Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Momo's World: Welcome to Yangon

My second holiday season spent in Asia, things went... way Asian.

Whoever "Santacross" is...
December at school, as the temperature in Nan dropped to a FRIGID 50 degrees in the mornings (teeheeeeee), the four ajarn farangs and I did everything possible to get into the holiday spirit. Babyface's "Christmas With Babyface" (circa 1998) played on repeat in the English office; the aluminum Christmas trees and silky Chinese-style St. Nick costumes were taken out and dusted off from Ajarn Prakop's closet; class gifts were exchanged with glee (a Doreamon bath towel! A box of cereal!); and a pillow-stuffed cotton-ball-bearded Santa Claus (played beautifully this year by Steph) visited each and every classroom to sing carols... including Kindergarten, where one student, Meepoo, immediately burst into tears and now, in late January, still looks on in horror every time I come to teach his class.

And then, 'twas the Friday before Christmas, and Liza and I bussed off to sweaty, steamy Bangkok. We did our usual BKK routine: indulged in light-festooned shopping malls, luxury movie theaters, and 7-11s bigger than all of Nan's combined. We spent Christmas Day bopping around tourist-filled temples, eating Indian food in Chinatown, and the next day, commiserating with a friend who'd awoken from a night out with a large bloody gash above his eye (apparently a bar girl hit him with beer can... CLASSIC Bangkok).

First Hilary, then me. Burma's where it's at!
The REAL purpose of being in the big city, however, was to arrange our visas for a weeklong trip to Myanmar. Traveling to that neighboring country proved to be anything but simple. On Monday, we woke at some ungodly hour to beat a line of 50+ people, all trying to get a limited number of visas issued each day by the Burmese Embassy. I had to cross my fingers all day that the grumpy staff would overlook the fact that I technically had no more Visa pages in my passport (Oops!!) and give me my stamp on the Endorsements pages at the back. After that, it was budgeting and and exchanging all our Thai baht into crisp, blemish-free US dollars; there are no ATMs in Burma, no credit cards accepted, and dollars with the smallest tear can be flatly denied.

Finally, Tuesday arrived, and by 10am Burma-time, we'd landed in Yangon.

From the taxi window, Burma was immediately a fascinating, and utterly exotic place. Yangon is bustling, the pot-holed streets chaotic with mismatched taxi cabs coming apart at the seams, and plying red city buses that never come to a full stop to pick up and drop off passengers. The broken sidewalks are lined with grey buildings partly new and partly crumbling, interrupted by occasional glimmering golden pagodas, standing tall and proud above the mess. Almost every male at every age wears a traditional lungi skirt tied at their waist and a button-up shirt, while women and babies paint their faces with tanaka (sandalwood paste), cream-colored lines and large circles streaking their cheeks, noses and foreheads. Men chew and suck on betel nuts, spitting red juices out indiscriminately, so that walls and sidewalks and car doors across the city are stained in it. (At first I thought everybody had some kind of horrible gum disease and was constantly bleeding from their mouths; it's a really unattractive habit).

Liza and I settled into a cheap room at the Golden Smiles Inn - one of a handful of dingy, windowless, bathroomless, dimly-lit guesthouse rooms that we looked at, at a price far higher than what we'd find in Thailand. We then set out, taking on Yangon by foot.

Streets of central Yangon
Sule Pagoda
Mini nuns, returning from gathering morning alms
All afternoon, we walked along and across barely-pedestrian-friendly streets, past strong-smelling food carts and paint-stripped British colonial buildings. We exchanged our dollars into Myanmar kyat with a fanny-pack-wearing Indian man at the Bogyoke Aung San market... trying to avoid the banks and find a decent rate on the black market. We bought overpriced coffee at a restaurant atop Sakura Tower, the city's only "skyscraper," for an air-conditioned view that felt miles away from the streets below. The city center of Yangon is small enough that a barefoot toothless man wandering the same intersection crossed paths with us several times throughout the day, each time smiling and holding out his hand for one of the oranges we were carrying around from the market; each time we obliged, and he peeled and ate it on the spot. We stepped barefoot inside the Sule Pagoda, beside young maroon-robed monks and pink-and-orange nuns, no older than eight or nine years old; it seems like a quarter of the population, young and old, dons a robe and a shaved head in this country.

At sunset, we took a taxi across town to the 2,500 year old Shwedagon Pagoda - which is truly enormous, and whose glittering towering stupa can be seen from almost any open space in Yangon. We hired a guide, Win, who told me he'd been giving tours there for almost 15 years - though he looked no older than 30. He was incredibly friendly, and knew every detail of the pagoda and surrounding temples, about Yangon itself, about his country; by the end of the tour it was dark, and the entire gold-guilded grounds were brilliantly lit up, and we were exhausted.

