Thursday, November 30, 2006

burmese sunrise :: 22 november 2006

it's one of those moments where you look up in the sky and you think, oh, there must be a god, or you think some philosophical cliche, i'm just a small blip in the universe, or this is what makes life worth living. you dig for the words to describe the moment, but you can't. then everything becomes quiet.

somehow the clouds are aligned like perfect pillows.
the first break of orange morning light expands the sky like a balloon.

you click click click the camera, but nothing can capture this moment. it's a greedy moment. no one else is around. only 4 other passengers on the boat down below, and the crew is watching tv.
yeah, this is all mine.
one of those moments that i don't want to share with anyone else. this morning on a boat ride on the ayeyarwady river from bagan to mandalay, at 6 am, this sunrise is mine.
all mine.

it feels like the sun has just kissed me for the first time. in this world, it's just me and the sun coming up.

if you travel long enough, it becomes harder and harder to be amazed or in awe of anything. but sometimes you have to remind yourself, to wake up and open your eyes and absorb all that you can in this short life.
there's no need for reminder at this moment. the sun, the clouds, and the ayeyarwady river were in poetic harmony.
i might be toiling in a new, unchartered sea of bs here, but goddamn, this could have been my greatest sunrise ever.

and oh yeah, the sunset 12 hours later wasn't so bad either.

but for a real bad bad man, see Dónde está Ché Pelotas?

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Burmese Cultural Observations

The cities in Myanmar (Burma) could be the thirdiest third world cities I've ever been to. Everything is difficult, and patience is the only way to get through. It's a constant test of endurance (mostly mental) and stamina. The country in many ways, is stuck in time. here are some of my cultural observations/travel tips:
- In the major cities of Yangon and Mandalay (5 mil and 1 mil people respectively), at night, the streets are pitch black except for motor vehicle lights. Kids are playing soccer and badminton in the streets while I'm straining to see the feet in front of me. They must have been raised by bats.
- You know the saying, wait till the dust settles. Here, the dust never settles. Constant layer of dust hovering above ground. Let's just say in Charles Schulz's world, Myanmar would be Pig Pen.
- Potholes look like mine field remnants. All roads are bad, and travelling any distance takes 20 times as long as it should. It's not a big country, but because the roads are so narrow, potholed, and filled with obstacles such as people and cattle, going anywhere takes forever.
- This place is poor. Really poor.
- Because it is so poor, unlike most SE Asian countries which are motorbike heavy, transport here is heavily relied on by bicycle. Motorbikes come in second, then old, refurbished US Army jeeps stripped down and rebuilt, are a distant third. You can buy one for $1500. But who knows what's under the hood. It could be Fred Flinstone and Barney Rubble's feets.
- Public transport consists of an oversized pickup with bench seats in the back, and people piled on till the wheels are touching the wheel wells. In Mandalay, busses look like they barely survived a nuclear holocaust. For local transport, take a trishaw which is a bicycle with back to back tandem seats attached to it. The driver works hard to pedal your lazy ass around. He works real hard, so pay him well. Bicycles in general look like they come from Henry Ford's generation before he said, "Hey, screw this pedalling crap, I'm gonna invent the car." The roads here were probably paved around the same time as the Model-T was invented.
- Intersections in cities are anarchy, with no stop signs. Trucks, cars, bikes, trishaws, pedestrians, cows, dogs, all enter the intersection at the same time beeping horns or ringing bells. At night it's even worse. Rather than instituting traffic laws, drivers are required to use 'The Force'.
- The steering wheel is on the right side, and they drive on the right side.
- The power always goes out. Guaranteed on a daily basis. Don't know when, and don't know for how long. Surprised it hasn't shut down on this post. Many businesses have back up generators in the front, buzzing 24/7.
- Internet is spotty, hotmail is banned, and big brother is watching.
- I'm amazed at how many people speak English here, but it's possibly because the government regulates where tourists can and can't go. Tourist here are generally older, many German, Dutch or French tour groups, and in smaller towns, far and few between.
- When filling out your visa application, under occupation, do not write down journalist, media reporter or political activist. They'll never let you in.
- Prep your stomach before coming here, especially if eating street food. The germs far outnumber the food particles. And if you're on a long holiday, don't start your trip here, Yangon will knock you out in the first round.
- Women use a lot of face whitener here. You look at them, you know they should look dark, and the whitener makes them look like pale corpses. Sorta like Michael Jackson.
- Men were longyi in lieu of pants or shorts. Look like long hoop skirts, and are quite comfortable.
- Golden stupas are everywhere, in the cities, in the country, in the hills. Most I've ever seen in one area. Beautiful, truly beautiful.
- Bagan is special, and travel up north is generally better.
- Climate in the winter is actually quite pleasant, if not a bit chilly. It's the dust that gets you.
- Power tools are rare. Everything is done by hand including patching roads, which is actually an oxymoron out here.
- The shitty music here, kicks the ass of shitty music elsewhere. I'd bet money on it. Harmony is about as common as a pterydactyl out here.
- Everybody hates the government here. It goes beyond corruption, to military dictatorial rule. There is no middle class. They've all left or are thrown in prison for political dissension. If there is any sense of political dissension in the air, universities are shut, people are thrown in jail, and military force is used. The government has a nice way of shielding everything from the tourists, but if you talk to the people privately, you find out how bad it is.
- Despite it's hardships, I wish I had one more week here to visit some of the ancient cities around Mandalay.

