Floating in the middle of Inle Lake on a long and narrow teak wooden boat, two Burmese locals and myself wait for the sun to rise over the eastern mountains. Nearby, a fisherman creeps by as he propels his boat forward with a unique leg rowing style that is both an ancient practice as well as an efficient method for collecting his fish traps. He manages to balance on the front of his boat with one leg, row with the other as it straddles a paddle, follows his set of lines by hand and retrieves the fish traps while staying in a constant motion. What a sight to see…
Water gently slaps against the sides of our slim boat and not a word is spoken between us three. What a sound to hear…
I polish off a premade breakfast sandwich that one of the hostel workers had passed to me like a football hand off move as if I was going toward an endzone while I scurried out the front door towards the boat landing about 25 minutes ago.
I feel content, thankful and full of gratitude just as the thought of how random of an experience this is! Seriously, what are the chances of me being in the middle of a remote lake with absolute strangers in a handmade wooden boat on the other side of the globe in a completely foreign land? Was I asleep and dreaming?!
I pinch my left arm to make sure. As the sting wears off, the sun pokes out from behind the mountain peak…The beauty momentarily takes away my breathe as it begins to warm my skin. God am I lucky…
As the sun warms my surroundings and the mist evaporates, I reflect on my short visit through this country.
About 12 days ago, I had crossed the border from neighboring Thailand. There, I traveled for about 9 hours on a local bus as it passed through lands that looked like Africa and other lands of my dreams. I then spent a few days in a bustling tropical city where modernity is taking over the old ways of thinking and living. Then, I ventured through the ancient land of Pagodas and Temples along the Irrawaddy River in Bagan. Old ways of living seem to prevail amidst the new influx of tourism there. And here I was in the middle of Inle Lake, the location of the Intha ethnic group who have called this area home for thousands of years.
I experienced a few epiphanies travelling through this ancient land. I witnessed happy people, sad people, healthy people, sick people, lively people, dying people, greedy people, content people…those with more then enough, those with enough, and those with not enough…
What floods my mind this particular moment as we enjoy seeing the entire sky light up and turn blue is this concept of ‘enough.’
Days ago I had began looking inward and was really starting to ponder my mindset (previously not even realized) of consumption, gain, ambition, competition, desire for more, wanting the ‘latest and greatest’ version of any product or service, wanting the best, wanting to always win and get to the top of something that was somewhere within my future.
Personally, having that mindset takes me away from the present and often leads to some sort of pain or suffering either directly or indirectly. This mindset can help me get ahead in certain society’s. But in others, not so much.
All in all, all I really need is ‘enough.’ From my experience, it was now becoming important to me to live in the present moment. After all, that is all I have. Tomorrow is not even guaranteed. And this moment, and this day…I was going to enjoy.
My guide then cranks the engine and hits the throttle which snaps me out of my reverie. We glide over the calm waters of Inle Lake towards shore to visit a hectic morning market that surrounds a huge golden Buddhist temple.
Two people shouted at me this morning…in Chinese. I didn’t recognize the new set of words the security guard was shouting…could have been curse words for all I know. He may or may have not said something to this effect:
“Hey! Hey! What are you trying to do dummy?! Are you trying to bring the coronavirus into this apartment complex? Huh?! Whats wrong with you? Don’t you know how to properly put on a surgical mask? Think man! Put it on correctly before you kill us all!”
I had literally just completed a morning jog in a peaceful park nearby and had stopped at the front gate to regain my composure before entering.
Morning runs through Nanhu Lake Park are the best way to start my days here
I turned away from the mad security guard to get a few good breaths in. Should I put my hands on my knees while leaning over? It would be a good way to communicate (non-verbally) that I was a bit tired and needed oxygen – the reason why my surgical mask was not covering my nose and my mouth.
Nah, I thought. I’m not about to use theatrical measures to ‘explain’ my reasoning. I’ll leave that to the real actors.
“Dui bu qi” (apologizing in Chinese) I tell him as I scan the QR code (which is now mandatory) that records my entry.
At a nearby table, security guard #2 then checks my temperature with a digital thermometer pointed at my head like a pistol as security guard #1 shouts over to her…
Now she begins shouting at me about my ‘sin’. More unrecognizable words… the few people in line looking on as she made her point.
Give me a break I thought…
The truth of the matter is that these security guards are under a lot of pressure. They are literally the gate keepers of this 500+ unit apartment complex – the protectors of this community. If the coronavirus infects us, it entered via the front gates – on their watch. Even though this is an invisible enemy, they take their jobs seriously against the threat. Therefore, every measure is taken to track and record the movements of all the people who live here as well as checking body temperatures of everyone upon arrival. So, I can’t be upset at them for doing their job and enforcing the rules.
This virus has everyone on alert. Especially here on mainland of China. Wearing these surgical masks are now mandatory. If your not, you are denied entry into any building or mode of public transportation – bus, taxi, metro, train, horse carriage…nah, just kidding on that last one.
Well, now that I think about it, that may apply out in the country side or in some mountain village somewhere within the vastness of this country.
Its the new fashion
I can’t help but wonder at the effectiveness of these surgical masks being able to block a virus from entering someones body…Effective or not, it does contribute to an overall collective ease of mind for the people. -Very important
On my next arrival into the community, I’ll have my mask on properly and I’ll give the guards a gift.
