Yangon, Myanmar, February 2016 part 2

  The sounds here remind us we are in a different place, and it sometimes feels like a different age. In the early mornings before sunrise, there is a Muslim call to prayer. It is sung by a man over a loudspeaker and it is full of haunting minor notes, otherworldly and ancient. Later in the dawn and after, vendors sing about their wares, sometimes melodious and sometimes sharp songs. A few times daily, we hear someone ringing ‘goooonnngg’ on a large bell, like when a clock rings the hour but it does not match the hour. People sing to themselves as they work in shops and out on the sidewalks. There are many crows and we hear them calling individually and in groups. Once we watched three men toss bricks to each other from truck to building; we did not hear them but their movements were like a graceful song or dance. We always know when a sugar cane juice vendor is near because there are small bells on the grinding-machine. The bells dance and jingle as the grinding-wheels turn. In the evening, again we hear the call to prayer, and after that we have heard children singing in the mosque.

Our first week here was filled with finding hotels, homeschooling, dealing with one of our party’s GI bug, and filing for documents to cross overland to India. While doing these things, we had the immense pleasure of dealing with some if the gentlest, nicest people we have ever met! Just this evening, we enjoyed a couple of hours talking with a local young woman with excellent English. July is her name, she is Muslim but not strict (she wore jeans and a t-shirt and no veil), she is 21 but looks Fiercely’s age. She was born here to a Chinese mother and Indian father. She educated us about the delicious products, mostly Indian, at her family’s ice cream store as we ordered and devoured them. She loved talking with the twins and, like most people we’ve met all over Asia, she smiles and laughs genuinely and frequently. She ordered us a custard dessert, no charge, and insisted we take her tube of mosquito repellant she had shown us from her bag (we had been discussing mosquitos) despite our protests. I suppose there are people this nice in Philadelphia, but we meet them here multiple times a day!

 I also have to describe our hotels. They are more expensive here and there are less vacancies than in Thailand, but we have landed in two really great ones. I had written a list before we left our Bangkok apartment, and we chose one to show the cab driver as we entered Yangon. It turned out to be the most comfortable and best priced (2 rooms, a bit under $50 total) of the 5 or so we looked at for comparison the next day. It had small, windowless, low-ceilinged rooms that were made wonderfully cozy with recent renovations and excellent design. The bathrooms were gorgeous, the towels and bedding were high quality, breakfast was included and it was quite good. Due to our unclear schedule, though, we could not reserve more than a day in advance and they had no vacancies after 3 nights.  

 We had to scramble for other options, so we looked at the rest of the list and any others we came across. All except one were either too expensive, had no breakfast, had no wifi, and/or had kinda shabby rooms. And so we ended up on the top floor of the 8-story, airy, mosaic-tiled quirky hotel where we stayed for several nights(above). Every level had many openings to the outside streets, and it was full of fresh air and muted street sounds. We had two rooms, one kind of ordinary and one with four levels, its own bathroom, and four beds. The staff doted on the kids, giving them presents and spending time drawing with them. Here’s the big room:

 We did manage to see the famous Shwegadon pagoda, the National Museum (excellent), Botataung Paya, and we stayed near Sule Paya so we saw that every day. We also took the ferry across the Yangon River to Dalah, though we didn’t make it to the town of Twante as I’d hoped. These places were wonderful and I hope to add pictures here soon. But I think we will more remember the people and the sounds and the general atmosphere more than the structures. 

 An interesting note to Myanmar temples in general is that, though they may be thousands of years old, they are usually restored and do not look like ruins. It appears that they may frequently or always be under some sort of renovation. We noticed several parts of structures covered with woven grass mats, yellow primer while being painted gold, and workers actively restoring as we watched. 

