Mingalaba Myanmar!

B: Myanmar is a place we had heard about from other travelers as being unique, untouched, and in the midst of a cultural explosion so sensitive it must be seen before it’s too late. Complicated Burmese politics call for a brief history of the country in order to fully understand the land we had decided to visit after Bali. Although crudely paraphrased from online sources, here we go: Burma gained independence from Britain in 1947. A new union of various tribal states sought to form a collective government for autonomous rule, but the utopia was never carried out to fruition due to internal squabbles. In 1962, military leader General Ne Win led a coup d’état, ousting the democratically elected government and installing himself as leader. In 1988, pro-democracy demonstrations were violently silenced and General Saw Maung seized power in another coup, installed the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), and renamed the country Myanmar. Elections were held in 1990, with the main opposition party (National League for Democracy (NLD)) winning a landslide victory (over 80% of the vote), but SLORC refused to hand over power, instead placing NLD leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, which she endured on-and-off for 20 years.

The summer of 2007 was marked by demonstrations against the military government, which were again brutally suppressed. The demonstrations started as a protest against a stiff hike in the price of petrol, but evolved into a more serious challenge to the government after three monks were beaten at a protest march in Pakokku. Yangon became the center of these protests, especially around Sule Pagoda. The government soon suppressed the protests by firing on crowds, arresting monks and closing monasteries, and temporarily shutting down Internet communications with the rest of the world, leading the USA, Canada, Australia, and the EU to impose additional sanctions. Despite international criticism, Aung San Suu Kyi was back under house arrest after the protests. She was eventually released November 13, 2010 and is currently participating in politics with the prospects for democracy looking hopeful. Since then, tourism restrictions have been relaxed and more Westerners are deciding to visit this ever-evolving society.

Today’s Myanmar, a resource-rich country, suffers from pervasive government controls, inefficient economic policies, and rural poverty. What was once one of the richest and most developed countries in Asia has slumped into a depressed state due to widespread corruption. Since Aung San Suu Kyi’s release in 2010, increased tourism and the promise of elections in 2015 offer hope for a new direction and brighter future for all Burmese.

Although Myanmar has become more accessible for foreigners in the past few years, it still isn’t easy. Guidebooks are perpetually outdated and prices are rising by 25% each year. Our visa had to be arranged prior to arriving, which we did in Australia and were given an estimated time of four weeks. The only flights into the country are from either Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur. We opted to spend a couple days hanging out, shopping, and eating Pad Thai with my friend Dustin in Bangkok while transiting from Bali to Myanmar. It’s always great to see old friends while travelling—thanks for the hospitality buddy!

Dustin and Blake

G: We landed at the Mandalay International airport in midday and the prickly heat was full blast. At first glance, the concrete building we stood in was looking rather drab and was in definite need of a face lift. Passports stamped, we proceeded to get some cash in hand, as it was recommended with the unknown status and availability of ATMs. (In fact, ATMs are now quite prevalent in major cities, but non-existent just one year ago.) We changed over $1,000 for the next 3 weeks, but their largest bill is the equivalent of $5, so we walked out with quite the stack! We just happened to miss the free Air Asia shuttle into the city and immediately a crowd of young Burmese men with white paste on their face and arms (which we later learned was sunblock) stuck to us like magnets offering taxis. Patience. There was no one else coming out of the airport until the next plane landed, so we finally caved and paid $10 for a private taxi into the city. Immediately, we noticed the driver sitting on the right side of the car, but also driving on the right side of the road! —Another oddity of unstable leadership and a hodgepodge of resources. Why isn’t there just one universal rule for driving?! The picture out the window was one of over-grown, dry and vacant fields with white and gold pagodas scattered in the distance. Once we got closer to the city, the noise of the traffic, the smell of burning garbage and petrol, and the sight of substantial poverty were overwhelming the senses. It felt like a Buddhist India.

We eased into the culture by staying at a fairly new and very comfortable hotel, which also included a tasty western breakfast, for $30 a night. That evening, we jumped on a motorbike taxi and drove to Mandalay Hill for some sightseeing. First, we headed to Maha Atulawaiyan Monastery to see some carvings of Buddha and his disciples that dated back to 1865. Next was Kuthodaw Paya to see world’s largest book of Buddhist teachings, which were carved on slabs of marble set inside what seemed to be an infinite row of white pagodas. Stray dogs and cats lay fast asleep on the steps as we walked around; they must be so enlightened by now. 🙂 As dusk approached, we stubbornly denied an overpriced taxi up to Mandalay Hill and instead hiked up hundreds of steps to watch the anticlimactic sun as it disappeared into the smog before touching the horizon.

