Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Soundtrack for a White Moon

An old saying tells us that music soothes the savage beast.  It has a nicer ring to it than "music soothes the slightly off-balance ginger," but that happens to be true, too.  This is a story about a night Engrish, Time Lady, and I spent in Hell.  Not, sadly, the warm-fuzzy kind of Hell I lived in for three years under the devil of an ahjusshi whom I honestly found kind of sexy (and to whom you and I both know I'd probably sign my soul away again if I was given the chance).  No, this is a Hell we unknowingly walked ourselves into.

A week and a half ago the office Go-To Girl (who is amazing and without whom my Big, Fat, Mongolian Student Art Show probably wouldn't have happened) sent around an ad for a special Tsagaan Sar event organized by the Ambassador's Club at the Square Pub.  The Square Pub - in case I haven't told you - is one of those places where you pay for the view.  The food and drinks are alright, but overpriced.  However, every time we go there for live music, it knocks us out.  We saw Arga Bileg play there last Tsagaan Sar and fell in love.  So the fact that folk band Domog was playing hooked us.  I knew we'd seen them before - we went to a big Mongolian concert last spring, and they were among the many bands that played - but I couldn't remember them specifically, and both Engrish and I were eager to hear them again.  Time Lady wasn't so sure, but I talked her into giving it a chance, and by the end of the first set we were all in love (they throat sang "Time to Say Goodbye" later - I mean, c'mon, what's not to love???)

Which is a good thing, because the night seemed doomed to end badly (as in, me with blood on my hands) before it even got started.  I don't know if you've picked up on this from my assorted ramblings to date, but I'm not exactly the easiest person to get along with.  If you're not a total dumbass, or a megalomaniac, or completely incompetent, I can probably sit at a table with you for a couple of hours and get along.  And even if you are, if you have something else to offer, I might be able to manage.  Unfortunately, there are a lot of people in this world that I just can't stand, and quite a few of them work at my school.  I don't have the patience to put up with their bullshit, especially after the kind of action-packed six weeks we've just finished.  So when Time Lady said her friends - with whom I can deal on a good day - wanted to sit with us, I was just like, "Eah," and left school with Engrish.  We got to the pub around 6:30, and were seated at the best table in the house.  Which with 8 chairs was one of the small tables set up for the night.  So I texted Time Lady and said, "On second thought, you three go ahead and sit with us."

Seven o'clock came and went with us being the only ones there, and just before Time Lady's entourage got there, two of my favorite - that word should just absolutely drip with sarcasm - people walked in.  I didn't look at them, because I was hoping that the staff at Square Pub would take them somewhere else.  Wild Ass said it best when she told us she'd rather shoot herself than spend an evening with these guys, and here they were, being brought to sit right next to me.  The gag reflex I'd been trying to master since cleaning up vomit earlier in the day threatened to win out.  See, it's bad to be incompetent and megalomaniacal.  It's even worse to be butt ugly (maybe I'm being shallow, but a pretty face will cover a whole host of sins).  There is a small chance that I can forgive a person for being boring, ugly, and stupid, but don't you dare fuck with my favorite students.  So I spent the evening sending Engrish snide texts, not making eye contact, and speaking only when directly addressed.

Luckily Time Lady and company got there before it could get any worse.  When a third group of coworkers entered the pub, there was only one seat left at our table, so we were spared the addition of hokey jokes to the awkward conversations in between unbelievable sets of music.  Which is good, because Engrish might not have forgiven me for abandoning ship.  As it was I was out of my seat saying, "AW HELLS NO," before I could figure out that we only had one seat, and they were three people.

And this is good, because abandoning Engrish would have made me a terrible person.  I'm on shaky enough ground as it is.  One of my many nicknames for Engrish is "Dalai Lama," because she is a trooper - she deals extremely diplomatically with shitty situations and people (I'll let you figure out how I refer to myself, but here's a ain't Mother Teresa).  So while I was sending her snide texts and ignoring the scary eyes on my right, she was making conversation.  She's good people, and I'm sure there are people out there who say that because she puts up with me.  They're not wrong.