And it was time to leave Yangon. We had our Indian visas, and we decided to get on a night train to Mandalay…

Yangon, Myanmar, February 2016

So there we were in Myanmar! Our 7th country since leaving the US and we still haven’t been on a plane! It was so pleasing to just watch the world go by as we rode to the capital city of Yangon. Rice paddies in several states of growing, long wooden houses on stilts with little protruding windows-some with stained glass, rubber tree farms with sheets of rubber hanging out in the sun, small towns, goats. We stopped a few times to eat noodles and vegetables. We bumped along the road. We saw wooden carts with wooden wheels pulled by oxen!    Above: rubber tree farm with sheets drying at center. Below: stilted wooden house with small stained glass window box below roof   

 Getting there was a bit arduous. We left Bangkok on an overnight 8-hour bus to the Mae Sot border. There were no beds on this bus, but the seats were fairly comfortable. Also on the plus side, we arrived nice and early to cross over the border and… get on another bus, a minivan actually.   Below: Fiercely, Really, and Cleverly with backpacks at border

 It was a little chaotic at first. We had our Myanmar visas, we packed and moved out of our apartment successfully, but in all the excitement we neglected to learn a few key things- local currency exchange rate, some Burmese phrases, how many hours to Yangon, how to get to Yangon. I had been following a blog post about crossing the border here but the writers had not gone to Yangon from the border- oops, I had failed to notice that. 

We spoke to a friendly English-speaking local at the border who contacted a minivan for us. I’m not sure this was the right way to go about this, but we felt the price was fair- $13 per person for the 8 to 10 hour trip- and we could leave right away. They told us the exchange rate was K1300 to $1, which turned out to be accurate, BTW. Was there a bus station? I’m not sure. I was a little worried since the last time I trusted an English-speaking local at a border I was scammed in Cambodia, but I think this time we did ok.  Locals in Myanmar are famously trustworthy and honest, or so we’d been told. That, and having gotten so comfortable in Bangkok, we were not acting like very savvy travelers that day.

We spent the entire day in a rather small minivan with about six other passengers, all locals. The road, contrary to what several blogs reported, had a lane in each direction. We had been prepared to stay a night in Myawaddy in case we were there the eastbound day and had to wait for the next day, when traffic went west. (Not sure how I missed it, but I just checked wiki travel and there it is, the two-direction travel started in July 2015). 

  Above: girl with thanaka on face, man with longyi (facing away) on right 

The things that immediately stood out to me that were different from Thailand were: men wearing longyi (traditional men’s skirts), people with thanaka paste on their faces (a 2,000 year old sunscreen), and red splashes on the streets and sidewalks from people chewing and spitting red betel nut juice. 

Above: some more men in longyi, I’m a little obsessed with this because I think they look so cool!

I learned at a Thai museum that the traditional clothing and betel nut chewing were outlawed there when westernization was being encouraged in the early 1900’s. Not so in Myanmar. It felt very exotic.  As time went by, I noticed more subtle things like there are no sellers of tourist paraphenalia such as t-shirts and the ubiquitous elephant-printed pants as we have seen since leaving China. There are no motorbikes like those that crowded the Bangkok streets. People noticed us and smiled as always, but it was slower and we were more likely to have a conversation. 

We arrived at the Yangon bus station and were surprised at the cost to get to Yangon- over $10. One driver told me it was 2 kms, which is not far at all, but it turned out to be a language issue and he meant two hours. Another driver was willing to take us for less, so we went with him, but decided to pay him $20 when realizing our mistake. We hope he gave some money to the first driver. The ride took well over an hour and will always make for a good story because we were regaled with no less than fourteen consecutive videos on the dashboard screen by Pitbull- a kind of torture but oh so funny, too. We were loopy after about 20 straight hours of busses.

So far, we have been in Yangon about six days. We have been working on the complicated process of going to India overland from here. We need Indian visas and a special permit from Myanmar to enter the region that contains the Myanmar-India border crossing. Hopefully I will be writing about a successful crossing in a few weeks! For now, I will note that we registered with the government organization Myanmar Tourist and Travel for the permits, and we used a small company at a storefront near the Indian embassy called EarthLink to help with the India visa process. We could not get an e-visa for India because those only work for airport entry to the country. 

Total cost for the six of us for these documents is approximately $1000- very steep but still cheaper than airfare for us ($3000), and it allows us to see less travelled parts of both countries. As always, we have more time than money and we think and hope we are making the best choice.

Internet is not terrible here but I will put off posting many photos because it really slows my ability to blog. I will add photos later. Thanks for reading! Wish us luck!

