Beautiful places and friendly faces

Myanmar/Burma… I found something special there, something I haven’t often (if ever) found in other places while traveling. Due to the amount of time (meaning I did not have enough of it), I only received such a slight glimpse, but enough of one to know I love the country and her people. The words that come to mind are: special, authentic, full of character, true, untainted, warm and welcoming, friendly, hospitable, generous, curious, lack of self consciousness (in a good way)… For almost 4 weeks I traveled south and north, with countless hours spent on buses, trains, and even a government ferry. I saw cities, towns, untouched beaches, forests, mountains, a beautiful lake, rice fields and tea plantations, and small villages. I ate lots of rice and curry (basically the national dish), and went to numerous smoke-filled tea shops and cafes (one of my favorite mainstays of Myanmar). I made many new friends along the way, both local and international. Here’s a glimpse of where I went, what I did, and who I met, most of it through photos and excerpts from journal entries I wrote along the way.

Yangon

Yangon is different…in some way, genuine and authentic. I walked around a lot in the hot, sweaty weather, people watching and observing the city. I also went to one the most famous Buddhist sites: Shwedagon Pagoda.

The massive Shwedagon Pagoda (or Paya), a very sacred site for Buddhists. It has a 325 ft zedi and is adorned with 27 metric tons of gold, and is said to enshrine eight hairs of the Buddha. According to legend, it’s been erect for around 2600 years, although it was more likely built between the 6th and 10th centuries.

I finally found a tea shop to sit and drink a cup of black tea with milk – the cup of choice among locals all over the country. The atmosphere is alive, with chatting, phones, drinking, smoking, samosas… They sell individual cigarettes in the shop and all along the streets, as well as the betel nut in small green leaves, which many men chew and spit, the red being seen in their teeth and on the streets. Men make a kissing noise with their lips when they want to get the attention of a server. I see the young boys I have heard about working in the shop and serving customers. I wonder where they come from. One of them looks at me while eating on a break. I love the atmosphere. This city has such a different feel, with street vendors lining the streets as you walk, with barely enough room to get through. There’s a lot of traffic and it’s hot, dirty, and full of trash at spots, but still full of life. It has a more old fashioned and conservative feel, with the men and women in their longyis (traditional national dress)…

I spent a day with a new friend named Ram, who oversees a church network. I went with him and his family to a local service.

What a day with Ram and his family and church. I asked him so many questions and gained a lot of insight. At the church I met Jimmy, who takes care of 12 orphans on his own; they come from a village he reached as a missionary. They have no parents and there is no secondary school in the village, as in many other villages. I was last minute asked to teach some English worship songs, so I taught two choruses. Hearing the people sing is so beautiful; when they do they mean it, and their voices are strong and loud, while they close their eyes and lift their heads. I am so moved every time I hear the locals sing…

Children singing and worshiping at the local church I visited.

I made a new friend in Yangon, a young man named Nyi Nyi.

Nyi Nyi Tun. I met this 20 year old young man where I bought my bus ticket. I asked for a good place to get coffee or tea, and after I got my ticket he offered to take me somewhere. We spent the evening together, and he bought me a coffee, dinner, and then we went to see a movie. He wants to practice his English and said I am his teacher. He’s very friendly and wants to travel/move, saying how difficult it is to make money here with how expensive things are compared to what you make. He said there’s not enough opportunity for people his age; he works from 6am to 8pm most days! He’s adamant about learning, and spends his free time learning – reading, listening to music, and watching movies. He’s determined and friendly, and I’m so thrilled to have made a Burmese friend with whom I can spend time here. 

Nyi Nyi. We had a great time hanging out in Yangon.

Dawei

Last minute, I decided to take a 16 hour bus ride south to Dawei, a smaller town which is the near the Andaman Sea. Here, I went to two beaches, one local (where I met two boys who showed me around), and another completely secluded and untouched.

I met these two boys while at the local beach. I followed them to a nice scenic spot at a pagoda. I was continually amazed at the friendliness and hospitality of locals to me, a complete stranger.