Stay tuned for photos. In the meantime, tune into Dónde está Ché Pelotas?

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Travel Tip #352 : Avoid Seat 41

If you ever happen to go on the 16 hour overnight bus ride from Yangon to Bagan, never ever sign up for Seat 41. Travel the next day if you have to. Busses are cramped and uncomfortable as it is, with rows set 5 wide with a fold down seat in the aisle. Believe it or not, the aisle seats are more comfortable than Seat 41. For those of you who don't know (I'm assuming everyone in the world except fellow 41 alumni), Seat 41 is in the very back corner of the bus. Normally, the window of the window seat is a refuge to lean on, away from the horrors of long bus rides. But, for some reason, in Seat 41, there's a vertical protrusion (is this a roll bar?) pushing on your left side into the passenger next to you seated in Seat 41. It's impossible not to break all international bus seat divider laws (see here for a violation example in Mendoza Argentina last April). Body contact bordering on intimacy is inevitable. The Burmese guy sitting next to me used my shoulder as his personal pillow. The two Polish girls I was travelling with said, 'Ohhh, how romantic.' Ha ha ha very funny, you funny Polish girls. I guess they tell American jokes in Poland.
Another negative of Seat 41 is if the homeboy in front of you decides to kick back and relax and recline his seat, you pretty much lose all nuerosensory feeling of your legs from the knees down. For some reason, the leg room in the back row is about a foot narrower than the other rows. In this case, I couldn't believe the 5'-1" guy in front of me needed all that layout space. How dare you. And every once in awhile, he'd stretch his arms out and rest his hands over and beyond the top of the seat, crossing the line of demarcation into my personal airspace. Not since Napoleon has a 5'-1" guy so blatently invaded international borders.
I always tell myself, never again, no more long grueling bus rides. But somehow I keep coming back for more punishment. It's like when you're in a relationship, and you keep telling yourself, no way am I going back to her/him/it again. And then you end up crawling back for more. Only in this case, there's no carnal pleasure of make-up sex, but there's the same painful feeling of regret the next morning.
So when bussing in Burma, avoid Seat 41 at all costs.
Better yet fly.

And even better, Dónde está Ché Pelotas?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

48 hours in Yangon

festival in front of the shwedagon paya (pagoda)
simon says raise your right hand

monk at entry of shwedagon paya

buddha boy. a head of a man on the body of a dog.


these guys are great. they're the street sweepers of the holiest site in burma, the shwedagon paya. they were about 30 strong sweeping around the entire stupa.

more prayers

the golden stupa at shwedagon paya. priceless

golden spires. shwedagon paya reeks of holiness.

these pale buddhas don't get much sun

the golden stupa lit up at night

a dilapitated looking city hall, with high tech barb wire fencing in front

i've been trying to watch my intake of saturated fats. do you think i could get my cockroaches steamed or baked instead of deep fried?

the sule paya, smack dab in the middle of yangon

and even in a country where internet is under government control, the people in the streets always ask me, Dónde está Ché Pelotas?

