Tuesday, December 29, 2009

On bracelets

I bought a bracelet today. Two young girls, no more than 6 or 7, crowded around me at the ghostly white temple at San Juan Chamula, offering various items to sell, pleading with their small, dirty hands; their faces wearing more years than their age.

Chamula is a small remote town. On market day, the plaza in front of the main church is crowded with merchants from the surrounding villages. Chamulan men wear white or black woolen vests and large cowboy hats. Inside and around the temple, the locals strictly enforce a “no photo” policy. Young children run over and block the views of foreigners trying to sneak their cameras out; foreigners eager to capture a shot of the local culture, a trophy to their cultural sophistication, all the while treating it with disrespect and disregard.

The inside of the temple is gorgeous. There are no seats, just a thin blanket of pine needles on the ground. Candles line the floors and walls, sending smoke swirling up to the ceiling, dancing in the rays of the light. Tzotzil women from nearby villages in beautiful deep blue and red garments set up make-shift alters, brushing away the pine needles and laying out candles in rows and worshipping until the candles melted into small wax rorschach blots on the ground, the flames dissolving away. Young children in black woolen dresses sit beside their parents, slowing learning the rituals passed down for generations. Sometimes gazing around the smoke filled chamber with as much confusion and bewilderment as the few gringos wandering around. Every now and then the boom of firecrackers for the ongoing Christmas celebration would reverberate throughout the church, briefly interrupting the prayers and songs of worshipers inside.

After awhile I head outside as I hear approaching music, I open the church door and see the entrance surrounded by Chamulan men in colorful garbs and a full band; locals are waving pine branches and incense began a slow journey to the heavens, until dissipating in the cool breeze sweeping over the hills. Nearby, firecrackers are set off, first one sent soaring over the church, followed by a series of large deafening blasts. I walk over to a nearby pavilion and watch the celebration for the next hour.

Two young girls approached me. You turn down dozens of kids like them a day. The deep black eyes staring at you. Their dirty fingers gripping yours. They plead and they beg. And you say, No. Shake your head. And pretend to have no money. You have money. More than they could dream of, but not enough for all of them. So you turn down most. I found myself unable to this time, unable to resist their cute pleading voices and faces, found a bracelet I liked and let them tie it around my wrist.
Reading at a Zapatista café in the afternoon, young children wander in and out, asking to shine my beaten and worn boots. They offer little animal figures, more bracelets, scarves. Children from Europe and America play around them.

I sit and read. Two kids sit on the steps outside the door. Sometimes they look over. Sometimes I avoid eye contact. I don’t want them to come over, to be forced to say no again. Almost in shame, I bury my eyes deeper into my book. Like many tourists, backpackers, and travelers, I’m tired of reality intruding on my vacation.

It reminds me of the mobs of kids in Mali, twenty or thirty kids swarming you at every village. Sometimes not asking for anything, just grabbing your hand and following you around, tiny fingers fighting for any part of you that they can grab. I think of the kids at Angkor Wat. You buy one bracelet and suddenly a dozen desperate faces peer up at you, until you can barely fight your way from the crowd to the next ancient temple demanding your attention, demanding you turn away from flesh and blood.

It’s easy to get annoyed at the constant begging. You often get frustrated and perhaps turn away more rudely, more forcefully than you should. I remember one of my first weekends in Sierra Leone. I was tired from work and heading into the market. Someone began nudging me from behind, asking for money. I shrug him off and turn around, annoyed at the intrusion of my physical space. I turned and stared at a young boy, probably no more than 12 or 13, holding up the two stumps left where his hands used to be. He must have been no more than 6 or 7 when they were hacked off. His hands final farewell, before they fell to the chopping block, probably the mocking RUF question, “short sleeve or long sleeve?”

In Mali, a friend of mine and I talked about cultural differences, where the child may simply not understand someone with wealth not sharing it. The community ethos, or communitarian spirit was so much stronger. It was natural to share whatever you had. A group of kids approached us asking for money. Their cloths ragged and torn. Bare feet against the dirty ground of Segou. The Niger River cutting its way through the sweeping desert hills. We replied by asking them for money. They took out what few coins they had, held it out in their tiny, dirt-caked palms, and offered it to us.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Feliz Navidad

All of Tuxla spread out before me like a glittering field of fireflies. I couldn’t help but remember the firefly colonies at Kaula Selangor, Malaysia. Here, from above, on one of the mirador’s overlooking this city, mountains sheltering the capital of Chiapas, it seemed almost alive as one, one colony, natural and organic. The poverty and urban dirt shielded by the darkness, and the cold night warded off by new friends.

Mexican music filled the air, and the young Mexican kids and adults from the city shared local drinks, stories, and dance moves as Christmas was celebrated in their unique way.

Early that evening, I had left San Cristobal with my two new friends (Mexican and French). Her family was kind enough to invite us over for Christmas dinner. Sharing a family meal, listening to various American and Mexican pop songs on one of their cellphones, drinking coronas and sidre, and bowing our heads for the blessing, I truly was blessed to experience those moments.

It has been awhile since I had the warmth of a family for Christmas. In 2007, I was with Tuareg’s under the canopy of stars in Timbuktu, enjoying the freezing cold of the Sahara and the sweetness of the local tea (the first cup is "bitter as death," the second, "as sweet as love"). In 2008, I was in Chiang Mai at a local festival. In Tuxla, it was nice to be around a family again, to feel the warmth of those who cared about and loved each other.

Perhaps the irony of traveling is I’ve gone so far to find magic, when the strongest magic is back where I’ve left it.

