Sunday, February 25, 2007

Bangladesh: Sundarban: 20-23 February 2007 (Written 25 February 2007)

A long overnight bus ride from Dhaka to Khulna, arriving on the 21st at about 10am. We were supposed to get there at 6am but for some unknown, unexplained reason we couldn't cross the river on the ferry for about 4 hours. Hmm...

From Khulna we went directly on the boat to the Sundarbans. The whole day on the 21st was spent sailing past cement factories, villages, and river boats.

On the 22nd we packed in loads of activities starting at 6am. We went on a canoe ride down the river and saw lots of birds - kingfishers, herons, and a green-billed malokha. More remarkable was the landscape itself, the mangroves where you could see the water level from the last monsson, and the roots sticking up vertically through the grey mud.

We went on a walk to the beach - but this landscape was really stunning. Immediately in from the river there was a variety of different scenery right next to each other; dry tall grasses, the kind that you imagine tigers walking through; woodlands with lots of shade where the deer are; flat green grassland that looks like any other country; and then you arrive on a huge sandy beach, complete with tiger tracks.

We saw lots of deer, a monitor lizard, more birds, tiger tracks, tiger scratches on trees, and tiger feces. But no tiger. Kind of happy and kind of sad about that. I think they purposely take you around the area when the tigers are sleeping (they're nocturnal) because they probably don't really want to see a tiger. They're scary. All the forest guides carry loaded rifles the whole time, and through certain parts of the forest they have them ready to fire if necessary.

In the afternoon while we lounged on the boat there were a few Rhesus macaques (monkeys) who daintily climbed over the mangrove roots. Very impressive, since I tried the maneuver a few hours earlier, nearly fell off and twisted my ankle badly. We also saw one Irrawaddy river dolphin (same as the ones in Kratie, Cambodia) which I was very excited about.

Another boat ride in the afternoon took us to some vine snakes, who are incredibly well camouflaged, lots more birds, and a lovely sunset.

I decided to join a different boat to head back to Khulna on the night of the 22nd because I didn't want to risk missing my flight from Dhaka on the 24th, so I slept in a Crew Cabin. Was a very interesting experience.

On the 23rd, we stopped off in Khulna, and I was struck by how green and comparatively quiet it was to Dhaka. Lots of ricefields, colorful rickshaws, and not as much honking.

We arrived in Dhaka around midnight, I went to bed, and that was the end of my Bangladesh trip. An uneventful morning on the 24th with my flight to Bangkok.

All in all, I enjoyed Bangladesh but as horrible as it may sound, I enjoyed even more the knowledge that I never have to go back there again. The air, noise, and water pollution is shocking, such that the moment I arrived back in Dhaka from my various excursions I would be coughing, my eyes would tear, and I'd often get headaches.

I think it may be the country where I've most strongly been struck by the contrasts between haves and have-nots, the peacefulness of the countryside and chaos in the city, and so much more that just didn't make sense. Good thing I have a week on the beach in Sulawesi to try and ponder it.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Myanmar: Yangon: 24 January, 2007

So now I will begin my tales of this magical country.

I am infinitely glad that I had done a lot of reading about Myanmar before arriving; it's a country that is so different from the rest of Southeast Asia and I really had to see it to believe it.

A ridiculously early morning in Bangkok - chocolate cake (thanks James) at 5am, in the taxi at 5.30am, at the crowded new airport at 6, and the flight was at 7.45am. Surprisingly, the flight was relatively full; lots of Thai people, but also American businessmen, as well as a handful of package tourists. I overheard an American couple say they had booked a package tour through a German company that went to Myanmar for 3 days. They would arrive in Yangon, take an afternoon flight to Bagan, stay 2 days, then leave back to Thailand. I had heard stories of the package tourists in Myanmar but I had, really, no idea what was to come.

Upon arrival at Yangon airport, nothing is shocking or makes a huge impression. I clambered onto the very old bus (perhaps late 70s) and was reading the signs in Japanese: "Be careful when getting off the bus," "Watch your step," and the like. Maybe it was the early morning start (but more likely my denseness), but I thought, "Wow, there are enough Japanese tourists coming here that they have all these signs in English?!" - I soon realized that the bus, along with the grand majority of those in Myanmar, was an old Japanese bus that had been bought cheaply by either the government or businesses in Myanmar.

Before arriving, I had contacted a person on CS that was in Myanmar, and he works at one of the most popular guesthouses in Yangon. I wondered how I was going to find him, but as I stood in line to get my passport stamped, I was greeted by a huge smile and wave, and I met my friend Nyein Lwin. At the guesthouse, I was shocked at the number of people both staying and working there. It seemed all my imaginings of barely touristed areas were not to be true here. I was exhausted, and had planned to take a rest before heading into the city, but as soon as I put my bags down, I felt I had to go out and seize the day.

