Travels through Myanmar IX – The Almost Perfect Storm

…continued from: Travels through Myanmar VIII – Munchkin Banana Pirates

Irrawaddy River, Myanmar.

     Back to the river. On to the next stop, wherever that may be. A few big ships up here. Many with huge loads of timber that was recently raped from the northern forests of the country, illegal to export, illegal to buy or sell. That’s a lot of wood to be carrying for fun. About forty-five minutes later, yep, I see it. Next stop. The village of watermelons. Just across and up the river from the last village. Now this one is interesting. After being surprised by the village of bananas, all of us tourists are ready for this one. All the cameras come out, I’m crushed against the railing from all sides, cameras clickin’ away, tourists yappin’ away. Oh yeah, now this is vacation. The closest we can get is somewhere around twenty to thirty feet from shore. The gang-planks come out, the village gang-plank leader orders his troops to bring theirs out. He starts rallying, and/or just yelling at, the troops to hook em’ all up. Yelling and screaming at the top of his lungs. Arms akimbo and waving everywhere. Helping where he can, throwing wood together into a bridge alongside the boys. I can only guess he’s yelling at how he needs to get the bananas off, get the watermelons on, get this stuff done. We need potatoes from the next village. Get movin”!!!. Load the melons, Everyone charge…

     The bridge is finished, the crowds who have formed on the shore suddenly burst onto the wood, the passengers on the boat waiting to get off charge from the other end. A maelstrom of mixing fruits that would make Snapple jealous. Bananas meet watermelon. Monks meet passengers. Bicycles go around the elderly. Elderly go around the off-loading and on-loading troops. A few go into the water. The captain of the gang-planks and troops still yelling and screaming, jiggling around like Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street, sometimes on the gang-planks, other times waist or chest deep in the water. Playing the part, hamming it up for all the cameras still clicking away, throwing up pieces of watermelon (we were all on the second level), ever more animated as the time goes by. We brace for the “attack”, all eyes scanning the village for mini-munchkins, but nothing materializes. This village is different, the Spanish fort of Irrawaddy villages, all business, or mostly, not many kids. I could only guess that watermelons are just too heavy and unwieldy to be used by the children, who are all biding their time until the day they can get down to the next village. A woman slips and falls, the gang-planks becoming slippery. The troops start sanding them down, creating traction, helping the elderly navigate the slippery boards, repositioning the boards, chattering away. …I like to call that photo above “Do A Little Dance, Make A Little Love, Get Down Tonight …get down tonight” as a few of the troops were quite the characters, setting up the gang-planks, than, well, doing a little dance on them. That’s the gang-plank captain in the green shirt walking towards the water.

     The selling, trading, tasting, eating, clicking away, yapping and buying ensues. The Johnny Walker appears again, the women start touting their product. Watermelon. Whole watermelons, sliced watermelon, watermelon chunks, watermelon juice, fried, yes fried, watermelon, watermelon on sticks, watermelon in bags, watermelon salad, watermelon rind carvings, watermelon seed bracelets, watermelon seed necklaces, watermelon seed purses. Any and everything you could possibly do with a watermelon part is available. I gotta give it to them, they know watermelon, and are quite the entrepreneurs…

     About forty-five minutes later it’s just about over. The horn blows, the village kids on the boat scramble, the last of the watermelons are loaded, the village gang-plank captain is screaming from the deck below, the gang-planks are removed. A woman is seemingly launched from the side of the boat down below and into the water. Watermelons flying everywhere. She hits the water with a loud SLAP as everyone on the boat looks on in horror, one simultaneous “OOoooohhh” from the crowd. The woman surfaces, smile on her face …as her recently acquired Kyat slowly floats down the river. “Uhhhh” the crowd gasps …and points. The gang-plank captain to the rescue, jumping in behind her, gathering up the money and handing it back to her, with a lot of yelling and arm flailing of course. Seems we just found out what happens to people who are on the wrong side of the gang-plank when it’s pulled away. …that’s one question answered. Back to the river… Another stop at the village of carrots and it’s almost noon, maybe 1:00 PM. Each stop taking little more time, twenty minutes, a half hour, forty-five minutes.