All that said, the music actually made everything worth it.  After two sets by Domog we were blown away by a band we'd never even heard of - Mongolia's first ukelele band, TigerFish.  They were so great that after making cinnamon swirl pancakes for my nearest and dearest I went out and bought a copy of both bands' albums, to which I am listening to it as I type this.  That last post, about where to shop for souvenirs in Mongolia?  I went to HiFi for this music.  You should too.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Mongol Gifts

Tsagaan Sar is coming soon - in fact I am counting the days.  Not because I am looking forward to eating lots and lots of buuz (steamed mutton dumplings), but because I am getting the heck out of town and visiting Bronte in Greece.  Lots of other people are looking forward to a local celebration, though.  Before you know it, every store will be flooded with displays of sweets (and I might actually be able to find my favorite Russian chocolates) and those fried bready-things that go along with the festivities.  There will be lots of gift sets, and Mongolian traditional clothes, deel, for sale, as well.  To meet this need, some marketing genius three years ago decided they should offer a national product expo, with everything at wholesale prices, and it's been happening every year ever since.

This year, Engrish, Blondie, and I decided we would go.  It's being held at the Misheel Expo these days, and Blondie wanted some new furniture, so this worked out well.  The Enkhaa Express picked us up around 2 and we headed out via the airport road.  I was stoked to check out all the Mongolian products.  Since I began planning the event that may prove once and for all that I am completely insane (henceforth to be called "Spring Break Shenanigans With Twelve Hormonal Teenagers" or SBSWTHT), I've been more than usually interested in local crafts.  This year's fundraising has not gone as smoothly as I would have liked, but if I ever try this again (ha) I want to be prepared.

But here's the thing:  pretty much everybody in UB was there.  Okay, that might be an exaggeration, but this was the first - and hopefully last - time I've felt like I was in China without leaving Mongolia.  You could not casually browse anything.  You had to mean business.  You had to be ready to stand your ground.  There was pushing. And shoving.  I had one hand on my purse at all time, because this would be prime pickpocket territory.  And disappointingly, there was nothing to really interest or inspire me.  There were a lot of gorgeous deel and boots, but a sturdy woman like me can't just walk up and buy much of any clothing in Asia, and I already had a pearl headdress.  So it did not take me very long to say, "Forget this!" and move as quickly and politely as I could to the end to wait for my two friends.

IF you are in Mongolia and you want some great souvenirs to take home, this is not the place to go.  Sorry.  You will not see Mongolia at its best (a fact I decided even before we passed a huge snarl of cars trying to get in/out as we were leaving).  You might save yourself a couple of bucks, but let's face it - if you are traveling in Mongolia, you can probably afford to spend a little more money.  Do yourself a favor and try:
1. The souvenir center on the top floor of the State Department Store:
They have everything.  I'm not exaggerating this time.  Bow and arrows, shagai (sheep anklebones used for fortune telling and games), clothing (traditional AND t-shirts), embroidery, quilts, furs, felting, shoes, paintings...  They have more than the Mongol Gifts expo and there are fewer people.  And while you're in SDS, you can stop on the second floor to check out their selection of cashmere, although I've decided it's not my favorite place for cashmere (keep reading).
"I saw the sign" - in the middle on the left side of the picture
2. Mary and Martha:
If you like your souvenirs to come with warm fuzzy feelings, this is the place to go.  Mary and Martha is a fair-trade organization, and deals directly with artisans and good organizations that do things like get women out of prostitution.  They have a LOT of Kazakh embroidery, some of it antique, my favorite felt slippers, AND they're very helpful.  It's a little hard to find them, because you'll have to turn north off Peace Ave about a block before the State Department Store, but there's a nice big sign to help you, and it's well worth leaving the beaten path.
3. Tsagaan-Alt Wool Shop:
This place has hats, scarves, slippers, toys, wall-hangings...just about everything you could want made out of wool - all very high-quality and with tons of selection.  It's less than a block down Beatles Street from the State Department Store, on the right hand side.
4. Gobi Cashmere:
Remember what I said about not being able to buy readymade clothing?  Gobi actually carries larger sizes - I bought a cashmere deel there this fall, and although I'm still trying to figure out what to wear with it, the fact that they have things I like in my actual size gets them tons of points.  Mongolian cashmere is awesome and you should definitely buy some.  Gobi has lots of locations, but there are two right in the middle of UB - one block south of the post office, and less than a block west of there on Seoul Street.