Shwedagon Pagoda. BAM.
The following day we chowed down on free breakfast at Golden Smiles, arranged our bus tickets to Bagan that night, and then went wandering again. For the third time in our 36 hours in Yangon, we ran into Momo, an older Burmese man whom we'd met and chatted with at the first guesthouse we'd checked out, and whom we had since seen in various spots all over the city. He was probably in his sixties, wore a checkered button-up shirt and jeans (though he still carried a woven satchel that every Burmese man dons), had dark skin and Coke bottle glasses, and had his hair died almost a yellow blond color. He spoke perfect English, and was accompanied by a young backpacker guy from Mexico City, Jose, who'd apparently befriended him and was letting Momo show him around the city.

Momo asked us what we were up to, and since we had no plans, took Liza, Jose and I to the closest cafe and ordered us tea and coffee. Momo started teaching us phrases in Burmese - all sounding like no words I'd ever learned before - so many that it filled whole pages of my notebook and my hand and head ached by the end of the lesson. Momo paid for our drinks, making us practice "Thank you," and then walked us back downstairs to the bustling street below.

Momo parted ways with us as bizarrely as he met us - asking Liza if he could have a souvenir from America, perhaps a pen (which she gave him), then shaking our hands and saying goodbye. He wished us good luck on the rest of our trip, and told us to find him next time we were in Yangon. It was the warmest welcome we could have asked for.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Climbed a Gunung and I Turned Around

Climbing Indonesian volcanoes... it's my new thing.
Our 17-day October vacation started, not quite with a bang, but with about 30 hours of budget international travel. This included:

  • a second-class bus trip through mainland Thailand (violent, dubbed, straight-to-DVD American action flicks permitted to play at FULL volume 10 of the 12 hours),
  • a Bangkok Mega Cineplex mall, where we killed time between transit by watching Contagion - a truly frightening film to watch while living - and eating - in Asia, 
  • an Indonesian public ferry boat ride, with the dankest toilets I've come across in Asia (boat motion + squatting in mysterious water puddles + dark confined spaces... this is the stuff of horror movies), and
  • one very beat-up shared transport van, featuring removable stools instead of actual seats in some places.

Finally arriving in Lombok, Indonesia, however, was worth the journey.

There we met up with Steph's friend from university, who would make us a traveling fivesome for most of our time in Indonesia. After playing the classic game of "Goldilocks and the Southeast Asian Hostel" to find accommodation - (the first just had TOO many half-nude rastafarians hanging out porchside, the next didn't come with towels for guests (?), but the one with chickens roaming the front garden and shower-squat-toilet combo was juuuuuust right) - we settled in for a day on Sengiggi Beach. Our first full day was spent getting sandy $2 pedicures, snacking on Bintang beer and chicken satay at beachside cafes, and letting Steph - our resident Indonesian resident, and fluent speaker - do all the talking for us.

Tuesday morning, Katie, Liza and I set out for the literal peak of our October break: climbing to the crater rim of Mount Rinjani (Gunung Rinjani), the second highest - and still active - volcano in Indonesia. We awoke to a knock at our homestay door at 5am, and peaked out to find our trekking company driver waiting for us in the crisp early morning darkness. We'd slept through our alarm (typical), and so scrambled to pack and put on our "hiking gear" - the hodgepodge of athletic gear we'd brought from home or were able to buy in Nan's only department store - looking every bit like the ill-equipped, inexperienced 22-year-old trekkers that we were.

The driver piled our belongings into a small Toyota SUV and drove us one and a half hours to Senaru, a small village at the base of Mount Rinjani. The ride was almost entirely winding and uphill, and for the half of us who were NOT experiencing intense carsickness, the views of northern Lombok were stunning: the sun rising over fishing boats and steep cliffsides of northern Lombok; wide swaths of vivid green rice paddies and palm groves; peci-capped men draped in blanket-like cloths on their way home from morning prayer, or herding goats and cattle along the roadside.

Bahay whips up some tea and fried rice for lunch.
Our tour guide extraordinairre!
In Senaru, we were briefly briefed by the alleged "Rinjani Master" himself, Mr. John, at our trekking company's base. He showed us a map of our 2-day trek, fed us coffee, fruit and pancakes for breakfast, and sent us on our way with Bahay, our stocky 4'11'' guide with a big belly, thick mustache, and hearty chuckle - an exact Indonesian doppleganger for Nintendo Mario.