This will show my apology and let them know I have changed my ways. Arriving with a bag of fruit is a courteous gesture here. Chinese gift giving culture
Especially now more then ever since vitamins strengthen the body’s immunity. If there is any person who must keep their immunity up, its the citizens who serve the public that are at the forefront. Guards, nurses, paramedics, doctors, police officers, public transportation drivers, and all other citizens who serve are all at a higher risk.
Being honest with myself, my action is part apology and part support. I could have lost my cool when they were scolding me but I didn’t (thankfully).
I learned a lesson today…while in a foreign country…once again
At the entrance of every place (apartment buildings, cafe’s, restaurants, metro stations, etc. ) there are QR codes that each person has to scan with their cell phone upon entering and leaving
It took me a solid 8-10 minutes of focus to maneuver the rented electric bike out of tan colored silt-like sand. The sand covered my shoes and ankles, making my newly purchased knock-off Nike runners completely hidden from view. This was the first time I’ve experienced a material beneath my feet that resembled quicksand!
I had chosen a random side path for a bit of an off-road adventure to get some adrenaline pumping through my veins. As a result, the bike now hesitated as I twisted the throttle and my senses were alert – perfect to take in my surroundings…
400 or so miles upcountry from Yangon, (read my previous post) I was now deep in the UNESCO World Heritage Site in old Bagan. The landmass is considered sacred by many and contains more then 3500 Buddhist monuments in about a 13×8 kilometer (8×5 mile) area.
Honestly, I had no clue where I was within the grounds of the amazing site and didn’t care to look at any map. My only mission was to go deep and explore.
The truth is, is that I needed this electric bike’s 60 volt battery to last. Otherwise I’d be loading it onto an ox cart of a local farmer passing by and both it and I would have to endure a bumpy ride back into town. Actually, that wouldn’t be such a bad experience I thought as I continued along some random dusty road…
Being lost in a once thriving ancient kingdom surrounded by pagodas, temples, stupas, thin short trees, random palm trees, shrubbery, random plots of land that farmers cultivated, flowers of different shades of purple, pink and red…and a seemingly random outlay of dirt roads and paths to choose from felt exciting. I had the whole day to explore, provided the battery would last. An ‘out of this world’ feeling overwhelmed my senses as I ventured deep into this magical land. Time didn’t exist for me that whole day…
Around 5:00 the next morning, after charging the e-bikes’ battery all night, a friend and I drove out onto a different area of the ancient land of the archeological site. We were on a mission.
Arriving on the grounds of one particular ancient site surrounded by pagoda temples, we attempt to locate the perfect temple to view sunrise.
We relied on GPS coordinates that we found online that stated we could indeed climb a specific pagoda and get a nice view of the rising sun while on top. Our cellphone flashlights guided our every step under the moonless sky as we searched…
Without my phone, I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. The only way to see a temple at this hour was if we literally walked right up to one with our lights illuminating the off red brick layers of the outer walls.
The temples in the area did not seem to have steps and were not ‘climber friendly’. Even though I didn’t want to break the dead silence, I recommended that we drive out to our ‘plan B’ site – only after a moment of soaking in the eerie dead silence…
This spot felt ancient, sacred and even of a different dimension. We had no clue of the exact date this particular pagoda was built. We just knew that most in the general area were constructed between the 11th-13th centuries.
I let my imagination wonder and attempted to imagine what life was like during that period in time on this magical land. At this same time of day before sunrise about 900 years ago, maybe a monk would have been arriving to this very pagoda we stood next to for an early morning meditation. I’m sure he would have entered the temple by walking on the same uneven brick path we stood on. I wondered if even the tiny seeds that had created the nearby trees which hovered over this path had even sprouted back then…
I imagined an orange robed shoe-less monk passing us as the breeze picked up and swayed the silhouetted tree branches above us. The sound of Buddhist monks chanting together came to mind.
We finally left the location to find the other temple to view the fast approaching sunrise. Our hope was that it would have solid steps that led to the highest point of the structure so we wouldn’t have to climb the structure like ninjas. We had about 45 minutes to get there…
Back on the dark narrow dirt path we see two sets of electric bike headlights approaching us. I approached them cautiously… the drivers finally become visible from my electric bike’s weak headlight. All of us stopped side by side and studied each other momentarily. One Burmese, three Chinese and an American on a random dark path in the middle of nowhere…
On one bike there were two Chinese tourists and on the other was a Burmese local. My friend (who was also Chinese) soon discovered they were following the local guy along the maze of dirt paths to the same temple that we were looking for! All the local guy asked for was that we would be careful climbing the structure (which he assured had steps) and that we give him pocket money for his assistance. Agreed, we followed along to view one of the most memorable sunrises of my life.
I paused to gaze into the window of a 5 star restaurant in the downtown district of Yangon. I studied the inside environment through the gaps of the white blinds like a stalker.
The beautiful people dined on white clothed tables in a large dimly lite room. A few patrons enjoyed cocktails that were being whipped up by a friendly looking bartender with an impressive handlebar mustache behind the highly varnished western saloon style bar counter.
