Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Somewhere Between the Good and the Apathetic

A long time ago I started collecting tobacco pipes. The first pipe I bought was an impulse buy in Belize.  It was $3 and carved out of smooth stone. I thought it was kind of cool and so I bought another one in Mexico. So now, collecting pipes is kind of a thing.  Whenever I'm walking by one of those tiresome trinket stalls, I have something to look for.  Pipes are cheap, lightweight, sold everywhere, while also being regionally unique, making them ideal souvenirs.  Now I have dozens of pipes, big ones and small ones, made of glass, metal, stone, wood, bone, ceramic, some plain and some ornate.

I found a few pipes in Myanmar that were unlike anything I already own so without thinking, I bought them, wrapped them in a plastic bag and dropped them into the bottom of my backpack. I had almost forgotten about them by the time I arrived in Singapore.  After dropping my bag on the x-ray machine, the Customs officer asked to see what was in the bottom of my bag.  No big deal, I had been through this routine before. Customs wants to make sure you're not carrying any drugs. You know, the kind of drugs that could be smoked in a pipe.

Singapore, by the way, doesn't  have much of a sense of humor when it comes to illegal drugs. Right on the customs form, in big bold letters, is a warning: Mandatory death penalty for drug traffickers. This is a promise that the government has made good on to many people, including foreigners.

The customs officer asked me where I was flying in from.  When I told him Myanmar, I was escorted to the security office.  Knowing that it's illegal to bring in chewing gum to Singapore, I was suddenly afraid that I had unknowingly broken a law, perhaps being in possession of drug paraphernalia.  In the customs office, the officer informed me that since I was coming from a country that is infamous for opium, my pipes needed to be inspected for any trace of the drug.  This was bad news.  After buying the pipes, I had barely looked at them, and certainly hadn't done a full-barrel inspection.  They looked like they had been sitting in the bottom of a box for a few years, unused, but not new and shiny.  As I stood there, trying to get a read on the situation, I really started to wonder if my life was about to take an unfortunate turn into the Singapore justice system.

Now, obviously, I'm not writing this from a prison cell, awaiting the gallows.  After 15 minutes of consultation, I was sent along the way with stern instructions to not sell or give the pipes to anyone in Singapore. Crisis averted. This little episode got me curious about the drug laws so I did a little research.

The good news is that there would be no way for me to convicted of trafficking.  I would need to be carrying a minimum of 100 grams of opium for that to happen. The bad news is that any amount, however small, is still illegal.  Sentencing guidelines range from a nice caning (24 strokes) to life in prison. Yikes.  I didn't find any stories of foreigners getting punished for unreasonable offenses in Singapore, but the U.A.E. is another story.

Along with Singapore, The United Arab Emirates have extremely strict drug laws. Drugs found in your blood or urine count towards "possession".  Electronic screening equipment has made it possible to find trace amounts of illegal substances.  In 2008 a British man, father of three, was convicted of possessing 0.003 grams of marijuana.  This was found on a cigarette wrapper, stuck to the bottom of his shoe. Just to picture it, 0.003 grams of marijuana is smaller than a grain of sugar. He was sentenced to 4 years in prison.

Another UK citizen, a 43 year old woman, received a shot of codeine at a Dubai hospital for her bad back. When a visa discrepancy led to an interrogation and a urine test, the positive test got her immediately thrown into prison.  She was stuck there for over 2 months before being let out on bail, contracting dysentery and head lice in the process.

Even more dumbfounding is the story of a Swiss citizen, who ate a poppy-seed bread roll in London Heathrow Airport before arriving in Dubai. Three poppy seeds, stuck to his clothes, where enough to land him a 4-year prison sentence.

It's hard to know what kind of lesson you should take from these stories, other than making a point to avoid the U.A.E. It's easy to see how people get screwed over, just for being unlucky. You can be sure that I'm going to be more careful in the future.

After clearing customs, my experience in the Singapore airport got much better.  The bathrooms have a touchscreens, which prompt you to rate your bathroom experience. Coming from Myanmar, it seemed a bit surreal. I had to wonder, when will electronic-bathroom-rating-technology make it into Yangon?

It's impossible to visit Singapore and not be impressed by the careful attention to design.  Signs along the sidewalk point to the nearest metro station, and they don't just tell you which direction to walk, they tell you how far it is.  So simple, but so helpful.  The train platforms have lines on the ground, allowing people to line up just to the right or left of train doors.  When the train arrives, everyone can exit without running into people trying to get on. It's all so orderly and functional. In Washington DC, I know most commuters fantasize about implementing this sort of common sense.

There are a lot of things to like about Singapore. The result of culture blending and geographic location means that food is fresh, delicious, and cheap. It's difficult to find a bad meal.  We stopped by the Aquarium, which is incredible, and the Botanical Gardens, which are sublime. But at the same time, Singapore is a little boring.  It feels buttoned-up, like the fun-police just did a thorough sweep of the entire city. Everyone is dressed to conformity.  There seems to be very little social interaction between people.  I've never seen so many people walking while playing silly games on their phone. Alcohol is heavily taxed, making it outrageously expensive.  Street vendors are non-existent.

We stayed with a friend, Eric, who had been working in Singapore for the past year.  It was interesting to hear his perspective on the place. For him, the Singaporean culture is driven by money and conspicuous spending. Flaunting success is a way of life.  He also thinks that Singaporeans can be a bit isolated when it comes to social interaction.  As an example, he said it's a common occurrence for people in his high-rise apartment building to use separate elevators, just to a avoid having to awkwardly share the same elevator space with someone.

As a comparison, one night in Bangkok, we were eating outside on a lively street when a troop of teenagers broke out into a well-choreographed break-dance routine. Even I was moved to a donation afterwords. These moments of surprise are what I love about cities, and this dynamic quality remained elusive in Singapore.