     The boat looks like it’s getting a little lighter. A bit more room. Looks a little cloudy out, darker than it has been I should say, as it’s been drizzling for a while… That’s OK, we should be there in an hour. Storm clouds on the horizon. Some choppy seas, or, river. A little drizzle. A bit of light thunder. CRACK. A lightning bolt strikes the shore way too close, followed by what sounds like a thousand watermelons hitting the metal roof of the boat, as a fifty mile an hour wind gust hits us without a whisper of a warning and clap of thunder directly overhead. All at once, without warning, the rain starts moving sideways, another round of thunder and lightning, Crack! KABOOM!, the locals on the boat run for cover, we get instantly soaked, everyone tries to move to the middle of the boat, with their packs and everything else including the kitchen sink. It doesn’t matter. We’re soaked through in a second. Ahhh, monsoon season in the tropics, gotta love it. The storm only gets worse and the boat is heaving from side to side. The captain does what he has too. He turns the boat and heads to shore, and straight to shore, and doesn’t back down until he hits that shore, straight on, full force, up the bank, as far as he can go. At this point we see people on the shore just crouching down, holding each other and holding their possessions, trying to save anything and everything from blowing away with the wind, including the children. Nowhere to hide and nowhere to stay dry. Forward to an hour later, still sitting in the same spot. One of the worst storms I have ever seen, but we made it, and everyone is alive, unlike the storm in Sapa a few weeks before, and the boat is still, somewhat, floating. About 2:30 now, so we actually should be there soon, maybe, hopefully, god willing, but just happy to be alive really, so who cares, but what did happen to those people on shore? They’re gone now. Gulp.

     Shwwooo. That was close, maybe closer than we know. A few firm pushes and we are off again, albeit a bit slower, due to the still choppy and engorged river, and a bit wetter , to put it lightly. A few more stops. The village of potatoes, the village of carrots, the village of cabbage, the village of …well, there really is nothing here and not a hut or house in sight, just a bunch of people with their flip-flops off in the middle of a field on the edge of the river looking like flip-flops are the local crop… so the village of flip–flops, the village of the hut floating in the middle of the river where a lot of stuff is being unloaded and loaded, etc, etc. It just gets later and later. The seven hour, maybe eight-hour, already past the ninth hour, could be a ten-hour ferry ride goes on. We dry out by the wind, thank you Jesus. The ferry eventually trims down and everyone spreads out this time, actually having room to spread out. A cup of coffee at the “restaurant”, which is quite good, all the while sipping it thinking about that bloated rat that floated by earlier in the morning as the “restauranteur” pumps up more water from the river, as I talk to the waitress/busgirl/cashier, …as I think about all those people I know who wouldn’t touch the coffee for fear of some unknown deadly virus as they pour the anti-bacterial stuff all over them and starve to death for fear of eating local food. Well, bring it on I say. I’ve never had a problem before and a little bloated rat in my coffee ain’t gonna stop me!!! (I can feel the Karma changing already).

     We get to know the other tourists on the boat. The Chinese family. The Euro, Canadian, Australian, South African, who knows what he was guy that just talked way too much, about anything and everything, but most definitely about nothing. Ughhh. The same guy who pulled on two rolling suitcases in the morning along with a backpack on his back …and his front. Ten hours later, thinking back to that moment, now I understand. The Japanese girl, the most out of shape backpacker in the world …who actually looked like he just had a growing spurt because his clothes were way to small, short and just plain tight. Even his shoes looked like they were too small for his feet. Two Italian ladies, the Swiss couple of course, and a group of younger backpackers from Australia. A good mix. Throw in two Americans, a Thai and a Taiwanese girl, and things were quite international. The rest of the ride was smooth sailing, quite enjoyable actually, as we passed the tenth hour, eleventh, sun is going down, twelve-hour ferry ride. …note here that Bagan is only 90 miles (140 km) from Mandalay, where we started this journey …and I’m at 2500 words now, so I’ll hurry this along.It’s dark now, and we see the docks and lights. Yeeeah!!! As much as I love ferry rides in third world countries, it’s getting a bit much. At hour thirteen, 7:00 PM, we finally hit the dock. A real dock. Everyone out… WoooHooo… Wait a minute, not our stop. What??? Back to watching the dark. This is the village of most of the locals are getting off and laughing at the rest of us for still being on the boat. Damn. 8:00 PM, nothing. 9:00 PM, still going. The waitress/busgirl/cashier goes to bed for the night …ahhh come on, she was still sleeping when we got on the boat this morning. Can’t give her too much grief though, and you’ll see why in an up-coming post. 9:30 …the journey ends. All-in-all, fifteen and a half hours on the boat. …wish there was a fast tourist boat, but honestly, I’m glad there wasn’t. An experience I will remember for a lifetime, and one I wouldn’t trade for anything. I saw what the locals had to go through on a daily basis. How they travelled, traded, bought and sold. It’s Myanmar, and little variances in time have to be accounted for, no matter how big those variances are (over 100% this time). I probably learned more on this ride than a lot of people learn in years of social studies classes, plus it was a lot cheaper, and probably a lot funner also. An experience in itself, and one I would suggest to anyone. Don’t fly, that’s to easy. If the destination is all about the journey, this destination is well worth it. …even if it does take fifteen and a half hours to go ninety miles. Hey, it’s Myanmar!!!   …as I step off the docks/gang-planks/dirt bank and right into THE biggest scorpion I have ever seen in my life (the big black holy crap and I’m in flip-flops so I could possibly die if I take another step because the stinger on that thing is over an inch long type).