The clientele were nicely dressed and had a healthy glow about
their presence. After completing a days work and efforts, what better
way to spend an evening? The cheerfulness rubbed off on me a little
and I began to miss loved ones back home…
Deep sounding growls of a pair of hoodlum dogs startled me as they
tumbled in an aggressive squabble across the street. They get up and
take bites at each others necks as they begin to walk forward in a
They lead me northward along this downtown street. Them on one
side of the street and I on the other…
In sync, they take a sharp right turn into a space between abandoned khaki colored 5 story tall apartment buildings. Three adolescent heads emerge from the black dumpster that seems to guard the tight spaced entrance of the alleyway.
The trio of scavengers are dirty, skinny and hungry. I ponder the
scene I witnessed a few moments ago of the beautiful people
dining…The contrast is too much to take. The curb is the closest
thing to sit on.
Looking further down into the dark alley, I realize there are many
more people further in. A small fire from a street vendor cooking
food on a grill illuminates the darkness somewhat. I see lean-to make
shift homes made of battered blue tarp, rusty tin and card board
boxes further inward.
Two of the dark skinned guys of the group standing around the food
vendor look directly at me sitting across the street. I’m peering
into their domain… They don’t cease their hard stare for what feels
like eternity. Through their eyes, they communicate that I am not
welcome to look, enter or even feel sorry for their living condition.
I get up to carry on toward my hostel. The experience burned into
my brain and bothers me long into the night.
I walked down the tourist district the following morning and met a
valiant 16 year old who was able to speak Burmese, English (in a
British accent), Chinese and French. His language skills allowed him
to sell post cards to tourists. The money earned provided food and
shelter for his three younger siblings and widowed mother. The family
live a ‘hand to mouth’ existence across the Yangon River in the slums
since the land his family once owned had been taken away for economic
For some reason I heard: “The hard work and struggle they
currently face will give them incentive to learn more skills, thus
allow them to rise out of poverty” inside my head…A lesson that I
had somehow retained from a past economics lecture years ago.
That may have been his deceased fathers mindset at one point in
time…Now he possesses that same mindset..and I’m sure some people
who live out in the alley I witnessed the night before also possess
I can’t blame them. The reality
is that the average person needs money to enjoy a comfortable,
healthy and modern lifestyle in this day and age.
The things that I couldn’t help
to ponder were the transitions some of these people were going
through. Not everyone benefits from economic growth-especially those
living in a city in a developing country.
City life demands modern skill sets and a complete shift in mindset for the newly arrived country folks (and preexisting folks already on the land that is targeted for developed) who seek a modern lifestyle. What were skills out in the farmland serve little purpose in the city for a person who desires (or has no other choice) to join the game of economic hustle – making money, spending it and making more. I couldn’t help but wonder if life out in the farmland could be a better lived life (for those who may have that option)…
In general, the people with low skills usually end up doing the grit work that economic growth entails. The low wages obtained and high cost of living in the city make saving their earnings tough. There is a slim chance that there would be enough money left over for further education to sharpen one’s thinking capability or gain qualifications for specialized skills that will lead to higher earnings. It seems they only just get a chance to sustain a minimal quality of life for them and their loved ones at best.
My western trained mindset that economic growth was great for
everyone involved was being challenged for the first time. I now
pondered the dynamics of economic growth for a developing country –
particularly its effects on the society. Its a complex matter…
Hours later, encapsulated by a magical twilight that is only
produced by a tropical atmosphere, I stood against a black iron lamp
post on some lonely sidewalk.
A tug on my shirt sleeve startled me. I look down and hunched over
is an extremely impoverished pregnant woman and her young child in
rags. They look up at me with bulging malnourished eyes as the mother
slowly raises and opens her wrinkled right hand which is aged beyond
Immediately, I dig through my pockets to empty out the contents, placing a handful of thousand kyat bank notes into her frail trembling hand. Her eyes give a hint of thankfulness and slight amazement at the unexpected generosity. Dismayed, I looked into her weary eyes momentarily before they shuffled ahead and vanished into a nearby dark alley.
A few days later, I find myself in a crowded bus terminal standing in line to board another bus on yet another early morning. This one would take me north to the ancient city of Bagan. I would be fortunate enough to be given the option of pre-selecting a window seat and would not have to pester another person for that prized seat as I did in Part 1
Once upon a time I boarded a cold and dark bus in the border town of Myawaddy on an early February morning. This bus would take me further into the interior of an ancient land. A land with a recorded history that dates back to 700 B.C.
A few years ago, I read that ancient ways of living are giving way to modern ways of life throughout this country as it is undergoing a rapid economic transition. I wanted to get a sense of this ‘unspoiled’ land, culture, and people before the country fully transitioned to a developed country.
So, here I was. In a bus that the common people use to take journeys around their country. Another words, it wasn’t some sort of luxury charter type bus you see in places like Europe for instance. Just the way I like it…
As I walked down the aisle to seat number 18, curious eyes of seated passengers gazed up toward me. They studied my choice of clothing and my foreign physical features.
The morning prayer chants blared through the overhead speakers that hurt my ears as I passed each individual one. Passengers placed bags below their seats and also above in the overhead compartments then sat down to get comfortable and adjusted their seats accordingly.
‘Damn assigned seats’ I mumbled to myself when I approached my spot. I had hoped for a window seat…
Once comfortable and buckled in, I studied my surroundings. In addition to the closed cornflower blue curtains, small sized pleated half-circle curtains hung over the top portion. White tassels dangled around the outer edges of these half circles. Just above these decorative curtains, blue rope lights extended the length of the bus and illuminated the tight space between the roof and curtain covered windows – a nice touch from the interior designers.