My heart is full. Never before in my entire life have I been to such a beautiful beach where no other soul was in sight. I’m at Yogan(?) beach, a vast bay of ocean with clear water and big waves, stretches of clean sand and rolling mountains behind and beside. It was over a 2 hour drive, through village after village with children waving and saying hello, men and women smiling as I passed, and locals giving me directions. The final stretch was through a small beachside fishing village and a small dirt road through the forest, only big enough for a motorbike, and the only way here except by boat. I came into a completely secluded beach, aside from the occasional passing motorbike. I received so many curious looks as I passed, never hostile, only intrigued. This, for me, is such a gift, to somewhere few others aside from locals have been. To see a place as it is, not having yet been fully touched by the outside world and tourism, nor completely jaded by tourists. Yes, some want my business, but most genuinely want to show friendship. It’s incredible, genuine, and authentic. I can’t believe I’m in such a place, so quiet and isolated, with the sound of waves and the ocean breeze against my body. I have received so much more than I deserve… It’s flawless here, perfect, a little piece of heaven among men. The sun is shining off the ocean, a haze covers the horizon of mountains, fishing boats glide in the distance. It’s beautiful here, near untouched by human hands, not a soul in sight; just nature being as she should be. It’s a moment of peace, of awe and wonder, of amazement, of being a child, simplistically captivated by what he sees without having to explain it. I soak it in, knowing this moment will only ever occur once, never to be repeated…

Not a soul in sight…
Fishermen for company.

Ye

I took a 5:40am ordinary class train (which took around 8 hours) from Dawei to Ye, another smaller town not far from the coast, situated near a river. I stayed in town near a small, pretty lake. Here, I spent time around town and visited a local beach, making some more new friends along the way (including a local family who invited me into their home for dinner, some young boys at the local beach, and a man who showed me an untouched local beach where he’s thinking of developing a resort).

I had the cab all to myself for a few minutes. A thick, mysterious, mystical mist covered the landscape of farms, cattle, palm trees, and wooden homes. The ambiance of the scenery was beautiful. The cab quickly filled up. The train rocks back and forth on the tracks, and it’s a rough ride, with hard, 90 degree wooden benches for seats. The brush beside the tracks swipes the cabs as the train passes, flicking moisture and fragments of vegetation. Knowing this, I suppose it’s why the ticket salesman thanked me though for taking the train. People spread out their mats on the floor of the train and eat their food. They cram in as many people as possible. There’s a mother and an adorable little girl next to me. People constantly offer me food, another trace of sharing and kindness… The countryside was beautiful the entire way, and we passed farms and villages and mountains and homes. It was packed full to the brim, and just when you thought you couldn’t fit more people, more crammed in with their luggage, filling every seat and space on the floor. A little baby boy with no diaper or underwear peed into his mother’s hand. Men smoked the entire trip. I spent a lot of time “talking” to a little girl next to me. I showed her my pictures and we practiced Burmese. She was precious, to die for, as were the many other little children aboard. The lady next to me gave me some rice for lunch, and the little girl bought me a frozen popsicle. Amazing. I am continually amazed by the generosity of those I come in contact with. It was such a worthwhile experience taking the train, sitting with locals, and observing them. It’s these moments that I’ll remember and cherish, taking them with me and holding them close to my heart. I’m so honored to be here, and I’m falling in love with this country and her people more and more.

The train ride, packed to the brim.
The train ride, packed to the brim.
I met these boys at the local beach and spent some time playing with them. Here, they pose on an abandoned ship.
I met these boys at the local beach and spent some time playing with them. Here, they pose on an abandoned ship.

Hpa-An

In Hpa-An I rented a motorbike and explored the area, which contains some beautiful limestone mountain chains. I climbed the steps to the top of two mountains, one smaller and another quite large (Mt. Zwegabin, a famous local mountain), went to some caves, and enjoyed the scenery.

…I walked the countless steps to Mt. Zwegabin this morning, dripping with sweat through and through. It was unbelievably hot. I could see the limestone mountains and some of the landscape below. A pagoda was (of course) on top with quite a few locals. It was a beautiful view. I had some locals take quite a few pictures with me, as well as at the caves. They take your hand, get real close, and love having their picture taken with a foreigner. It’s very amusing. Saddar cave was huge and nice, filled with statues and stupas and images. The bad thing is you have to be barefoot, which means walking over bat excrement, with a suffocating smell. There mostly locals and I only saw 2 foreigners. The drive around the area was beautiful, with fields and limestone mountains. 

