressed with the Bagan experience thus far, while being simultaneously floored by the architectural wonders around me.
My goal for Day 2 is to avoid the swarms and visit only sites that have no parking lots, no tourist buses, no mobs of people milling about. Before I embark on this mission, my morning starts with one of the 2 or 3 splurgiest things I’ve ever done: a hot air balloon ride over Bagan.
It was a surreal hour, beginning as the sun came up, and ending with us landed in a field, drinking a glass of champagne (as one does).
Hedonistic as it was, the flight really helped put the scale of this place into perspective! Each temple, pagoda, stupa, or monastery feels like it ought to be an historic site on its own, so seeing this (collective) wonder from above was just an amazing experience. Highly recommended!
I spend the rest of the day scooting around the city, taking interesting-looking and/or less-travelled dirt roads (one even led me into someone’s yard!!), then wandering down bramble-lined paths among and between the ancient structures… I explored large temples and small, even stumbled upon a spectacular monastic complex hiding in plain sight.
This day ended with me feeling fuller, and more fulfilled, than I did the day before. I even took in a traditional puppet show at dinner.
In a nutshell, I spent two very long but very different days amongst these ruins at Bagan, seeing the well-known and the, well, not-so-much. Some of the sites clearly generated something like magnetism for me, drawing me in through their stone archways and ancient doors. And some made me want to forget that I’d ever been there. There is certainly energy afoot, and it’s not surprising that each of the structures calls to different people differently: what I find fascinating might be a dull pile of old brick to the next wanderer-by; the ghosts of each temple chanting centuries of silence to those who listen carefully.
I said goodbye to Bagan before dawn this morning and boarded a boat to Mandalay, hoping one day to be back.
The thing to do in Inle is get out on the lake. I’ve just arrived and don’t really know what that means yet, but I allow myself the luxury of sleeping in a bit my first day here. But the leisurely morning ends there: within about 6 minutes of finishing brekkie, I find myself on the back of the hotel lady’s motorcycle en route to a boat. I don’t yet know much about the boats here either, but she drops me at a property with a small cottage and a bigger shed and something that looks like an outhouse. There are some people milling about, and there are chickens and dogs wandering in the driveway, some motorbikes scattered around, and some chairs (occupied and not) around an unlit fire. A smiling guy comes out, and my hotel lady leaves me in his hands. He ushers me towards the back of the property, which I realise abuts a canal. It’s like Venice, if only for the gondola-like boats, but not at all otherwise, for all the dust and beeping and stray dogs about, a texture to the air which I can’t place, but breathes of wood smoke and fish sauce. Welcome to Inle Lake. You are not in Kansas anymore.
We head down the rickety ladder and my new guardian now hands me off to a smiling boat guy with tanakha’d cheeks, and we set off to see the lake on this long boat with a puttering engine, its long-tailed propeller designed to tackle the lilies and lotus greens that grow like weeds on the lake and its tributaries. I’m seated on a wooden chair that sits atop the wooden slats in the bottom of the boat. I’ve got a cusion, life preserver and umbrella (for sun or rain). We’re ready to go!
I’m still not at all clear on what we’re off to see, but my boat driver shuttles me down a mud-banked river along which he dodges the patches of green which seem to sprout up spontaneously. The river opens to a massive lake (about 50 sq mi), ringed with a low mountain range. It’s beautiful, this first glimpse of Inle, a morning layer of fog-smoke still burning off the lake’s surface.
We motor across the lake and into a neighbourhood of sorts, its houses and shops and restaurants on stilts. Inle Lake boasts a plethora of skilled craftspeople, and part of the tour is to their workshops. Our first stop is a silver-maker. I’m dropped off, given a cup of tea, and guided into the shop, where there’s an area in which a craftsman is showing how they make the silver here. I’m shown the stones they get the silver from, and then the mortar and pestle-type thing they use to stamp and mold the material into the jewelry I’m shown next. Then, I’m guided into a room bigger than the actual workshop, glass cases with rows and rows of jewelry that was clearly not handmade here, interspersed with some that may have been.
Next, we visit the cheroot makers, and I get out and watch as they demonstrate the cigar-making. After this, we navigate the watery streets (the neighbourhood is literally in the lake) and stop at a temple, thronging with boats and bustle. I have to pee.
I walk up into the melee, remove my shoes, and I’m immediately accosted by a woman who insists I buy offering flowers. I politely decline. She shoves the flowers in my face again. I decline again. This goes on for a couple of minutes until I find an opening and make my escape (sans fleurs). The temple is loud and crowded. The toilet is frightening. The tourists are pushy and rude, more into selfie-taking than worshipping. A shrine to what I wonder, as there are no monks anywhere to be seen.
