Monday, December 19, 2016

Myanmar, Day 3: Mount Kyaiktiyo

We rose early this morning, our last full day in Yangon, to travel to Mount Kyaiktiyo, the Golden Rock, another Buddhist holy site at which we could see a giant gold boulder balancing at the summit of the mountain. It was a 3-hour drive to the mountain, so we had to get an early start and departed at 5AM. There wasn't much to see until the sun came up when we were outside the city. There were many makeshift buses on the roadtrucks, really, that had been converted into busesstuffed with commuters going to work. Some of the buses were so full that people were simply riding on top of them! It wasn't uncommon to see a truck with 5 or 6 people on the roof. When our driver, Zo, picked us up, he was listening to what sounded like Buddhist chanting, but after about an hour, he switched to a  CD of popular music from the West that included songs by artists such as The Beatles, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Neal Sedaka that was the soundtrack for the rest of the day.

How many people can go up the mountain at one time?
Eventually, we arrived and parked, and then our driver walked us over to the loading area where there were many large trucks full of people. We were shuffled about and finally squeezed in with everyone else looking to drive up to see the Golden Rock. After the 45-minute, pedal-to-the-metal grind up the mountain, we climbed out of the truck and proceeded toward the Golden Rock that we could see in the distance at the end of an asphalt path at the top of flight of stairs. As we had done a couple days prior when we entered Shwedagon Pagoda, we had to pay a fee of 10,000 kyats each (about $7 each) to enter the Bago Archaeological Zone and an additional fee to enter the site itself by purchasing the Foreigner Entrance Fee Card, which was $6 per person. You can see us wearing the emblems of commercialism around our necks in the picture below. With a variety of irregularly shaped buildings and some giant bells and gongs to bang on, the site was, otherwise, not particularly impressive, although it was deep in the mountains, and so the natural setting away from the Golden Rock was quite beautiful to behold. A number of small groups looked like they were having picnics, but Angela observed that they had probably spent the night.

On the footpath to The Golden Rock.
There were hundreds of Burmese people, but almost none that looked like tourists, which appealed to us. It's one thing to see tourists at the main attractions in the capital city, but it's another thing to travel 3 hours away from the capitalit requires a more serious commitment. Anyway, there were numerous vendors along the short pathway leading to the stairway at which point we had to remove our shoes before treading on the sacred ground. Along the way, I bought what looked like some spicy fried potato pancakes and sticky rice that was covered in coconut to eat. All told, we did not stay more than two hours. We weren't terribly pleased with our decision to visit the Golden Rock: it was a long journey and, as we weren't on a religious pilgrimage and didn't have prayer at the heart of our visit, we certainly missed the significance of the experience.

The return to our hotel was unremarkable. Zo seemed to think we liked the Western music so much that we listened to the same CD for the entirety of our 3-hour return trip to Yangon. We were tired and the three of us nodded off at different points along the way. We stopped at an unremarkable restaurant on the way back and then,, after resting and freshening up a bit and then not straying too far from our hotel, we went out for an unremarkable dinner.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Myanmar, Day 2: The Yangon Circular Railway

The next morning, tired from traveling and looking for a milder sightseeing experience to help us acclimate to the new time zone, the three of us headed out to catch the Yangon Circular Railway train, which traveled along a circular route around the suburbs of Yangon; the round trip lasted about 2½ hours from start to finish and was recommended on many travel sites. One ticket was 200 Ks (just about 15¢) so it really made for a worthwhile gamble to cover a bit more ground and see a wider swathe of the people.

videoThe train arrived as scheduled and we climbed aboard. Train cars were full but not overly crowded; we found seats easily and there was room for people to walk up and down the center of each carriage. A handful of the other passengers looked like tourists, but, for the most part, the train seemed to be full of Burmese people. We clacked along from station to station and, while the countryside was beautiful, the real entertainment was watching the people: red-grinned men selling packets of green leaf-wrapped betel-nut came and went, women boarding at each stop carrying large metal basins on their heads full of different edible items who prepared what looked like spicy salads flecked with chili pepper and dressed with an abundance of herbs and sauces or selling what appeared to be fried bread or varieties of sticky rice, kids clustering everywhere selling everything from bread to water.

About halfway through the trip, the train had nearly emptied, but, at what was essentially the furthest point outside Yangon, there was a flurry of excitement and many people suddenly climbed on board, loading big barrel-sized burlap bags of produce through the windows and doors and filling the train car with the goods that they were apparently bringing into the city, much of it unidentifiable to us. There were so many bags loaded under the seats and in the central aisle that there really wasn't any room to move about.