That evening, as we attempted to find a taxi back to our hotel, we met Jojo, a 21-year-old local with great English, and negotiated a tour the following day with his friend as our driver. Our grand tour of Mandalay began with an introduction to making gold leaf, a drive down a dusty street of locals carving jade sculptures, and an impressive woodcarving workshop. Then we visited Maha Muni Paya to slap some gold leaf on the famously amorphous Buddha figure.

Before lunch, we visited a Buddhist Monastery to see how the monks live and receive their alms. Women in tattered clothing sat with their naked children and begged for anything. The monks, without hesitation, shared from their bowl. In the afternoon, we took a horse cart ride around Innwa to see villages and more pagodas, then walked up Sagaing Hill for views of the city and the Irrawaddy River. Afterwards, we visited the famous U Bien Bridge for sunset. As we walked the world’s longest teak wood bridge (1.2 km) we noticed other tourists talking to monks. I turned to Blake and asked, ‘Why haven’t we talked to a monk yet?’ Within minutes we met eyes with an older monk and he beckoned us over. How’s that for manifesting?! 😉

B: This man was very well-spoken and genuinely interested in a conversation without a motive (quite rare in Asia). He was rather candid with his thoughts on the recent political turmoil and future prospects of a country led by Aung San Suu Kyi, something I read to shy away from in conversations. Oddly enough, he’s only been a monk for the last eight years. He has a wife and kids at home and used to sell cars for a living! So much for the “pure and enlightened” path. It’s was pretty stunning to learn that one can go in and out of the monastery throughout life and decide to become a devoted monk at any point. Our conversation lasted about 20 minutes, and then it was time to grab a seat and a beer with a view of the sunset dropping behind the bridge.

The next day we walked Mandalay’s inner city, a dusty place with children happily playing in a pile of garbage, locals staring at our pale skin, and baskets of tobacco leaf waiting to be rolled into pouches for men to chew and spit streams of red betel nut juice. On the corner near our place men played an obscure game involving bottle caps and sea shells, vehicles roared past with exposed engines and no filters, deeply resonant bells rang in the distance, and even among the filth and destitution, gold leaf pagodas shined like Hershey kisses in the sun. I stopped off at a local bar for the afternoon special of a glass of draught beer for 500 kyat (50¢)—buy 3, get 1 free, plus snacks! Then we indulged in a heaping portion of local Burmese food across the street for $1. Both of us! For $1! What a strange and interesting place…

*note: Mingalaba means “hello” in Burmese

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Going going Back back to Bali Bali

G: After an amazing year in Australia, our one-year Working Holiday Visa was expiring. Although we missed our families, we didn’t want to go home just yet—Soooo…back to Asia! My sister Patrycja, her husband Eric, and their daughter Kayah planned to spend February in Bali, so it was an obvious decision to join them for 10 days. Bali is an easy place to go back to and once we arrived it felt like slipping into an old pair of shoes.

After a long line up at customs, it was back to negotiating prices in tropical paradise. We paid too much for a cab and made our way to Sanur, about 45 minutes from Denpasar airport. Sister wasn’t there yet, so we got cozy in our fancy hotel and decided to take a quick stroll around the block. I almost forgot about the perpetual nagging of “Hallo madame! Yes, looking! You buy, you buy? Taxi? Maybe tomorrow?” Welcome to Asia! Streets are lined with shops offering a buffet of goods for sale, while beautiful Balinese offerings bless the roadside every few steps. As touristy as it is, I was happy to be back. There is something beguiling about the Balinese air…

We had our grand reunion back at the hotel, caught on video thanks to Brother E. Words can’t really express the sheer joy of seeing and hugging your family again—there is nothing like it! Within hours of being back in Bali, we sipped fresh coconuts, enjoyed a $6 massage, and caught up over a candle-lit dinner on the beach. What a great start to our holiday together!

B: The next day we took a bumpy 30-minute ferry to Nusa Lembongan, a little island south-east of Bali, for a week of relaxation. We were greeted by our smiling host, as well as our bungalow-dog Mickey, and settled in at Suka Beach. The traditional beach huts are made of local Teak wood and coconut husks. The main entrance is the bathroom (weird) located behind the bungalow without a roof (great ventilation 😉 ), while the loft space upstairs consists of an intricately carved bed and dresser with a nice little balcony offering views of the beach and seaweed farms. Underneath the loft is a platform with a mattress and hammock, perfect for hanging out and gazing at the orange and pink sunset disappearing into the distant horizon with Bintang beer in hand.

The seaweed farms were organized in grids of large rectangles, which looked like shadows sitting in the turquoise water. Farmers tended their crops in the early morning before sunrise and worked into the night planting more seedlings. It was impressive to watch as the men filled their small canoes with stacked seaweed and the women carried full baskets on their head to shore. The seaweed was then sun-dried on large tarps, some of it covered in plastic so as to change it to an orange or pale color. When finished, it is made into a powder and exported in its dried form.