I guess the perfect city is full of fun, dynamic interactions, and is also orderly, clean, safe.  Of course the perfect city doesn't exist, but it's interesting to see how different places try to achieve slices of perfection. The one fact that is always repeated about Singapore is how clean everything is, how it's the cleanest city.  Well, it is definitely clean, but it's not immaculate. The stiff laws have not created a cleanliness utopia.  There are lots of plastic wrappers on the sidewalks, or piled up under bushes. Lots of places are just as clean, without the draconian laws looming over everyone's head.

Friday night would be our last night in Singapore, before heading onto Malaysia. Eric, who stayed late at work each night, promised to be home by 7pm so we could have a night on the town together. We went out to one of the hippest neighborhoods, sat outside and watched beautiful people walk by. We were joined by Eric's date, a sarcastic Singaporean girl with a great sense of humor. As the night wore on, and it being our last night in town, we decided we should make a go of it and check out the "Four Floors of Whores". This catchy moniker refers to a sort of red-light district contained in a couple of high-rise office buildings. After a week of straight-laced nights out, my interest was certainly piqued.

The two towers are packed with hole-in-the-wall bars, accessible only from the interior of the building. Girls in short skirts are conspicuously hanging around.  Nothing too exceptional, except for fact that we were in the seedy belly of the city, in a nondescript office complex. It's a little weird.

The next day we were on the bus to Malaysia.  We meandered our way up the west coast, stopping in Malacca, Kuala Lumpur and George Town before heading to the eastern Perhentian islands. Malacca and George Town are supposed to have some old Dutch and old English colonial charm.  For me, it was all just OK.  Perfectly pleasant, but I never found myself thinking that it would be really nice to spend more time there.
George Town - Malaysia
This sort of apathy followed me around the entire country. I found the Malaysian people to be kind, but also a bit un-enthusiastic. It's hard to put my finger on it.  I can't think of even one instance where someone was rude, or tried to overcharge me, or was anything other than helpful. But I also can't think of a time when I shared a laugh with a waitress or had a meaningful conversation with someone.  I don't know, maybe I was just doing it wrong. I suppose that when it comes to travel, you want to either love it or hate it, to feel some intensity of a place. Malaysian cities consistently felt like just another place.

Kuala Lumpur is a huge city, known for the flashy Petronas Towers (Petronas being the state-owned oil and gas company). These twin towers are the tallest in the world and indeed, it's an impressive sight.  But my big gripe with the city is that it's just not fun getting around.  Outside of the newly-developed commercial center, the city is full of grimy, broken concrete.  Sidewalks become useless when they are turned into parking lots for motorbikes.  At night the streets feel darker than they should. The train system is an un-integrated mess, which is operated by competing companies with no apparent planning to use a common station at intersecting lines. It all adds up to apathy.
Petronas Tower - Malaysia
Let's take a break from apathy and talk about Mulu. Tucked deep into the Borneo rainforest is Gunung Mulu National Park. This tropical rain forest has evolved, undisturbed, for 130 million years.  Underneath the forest, water draining through the soil has steadily erroded away the underlying limestone, creating one of the largest cave systems in the world.
Mulu - Malaysia
Mulu - Malaysia
Getting to Mulu isn't difficult, but you have fly in, as there are no roads for getting there.  This has kept any kind of development at bay, considering that a lot of food and manufactured goods need to be flown in.
Mulu - Malaysia
The density of the rain forest is almost suffocating.  It's nearly impossible to capture the layers of foliage in a photograph, as it just ends up an incoherent tangle of green. Staring into the jungle from the well-maintained trail, I tried to imagine navigating my way through the forest. It would be like navigating your way though the white-out conditions of a blizzard.  Every direction looks the same, the totality of your view is never more than a few feet in front of you.  Mind boggling.  The sounds of birds and insects play on an infinite loop.  But to see any animals, you must be very lucky. During a guided night-walk it's a little bit easier to spot the reflective eyes of spiders, lizards and other alien insects.
Mulu -  Malaysia

Mulu - Malaysia
A highlight of the park is visiting Deer Cave.  Up until 2009, it reigned as the largest cave passage in the world. To say it is staggering in size doesn't do it justice. The main entrance is just shy of 500 feet tall. The cave itself is big enough to house 40 Boeing 747s.  Once again, photos fail to capture the scene. At dusk, several million bats stream out of the cave in a long serpentine ribbon.  Watching this spectacle, which lasts about 30 minutes, is memorizing.
Mulu -  Malaysia
Kota Kinabalu - Malaysia
The tiny country of Brunei fell right into our route heading east across Borneo, so we figured we might as well stop in and say hi. My knowledge of Brunei was limited to about three words: rich from oil. Hassanal Bolkiah, the current Sultan of Brunei, was the richest man in the world back in the 80's.  Per capita, it's the 5th richest nation in the world, the U.S. comes in right behind at number 6. Despite the small size of the country, not everyone is rich. Just downriver from the royal palace is the worlds largest water village where some 40,000 people (10% of the country's population) live in stilted houses.  It looks like they are barely scraping by.

Brunei culture is dominated by conservative Islamic ideology. The sale of alcohol is completely illegal. The country recently made the news because the Sultan has decided to double-down on conservatism by implementing Sharia law. Now, crimes such as adultery and homosexuality, may be capitally punished by a good old-fashioned stoning. Thieves can look forward to amputations and anyone skipping Friday prayers can be imprisoned. The reasons for implementing this may be more political and economical than religious. It allows the government to crack down on internal instability and may attract banking business from other Islamic countries. The Sultan is not known for being a pious man. He has a reputation for throwing some of the most lavish and hedonistic parties on the planet while employing harems of international women to work in the palace. The hypocrisy is as rich as the oil fields.
According to our guidebook, in the absence of alcohol, dancing, card playing, billiards, bowling and roller skating, the only thing left to do is to eat. You might expect a wealthy country, which has limited entertainment options, to go all-out on the one thing that everyone can agree on.  But alas, the restaurant options are pretty limited. Dining out in Brunei is synonymous with eating at a shopping mall food-court. On prime, river-front real estate of Bandar Seri Begawan  (the capital city), I counted only three restaurants, which never seemed that busy. Walking around after dinner, I was amazed that the city center felt so desolate. Just as I was commenting on this, we rounded the street corner and came face-to-face with a large Burger King. The tables were full and a line of people snaked its way from the counter to the front door.  Go figure.