Sunday, November 19, 2006

glitch in the matrix

most of you probably think that during this entire trip, i've been just travelling, goofing off, having a ball, getting drunk, and escaping reality. well you're right.
but i have been doing work believe it or not. i just set up this global transmission tower smack dab in the middle of yangon, next to the sule paya (pagoda). this brings a total of 37 satellite offices in 22 countries worldwide. will be setting up a station in kathmandu in the next month or so.

most public emails are screened out here, thanks to our friendly friends at the national thought police (god, i hope this doesn't get me arrested or killed). this includes hotmail, gmail, and yahoo email. but thanks to inside information, i found a glitch in the matrix. this is valuable information for people travelling to china or burma. use as the portal, it's a website within a website to allow you to access email. it's similar in concept to the portal that john cusack used to get into john malkovich's brain. only you won't get spit out onto the new jersey turnpike.
for example, to get onto gmail out here, go to this website:,
and then type in the box: it's similar with yahoo mail(i think you use http instead of https), although sometimes some weird things happen like the internet browser freezes up or smoke starts to blow out the back of the computer.
this message will self destruct in 20 seconds.

speaking of destruction, check out Dónde está Ché Pelotas?

Saturday, November 18, 2006

24 hours in Yangon

I've been in Burma for 24 hours now, and it's been sensory overload all the way. Perhaps this is a good precursor for the trip to India in a couple months. Coincidentally, I'd say that about 25% or more of the population is Indian. With that being said, here's an atomic blitz of first impressions in no particular order:
- women as well as men all wear sarongs around their waist called longyi.
- on bus ride from airport to guest house, i hear sccrreeeeeech, as a pickup truck skids to a stop. i look over and there's an old man on the ground who just got hit by the pickup. police gather around and people help pickup the guy off the ground, which as you all now, moving a victim is a paramedic no-no.
- dusty, dirty, roads, possibly worse than cambodia.
- dogs, bicycle rickshaws, raggedy old jeeps rule the streets.
- poverty, poverty, poverty everywhere. third world on steroids except for a few 5 star hotels scattered around for packaged tour groups.
- saw the incredible temple and stupa of shwedagon paya (pagoda) at sunset and when it's lit up at night. incredible golden colors, photos to come in 2 weeks.
- at night, apart from car lights, everything is dark. the streetlights that do exist don't work. looks like a blackout in some places.
- people, mostly women, with white and yellow powderlike painted faces walking the streets. part of their buddhist religion.
- men walking the streets spitting out chewed, red liquid betelnut leaving red bloodlike stains in their mouths.
- preteen boys have an affinity towards singing all the time in a high pitched staccato. have no idea what they're saying.
- barefooted maroon robed monks collecting alms in the dirty streets.
- street stall food with flies buzzing all around. take your pick, salmonella, diarrhea, food poisoning or the three course combo platter.
- street snack: giant, deep fried cockroaches anyone?
- a cripple beggar playing flute through his nose.
- pigeons everywhere like all cities, but yangon has these gigantic black ravens cawing everywhere. perhaps an ominous sign.
- big yellow, run down city hall with makeshift barb-wired sawhorses along the perimeter.
- u.s. embassy surrounded by water filled barrel barricades. no photography allowed, but apparently the half-naked man sitting on the side of the building washing himself with the embassy's exterior water spigot is ok?!?!?
- ohmygod the sun! can someone please turn the volume down!!
- wow, internet works....but is big brother watching.
- yep, smells like third, possibly the fourth world.
- overall, there's a general sadness in people's faces.
- camera - click click click
- senses - tilt tilt tilt
- where is - donde donde donde
Dónde está Ché Pelotas?

