Sorry (so typically Canadian) but I’ve been meaning to add a post at some point, which is now, about the lack of common decency and friendliness that seems to exist in this world. Maybe Joyce and I are just too friendly but I’m confident this is why we have never experienced any negative situations among the myriad of people we have met from all walks of life from many parts of the world. We treat any and all people equally. We were brought up that way. No one person is better than the other regardless of your stature, wealthy or poor and your status in your community. These days it seems everyone has a giant chip on their shoulders. No one smiles and being the happy smiley people we are it bugs the hell out of us that everyone else seems to have a giant stick shoved up their bums. I just don’t understand it. So, here’s the question I want to ask anyone who reads this blog. Why are people so rude to the locals, their hosts in their country? Why don’t people smile more often? Why do foreigners treat the people in the country they are visiting like they are idiots? Why does everyone expect the locals to speak English (or Russian or German or French) when 99% of the time the local’s English is a hell of a lot better than what the tourist can say in their language? Why don’t people (foreigners) acknowledge each other with a nod or a smile when walking alone down an empty beach or street? Worse yet, why don’t foreigners stop to say hello and chat with the locals or at least smile and say hello? Is everyone so preoccupied with their “selfie moments” that they don’t have two seconds to acknowledge and appreciate what is going on around them? I feel very sorry for these people because they miss the whole idea about travel. But here’s the thing that we have learned. There are “Travellers” and there are “Tourists”. The tourists suck the life out of their destinations while the travellers revel in the culture, people and food that a country has to offer. I think a traveller treats the locals with respect while it seems to us the tourists don’t really give a damn. Maybe I’m a bit harsh but it sure seems that way and please understand this isn’t the case with many of the visitors but it is so glaringly obvious so often that I had to say something. Thoughts please.
Ahhh…the beach, the sun and the sand. We finally arrived after a 2 hour drive from Khao Sok National Park and a 2 hour fast ferry from Surat Thani and little did we know the Russians have invaded this place. More on our experience with Russian travelers (and others) to follow. They are not nice people. Well, all the ones we’ve been around so far anywhere we’ve travelled but we’re sure there must be a couple of good apples amongst them so I’ll just leave it at that since they are not alone among a few select citizens of a few select countries who have no manners and treat the locals like s..t.
Joyce and I met Kristina and Lucy at the airport after a very long flight from Vancouver and both were tired but in good spirits after about 16 hours of flying (Business class I might add) and a total travel time of about 19 hours. It was about 11:00 pm when we got back to our hotel and we had a 5:30 am shuttle back to the airport the next morning. Not much sleep time.
With their clocks totally out of whack they slept till 3:30 am and at 5:30 we headed to the airport for our short flight to Surat Thani where we would be met by our ride to take us to “Our Jungle House”, a small resort of tree houses and bungalows on stilts nestled between lime cliffs and jungle and the Khao Sok river in the heart of Khao Sok National Park, the oldest pristine natural jungle on earth. It is the largest area of virgin forest in southern Thailand and is a remnant of rain forest which is older and more diverse than the Amazon rain forest. Amazingly this relatively small park is estimated to contain over five percent of the world’s species but they of course are very well hidden and very out-of-the-way from human habitation.
We had a great double cabin/tree house supported by stilts sitting alongside the river and it was very hot and humid but this is the jungle after all and did I say it was very hot and humid? When we arrived we were greeted by very loud high-pitched sounds from the millions of Cicadas that inhabit the jungle canopy and at night we were lulled to sleep with an extraordinary symphony of jungle insects, lizards and whatever else made their existence known in the quarter moon lit Jurassic forest.
Not long after our arrival we needed to cool off and just a few minutes away along a path jumping with lizards was a very nice gravel bed swimming hole in the river. In we went and it was oh so refreshing. Actually the water could have been cooler but the whole thing was so cool that just getting wet with the occasional little fish darting for a nibble on our fingers or toes while we sat on the riverbed in a nice flowing current with giant karst formations towering above us was more than refreshing. It was magical, it was something we had never done, it was a first, it was wonderful.
