Summer 2003 Adventures in Turkey, Borneo, and Denmark Part Four: Borneo Unplanned

My continuing summer 2003 journey found me next flying from Turkey back to Southeast Asia, landing in Brunei to spend 12 days on the island of Borneo.  I honestly cannot remember at all why I opted for this particularly itinerary.  Even by my sometimes strange travel patterns, this one strikes me as odd.  I wrote that I did not know where I would be going or what I would see.  I had a few ideas in my head, but no reservations other than the flights in and out of Brunei.  But lack of plans often leads to the best of travel.  My big regret on this trip is not taking any pictures in that cat museum…

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Happy Birthday to the Bruneian Sultan

Brunei. I arrived first in Brunei, incredibly my second trip to the sultanate.  There was actually a surprising amount going on as it was the Sultan’s birthday and celebrations were in full swing.  There was traffic!  On my previous visit I felt like I could walk down the street of the main road of the capital city and not be concerned for my safety.  This time it seemed people actually live in Brunei.

I only stayed in Brunei a single day so I could visit Jerudong Playground.  The amusement park is the largest and most expensive in Southeast Asia, a gift from the Sultan to the people of Brunei on his 48th birthday.  For many years the park charged no admission fee, but now for the price of 15 Brunei dollars (about US$9) one can go on all the rides unlimited times.  Due to the heat of the day, the park is only open in the late afternoon to evening, from 4 PM to 11 PM.  And it was nearly deserted. There was myself, two other guys from the hostel, and perhaps 10 other people.  We seemed to be the only ones riding the rides.  Two Indian guys just seemed to be taking pictures of themselves in various poses. The few people with children seemed confined to the playground portion. We basically had the park to ourselves. Rather like a childhood dream come true.

Except that one always has in the back of one’s head “Be careful what you wish for.” There were no lines in this amusement park. In fact, the rides were not even running until we stepped up with our tickets and then the ride operator would start it up, and then turn it off as we went away. We went on every ride that we could, sometimes two or three times.  We did the log ride three times so we could each have a chance to sit in the front, the back, and the middle! On a mini rollercoaster, which was not so much scary as a bit rickety, we did not even stop when we came to the loading area, we just rode right through for a second time around.  I said I sincerely hoped that they would not do that on the big scary loop de loop roller coaster on the other side of the park, because I would seriously need a breather between rides there. At least that guy gave us a few minutes before firing it up again. I had to get off while the other guys went for the third time. Two times in a row was plenty fine for me. By the end we were quite bored having done everything in the park in two hours, except the children’s rides, which although we begged to ride, they would not let us.

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Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia, Borneo

The following morning, I woke up at 6:30 AM so I could be packed up and at the bus station for a 7:30 AM bus to Miri in the Malaysian state of Sarawak.  Good thing I was there early as the bus left at 7:15. And thus began the crazy bus circus to Miri and the whole day of travel to get to Kuching, because for some reason there was not enough demand for a direct flight between Brunei and Kuching, the capital of Sarawak….Someone suggested I take the bus gauntlet from Brunei to Miri and fly to Kuching. Or to take a bus to a boat to a flight to a flight. Or a flight from Brunei to Sabah to Sarawak. It all sounded incredibly complicated for a place a little over an hour flight away.

I opted for the bus trip to Miri. This bus went for two hours to the town of Seria, where I waited ten minutes before boarding another bus to Kuala Beliat.  From Kuala Beliat I waited 40 minutes before boarding a bus which took us literally five minutes away to a ferry crossing; we took the ferry and boarded another bus on the other side. That bus took us to the Malaysian/Brunei border where we all disembarked and went through immigration, then boarded yet another bus to town.

In Miri, I needed to take a bus to the airport. Some taxi drivers tried to convince me there was no bus coming for HOURS, but upon inspection of the bus schedule I found one arriving in ten minutes.  I arrived at the airport at 2 PM, just 40 minutes before the flight I wanted was to take off.  That plane was to fly from Miri to Bintulu to Sibu to Kuching (my final destination), but it was full.  I then had to take the 5:30 flight. There was very little to do in the brand spanking new Miri International Airport as the restaurant and ATM and coffee shop had yet to open…But luckily the plush chairs for the opening ceremony were still sitting out front in what would be the drop off area for taxis someday, and these chairs had no arm rests, so I could lay out and take a nap….in time to take my flight to Kuching, where I arrived at 6:30 pm. Only to find that now there were no more buses running and I had to take a taxi to town. By the time I got settled in my new hostel, it had taken more than 12 hours to get from Brunei to Kuching, what could have been just over an hour flight…

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This is one very large flower

Kuching.  The capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak means “cat” in Malay, so little wonder that one of the first things I thought to do in Kuching was to go to the Cat Museum a little way out of town.  This has got to be one of the most bizarre collections of cat paraphernalia in the world and not a place for people who do not like cats.  Besides displays of kitschy cat posters and books, displays of Garfield and Hello Kitty, and information on the wild cats of Sarawak, there were also some REALLY interesting exhibits.  Such as the display for veterinary equipment or cat food. (was it really necessary to put cat food into class cases and label it?) There was also an interesting display on “famous” movies about cats such as Disney’s 1979 movie “The Cat from Outer Space.”  What interested me more were the cat horror films such as the movie “Eye of the Cat” (year not given) which had a poster describing the movie as “if you have ailurophobia (the fear of cats) this picture could send you beyond the point of normal fear.” Then there was the 1982 classic “The Cat People.”  My favorite just might have been the 1974 “Night of a Thousand Cats” which had the fascinating plot described as “Alone only a harmless pet…one thousand strong they become a man-eating machine! When the cats are hungry…Run for your lives!”  I cannot figure out why I have not seen that amazing movie! There were displays of cats in history, such as ancient Egypt and different kinds of cat products like the Black Cat cigarette – the 1920s bestselling cigarette in the UK!  Finally, there was a display of famous people who owned and loved cats such as Abraham Lincoln, Florence Nightingale, Victor Hugo (who had a special armchair made for his cat), Henri Matisse, and Isaac Newton (supposedly the inventor of the cat door!). Ah, the Kuching Cat Museum, a real treat!

I also visited the Sarawak museum, considered one of the best museums in Southeast Asia.  Although half of it was closed, it had some good displays on indigenous tribes.  The downstairs though was full of the flora and fauna to be found in the jungles, which means lots of stuffed animals staring out at me.  It was a bit scary, even the cute animals were scary.  Since they were all stuffed at the turn of the last century (i.e. about 1900) I didn’t know if it was the wear and tear of the stuffed beasts or some kind of technique of early 20th century taxidermists to make even the tamest of jungle animals seem terrifying.  The Chinese Heritage Museum too was equally interesting.  Though neither were quite equal to the Cat Museum.

I really wanted to visit the Orangutan Rehabilitation Center as it is, as far as I know, only one of three in the world.  To get there I decided not to take a tour, but to get there on my own steam.  Good thing too because I did not see a single orangutan!  The others paid 35 Ringgit for their tour, while I paid 2 Ringgit for the bus there, 3 Ringgit back, and 3 Ringgit to get into the park.  What a bargain since I did not see what I went there to see.  Instead I was treated to some very obnoxious children with their more obnoxious parents.  They made so much noise that no orangutan in his/her right mind would appear before our mob.