The Motherland Inn 2, where I stayed, is located about 1km east of downtown. Walking on Anawratha Road into town, it is like stepping through time, borders, religions, and cultures. Life in Yangon (and much of Myanmar) simply happens on the street. The sidewalks are covered with tarpaulins that have an immense variety of wares; books, CDs, watches, staplers, car parts, nails, and really, I think, anything else you could think of. I was getting stared at a lot, and not so many friendly faces. I smiled, then people would smile back. Every block seemed to have as many different ethnicities as you might see in an evening in Tokyo; Muslims in traditional dress, people that look Indian, Bengali, Chinese, Burmese, and many many others I couldn't identify. All of them wear longyis, traditional sarong-like garments that tie in at the waist, with beautiful colors and patterns. Many are chewing betel quids, and when you walk close enough to someone chewing, you can smell the spicy nut, and you don't have to get too close to see the red-stained teeth or hear the violent spitting sound. Tanakha, a paste that is made from the bark of the tanakha tree, is used as makeup/sunblock/perfume by women, children, and some men, and it was fascinating to see the people with this golden paint in different patterns all over the city.

And, of course, the food. Miniature plastic furniture around ladies and men with piles of different noodles, spices, and vegetables, frying stations of samosas, bananas, and various other such oily delectables.

I bought a Burmese/English dictionary and phrasebook, passed Sule Paya, a 46m high golden pagoda in the center of downtown, and wandered around Bogyoke Aung San Market, where really, anything you could want (or not want) is sold. Continued walking up to Shwedagon Pagoda.

Shwedagon Pagoda is one of the most impressive sights I have ever seen. A 98m high solid gold pagoda, surrounded by hundreds of other pagodas and buildings, and a very important site for the people of Myanmar. Monks walking around, monks resting in the shade, pilgrims chanting, having their photo taken by freelance photographers in front of the pagoda...a very good introduction to religious sites in Myanmar.

Back at the bottom, I got in a minibus to Sule, missed the stop, realized this as we were nearly at Shwedagon again, got off, got in a different bus, got down at Strand Street with 2 ladies who made it their mission to help me, and walked, walked, walked back to the hotel. I was exhausted - it was 6pm and thus I had my 12 hour day already.

Showered and went back out with Corinne, a Swiss girl in the same dorm, and we came across the Good Luck Food Center. There, we met Kyan Du Sok and Huo Zo, ages 16 and 13, busily running around, assuring us very authoritatively that they would take care of us, and urgently brought us tea, water, Shan noodles, Coconut oil soup, a Thali set, and sat with us, watching us eat. We hung out with them for awhile, making origami, arm-wrestling, looking at guidebooks.

And that was all in one day. I was head over heels in love with Myanmar already.

Myanmar: Rest of Itinerary

My last entry was in Bagan. The one week after Bagan was quite eventful.

On the 5th, I flew from Bagan to Thandwe. On the 6th I flew to Sittwe. On the 7th I took a boat journey to Mrauk U, the ancient Rakhaing Capital, on the 9th returned by public government boat to Sittwe, and on the 11th, flew to Yangon.

Today is the 12th and the sweltering "summer" heat is starting in Yangon. Hence my willingness to sit inside at a computer (no fan or air-con though!)

Tomorrow I fly early morning to Bangkok, spend the day there, and in the evening fly to Dhaka, Bangladesh. I'm filling up on Western food today (had French Fries for lunch!) - and starting tomorrow night I'm guessing it's all lassi, dhal, and curry. Mmmm.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

The Golden Land - Myanmar

Internet is the most expensive I've seen in months, and connections the slowest I've seen in years. You have to hack into most email sites, i.e. gmail.

This is easily my favorite country I've ever visited. The smells, sights, sounds, and tastes are unlike anything I've ever experienced. I feel that I am somehow inextricably connected to this place, and have no doubt I will return many times.

The past 2 weeks has taken me to Yangon, the bustling capital, Nyaungshwe/Inle Lake, where water and sky and mountains seem to blend into one, Mandalay, well, a city, surrounding ancient cities, Monywa with huge monuments and temples, including a surprise festival I stumbled upon, a wedding I walked into, Pakokku with 1 guesthouse with 2 rooms, and now to Bagan - with 4400 temples scattered across an enormous plain, pagodas, stupas, temples, as far as the eye can see.

Unfortunately no time to write more now but rest assured that there will be long, detailed stories to come in the coming weeks and months.

Mingalabar my friends.