Burma – November 29

Tomorrow we leave Bagan, and it has been an amazing experience. There has been a huge jump in tourism since Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest last year. Everyone is guardedly excited about the upcoming election in 2015, hoping that it will happen and that it will be a fair and honest one.

My friends and fellow adventurers, Boby and Gage, stayed in Old Bagan, about a 20 minute taxi ride from my hotel, Thante Nyaung U in Nyaung U Township. Their hotel, Hotel at Tharabar Gate, was our place of refuge. Old Bagan was the ancient capital of the Burmese Empire. The hotel is surrounded by more than 3000 ancient temples and stupas. It was beautiful, relaxing and the food was wonderful. Gage and I discovered penny wort salad. I have yet to find penny wort in Los Angeles.

We spent our few days here climbing around the 3000 temples and taking pictures. I swear we climbed all 3000… The temple ruins are almost all Buddhist so you take off your shoes at the entrance to the site. It means climbing and walking around barefoot. lots of dust, but fun and very tactile! The trick is to wear sandals you can quickly slip on and off. No one ever takes anyone’s shoes. The first day we visited the temples within walking distance. Second day, we rented bicycles and rode around on dirt/sand roads. Nothing like trying to ride through sand on a bike, occasionally through herds of cows and goats. The goats move, sometimes the cows just stand there. At dusk we climbed a temple facing the Irrawaddy River, and with hundreds of locals and tourists, watched the sunset and that infamous mist over the rice fields. I was thrilled just to see the river. And yes, here is Kipling’s poem:

Mandalay
by Rudyard Kipling

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ eastward to the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!”
Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay:
Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!

‘Er petticoat was yaller an’ ‘er little cap was green,
An’ ‘er name was Supi-yaw-lat — jes’ the same as Theebaw’s Queen,
An’ I seed her first a-smokin’ of a whackin’ white cheroot,
An’ a-wastin’ Christian kisses on an ‘eathen idol’s foot:
Bloomin’ idol made o’mud —
Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd —
Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed ‘er where she stud!
On the road to Mandalay . . .

When the mist was on the rice-fields an’ the sun was droppin’ slow,
She’d git ‘er little banjo an’ she’d sing “Kulla-lo-lo!”
With ‘er arm upon my shoulder an’ ‘er cheek agin’ my cheek
We useter watch the steamers an’ the hathis pilin’ teak.
Elephints a-pilin’ teak
In the sludgy, squdgy creek,
Where the silence ‘ung that ‘eavy you was ‘arf afraid to speak!
On the road to Mandalay . . .

But that’s all shove be’ind me — long ago an’ fur away,
An’ there ain’t no ‘busses runnin’ from the Bank to Mandalay;
An’ I’m learnin’ ‘ere in London what the ten-year soldier tells:
“If you’ve ‘eard the East a-callin’, you won’t never ‘eed naught else.”
No! you won’t ‘eed nothin’ else
But them spicy garlic smells,
An’ the sunshine an’ the palm-trees an’ the tinkly temple-bells;
On the road to Mandalay . . .

I am sick o’ wastin’ leather on these gritty pavin’-stones,
An’ the blasted Henglish drizzle wakes the fever in my bones;
Tho’ I walks with fifty ‘ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand,
An’ they talks a lot o’ lovin’, but wot do they understand?
Beefy face an’ grubby ‘and —
Law! wot do they understand?
I’ve a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!
On the road to Mandalay . . .

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple-bells are callin’, an’ it’s there that I would be —
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea;
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay,
With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay!
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!

The third day we broke down and hired a car and driver. We tried to tough it out, but we were tired, hot and unable to make any decisions for ourselves – smartest move we ever made. Our driver took us to temples we had missed, to a delicious traditional restaurant in New Bagan for lunch, overlooking the river (sort of) and got us back to our respective hotels knowing we had experienced as much as we were capable of that day.