The next day, though exhausted and a bit deflated from the failed orangutan outing and unsure I wanted to risk a two-hour one-way bus trip to be disappointed again, I headed to Gunung Gading National Park.  The rare Rafflesia, the largest flower in the world, was in bloom.  It has a gestation period of nine or ten months, blooms for only five days, then dies.  It smells of rotten meat to attract flies, which transport its pollen.  Sounds delightful, right? Again, I decided to go it on my own rather than take the 80 Ringgit tour.  It cost ½ Ringgit to get to the bus station and then eight Ringgit to take the bus, plus another two Ringgit to get to the park, 20 Ringgit for the guide shared with two people, and five Ringgit to get into the park.  And I saw it!  As it was the last day in bloom, it didn’t smell (probably a good thing).  It felt more like a mushroom than a flower, almost like it wasn’t real, like plastic.  It was very cool.

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Hanging with the kids at the resettlement camp school

Pontianak. From Kuching I took a ten-hour bus to Pontianak, Indonesia to visit some Internally Displaced Persons resettlement villages.  I slept almost the entire bus ride.  Arriving in Pontianak around 7 PM, I first looked for a place to stay.  My first cheapie choice was full, but I found a lovely two star across the street that was having a special promotion.  I had a whole room, tv, air-con, in-suite bath with HOT water, all for US$10!  But I made the mistake of going out.  A guy on motorbike offered to give me a ride for no charge.  Less than a minute later we were stopped by a policeman because I was sans helmet.  The police took the guy’s license.  For some reason the resolution involved us riding out to his Kampung (village) outside of Pontianak to his house (the whole 30-minute ride I had no helmet, the irony). I met his wife, his child, his neighbors.  They offered for me to stay there that evening, but I declined.  I borrowed his wife’s helmet, we rode back to the police station where I paid a fine (10,000 rupiah, a little more than US$1), then he drove me to my original destination two minutes from the police station, by then closed for the night!

I spent much of the next day in Pontianak enjoying my hotel, walking across town to the museum, and checking in at the Internet cafe.  The walk to the museum took longer than expected, especially in the heat, and I was disappointed to find it closed but swarming with junior high school children.  A guard was enticed to open the museum for me while some random guy volunteered to be my guide.  Although some exhibits had English signs, he still insisted on trying to explain them to me in broken English.  The following day I visited one of the resettlement villages outside of Pontianak.  Over the course of my graduate degree I had researched this issue several times and with a contact working with the International Organization for Migration, I was able to organize a visit.  This is a village where internally displaced people from ethnic conflicts in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) have been placed, though some of the people have been “displaced” in the village for as long as four years.

Another long bus ride back to Sarawak then a flight found me in Miri wondering about how I spent more time on different forms of transport than any particular place.  I meant to go on a longhouse tour, maybe go to Bako National Park and the Niah Caves, but I didn’t do those things.  And I didn’t see the orangutans.  But I once heard something to the effect that it is good to have in mind an end to a journey, but it is the journey itself that matters in the end.  So much journeying here in Borneo…

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Summer 2003 Adventures in Turkey, Borneo, and Denmark Part Three: The Turkish Riviera and Ruins

The third installment of my travelogue from the past. 

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In my “treehouse” room at Olympos

I had one day in Olympos.  I took a short trip to the beach.  I had also planned to see the chimera, the eternal flame of legend, but the overnight bus trip did me in.  I was too exhausted and missed the nightly tour.  The following day I departed with a group on a cruise from Olympos to Fethiye along the Turkish Riviera.

The cruise was on a boat with 19 people, 15 guests and 4 crewmembers. Maybe taking a 3 night/4 day cruise doesn’t sound that crazy, but for me, trapped on a boat with a bunch of strangers, potentially extremely annoying strangers, was enough to make me think quite hard about signing up for this adventure.  In addition to my own skittish nature about swimming in large bodies of open water.

From Olympos the tour operators picked us up and drove us some hours away to Myra where we were able to do some shopping and banking before boarding the boat at Adriake harbor.  We then sailed to Pirate Cave where there is a large grotto in the water.  We jumped off the boat and swam to the cave. This was my first real test, swimming in open water in a dark cave without my glasses.  I figured there was safety in numbers and always stayed close to someone else just in case there were a shark, maybe it would bite them first…. The cave was pretty cool and we swam there perhaps 20 minutes.

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The view from Simena Castle

Later we sailed by a sunken city.  It was certainly sunken as we could make very little of it.  And we could not swim there because it is against government rules, so we just slowed down as we passed it.  It was not nearly as impressive as I thought it would be, but I did enjoy the stop at Simena Castle, though I was the only person from the boat with the exception of the Turkish couple to go up the castle. What a shame because there was a fantastic view from the top of the castle ruins.

We sailed on to another cove where we dropped anchor for the evening.  There was expected to be a multi-boat nightclub on the water, but we were the only boat in the area.  I was grateful.  As an introvert, older than most of the other passengers, the thought of a nightclub I could not escape filled me with dread.  When we ended up having our own party on board with CDs that other travelers had brought, much more my speed.

On the second day we had some swimming in the morning at Fishing Bay and then headed to Kas where we had a few hours on land.  It was quite good to be off the boat, but I could swear the internet cafee was rocking back and forth.  Before returning to the boat I hired a guy on a motorbike take me to the Roman theatre ruins.   I bought myself a package of potato chips and a Bounty candy bar to enjoy on the boat, but came to regret that later as the next few hours reminded me of “The Perfect Storm” and I lost my chips and candy bar over the side of the boat…  I was doing real good gulping air and watching the waves till I saw another guy lose his lunch and then well, it was only a matter of seconds.

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The boat anchored at Butterfly Valley

The crew warned us there might be a similar bumpy ride the next morning, but they passed out motion sickness tablets like candy and I had mine all ready for when the engines started the next morning at 5 am.  Popped it in and slept like a baby the entire journey to Butterfly Valley.  We had a bit of a swim before some of us headed into the valley for some hiking. There were only a few butterflies but some amazing views as the narrow valley walls soared above our heads.  I enjoyed the walking, but once we reached an approximately ten-foot-high wall with some dodgy footholds, slick with trickling water, and a really shredded rope, I called it quits.  Everyone else made it up, but for some reason this wall filled me with fear.  I could only imagine being stuck half way up with all these strangers.  So, I stayed down and ate fresh sunflower seeds from a flower the Turkish couple had picked till the others came back.

Next, we arrived in Oludeniz, dropping anchor by a large rock that separates the sea from the lagoon, making quite pleasant swimming waters.  One of the crew scampered up the rock, and jumped off what seemed a really high perch.  Of course, this only spurred Mr. I-Must-Do-Everything-First-and-Best-from-New Zealand to try his luck. I bet he was sorry he did not think of the jump first.  Then the captain of our boat dove off the rock, then another passenger from the boat.  I was starting to itch to go up there too and I dove off the boat and swam over to the rock.  Making my way up the rock without glasses and without shoes (ouch) I found myself up on the rock with what seemed an incredible distance between myself and the water.  I felt really scared; however, it seemed even more difficult to turn around and climb back down.  I jumped off the 12-meter perch screaming the whole way, landing bottom first.  Ouch.  But I was redeemed for not doing the climb earlier that day.