Our bungalows had signs everywhere warning us about the pesky little simians that inhabited the area so we were all a little paranoid about leaving our windows open at night but there really wasn’t much choice because the heat and humidity was so close that it stuck to your every fibre. A shower was only refreshing while you were showering and then the hot air embraced and wrapped around you and squeezed the sweat out of every pore. Did I mention this is the jungle after-all?
There were mosquitoes. I am not bothered by mosquitoes but the ladies were so I had to listen to all of the mosquito complaints and conversation although I can honestly say I did not see one mosquito except once while hiking in the jungle but the welts and redness displayed on my girls’s obviously virgin jungle skin made me believe them. Fortunately they weren’t “itchy” mosquitoes because this could have the potential to kibosh the whole adventure. Whew!
We weren’t attacked by monkeys on our first night so we all slept very poorly anyway. Well, I did, didn’t. No air conditioning, just a fan that blew hot air. Not very conducive to a good nights sleep however I loved the sound of the jungle at night, it was incredibly alive and very loud but my sweat drenched pillow and sheets were rather uncomfortable but apparently I’m the only one who sweats like Homer Simpson and the gals slept quite well I’m told.
We had three nights and two full days to spend in the jungle and we wanted to make the most of it so the next day was full of fun, adventure and some seriously amazing geography. First on the agenda was a visit to a nearby elephant sanctuary. The Thai elephant is the official national animal of Thailand and is in fact the Indian elephant, a subspecies of the Asian elephant. In the early 1900’s there were approximately 100,000 domesticated or captive elephants in Thailand but by mid 2007 only an estimated 3,400 domesticated animals remain and approximately 1,000 wild elephants (statistics vary greatly). It became an endangered species in 1986. One of the major issues facing the elephants in Thailand as well as Myanmar was the banning of logging in the hardwood forests and this has left thousands of elephants unemployed as they were used as the vehicle to get the logs out of the forests. Although good for the forests it has left their Mahouts without any income to care for their animal. Fortunately tourism has helped to change the plight of these magnificent beasts as it brings in dollars to help the Mahouts, the elephant’s lifetime caretaker, to feed and look after them until death. It is estimated at least 1/2 of these unemployed animals now work in the tourist industry and are treated very humanely and ethically and although these animals are “domesticated” they are still wild and therefore hold enormous potential in the conservation of their “wild” kin.
So, we had a short ride to the sanctuary and we were introduced to a 45 year old female named Swy, Thai for “beautiful”. She worked in the forests for over 20 years and when we met her she was calm and seemed happy but best of all was not chained or restrained in any way. There were 8 of us in the group and I made the first advance and walked over to her, stroked her trunk and head and then whispered sweet nothings in her ear and asked Lucy to come over and do the same. Lucy was hesitant but after several sugar cane and banana trunk grabs by Swy, Lucy was in love. We spent about 15 minutes feeding her and then off we trekked through a palm plantation down to a very muddy bathing hole where we shed our cloths and plunged into a sticky mucky brown water hole and proceeded to rub mud all over Swy’s naked body. I think she loved it. I know I would. Once done covering her with her herbal mud bath we slithered out of the hole and slip slided our way in our gooey flip-flops and made our way to the river for a rinsing session. Swy was led into the much cleaner water, she laid down on her side and all of us proceeded to scrub and rinse the mud off of her. We would like to think she enjoyed all of this attention, she seemed to and it is done four times a day and the Mahout makes pretty good coin doing this for his lovely lady elephant. It was worth every penny to ensure her survival. Elephants live as long as humans so we have a responsibility to take care of these very intelligent, caring and social animals. This is the good news side of elephant conservation. We all know about the other side and certain politicians who are lifting bans on trophy hunting and ivory importation. These are the animals that need to be culled from the face of this earth.