The Royal Regalia Building is a museum dedicated to the history and glory of the Sultan. There are several scaled down replicas of the palace and various rooms within the palace, thrones, chariots and lots of other stuff that serves no purpose other than to stroke the ego of the Sultan. Much of the space is dedicated to countless diplomatic gifts, which inevitably raises the question, what do get a man who already has everything? Jewel encrusted swords and daggers have been popular choices. You also have to keep in mind that this is all the stuff that didn't find a permanent home in the palace. It's kind of like an overflow room for priceless gifts. I felt a small twinge of pride when the only gifts from the U.S. were a few plaques, of no material value.  Photography was of course, prohibited.

In the world of diving, Sipidan island consistently makes the list as a top destination. The island was formed by living corals growing on top of an extinct volcano cone where over 3,000 species of fish have been identified. In 1989, Jacques Cousteau said, "I have seen other places like Sipidan, 45 years ago, but now no more. Now we have found an untouched piece of art." Getting to Sipidan takes some work though as the nearest port city is in a remote corner of Borneo.  The island itself is protected and uninhabited.  A strict permit system limits the number of divers allowed per day.   The nearest island with accommodations is Mabul, a ramshackle island, home to the Bajau people, who are commonly referred to as sea gypsies. Many of the Bajau live in their boats.  The Bajau spend so much time at sea that some of them experience a nauseating "land sickness" when coming ashore.
Mabul - Malaysia
The simple dive shops on the island are built out over the water on stilts. Sitting out on the docks, watching children paddle by in small wooden canoes is not a bad way to spend the afternoon. The surrounding ocean water is so clear that it defies expectation.
Mabul -  Malaysia
The diving was, of course, incredible. There are steep coral walls, full of color, where you can just drift along to see turtles, reef sharks, manta rays and a bazillion fish.  My favorite dive was at Barracuda Point, where two currents come together, which brings in lots of food for large schools of barracuda.  The underwater current is quite strong so the best way to dive the site is to swim near the ocean floor and coast along until you are directly underneath the barracuda, which are swimming at a standstill, into the current.  At that point you just grab onto a rock, look up and enjoy show. Then you let go and the current whisks you away and lets you fly superman-style over endless coral formations.  I parked under some large table coral to hang out with a sea turtle that easily outweighed me.
Mabul - Malaysia

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Is there a winery around here?

“We might be sleeping on the roof.”
“Yeah, it says right here that some people have had to sleep on the floors of tea houses, monasteries, and even on the roofs of hotels.”
I tried to picture someone laying on a corrugated tin roof, sloped at a thirty degree angle.  The image reminded me of those amusement park slides for children, where they go down in a potato sack. “Huh, well that doesn't really make a whole lot of sense.”
Pagoda covered in gold leaf - Myanmar
We were reading up on Myanmar, trying to get organized.  Online travel forums were full of advice. The general consensus was that booking accommodations in advance was necessary, especially during the tourist high-season. I found this both surprising and annoying. I knew tourism was picking up in Myanmar, but needing reservations or risk sleeping on the roof??  Come on.  Something didn't make sense here.

There are a lot of stories of people having trouble finding a place to stay in Myanmar.  This is partly because the infrastructure for tourism hasn't kept up with the demand since international relations have improved in the past few years.  It's also true that only government-licensed hotels are allowed to have foreign guests, which may be making things more difficult.

But the hotel situation is just the tip of the iceberg if you want to start talking about things that don't make sense.  For starters, is the name of the country Myanmar or Burma?  Nobody can seem to agree.  The name Burma comes from the name Bama, the ruling (and largest ethnic) group in the country. The name Myanmar comes from the work Myanma, which is just the formal way to reference the Bama people in written word. Both names refer to the same group of people and are exclusive of the many minorities also living within the borders.

The controversy is multifaceted. When the military changed the official English name of the country to Myanmar, some people felt that recognizing the name meant recognizing an illegitimate government.  Other people have argued that Myanmar is a more inclusive name, but this of course doesn't make any sense. The argument can even be made that Myanmar is even more exclusive to ethnic minorities because they don't speak (nor read) the Bama language.  Myanmar then, is just another unfamiliar word from an already alienating government. But still, Myanmar is the name that the government calls themselves.  Major news organizations can't seem to agree on which is the appropriate name.  Even the U.S. government, which favors Burma, is at odds with  the United Nations, which favors Myanmar.  So take your pick.

Before we could worry about reserving accommodations, we had to sort out the visa situation and sift through the conflicting pieces of information floating around on the Internet. For example, some people claimed  that getting a visa on arrival was possible, others said that this program was canceled.  Another claim was that you needed a letter from your employer (and business cards) in order for the embassy to approve your application. Reports on processing time varied from a few days to a few weeks. There are also warnings for people who might work in the media or for a human-rights organization.  It's best to "change" your profession, at least for the visa application.

So straightforward answers on getting a visa are hard to come by. But what was true a year or even 6 months ago, may not be true any more. Perhaps nothing exemplifies this more than the recent updates in banking. Planet Money, a favorite podcast of mine featuring stories about the global and domestic economy ran a few stories in May 2013, just 8 months before our arrival. Let me force you to read a few of their blog entries from the series.