     About two weeks after we step off the ferry I see a news headline. “Irrawaddy ferry capsized by storm. One hundred missing. Fifty confirmed dead.” Damn. I hope the pirate queen is alright…

…to be continued.
Next Edition: Travels through Myanmar X – Ferry Ride Photos


Jambiya Sellers of Sana’a

Sana’a, Yemen.

Jambiya 3     Yes, I can proudly say I have been to, survived, and thoroughly enjoyed Yemen. What a country. So different from any other place I have been too. Exotic isn’t even the word for it. Mythical may be a better word for it. Cut off from the world, almost seemingly to be lost in time in places. Adventure, you got it. Excitement, around every corner. History, Culture, Nature …everywhere. The capital, Sana’a, one of the highest capitals in the world, founded somewhere around the 6th century BC (yes, BC), with a city center that I can only equate to looking and feeling like a life-size gingerbread house city, is simply outstanding. Walking these streets is an unexplainable feeling. Here is a place where you actually could almost be walking through time. Small alleyways in-between ancient mud brick houses which resemble ancient skyscrapers, tipped with elaborate friezes and white alabaster covered window frames framing out intricate stained glass windows. Turn a corner, a group of camels tied in the street. A man in “full garb” riding around the next, crossbow on his back, Jambiya in his belt, at full gallop, sword flailing at the camels side, face and head covered in cloth. Simply fantastic.

     Ok, this post isn’t simply about Yemen, or Sana’a. They will come over the next few weeks. This post is about the Jambiya, and the Jambiya sellers around Sana’a. Maybe getting ahead of myself already, you may be asking yourself “What the heck is a Jambiya?” A Jambiya, well, basically its a thick, around a foot long, dagger which Yemeni men carry strapped to the waist. The Jambiya positioned right in front on the belt. Pronounced JAM-bee-yah, this is often a man’s prized possession, historically passed down from father to son for generations. Historically, it was a weapon, a symbol of regional origin and social status, and an informal investment plan, since the daggers nearly always appreciate with time. Maybe the first thing you will notice strolling through any town in Yemen, and always displayed with pride. I gotta say, it is quite an intimidating and spectacular display too. …and if you haven’t noticed yet, I love this stuff. This is real manly man, no BS, I carry around a foot long razor blade sharp knife like it’s the 5th century kind of stuff… Love it. Adventure at its finest!!! Alright, back to reality. You can’t miss the Jambiya, and although quite intimidating, I found the sellers of these knives to be quite a cordial bunch. Head to Bab al’ Yemen, the Gate of Yemen, the main entrance into old Sana’a, and beyond you can find shop after shop of Jambiya sellers. PS: make sure you are still looking up as you pass through the gate. I don’t condone it, and it may not be right, but they still occasionally hang the bodies or heads of child molesters, thieves and other law breakers on the gate there. …suffice it to say, not much crime in Yemen when I was there. …and I told ya, like stepping back in time.

     OK, head past the gate, through the square, and into the markets. Past the Qat dealers, the sweets and candy shops. Intertwined throughout the market streets and alleyways. A little yell here, an Asalaam Alaikum there. Don’t worry about all the guys with AK’s over their shoulders, it’s just normal here. Three guns for every man, woman and child in the country at last count. It’s an honor thing. Everyone is nice enough, actually one of the “nicer” people I’ve met. Respond to some of those greetings, don’t worry that the man behind the counter is wearing a foot long knife, surrounded by foot long knives, as people with foot long knives try to make their way around you, as you are knocked by the butts and barrels of their Ak’s 🙂 It’s just how it is here. Did I mention I love Yemen?