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Gearing up for the jump

Then came the paragliding.  I had planning to do it for some time, and since I had told everyone on the boat I was going to do it, I had to follow through on it.  Oludeniz is supposed to be one of the best places in the world to do this as gliders launch from a huge mountain just by the beach; There is great wind and fantastic views of the beach, the lagoon, islands and mountains and sea beyond.  It is one of the highest jumps in the world.  The jump starts at 6,500 feet high, but after jumping one is literally lifted more, higher and higher until even the jump site seems very far below.  It was terrifying and exhilarating.  Yet, it was the drive up the mountain that was even more frightening.  All the paragliders sat in a covered flatbed truck, with benches on each side.  I sat in the very back, facing the gaping opening.  Initially as we speed up the snaky road up the mountain, it seems alright.  But then there is no tree line, no guard rail, hardly any road wider than the truck to maneuver, and it is dusty and rocky and they are still driving way too fast, and as one looks ahead to the next curve it appears that if we went straight we would just fly off the mountain. I spent the last ten minutes of the truck ride with a white-knuckle grip on the bar of the back of the truck muttering small prayers to any god that might hear me. The woman across from me refused to open her eyes.  I noticed similar praying and death grips around the vehicle. Jumping off the mountain seems like the easiest way down.

The launch pad is a rocky gravel slant ending in nothingness.  We were paired with our jump partner (this is a tandem flight), given gear to dress in, then someone barks some instructions at us:  “When I say run, you run.  Just run as fast as you can.  Do not sit or stop running until I say sit.  Then sit and stop running.  Okay ready?”  Wait, I ask, let me confirm this, I run when you say run, and sit when you say sit? Yes.  Ok.  Then my partner beckons me down the rocky slope to get hooked into the chute.  I beckon him to come further up the slope, I mean, come on, it looks dangerous going so far down the slope, I don’t want to slip down the slope and die before I get my paragliding opportunity!  He beckons to me again.   Ok, I will go down the dangerous slope to get hooked up to my gliding partner, then he yells RUN! and I run as fast as my little legs strapped to a seat and a man can and off we go lifted into the air….

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Oludeniz as viewed from my paragliding adventure

And all I could think was Wow!  Wow!  Wow!  Oh my god it is beautiful.  Oh my god, why am I up here?  Maybe I should go down.  No, it is great.  And for 45 minutes we were airborne and the scenery was amazing and I was ever so glad that I decided to do this.  Although in total, including the terrifying drive, the adventure was but 1 1/2 hours, it was so amazing.  Scary, crazy, and amazing. Then once we all touched down we were taken by boat back to our yacht to have banana and chocolate pancakes delivered by a pancake making boat.  Sweet rewards. More swimming, a nice dinner, and a quiet last evening on the boat.

The final day was uneventful.  More swimming in the morning and a trip to Tarzan Bay where we could swing on a rope to jump in the water, but I only got rope burn after one pathetic Tarzan jump. It was just fun watching Mr. I-Must-Do-Everything-First-and-Best-from-New Zealand try to come up with new Tarzan swing combinations to impress us all.  He failed miserably and it made me rather gleeful.  At 2:30 pm we arrived in Fethiye Harbor and I ran off the boat as fast as I could.  I was glad to leave my companions behind me.

I spent the afternoon and evening in Fethiye, all by myself.  The town is nice enough, though very touristy.  There seemed to be plenty of excursions from the town and it might have been nice to stay a few days, but I had an overnight bus to Selcuk departing at 11 pm.

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At Ephesus

My overnight bus deposited me at the Selcuk bus terminal at 4:45 am.   I went straight to a pension someone had recommended and fell asleep for several hours.  Later I caught a ride to the ruins at Ephesus.  The ancient Greek city is truly amazing, most especially the library and coliseum.  There were probably some other treasures to be seen there, but with the heat and the crowds, I mostly followed the herd, still spending almost two hours there.  I then walked the three kilometers back to Selcuk.

I also went to see the smaller historical sites of Priene, Miletus, and Didyma.  They were in a more ruinous state, but perhaps more romantic for that, still the temple of Apollo at Didyma is amazing. It was never finished, so in a way, one can imagine that one is still in the past, as it was, back in the Greek heyday. The columns were massive and part of the ceiling still exists, though a very small part.  But it was worth the tour, even if just to see that temple.  Kind of sad that I just wrote this brief little part about a major historical site, perhaps one of the best in the world. I have no excuse. They were incredible to see.

I returned to Istanbul for a few more days and then returned to Southeast Asia for the next incongruent part of my summer travel.

Summer 2003 Adventures in Turkey, Borneo, and Denmark Part Two: Central and Southeast Anatolia

The second installment of my travelogue from the past. 

From Istanbul I took the overnight bus to Cappadocia.  There is apparently a rule in Turkey that a man cannot sit next to a woman he does not know. Given my Istanbul tea and carpet experiences I certainly understood, but I imagine this rule often ends up creating some hilarity as it did with me.  On the bus a man sat down next to me.  When the bus captain noticed he went in search of a suitable candidate to switch with him.  I was the only foreigner on the bus. He found an old woman in the front of the bus, and convinced her, VERY reluctantly to switch with the guy.  As I watched the woman muttering her way towards me with a gait that suggested a walk to the electric chair, I was not feeling so enthusiastic either.  Especially as she reminded me of the witch from Hansel and Gretel and I expected her to want to put me in the cookie oven too, her obvious disgust at having to sit next to me plain as day on her pasty face. Then her daughter, who looked remarkably like the Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz, came back and in a grumpy sort of passion drama dragged her poor mother back to the front of the bus, leaving the seat next to me empty and much confusion as the whole bus keenly observed the unfolding events. No one wanted to sit next to me.

5278870-R1-023-10After much discussion in the front of the bus a young woman with her child came to sit with me.  When I saw them coming, I thought oh good, oh wait, no, not TWO! But yes.  It seems quite common to save money by buying one seat for mother and child, even when the child is 10 years old, as was in this case.  But they turned out to be quiet seat mates. The problem instead were the two women seated behind me, with their two children, probably 5 or 6 years old, on their laps. They complained bitterly about me putting my seat back because they had children and they would be unable to sleep.  As if it is my fault they bought two seats for four people!  So, the kids kicked my chair, I think at the instigation of the mothers, while they pretended to scold them.  But I did not relent. I was boxed in, but no way was I going to sleep at 90 degrees on an overnight bus if I could put my seat back.

My favorite part of Turkey is Cappadocia.  One may find Greek ruins in a number of places, and beautiful beaches crowded with holiday goers are even more aplenty, but Cappadocia, is really a one of a kind place. In all the countries I have been, I have not been anywhere else quite like it.  Some places of the American Midwest might come close to it, but not quite. The Midwest in my mind has hues of red, but Cappadocia is all white and cream and dusty. The bizarre rock formations created over eons by water and wind are not to be found in the American midwest. Top that off with underground Christian cities and cave dwellings and churches and you are starting to realize the wonders of Cappadocia. Smack dab in the middle of Turkey, it seems to rise, or rather fall, from the Earth suddenly from the highway.  First you are looking out a bus window at flat plains and farmland, suddenly there is a volcano in the distance, snow covered, and then the Earth seems to fall into valleys and cliffs and fairy chimneys and desert brush. Then you have reached Cappadocia.