Why (Almost) No One In Myanmar Wanted My Money
When you arrive in Myanmar, you can see how eager the people are to do business. At the airport in Yangon, new signs in English welcome tourists. A guy in a booth offers to rent me a local cellphone — and he's glad to take U.S. dollars. But when I pull out my money, he shakes his head.

"I'm sorry," he says.

He points to the crease mark in the middle of the $20 bill. No creases allowed.

So I pull out another, which he rejects because it's a little bit faded, and a third, which he doesn't want because of a tiny tear, and a fourth, which he calls "not very acceptable" because of a little ink spot.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, was largely closed to the world for decades. It's just getting used to the business of international currency exchange. And, like other countries that have gone through economic turmoil (Russia, Iraq, Argentina), Myanmar wants U.S. dollars to look like they just rolled off the presses.

When I start to ask people in Myanmar, they laugh and say they know it's crazy. But they've learned in their history that the last thing you can trust is an old piece of money.

You've probably heard about the human rights abuses under the former dictatorship in Burma. But the old government also used to screw with the money all the time. Officials would suddenly announce that certain denominations of the local currency were worthless. It would be like waking up to find that the $100 bill was worthless.

The old socialist government was worried that some people were getting rich, Zeya Thu, an editor with The Voice, told me. So without warning, they would take the largest denominations out of circulation.

When it happened in 1987, Zeya's parents were getting ready for retirement. They had just cashed out their life savings to buy a plot of land. They were in the room with the seller, about to buy the land, and the government came on the radio and said the bills were worthless.

The country's leader created new bills overnight in denominations that were multiples of nine — his lucky number. Zeya says the math of adding and subtracting 45s would give people headaches.

So people started to sock away their extra money in U.S. currency. And when your life savings is a few U.S. $100 bills, you want to keep them pristine. Like other people in Myanmar, my translator kept his U.S. bills pressed flat in the pages of a book. Like baseball card collectors, people in Myanmar want their bills in mint condition.

The banks in Myanmar could have solved this problem by accepting old U.S. currency. But for a long time they were cut off from U.S. banks by sanctions, so they didn't want the old bills, either.

As a result, visitors to Myanmar have to bring bills so crisp you can cut tomatoes with them. And bills that are less than perfect end up on the black market. I took my $20 bill with a tiny ink spot on it to a black-market money changer. He gave me $17.75 for it.
In A Single ATM, The Story Of A Nation's Economy
Nan Htwe Nye works at an elementary school in Yangon, Myanmar. She started trying to use ATM machines a few months ago, and things haven't been going so well. 
The machines are often broken, she says. "But," she adds, "we hope it will better in the future." This is, more or less, the story of ATMs — and of banking in general — in Myanmar.
She's visiting the headquarters of CB Bank, at the first ATM in the country that was connected to banks all around the world. 
The lobby of the bank is packed with people, many of whom have brought cash from their businesses in giant rice bags. One of the managers here, Zaw Myo Oo, says the customers all want to see the transaction on paper. 
Another room is all money counting machines, with cash piled in the corners like old newspapers. Burly guys lift bags onto their shoulders. 
This all-cash economy is one of the things that is holding back Myanmar's economy. The rest of the world no longer operates on rice sacks filled with paper money. For years, the managing director at the bank wanted to move into electronic banking. But, because there was international sanctions against the military dictatorship that was running the country, Visa and Mastercard wouldn't return his calls. 
The sanctions started to be lifted last year, and Mastercard started taking his calls. And late last year, CB Bank fired up the international ATM, complete with a generator to keep the machine running during Yangon's frequent power outages. Over the next few months, the bank installed dozens more machines, and other banks followed. 
But the people in Myanmar still don't trust the banks. During the era of the dictatorship, there were frequent runs on the banks, and corruption was widespread. "Sometimes you have to bribe the staff at the counter to get your money back," says Zeya Thu, a business columnist with a local paper. Numbers are hard to come by, but it's estimated that fewer than 10 percent of the people here have accounts. 
The people running CB Bank hope the new ATM prominently displayed outside their bank will help build that trust. Nan Htwe Nye, the woman who works at a local elementary school, actually seemed surprised when her money popped out of the machine.
"Today, it works," she said. "I'm lucky."
Myanmar's first international ATM didn't exist until November 2012.  This means that the latest publication of Lonely Planet, which came out in December of 2011, is hopelessly out of date. But even if you have done your homework and you know that the guidebook is obsolete, there are still a lot of unanswered questions. How prevalent are ATM's?  Do you have to be "lucky", as the Planet Money post suggests, in order to get cash out of the machine? If international banks are now doing business in Myanmar, does that mean that they will now accept damaged dollar bills? None of these questions have clear-cut answers.

The ATM's in Cambodia spit out U.S. currency (Cambodian currency is used for very small purchases).  So rather than take our chances with the Myanmar ATM's, we filled up on $100 bills and took any wrinkled/creased/blemished bills to the bank for an exchange.  The Cambodian bank tellers were quite understanding of our situation and happily gave us their best bills. But even coming into Myanmar with a fistful of dollar bills comes with some puzzling questions.  I had read that the official exchange rate was one-tenth of the black market exchange rate, meaning that if you were foolish enough to exchange money at the airport, you would be getting just a small fraction of the amount compared to exchanging it unofficially.

Things have changed though.  Official exchange rates are just as good as black market exchange rates.  ATM's are all over the place. Journalists can get a visa.  The hotel situation is not dire, I didn't spend a single night on a hotel roof.  There are still a lot of things that don't make sense, places you can't go, but traveling in Myanmar turned out to be relatively easy.