     Give it your best shot. “Let me see that Jambiya”. Na, don’t like that one. “How bout that one”. Don’t be shy, don’t be intimidated. It’s just a market, just like any other market, souk, mall or shopping center in any other country. This is the true adventurers mall! Don’t like this shop, move to the next. Smile, be happy, don’t offer if you’re not happy or really don’t want. It’ the market game. They’ll try to get you to offer, but you don’t have too. There are plenty of Jambiya shops and sellers, each one just a bit nicer and accommodating than the last …I’ve seen this game before. Have fun, ask questions, laugh, joke and exaggerate. Accept and enjoy the tea offered …yes, this is the Arabian Peninsula remember. Drinking the tea doesn’t mean you have to buy. This is just Arabian Peninsula hospitality!!! Thank them for the tea. They will almost always let you walk away unscathed by words …this isn’t one of those tourist markets either. Go to the next stall. Look, smile, communicate and learn and have fun. If you want to know the history of the Jambiya, just ask. From what I saw and heard, these guys are almost always just plain happy to explain their culture and the meaning of the Jambiya to foreigners, and almost always just as interested in you as you are in their wares. “What country are you from?”. “How do you like Yemen?”. “I hope you find Yemen is a great country”. All too often I had to answer yes to that last question. A great country. A truly honorable people. A place I thought only existed in dreams. A word of advice – if you don’t want to buy, just say so up front. No harm done. You have to remember this is still an economy, and market, driven by commerce. I found that these guys were actually more willing, more than any other country I’ve been too, to just talk. They were actually just interested in talking to a western foreigner more than anything else even after you told them you didn’t want to buy. Their business based on honor, like just about everything else in the country. Would they try to sell you a Jambiya during, or after, the conversation, even after you said this? Of course. But it would come with a smile and not the kind of exchange often encountered with more travelled kind of countries? …most definitely yes. You just laugh, smile and point out that you said you didn’t want to buy, and the seller almost always just poured another cup of tea and laughed back, continuing the conversation without another word of sale forthcoming. That said …I bought that one in the middle in the picture on the right. I also bought two more. Hmmm, maybe I did get had… If so, all in fun, and souvenirs I will never, ever, ever, regret buying. These guys were great, and Yemen was just outstanding. I can only hope to go back one day, considering it the most exotic country I have ever visited. Until than, I hope these guys keep selling. The country keeps going, and the world doesn’t encroach on the culture too much, as this is a country truly lost in time. I love Yemen. I have even been made fun of for spending money on visiting Yemen, but I only have to laugh at that. If people only knew, all the while hoping that not too many people find out…

     As an afterthought – it may sound like a very dangerous country, but just like any other – use common sense. The people I met in Yemen were some of the nicest, kindest, and most accomodating people I have ever met. Yes, there are guns galore. Yes, there are automatic weapons carried around nonchalantly like you would carry around a cellphone in New York. I think you just have to realize it’s not New York. This is what travel is all about, at least to me. Something different, exotic, interesting. Just because you carry a gun, doesn’t mean you use it. I find this to be more of the thinking in Yemen than I see in the US. It’s a matter of prestige, honor and culture. People are people, no matter where. As for Yemenis, I can actually say that they try and hold themselves higher than most. It’s a great country. It’s just as dangerous as any other, if not more, but honestly, sometimes less, even when surrounded by knives and guns.

The Bucket List

     I see these things everywhere. A new fad I guess. Everyone has a “Bucket List”. Everyone wants to do this, that or the other thing. Most of the time I would say, well, stop making lists and start doing these things. A bucket list gets you no further in completing the list other than wasting some more time writing it down so other people know what you haven’t done and will probably never do. But. Yes, always a but. I figured what the heck, may as well join the crowd this one time in my life, so here is mine – and don’t get me wrong, there are some interesting ones out there and I do have to admit, I read a lot of them and many seem very well thought out. Not dissing the list, just putting my unasked for and probably unwanted thoughts out there, and joining the crowd in my own criticism. OK, here it is:

√   1) Join the crowd at least once in my life
√   2) Go to Afghanistan
√   3) See the Pyramids of Egypt
√   4) Travel from Kathmandu to Timbuktu
√   5) Taj Mahal
√   6) Angkor
√   7) Travel through Burma
     8) Buy a Chinese Junk and live on it
     9) Become a pirate (well, you know, not the Somalia type, but it
         goes along with the Chinese Junk)
     10) Free a slave …had the opportunity but missed the chance,
√   11) Petra
√   12) Pretend I’m Indiana Jones in some far off land exploring bone
           ridden caves and dodging deadly animals and the whole
           Indiana Jones thing – YES!!!. Caves, check, human bones,
           check, deadly animals
(scorpions, barking dogs, possibility of
           poisonous snakes – I’ll take it), check, little passageways

           through dangerous (possibly) villages in a foreign land,
check.   Sweet…
     13) Do the Karakoram Highway …all the way.
           …along with the NWFP.
√   14) The Himalayas
√   15) The Himalayas again
     16) Bhutan …looks awesome, gonna have to bite the bullet and
           just go.
     17) The Trans-Himalaya Trail in Nepal …the whole thing in one
           shot. None of this section crap. I see a lot of people saying it
           can’t be done and you would have to run it, blah, blah, blah.
           Thats BS. I could do it easily, just need the time and the
           proper paperwork. No doubt about it. It’ll take months, I know,
           so what.
√   18) The Nile …did it …all the way …three months. Awesome trip.
√   19) The Sahara
√   20) The Sahara again
     21) The Sahara one more time (at least)
√   22) The Niger to Timbuktu
     23) The Niger even further – from Mopti to Gao, than into Niger to
     24) Agadez, The Aïr Mountains and Woodabe
     25) The Amazon River
     26) The Congo and DRC from Kinshasa to Kinsangani …now
           there’s a trip.
     27) The Lower Omo Valley in Ethiopia
     28) Be able to walk out of my house with everything I own in my
           Kelty 2650 pack …and not look back, worry, or have to go
           back for anything else. In other word – Nomad. I gotta tell ya,
           I’m really close to this, and possibly there. I have a lot of
           books that I’d be like, damn, and a lot of pictures, sentimental
           crap and stuff like that, but I think I could almost do this. Have
           to sell the car but no big deal…
     29) The Kalahari …although no big deal if I don’t see it, but why
           not, always wanted to be able to say I was there
     30) Southern Africa ex-South Africa …this would be easy if I would
           just stop going to the Sahara
     31) Stop smoking …my God, this is actually #1 on the list and an
           ongoing process
√   32) Morocco, Yemen, Oman, UAE, Cambodia, Thailand, China,
           Japan, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Egypt,
Ethiopia, Sudan,
           Cameroon, Nigeria, Togo, Ghana, Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali,
           Senegal, India, Nepal,
Vietnam, Myanmar, Afghanistan,
           New York, Seattle, Vancouver, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Saigon,
Bangkok, Yangon, Sana’a, Casablanca, Marrakech,
           Timbuktu, Kathmandu, Delhi, Agra, Jaipur,J
aisalmer, Jodhpur,
           Udaipur, Kabul, Kuala Lumpur, London, Madrid, Venice, Cairo,
Omdurman, Addis Ababa, Lagos, Douala, Bamako,
           Dakar, Ouagadougou, Bobo-Dialasso, Lome,
           Damascus, Amman, Istanbul, Muscat, Abu Dhabi, Dubai 
…many having no desire to go back at all. Having survived all
           of them once is a feat in itself.
√   33) Try to understand why the more money people have the more
           they worry and complain about money.
           …think I got this one, as much as I will ever understand, so
           I’m checkin it off.
√   34) Never make a bucket list again …I think I got this one down
     35) Be Happy

Hmmm, kind of like my list. Maybe not such a bad thing after all.

     36) Somalia
     37) Go back to Bangkok …unless I live there, this will always
           remain on my list. The greatest city in the world. I’ve been
           there 5 or 6 times and always try to make it back if I’m in the
     38) Live in a foreign, non-western, country for at least a year
     39) The South Pacific. Tahiti, Rangiroa, Bora Bora, Samoa,
           Kiribati, Fiji …too many to name.