Our last few weeks in Bangkok, January 2016, part 2

  Fiercely and I went to a wonderful half-day Thai cooking class. We started out at the market with our instructor, who showed us Thai herbs and other ingredients. Here is lemongrass:

  And cilantro and Thai basil: 
Next, we went to their adorable classroom building. 

    
 We made coconut cream and coconut milk. She showed us a special stool with a type of coconut grater on one end. We squeezed the grated coconut meat with water to make the milk. After standing for a while, the cream separates on top, just like it does with cow’s milk. 

    
 The rest of the day we cut veggies and cooked on gas stove tips. We made five dishes, including mango sticky rice for dessert! 

    
    
This is a green curry (right)and the dessert:

 
Koh Larn

We went back to the island for more snorkeling. It was just as nice the second time, but it was relatively cold and windy. The water was nice and warm but it was downright chilly getting out! We had a great time. Those are the twins in the foreground:

    
We rented motorbikes again and explored some areas that were new to us. It really is a nice getaway, and so close- under four hours from our apartment to the island beach. That includes the 40-minute ferry ride and everything!

  
 

Biking We spent a day on rented bikes at the “lung of Bangkok”. I loved it so much I wrote a separate post about it to help others find and enjoy the place! Relatedly, we went for a THIRD time on the Bangkok bike tour with GoBangkok. It is just such a great way to spend a day and it never gets old. There’s Really in the center wearing bike helmet in Chinatown market:

  

There’s Truly and Cleverly, also in helmets:

  
  

Here’s a lady with her baby in backseat basket who inadvertently joined our little bike parade for a block or so:

  

The gorgeous Wat Arun:

  
Here’s a decorated Bodhi tree ficus religiosa believed to be the species under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment. Large ones are often decorated with fabric.

 This one happened to have a shrine at the base as well. You can see a picture of the king at top left,  lots of flower garlands, a Thai flag at center, and offerings of drinks to the Buddha (complete with straws!) at bottom center:

 

Other than moving out of our apartment and finding the right bus station, that’s about it for Bangkok. We’re sad to go, but excited for our next stop- Myanmar!

More on toilets!

  I can’t resist- there is so much weirdness and we encounter it every day!

Most toilets we see, like the one in our apartment, are Western-type with a hand-held nozzle in place of toilet paper. In public places, like a bus station, there are some squatties as well.  

 Oooh- a squattie with a flush!

Of course, squatties are the norm for a lot of people around here, which is why an explanation of western toilets is necessary (see first photo above). If you squat on a western toilet, things may not end well for either of you. Don’t be like this poor hippo! 

 At the other extreme, at a particularly fancy mall we frequent called Terminal 21, there are the Japan-style automated toilets which have more options than one would think possible for this most basic of human acts. 

   
I embraced the Japanese-type toilet experience until an unfortunate interaction with one over enthusiastic bidet, which I rather felt should have taken me to dinner and had my consent beforehand-ahem-it was then I decided it was time to go back to good old toilet paper.  

 Toilet paper, of course, is not always available, or (see above) free. We try to bring it with us. 

Now check this out:

 In other toilet news, we have had the honor of using the Best Public Toilet of the Year (2012)! You can’t say we didn’t take advantage of the best Bangkok has to offer. The Terminal 21 mall is where we saw this commemorative plaque and it really does have amazing restrooms! There is at least one on each floor of the multistory, travel-themed mall and each has a theme such as a rainforest, Americana, glamor:

 Or public transportation: 
 Or fishing: 

 The view out the giant window from the fishing bathroom:  
These are really over the top. There are bathroom attendants, too, who I swear clean each toilet after each use. BTW, there is an amazing, budget food court at this mall as well, so between that and the bathrooms, it’s like a second home. We eat and pee there frequently and with enthusiasm.

*addendum: I am proud to say that during our last few days in Bangkok, we found the time to visit every bathroom at terminal 21. I highly recommend this unusual, self-guided, free activity! Several, including the Istanbul, Caribbean, and Japanese pop art ones, I had not seen. We all agreed that the Roman one-complete with statues, marble columns, and a massive circular hand washing sink- was most impressive!