Yangon (aka Rangoon) is the country's largest city.  It's a weathered city that hasn't seen a lot of re-investment. "Drab" is probably the best adjective to describe the buildings, streets and sidewalks.  But the city is not without some charm.  Hole-in-the-wall cafes provide a place to get an intimate bowl of soup, street food is plentiful and people aren't afraid to smile.  Daily life happens on the street, vendors sell everything from air compressors to flowers.  If you need something sewn, there's a guy with a sewing machine.  If you need to make a call, there's a woman with her landline strung out to the street corner.
Yangon is also a city full of zombies. Chewing betel nut is a pervasive habit among most men.  The crushed seed, wrapped in leaves and combined with a limestone paste provides a mild stimulant. Over time, it rots gums and teeth, and turns the inside of your mouth a dark red. All this mouth gore and spitting is a sight right out of The Walking Dead.

If Yangon has a unique contribution to the nightlife culture, it would have to be tinsel. There are a handful of clubs on Yangon where you can get a drink and watch a karaoke show by the local talent. Tinsel is what you buy a girl when you like her performance, a monetary tip. When you buy tinsel, the girl gets a wear a glittering garland for the rest of her song. Exciting huh?  Afterwards, she'll come sit at your table for 10 or 15 minutes and keep you company.   If the girl is a favorite, a tinsel war might break out between tables, the winner going to the highest bidder.

A group of us went out to check out the local tinsel stars. The rooftop venues have an  inconspicuous street presence but were pleasant enough, though quite empty for a Friday night. The first thing I noticed was a complete lack of stage presence by any of the performers. I don't know, this may be indicative of a generation growing up without western music videos.  And while their outfits were sexy by Myanmar standards, some of the floral-print dresses would be more appropriate at church than at a nightclub. It was a bizarre experience.

We  picked a girl and flagged down the waiter.  When our girl came over to the table, she looked a little confused. We tried some basic conversation, but that didn't go very well. I think she was uncomfortable. So much for that.  We bounced to the next venue where a girl gave us smile during her performance, a small victory, so we bought her some tinsel. This girl's English was also terrible, but she seemed happy to be sitting with us.  Our friend Corey helped facilitate the conversation by asking questions through pictures on a napkin.  He wrote the name of the venue, followed by a happy face and a sad face.  She picked the happy face.
The girl on the left does not want to smile.
One of the peculiarities of traveling in Myanmar is the maddening bus schedule. Distances are not large, but the moving is slow and so most rides clock in at 8 to 12 hours. Getting around by bus is quite pleasant if it weren't for the insane arrival times, which are typically scheduled for 4 or 5am.  It's a terrible time to try to orient yourself in a new town, not to mention it reeks havoc on your sleeping schedule. The guide book mentions this quirk and gives the explanation that people can't afford to waste an entire day traveling between cities, and so the overnight bus is preferable. It also says that night travel helps prevent buses from overheating under the midday sun. Neither of these explanations are satisfying to me. The streets are dark and empty at 4 in the morning. The day doesn't start for another three hours.

The driver of our first bus ride must have good time because we pulled into a black parking lot at 3:45am. I had only been sleeping for two hours when the bus lights came on. I got off the bus and let my eyes adjust. The air had cold bite and my head was foggy. While retrieving my bag from the storage compartment under the bus I heard some funny animal noises behind me. I turned around and tried to work out whether there were any taxis available. There were no taxis, only horse-drawn carts. I had to rub my eyes to believe it, yep, two-wheeled horse carts. I wasn't in the mood for a cart ride, but I also wasn't in the mood to argue. We loaded up our bags and set off down the road into the dark night. As we click-clacked our way under a canopy of trees, my head began to clear and I had to smile at the situation. It was an unexpected moment. We arrived at a small, family-run hotel where a few men were milling about in winter parkas.  It's a funny sort of normal for these people, but at least we didn't' have to wake anybody up.
Myanmar Album
Situated on a great plain along the Irrawaddy river, Bagan was the home to a great civilization between the 9th and 13th centuries.  Over 10,000 temples and pagodas were constructed here, of which more than 2000 are still standing.  Touring the pagodas means covering a lot of ground under a hot sun.  A motorbike would be perfect for getting around, but foreigners aren't allowed to drive motorbikes. I couldn't find a clear answer for the reasoning behind this but I heard that the government doesn't want to deal with the headache of dealing with injured tourists. Who knows.   Bicycles are available, but after dealing with sandy roads and a flat tire, I was over it.  The funny work-around for the law is to rent E-bikes, battery-powered bicycles. They mostly get the job done, but it seems silly to me.
Bagan  - Myanmar Album
Bagan - Myanmar Album
Bagan - Myanmar Album
The motorbike law in Bagan isn't nearly as insane as the one in Yangon, where all motorbikes are outright forbidden. This quirky law is because at some point, a bike ran into the car of a high government official, and boom, just like that, no more motorbikes.  But even this law doesn't compare to the time in 1970 when, overnight, the government switched what side of the road you were supposed to drive on. The country changed from driving on the left hand side of the road to the right side because the dictator had been advised by his astrologer to "move to the right". These facts of these stories, like so many others, are unverifiable.
 Myanmar Album
Moving further north into the minority-populated mountains is the opportunity to do some guided treks and homestays.  The most popular route takes you through 35 miles of dusty roads and trails, dotted with villages full of people who seem to happy that foreigners are passing through. We were lucky to get a good guide, full of sarcasm, and a group to match.
Trekking  - Myanmar Album
My favorite character was Miguel, from Italy. During our first day of walking, our group of 9 was busy making the usual introductions and small talk.  Miguel stayed near the head of the group, mostly talking to the guide. He was alone and no one had gotten to know him. His English wasn't proficient and he spoke with a very heavy accent. At dinner, we all sat huddled around a small table, eating by light of the fire and drinking beer.  Miguel declined any drink and said that normally he drinks, but his guru said that he should take 3 months to travel Asia without drinking, eating meat or having sex.  At this point, all conversation came to an abrupt halt.
"Wait a second, you have guru???"
"a-Yes.  My life.  It feels empty.  I a-met a-man.  He can show me the way."
"So, how did you meet him?"
"a-Just on the street. In Rome."
"And he told you to abstain from alcohol and travel Asia??"
"a-Yes.  He said. He will teach me tantric sex.  I can make a-love for a-six hours."
"Um. So does your guru charge money?"
"Ah-no. He is not allowed. He says after 3 months of no sex, he will begin my training."
Silence.  At this point, everyone was looking at everyone else.
"a-Yes, when I return, my guru will find me a partner for my training. It will be very good."
At this point, we are all trying to be open-minded to this person whom we just met. Here is a guy trekking through Myanmar by himself, on a journey that nobody has access to.  You never know who you are going to meet while traveling.
Trekking home stay - Myanmar Album
The next day Sabrina was walking with Miguel and asked him again about his guru.
"Oh. I do not a-have a guru. I was just a-making a joke."
"What?!  I thought you were serious?"
"Should I a-tell the rest of the a-group that I was just a-joking?"
Sabrina, self-conscious of her gullibility said, "No, I'm sure everyone knows."
Nobody did know. When it finally came to light, a few in the group were not so amused, I thought it was hysterical.