5. Hi-Fi Records:
You owe it to yourself to bring home some Mongolian music.  If you don't care much for traditional straight-up khoomi (throat singing) or morin khuur (horse-head fiddle), try some fusion.  There are a lot of great groups, but my favorites are Altan Urag's take on rock and Arga Bileg's jazz.  There is a branch of Hi-Fi in the SDS and one a little east and opposite on Peace Ave.

BTW, sorry about the long hiatus.  Two words: art show.  Maybe I'll write about it one of these days.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Temple Trip

I've been traveling long enough that I should know better.  I've lost my luggage before, but it hasn't happened in a long time, and never when time was limited, so I guess I was lulled into a false sense of security.  When I left Mandalay, I put pretty much everything into my checked suitcase and carried light in my backpack.  So, when I got to Siem Reap and my suitcase did not, it wasn't exactly the best day ever.  I had no clean clothes.  I had no toiletries.  I had no sunscreen and no hat.  Basically I was screwed, and it sucked.  It would have been okay if Bangkok Airways had brought my luggage that evening, but in actual fact it was almost 1 the next day when my luggage finally did arrive.  Live and learn, I guess, but Cambodia was a rough leg of the trip thanks to that start.
I arranged with one of the drivers from Shadow of Angkor Guesthouse to take me around to the temples.  The first morning was another early roll-out...we left at 5:30 in order to be out at Angkor Wat before sunrise.  And then we got to Angkor Wat and I saw the hordes of tourists and I developed a new philosophy on sunrises, and it goes something like this: Fuck the sunrise.  Of course it would have been ridiculous to turn around and go back, so I asked him if we could go somewhere else to see the sunrise, and he took me to Sa Srang,  It was once a royal bathing pond, and it made for a nice sunrise, since there were almost no tourists.
Another nice thing about Sa Srang is its proximity to Ta Prohm.  From what I'd read about the Angkor group, this was the temple I was most interested in seeing.  I was fascinated by the way nature had pretty much raised her middle finger here regarding what humanity built up.  You can see the devastation of time in most of the Angkor temples, but Ta Prohm has really been wrecked; trees started growing and basically just strong-armed their way through the place, roots pushing between the blocks of stone and taking it over.  Walking through its wildness in the post-dawn glow, nearly alone, I could almost imagine myself as an archaeologist-adventurer.  And although other parts of the Angkor group were nice - gorgeous, or impressive - I think Ta Prohm really was my favorite because of that untamed feeling it had.
When I was finished imagining myself as Lara Croft, we went on to Angkor Thom, which is actually the largest complex in the Angkor group, since it was not just a temple, but rather a city, where the sacred and the profane walked together.  My driver urged me to have breakfast, so I stopped for some fried rice.  I wasn't particularly hungry, since it was so hot, and didn't get my appetite back until I returned to Thailand, but the coke I drank with it did me a world of good.  Then I started exploring Angkor Thom with the Bayon, followed by Ta Phuon, and took pictures of the terraces of the elephants and the Leper King before calling it a day.  I explained that I needed to go back to the guesthouse so I didn't get sunburned, and since he had to get up even earlier than I did, I think he was glad to oblige me.  We made a plan for the next day, and I settled in to wait on my luggage.
At 7:30 the next day we headed out to see #2 on my list: Banteay Srei, which is considered the jewel of Khmer art.  It's way the hell out of the city, and I told myself that maybe it wouldn't be too crowded.  This was a lie.  As we puttered down the road we were passed by bus after bus of Chinese tourists.  I remember a time when Japanese tourists with big cameras were the traveler's bane, but those days are long gone.  I had to maneuver around groups of 20-30 people, all listening raptly to their guides and taking tons of pictures.  The carvings on this temple were totally worth it, though.  I wished we were allowed to get closer to the central buildings, though, because the carvings were really spectacular.
After a couple of other temples I finally made my way to Angkor Wat in the afternoon.  I asked my guide when it would be the least crowded, and he said that people start to thin out around 11, and that they get busier again around 3, leading up to sunset.  We got there maybe around 12:30, and it was immediately apparent to me why there are fewer people in the middle of the day: it is hot as hell.  All I'd eaten that day was a cherry coke and a banana and I still wasn't hungry, but I allowed myself to be persuaded in favor of, "Cool drinks, madam?" and sat at the "Harry Potter" stall, which should have been numbered 9 3/4, but was disappointingly #5.