I’m having a weird visceral reaction to this place, like I need to get out of here before it eats my soul. And I do, and then I explain to my boat driver that I need to see nature and culture and no more crowds. So after lunch, he motors us away from the crowds, down a series of green-lined rivulets, and to a market that appears to be bustling, but he points upwards and says go there. There looks to be another temple, this one with a zillion stupas, their gold and white and stone spires pointing to the heavens.
Between me and the temple is a covered stairway, lined with sellers of all manner of stuff – longyis and trinkets and jewelry and woven crafts. I’m relieved that while the waterfront is bustling, the market and the site is not. I am one of only a handful of people there, and I take my time walking up the hundreds of steps to the temple.
We’re at the Shwe Indein Pagoda, and I’m standing in the middle of what I realise is more like a village of centuries-old stupas, in various states of restoration. I spend nearly 2 hours wandering amongst the 1000+ structures here, awestruck at each turn. Some are meticulously restored, while some, gorgeous carvings and all, are tilting and overgrown, the jungle threatening to take them.
When I get up there, I am literally stupa-fied.
As I make my way down the hill again through the near-deserted market, I’m feeling better about this place. The energy here is so much different than that of the earlier pagoda, and it makes me very aware of the subtle cultural idiosyncrasies at play, not merely an east-west thing, but also region-to-region and temple-to-temple. Somewhere in the sub of my consciousness rings there is a place for everyone, and for everyone a place.
We visit a lotus weaving workshop next, where they demonstrate how the fibers from the lotus stem are woven to create a strong material, more precious than silk. And we visit the Jumping Cat Monastery, well-known for its trained cats. There are cats here, but I learn that they don’t jump anymore…it turns out that one of the practices the old monk didn’t pass on before he passed on was the training of the cats.
The day ends with a gorgeous sunset on the lake and large pot of Tom Yam soup. And, per the guesthouse’s suggestion, I reserve a boat for the following day to take me out to the lake’s farther reaches, to the town of Samkar.
We leave before dawn so I’m also treated to a sunrise over the lake. The journey takes about 3 hours, across Inle and down a river that is more marshy waterway than actual river. And while Inle lake is known for its oodles of pagodas and temples, it’s also famed for its fishermen. These iconic symbols of Burma’s Shan State go out on the lake every morning, doing their traditional dance: one leg wrapped around the oar, the other maneuvering their wooden skiff (a manual version of what we’re on), while his hands work the basket-like net. I’m already feeling a little hustled and shuttled like a tourist from the prior day (don’t they know I want an authentic experience rather than pay-per-view??), so I skeptically wonder if this, too, is a show for the tourists (and do I exit through the gift shop?).
But I’m drawn in by the nature of this longer journey…lush terrain lines different parts of the lake, and the greenery narrows around our long and narrow boat. I’m in bird-watching mode, spotting egrets and herons and cranes and a variety of other water birds as we navigate through the marshy lotus patches. These wetlands morph into fields and it’s sometimes hard to determine where the wet- ends and the -lands begin. It’s like two enmeshed cultures: land and water. Like a lotus, they need to find stability and nourishment in the solid bits, make peace with the water for equanimity and balance, and look skyward for wisdom and direction.
Because I opted to journey a bit off the beaten path today, I missed the floating market. And also the 5-day market. But we visited a sake-maker (with samples!) and some stunning pagodas along the way; and at most of them, I was the only one there. So the reward for the long, cold ride this day wasn’t that I got to see what everyone else does at Inle Lake, it was that I got to experience the stillness and the serenity of these sites; the only sound at times, the bells atop the crowns of the stupas, tinkling in the light breeze.
I won’t have a physical souvenir of these places, and I don’t know the names of most of them*, but the reflection in the mirror-like water, the bells in the air, and the scent of incense wafting from the altars are all the keepsakes I need.
My days at Inle Lake close with a 3-hour bicycle ride around town. Along the way, I was given a thumbs-up and blessed by a near-toothless monk, and had some of the best Indian food I’ve ever eaten outside of Rajasthan. In Inle, I got rained on. I experienced world-class Burmese smiles and warmth and genuineness. I saw some surreal temples. I (re-)learnt that sometimes the best way to deal with an experience that isn’t for me is just to leave: there are mobs of people enjoying it whether I’m there or not. Once I take myself out of the equation, it just IS.
On the way back to the airport, the taxi passed the spot my other taxi driver crashed only a few days before, and I briefly wondered if I were a jumping cat, how many lives would I have used up thus far?
But for now, it’s onwards to Bagan and to one of the great architectural wonders of this world!
*In Samkar, I saw the Tha Kaung Mway Taw, Taung Tho and Samkar pagodas, plus a little ancient site sitting below a “newer” pagoda (here newer is a relative term; many of the temples here are over 1000 years old).