The next night we were up late telling stories around the campfire, drinking rice wine, and the conversation found its way into confessing the most outrageous place to have had sex.  One girl, Jenny, copped to having sex in the library, which she immediately regretted sharing. The night continued on while a few bottles of trekking whiskey were emptied.  The next morning we woke with the sun and the roosters, nobody feeling good. The first thing out of Miguel's mouth, "a-Jenny.  a-Last night.  I wait for you in the library." Pure gold.

Our raunchy group aside, trekking really was a great experience.  The people along the way were nothing but kind and gracious.  When we arrived in a village, the children all wanted to play and the adults where welcoming.  Finding places in the world where people are living outside of the modern economic engine is not an easy thing to do and it's humbling to be on the recieving end of their generosity. Sabrina returned the favor by bringing a bag of candy for the kids and few colored pens for the older kids.  These small tokens went a long way in bringing some big smiles.
Excited for a pen  - from Myanmar Album
We continued on with our merry band of trekking companions to Inle lake, a picturesque region of fishing communities and handicraft artisans. Bicycling is a wonderful way to take in the sights and when we heard the was a winery in the area, we had to go.  After some sight-seeing we looked at our inadequate map and tried to figure out the best route to the winery. After making at least one wrong turn we stopped at an a rural intersection and again tried to orient ourselves.  A local man saw our puzzlement and came over to help, despite his poor English. Someone piped up, "Uh, excuse me, is there a winery around here??"  Crickets.

I know that this is one of those "you had to be there" situations, but trust me, if you could see where we were, in the middle of this poverty-ridden southeast Asian country, it's a ridiculous question to be asking. After another overnight bus into an even more rural state, we signed up for another three-day trek.  Upon arriving in a village, we would turn and ask ourselves, "Is there a winery around here?" That joke never got old.
Inle Lake - Myanmar Album
Inle Lake -  Myanmar Album
Our second trek was with a smaller group and much more physically demanding.  Every few hours our guide would describe the upcoming terrain.  "Up, up, up. Plat, plat. Down, down down." It was interesting seeing the villagers reactions to us the further we got along.  The villages accustomed to foreigners on the first day would eagerly greet us.  By the third day, it was mostly looks of confusion.  Each village seemed to have their own dialect and our guide would have to give us the new word for "hello" as we went along.  It felt like we were walking back in time.

The most vivid memory I have is when we trudging up the side of the mountain on a narrow path and we turned the corner to come upon a few dozen people working to put in a new road, using nothing but hand tools. Men, women and children were all helping with the back-breaking work.  Everyone seemed to be in good spirits, but I all I could think about was being thankful for not being in their position.  It's good to be reminded to put life into perspective every now and again.

Portraits from Myanmar:

Myanmar Album
Myanmar Album
Myanmar Album
Myanmar Album
Myanmar Album
Myanmar Album

Monday, March 3, 2014

Not the best. But not bad!

A lot of people hear “Cambodia” and they get a vague impression in their minds of an unpleasant and unfortunate place. There are good reasons to have this impression, because for the last half of the 20th century, that's exactly what it was. The history is of course, complex.

After dealing with French colonization in the 19th century and a Japanese occupation in the 20th century, the American - Vietnam War pulled Cambodia into the conflict. When the North Vietnamese moved their supply lines into Cambodia, Cambodia got bombed. In 1970, a military coup took over the government and successfully ran the country into the ground. As refugees flooded into a crumbling economy, food became sparse and people starved. When the Khmer Rouge stormed the capital city Phnom Penh in 1975, people believed that fortune was finally turning around. Instead, the military dictator, Pol Pot, went about transforming Cambodia into his ideal society, killing a quarter of the population in the process. When Pol Pot was finally driven into the jungle in 1979, again, circumstances stood to get better. However, Pol Pot left behind devastated rice fields and stocks had been decimated. A two year famine followed. Throughout the 80's and 90's, the Khmer Rouge continued to operate near the Thai border waging military resistance, littering the country-side with landmines. Fighting would continue until 1998.

Taking all of this into account, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Cambodia can look a little rough around the edges. But it's not true that Cambodia is an unpleasant place today. It is a wonderful place to travel. From the perspective of a tourist, it's a safe and cheap destination. The people are friendly, the landscape is beautiful, and Angkor Wat stands on its own.