When I finished my drink and the afternoon's entertainment of watching tourists beseiged by 5-year old touts, I moved on to visiting Angkor Wat in earnest.  Unlike its brother and sister temples, Angkor Wat was never abandoned, so you're seeing the temple as it has always been, minus expected wear and tear.  It's the largest religious structure in the world (by which I assume they mean the entire complex rather than just the temple proper), and it's a doozy.  The temple has three levels to it, the third of which you access by some pretty steep stairs.  As I stewed in my own juices under the roasting sun, I asked myself if I really needed to climb up there.  I'd seen lots of carvings and appreciated the architecture just fine from where I was, right?

In the end I decided I would regret it if I didn't climb up there, and I was right.  The view of the grounds was stunning.  The temple itself was stunning.  It wasn't swarmed with tourists, and the climb down wasn't bad, although I recommend doing it backwards (your feet fit better that way).  I sat up there for a while and just took it all in.

As I was gearing up for the trip, I came across some comparisons between Angkor and Bagan on WikiTravel.  They were quite poetic and also accurate, but missed out on what I thought was the real difference between the two - while both are tourist sites, the Bagan temples are used by actual spiritual seekers.  Maybe it was my imagination, or maybe my passive-aggressive loathing for Tourists, but I think there's something about taking your shoes off that makes a place special, that inclines you to feel more.  Don't get me wrong, I liked them both and wouldn't have wanted to miss either, but there was just something breathtaking about Bagan.  

Sunday, December 28, 2014

All that Glitters...

They say that all that glitters is not gold.  As an art teacher I've got enough experience with glitter (which never, ever goes away) to know the truth of this saying.  However, I also know that nothing has quite the same glow to it that gold does.  And across Mandalay and heck, let's go ahead and say it - all across Myanmar - you will see gold glittering.
Enough gold to draw the attention of a dragon (AAGH!  HOW EXCITED AM I TO SEE THE FIVE ARMIES IN THE NEXT DAY OR SO WITH DOUGIE-POO?!?)  Kristen had a philosophical disagreement with all this gold, but who am I to judge...I belong to a temple-building religion and they don't come cheap.  On my final day in Myanmar I decided I needed to visit one more of these temples, because at the Mahamuni Pagoda, they did a special ceremony every morning - the washing of the Buddha's face.
My driver from the day before told me he would pick me up at 4am to take me there.  It's funny that I keep getting up early - traveling is not exactly a relaxing time for me like it is for other people.  We got to the pagoda around 4:30, where he had me wait to be let in by the gate, where people were selling flowers and snacks to give as offerings during the ceremony.  There were plenty of mosquitoes and they all seemed to think my ankles were a great place to grab a snack.  At 5 they opened the gates and let us in.  My feet (bare for the last time!) were struggling after I spent a good long while wandering around on them the previous night, so I did not hot-tail it down the corridors where vendors would be hawking their wares in a matter of hours, but I was close enough to the front of the pack that I got to sit in the women's enclosure (behind, of course, the men's section, but since I could still see just fine we'll let it pass.

After sitting for another half hour (in which more mosquitoes dined on my sweet, sweet blood), the ceremony finally started.  The monks opened the room where the statue waited and set up a scaffold just in front of the Buddha's chest, then brought in offerings of flower arrangements, which they set up on the scaffold.  Helpers in white robes came in and mixed up the liquid that they used to wash the gold and removed the flowers so that the monk could climb up.  Three sheets of saffron silk were draped around the statue's shoulders, reminding me of a bib, especially with all the food offerings that people had bought, but I attempted to squelch this thought.  Finally, the bucket of suds was passed up and the monk began to bathe the Buddha, gently rubbing the wet sponge over his glowing visage.  The water which ran down and dripped from his chin was caught by the cloth, preserving the gold which covered his chest.  When the Buddha was clean (or as clean as you can be without scrubbing behind those big ol' ears), the monk dried and polished his face, using two or three different cloths to buff the statue until it had a countenance like lightning.