 

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Ballooning over Goreme

Strangely this is all I wrote about Cappadocia, this favorite location.  I stayed in a cave hotel, my room built into the rock face, the floor covered in thick Turkish carpets, a low table for tea.  For the first and last time, I had a small radio with me and I can remember catching BBC World broadcasts in my cozy cave room. I took a tour around the area.  I took my first hot air balloon ride and succumbed to the charms of my hot air balloon pilot, remaining in Cappadocia several extra days with him.  I took tours of the area during the day or walked the town and shopped and hung out with the pilot when his work day finished.  But he wanted to give up traveling, my upcoming return to graduate school, and move to Turkey.  That was not to my liking. 

 

From Cappadocia I joined a three-day tour further east.   We stopped at Maras where Turkey’s famous ice cream originates; it is a sticky hard concoction of heavy goat cream with the consistency of frozen cream cheese, hard enough that it had to be cut with a fork and knife, but soft enough to melt lazily in one’s mouth. And on top was sprinkled shaved green pistachio.  It was delicious and yet there was something I did not quite like about it. I think it might have been how very heavy it was.  Like a rock it lay in my stomach, its overly cold temperature gave me those chilly ice cream headaches down my spine.

We headed to the 7,000-foot-high Mount Nemrut, where the enigmatic stone heads of King Antiochus’ ruined temple dedicated to himself stands.  We stayed in Kahta for the night, waking up at 2:30 am to leave the hotel by 3 am, to arrive at the summit for sunrise.  The sunrise was a small disappointment as it just popped up suddenly from behind the mountains where it had been hiding.  At least the sun did pierce the bitter cold of a mountain morning.  There was little temple left, but its ruinous state made those pieces still relatively intact all the more amazing.  It is indeed a beautiful location, fuzzy brown grass covered hills rolling all around and not much civilization in sight, except for all us tourists crawling all over the mountain. King Antiochus, created a cult of personality around himself, claiming that he was both a descendant of King Darius of Persia and Alexander the Great of Macedonia, thus manufacturing himself a perfect lineage of East and West.  We were also able to see a fantastic stone relief of this king’s father shaking hands with Heracles, at Antiochus’ father’s tomb, over the entrance in beautiful Greek the inscription could still read almost as clear as day. It was amazing.

 

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Sunrise on Mt. Nemrut

It was a whirlwind day with Nemrut mountain and then Ataturk Dam, then on to Sanliurfa, a biblical town, perhaps one of the oldest towns in the world. Historical/ biblical sites are all around the town with the legendary pool of sacred fish perhaps the one with the most draw.  King Nimrod attempted to cast Abraham into a fire but the fire turned to water and the wood to fish. The fish remain, hundreds of them.  They are holy fish, it is said if someone eats them they will be blinded. So, they are fat and happy fish.  Sanliurfa is a place of pilgrimage for many people, especially from Syria and Iran.

Lastly, we visited the bee hive houses of Harran, an ancient commercial center just 16 kilometers north of the Syrian border.  The architectural style of these adobe homes has remained unchanged for about 3,000 years.  The dark brown clay houses with thin chimneys, which lend them the bee hive name, are cool inside, that was especially good since it was broiling outside. There was also a ruined fortress through which some local children guided me and two Turkish sisters. We were supposed to stay for the sunset there, but for some reason the guide made the decision to head back to Urfa early. This was actually only one of many, many changes the guide kept making, and it was actually starting to wear on my nerves.

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The sacred pool of Sanliurfa

My tour guide, old enough to be my father, maybe even a grandfather, took a “special” liking to me. Probably as I was a single woman traveling on my own, but that is a poor excuse for his behavior.   On the first evening when we arrived in Kahta he tells me it would be better if we would share a room. What? I mean, why?  He tells me that the three Turkish sisters and one daughter will have a room, as will the other two Turkish sisters and the Dutch couple, that leaves me, the driver, him, and the Japanese guy. Uh, yeah. So where does this lead me to think that Mr. Guide and I should be sharing a room? I ask him why he doesn’t share with the driver. He says the driver will not be coming with us to Nemrut in the early morning and he doesn’t want to wake him, so he needs his own room.  Uh, right. So why ask me and not the Japanese guy? I tell the guide I just don’t think it is a good idea, I really should have my own room (after all I did pay for it you jerk!). I was really upset by this lack of professionalism and the fact I had two more days with this guy. And no one else on the tour seemed to have noticed these advances.

The second night he asks if I would like to walk to Abraham’s pool with him. I tell him I am tired. He tells me it will take just 10 minutes to get there, maybe 30 minutes total round trip.  I again say I am tired; he insists it is something special to see at night.  I think, “Why should I not see this lovely place at night with the pool backlit and all the families strolling alongside it because of this guy? When will I be in Urfa again?”  I agree to go for a little while.  The pool is lovely in the evening.  The lit arches of the 800-year old Halilur Rahman Mosque reflect in the waters.  But on the way back to the hotel he tries to hold my hand.  Creep! I sort of freeze up and my hand goes limp and cold. He drops my hand, and continues showing me some special things about the city on the way back, a mosque, the special way the balconies are built, but now I don’t care, I only want to get back to the hotel. We should have had a half day to explore Urfa on our own, but we didn’t, because he changed the schedule.

No incidents on the way back to Istanbul, but now I am bristling.  It is a real shame that such a lovely trip had to be ruined because this guy.  Not only the harassment, but he did not stick to the original itinerary so he could rush back and meet another tour group.  Still, I wanted to get back.  I had a 10 pm night bus to Olympos to catch.

Summer 2003 Adventures in Turkey, Borneo, and Denmark Part One: The Istanbul Tea-Tour

In the summer of 2003, after completing my MA degree in Singapore and before returning to the second year of my other Master’s program in Monterey, CA, I took off on a seven-week adventure through Turkey and Denmark, with a side excursion to Borneo, because if you are visiting places that are nowhere near each other, why not just throw in another completely random destination? I had initially planned to travel for at least a month in China, but the SARS epidemic and the Singapore government response (required deposit to pay for 10-day quarantine after return from travel to a SARS-affected country), forced me to find another country or countries to visit.  

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View from Galata Tower

Immediately after arriving in Istanbul I was in for a surprise.  A visa on arrival for Americans cost $100.  I did not have that kind of US cash on me, so I had to take out money from an ATM.  The woman at the visa counter told me the charge in Turkish Lira would be 160 million.    In my rather jet-lagged blur state I was like, uh, what?  Did you say 160 million? At the ATM I counted the zeros multiple times as I did not want to take out $1000.  All around me other nationalities are paying $20 and the like.  The upside is I am an instant millionaire.