Cambodia Trip – November 26

Last day in Cambodia, Boby and Gage had an midday flight to Rangoon. I stayed on for a cooking class at the Sojourn Boutique Villas, near Siem Reap in Treak Village. Left from my hotel in a Tuk Tuk. Substitute the image of a guy pulling a 2 wheeled cart with a motorbike pulling the cart and you get the idea. One minute on a dirt road and my suitcase almost became part of the scenery. We pulled up to one of the most stunningly serene resorts I’ve ever seen. Situated in the middle of a village and rice paddies, they have a deep commitment to responsible tourism. Our teacher was a lovely local woman and excellent teacher. She took the three of us (me, a young British law student, and an American Adventuress) to the home of a local family to see their garden, water well, and kitchen. Every plant was edible, a good thing as the six year old daughter insisted I taste every growing leaf and fruit. The house and kitchen were both raised wooden structures. We left the family a kilo of rice in gratitude for sharing their space with us.

Back in the outdoor kitchen, we made Khmer Mango Salad, Fish Amok (the Khmer national dish), and Sticky Rice Flour Balls with Palm Sugar and fresh Coconut. We ate on a deck overlooking a koi pond – Great food, great company, delightful morning. By mid-afternoon, I was back at the airport on my way to Yangon, Myanmar via Bankok. I had an unexpectedly long layover so sat many hours in the Bankok airport. Felt like the crossroads of the world. Felt like I was truly in someone else’s backyard.  I arrived late in Rangoon and got a taxi. The road was empty and the driver must have been going 90 mph. It was a relief to get to Trader’s Hotel, where Boby and Gage were expecting me and I was very happy to see them. I got to take the long hot bath I’d been dreaming of. Early next morning, we flew to Bagan.

Although I did not stay at the Sojourn Boutique Villas where the cooking class was held, I was so impressed I want to share the intention of the owners.  Would love to do a yoga retreat there…

Below is a segment of their statement:

We aim to operate all facets of our business in a responsible and ethical manner. Below are some of our ongoing initiatives to meet our commitment.We are pleased to advise our guests that all rice used at Sojourn both for Restaurant Sojourn and for staff meals is purchased from Ibis Rice.Ibis Rice™ comes from communities that protect and monitor the Giant Ibis and other species. Through improved farming practices and access to higher value markets, Ibis Rice farmers are able to conserve natural habitats and earn a better living. 

  • We pride ourselves on being a fair pay equal opportunity employer
  • We activley recruit staff from our surrounding village
  • We provide free English lessons to staff to help their personal development
  • We are committed to staff development & develop & recruit from within
  • We encourage all staff to continue their schooling and education. We do everything we can to ensure staff attend school, have study time if required for exams and seek ongoing educational opportunities.
  • We provide paid maternity leave and have a successful back to work program for our staff who are new mothers
  • We reward staff loyalty with a yearly bonus program
  • We have developed the Treak Village Enrichment Program in conjuction with the Treak Village Chief.  This program specifically helps to improve the lives of the people living around Sojourn.  This program will work on four key areas:
    • Provision of water filters
    • Provision of repair of water wells
    • Rubbish collection
    • Tree Grants
  • 7% of Sojourns annual profits will be donated to our Enrichment Program
  • Our Treak Village walk and talk tour aims to directly help the village and 50% of the tour fee is donated to the Enrichment Program.

Cambodia Trip – November 25

We met our driver who took us to Banteay Srei (citadel of the women), a temple dedicated to the Hindu god, Shiva.  It’s considered a small gem of Khmer art, and is truly beautiful. From there to Kral Spean, river of 1000 lingas. About 1 1/2 roundtrip hike to see Hindu carvings in riverbed honoring Shiva.  Cooled off in waterfall before hiking down. Our driver took us to Beng Mealea via back roads. Gave us a chance to see village life, the good and not so good.  Memorable drive, dodging cows, chickens, dogs, bikes, tractors, mopeds… Beng Mealea might be my favorite place so far. It has not been restored, rather “devoured” by the jungle.  Getting through there is about climbing over and around the tumbled massive stones. Also a Shiva temple. Like Parts of Angkor Thom, much of the appeal is the about the trees, sometimes holding up the structures, sometimes destroying them.  There was a wedding party on the grounds and the guests were quite moved that Westerners trekked out to see the ruins. A few of the women took my hand to express their gratitude. Very sweet, very moving. Returned to town for one last massage here, this time a traditional Khmer.

Staying at the Golden Banana Hotel and Resort. Boby and Gage at the resort, while I’m in the hotel section.  Gay establishment, big rooms, good food, very accommodating. Recommend it highly.