We walked back to our starting point and fed Swy a few more bananas and then headed back to our sauna in the forest for a quick dip and lunch before our afternoon canoe/rubber dinghy meander down the Khao Sok river, which was actually more like a stream/ creek as the water level was quite low with some travel inhibiting gravel bars along the way. The scenery was, I’m lacking words now so I’ll just say beautiful as we drifted along the current and listened to the jungle forest surrounding us and the incessant talking back-and-forth of the two guys paddling our boats down the river. It was driving me (us?) nuts. They wouldn’t shut up! I was very irate but didn’t know how to tell them to shut up because they didn’t understand English so we floated “Somewhere down the lazy river”, (Robbie Robertson) and felt a little pissed off because the beauty and tranquility was so rudely interrupted by these two talkative Thai tranquility torturers talking in a tongue that was totally transgressive to the transcendent nature of our tiny little boat tour! Hmmm. I get a little carried away sometimes.
Anyway, we made it back in the late afternoon, had a quick dip in the river and then a shower and headed over to the restaurant for a refreshments and a nice evening listening to great tunes in the bar and then some really excellent Thai food to end a great day.
We left our second and final full day open to wander three nature trails in the area and then made our way to a little town/village nearby for a pizza lunch. We loaded up on some Lays potato chips to snack on in the bar later on and sweated our way back to our place for a well deserved dip and rinse in our local swimming hole which unfortunately wasn’t to be as the local council had authorized some river bank remediation and it just so happened to start at the swimming hole. We were so lucky to have been able to experience the swimming earlier. I went to check it out and the whole area had been dredged up by a huge front end loader and was rendered un-swimmable. We had received an email the day before alerting us to this but we had no idea where it would be taking place and believe me, we would not have been happy if we had arrived a day or two later. I wandered up and down the riverbank near our bungalow to see if I could find a spot for a dip but no luck. The water wasn’t flowing very fast and was definitely not inviting so we hung around our deck for a while and then made our way to the restaurant for some cool refreshments and Lays potato chips.
Joyce and I had showered but Kristina and Lucy hadn’t so they wandered back to the shack with the last bag of chips to have a shower and then, a barrage of frantic texts! “Monkeys!”. “They stole our chips!”. “We’re trapped!” This was the best news we had heard so far. There actually are monkeys in the area! Fantastic! So of course Joyce and I made a bee line back to rescue the girls from this impending threat. The pesky little beasts were everywhere, swinging from trees, running all over our roof and having a great time while Kristina and Lucy peered cautiously from their slightly ajar door. We assured them there was no threat, they are more afraid of us as long as we don’t act aggressive towards them so we went down our stairs into the forest and hung out watching probably 20-30 monkeys doing what monkeys do, monkeying around. We stood within inches to feet from them and Lucy was in heaven and we were so happy they made an appearance. It made the day and the stay. Before long, as quickly as they showed up, they disappeared but did make one final wake up call the next morning by running back and forth over our roof at 5:30 am. A very nice way to end a really fantastic and different start to our 15 days with Kristina and Lucy.
Some final pics from our jungle retreat.
With the Rohingya situation making almost front page news of late we debated whether we should visit Myanmar. If everything we read was true we certainly didn’t want to add any legitimacy to the current government by spending our money in their country. The country is a young democracy but the military is essentially still in control. We seriously gave this some thought but concluded we were there to see the country, meet the people and eat the food because 99% of the population has absolutely nothing to do with the current situation so why should they suffer for something they have absolutely nothing to do with. This was our logic, right or wrong and we heard some very interesting stories, one from someone very close to the action and many from the youth and older people who actually live in Rakhine State where this crisis is happening but what we ultimately learned is there are many sides to this story, many more than we would hear from mainstream media and there is supposedly another country quite involved in maintaining the instability to further their global desires.
Htin Kyaw is the President of Myanmar although most people think the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Sun Kyi leads the country. She is only a State Councilor, a sort-of Prime Minister and could never lead the country because she married a foreigner. She has very little control over what happens in the country geopolitically and is essentially an advisor to the President yet everyone wants to charge her for crimes against humanity. She suffered over 20 years of house arrest for defying the military junta and finally won a little taste of democracy for the population and now she is committing crimes against humanity? Give your heads a shake and dig deeper. The old military still runs the show here my friends.