After this initial shock I have found Istanbul to be really wonderful.  I visited Topkapi Palace, the home of the Ottoman Sultans and family.  The Harem was perhaps the most interesting.  The location is spectacular, at the edge of the Golden Horn, part of the European side of Istanbul but also on the Bosphorus.  Simply breathtaking.  I also went to see Hagia Sofia; to say it is an architectural wonder does not do it justice.  The Blue Mosque was also on my list.  It stands just across a park from Hagia Sofia, the two buildings facing off against each other, both beautiful.  The Blue Mosque is perhaps most beautiful at night.  I also went across the Golden Horn to the other part of European Istanbul and visited the newer palace of the Sultans, where Kemal Ataturk died in 1937.  Also, a visit to the Galata Tower.  On my second day I did take a one-and-a-half-hour boat trip down the Bosphorus and stayed awake for most of it.  I was having such jet lag and it hit worst at 3 in the afternoon when the trip started. Then the lovely sunshine and I was fighting to keep my eyes open.  But I saw enough to be impressed.  Maybe someday I will move to Istanbul…

5278900-R1-055-26I meant to visit the Grand Bazaar and a hamman (Turkish bath) but I never got to either because each day I had to pass the Carpet Man Gauntlet. Seriously.  I have not met any Turkish women but I have made lots of Turkish male “friends.”

As I stepped out of the Basilica cistern I was approached by a man asking me to visit his travel agency, where I was served apple tea, flattered, and cajoled into looking at tour options.  After I made it out of the travel agency with promises to be back that night to pick up a sample itinerary, I made it only a few steps before being invited into a carpet shop. My first of many. So many.  Here they served me apple tea and then Turkish tea. After more half-hearted carpet sales, flattery, and inappropriate questions I headed out to the palace  As soon as I left the palace and on my way to the Blue Mosque though I was again waylaid. Tea in another shop. An offer for dinner. I hid in a nice place for dinner, but no sooner had left when a guy walking his dog stopped me.  He told me to come with him for some tea.  I said no. He said he just needed a friend and he would be heartbroken if I left on my own. Well, I left.  A second or two later another guy stops me by telling me I dropped some money.  Just kidding he says, but where are you from?  As I hurry away he is calling out something about having tea together…But of course my single status cannot remain for long and I am stopped by Murat (who also sells carpets) and he asks me to, you guessed it, tea, but I tell him I am going to the sound and light show.  Of course, he says he will join me.  I do not argue.  It seems futile.

5278900-R1-045-21The second day was about the same.  I have drunk more tea, seen more carpet shops, and been invited more places than ever before.  At one carpet shop two guys bought me a kebab lunch and a taxi driver gave me a free ride.  He kept driving alongside me as I walked up a hill toward my destination.  I said again and again I would walk.  He asked again and again to drive me.  Eventually I relent and sure enough he drove me to my destination.  I declined to join him for tea.

I would be remiss not to tell the story that I have regaled many of my friends.  The strangest of the carpet store adventures.  Perhaps one of the strangest of my travel tales. It started out normal enough, being asked in to “just look” at some carpets and to sit and have some tea.  I made myself clear – I had no interest in buying a carpet, could not afford one and did not have a home to put one in.  I had a cup of tea and made small talk.  I was invited to the second floor of the carpet shop, where there were even more carpets laid out in piles and on the walls, but there was also a sunlit corner sitting area.  There we sat for yet more tea.  And then, and I have no recollection exactly how this bizarre event came about, I found myself sitting with the store owner massaging a lotion on my face!  It makes me laugh every time I think about it.  I think he said he had some wonderful Turkish moisturizer and would I like to try it?  It smelled like lemon pledge.  I sat for a few seconds, my eyes closed, the sun streaming in, the slow rhythmic circles on my face…when my eyes flew open and I thought, what in the world?!… I stood and hurried down the stairs and out onto the street. 

I feel a little strange writing all of this now.  Two things come to mind – one is a tweet the State Department sent out about safety overseas.  It read: “Not a 10 in the U.S? Then not a 10 overseas.” They caught a lot of flack over it and quickly deleted it.  But it really is so true and something that people traveling overseas should really think about.  When I was traveling in Turkey I was still relatively young, in shape, attractive.  Yet the attention I received was really abnormal.  I was suspicious from the first but entertained some of it because it IS flattering, and also it became very obvious that the only way to avoid a barrage of unwanted attention was to accept the company of one person for a period of time.  The lesser of two evils.  The second thing that comes to mind is while this was perhaps an odd reversal of what may happen to men when traveling and hanging out in particular venues, it was also an extension of how many men feel they are perfectly free to insert themselves into women’s space.  I could not be left alone.  And I accepted at first out of politeness – a courtesy I certainly did not need to extend to any of these strange men – and then out of sheer exhaustion.  I genuinely loved the city of Istanbul.  The history, architecture, culture.  And yet these interactions took up my time and while I took them in stride and found both the humor and the story in it, I wonder how different my trip would have been had I been able to just sightsee without these interruptions? 

Golden Triangle Travel 2002-2003 Part Seven: Final Days–A Buddha in Spectacles and a Golden Rock

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JJ and I took the bus to Pyay to break up our journey to Rangoon.   The bus was scheduled to arrive at 1 AM, but schedules in Burma mean nothing.  We arrived at 2:30 AM instead.  We were the only people to get out of the bus, i.e. the only people insane enough to arrive somewhere in Burma r at 2:30 AMWe were immediately set on like a pack of wolves by a group of late night trishaw drivers who wanted to compete for our business.

Although the trishaw drivers were plenty, the available rooms in town were not.  We were taken to guesthouse after guesthouse, but each one was full.  Though initially fun to speed around a never-before-visited Burmese town in a trishaw in the middle of the night, after an hour I began to lose some of my joie de vivre.  Two proprietresses sitting out front sadly informed us they too were full.  Then the two women talked amongst themselves and offered me a cot in in the lobby.  I took the cot and JJ headed back to the first guesthouse where there had been only one bed.  Around 7:30 AM one of the women woke me up and told me I could move to a room.  I groggily gathered my things, moved to the room, and fell back to sleep.  Unfortunately, not for long.  A local Buddhist group was doing a donation drive; their loudspeaker droned directly across the roundabout and from that time onwards I heard only the sounds of garbled pleas for money interspersed with scratchy Buddhist music.  It was awful.  I nearly lost my mind!  At 9 AM I got up with very little sleep to my credit.

At breakfast I met two other female travelers planning a share taxi tour of Pyay.  JJ arrived from his guesthouse and we all made plans to sightsee together.  We first went to see the Buddha with spectacles, reportedly the only of its kind.  At the site a guide told us this story:  Once upon a time there was a ruler of ancient Burma who had the gift of second sight.  He could tell the future and help people by doing this.  One day he lost his gift and did not know what to do.  Some monks meditated on his problem and told him the solution would be to donate a pair of spectacles to the local Buddha statue.  Thus, a huge pair of eyeglasses were fashioned for the Buddha. Once placed before the Buddha’s eyes, the king’s gift returned.  After some time, his wife had difficulty with her vision so an extra pair of spectacles were made and placed in the Buddha’s hand. Afterwards the queen’s eyesight too was restored.