Bangkachao, Pra Padaeng District, Thailand, January 2016

  The lung of Bangkok? Yes please! We spent a day in Bangkachao, as seen by NASA about a year ago here. I had heard of it, but only through kinda pricey bike tour companies that charge for bike rental and a guide. We did it on our own and I wanted to write this stuff down so it’s easier for others to check out this delightful green space just across the river from bustling Bangkok.  

  The hardest part was getting to the Bangkok pier. The taxi driver wanted to drive us all the way to the area, which is unnecessary and less fun. The bike rental place wrote this for me to show the taxi driver “next time”. 

 Also, here is a map with pier shown: 

 There are bike rental places on both sides of the river. There are also other piers to reach Bangkachao, but I believe this was closest for us. We took a taxi from the Phra Kanong BTS station to the Khlong Toey Pier. From there, we took these long tail boats across the Chao Phraya River.  

  

  

 Once there, we rented these adorable, sturdy bikes from a small rental place that had only been open 3 months and was eager for our business.  They even loaned us baseball caps since we had forgotten ours. Oh, no helmets were available BTW.

 Bikes were just 90 baht ($2.51) per day. The Bangkok bike tour places charge 700-900 baht per person for a guided 3-hour tour, so this worked better for us.

 
   

We headed off onto small roads with almost no car traffic. 

   
There are wats to see, and something called a fighting fish gallery but we mostly just biked along, enjoying the quiet, green surroundings. We stopped at this lovely park, Sri Nakhon Khueankhon Park:

 

The paths here were even nicer than the ones outside the park. There were bridges and wooden walkways, and this amazing  Nipa Palm everywhere. Apparently it has many uses for food, roof material, and fencing.

    
 

We also checked out the birds from this viewing platform.  

   
The bird songs were a wonderful background to our day. 

Following a random path, the kids found this little barge to cross a small river: wow!!

    
 We had an excellent lunch out of someone’s garage, or so it seemed.    It was a mom-and-pop place which seemed delighted to see us. Thais in general love kids, and our friend K, 11, is half Thai and fluent in the language, so with all 5 kids we got a lot of love!

   There were a few homey little places like this for lunch. It was a weekday, so some things- such as the floating market- were not open. It was a quiet, sleepy little area with people waving to us now and then as we biked along.

 We biked to the other end of the area and found another pier, this one with a larger ferry and larger bike rental shop. 

   

Not too far from there was the eco-hotel we kept hearing about, the Treehouse. It really is a neat design. 

    
 After that, we went back to the pier. We went down a few of the elevated cement pathways we had been seeing. 

  

Some are a little scary since they are a few feet off the ground but have a rail only one one side, or no rail at all.

 

When we returned the bikes, the rental shop owner gave us all these cute handmade key chains.  

 On the way back, the taxi driver took us to the Phrom Phong BTS station, which he thought was closest. There was a lot of traffic at this time of day, around 5pm. It was a shorter ride than in the morning, since it was easier to describe where we were going. We were a little tired, and we headed home. What a great day!! 

 

Our last few weeks in Bangkok, January 2016

  Bangkok, you’ve been good to us! Homeschool community, easy transport to beaches and Cambodia, some income, a nice apartment, excellent field trips. I’m not sure what comes next, but it will be hard to beat the past few months. Anyway, here are our last few Bangkok weeks.

We spent a nice afternoon at the Bangkok Arts and Cultural Center, right off the Siam BTS station. The building is so sleek, all white and modern, and there is so much natural light. You can walk up a spiraling ramp to the top floor! 

 

The admission was free for all of us, and we saw the two large exhibits in the galleries (photography by the popular Thai HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn and Thai abstract artist Ithipol Thangcholok) well as a hallway exhibit of adorable Czech children’s book art. The kids spent most of their time coloring beautiful coloring pages in a nice area set up for just that. 

   

We ended up at the Museum of Siam kind of by mistake. A tuk tuk driver brought us there despite our  request to “turn RIGHT!” in two languages several streets before. It was so hot and the museum had been on our radar anyway, so we went with it. It is an interactive museum about Thai history and identity. Only 200 baht each for us parents, the kids were free.  