     Another thing with the Bucket List, thinking about an older post. Sometimes you don’t know you want to see or do something …until you actually see or do it. Most of the things I’ve done or seen have been spur of the moment types. The Bucket List becomes oxy-moronic in this sense, especially in regards to travel and adventure. Travel and adventure for me is spontaneous, spur of the moment and definitely not planned. Putting together a list is planning. Blah. I would never put “Swim with Hippos” on my list, but heck, one of the most adventurous, exciting, as well as stupid things I’ve ever done. Wouldn’t take that back for anything. Watching slaves be marched in, bought and sold …Bucket List moment, absolutely not, but my God I’m glad I saw that and am aware of it now. Staring down pirates, holding an empty AK …bucket list, no. Awesome, gotta say, yes. Child soldiers. Glad I met them and talked to them. Wish it wasn’t so, but it is. Bucket List. Heck no.

…so maybe:

√     40) Enjoy the ride and realize I can’t list what I don’t know is out
             there. …check that one.

     So, a little tougher to make than I thought, and kind of enjoyable actually. Definitely an interesting exercise in wants and goals too. … and if anyone wants to invest, these Junk Boats are expensive – send me an email. 🙂

A few last minute additions:

     41) Papua New Guinea
     42) Walk the Gobi

Travels through Myanmar VII – Mandalay

…continued from: Travels through Myanmar VI – The Seamstress

Mandalay, Hmmm, what to say about Mandalay…

     A city that many travellers dream of visiting. A name that brings up thoughts of the exotic. Palm trees swaying in the breeze, bamboo stands lining the roads, Kipling, Buddhism. Sitting on the veranda, a slight breeze whispering through the air, sipping …some kind of exotic juice or drink (my preference would be Mandalay Beer)… George Orwell, elephants wandering around the streets, red robed monks wandering through the golden spired stupas throughout the city.

     My first impression to those thoughts would be Whhhhaaatttt? Reality: Hotter than …well, it’s hot, and humid. Dust everywhere, thrown up by the chaotic traffic of old trucks, motorbikes, tuk-tuks and any other type of vehicle made before 1980. The sidewalks choked with those vehicles, used as parking. The air thick with smog and pollution. Horns blaring. Exhaust fumes being inhaled at every twist and turn. Central Mandalay …not a tree in sight. It’s all concrete and pavement. Not a very impressive first impression to say the least. The Mandalay in Vegas – don’t know where they got that idea from, but it certainly wasn’t from the real Mandalay, that’s for sure …thank god.

     From there, yes, it did get better, at least a bit. Mandalay is more of a city that needs to be delved into, absorbed and explored to really appreciate. A small corner restaurant that doesn’t look too promising turns out to be one of the best, as well as cheapest meals of the trip. The morning markets, lively and fun, with tanaka covered faces smiling at you from every angle. A pagoda here, a pagoda there. As you wander the city, you start to notice the smaller things, the underlying thought that this is the “most exotic” city in the world. It’s not the city itself, it’s the people, the location, the mentality and history. Sitting on the Irrawaddy River, overlooked by stupa covered hills, parts of the city seemingly overrun by red robed monks, ancient teak monasteries filled with even older relics and furniture. A smile here, a smile there. An ice-cold soda, or beer, served by a ten-year old smiling waiter. A dinner prepared, cooked and served by a ninety year old woman, always smiling.

     Yes, it did get better. Maybe not the exotic city of legends, but an exotic and interesting city none the less. Get out of the “city center”, and the roads turn to dirt, the kitchens are all relocated outside, the rush hour traffic turns from diesel fumes and noise to bicycles and sandals, and things only get better.

     As for sights to see, Mandalay has way too many to list here. Head up to Mandalay Hill. Take a winding stroll up the stupa and pagoda studded hill to take in the views over the city. Stroll around Mandalay Palace in the morning …six miles around (gulp) … the “tourist” entrance is the eastern entrance, trying to get into any other will only get you an appointment and conversation with one or more AK wielding guards. I actually recommend this by the way. I had some great conversations playing stupid. Nothing to stupid, but just a walk up to the group of military, asking the ubiquitous question “Go In Here?’. It always started with a grinning military man in full uniform politely saying no as he waved his AK around. A question here, a question there, and more times than not I would end up talking about where I was from, what I thought about Myanmar, drinking tea, exchanging laughs. Gotta go …another mile and a half to the next entrance.