We visited two more stupas, some of the oldest in Burma, but my lack of sleep adversely affected my interest.  Perhaps I was a wee bit “stupa-d” out.  There are only so many stupas one can see in a short span of time and retain one’s enthusiasm.  Afterwards, then suffering from a pounding headache, I had the taxi drop me near the hotel so I could walk back to the guesthouse while the others continued on to yet another stupaAlong the way saw numerous sidewalk plaques prescribing how people should behave in certain filial situations.  Here are two that even in my exhausted headache-y stupor I found amusing:

Duties of a Wife to Her Husband

  1. To perform her duties in perfect order
  2. To protect his possessions
  3. Not to be unfaithful
  4. To be hospitable to the people of the neighborhood
  5. To be industrious and not be lazy in discharging her duties

Duties of a Husband to His Wife

  1. By courtesy
  2. By handing over due authority to her
  3. By faithfulness
  4. By providing her with ornaments
  5. By not despising her
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Woman cigar roller in Bago

I was unable to sleep the rest of the day though as the madman and his megaphone continued.  At 10 PM I headed to the bus station.  Though JJ and I parted ways here in Pyay, our adventures in Mandalay, Bagan, and Pyay were only the beginning of a friendship.  My next destination would be Bago, but without a direct bus from Pyay I had to change buses in Rangoon.  Surprisingly, the bus not only left Pyay on time, but also arrived in Rangoon early.  Unfortunately, it was 3:30 in the morning.  The taxi drivers all tried to convince me that there were no buses to Bago I was surprised the bus left just about on time, and even more amazing is that it arrived EARLY in Yangon, at 3:30 am!  It was a challenge arriving at an unknown bus station in the middle of the night.  There were others around, but few women. The taxi drivers told me there were no buses to Bago.  I had to pee badly but the toilet was locked tight, so I had to sneak off to relieve myself in a dark alley.  And a ticket seller ripped me off for the price, pocketing the extra 200 kyat right in front of me as he and his friends laughed.  It was a long 2 ½ hours waiting for the bus.

I slept hugging my backpack, but still arrived tired in Bago.  After a nap, I hired Mani, a nice Indian trishaw driver with a cheerful disposition and good English.  He was very good because he kept me from paying the overpriced foreign tourist fee to the sights.  He took me to back entrances, told me the tricks, and I had a good time.  I visited two pagodas and a sleeping Buddha statue, and a cigar factory.  I liked the cigar factory best.  In a house along the main road is a family owned and operated cigar factory.  This was not the traditional Burmese cheroot cigar wrapped in green leaves, but an honest to goodness cigar.  The women were doing all the work.  In the front room men sat playing Playstation, talking, laughing, and smoking, while in the back room the women sat amongst the dried leaves and rolled the cigars, eight hours a day, seven days a week.  I chatted with them with Mani as my translator; they were very friendly and cheerful, despite the work.

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Mani and I

My plan had to continue on the next day but I was feeling worse.  Mani helped me get some medicine and given I had only a few weeks before recovered from the mumps, I made the decision to take a rest day.  From Bago I took the four-hour bus ride to Kyaiktiyo.  Kyaiktiyo is one of the three most holy Buddhist sites in Burma along with Shwedagon and Mahamuni in Mandalay.  The Kyaiktiyo stupa is small, only 24 feet high, but perched on top of a rock covered in gold leaf, balanced precariously on the edge of a cliff on a high hill.  It had only recently been opened to foreign tourists.

I met Chris, a Belgian-Filipino, at a restaurant in Kyaiktiyo town.  We had met two days before in Bago; he had snapped the picture of Mani and I.  We had lunch together and then made plans to head to the Golden Rock.  We waited a full 30 minutes for the truck to the stupa to fill.  The truck resembled a dump truck with benches in the back, but by the time it took off it was jammed full with some 50 people.  The drive was like a roller coaster.  The driver seemed to love fast driving.  We would fly over a small hill and then swoop down, and all of us in the back would be temporarily.  It was certainly a thrilling 30 minute ride.  By the time we reached the parking lot it was after 4 PM.  There was a 40-minute climb ahead of us.  We would have to haul ass up the hill, see the Golden Rock, snap a few pictures, then hightail it back down to meet the last truck back to town at 6 PM.

I had been feeling unwell since Bagan and the climb was steep.  My legs were okay, but I was sweating like a stuck pig, my mouth gaping open and closed like a fish out of water, and my heart was pounding.  Four palanquin carriers spotted me — I must have looked like their favorite victim.  They hurried over with their stretcher-like chair and began walking alongside me.  As I huffed and puffed my way up the road, one of them whispered to me “Ah, so hard, so very, very far.  $4” and pointed to the palanquin.  I managed to decline between gulps of air.  They walked in step with me.  After another twist in the road, they started again.  “Oh, long, long, long way.  Very hard.  You are very tired, $3.”  I was sure I was moments from collapse, but I was not going to give in.  No, I said and continued to trudge up the hill in slow motion.  After a few more turns they tried once more.  “Oh, you so tired.  So hard, so long way.  Much higher, much further, $2.”  I could not take it anymore, agreed, and threw myself on the palanquin.  As they lifted it up they proclaimed “Oh so heavy!”  I shot them a dirty look.    They carried me up a short way and complained that they needed to rest.  They stopped a few minutes later and asked me to buy them drinks.  I refused. They carried me 5-10 minutes more and told me it was the end of the line.  What?! I was just minutes from redemption, from making it on my own, and now I had to pay these clowns?  Then they tried to ask for $2 EACH.  I handed over 500 kyat (50 cents) to each carrier and walked away.

Fifteen minutes later we were at the rock and had a glorious view of green covered hills and the river beyond.  There is much more up there than just the golden rock–many smaller shrines, statues of Buddha, figures of Nats, and the like.  I wanted to touch the rock but unfortunately it turned out women are not allowed, and guards were posted at the staircase to the rock to keep women out.  This did not sit well with me.   

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As close as I could get to touching the Golden Rock

Once again transport became an issue – I find it somewhat incredible as I near the end of retelling my story from all these years ago how much the transport – the buses, boats (missed and taken), trishaws, palanquin, etcetera – are more central to this trip than the temples and historic buildings and other sites.  It really is more about the journey than the destination.  The return from the Golden Rock to Kyaiktiyo town involved trickery and a standoff.  We chanced staying at the top for sunset knowing the final truck back left at 6 PM.  In full sight of the waiting truck we grabbed a snack but it left without us and we then had to negotiate a return with whatever transport remained.  There was some hard bargaining and threats (to us, not to them) but we finally agreed on four FECs.  But it was not over as the drivers – because of course it was a group and not an individual – tried to get the money several times on the way back but we held our ground until they returned us to our guesthouses.  Exhausted I said farewell to Chris and went to sleep.  The next day a six-hour bus ride returned me to Rangoon, where I spent one more night at the Mahabadoola Guesthouse before returning to Singapore.

My seven-week journey to Northern Thailand, Laos, and Burma was at an end.  I had survived the mumps and a stomach bug, a two-day slow boat down the Mekong, and many, many long bus rides of varying quality.  Yes, it was very trying at times and difficult to be out of touch for so many weeks (at the time Burma had no Internet), but I saw some extraordinary places and met some interesting people.  All in all, it was an amazing adventure.  Looking back now, fifteen years later, I do wonder at the woman who took off on this journey.  After contracting the mumps, she did not throw in the towel but kept on traveling and she did the trip on her own.  She really had some chutzpah.