Cambodia 2013
Life in Cambodia today is hard to describe. There is definitely the sense of a middle class emerging. The cities are dotted with people doing well for themselves and smartphones are finding their way into the hands of teenagers everywhere. But it's wrong to believe that everything is now OK. There are still many people in dire economic circumstances. One unpleasant indicator is the staggering amount of child sex trafficking. Organizations that are trying to combat this issue say that children are often sold into brothels by family members. Desperate faces are everywhere.
Cambodia 2013

Of course where you have lots of people barely getting by, the competition for getting a little bit of business from tourists like me can be fierce. This is one of the more frustrating aspects of traveling in Cambodia. I call it “begging-for-business” and it can be maddening. For example, If five tuk-tuk drivers are parked on the same corner, you will get asked 5 times if you need a tuk-tuk. It doesn't matter that the last driver just heard you turn down 4 other offers. And of course it's not just tuk-tuk drivers, it's anyone who has something to sell. The constant stream of offers while walking down the street can be hard to handle. Politely declining each offer is an unsustainable approach, but blatantly ignoring everyone feels rude. It's frustrating, but it's hard to know how to feel about this. For people who don't have a lot of options nor a lot of business, what else can they do?
Cambodia 2013

For all the frustration of the “begging-for-business” brings, every now and then it turns out to be something endearing. One woman comes to mind, bringing a smile to my face every time I think about her. We were touring Angkor Wat, where arrays of food stalls are situated in designated areas. You don't want to get near one of these places unless you're committed to sitting down and having a meal. Otherwise, it's not worth the onslaught of people who are are begging for business. We happened into the parking lot of one of these places on our way to a temple and were met by a cheerful woman to let us know that her stall was #9, and that if we wanted anything at all, to make sure and give stall #9 a visit. It was still too early for lunch and no one was eating, which made us an easy target. But I was hungry and so took her up on her offer. As she let us through the parking lot, I tried making some conversation and threw her a softball question, “So, is YOUR food the BEST food?” “Noooooo,” she sang. “Not the best,” she declared definitively. “But not bad!”
I had to laugh. Maybe the right follow-up question would be, “Where can I find the best food?” But I could live with “not bad.”
Cambodia 2013

Less endearing are the small children selling sunglasses and old woman offering massages on the beach, which is where we found ourselves after crossing the Thai border. This where we met up with Stacey, Sabrina's college friend, who was parlaying her work trip to Hong Kong into a personal one-week vacation. Beachfront properties were ramshackle, serving local beer on tap for $0.25 during happy hour, which can last late into the night before the price quadruples. The first night we went out, I ordered a beer and handed over a dollar. The bar-tender said it was still happy hour. I looked at my watch and it was 10:45pm. “ I'll guess I'll have 4 beers then??” At that price, beer is literally cheaper than water (and barely discernible from it). Loud music plays from distorted speakers into the wee hours of the morning and balloons filled with laughing-gas are popular bar snacks.

Many of the hostels and bars advertise for Western staff, offering a place to stay and food to eat in exchange for working the bar a few nights a week. It's an arrangement where backpackers can go and lose themselves for a few months without taking a hit on their travel budget. One of the more memorable characters who had temporarily parked himself on the beach was Richie Rich from California. Within minutes of meeting him he was sharing his story of being near death as a heroin addict and how his dad saved his life through a little bit of tough love. He was an entertaining guy with a lot of stories, hitchhiking across the U.S. One time a young woman picked him up late at night, with a baby in the backseat. Turns out her husband was off serving in Iraq and she was feeling lonely. Richie told her how much he appreciated the ride, but under no circumstances should she ever, ever, pick up a hitch-hiker with a baby in the car. Too many weirdos out there.

We met Richie Rich on Christmas Eve, on the late-night boat driving us to a little beach party happening on some uninhabited island, somewhere in the middle of the ocean. It was just your typical Christmas Eve beach rave. The DJ was interrupted a few times by an uncooperative generator, but there was a bonfire to light the sky and lots and lots of cheap drinks. We made some friends from Sweden, had a midnight toast, and tried to remember that it was Christmas.

Cambodia 2013

The next day, Christmas day, we spent a groggy few hours in the airport to make quick flight to Siem Reap, the city just outside the great Angkor Wat temple complex. Our friend Stacey was tight on time, so we afforded ourselves the luxury of a short flight vs another 12 hour bus ride. Coincidence would have it that one of my old college friends, Brandon, would be in Siem Reap at the same time as us. So there we were having a little college reunion of sorts in a very unlikely place.

Cambodia 2013
Walking around town was interesting for me, mostly because I was comparing the very busy and social atmosphere to the sleepy town of my memory. So much has changed. Before Cambodia's long period of violence, Angkor Wat was of course a tourist destination, but the world was less mobile back then, so it saw relatively few visitors. Tourism picked up again in the late 90's, but even when I visited in 2003, there was still an empty feeling. I remembered being astonished that I basically had the place to myself. I also remember telling people, to go now, because it's not going to stay like this forever. And it hasn't.