From the top of Mt. Hpar Pu.
From the top of Mt. Hpar Pu.
A fascinating assembly of numerous Buddha statues at the foot of Mt. Zwegabin.
A fascinating assembly of numerous Buddha statues at the foot of Mt. Zwegabin.
From the top of Mt. Zwegabin.
From the top of Mt. Zwegabin.
Saddar cave.
Saddar cave.
Local scenery of the limestone mountain ranges.
Local scenery of the limestone mountain ranges.

Bagan

Bagan is one of the main tourist areas of Myanmar, and for good reason. Pagodas built nearly a thousand years ago (by the monarchy after converting to Buddhism) dot the landscape all around, creating an impressive sight.

The daily hot air balloons at sunrise.
The daily hot air balloons at sunrise.
Inside a pagoda.
Inside a near thousand year old pagoda.

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Sunset.
Sunset.

Kalaw

Kalaw is a quaint town situated in a valley below surrounding mountains. It was an escape from the heat and I spent the time exploring the town and its surrounds, visiting some local church buildings (Anglican, Catholic and Baptist) and finding some great views.

I’m walking the pine rowed quiet streets away from Kalaw. There are many remnants of churches (Anglican and Catholic), I assume from past missionary endeavors. They are like (or were) little beacons of hope. I am not sure if their light still shines. But here the air is cool and the streets quiet, the view calming.

I suppose coming into a building set apart for the adoration of Christ makes me emotional. A neglected place dedicated to worshiping the savior has far more significance for me than all the pagodas of Bagan or Myanmar, and all the temples of Thailand. There is only darkness and death in those places, a heaviness that I realize only now; I know that now that I’m in a place of light and life, bringing freedom. This empty church is more holy than all the places of worship for all religions. Something stirs in my soul as I examine the pictures and words capturing the death of Christ. After only seeing false idols and false worship for so long, to see the truth again is captivating. There is no story or depiction of Buddha dying for all humanity; of him suffering what Christ did for all humanity. Buddha sacrificed his life of luxury and sought enlightenment only for himself; Christ did not become man, suffer, and die for himself, but for us. It was an external, all inclusive act. Buddha’s was merely internal and exclusively for himself. Christ was already God, already the perfect, enlightened one, who stepped down into the world. Buddha was a man, never God, never perfect, never stepping down from the holiest of holies into the world as Christ did. There is no hope in Buddha, because he is dead, and Buddhists are left to their own efforts for enlightenment. There is hope in Christ, because he is alive, and has given the gift of enlightenment through himself alone. I am reminded of the gospel. So I begin everything with adoration, and end everything in adoration.

The Catholic Church.
The Catholic Church.

At Christ the King church I met the father. He’s been here 12 years, and has been a Christian for 30, converting through witnessing the lives of missionaries. He has a gentle appearance, gray hair and speaks good English. There was such a fatherly, peaceful presence about him. We spoke for a few minutes about his country, democracy, and the bittersweet pill of westernization. How it will open the door wider to materialism, stinginess, the coldness of individuality, skimpy clothing, and other negatives. People see the westerners, and begin to imitate them. He said how people here are generous, hospitable, communal, and helpful. It will go from Buddhism to materialism. Some village children don’t go to school because they (have to) work, or just have no incentive to go. Many people leave Kalaw for bigger cities due to the lack of work. The highest percentage of Christians are in the outlying areas (minority ethnics groups?). I don’t know why, but I was so captivated by this priest in a white robe, with such a calm, loving spirit about him. One who undoubtably finds it hard to do what he does some days. It was a special moment for me, at that place, with this man. I felt the presence and peace of God. 

The father - an incredible man I had the privilege of briefly speaking with.
The father – an incredible man I had the privilege of briefly speaking with.
Kalaw.
Kalaw.
The view from above.
The view from above.

Hsipaw

I went to another small, quaint northern town. I explored and did a 2 night, 3 day trek with a wonderful group of six other people (from Italy, France, Germany, and Lithuania) and two local guides. We stayed the night in two local Paulong villages in the mountains, which are known for the growing of green tea leaves.