   It is housed in a beautiful 19th century building that used to be the Ministry of Commerce. The exhibits seemed very modern and possibly even recently installed. There is an introductory video with several silly, engaging characters that reappear in monitors as one tours the museum. I think we learned a lot!  I especially liked this exhibit on the diversity of ships and people that shaped Ayutthaya, the ex-Thai capital whose ruins we visited last month.

 The kids liked the 19th century dress up clothes mixing European and traditional Thai styles. 

   

We went back to the vegan food court, took DH this time, and spent some time at the boisterous Chatuchak weekend market again, with its 15,000 vendors. It was very hot and crowded but we knew we didn’t have many more chances to go. Afterwards, I could persuade only Cleverly to continue adventuring with me, and we went to the Thailand Tourism Festival at Lumpini Park.  

 I am so glad we went! It is a 5-day festival in which they make the park into a mini Thailand, with 5 areas representing different regions of the country. There are even little roads to direct you among the regions.

 We saw traditional dancers that brought to mind the apsara dancers carved on Angkor temple walls. They moved slowly and posed with precise hand and foot movements to recorded traditional music.

   
  

We also saw a performance of all men dancers accompanied by live music including a choir! They had elaborate costumes and performed in front of a traditional style house erected for the festival.

     
 It was wonderful to watch, and the music was haunting. It was all in Thai so we didn’t understand the story. At one point, there was a king riding a golden elephant. 

 Aside from the performances, there was so much else to see. We saw a ‘floating market’ on land with traditional boats housing the vendors. 

 

There were also modern rock’n’roll musicians, regional crafts like fabric art, and a lot more things we didn’t see.

A few weeks ago was Children’s Day! We had heard about one in Japan years ago and the kids felt ripped off. “Why don’t we have that here???”. The standard adult response of ‘every day of children’s day’ is not very satisfying. Anyway, in Thailand it meant kids riding free on the BTS, free entry and special activities at some government buildings, and Ponies at the mall:

 And we also went to the teak mansion Vimanmek Palace on Children’s Day. It was built in 1900 by King Rama V, used for such diverse purposes as royal residents and storage until 1982, then renovated that year by the current Thai Queen Sirikit. These are not my photos; we had to check our bags and photos are not permitted on many places so I don’t have any of my own. It was a gorgeous building.

   

I had a day by myself and I went to the National Museum. I’m glad I didn’t bring the kids so I could geek out on all the artifacts at my own pace. It’s not interactive or very modern, in fact it’s almost shabby in places and had a dusty forgotten feel at times, which only made me love it more. I did not take a ton of pictures but I couldn’t resist taking some of the funeral chariots. There have been used in very elaborate processions going back centuries and even current times, see photos and video from a 2012 funeral here

   
The place had maybe 15 buildings, some under renovation during my visit. The artifacts go back to prehistory and through different manifestations of Buddhist culture such as Lopburi, Sukhothai, Bagan, and the Khmer of Angkor Wat fame. I became interested in Buddha footprints, which we had seen at shrines here.

    
 New to me was the Wheel of Law, which often had a sitting deer statue nearby.  The deer represents the location of the Buddhas first sermon at a deer park.

  
 They had a nice stone Ganesh, flanked by two smaller ones. 

 
And there were smaller statues of various other  dieties, like the 12th century Kali goddess below. A statue I saw of a kneeling Buddha statue looked so lifelike, I kept looking over my shoulder to make sure it hadn’t moved. 

 

This post is getting long, more to come in part 2!

Day-to-day life in Bangkok, Nov-Jan, 2015

 Every day must be thrilling because we are traveling around the world, right? Well, not so fast. There are still laundry (above), dishes, sibling disputes, homeschooling, differences of opinion on how to spend time or money… you get the idea. Once, I looked back on the previous six days and realized we hadn’t done anything we couldn’t have done a year ago, so we immediately planned a tourist day, but still. I decided to write about our behind-the-scenes life traveling long term.

Search for a pool

It is so hot here, even though it is the dry/cool season. We don’t have a pool where we live so we have spent a lot of time looking for places to swim. We never found one close by, so most days we did not swim. Our excellent landlady let us use the pool at her apartment building, which was nice. 