Golden Triangle Travel 2002-2003 Part Six: Bicycles in Bagan

My cheap backpacker self liked the idea of an overnight bus because I could make some distance and save on accommodation.  Unfortunately, as my sojourn in Burma continued the quality of the buses declined as did the quality of my sleep.  I arrived in Bagan, one of Southeast Asia’s great historic cities, yet my primary motivation was to take a nap.  To fight my desire for sleep I went in search of a bicycle for rent.

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Balloons over Bagan

I rode off jerkily.  Oh, it was slow going.  It had been ages since I had been on a bicycle.  Old Burmese men smoking cigarettes cycled speedily past me.  Yet after just a few minutes I began to happily enjoy the ride.  Over a small crest the first of the Bagan temples came into sight and it was breathtaking.  I went down a side road toward the temple.  The day was lovely and the sun was high, and against the blue sky the hundreds of brick temples stood out in the dry yellow grass fields.  At the first temple I bought a painting for myself.  Most of the paintings were copies of carvings in the temples or other Buddhist texts, but the one I bought was in the artist’s words “from his own mind.”  Let’s just say, I liked the way he thought.

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Bagan Temple Painting

I met one of the Korean students from the cargo bus – he and his friends are students at a Pusan language university studying Burmese.  He invited me to join them riding and sightseeing.  We rode and visited a few temples together until my lack of sleep catching up with me.  I went into a tourist office to ask for some information, though the men had no idea how to answer my question, they invited me to sit down and have tea with them.  We talked for a while and then I began to ride back Nyang Oo, where I was staying.  The cooling breeze, the mid-afternoon sun and the lovely ride invigorated me so decided to ride down to the ferry point and find out about the ferry to Pyay.  Since I had missed the opportunity to take the boat from Mandalay, I thought I could then take the boat down river to Pyay.  I learned the boat left in two days’ time but the journey would take three days, which sounded rather long.  I would need to buy food, but also a blanket.  I was starting to feel a bit under the weather, and worried about the chill sleeping on the deck. Yet it was December 30 and my intel told me there were no buses south from Bagan until January 6.  I went home to sleep on it. 

I did not sleep well–and thus the decision was made, I would leave Bagan by bus.  The night had been cold and though I had a blanket and wore a lot of clothes, it was not enough.  I had a lie in then spent half the day exploring Bagan on bicycle.  Many of the temples in Bagan cannot be climbed for preservation efforts, but I could climb the largest.  Towards the east there is a lovely view of the river, and to the west a stunning view of the plains filled with other temples, large and small.  I sat there for some time.  I ran into JJ, my friend from Mandalay.  We sat and talked for a while, then watched three hot air balloons float over the ancient city of Bagan. 

dsc_0831It was New Year’s Eve.  JJ and I had dinner and watched a Burmese traditional marionette show.  The puppets are wonderfully crafted and the puppeteer incredibly manipulates the marionettes to appear lifelike.  After dinner and the show, I returned to guesthouse and went to sleep.  I figured it was midnight somewhere in the world. 

The following day I sat out on the bench in front of the hotel waiting for JJ.  I was writing in my journal and watching life go by on the street.  There was a race with most of the runners barefoot.  Then nuns came to collect alms.  I had seen a nun here and there in Burma, but not more than one or two at a time.  There are many, many monks, but not as many nuns.  This time there were perhaps 20 walking single file.  I thought of the differences I had seen between the young monks and young nuns.  The nuns wear pink or orange robes, and shave their heads, but I am told mostly orphan girls become nuns.  Monks on the other hand are not without families.  Families receive lots of merit if their son becomes a novice monk, even if he does it for just a month or two during the school holidays.  I saw monks receiving alms on many occasions and often it was hot, cooked food.  Yet the nuns were receiving uncooked rice.

I spent a day just relaxing with medicine and a book.  Then another day JJ and I arranged a share taxi with two Japanese to visit Mount Popa, about 90 minutes from Bagan.  Mount Popa is something akin to the Mount Olympus of Burma, the supposed home of the country’s nats, the Burmese animist spirits.  Mount Popa reminded me of the monasteries perched on huge limestone rocks in northern Greece.  From afar the temple on Mount Popa seemed inaccessible; the rock stands out from the plains.  To climb one has to remove their shoes and walk up 777 steps.  Once up there I found the temple to be a bit ordinary, not what I would expect of the abode of gods, but the view was quite nice.  It was terribly windy at the top and my ears turned red and my hair blew about me like mad.  I stayed up there only about 30 minutes, though it turned out I was the last of our group to descend.

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Young nuns asking for alms

On the last half day in Bagan, JJ and I hired a horse cart to take us to some of the less accessible ruins.  Off we went to see the ruins.  In my opinion these were the most impressive in Bagan. Maybe because there were fewer tourists and they were off the beaten track, but the carvings on the outside and paintings on the inside of these stupas were more intact than in the others I had seen. They were also on a slight hill which gave a fabulous view of all the temples large and small down to the river.  There was even part of what was a city wall intact along the road, which I had not expected at all.  The last temple we visited was quite large and unlike any of the others as it had been renovated and the grounds landscaped.  It also had a large gold stupa on the top.  It afforded wonderful views of the surrounding temples as well. 

There I am in one of the most historical and cultural sites of Burma and Southeast Asia.   Yet, have only vague memories of the temples and atmosphere.  I know I loved my time in Bagan; riding a bicycle down dusty, dirt pathways, seeing stupas rising out of the plain; hot air balloons picturesquely floating across the sky.  I spent a lot of time thinking, sometimes sitting among the temples, other times in the guesthouse or in restaurants.  But my diary focused on the upcoming new year; my email stories focused on the tedious, though often hilarious (in retrospect) hiccups of traveling – such as the struggles to get a decent shower, a decent night sleep, or to change money.

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Mount Popa

Before setting off on our final Bagan adventure, JJ wanted to exchange traveler’s checks. He was down to only enough money to pay the driver of our horse cart, but without money to pay his hotel bill. There is only one bank in Bagan.  We asked the driver to stop on the way to the ruins, but the driver informed us the bank was closed because of the holiday.  Therefore, after the ruins we planned to head to the city of New Bagan, in hopes they would have an open bank.  In New Bagan we tried first with the employees at an airline office, who offered us no help.  Then to a tourist information center, who reluctantly agree, but at 20% commission.  We found another exchange shop, but they too were closed.  A man at the shop next door said his brother-in-law might exchange the check.  The first man closed up his shop and joined us in the horse cart to direct the driver to his brother-in-law’s shop.  Ten minutes later we arrive and observe a negotiation in Burmese.  The end result though is that they will exchange with only a “small commission” of 25%.  Back at JJ’s guesthouse he tells the manager he cannot pay the bill because the bank is closed.  She says, of course it is open, but only until 2 PM.  The clock reads 1:45 PM (our bus to Pyay is to pick us up at 3 PM).   The manager tells JJ her friend will drive us to the bank– we drive like maniacs through the crowded streets, horn blowing, to the bank.  But it IS closed.  The driver parks anyway and honks the horn.  Turns out the bank manager lives in the house behind the bank.  He comes out and there is much discussion, but the manager refuses the change the traveler’s checks.  JJ is still without money.  But there is still a happy ending to the story.  A friend of JJ’s guesthouse manager is a long-distance taxi driver from Rangoon.  He agrees to loan JJ 75 FECs to pay his hotel bill and other expenses until he arrives in Rangoon.  The taxi driver hangs on to the unsigned traveler checks.  JJ will meet him in Rangoon, exchange the checks, and pay the man back. Only in Burma.