It’s a great group for trekking from Hsipaw. Our guides are very fun and friendly as well, named Joe and Wingo. We hiked for around five hours through some nice scenery of farms and mountains (through dry), and while it was hot it wasn’t unbearable, though a bit uphill. The village we are in is Paulong, and they mostly grow green tea, process it, dry it, sell it, etc, and farm. Many of the children only complete primary school, then work. They have electricity from solar panels and only some have tv, on which they watch sports and soap operas. We saw a man who goes down to the village around 2am to stock up his motorbike with veggies, snacks, etc, everyday an drive around to all villages to sell them. Most people of the village seem to be very secluded from the political situations and unaware of current happenings due to the simple nature of their lifestyle and routine. Here they seem unaffected by whatever may be happening. They get up, work, eat, weave, spend time together, etc. It’s quite simplistic and this area still maintains a sense of the past… 

On day two, the views were very beautiful from the high ridge of the mountains and tea plantations. Watching men, women, and children pick tea leaves and carry large baskets is fascinating. Observing village life is intriguing. Up in the mountains away from the rest of the world, living simplistic lives, yet with rebel armies and fighting so close… Such an interesting country with wonderful people, though with a difficult story.

Children of Hsipaw.
Children of Hsipaw.
"Sunset hill."
“Sunset hill.”
Tea plantations outside of a Paulong village.
Tea plantations outside of a Paulong village.
Views of the trek.
A view on the trek.
The trekking group and guides.
The trekking group and guides.

Indawgyi Lake

It was a long, tiring trip from Hsipaw to my next location, including two ordinary class trains (12 hour and 14 hour rides), and a 12 hour overnight wait in the Mandalay train station in between. After the final 2 hour trip from the last train station on a lifted pickup, I arrived at one of the most beautiful and peaceful locations of my entire trip – Indawgyi Lake. My guesthouse was right on the lake, with the perfect view. I spent a day driving motorbike around the lake, passing through many unspoiled local villages and farmland (thanks to the very limited number of tourists who visit). The photos speak for themselves.

I’ve spent the day driving motorbike all around the lake, and it’s been incredible. All along are small villages, untouched by tourism, some which I stopped at to walk around and take photos, with stilted homes and farms surrounding the lake and below the mountains on both sides. Cattle graze and roam in the fields. People aren’t used to seeing too many tourists so many stare as I drive past. I stopped for food at what I thought was a small restaurant and was invited into a home to eat lunch, surrounded by some locals. We communicated as best we could, laughing all the while. I ate and a woman fanned me as I did so. Such amazing hospitality and kindness from strangers. Of course they wouldn’t accept money. I took a photo and a woman led me by the arm as a mother would to her home as well and showed me photos of her son, who is a monk. What an experience, one which I’m so thankful for. This place is so authentic and purely local. Many must be farmers. Cattle are herded along the road, their bells clinging around their necks as they walk. It’s so open, peaceful and serene here, yet rugged in a sense. It’s cloudy today, and the mountains are gray against a dark sky, with patches of light shining in rays through the clouds. 

The view from my window.
The view from my window.
Lakeside villages.
Lakeside villages.
Some novice monks I met while exploring.
Some novice monks I met while exploring.

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Unspoiled natural beauty.
Unspoiled natural beauty.
Sunrise from my window.
Sunrise from my window.

Katha

I took my last train ride down to my last stop – Katha. It’s another small yet lively town, along the Ayeyarwady River. I spent most of my time walking around and going tea shops and cafes (a favorite pastime of mine while in Myanmar) with a friend I met along the way.

Ayeyarwady River.
Ayeyarwady River.
More friendly faces.
More friendly faces.

The Home Stretch

From Katha, it was a long, tiring, gritty journey back to Thailand. A friend and I decided to take the government ferry with the locals to Mandalay, which ended up being a 48 hour trip, including sleeping on the hard, wooden deck (however, the view from the river was fantastic). From there, it was a night bus, all day in an airport, a flight, another night bus, then finally arrival in Phayao.

Our home on the river for 48 hours.
Our home on the river for 48 hours.

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For the next adventure, I’m off to Nepal…


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