I returned the gazes of people who passed down the aisle and seated passengers who turned to catch a glance at the strange foreigner aboard. I noticed that the word was spreading towards the front of the bus as heads turned in succession row after row to catch a glimpse of me.
The morning prayers were loud yet some how put me at ease due to the hypnotic rhythm of the chant the monk recited.
Once we took off, the curiosity settled and I now desired to crack the curtain open (which required that I reach across the teenager who occupied the window seat). I wanted to see the land and all the geologic features of the area – the main reason why I enjoy bus travel. Would reaching my arm over his personal space be disrespectful? Would he find this offensive? What is the proper way to say “Excuse me, would you mind if I opened the curtain just a tad?” in Burmese?
Shit. Speaking of that, I had to learn a whole slew of new words since I was yet again in a new country. How to say hello, thanks, bye, numbers 1 through 10 at least – you know, basic things…
Before I pondered what mental effort I would have to muster up just to learn these basics, a person a few rows in front of me made the move – and engulfed the area around him in a bright haze of glorious sunshine. A few people squinted their eyes… That was my cue – I also wanted some of that vitamin D and a view of the outside world!
Literally two minutes after I flooded the vicinity with sun light, the teenager offered to exchange seats. Maybe he became uneasy while I stared past him to gaze out the window.
Note to self: Next time I want someone’s window seat, lean over ever so slightly (just enough to make them aware of my intruding gaze) and look past them out the window for two minutes straight…
mmmm…the scenery…curvy mountain roads, random shacks between the road we drove on and the mountain ledge, lush mountain sides filled with a deep greenery, random palms trees in the mix… Passing through small townships and settlements I get a general sense of the local ways of dress, general ways of behavior in regards to working, relaxing and carrying on through the day.
These small townships made me feel like I was in India (from what I’ve seen in movies, magazines and online). There was a lot of dirt, some areas with trash, chickens, cows and donkeys. For the most part the animals were kept off the road, since the bus driver mashed the horn like a crazy person as we strolled through.
For entertainment, us passengers watched a Burmese comedy on the small TV’s that dropped down from the roof above the center aisle. Nearly every passenger laughed at the mishaps of the main characters of the show as we chugged along toward Yangon.
Yangon…you get the sense that hundreds of years ago this city was once a thriving jungle. The oppressive heat made the air dank due to the sub tropical humidity and polluted quality.
A variety of different ethnicity’s of Indians, Burmese, Chinese/Burmese and other South East Asians live, work and do business in this bustling city. If you are shopping for ingredients to cook, accessories for your phone, tools, clothes, jewelry, car parts, shoes, keys, books, movies, etc. chances are you will find it. There are side walk vendors, markets, businesses and a few people with a blanket spread out on a walking path with random items up for sale.
Exploring the markets, streets, modern shopping malls and land marks of Kyauktada Township (the main area of downtown) – I get the feeling of… like I was in a very ancient place, with modernity creeping in…vibrant…a new emerging energy…with lots of different people from Indian and Asian speaking countries. People of different faiths – Christian, Muslim, and Hindu (and many other sects of Hinduism) being the dominant religions. All this created a whirl wind of exoticness for a western traveler like myself.
Lucky me. I had a few days to roam and wander around the city…to get a feel for things and to chat with a few locals who knew English.
After doing my time as a teacher in the People’s Republic, I found myself in my old stomping grounds of Chiang Mai, Thailand. But why here again?
The slower pace of life in Buddhist country attracted me mostly. I had to plan out my remaining time in South East Asia. I had books to devour that could only be found at a unique little bookstore within the moat of the city center (one of my favorite bookstores that I’ve ever been to).
There was more Thai food to eat. I had more exploration and learning to do around the area. I had time to burn and a few extra Yuan in my pocket to let me do so before adventuring on.
First order of business upon arrival was to get an apartment for the next two months. After a quick phone call to my previous landlord, I made my way to the apartment complex. Within 15 minutes I was given the keys to a Thai style apartment, which is basically one big room (no kitchen), a bathroom, and a very small balcony. All furniture included. There was no 6 month or annual term contract to sign. Getting into one of these is not a hassle. Simply hand over the cash for the 1st month rent and a matching deposit. The agreement was that I’d stay there on a month-to-month bases. When I was ready to leave, I’d have to let the landlord know about a week in advance
Next order of business – a motorbike for the month. Visiting the same mom and pop motorbike shop as months before, the transaction was just as easy. Unfortunately, the ‘pop’ of the operation had passed away from lung cancer while I was away. I shared a moment of silence with the widow and the son who now filled in for his father’s position before I left. I didn’t even bother haggling for a lower price…
Next order of business – a gym membership at the same fitness center…
In a matter of a few hours, I was ‘re-settled’ in and carrying on. The cherry on top was that so many people recognized me and greeted me like a friend who had gone away and returned home. Even people who I hadn’t spoken to when I was previously there. I had no idea they had great English speaking skills!
I had many great adventures while laying low in Northern Thailand. I’ve gotta give a shout out to my local friend Jay! If it wasn’t for her, I probably would have not had the chance to do certain activities such as kayaking down Ping River and taking day trips out to a handful of local spots.