The trek - which lasted about 7 hours in total the first day - was exhausting, exhilarating, hard, beautiful, hot, chilly, and the coolest thing I've done in Asia thus far, all at once. After hiking 30 minutes just to the "Gunung Rinjani" sign (at which point I was already pretty winded and contemplated heading back to Mr. John's), we continued onward through dense rainforest, along vine-covered tree paths, areas where misty fog rolled in and out and the temperature dropped, and up through the dry, rocky, torched landscape around the top. Some parts of the hike felt like doing a tree-root StairMaster for hours on end, while others involved hiking up - and often sliding down - steep paths of loose rock and sand. Bahay patiently tolerated our frequent rest stops, water stops, bathroom stops, and emergency bathroom stops all over that mountainside, even carrying some our things for part of the way.

Superhuman porters. No SHOES?!
Meanwhile, our porters, ranging from age 20s to 60s, booked it up that volcano with astonishing ease and speed. They carried at least five times the weight we did, in two supply-filled baskets tied at either end of a thick bamboo stick and slung over their sinewy bare shoulders. Some didn't even wear shoes (others wore only flip-flops). They stopped only occasionally for small snacks and cigarette breaks. Bahay told us they might do the trek 2 or 3 times in a week.

By early afternoon, we reached the top. We stood at the edge of an enormous crater, a huge sky-blue volcanic lake below us, and a volcano island in the center. There were clouds below us, hugging the mountainside in every direction. The sun set in a vibrant orange-pink sky to one side, and a full moon rose up on the other. I even spied the biggest shooting star I've ever witnessed when the sky turned to night. I mean, C'MON. It. Was. Incredible.

The porters cooked us dinner and hot tea, and afterwards we piled on thick socks, sweaters, jackets, and down sleeping bags - feeling the coldest I've ever felt in Asia. The wind was immense at our camp site, and throughout the night it felt like our tents were going to knock right over. But a few bedtime stories from Katie later, we finally drifted off.  

Trekking back down on Day 2 was immensely easier, but in the end, just as tiring as the hike up. We were so hot and dirty and exhausted by lunchtime, that we were at some points skipping or running down the mountainside just to be done with it and able to rest our legs. By the end of the day, we were back at John's, saying sweet farewells to Bahay & Co., and on our way to our next Indonesian destination..... Gili T! 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The September Issue

September has been a hard month to come to terms with. It means finishing (another) semester of molding young Bandon Sriserm minds in the shape of ABCs and present perfect tense. It will be saying goodbye to a few fellow foreign teachers in town, who are off to teach in other exciting places next term. And most regrettably, last week, it was the loss of my grandpa, James C.N. Paul – international humanitarian, storyteller extraordinaire, and avid CP in Thailand reader. He is sorely, sorely missed from this side of the globe. 

But time has a way of charging forward and onward like motorbiking Thais at a loosely-marked intersection; and while I sat in denial of the calendar date, this past month filled up with quite the spread of travel, eating, motorbike adventuring, waterfall swimming, carnival-hopping and karaoking. Here’s a recap.

Another Caitlin-Hannah reunion in Thailand
... A little stranger this time around.
At the end of August, I took an impromptu weekend trip to the city of Phitsanulok to see my college friend Hannah, who has been teaching in Vientiane, Laos the past year (she visited Nan last January). Phitsanulok is nacho-yo-average Thai vacation destination - it's a small industrial city along the southern Nan River, bleak and grey for the most part, with little to attract tourists other than being a major transit hub and playing host to one famous Buddha statue. The general reaction of Thai friends to my trip was, "Why you go to there?" - and the answer was, simply, that ol' P'lok lies equidistant from Nan and Vientiane on the Thai bus route. So, a 6-hour trip each later, Hannah and I found ourselves there sitting in a small bakery aptly named "It Is Cake," waiting out a torrential rainstorm, catching up on our respective Southeast Asian lives over sweet coffee, noodles, and local-brand water bottles labelled Water Surprise (this is a city which could really use a PR office).

Later that evening, after sifting through stalls at the partially-flooded Phitsanulok night market, Hannah and I went to grab a beer at a place called "Thank You Pub" (the sign reading "WELCOME TO THANK YOU"). It featured Cowboys n' Indians decor, a sinewy hippie singing Beatles tunes on stage, and a heavily intoxicated middle-aged Thai woman named Po who joined our table uninvited and repeatedly insisted we were being stood up on a date. Thankfully, an hour later our "date" did show up - an American guy teaching in Phitsanulok whom I'd met in July, when he was traveling through Nan. He rescued us from Po to show us the ins and outs of nightlife in Phitsanulok - not unsimilar to nightlife in Nan (nightclubs: 1, drink menu: cheap whisky and bad beer) - and the three of us spent the rest of the night at an outdoor live music bar, hanging with the house band in between their sets (one guy had an UNCANNY ability to sing exactly like Steven Tyler), and getting signed copies of their recently-released 10 year anniversary album. Facebook friendships naturally ensued.