G: The next day, and really every day after that, we made sure to fit in a massage or two. 🙂 Sister, Brother E, and Blake braved our local masseuse Wade’s so-called reflexology massage, which to my understanding translated to a deeply therapeutic meridian-intensive massage.

B: It hurt!!! (in a good way…)

G: Sister said she was cursing for the entire duration of the massage, so I decided I would opt for the more relaxing I-could-fall-asleep kind of massages. Our evenings were spent admiring the divine sunsets and then following Mickey the dog to a local restaurant to indulge in delicious Indo food (of which he got the scraps). One evening we tried to watch the Sochi Olympics to see Eric’s niece (Keltie Hansen) ski the women’s half-pipe. The internet was shoddy, but with some persistence (and help from sister Kamila back in Canada) we got to watch her first run at the amazing event. Great job Keltie—we’re so proud of you!

One morning we jumped on some motor bikes to explore the island at our own pace. Weaving through villages, we waved to the children jumping with excitement to see Westerners.  At a mangrove, we stopped for fresh coconut water and visited some baby spider monkeys on leashes, but Sister got too friendly and got bit! Later, we took a walk on the corrugated cliffs overlooking the deep blue waters with a view of Bali in the distance, visited Dream Beach, and drove past a ceremony with a large crowd walking down the road, thick smoky air, and loud traditional music, which we later learned was a funeral.

B: While in this lovely tropical paradise, I took the opportunity to complete my PADI Open Water Diving Certification at the dive shop next door. We had seen lots of places along our travels to become a certified diver (Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia) and the cost of doing it in Asia is less than half of what it would be in the Western world, but I never spent the time or money to do it. Eric has been diving for nearly 20 years and we wanted to do some dives together, so I made the investment and hit the books. Since it wasn’t the busy season, I had a personal instructor (Made) and could speed up the lessons to finish in three days instead of four. The OWC consists of watching four hours of instructional videos with quizzes along the way, four sets of pool exercises, treading water for 10 minutes, swimming 200 meters non-stop, proving proficiency on four open water dives, and passing a 50-question exam.

The first day I just watched a few videos in the morning, and then jumped on the motorbike. The second day was exhausting with pool exercises, two dives, and more videos. The first two dives were mainly for skills, and although the sea life was interesting, it wasn’t amazing. The third day I did more pool exercises and planned to go out with Eric for dives 3 and 4 to complete the OWC. The third dive was incredible with manta rays up to 7 feet in length! There were dozens of them effortlessly gliding through the water! The girls came out for a snorkeling trip and got to swim with them, too. Unfortunately, after the dive my left ear became plugged and I suffered from a reverse block, which meant I couldn’t do my final dive that day and complete my certification. I was in the early stages of a head cold, but didn’t want to admit it (first mistake), which caused the block.

The next day I felt better, but still a little funny, and went diving anyways (second mistake). Eric had so much fun the day before he came out for two more dives with me. The first was an awesome drift dive, which meant the boat dropped us off at the top of the current, we drifted along the reef for 30 minutes, and then it picked us up. We saw tons of sea life and beautifully colored coral. My ear had difficulty equalizing on the way down, but felt ok back at the surface. I was so excited about completing my four required dives and being in the water with Eric, I went out for another one (third mistake). Again, the underwater world amazed us with lion fish, scorpion fish, barracuda, and moray eel. When I came up this time though, my ear was really plugged. I thought it was normal and would work its way out overnight, but it stayed plugged for days. I finally went to the doctor and was told that my ear drum was bulging and red from a middle ear infection caused by diving with a head cold. This was especially worrisome because we had to fly in just a few days. Fortunately, the medication kicked in and I got the thumbs-up from the doc the day before we had to fly that my ear drum wouldn’t burst on a plane. More importantly, I’m now a PADI Certified Open Water Diver!

G: While Blake was mastering the underwater world, I tried my hand at surfing the break with Sister and Kayah. We met a lovely Swiss man that offered to be our instructor and away we went.  It wasn’t long before we all took a few spills and Kayah was the only brave one to continue. Afterwards, my back and shoulders were aching terribly from so much paddling and carrying the board a long way back to shore. Still, another one off the bucket list!

After saying a sad farewell to family, we continued inland to relax in Ubud. We did a bit of shopping, but mostly tried to heal ourselves from my stiff back and Blake’s ear infection. Ubud is easy enough to relax for a few days with cheap prices and Western comforts. We would have loved to stay in Indonesia for longer, but new countries were calling our name…