We went white water rafting, visited Doi Inthanon National Park to see the largest waterfall that I’ve seen in my life, chatted with local goat farmers while their flock grazed, and visited an ancient sandstone canyon range (Pa Chor). We also invited ourselves into a large Thai organic farm operated by monks. While there we observed a kid learning (in his own way) how to round up a herd of cattle as well as water buffalo by throwing large sized stones at them. He was trying to direct them into their pins for the night. The monks were not going to scold or correct the kid while we were there. Instead, they stood in observance of the young fellas actions. I’m sure they would teach him through parable form after we had left. Especially since the animals were literally non-responsive to the shouting orders and stones being thrown at there backs from the feisty fella. We decided to leave since we were holding up progress we thought…
During Christmas Day, we drove south of the city for about 35 minutes along Ping River to a village where there was a nightly market. There, we met a genuine family who operated a small restaurant along the outskirts of the main market area. Their 5 year old daughter spoke a little English and attached herself to us while we ate. Her parents encouraged her to practice the English she had been learning at school. She shared with us what she liked, here age and other random details of the life of a 5 year old.
If you ever find yourself in Chiang Mai, do yourself the favor and go here! That night a local group really gave the audience ear orgasms since it was the holidays. I can’t promise you that if you go there you’ll be fortunate to see the same group perform (I didn’t even get the name of them) but know that more then likely you’ll be in for a treat. There are talented and creative artists who really deliver and perform their hearts out at this place!
It’s usually not conventional Jazz music they play but rather a fusion of, well, a variety of styles mixed in. You may even hear a Thai style melody guiding the ‘Jazzy’ elements of their music if your lucky. Go early if you want a seat in front of the musicians since this place gets packed! Often, there will be people flowing out onto the side walk and into the street.
The very last treat I gave myself before leaving CM to continue onward with my SE Asian adventure was renting a bigger motorbike and spent a weekend in the mountain valley of Pai.
If you know how to drive a mid-sized or bigger motorbike/motorcycle – whatever you want to call them – do yourself this favor! The only road up the mountains toward Pai has over 700 curves. Yes, that is correct! And the scenery is picturesque – full of greenery and a handful of look out points to gaze out into the surrounding mountains.
Once getting to Pai, after 3 or so hours of blissful driving, you’ll realize that there are ALOT of backpackers there. Like a ton! Supposedly its a sort of hippy haven…Yes, you can find magic mushrooms, marijuana and other sorts of ‘herbal’ intoxicants if that’s what your into. Matter of fact, you can find smoothie shops that make magic mushroom shakes! I really wanted to try this but decided not to hunt one down since I made the trip into the mountain valley solo – on 2 wheels. Yes, I make responsible choices – when I choose to…
Instead, I opted for joy riding deep into the mountains and taking dips in hot springs where very few people go. The nature in the accessible areas on the out skirts of Pai are alone, enough reason to learn how to drive a motorcycle. You will find yourself literally swallowed up in the middle of valleys filled with plotted farm land, rivers flowing, lush greenery, wild life and all sorts of imagery that your eyes can feast on. If your lucky, the sky will be a deep blue color with minimal cloud coverage.
If the beauty captivates your senses and it gets overbearing, do yourself the favor of pulling over and don’t hit a chicken crossing the road like I did! It was out here, in the middle of nowhere where I seriously pondered the age old question of most corny childhood jokes of “Why did the chicken cross the road?”…
He lived folks, don’t worry! Although, with maybe a bruised wing…If I go back one day, (hopefully) I’ll speak with the village head and put in a recommendation…for a chicken crossing sign.
Later that night, I found myself in some jungle enjoying a Reggae party where marijuana was blazing and being passed around while the music reverberated through the lush surroundings. A few hundred of us enjoyed music from a Reggae artist that took center stage. I forgot what his name was or what country he came from. All I know is that the artist was the first black person I’d seen in what seemed like ages. I had been in Asian countries for way to long at this point…
A few days later, back in CM – keys to the apartment returned, motorbike returned, gym key card returned – I found myself standing in line. I now carried my overstuffed hiking pack that weighed down on my sun burnt shoulders. I waited patiently and inched my way toward the Thai bus that would be taking me to Mae Sot – one of the only two land crossings into Burmese territory from Thailand. I’d walk into Myanmar the following morning to start yet another adventure…and yes, I’d be returning back to Northern Thailand very soon…
Amidst the smell of exhaust, noise of motorbikes and honking; customers slurped the morning special – every mornings special – vietnamese beef pho with a hint of tomato flavor in the broth.
The middle aged proprieter sat on her minature stool surrnounded by cookery pots, a stack of bowls, a spread of noodles, meat, snails and herbs…she placed a handful of noodles, ingredients and her special broth into one bowl after another. She was unbothered by the river of motorbike traffic and chaotic noise that flowed literally only a few feet in front of her.
Her many content customers sat inside her establishment – all seated on kindergarten sized red or blue shin high plastic stools along with matching kindergarten sized tables. Not a single word was being spoken…
This was momma’s house! She feed the
early workers – her regulars. The cook, the preparer, the
gateskeeper… She landed her kind eyes on me as I walked up. All I
had to do was point at a bowl and direct my thumb to press against my
chest…with a Good Morning smile of course.