Myanmar was a surprise to us. A country that has lived under military rule for decades surely must be quite under developed we thought, but we very wrong. Aung San does have some influence on infrastructure, healthcare and education improvements and this has been obvious. Yes agriculture is still a primary day-to-day existence for many but the roads are paved, there are several telecom providers, ATM’s are in most villages, there was no obvious poverty in the context of poverty you see in India or many African countries, food was plentiful and affordable, busy food stalls lined the roads and everyone seemed to be very happy. Education is now free for all until level 12, highway tolls have been introduced to upgrade and maintain the roads and a 5% GST is applicable on all purchases with the money going to further improve the social and infrastructural projects needed to move the country forward. I keep bringing this up but I can’t help but to compare everything we have seen to date with India. The world’s largest democracy, thousands of years of civilization and a place that is still massively underdeveloped and in a sad state of affairs in many places. The standard has been set very low so everything else looks just peachy. But, this is not fair to Myanmar (or any other country) and I guess because we loved the people here so much our judgment could be slightly biased but we don’t think so because we think Myanmar has set a new standard for us and one we will use to compare with all other so-called 3rd world/developing countries and the post is set quite high.
I posted a semi-summary a post or so ago so I won’t repeat myself other than to say the people are beautiful, the history incredible, the landscapes incomparable, the food so delectable and the society so respectable. What more could you want? We loved Myanmar…especially the people.
Tomorrow we fly back to Thailand to spend a few weeks so today was our final day in Myanmar. We are sad to be leaving however we had to make a point of seeing some of the sights around Yangon. As mentioned in our last post the traffic here is civil but very congested and today was no different and we did learn one interesting fact through noticing there were no motorcycles in the city. They are banned and the reason was too many people were dying in accidents so they are not allowed in the city any longer and so this explains why the roads are so congested. Our first stop was to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda. This pagoda is the most sacred in Myanmar and has a very interesting history which I’ll quote from the map they give you at the entrance. We didn’t take many pictures because it was so hot and uncomfortable. You must be barefoot when you visit any pagoda and the tile flooring was scorching in areas.
Brief history of the Shwedagon Pagoda
“In about 588 BC, Gautama Buddha obtained enlightenment and while He journeyed in seven places two merchants, Taphussa and Ballika offered Him alms-food. Having obtained eight strands of hair from Him as a blessing, they returned to Okkalapa land where they were welcomed back by the multitudes led by King Okkalapa. King Okkalapa enshrined Buddha’s hairs together and the relics of three Buddhas before him…the staff of Kakusanda Buddha, the water filter of Kawnagamana Buddha and the netherrobe of Kassapa Buddha in a ceti 66 feet (44 cubits) high which they consecrated as the Shwedagon. Because it contained the relics of four Buddhas who had attained enlightenment, it was known as Shwedagon, the Reliquary of the Four. From about 588 BC to the 14th century, the Shwedagon was maintained by 32 kings of the Okkalapa dynasty and since 1372 AD by kings Banya U, Banyayan, Banyagyandaw and others. In 1453 when Queen Shin Saw Pu (ha ha) ascended the throne she had it raised to a height of 302 feet and in 1774, King Sinbyushin had it rebuilt to a height of 326 feet.” It is a very impressive pagoda.
The pagoda is surrounded by small temples interspersed with a specific temple for a specific day of the week called “Planetary Posts”. Each post has a Buddha image and devotees will leave offerings of flowers and pour water over the Buddha and pray for good luck and good health for themselves or others. It is a good Karmic deed. Below is Joyce at her sister’s planetary post.
Drenched in sweat we cooled down in our AC taxi stuck in traffic on our way to Kandawgyi Lake to see the famous Karaweik, a concrete replica of a Burmese royal barge built in 1972. We actually thought it was a palace but it is a very nice restaurant and you couldn’t go inside unless you were going to eat there. Oh well.