I finally got up and unfolded my legs, stepping out of the little sitting area.  I returned past the shops, some of which were beginning to open, until I made it back out to my taxi.  As we drove back through the pre-dawn streets, I couldn't help but notice who was out at this hour - monks and pilgrims - and contrasted it with the saying I tried to remember about how drunks and whores are the only ones out before dawn.  Meanwhile I was growling with hunger.  I'm so accustomed to the cold that in these suddenly hot climates I haven't had much of an appetite.  However, there's nothing like rolling out at 4 in the morning to make you remember you haven't eaten much since yesterday afternoon.

After winding down post-python the previous day, I decided to go out for a walk and find the Shan noodle shop that Kristen had taken me to the night before.  She and her friends knew the best places for food, and the Shan noodles were no exception, so I wandered over in the general direction and eventually found it for an encore (with the yogurt she introduced me to for dessert).  I decided to go ahead and see the Moustache Brothers show that night, which didn't start til 8:30, but I thought I might just wander til then.  Eventually my feet let my brain know this was an idiotic idea, so I went back to the hotel and chilled for a couple of hours before walking over.

The Moustache Brothers are fairly well-known for their political satire.  Two of the three served prison time for telling jokes in a country that didn't find them funny.  I may not be a great student of history, but I wanted to understand Myanmar better, so I chose to go to their show instead of the puppet show, which I'd been considering.  When I got to the house where they perform, I was greeted warmly by Lu Maw and his niece, Par Par Lay's daughter.  The night's show could more easily have been the Moustache Sisters, since Lu Maw was the only one of the original performers that night - the rest of the ensemble was largely his wife, his granddaughter, his sister.  Par Par Lay died in 2013, and the third brother, their cousin Lu Zaw, was absent.  After the show, I talked to some French people who were looking for a taxi at the same time as me, and they asked what I thought.  I told them I enjoyed it, and then they started talking about how hard it was to understand him and that they weren't sure if it was right for such a serious subject.  Which I guess I can understand, but the fact that he can maintain a sense of humor after all his family had been through instead of being bitter and angry is remarkable to me.  If I'd been going to see a kickass comedy routine, I probably would have been disappointed.  Lu Maw had some good jokes, but I could feel the absence of his brothers...he was one man doing the job of three.  What happened instead was that I got to feel something, a part of history, a subversive agent against corruption, a memorial to a moment in time.

I was going to share a taxi with them, but beyond the fact that they didn't get it, they just stood there waiting when no one was coming, and I'd rather at least be walking in the right direction, so that's what I did.  After about 3 blocks Par Par Lay's daughter rode up and asked if I needed a taxi - the vocation she had chosen rather than comedy.  I was thrilled to have a ride, to get back that much of the sleep I needed before the next morning's early roll out but also to contribute a little more.  Someone on TripAdvisor was disgruntled with the fact that the family sold their services after the show, as if it was a scam, but I was ecstatic.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Snakes and Bridges

Today is a difficult day.  I just realized that I've never spent Christmas alone.  I've been away from home, but I've always been with a friend - the singles from church one year, the Evil One another, and Curly Sue on the last.  It's enough that even without a rough start in Cambodia, where I'm writing this from, I'd be having a hard time.  However, I have to remember that a difficult day in which I get to see Angkor Wat is better than an easy one a lot of other places.  So there.
I've gotta take you back to Myanmar for two more posts, so don't get lost.  It was only during my third day in Mandalay that the city started to reorganize itself into something cohesive in my mind.  On one hand, it's sort of disappointing that it took so long for it to feel approachable to me, but on the other, it means that I have reasons to come back, if I run out of other places to go to.  I mean, I missed the world's largest book!  For a book lover like me, that's pretty much sacrilege!