This aromatic and tasteful bowl of pho made the previous nights’ rough train journey all worth it!
Just a few moments before taking a seat at this miniature table and stool set, I had checked into my hotel in the old quarter and had thought to myself ‘what the hell am I doing?!’ I was in a mental funk as a result of a very poor nights’ rest on board the overnight train from Nanning, Guangxi to the city where I was now in – Hanoi, Vietnam. Crazy how one bowl of pho can completely change my mindset I now thought!
My previous fatigue-clouded perception morphed into a desire to explore and discover new things about this land and its people. I had ground to cover. Time was limited since I was only doing a quick entry and exit to stay in good standing with immigration for the Peoples Republic. I only had about 50 hours here…I was burning daylight! What the hell was in that pho?!
I decided to order a motorbike taxi from Grab (the same thing as Uber in the states) to see what it’s like driving (in my case riding on the back of a motorbike taxi) amidst thousands of other motorbike drivers.
After the driver handed me the official
green ‘Grab’ helmet to put on, I jumped on the back. (Putting my life
in the hands of a complete stranger…the crazy things I do for an
experience…) The young skinny driver flicked a half smoked
cigarette in a nearby flower bush and hit the throlttle. He ripped
through the gears and navigated his way alongside thousands of other
commuters on motorbikes like a pro.
Hanoi has a population of about 7.5 million. There are roughly 5 million registered motorbikes on the road…So yeah, traffic is chaotic – at most intersections, there are no lights or no patrol officers, only a hectic slew of people on two wheels going about their business. It seems to work out somehow.
We passed a variety of motorists including restaurant proprietors transporting their days’ ingredients from the market – produce, meats, noodles, kitchen cookware – all on motorbikes.
Young people, old people, (some who should not even be driving a two-wheeled machine) even 3 generations crammed on a single motorbike – grandma chillen on the very back while the young child sits up front – both arms stretched out and take hold of the handlebars…
Old women and men peddlers wear traditional peaked bamboo hats walking on sidewalks (at times crossing busy intersections) while balancing a carrying pole containing a variety of produce on each end.
Not only was I inhaling the occasional lung full of exhaust fumes bursting out of a nearby accelerating motorbike, I had the priviledge to inhale other aromas as well. Wafting smells of foods being cooked from resturants and roadside vendors rose in the air (sometimes in clouds of smoke) as we literally drove right through them. Grilled meats, aromatic broths, exotic fruits (particularly jackfruit and durian) and the occasional aroma of fried food entered my nostrils…I wont ellaborate on any unpleasant smells, however, know that the slew of aromas is what make a place unique – in my humble opinion.
If you want an adrenaline rush, get on
the back of one of these taxi’s and if you want to live on the edge
just a tad bit more, give the driver the universal signal for hauling
ass – twist your half fisted hand in an up and down motion (sound
After this unconventional way of seeing a few areas of the city, I was a square and did what most tourists do – explore the old quarter, discover a few Vietnamese dishes, visit Ho Chi Minh Mosoleum (It was closed since I arrived late in the afternoon), walk through Ba Dinh Square, walk through Dong Xuan Night market for shopping, visit Hoan Kiem Lake, and ventured out to Ha Long Bay for an afternoon cruise the next day.
These may be the usual things to do
here, but trust me, there is a ton of options to choose from. It just
depends what your into really. Food, museums, adventure, tours,
cooking classes (many other classes as well), getting pampered with a
massage and/or spa, learning about the historic events of the past –
you name it, this vibrant city has something for everyone.
The highlight of my visit was exploring Ha Long Bay on an afternoon cruise and kayaking near a local floating village with the notorious limestone formations as the backdrop. A part of me wanted to dock my hard-plastic yellow kayak to a floating houseboat, get on board and meet the families…How would a random tourist be given that privilege without making a wrong impression? Too bad I can’t speak the language…
The morning after, I boarded a bus that would take me back to the People’s Republic. Outside of the window, the chaotic city life eventually transitioned to countryside mountains, hills, an occasional rice paddy… The greenery conducive to subtropical climate now took over the land. I was out of the city of Hanoi (and traveling onward to another concrete jungle on the other side of the border) in a very short time it seemed. I thought to myself ‘what would my life be like if I had chosen to work somewhere in Vietnam instead of in China? Out in the country perhaps…’
A few hours later we arrived at the border. Standing in line to get my passport stamped, I felt saddened since I didn’t know where or when I’d get another bowl of that magical bowl of pho…till next time Vietnam, till next time…
“If you break the seal, I’ll open the box and we will share ONLY one mooncake. You get half and I get half…deal?!”
The pair sat across the aisle from me on the packed bus headed to Pingnan. An instant after the exchange of words, they committed the act, breaking the seal of an intended gift box, halving and devouring their share of a single mooncake while giggling like mischevious children.
When their eyes met mine, I was like “share the wealth…” and gave them a grin. Truth is, dealing with the massive amount of people at the bus terminal left us all drained…
Moon Cakes are a small circular pastry that comes with a variety of fillings and may even contain yolks from salted duck eggs. The dessert is usually shared with family during this special holiday. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mooncake
They were headed home for the Mid-Autumn Festival, along with millions of other people, to visit family and friends back in their home towns-usually in rural areas. One thing I’ve discovered in China is that during major Chinese holidays, all forms of transportation are booked quickly and every seat is filled – in airplanes, trains, and buses. My local friend, Emma had warned us about this Exodus-like flocking of millions of people who were going back home for the National Holiday.