   
We have been to several rooftop water parks at malls. None are close to where we are staying, but they have been nice with excellent views!  And the water slides go right out over the city!

    
 

Malls

I’ve been to more malls than I care to admit. The malls are actually very nice- clean, nice bathrooms, a/c, interesting lights and displays- but I did not come here for the malls darn it! That said, we end up there for one reason or another more than once a week. The malls sometimes have waterfalls, ponds and fish:

    
Live entertainment:

    
Many Christmas displays and an occasional parade:

 Illuminated meerkats:
  
 Looooong escalators:   
Weird sidewalk art outside:

  Enthusiastic doormen: 
We also have seen a few movies at the malls. I personally saw Star Wars and the epic Thai historical drama Panthai Norasingh that clocked in at over 3 hours long (fascinating story of a Thai moral hero during the time of Ayutthaya). Movies cost under $3, a bit more for 3D and 4D, the latter of which involves moving seats and getting sprayed by water, etc. here are the kids with friends and 3D glasses:

 

Massage

A definite perk about Bangkok is the affordable massages. For about $6 usd, you can get an hour massage. There is nothing sleazy about it; it is part of the culture going back thousands of years. Some temples we have seen have wall paintings about massage, and several temples have massage schools onsite. Massage businesses are at malls, small and large stores, and they are offered by wandering practitioners at the beach. For solstice, the kids and I all had foot massages! 

   

Homeschooling

We joined a wonderful group of homeschoolers who meet weekly for classes and socializing. Here’s part of the group at an ice-skating activity that also happens once a week: 

 and here is the Christmas show the homeschool co-op kids put on: 

  

I already mentioned the English library in another post; we go there about once a week. 

    
 

Our Neighborhood: 

There is a shrine and also these random statues we see here and all around Thailand:        

More homeschooling

We try to get it done in the mornings, with varying success. I won’t lie, Mr. Fantastic does the bulk of the homeschooling. He does a great job and I try to help out.

 

groceries

There are enough western-style grocery stores for cereal, pasta, canned goods. They are usually in malls, so we go when we are there.  

 Our local outdoor market has great produce, fresh tofu at times, and many herbs and spices I am at a loss to identify. 

 And lots of flowers! These are everywhere for the garlands they make to decorate shrines, statues, taxicab rear-view mirrors…
  
And in the mornings, you can buy food plates for monks, and you can get a blessing as part of daily alms-giving.

 

Christmas

We had a mosquito-net ‘tree’ and homemade decorations. I loved it! The kids initiated a ‘secret Santa’ gift exchange so we wouldn’t get bogged down with stuff in our backpacks.

   
We went to a buffet on Xmas day with another traveling family we met.     

  

It was at an Indian restaurant, complete with karaoke and Santa in sunglasses!

 

Little random things:

People bow here- there are different ways to bow that have different meanings, and I didn’t get them all but I did bow and get bowed to, which I really liked.

You can buy cold towels for those really hot days in the refrigerated section at the 7-11. BTW, there are 7-11s all over Bangkok, sometimes two on the same block!

 

We have a mildly eccentric next-door neighbor who walks around shirtless (very rare here) and feeds street cats. He actually has litter boxes out for them as well. This results in much cat drama on our roof and outside our door.

Speaking of cats, the kids found a place called the Cat Cafe where you can pay 50 baht (about $1.40) for a drink or piece of cake and time in a room to play with six healthy cats. They said the local young women love to do this and take many selfies with the cats.

I have a love/hate relationship with the sky train BTS. It is a beautiful, clean, efficient way for us to get around, but it eats a lot of our budget. The kids get no discount, so we usually spent over 600 baht (close to $20) just getting to and from somewhere. An interesting part of riding the public transportation here is that people are so polite about giving up their seats. The twins usually get seats from this polite custom  which extends to children, monks, pregnant women, and the elderly. Thais seem so eager to give up their seats, it seems they take a seat just so they can graciously give it away. Must have something to do with Buddhism merit, or just a sense of decency I seldom see in the US.