     Break…the REAL crab cake up above there. Head to Amarapura and U Bein Bridge for those…Back to Mandalay Palace…If you do go into Mandalay Palace, realize a few things. The palace grounds encompass a huge area but your only allowed on the road into the very center where the actual palace is located. Guards line the road from the entrance to the palace. You would think they are testing nuclear weapons in there. The palace itself, it’s a rebuilt shell of its original self. A shame really. It gets worst. The palace was rebuilt by forced labor in the late nineties… I know, you’re in Mandalay. A once in a lifetime opportunity here. That is one reason I don’t say “don’t do it”. If you go in, just be aware, and don’t have too high expectations. It’s rebuilt, yes, it may not be right, I know, but hey, the original palace ruled this area of the world for hundreds of years and was the center of Indochina for a period, so your walking through history and the center of an empire, no matter what the present government has mutated it into. If you do go in, don’t miss climbing the “Tower” at the southern end of the compound, where you can look over Mandalay to the mountains beyond and enjoy the cool breeze up above it all.

     Done with the Palace and hills. Looking for a little comedy – The Moustache Brothers are world-renowned. Dinner on the sidewalk for people watching – the Chapati Stand on 82nd and 27th street …maybe people watching at its finest, and cheap too! A large and clean pool in a quiet lush garden setting in the city centre, the Mandalay City Hotel. Don’t miss the Jade Market. I am serious about this one. Situated in the south-western section of the city, right next to the Monk District, this market is crazy. Every and any form of jade can be seen or bought here. From raw rock jade to intricately carved masterpieces, I have never, ever seen anything like this market. This is almost its own city inside the city. Not because of its size, but just how it is. Intertwined with pool “halls”, bars, restaurants and everything else, jade dealers can actually spend a lifetime here living, trading and hawking. Some shady characters here. It can be intimidating. Child labor running rampant. You wanna check your ego and attitude at the “door” (chain link fence is more like it). This place is serious, with serious dealers dealing with serious money sporting serious protection and serious firepower. Some shady, heck, all out rough-looking characters can be found in the middle of the market here. Again though, hey, everyone is nice enough. Smiling and accommodating. The outskirts of the market mainly family type businesses, with children running around and a great market atmosphere. Just like any other travel destination, know where you are. No BS here. Right around the corner …streets full of monks. Thousands. Red robes everywhere. Monasteries. Ancient teak buildings. Houses of wicker. Teak bridges crossing meandering streams. An all around great and interesting part of Mandalay. This is where things can get “caught in time”. Walk into an 800 year old monastery and right into an open air type room filled with 1000 year old relics. Nothing behind glass or anything like that. Open to the elements. Still in use …built to last. Gotta love it.

     Tired of Mandalay. Head out. Inwa, Sagaing, Amarapura, Mingun. All capitals of centuries past within a few kilometers of Mandalay. The longest Teak bridge in the world, U-Bein Bridge, Amapurma. 500 temples overlooking the Irrawaddy, Sagaing. An earthquake cracked, photogenically endowed, Paya, Mingon. An ancient city that ruled the Burmese Kingdom for four hundred years, accessible by horse cart …Inwa. It seems there is no end to the history, as well as fascinating sites around Mandalay. It’s an area that needs to be explored, still. Thats it. At first sight, a dust bowl of crap. Delve a bit deeper, and it’s a city of legends, imagination and fascination. But you have to leave sometime, and all too often, as was my case, too soon…

…to be continued.
Next Edition: Travels through Myanmar VIII – Munchkin Banana Pirates

Halong Bay

Halong Bay, Vietnam.

     Think …old Chinese junks, floating through a maze of over 3000 limestone islets set in turquoise blue waters, tropical birds flying all around, villages floating on the waters here and there. Cave systems to spark the interest of the land lubbers. Tales of dragons spitting jade and jewels, protectors against the northern invaders, to spark the imagination. Halong Bay, I never knew it even existed until I actually saw it. Impressive. If you’re in Vietnam, don’t miss the chance to see it. Even bad pictures bring back good memories from here.

September 18, 2010

Welcome to Mali!!!

Niger River, somewhere in between Mopti and Timbuktu.

     One of my favorite shots from Mali, if not one of my more “technically” good photos. This one shot pretty much sums up much of Mali, as much as one shot could ever do that is. Nothing but desert as far as the eye can see, yet there in the middle of it all a river. On that river a small girl in the middle of nowhere, seemingly there to just welcome any travellers passing through. A country that is just amazing, with a people to match. If your looking for a truly worth while, adventurous and off the beaten track type of destination, I would highly recommend Mali.
                 March 4, 2008