Along with this years Festival celebration, her cousin would be getting married as well. Wanting to give us a cultural experience, my buddy and I (2 conspicuous Americans) joined along for the bus ride back into rural China for a memorable time with her family. All three of us anticipated events of the upcoming days while the bus chugged along into the late night.
Next morning the wedding festivities were underway…A handful of people (us Americans included) joined the groom at a hotel in town to retrieve his bride. The beautiful bride and her party would be showered with red packets full of money and the couple would play a cute game of ‘Groom finds her hidden red high heel shoes’. These activities would have to take place before convincing her to accompany us back to the grooms home village.
Accomplishing the task; back in the village, the bride walked the length of the main road (for nearly a mile in the recently found red heels) past the main temple to pay respect to the groom’s ancestors. Arriving at the main residence, fireworks were set off and we proceeded to enjoy delicious traditional Chinese dishes of duck, turtle, fish, vegetables, pork, chicken, noodles, rice, soups… I’m talkin’ about a huge variety of food! To accompany the meal, we shared a few rounds of rice wine in cheerful celebration.
I was in food heaven and enjoyed tasting the new flavors. Literally, all the tastes in the flavor spectrum were offered along with a variety of textures. This is what I love about Chinese cuisine (authentically prepared Chinese food). The experience is like a celebration for your senses in a unique way. You enjoy the aroma, the different flavors along with the different textures that you break down while chewing (even sometimes not chewing).
This was my first time eating turtle meat and I gotta say, its really good. Slightly tough and a little gamey flavor. Props to the many chefs who prepared the vast quantity of food for the many guests – and with such great flavor and awesome presentation!
Throughout the day all the guests were in high spirits and we all shared moments of laughter and smiles. This was a once in a lifetime experience and I can only hope that I’d be able to partake in another Chinese wedding in the future.
During the rest of our visit to Pingnan (in total 3 days) we enjoyed many activities. Too much for a single blog post.
Other highlights include:
A homemade BBQ with Emma’s cool family within the courtyard of her mother’s traditional style home.
An excursion out on a trail that led past an ancient cemetery on a hillside.
Further along on this excursion, discovering a shady commercial pig farm operation that produced massive animals (presumably using scientific applications in their production methods)
A sundown walk through the vast plots of farmland for the large community as the owners walked back home from working the fields. (Where I saw the oldest man I’ve ever seen in my life walking/dragging his weary body out of a field of sweet potatoes)
Experiencing celebrity-like status while in the central shopping district of hundreds of thousands of people enjoying a free concert and local fashion show (presumably for the people coming home for the festival). Many people wanting pictures with us Americans. Even posing while holding their babies.
An afternoon swim in a nearby mountain resort where hundreds of locals gather for the weekend.
Eating many delicious foods.
(e-bike offroading) Driving an electric bike in the countryside through areas where they were preparing the rugged landscape to make way for a newly paved road.
All in all, the whole experience happened quickly and my time out in Pingnan was an absolute pleasure. The kindness of the people, the scenery, the food, the whole experience is something I could have never ever dreamt up. I recall Emma sharing with me that for most people, Zack and I were the very first foreigners they have ever seen…If I was ‘alien-like’, I sure wasn’t received as such. It was more like they have known me for a long time, like a friend coming home for the holidays…grubbing on mooncakes and all…
Flying over the coastline of Tamaulipas, a beautiful blonde woman near me wakes up from her snooze just as the flight attendant asks me what beverage I’d like.
“Oh my God, was I sleeping with my mouth open”?! she asks me while her hand quickly reaches toward my arm.
I laugh a little, then reply. “Yes, you were but that’s okay, it happens to the best of us. You don’t need to feel bad”.
Her outburst became an instant unconventional icebreaker between two travellers which lead to us chit chatting for the duration of our flight toward Mexico City.
She, and about 8 other people were traveling in a group for the sole purpose of taking a 5 week Mexican immersion course. They were young Mormons on a mission to connect with the Mexican population in South East Texas afterwards. What better way to learn the true Mexican culture then in the heartland of Latin America I thought. As a result, they’d be able to better connect with the Mexican people in the United States.
In comparison, my purpose of travel was much less purposeful I thought to myself. My motivation to travel in Mexico was self-driven. Seeing her vigor of wanting to do good for others by giving hope and salvation to any person who may be in need was impressive, to say the least.
After 5 months at home during the holiday season in a small charming historic southern town in South Louisiana, I am ready to discover more of this beautiful world. At the moment, its Mexico – a simple flight across the border. First stop is Mexico City – smack center in the Historic district for a very short 3-day stay.
While there, I explore the Templo Mayor Ruins and Museum, Square of the Three Cultures (Plaza de las Tres Culturas), Palace of Fine Arts (Palacio de Bellas Artes) and was fortunate to have been given a private tour through the city center. This tour was the highlight of my visit.