I asked the staff at the Royal Pearl Hotel to book a driver to take me to the Snake Pagoda.  I like to check in with Atlas Obscura occasionally because they tend to have more interesting sites pegged than TripAdvisor, and this was no exception.  The world's biggest book and a teak temple can't really compare to the story of this temple outside Mandalay in a little village called Paleik.  Bonus: almost NO foreign tourists and nobody asked me to pay $10 for photo privileges (which they do at Mandalay Hill and other sites).
Here's the story:  apparently one day the snakes - Burmese Pythons, of course - just showed up.  The monks who ran the temple tried to take them back out into the wild, but they came back.  They took this as a sign of divine favor and kept them.  These aren't the original snakes - the Burmese Python lives about 30 years in the wild - but after the original snakes died (and were stuffed...they are in the pagoda and look kind of creepy...) patrons donated new snakes, and the beat goes on.
The hotel staff I talked to told me to plan on leaving around 9, so that I would be there for the snakes' "shower."  Each day the snakes are brought from the Buddha statue they normally wind themselves around to a tub, with about 6 inches of water in it, filled with flower petals.  A silver bowl with offerings in it floats on the water, although I'm not sure what that's all about...maybe the snakes bless the money that way?  Anyways.  They spend some time undulating through the water, and if they don't climb out on their own, their handler brings them out, and rinses them down before drying them off and feeding them scrambled eggs (obviously not cooked ones...raw milk and eggs).  Visitors can help by pouring the mixture down the snakes throats from a silver pitcher.  Based on how the handler had to hold their mouths open, I'm guessing they'd rather be feeding themselves, but otherwise they seem well cared for.
After hiring a driver but before actually setting out, I looked at a map and determined that I could probably combine my trip to the snake temple with a visit to U Bein Bridge.  Kristen had been trying to organize it for sunset the previous day, but it didn't happen.  I asked my driver if it would be okay, and he said he'd take me.  U Bein Bridge is the world's longest teak bridge.  It looks rickety as all get out, but seemed sturdy enough once I was walking on it.
One end of the bridge is tourist central, lots of stalls set up selling schlock to the sightseers, but the majority of traffic was locals.  The other side of the bridge lets you out by one of the universities, so I guess that could have something to do with it.  Although I'm sure the sunset is nice out there with all that water, I'm kind of glad I saw it during the daytime; fewer tourists.  Although I'm glad the tourists come here, because I got some awesome souvenirs - a teak relief carving, a painting of the bridge, and a hair pin thing made of - get this - watermelon seeds.  Along the way my driver pointed out the Moustache Brothers and I ended up with a huge question...did I go to see them, or the puppets that evening??? 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Monkey-See, Monkey-Do

My phone has been acting weirder and weirder, and the weird thing it did yesterday was not save the photos it took, the result of which is a post without pics.  Totally old school.  I'm kind of okay with this, since yesterday was the kind of day that photos can't really show you about.  UPDATE:  I figured out what happened.  My phone - which I named Kyu-Jun because it's as big a pain in the ass as the other Korean I know with that name - decided that day that it was the first of January, 2000, so the photos were not where I expected them to be.  I'm adding them now, at the beginning of February.

I got into the Mandalay airport at around 9 a.m.  It struck me on my way through to Bagan as about 20 years behind the times - I got a hand-written ticket and boarding pass, for crying out loud.  Since I hadn't made prior arrangements to be picked up I marched past the touts looking for the taxi queue...only to find there was no taxi queue.  So I turned to ask the one who'd followed me how much a ride to my hotel in the city center would cost.  All the other touts descended on me to tell me how much their services cost, which basically got them yelled at for their trouble, since I couldn't hear the one I was actually asking.  It wasn't exactly a great start.

The drive into the city was nice - between fields being threshed by hand - and then we got to the city proper.  I don't know what I was expecting Mandalay to be like.  Quaint old buildings, perhaps, maybe kind of like Kathmandu?  Whatever it was, it was wrong.  Mandalay is teeming, crazy traffic, a million motorbikes, loud noise, a feeling of decay in some buildings while others are shiny and new.  Brand new streets that have been covered with sand that shop owners have to wet down each morning to keep the dust from blowing onto their wares.  It was kind of an overload.

As I mentioned a few days ago, my friend Kristen was back in Mandalay, and I called her after I got settled at the hotel.  She made arrangements with some friends to come pick me up and go on an adventure.  I'm pretty sure without her I would have had a dismal opinion of Mandalay, because I really didn't want to go back out into that.  I probably would have anyway, since the internet was so slow in the hotel (in all of Mandalay, it turns out - it takes a lot to make me think Shanghai internet is fast, but you've managed it, Mandalay!), but I wouldn't have been in the proper mental state to enjoy it.