I begin Part II in a weird little hotel on the other side of the water, having just spent the past 6 days on a boat in the Mergui (Myeik) Archipelago, dodging currents and battling low visibility, diving some of the most lush underwater gardens I’ve seen in years.
I’m in Kawthaung, Myanmar’s southernmost point, and my official point of entry to this country.
First, the undersea world.
Diving is a strange contradiction, as well as an ethical paradox. To get to the places that have not been impacted (as much) by climate change and unchecked tourism and the unsustainable overconsumption to which this world has become addicted, one needs to travel further and further abroad, which requires planes, trains, buses, boats, etc. to get one there.
I’m convinced that the more people who discover diving will have their eyes opened to the pervasive problems the foundation of our ecosystem faces. I’ve diatribed on this before: without healthy oceans, we do not have a healthy planet. And one cannot get the true picture of what a healthy ocean looks like unless one sees the contrast.
I dove in Thailand 3 years ago and nearly cried each day I saw dead reefs, bleached and crushed corals, and a distinct lack of fish, with the exception of one dive site, Richelieu Rock, situated a difficult-enough distance from the mainland to not have the daily touristic pounding that is seen in the rest of the Similan Islands (shortly after we were there, Thailand’s government actually closed Koh Tachai because it had gotten so bad). Same observations last year in The Seychelles, where it’s clear that their reefs have not bounced back from a devastating bleaching event the year prior. The oceans are too warm. The landscape appears normal at the surface (for a given value of normal), yet scratch the idyllic surface and you quickly see there’s trouble lurking.
Enter, Myanmar: I wanted to give this part of the world another shot, and with 3 weeks in Southeast Asia planned and not much of an itinerary, I decided to add some diving days to see how the ocean is doing.
First off, it is difficult to get to the Mergui Archipelago. Situated quite a ways offshore from nearly anywhere, there is virtually no diving industry here, as one must get on a liveaboard to hit most of the charted sites. This bodes well for the reef, because the lack of frequent day-tripping snorkel and dive boats means that hordes of tourists won’t be tromping on the corals, nor should their fuel or trash. I’ll get back to the trash later.
Optimistic indication #2: the distance from any coastal building boom (if there were one here) means that toxins from industry and development running into the reefs isn’t yet being exacerbated by the depletion of mangroves and natural boundaries. Yet being the operative word.
Massively strong currents and wild thermocline are natural in this region (5-10° fluctuations in ocean temperature weren’t at all uncommon), as is the less-than-optimal visibility. These factors, too, make this a “not for everyone” diving destination. And these wild waters help nature do its thing: creating sea-creature superhighways to move critters and nutrients and food sources, cleansing the habitats in the process.
So we begin with a habitat that is less intruded-upon than most. Yet, our first night, anchored off an island some 6 hours northwest of Kawthaung, we’re shocked to see a horizon ablaze with fishing boats. These local commercial fishermen are trolling with massive nets that drag along the bottom of the ocean, collecting squid plus whatever bycatch happens into the fray. It’s a disconcerting sight to say the least.
By day, dive after dive, we visit reefs are teeming with schools of fish and soft corals, creating dream-like undersea forests in pinks and yellows I’ve never before experienced.
And dive after dive, I’m also wondering where the bigger stuff is. The reef sharks and mantas and dolphins and turtles and rays and whale sharks that should be flourishing in these waters, amongst these healthy reefs, given all the lower little stuff on offer for them…
So one afternoon, we take the zodiac out to one of the little islands; an idyllic uninhabited gem plonked in the middle of the ocean. As we land, a siren of sorts is sounding… turns out it’s some sort of beach insect that emits a wail akin to a fire signal, so loud, that as we walk to the jungle at the edge of the beach, it hurts the ears. And I get a lump in my throat realising that it is an alarm…the natural world is in a massive amount of trouble. Here, in the middle of the sea, where nobody lives, is a carpet of plastic trash.
Back on the dive boat, as we get to islands closer to civilisation again, we begin to see the impacts of the fishermen, a warming climate and more people: damaged, bleached and dead corals, dive sites strewn with “ghost nets” and stray lines and hooks, increasingly fewer, and noticeably smaller, schools of fish… the plastic-littered beach nearly broke my heart, yet an hour or a day or a month of cleanup won’t help the endemic worldwide consumption at its root.
I’m running this all over in my mind and I’m wondering when the breaking point will be for this place as well. Nature needs the balance of top predators and small; the plastic will choke the beaches and eventually the sea birds, then the small fish that feed the medium that feed the bigger ones…and the food chain needs its balance to remain intact.
Lest we forget: we, too, are of the animal kingdom and simultaneously the worst perpetrators of the misdeeds to it.