Our ride came to an end, and we exited the station with the rest of the passengers, hungry but excited about everything we had seen. We wandered into a nearby neighborhood to look for a Burmese restaurant, which we found, but which also did not impress us much, and then we walked through a street market. We noticed that, along with the many colonial buildings in the area, there were also many mosques. It was surprising because we did not expect to see so many and it really hadn't been described in any of the guides that we had read before traveling to Myanmar. We were essentially in the city center, notable for Sule Pagoda in the middle of a roundabout, but it was hot and we were too tired to enter. We continued walking until we reached The Strand Hotel, stopped for a coffee, and then, exhausted from the long train ride and walk, we caught a cab back to our hotel to take a nap before going back out in the evening.

Sule Pagoda from our taxi.
For dinner, we hailed a cab and asked to go to Feel Myanmar, a street food eatery specializing in local cuisine. Stations to prepare various dishes were set up on the sidewalk and in front of the restaurant. Little low stainless steel tables and plastic stools were arranged in the street near the sidewalks, and many people were making food and many others were eating. Most of the seats were taken, in fact, but we found an empty spot. We walked around ordered numerous plates of noodles and salads, and really enjoyed the surprising dishes that we tried.

Shwedagon Pagoda from the
Merchant Art Boutique Hotel rooftop.
Toward the end of our meal, an older couple seated next to us at the same table started speaking with us. They were surprised that Vito was eating the food. After talking for a while, we found out that they lived in Vacaville, California, which is my hometown! It's funny, sometimes, how the world conspires to bring things together. We talked a bit more with the friendly couple, finished eating, and then when back to our hotel for a nightcap at the rooftop bar of our hotel.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Myanmar, Day 1: Doha Departure & Yangon Arrival

Friday evening, the three of us left Doha at 8:20PM and flew 5½ hours before landing at our destination: Yangon, Myanmar. Some people are not familiar with Myanmar and recognize the country by its former name, Burma. Even though I was relieved of my scholastic responsibilities by 3PM on Thursday and could leave the country at that time, we couldn't leave then as there were no flights available. So, after school on Thursday, we went to see the new movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them at the Gulf Mall, ate a quick meal at Shake Shack and then went home to open Christmas presents. We wanted to open our Christmas presents so early, because we would be traveling on the holiday, and, even though there weren't very many gifts, we didn't want to lug them around during our vacation. In any case, Vito had customized his letter to Santa this year and held out hopes that the naughty-or-nice guardian would leave something particular under our tree in Doha and also deliver something to him wherever we were in our travels.

There is about a five hour time different between Qatar and Myanmar so, even though the flight was relatively short, we arrived in the morning (which would have made it around 2AM for us if we had stayed in Qatar). I don't remember doing much aside from eating on the plane. We were served a beverage and a light snack shortly after takeoff and then served breakfast just before landingit seemed excessive for such a short flight, but we weren't really complaining. After disembarking, clearing customs, gathering our two suitcases, exchanging US dollars for Myanmarian Kyats (sounds like 'chat') and arranging a taxi to our hotel, we reached our final destination, the Merchant Art Boutique Hotel, by 7:30AM. The few couches in the small lobby were full of guests (I could recognize that four of them were speaking Italianwith their backpacks and luggage who looked like they had also just arrived on the same early flight as us, which wasn't a good sign, and we were really much too early to check in so the room wasn't ready. We asked to leave our suitcases, and, even though both Angela and I had not slept much (Vito had slept for about three hours) we coated ourselves with mosquito repellant and headed out to explore the neighborhood around our hotel.

The location turned out to be quite well-considered. Winding our way through the criss-cross streets and through a roadside market that was readying itself for another day, we stumbled across a small temple, removed our shoes and socks, and entered to look around. It was relatively unremarkable aside from a large pond brimming with gigantic catfish. When we had finished, we climbed a tall hill, a wood-covered and columned stairway lined with vendors, to the entrance of Shwedagon Pagoda, perhaps Myanmar's most famous sight. The high walls were decorated with elaborate and brightly painted scenes carved into wood. We paid the 24,000 Kyat foreign entrance fee (approximately$18) and received a brochure that indicated multiple entrances, one at each of the east, north, south and west entrances.