Time for lunch so we asked our driver to find us a place where we could get some good Shan noodle soup. He didn’t disappoint. We stopped into the Shan Noodle House and each had a great soup. Delicious and sadly our last truly ethnic Burmese meal.
Comfortably full our last stop was Chauk-htat-gyi Buddha Temple. The reclining Buddha inside the temple is 216 feet long and is one of the largest in Myanmar. Construction started in 1899 by a wealthy Burmese Buddhist and was completed in 1907 by a different construction company. The image was not proportioned correctly and the Buddha had an aggressive expression on its face so in the 1950’s, the old Buddha image was demolished and work began to replace the image under the supervision of a master craftsman. It is a BIG Buddha!
I had to do a little research on the aircraft we flew on from Heho to Ngapali and Ngapali to Yangon as it seemed similar to an old Soviet aircraft we thought we were going to die in on a flight in Cuba several years ago. The Cuba plane was dual prop and rear loading but had no windows while the dual prop plane in Myanmar was rear loading but did have windows and an air conditioning system that didn’t spew fog and freak everyone out thinking the plane was on fire. It was a much nicer plane, an ATR 72, built in France and Italy. We had never flown in one of these so this was a first and second. It took off, it flew, it landed so a very good airplane as far as we’re concerned. Yangon has a sparkling new airport but maybe it only sparkles in the International arrival section. It is small and nice in the domestic area and there is no hassle when you leave the arrivals area. The taxi guys are nice and non-pushy, typical of this country so far, and the drive to our hotel was pleasant, The roads in Yangon are good. There are traffic lights that people respect. They don’t blow their horns, they drive in their lanes and it is oh so civil. The city, what we have seen so far is clean and litter free. There are next to no motorcycles, only cars and a few bicycles. The air is clean but traffic jams do seem to be a bit of a problem from the little we’ve seen so not fair to lay judgment just yet.
So, we had a late lunch at Hard Rock Cafe, Yangon. Who would a thunk. Located in the great big new Myanmar Plaza, Yangon’s first international retail shopping centre, we decided it was time for a burger. A quite expensive burger. Two burgers with cheese and bacon, fries and a shared Caesar salad, about $58.00 CAD. Ouch, but we haven’t had a beef burger since the airport in Male airport (Burger King) in the Maldives and I think it cost pretty close to the same. Moral of the story, don’t eat junk food, especially American chain junk food. It’s expensive but it fills this little craving that you get from time to time and then sits as a great big lump in your stomach and you want to go to sleep and your thirst keeps you awake and then you want another one. Hmmm.. I see a pattern here.
Tomorrow we will set out to explore this city of close to 8 million people, the largest in Myanmar. The city boasts the largest collection of colonial era buildings in SE Asia and is home to the gilded Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar’s most sacred Buddhist pagoda.
Today is our last day at Ngapoli Beach before heading to Yangon tomorrow to what we’re told is a busy and congested city. We shall see. We’ll have spent 6 nights and 5 full days here and we were lucky to find a great place at a reasonable price. The beach here is pristine, palm-tree-fringed white sand with crystal clear waters lying on the Bay of Bengal and apparently has the reputation as Myanmar’s premier beach getaway but through either luck or time of year there were very people here so all we could hear on the beach was the birds, waves, wind in the palms and the very occasional boat motor. Local women (and a “lady boy” in the women’s words) occasionally stopped by to sell us fresh fruit and coconuts and were never bothersome or insistent if we didn’t want any. They always had a poise and grace and happy smile and you just couldn’t help but to be happy and smile along with them. This is actually the description I’ll use in my Myanmar summary so please excuse the repeat when you see it because this is what stands out in this country. The people. All ages, all walks of life, all so very warm and welcoming with their beautiful happy smiles. They are lovely people and it was so refreshing.