 

Golden Triangle Travel 2002-2003 Part Five: Ancient Cities and Moustaches

My second day in Mandalay started off a little wobbly with an unfortunate deal with some other travelers.  Backpackers can be collegial or cutthroat and unfortunately this couple I met fell somewhat in the latter camp.  They approached me in the guesthouse lobby with an opportunity to join them for a day of sightseeing of Ancient Cities and gave me a few minutes to decide.  I made a snap decision to do so.  Despite how things turned out with them, I did end up meeting another traveler as a result, who I remain in contact with to this day.

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Monk looks across the Irrawaddy from Mingun

I agreed to accompany an Austrian couple to the four ancient cities around MandalayAt first I thought I misunderstood, four in one day, but that was their intention.   They had already hired a car and driver for the day for $10 and clearly wanted to defray the costs.  Once our car arrived at a boat landing point ten minutes away though, I saw the flaw in their plan.  To visit Mingun, the first city, one needed to take a boat and arrive at the boat landing 30 minutes before the 9 AM departure.  Thus they had hired a driver to drive them 10 minutes and then wait for them for about 5 hours. I tried to strike up a conversation with them but they only seemed interested in talking with each other.  They did not speak to me the 30-minute boat ride.   Once at Mingun they took off.   

I actually made an effort to find that Austrian couple again.  I went back early to the boat landing, lunching at a restaurant with a view of the road.  Then I stopped at a café at the boat landing, again with a view.  That is where I met JJ, we struck up a conversation.  Back to Mandalay on the boat and I waited again for the couple on the other side.  Never saw them.  I gave up.  More than half the day was over and they had planned to visit three more ancient cities; I admit I did not really want to find them.  Later that evening they actually cornered me at the guesthouse and claimed they saw me get into the “wrong” boat and demanded I pay them the extra dollar the driver charged them for me.  I handed it over and was grateful I dodged spending the day with them.

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The Moustache Brothers

That evening I went to see the Moustache brothers – Par Par Lay, Lu Maw and Lu Zaw.  They are a famous comedy troupe; two of the three brothers (one actually a cousin) were jailed due to a political joke at an Aung San Suu Kyi rally.  One received a sentence of five years, the other two years.  Because of this danger of being jailed, the comedy and dance routines are now done strictly with family members.  I arrived early and could talk with the brothers, get their autographs, and take their pictures.  Par Par Lay, the main comedian, asked an Australian couple for the correct term for being watched by security men and they told him “under surveillance.”  Throughout the whole show he kept saying “…Because the Moustache Brothers are under surveillance” in a false whisper.  Most of the routine was a one-man monologue about the problems in Burma couched in comedic terms and alternated with dance and Burmese traditional costume modeling by his wife and sister.  He noted security forces watched the house and joked his father was outside ready to make the agreed upon signal if those forces closed in.  He talked about the conditions of the roads (“See how nice the roads are after a government official comes to visit.” Or “Notice the road in front of our house is in such bad repair compared to the ones nearby”), about price changes (last year the price of a kilo of rice was 1000 kyat, now it is 3000 kyat), about the vagaries of Burmese currency (he handed out now worthless 75 kyat notes), and so on.

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Burmese calendars on Mandalay roadside

It was a good show and one of the most enlightening and memorable activities of my visit to Burma.  Naturally much of my three weeks was shaped by the tourist lens.   On only a few occasions did I have glimpses of a dark side – at least once, in the early morning hours as a bus slowed through a construction area, I saw small children carrying large rocks, what appeared to be manual child labor.   Seeing the Moustache Brothers – though also aimed at tourists as it would be too dangerous for locals – gave the trip greater context.  Linking my socio-historical background with current events.  Years later when I read of the death of Par Par Lay I was easily transported back to the one night I had an opportunity to meet him.

On the way back from the Moustache Brothers I came upon a performance of traditional Pwe theater.  It was amazing how many people sat and stood around to watch this.  I remember reading about how when the British colonized Burma, they thought the Burmese people were lazy because they spent much of their extra money on merit earning (building small shrines, donations to temples and the like) and spent time watching these Pwe performances.  I am glad the Burmese are such resilient people to have withstood years of colonial rule and the current government. 

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Nat shrine at trishaw driver’s home

I had planned to travel from Mandalay to Bagan on the Irrawaddy River boat – true Road to Mandalay (in reverse) but because of the holidays the boat was full.  Instead I would take the night bus, saving on accommodation and a day’s travel.  Thus, I had another day in Mandalay.  My trishaw driver invited me over to his house for a midday meal.  His mother and sister were very gracious, and many of the neighborhood children came over the stare and laugh with (at?) the strange foreigner.  After lunch, my trishaw driver I went in search of a bus to take me to Ava and Amarapura, two of ancient cities.  The bus turned out to be a wild goose chase, either it did not exist or I was not meant to find it.  So, I rented the taxi of a friend of the trishaw driver, and together we set off to see these towns.

I did not care so much for Ava.  The ruins were not as impressive as the ones at Inle and seeing them involved a fair amount of extra work.  I had to pay for a ferry boat to take us across the river, and then rent a horse and cart to take us around.  The cart ride was nice enough and I would have preferred to have just stayed in the cart then to get out at each stop.  The aggressive souvenir selling, with children running full speed behind the horse carts, was tiring and ultimately depressing.  But at Amarapura things were better again.  There was a monastery, but also a beautiful teak bridge – the longest and oldest such bridge in the world.  I regret I did not have more time there; the Moustache Brothers and Amarapura were the best parts about Mandalay. 

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Sunset from the Amarapura teak bridge

I returned to Mandalay to pick up my backpack and catch the 9 pm cargo bus to Bagan.  Once again, the departure time came and went, and still they were loading cargo.  The space under every seat and the entire aisle was filled with cargo.  This worked in my favor because I could place my head on the tarp covered rice bags and sleep.  A group of Korean students sitting in the back of the bus did not fare so well—next to them a broken window blew in cold air all night and the sacks loaded in the back were full of garlic. I slept fairly well though the ride was not without incident.  I woke up when our tire blew out, then again when we stopped for the bus personnel to look at the tire, and again when we stopped at an open-all-night roadside mechanic.  We were to arrive at Bagan at 5 am.  By 7:30 we were still cruising along the road without any indication of how much further we had to go.  We then began to pick up more passengers.  Anyone who flagged down the bus was welcome.  When we started in Mandalay there were about 25 passengers, lots of empty seats.  By the time we pulled into Bagan at 9, four hours late, every seat and every space available on top of the cargo-lined aisle was filled.  I was glad to arrive in Bagan and settle in to the Lucky Seven Guesthouse for a nap.