Cambodia Trip – November 24

Thanks for the birthday wishes. I celebrated by going to 4 ancient temples in Angkor Wat. Warning: I’m going to use this as a record of my trip, so feel free to skip stuff… I’m traveling with two dear friends, Boby and Gage. They are determined to visit every possible temple site… I’m determined to keep up with them!

Got to Siem Riep Thursday evening after 2 endless flights. Korean Air was great. Back in Dynamic Travel days, flying Korean Air was a punishment, with the worst safety record – kept crashing. Major turnaround, no crashes, service in coach included big blankets, slippers and toothbrush! I asked for the Korean dinner and it came with an instruction card.

Anyway, first day in Siem Reap (translated: Siam defeated, referring to the bitter rivalry between the Khmers and the Siamese) we walked the city, spent a few hours in the covered market, bargaining and snacking. Skipped dinner and turned in early. Took a tuk tuk before dawn to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat across the moat from the main temple. Thousands of people and their cameras recorded the dawn, including me. Our guide for the day was orphaned at 8 months during the Pol Pot Killing Fields genocide. He was taken to one of the 2 monasteries on the grounds of the ancient ruins and raised there. After the sunrise he gave a history lesson, then took us to the monastery. We entered a spacious, but dark one room hut on stilts where we met the woman who raised him, and the master Monk. Our guide’s story quickly reminded us that recent Cambodian history is as violent and votatile as the ancient history.

According to the Documentation Center of Cambodia, at least 1.7 million people — nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population — died under the 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge from execution, disease, starvation and overwork. The Khmer Rouge reign ended in 1999, a year after Pol Pot’s death.

Angkor Wat was built in the first half of the 12th century (113-5BC), took about 30 years to build, and was dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu. It is beautiful and romantic, overwhelmingly impressive and stately. Later, it became a Theravada Buddhist monument, most likely in the sixteenth century. That transition was not a peaceful one…

From Tourism Cambodia:

“Angkor Wat is a miniature replica of the universe in stone and represents an earthly model of the cosmic world. The central tower rises from the center of the monument symbolizing the mythical mountain, Meru, situated at the center of the universe. Its five towers correspond to the peaks of Meru. The outer wall corresponds to the mountains at the edge of the world, and the surrounding moat the oceans beyond.”

Here is the description of the most famous relief:

East Gallery – Churning of the Ocean of Milk

This is the most famous panel of bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat and is from the Indian epic Bagavata-Pourana. The Ocean of Milk is churned by gods and demons to generate Amrta, the elixir of life.

The scene is divided into three tiers. The lowest with various aquatic animals, real and mythical, bordered by a serpent. The middle tier has demons and gods. They work together by holding and churning the serpent. Hanuman, the monkey god, assists. Visnu, in his reincarnation as a tortoise sits on the bottom of the ocean and offers the back of his shell as a base for the mountain Mandara, and as a pivot for the churning. A huge cord in the form of the body of the serpent acts as a stirring instrument to churn the sea.

To begin the motion the gods and demons twist the serpent’s body, pulling it rhythmically back and forth causing it to rotate and churn the water.

The gods and demons are directed by three persons on the top level. Indra is above Visnu. On the extreme right, Hanuman, ally of the gods, tickles the serpent. The churning lasted more than 1,000 years and eventually provoked the serpent to vomit mortal venom, which covers the waves. Afraid the venom may destroy the gods and demons, Brahma intervenes and requests Siva to drink the venom, which will leave an indelible trace on Siva’s throat. He complies and, as a result, the elixer pours forth. The demons rush to capture it. Visnu hurries to the rescue and assumes yet another reincarnation in the form of Maya, a bewitching beauty, and is able to restore much of the coveted liquid.

FYI – This is why Siva is often portrayed as having a blue neck.

We spent the rest of the day at the 4 most visited sites, Angkor Thom, the Banyon Temple (part of Angkor Thom and the site of Tomb Raiders) Ta Prohm Temple, and the main Angkor Wat Temple. The carving of Buddhist and Hindu mythology are amazing and more meaningful thanks to doing my homework in yoga class – hooray. Forgot to mention that the climate here is a living sauna. Rewarded ourselves at Sokkak Spa, first of two trips to this most holy site. And since it was Thanksgiving, give or take a day, we got pumpkin scrubs.