She introduced me to Wayan, Jess, and Robin, with whom I'd be riding, and then we set off for lunch.  I was a little nervous about being a passenger on a motorbike.  I haven't done it since I was probably 8 years old, and then it was either Shaggy or my Dad driving.  I kept an eye on Kristen to see what she was doing, and as a result I neither fell off nor gave Robin the impression that he was carting around a Burmese python.  We drove a short distance and had a ton of food.  Burmese food shares a lot in common with cuisine throughout the region - spicy and saucy, but with more oil than maybe other places.  We all had a good laugh when Robin ordered us mutton, since I'd just mentioned that Mongolian food was basically mutton, mutton and noodles, or mutton in dumplings, but this mutton was tender and hardly muttony at all.

Then we rolled out of Mandalay proper for a little hike.  We drove past a lot of construction - the Chinese on the move - and through small villages.  We even got to see the parade of offerings - including young boys and girls, cleaned and dressed in new finery - going out for a donation ceremony.  Kristen later explained that families give everything to the monasteries - there is gold everywhere while the people starve - and this means that when there's no food for one of the kids, they may enter the monastery or nunnery, which will at least guarantee them two meals a day.  It's kind of strange, seeing so many monks.  I've seen them in Mongolia and other countries, of course, but never so many.  Never so many young.
Eventually we made our way past small pagodas and a series of statues of monks trailing down the mountainside to the "monkey temple."  The place was absolutely infested with monkeys.  My new buddies had told me we were going to see monkeys, and I thought, "Oh goody."  Except not really, because I'm always afraid I'll end up with one of the vermin on my head.  They're essentially small children, but with fewer manners and more fleas.  However, they are photogenic little bastards, and I took photos and even a video, which my phone ate in its sleep.  We biked up the mountain a little further before turning back to do the essential Mandalay afternoon thing - hit a tea shop.

Tea shops actually have a plethora of refreshing beverages.  Jess started talking about avocado juice long before we got there (which made me think, "Avocado juice???")  I followed Kristen in getting a strawberry juice, and the five of us sat talking across from the palace moat, sipping on some delicious drinks as the afternoon wore down.
On the way up: a spread-eagled eagle.  Kristen is the kind you can take outrageous pictures with.
Finally, seeing the sun start to change color, Kristen asked her friends to drive us to Mandalay Hill, which she had informed me we were GOING to hike to see the sunset.  She forgot to mention until we were actually taking off our shoes that we were going to be doing it barefoot.  Along the way to the top pagodas are scattered, and since you can't walk in a pagoda with shoes, you go without.  Luckily it was not a terribly strenuous hike, although I did huff and puff along the way (which is not enough to put off the locals who had been told to go there and practice their English).  You could tell when you got closer to the top, because the architecture got more opulent and the souvenir stands more frequent.  My favorite purchase was three ink paintings by a local artist, for which I paid a grand total of five dollars.  In fact, the entire Myanmar portion of my trip has been ridiculously cheap.  I spent $350 during the seven days I was there.  I'm a pretty high-roller when I'm on vacation, so that's kind of crazy.

Finally...FINALLY...we got to the top of the hill, just in time for the sun to go down and the concentration of tourists to hit its peak.  The monks and other English students that we'd managed to politely put off had found other, juicier prey - older men and women from other parts of the globe, who must have been thrilled to be chatting with a monk.  The sun was blood red and the whole city was on fire.  We could see everything, and Kristen explained parts of the city to me as we walked around the top of the hill.  Once the sun had disappeared and some of the tourists had left, we joined the throng trickling down the hill.  We made lots of stops for souvenirs, and eventually found ourselves wondering why we were the only people walking down through the dark in our dirty, bare feet.  The answer, of course, was that we were travelers, not tourists, and travelers take the long hike, while tourists drive to the top.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Barefoot in Bagan