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Mission to Burma

I've been spending the last few days in transit mode before heading off to Myanmar (Burma). I'm in Bangkok now waiting for my tourist visa to Burma to come through. Prior to now, I was in Singapore for a couple nights. These 2 cities are the main transportion hubs for travel to Southeast Asia, and the two couldn't be more bi-polar opposites. Bangkok is your stereotypical big dirty Southeast Asian city, while Singapore is clean, efficient and user friendly. Bangkok is on every backpacker's resume with "Intro to Bangkok/Khao San Road" being a mandatory introductory course at Backpacker U. On the flip side, Singapore has strong anti-backpacker laws such as no eating or drinking on the metro and no spitting in public. The latter goes against everything I've learned about Asian culture so far. Both carry insane amongst of fines.
But enough about the past. Looking ahead towards the future, tomorrow I'm off on a Mission to Burma. Ever since obtaining independence in the 60's, the country has been ruled by military juntas. When Aung San Suu Kyi won the presidency in 1990, she was placed under house arrest by the military government. She won the Nobel Peace prize in 1991 but remains under house arrest for 11 of the past 17 years. This is despite overwhelmingly winning the presidency by an 85% populus during democratic elections. For decades, Myanmar has had a terrible human rights record including holding 1100 political dissidents in jail. The question amongst travellers is whether travel to Burma is ethical or not. Travel to Burma can be viewed as showing support to the existing military government. The country is under economic sanctions from the US and EU governments until Aung San Suu Kyi is released. In 1997, Aung San Suu Kyi has even asked tourists not to visit the country under the current military regime during it's Visit Myanmar campaign that year. This is something I've debated over the past 2 years about whether to go or not. So what are the pros of visiting?
- isolating the country does nothing good for its people, and as bad as the human rights are in the country, visiting the country will hamper the gov’t from treating their citizens badly when foreigners are around.
- just this week, a high ranking UN diplomat visited Aung San Suu Kyi. Could this be a step in the right direction?
- you can give your money to locals without having to use government backed services. The tourist dollar is a powerful thing, and when used correctly, can do a lot to help the local people.
- isolationism doesn’t help anyone.
Here's a great website that describes how one can travel ethically in Burma, and I plan to use all the tips they speak of:
and a great article in the NY Times today on the situation in Burma.

Personally I plan to travel ethically by staying at private, locally owned guest houses and avoiding government run transport services as much as possible. My desire to travel to Burma is to see the incredible temples of Bagan, as well as to see first hand what the country is like, and judge for myself. And for those of you from San Francisco, I personally want to find out if Burmese food is as good as the food at Burma Superstar. Hopefully I'll leave with a sense of optimism that things are changing for the better. I'll be armed with an open mind, a camera, and a new pair of flip-flops.

Since internet is a relatively new phenomenon in Burma, I might be M.I.A. for awhile. But for another more intriguing international Missing In Action, see Dónde está Ché Pelotas?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

final thoughts from bali and 4 final words

Indonesia is an archipelego at the southern tip of southeast Asia, just north of Australia. In the 1970's, surfers discovered the breaks in Bali and the island became a major tourist attraction for western travellers. Besides beautiful beaches and great surf, the island of Bali also features stunning volcanoes, picturesque rice paddies and an impressive arts and crafts scene. Kuta beach is the main starting point for travellers on the island, and for better or worse has become a westernized beach resort town. There are luxury hotels, more surf shops than Huntington Beach, and swarms of westernized restaurants and nightclubs.
But did you know that Indonesia is the fourth most populous nation in the world?
And that it is also the largest Muslim population in the world?
Of the 18,110 or so islands in Indonesia, Bali is the only non-Muslim island in the nation. It consists primarily of Balinese Hindus practicing a form of Hinduism which contains many aspects of Buddhism.
The island's religious preference, combined with it being Indonesia's premier destination spot for westerners, led Al-Queda linked Muslim extremists to set off a series of 3 coordinated bombs at nightclubs in Kuta frequented by westerners. The bombings on October 12, 2002 killed 202 people, primarily westerners, mostly Australians. Almost 3 years to the day on October 3, 2005, another bombing occurred in Kuta killing 23 people.
(Wikipedia 2002 bombing page :: Wikipedia 2005 bombing page)
memorial at The Sari Club four years later in Kuta, Bali

Visiting the memorial and the site of the bomb that destroyed the popular Sari's Club made me think, why is religion the cause of so much violence in the world?
All religions preach about love, peace, and goodness. So why is it the source of so many conflicts?
a hindu beach procession during bali sunset

I'm not a religious person, but if I had to follow only one religious doctrine, it would be something that I saw in Australia on one of those free advertising postcards that they have on display in cafes. Besides the typical Absolut Vodka postcards, I saw one which has a quote by the Dalai Lama which states, My religion is kindness. As corny as it sounds, these 4 simple words make a lot of sense.

On that note, here's another 4 words that also make a lot of sense, Dónde está Ché Pelotas?