Keeping the Best Bakery in business
The following week was Steph’s birthday, and to celebrate we went all out with a dinner party at a new restaurant in town. 17 of us – Cho and Arm, their reluctant Cake (who ironically hates cake, including the birthday variety); our Flood Week supply-bringing hero, Dan; our Thai friend Lak and her boyfriend Matt; the other foreign teachers Will, Ali, and Ada; Benz and Bas; Steph’s parents who were visiting; and the four of us - piled in bearing gifts, homemade cards, and a few too many cakes from the "Best Bakery." Afterwards, Steph’s parents treated Benz, Bas, Will, Ali and us to a night of karaoke at the Dheveraj Hotel – the classiest karaoke you can find in Nan. We covered an assortment of Thai screamo, Destiny’s Child, and “Stand By Me,” and to keep things eclectic, Bas closed with a rendition of THIS "Happy Birthday" song.

Chedi Chedi Bang Bang
Steph’s parents stayed in Nan for the week, and that Friday, we joined them in Chiang Mai for continued birthday celebrating. After road tripping there with Lak and Matt (cramming 6 people into their Honda CR-V = still preferable to the frigid bus ride...), we were treated to some seriously luxurious accommodation at The Chedi, one of the nicest hotels in Thailand, and probably the coolest place I'll stay in all my Asia tenure. Forget the fluffy white beds, zen gardens, and infinity pool edging the Ping River, though… This place came with a FREE breakfast buffet complete with an ASSORTED REAL CHEESE PLATTER. Forget you, Lonely Planet backpacker scene.

Nan weekends of late have been spent exploring our fair province beyond its city limits - to the contemporary art gallery that sits along a stunning hillside 30 km outside of town; to a "cave forest park" I never knew existed; and a few weekends ago, to a waterfall in Pua district, about an hour away. A group of us took motorbikes there, and spent the afternoon cooling off in the shallow water pools (well, sitting on rocks and fighting a pretty heavy current, trying not to get sucked down the rapids - it happened twice), napping on sunbathed rocks, and attempting to teach Bas to swim. 

How Sundays should be spent

In town, last week kicked off the annual Nan Boat Racing Festival, and with it, an enormous fair that took over the entire riverside area. Neon-colored merry-go-rounds and muay Thai boxing rings replaced the empty lot where old ladies in matching-colored shirts usually perform nightly aerobics. An enormous strand of vendors occupied the quiet riverside block near our house, and until late at night would blast Thai keyboardist tunes while selling such oddities as men’s underwear, bunnies dressed in ballerina costumes, yo-yos, dried squid on sticks, hedgehogs for pets, DVD footage of the 2005 tsunami wreckage, and on-site tattoos (and one could hear the needle buzzer going at almost all hours of day behind a clumsily-hung tarp. Hep C, anyone?).

Carnie folk are back in town
The festival was loud, smelly, and brought in a host of unsavory “carnie” folk into town – Liza’s bike was stolen at the fair last Friday – in NAN!?!? But, being the event of the season, we made the best of it. I braved the rickety ferris wheel to make faces down at my giggling 6th grade students watching below.  I sampled my fair share of fair food (the fried pork sticks can sometimes be irresistible). I even paid 10 baht to see an exhibit boasting a two-headed cow, people-shaped fruit, and a bodiless talking head – because who, really, could resist.

Last Sunday I actually got around to watching the boat races (never been a great sports enthusiast, even in Asia). Liza and I went early to find seats, and joined a group of middle-aged ex-Army men, who grinned toothless smiles and gave us dry newspaper sheets to sit on, gladly having us cheer for their team. Even at 8 am, the riverside was loud and lively. Teams practiced on one edge of the river, heaving their dragon-headed longboats forward in a familiar unison: nueng! sawng! saam!, while actual races happened on the other side, two boats slipping quickly through the brown waters to the finish, every 5 minutes or so. The concrete steps where we sat were lined with cheering fans of all ages and sizes; huge banners hung from the bridges; vendors walked about selling sticky rice in hallowed bamboo tubes; and an oppressively loud-voiced announcer shouted on the loudspeaker. 

A half hour later, we were caught in a massive rainstorm – the overhead tent leaking all around us – and with only our newspaper-seats for protection, we had to bike home soaking wet.  It may be nearing the end of September already, but we're still anxiously awaiting the change of seasons.