(alternate title: I wonder when my last tetanus shot was*...)
When I announced that I was going to Myanmar during my Christmas vacation, Engrish's input was solid.  She'd been to Bagan, a city that had about a billion pagodas, and encouraged me to do the same.  My first instinct to visit Myanmar came from my feisty little friend Kristen, who had lived in Mandalay for a year and would be returning in time to see me when I got there.  She had posted photos, a long long time ago, of herself doing wacky things with pagodas in the background, and I decided this was where Engrish was talking about.
A long time ago when I went to Egypt with Belynda, we did the only logical thing to do and got up at the buttcrack of dawn to go see the sites of Luxor.  This meant that we beat the heat (yes, it is still hot in November in Egypt) and a lot of the tourists.  I used the same tack with Bagan.  The dudes at the fabulous Bagan Umbra Hotel (officially 3 star, but 5 star in my books - great service, comfy, awesome pool) told me breakfast began at 6 the next morning, which gave me plenty of time to scarf down some eggs and roll out.  I rented a bicycle for the day (the second day I rented a scooter, because while I am in shape, the shape I happen to be in is round), and only got about a couple of blocks away before I had to stop and play photographer.  Another couple of blocks and the sun started to rise, so of course I pedaled to the nearest pagoda to take some photos of everything washed with golden light.

I just happened to pick a pagoda that had access to the upper levels.  Not all of them do - many are getting close to a thousand years old, and protecting them is a priority - but I saw other tourists up there and started trying to figure out how to get up there.  It turned out you have to climb up tall, narrow stone stairs, barefoot...

...oh yes, did I mention the bare feet?  Because in whatever kind of Buddhism this is, we don't wear shoes or socks inside.  Don't get me wrong, I enjoy going sans socks and shoes, but it's not like going into Seoul's Mormon temple, back in the day where they had us take our shoes off, and we walked on plush, pristine carpet.  The pagodas are open to all elements - heaven only knows what I was stepping on at any given moment.

The bare feet were not even the scary part, though.  The scary part was coming back down.  I'm not claustrophobic or acrophobic, and those were facts that I had to keep telling myself on the way down.  "I'm not scared of heights.  I'm not scared of small spaces.  This is fine.  I'm not going to fall."

Well, I made it out, and moved on.  Some people might tell you if you've seen one pagoda, you've seen them all.  While I can agree that there is a certain similarity, especially between the smaller ones, if you are really looking (as might someone who has a camera attached to her face, for example), you'll see how individual each one is.  Some have lost most of their details, while others are stunningly well-preserved.  Some have much of their paintings intact.  Some may not be impressive by themselves, but are grouped together with many other pagodas, or their surroundings makes them stand out.  And at least one has bats...when I realized that's what that sound was, and that was the source of the various fluids on the floor, I refused to go any further.  If you're the kind of person who likes knowledge, learning about their history probably helps.  Dougie-Poo suggested this to me.  Since I like to see and feel my way around, I printed a barebones amount of information off Wikitravel, glued it into the Book, and then totally ignored most of it.  That's just how I roll.

Sadly, I didn't stay out on the bike very long.  This thing happened called "Eating lots of fruit and coconut product."  I'll tell you that coconut is a natural laxative and leave it at that.  Once I got back to the hotel, I decided I needed lunch and a nice relaxing afternoon, and didn't go out again til the evening.  I took a horse cart to the palace, where they are putting on a dramatic interpretation of Bagan's history.  Since there's not much else to see in Bagan in the evening (or, really, at all, besides pagodas) I dropped some money on a ticket, and wandered around nearby, waiting for the show to start.  The sun went down, which means a neat thing happened - I got to see the pagodas in a new light (see what I did there?)  Actually, they look pretty lit up at night, but I'm thanking my lucky stars it was just a nice, tasteful that I'm in Mandalay I've seen atrocities committed with LED lights that I can't even.  I just can't.
Finally it was time for the show to go on.  I was hoping for something fabulous.  The ads make it look just marvelous.  Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the dancing, and it was alright...but oh good grief, it was just ridiculously camp.  And the voice acting just hurt - it was so fake.  Not that you can't make that work.  As a Mormon, I know that it can - I've seen the Nauvoo pageant.  But they should've had an LDS consultant on this one.  If you're going to go cheesy, make it that good French shit.

*In 2004, unless I'm mistaken.  We had to have one for Anasazi.