We didn’t really do much here except chill on the beach, swim, eat, drink and watch the sunsets and then eat again and crash after a very tough day of walking 100 metres from our hotel to the beach, getting up from our lounge chairs for a dip, slowly meandering back to our chairs, flipping sides, snoozing a little and then repeating but hey, somebody has to do it!
We stayed at the River Top Lodge which we would highly recommend. It is located across the main road from the beach which is about a 100 metre walk. The staff was all fantastic and obviously well trained. The housecleaning staff was impeccable, everything worked perfectly in the room, and the restaurant served up a very nice buffet style breakfast which was included in the room price. We could honestly say that this hotel is the best run establishment we have stayed at in a very long time. It may be rated as a 3-4 star hotel but it is definitely rated a 5 star in our books due to the high level of service and attention to detail. My only negative is everything was priced in US Dollars and the price of a beer was quite expensive at $4.00 except during happy hour but this was offset by the very affordable food pricing although still in US $. In Myanmar, all hotel pricing is in US dollars and they charge you US dollars or the equivalent exchange rate of the day. Maybe these places are foreign-owned but I’m not so sure. I can understand if their currency is being ravaged by inflation but outside of the hotels at the local establishments the prices are quoted in Burmese Kyat (pronounced “chat”) and prices are definitely cheaper. We need to dig a little deeper into this to find out why. My only warning to the business people of Myanmar is, be careful. Don’t price yourselves out of the middle class and backpacker crowd. They are your bread and butter tourists and if you cater exclusively to high-end tourists and charge high prices you will soon see your idyllic beaches and villages ravaged by foreign hotel operators who will build big ugly resorts, filled with big ugly people who have no respect for your way of life and you will soon be very upset and regret the way things have changed. We have seen this time and time again.
Damn, that sounded like my summary of Myanmar. I’m sure I’ll think of much more to say.
Beach time then the never-ending blog updating time.
Today was our final road journey before flying to Ngapali Beach tomorrow for 5 full days of beach time. We had a short day which started in Kalaw where we headed East then North to the village of Pindaya. There is a small lake in town where we did a pit stop to have a look and then proceeded up into the nearby hills to visit the Shwe Oo Min natural cave temple.
Before driving up into the mountains we stopped at a local craft shop where they make beautiful umbrellas, writing paper, envelopes, light shades and a multitude of other paper oriented products. The paper is made from the bark of the Mulberry tree. The bark is dried and then soaked in brine for 12 hours. Once soaked the pulp is well, hammered to a pulp for about 15 minutes and then put into a small pot and then stirred. They then take the pulpous sludge, spread it onto a screen submerged in water, spread it around evenly and then drain the water from the screen and set the resultant mash in the sun to dry. The result is Mulberry paper which they peel off of the screen and use for a myriad of applications. One very talented man works in the corner preparing bamboo to use as the umbrellas support and locking mechanism. It’s hard to describe but we were wowed! A very simple procedure to make paper yet so foreign to us.
The Shwe Oo Min cave temple is the same name as the Shwe Oo Min temple we saw outside of Kalaw. It is the She Oo Min Temple Pindaya. It is a huge natural cave that hosts thousands? of Buddha figures in a cavernous mountain cave that stretches probably about 750 metres into the mountainside. Buddhas everywhere! We spent at least an hour in the caves and then caught some fresh air and a view of Pindaya from the cave entrance. I will probably say it later but the people of Myanmar love their Buddhas.
After a long day we arrived in Kalaw where we will we spend two nights. Nestled in the Shan Mountains, the town is like every other village we have seen. Clean, organized and relaxed. We have said several time to each other that we are amazed by the difference between this country and India. I know, two different countries, different populations etc. but when you invoke an image of Burma, Myanmar for us anyway, we imagined far less development. It has been a very pleasant surprise. The next morning we headed out to explore two cave temples and a visit to the Nee Paya where a 500-year-old bamboo Buddha is housed.
Shwe Oo Min Cave Temple
Hnee Paya and a 500-year-old bamboo Buddha
Myin Ma Hti Caves
Kalaw by day and night