I did a little research and it looks like the number of annual visitors has increased six-fold since I last visited. Plus, I was there during the sweltering summer months, the tourist low-season. This time around it was the week between Christmas and New Years, one of the busier periods of the year. All this to say that we did not have the place to ourselves. It was crowded almost everywhere we went. This was a little disappointing for me because what I loved about my first visit was the sense of discovery, of being alone, turning the corner and seeing something unexpected. That's something you can't experience when you're shuffling behind a line of people. Instead, you're standing there, waiting for the scene to clear out for just one second so you can snap a picture that isn't filled with a crowd of Japanese tourists. Fortunately it's possible to arrive before the morning light and enjoy an hour or two of serenity and pleasant photography before the hoards descend upon you.
The quintessential sunrise at Angkor Wat
Cambodia 2013
Behind the Photo:
The crowd of people getting the quintessential Sunrise shot.
Hoards of tourists or not, Angkor is still an impressive place. The heyday of Angkor was between the 9th and 13th centuries and was essentially abandoned by the 15th century. It wasn't “re-discovered” until the 19th century, by which point the jungle had reclaimed most of the temples. Archeologists have reconstructed many of the ruins and in some cases, have left some of the jungle behind, leaving a real Indiana Jones ambiance.
Cambodia 2013
Cambodia 2013
Cambodia 2013
After a long day of touring the temples, we met up again with Brandon and his wife, drinking our way up and down “Pub Street”, a commercial heaven of restaurants and bars. Brandon, by the way, was also in my electrical engineering class, and is an incredibly smart person. By 2am we had planted ourselves firmly at the cleverly named bar, “Angkor What?” where the party had spilled out onto the street. A very sober Sabrina was was engaged with a very drunken Brandon.
“I'm 32, I don't have a job, I don't have a house, I'm not married,” Sabrina lamented.
But Brandon put things into perspective, “Thirty-two is a beautiful number.”
“It is?”
“Yeah, it's two to the power of five.”
Let me interrupt for second to explain to the mathematically challenged. Brandon is saying that “32” is the number “2” multiplied by itself 5 times (2*2*2*2*2). In the digital world of computers, circuits are either on or off, which mean counting in binary is useful. A five-digit binary number then, has 32 possible values.
Anyway, Brandon was saying, “ Yeah, it's two to the power of five. You have 2's on each side, a 2 in the middle, and another two 2's.”
“Yeah, it's a beautiful number. Think about it.”
“I AM thinking about it!”

Stacey spent her last day in Cambodia feeling a bit under the weather, which meant we had to cancel a few plans. She apologized profusely and felt bad that we were just sitting around all day, not doing much. I had to explain to her that a day of doing nothing was more than alright with us. We have time to do nothing. After she left, we would spend a few more days of doing nothing, and enjoying it.

Cambodia 2013
Cambodia 2013
Sooner or later though, doing nothing has to give way to nailing down some actual plans, and so we went to Phnom Penh to arrange visas for Myanmar, my one travel goal for this trip.

For a sobering history lesson we visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, known as Security Prison 21. The prison was actually just a regular high school, converted into a prison by Pol Pot. This haunted place is where prisoners were questioned, tortured and killed for fabricated offenses, usually nothing more than political suspicion against the regime. Anyone with an education was automatically suspect. Wearing eyeglasses or having soft hands was sometimes enough to be picked up and disposed of.

Cambodia 2013

From Wikipedia:
Prisoners were routinely beaten and tortured with electric shocks, searing hot metal instruments and hanging, as well as through the use of various other devices. Some prisoners were cut with knives or suffocated with plastic bags. Other methods for generating confessions included pulling out fingernails while pouring alcohol on the wounds, holding prisoners’ heads under water, and the use of the waterboarding technique.

The "Medical Unit" at Tuol Sleng, however, did kill at least 100 prisoners by bleeding them to death. Medical experiments were performed on certain prisoners. Inmates were sliced open and had organs removed with no anesthetic. Others were attached to intravenous pumps and every drop of blood was drained from their bodies to see how long they could survive. The most difficult prisoners were skinned alive.
The story of Pol Pot is fascinating. A somewhat privileged upbringing allowed him to study in Paris, where he flunked out of school and joined an underground communist club. He returned to Cambodia and inspired by the Cultural Revolution happening in China, he gained support from the North Vietnamese and raised a rural army, decrying the corruption of the upper class. When he overthrew the current military installation, it was seen as a win for the common people. But Pol Pot had his own ideas for transforming Cambodia into his ideal society. He wanted to lived in an isolated, independent Cambodia, something akin to the great Angkor empire that existed before him. He believed that dignity existed in the working class and that an isolated independence could be achieved by sending everyone out to the rice fields. Almost immediately he declared all personal property to be the property of the state, declared the calendar year to be year zero, and exiled the urban population of Phnom Penh to the rice fields. Anyone who was uncooperative or even suspected of being uncooperative was immediately killed. In the hard-labor conditions of the rice fields, anyone who couldn't work was killed. Many who survived execution fell victim to starvation and disease. The property and stockpiles of traditional farmers were seized, leaving the families of generational farmers to starve. An estimated 2 million people, a quarter of the population, died in a four year period.

Once prisoners were tortured enough and coerced into signed false confessions, they were loaded into the back of a truck and driven just outside the city to be executed in one of the many infamous killing fields. Since bullets were too valuable to be used on prisoners, executions were carried out with machetes or various farming tools. Executioners would sometimes use the sharp edge of the sugar cane stalk to slit the throat of their victim. Once a blindfolded prisoner had been either clubbed or slashed they were shoved into the mass grave before them.
Cambodia 2013
Killing fields have been found all over Cambodia, but the most symbolic one has been turned into a large memorial. Individual audio tours are available, which have stories told by the few people to survive imprisonment. The grave sites are now little more than indentations in the earth, but bone fragments continue to resurface during the rainy season. The central memorial houses the skulls of more than 5,000 victims.

Cambodia 2013

Phew. After some heavy-duty history lessons, we tried to just enjoy the city. The riverfront area is a place for eating, drinking, doing some outdoor aerobics or reading a book on the lawn outside the royal palace. We had some time to kill as we waited for our Myanmar visas to get sorted and so we stocked up on afternoon coffees, French pastries and a few late-night clubs. Of course while we were sipping coffee, large demonstrations were happening just outside the city. Garment workers were demanding better pay and working conditions. Between collapsing factories and low wages ($80/month), it's easy to see why there is such discontent. Several protesters were killed by the police and many more were injured. It will be interesting to see what tomorrow holds for Cambodia. Just down the street from our hotel was a German style beer garden, sporting a small microbrewery and serving Chinese style hot pot. I think this is a good sign of a reinvention happening, hopefully bringing a brighter future. 

Cambodia 2013

Cambodia 2013

Cambodia 2013