On this dive boat, we were all given water bottles instead of plastic; they used real plates and cutlery; we cut fishing lines and hooks from the reef; they reported our findings to the authorities… it’s a small dent in a massive problem to which I don’t have a solution. But I think conscious consumption and responsible travel and deliberate choices and intelligent conversations are all imperative places to start.
With these thoughts mulling in my head, we head back to dry land. For me, it’s another 10 days of new experiences in a land I know very little about. The boat drops me where I started this piece, in the town of Kauthaung (pronounced something like cow-tongue), and from here I will travel northwards.
I’m flying on what seems an endless leg, northward and eastward, currently on a trajectory over Russia; a 15-hour slog and reminder of the value of the “priority economy” ticket I declined to purchase. I’m stuck in a window seat, feeling alternately claustrophobic and antsy, two individual snoozing millennials blocking my access to what freedom exists on this sky bus.
In my ear is an audio book, Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar. His account of a trip across Asia is significantly more interesting than mine thus far (N.B. it’s one of the best travel books I’ve ever read!!!).
Part 2 of this intro commences as I’m sitting by the pool when dawn breaks. Pigeons intermingled with morning songbirds, a sound one might not expect in this madly bustling city. It’s an oasis of sorts, tho a new LED billboard that blights the rooftop view hints of things to come.
I’ve spent 3 days here in Bangkok, my 2nd visit to this frenetic city. This go-round, I’m able to spend time with my uncle and his gf, who live here part-time. We eat our way through 2 days, wandering a night market (Chokchai), a weekend market (Chatuchak) and a produce market (Or Tor Kor).
After a morning bruising by a local massage doctor (My sore muscles will thank her. I hope.), we make our way to Nonthaburi pier to hire a boat to take us down the river a ways and out to the island of Ko Kret. The Chao Phraya River wends its way through Bangkok. On its banks, a mish-mash of older stilt houses look as if the next big wind might topple them, line-drying laundry and all, into the murky waters. Interspersed with the houses are shrines and temples and giant buddhas and new high-rise buildings, creating a ridiculous waterfront on this river’s banks.
Ko Kret was uninspiring. But we’ve arrived on a non-market day, so maybe it’s that we’re the only tourists there and the island is also unimpressed with our existence and chooses to ignore us as well. We hire bikes, roll along the pathways for an hour, and find our boatman to take us back to the pier.
In the middle of the river, we see flotillas of lily pads, a grand canopy for the massive barb carp, whose jumping makes the water seem to boil. And these lily pads are the perfect fishing spot for herons of all shapes and sizes, especially a beautiful little striated heron, who I hadn’t realised I caught until after the fact. Even here, a place where steel and concrete seem to spring from the ground as the jungle once did, there is nature to be found. If you look.
We get back and it’s almost sunset. The pier is buzzing with students and workers on their Monday evening commute. These food stalls have nearly everything you could imagine on offer: fried calamari, taro dumplings, hot dogs on a stick, dried shrimp, mango and sticky rice, grilled whole fish… lumpy stuff I can’t identify, and everything in between!
It’s not a secret that I love foreign markets. Ironically, I hate crowds but I’m strangely drawn to the buzz of these places, the smell of the myriad foods cooking in hot oil or over an open fire, the almost rhythmic flow of people and traffic and tuk tuks and motor scooters, with its own tempo and melody.
It’s with these things in my mind – a happier vision of Bangkok than when I was last here – I fall asleep. The next morning I’m off to Ranong, then to the Myeik Archipelago, to get my feet wet again, as it were. It’s a semi-complicated game of hopscotch, visas and border crossings, as I venture North to Burma.
So, Ranong. It’s like a forgotten place, this town: the old, storm-worn buildings, rusted cars and motorbikes and façades, as if stuck waiting for something to happen. There are cafés and shops lining the main street, but no patrons. I arrive mid-day on a Tuesday, expecting to be able to see the ocean or at least hop a bus or get a taxi or tuk tuk to take me somewhere with a view. “Too far” I’m told by the local moto-taxi guys. It’s not really a taxi, but a motorbike with a wagon on the back. A not-quite-tuk-tuk setup that I gather is more for moving people (and stuff) blocks, not kilometres. The hotel is equally helpful. No, there are no taxis. The bus goes near where you want to go but not at this time of day (it’s 3pm). There is no beach. Or, there are many beaches, but you can’t get to them because they are far. There are no scooters to rent. But you can rent a motorbike. Which is great, except I don’t want to die in this wretched place. I decline. At dinner, I was apparently too white to qualify to eat spicy food, and was thus served the bland version. Thus, my request for chili sauce was met with equal parts confusion and animosity.
I give Ranong a walloping thumbs down. It is, I gather, a stopping point for ex-pats on visa runs, or travellers, like me, in-between segments of a journey.