The entire tour took place literally above the ruins of Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs center of the universe. Walking past the remains of the 16th century built Templo Mayor (only the upper most parts visible), neighboring Spanish colonial buildings built between the 16th-20th centuries), cobble stonesd streets, past a few hawkers and vendors, past tourists from around the world – all under the fierce rays of the Mexican sun; the tour guide passionately shared his knowledge with me…
He educated me about the Aztecs beliefs of duality, its warrior-like nature, this central location which was once an island within Lake Texcoco (which was drained by the Spaniard and is now present-day central Mexico City) and the layout of its center along with its major causeways. The influence of the flourishing Aztec culture that originated in this central location had domineering effects throughout neighboring territories in the country. I won’t go into detail since that can be a blog post in itself. You can do research if this period of Aztec reign is of interest to you.
For better or for worse, the Spaniards arrived and as we know, influenced the course of history… The Aztecs reign was a short-lived experience for the people involved… Now, its the influence of the Spaniards that is prevalent throughout the country. You can see this influence mostly in architecture and the Catholic Religion.
The tour guide literally gave me a ‘blast from the past toward the present’ sort of mental journey that left me laying in the grass of Alameda Central Park afterward. There I lay, pondering former beliefs of these different cultures, daily ways of life, and their motivations that led to the occurrences of this regions’ past….while some remaining evidence is still bound to be discovered through future archeological work – maybe even directly below me!
Check out Ivan, my tour guide at https://www.airbnb.com/experiences/251462His knowledge about characters, buildings, customs, beliefs and other facts about this historic downtown location will mesmerize your mind as you take a journey through the past with him.
All in all, my stay in the historic district was not enough time. There are too many things to see and do. I’ll be planning another trip back soon. For now, I’m venturing deeper into the heartland of Mexico towards yet another place of historic significance. I’ll be staying in the city of Guanajuato which is about a 4.5-hour bus ride northwest of Mexico City. In 1988 it was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As a teenager, I read about China’s plans of constructing a high-speed railway system throughout the main land. The Pictures of its design and its proposed engineering feats of installation through the countries various terrains made me feel inspired. Made me feel like experiencing that level of speed and efficiency… China has a way of taking on Goliath type projects I thought…
Fast forward to August 2017. I’m seated in a high-speed bullet train on the other side of the globe from where I call home – from where I read that article in a magazine years ago! This railway system was once an idea, a sketch, a proposal… Now, here I was, comfortably darting through Southern China at speeds around 300 km/h (186 mph) on it.
I was on my way to Macau on yet another visa run. The plan was to arrived in Zhuhai, spend the night at a hotel, cross the border in the morning, check into my hotel, explore for the whole day, then re-enter the people’s republic the day after that. The goal was to get the exit and re-entry stamp on my passport to stay in good standings with immigration. I was to do all this and avoid ANY gambling in the Las Vegas of the East!
The weather on my exploration day was perfect for walking the UNESCO Historic Centre of Macau World Heritage Site of Senate Square and the ruins of St. Paul’s Church. In the 16th century, Portugal established a stronghold of Christianity and constructed churches and buildings in the colonial European style. Mix this with Asian architecture, Religion (mostly Buddhism), and culture and boy do you have a feast for your eyes!
To learn more about the history, I paid a visit to the Maritime Museum. There, I learned about trade routes of the Portuguese (and other seafarers around the southern portion of the continent of Asia and also Africa). The merchants established trade and commerce with the natives of the area and before long, China allowed Portugal to settle in Macau. The museum gives a general overview of the history of this busy port city. To get a better understanding I’d recommend your own research. Here is a good starting point wikipedia
As nightfall approached, I made my way toward the Casinos. Walking into the Venetian Casino felt like a huge shopping mall mostly. Passing this, I made my way over to the gambling area. Strolling around while sipping a complimentary tea, I studied the gamblers playing Baccarat, Black Jack and other card games I’ve never seen before. Most players were serious, some with large stacks of chips in front of them, presumably winning… I must admit, I had a desire to take a seat at a Black Jack table to test my luck and to say that I gambled in Macau.
Standing near the players at a busy table for a few moments, I was going back and forth inside my head of whether it would be worth the potential risk of getting sucked into the wormhole of ups and downs and a roller coaster of emotions. I caught a few glances from the players near me and the dealer looked at me like “Are you going to sit or just stand there?” That was my que…make my move…My hand jerked slightly towards the black leather chair for table players.
After a few more moments, I decided on the best choice – to walk away and get out of the environment. I should have not tempted myself in the first place. I’m certain my immediate brisk walking pace aroused suspicion from the guards on duty…I’m sure I looked a little crazy but that’s okay, it’s better than using my ATM card for gambling purposes I figured. I would escape upstairs to experience a replica of Venice, Italy to ease my flustered state of mind…
Why was it so hard to say no?
What was that flustered state all about? The temptation was there, that’s all I know…
Overall, my short visit to Macau gave me a lasting impression of how two cultures can coincide (maybe not at the beginning of the union) with each other. I found a satisfaction when reading street signs, building names and other words in both Chinese characters and Portuguese. The architecture of European and Asian mix was a pleasure to view. Witnessing the variety of people from different nationalities felt…I can’t put it into words really…I simply enjoyed this ‘melting pot’ environment and I can only hope that I get the chance to visit this remarkable city in the future. Next time, hopefully I’ll have more time to eat more cuisine and say the hell with it, try my luck and throw a few hundred bucks on red at the roulette table. For now, the risk that I was comfortable taking was riding a bullet train back to Nanning at speeds around 200mph…