videoThe stunning central stupaa great, wide, golden, pregnant behemoth around which every other structure crowdedcould be seen from the bottom of the hill and was surrounded by statues and stupas and towers of all shapes and sizes, most of them covered in gold or gold leaf or painted gold, and all of them surrounding the main immense stupa in the center of the complex. The site was an impressive and surreal feast for the senses. Starting with the removal of footwear, which put us in contact with the world in a way that we were not used to, we joined the monks in their maroon robes, the nuns in their pink ones, and the rest of the pilgrims and tourists thronging around the great stupa. We could smell incense and hear bells and gongs reverberating through the complex periodically. People were kneeling and praying, lighting candles and setting out flowers. Many of the stupas, studded with diamonds and other jewels, were crowned with a circular lattice of bells that could be heard tinkling faintly in the breeze.We spent a couple of hours exploringVito discovered that there were numerous bells to strike, and he made it his mission to seek them out. We also learned that there were eight 'corners' around the stupa, and that each of them corresponded with an entrance and at which water could be poured over a representative statue. There were nice Myanmar men (identifiable by the longyis that, incidentally, both men and women worewide garments wrapped around the waist and tied in a knot at the frontthat they were wearing) with laminated cards who could identify anyone's day of birth, so we all learned what the days or our birth and then looked for the respective animals (Angela's animal was a rat, Vito's a tiger, and mine the lion) to bathe the Buddha statue in that location. We were tired and thirsty and hungry so we returned to our hotel to see if we could check in, but it was still too early. The hotel's restaurant was, at least, open for breakfast by then, so we found a table to sit down and eat.

The buffet food was nothing to brag about with the exception of mohinga, a kind traditional Burmese noodle dish incorporating chickpea flour and fish paste among other typical ingredients, which we tried here for the first time. After eating, our room was still not ready. Vito was exhausted and went to sleep on a sofa in an empty lounge next to the restaurant and I waited in the lobby. Angela stayed with Vito, resting herself, and noticed, too late, that Vito was getting bitten by mosquitoes. We were worried about mosquito bites, because we had heard that the prevalence of Dengue fever was higher in recent months due to a wetter than usual rainy season. Anyhow, by about 12PM, our room was finally ready, we settled in to take a nap.

We went out again at around 4PM and, not really knowing what else to do, we went back to Shwedagon Pagoda. We had read that it was particularly beautiful at sunrise or sunset and, having missed sunrise, thought to return there for a walk before looking for 999 Shan Noodle Shop restaurant for dinner.

It was about thirty minutes before closing and the little hole-in-the-wall restaurant was full when we arrived, but the waiters made room for us at a table with another couple so we didn't have to wait for a seat. When space at a larger table opened up, they moved us to that table where two German guys were already eating. The noodles were remarkable and we made small talk with our table mates wishing them a happy holidays when they finished eating and left the table. We were the last to finish and caught a cab back to our hotel. We weren't quite ready for bed, and we went up to the rooftop bar of our hotel, which had a lovely view of Swedagon Pagoda.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

The Holiday Season

We're in the middle of the holiday season again, or, well, it was closer to the middle last week when I started writing this post. Anyway, I have always loved this time of the year—and I still do—even though it's a little different in the desert. For instance, with the call to prayer sounding out across the city, we went to the beach to go swimming last Friday morning, which is not a typically winter activity for us. In past years, it has been too cool to enjoy the beach, but this year has been an exception. Even though the holidays are a little different here, Angela and I still want to expose Vito to our traditions while he develops these new ones...

The holiday season really starts with Halloween on the last day of October. Many here in Qatar consider Halloween a forbidden celebration, but events still take place in the ex-pat communities. There is a certain amount of preparation involved in the requisite holiday costuming necessary for Halloween, so the hype actually begins a little before the end of the month. There are enough activities and parties, however, so that we don't miss the holiday's purer stateside version. Vito's school, The American School of Doha, usually holds a gigantic Halloween carnival complete with carnival games, haunted hallways and trick-or-treating (although it was cancelled this year due to construction on campus), but, in addition to what his school has established, for the past few years, Vito has also gone trick-or-treating in multiple compounds around Doha.

The next holiday is Thanksgiving, which arrives at the end of November. For the past five years, we have brined and baked a turkey, and invited guests to a Thanksgiving potluck dinner at our apartment. Thursday is the end of the work week here and, as most adults work during the day, we have started throwing our party on the day after Thanksgiving. Many of our guests are not American, so it has changed the flavor of the event, somewhat, but it has become a nice new tradition for us and for the few that have annually returned. The day after the party, we clean up the Thanksgiving mess, put the Christmas tree together and decorate for that holiday.

As usual, Christmas really throws its weight around at the end of December. Obviously, the Christmas emphasis is greatly reduced in this part of the world, but we do our best to celebrate. Last week, Angela and I strung a string of lights around our windows in the living room. As Angela is Italian and I am American, we have two slightly different ideas about how to celebrate Christmas, so navigating The expectations of The Befana, the family and Santa can be challenging. Christmas is always further complicated, because, once the semester ends, many teaching families leave to return to their native lands or to travel. It ends up shortening the time allotted for celebration considerably, because people have to get their social events arranged before people leave the city. We don't cut our own Christmas tree, either, as we used to do when Vito was a baby, but we have a little plastic Christmas tree to assemble that someone gave us when we first arrived here in Doha.

New Year's Eve caps off the holiday season on the last day of the year to ring in a new one, which closes out two full months of celebration-worthy occasions and chaos. Happy holidays!