Monday, November 13, 2006

A personal loss in Bali

I lost a dear friend to tragedy.
The other day, amidst the idyllic volcanic setting of Ganung Batur, my left flip-flop succumbed to a broken spine. Over the last six years, we've been together through both good and bad times, through thick and thin, and through our ups and downs (the latter being mostly steps and hills). We've travelled through 5 continents together, and not once did you complain. I'll remember our climbs up all the steep steps of the many temples we visited in Angkor, the wet river crossings through the jungles of Colombia, and always being there for me while washing my socks during laundry day. My sneakers would put up a stink about this, but no, not you. You never complained about the odor.
You are a true trooper and also a warrior. Your uncountable mosquito kills is the stuff of legends. As part of a mercy killing, I euthanasia-ed your partner in crime, right flip-flop. May you both walk the sands of heaven for all eternity.

R.I.P. F.L.I.P. foot soldiers

For another internation soldier, see Dónde está Ché Pelotas?

Saturday, November 11, 2006

happy accident

alms to the Gods

Bali has been quite a pleasant surprise. I never planned on stopping here on this trip, but since Garuda Airlines (Ga-who-da? yes it's a real airline) doesn't have direct flights from Oz back to Bangkok, they gave me a free stopover in Bali for a week.
So I said OK, I'll bite.
I was anticipating nothing but westernized beaches (nothing wrong with that if that's what you're looking for) teaming with Aussie weekenders since it's so close to Australia. Kuta beach is well represented in this fashion, but travelling outside of there, I've discovered more diversity and culture here than I originally thought. The Balinese are artistic, creative, and have some of the greatest ritualistic dances. I saw Kecak (monkey dance) the other night, and for those of you who have seen the film 'Baraka', know it as the synchronized yelling and chanting and arms waving in the air by about 100 bare chested Balinese men. I know I say this about a lot of places, but they seriously have some of the nicest people in the world. When I rented a motorbike and asked for directions to a petrol station, one lady escorted me out of her way to the place. How nice is that?
Even in other countries with kind people, there's usually a few bad apples to spoil the party. I have yet to find one here. Even the touts, although persistent, are super friendly. Maybe tomorrow I'll try to be a jerk and provoke someone by pushing their buttons....wait what am i thinking. I'll just be myself (it's a joke mom, don't read to deep into this one).

I'm in the town of Ubud which is inland amidst rice paddies and volcanoes in the distance. The town is a creative nucleus filled with artists, galleries, craftsmen, woodmakers, sculptures, traditional Balinese dance studios, silversmiths and so on. You can also take classes in any of these arts. Gwow!
The town has its fair share of tourists, but this doesn't have a detrimental affect on the bohemian atmosphere. It's nice to see actual souvenirs being created in front of you vs. seeing pre-fabricated ones made in sweatshops.

Living is pretty cheap out here and I even splurged on a 1.5 hour massage for a whooping 12 US dollars. After a couple of days surfing, my muscles refused to cooperate unless I granted it this wish. Listen to your muscles. They're smarter than you think.
I wish I had more time here, because this place has been quite a happy accident. I plan on returning to Bali in the hopefully not to distant future. With that being said, here's some photos from the rural side of Bali taken while motorbiking around the island:

roadside temples and statues are everywhere in Bali

photos from the Taman Ayun temple

table for two please. preferably with a temple view if you've got it.

the spectacular, and well touristed Tanah Lot temple overlooking the sea. Additional beach shots.

green rice paddies and the blue lake below the Ganung Batur volcano taken from the outer rim

carved out statues at a temple in the forest on the outer rim of Ganung Batur

I also splurged on accomodations after being worn out by the $3/night rooms in Kuta. For a mere 11 bucks, you get a gigantic bungalow with a king size bed, pancake breakfast in the morning, and a pool set in a carved out cavelike grotto. Gwow! I can't remember the last time I had a room with a pool.
guardian of the pool

Balcony view of my bungalow in Ubud. Sunrise and Sunset.

Never an accident, and always a happy time, Dónde está Ché Pelotas?

Friday, November 10, 2006

signs in bali

i don't know what this means, but whatever it is, they're serious about it.

one of the most interesting i've seen so far. perhaps the most interesting one ever.

how do they even police this?

speaking of police, one of the most wanted round the world, Dónde está Ché Pelotas?