Feliz Navidad.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Traveling solo

You’re almost never alone on the road. I’ve been in Mexico around 5 days now, and I’ve been with people almost the whole time. In Tulum, I went to Coba and a local fair with a nice Austrian. In Palenque, I met a variety of people: a couple professional tattoo artists and metal heads from Norway, a Korean girl who went caving with me behind Misol-Ha (exploring the dark reaches of the cavern with a small torch until we reached a several waterfalls), a group of students from Hong Kong at Agua Azul, and a Guatemala girl who lived in Paris and worked in Pakistan with architectures without borders. The professional tattoo artist explained to me how he learned by ordering a tattoo kit and then asking friends if he could practice on them. A few of his better or (more daring friends) agreed, and he learned the trade by experimentation on his friend’s skin.

On the road from El Pancham to San Cristobal, bouncing from colectivo to colectivo, I was traveling with a French mechanical engineer and we met a Mexican girl on the way. We ended up hanging out with her for the rest of the day, wandering around San Cristobal, grabbing helados late at night, and exchanging travel stories. Today, I head out to meet them around noon to visit some local museums and then go salsa dancing with some of her friends for Christmas eve.

Such is the solitude of being a solo traveler.

A prelude and reflection – part 1

“A weed is just a flower that’s misunderstood.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’m on the road again.

Many of my friends at law school asked about what I do while traveling. I suppose before I restart my travel blog, I can offer a short snapshot.

A year ago I was at Bakong Temple in Battambang, Cambodia. I met a group of Khmer kids from a nearby highschool and they told me about a cave below the temple. They asked me if I wanted to join them, and we headed down the side of the mountain to find it. With cellphone flashlights and candles, we plunged into the depths of the cavern, squeezing through tiny passageways, the pitch darkness only rarely broken by the cracks in the ceiling. Rays of light danced in the swirling smoke of various incense altars scattered along our winding path, like ballerinas flittering in and out of existence. We finally found the main open cavern. A single string of golden sun hung down from the roof. A small shrine lay before us. We turned off our lights and lit the few candles by the altars. The cool, dampness hung on my skin, but instead of coolness penetrating within, it was a warmth from the candles, from the Khmer kids whom I talked to in a smattering of Khmer and English. The silence consumed the air, and this moment became truly sacred.

I travel to find moments like these. It’s not about the pictures in front of Chitzen Itza or the Great Wall, but those rare moments where something magical and sacred happens, something that can’t be caught on film but only carried around as some deep part of you. It means taking time to leave the beaten track, find the random and mysterious, even if it takes days or weeks to discover those few memories.

Over the years, I’ve collected many of these moments: finding rocks to juggle for Tibetan kids in the Sea of Bamboo near Yibin in Sichuan, China, or watching the sun set over the mountains in Hsipaw, Burma, sharing tea with the lone monk in the temple on the ridge. It’s teaching Khmer girls around Ta Phrom how to dance to heavy metal music, or loosening up street kids near Angkor Wat’s Roulos Group with juggling until they make you a necklace of flowers and present it to you. Or having tea with Taureg’s for Christmas night in Timbuktu, under the glistening canopy of stars.

It’s squeezing into the cramped cave full of worshippers near Uspatan, sleeping in monasteries in Burma, and hitchhiking on construction rigs out to the Baia de Gatas in Cape Verde. It’s having locals in San Antao give you grogue to keep you warm on a cold night as you struggle with the last stretch of a hike or trying to learn Bambara from kids in Mali.

And it’s juggling in parks in NY and meeting kids and seeing the joy and wonder on their faces. Because magic, real magic, exists all around us, and while traveling isn’t necessary to find it, it sometimes reminds us, reminds me to keep looking, to keep seeing the world anew.

One of my favorite Japanese artists, Yoshihiro Suda, would finely sculpt every day plants and weeds, and place them in hard to find locations in museums. Discovering art – which was often merely a finely crafted depiction of the common (and sometimes common nuisances) – would become a magical experience, an experience we could replicate if only we could peel back the scales on our eyes. Then we can find the romantic poetry in order and the every day, like Gabriel Syme in G.K. Chesterton’s theological masterpiece, The Man Who Was Thursday. Or as Alan Moore commented in The Watchmen:

“But the world is so full of people, so crowded with these miracles that they become commonplace and we forget... I forget. We gaze continually at the world and it grows dull in our perceptions. Yet seen from the another's vantage point, as if new, it may still take our breath away. Come... dry your eyes, for you are life, rarer than a quark and unpredictable beyond the dreams of Heisenberg. Come, dry your eyes. And let's go home.”

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

fear and trembling

You can see it on their young faces. You can watch their hands shake.

fear and trembling.

Tiny frail girls, barely past puberty, trembling half naked on the stage – terror etched into their eyes as they cower before their pimps and mistresses, forced to flout their youth and beauty to the voracious appetite of Western and local sex tourists.

Welcome to Patpong, Bangkok. Welcome to hell.

I think of the movie, Pan’s Labyrinth. The monster feasting on children with a banquet table before it. Why is there such a longing among many to destroy innocence, to devour beauty? Is that not part of the appeal, the Western fetish with wide-eyed Asian women, looking years younger than their age? There were plenty of places to get cheap sex with pretty Asian women, but the more youthful, the more innocent the better, the stronger the draw.

I’m in Phnom Penh. The weekend night market is in full swing. A romantic song floats through the air, and a tiny girl, probably less than 10 years old, takes the stage in scarlet lipstick and make-up, a bikini-style red dress barely covering her un-developed breasts. A shirtless man takes the stage and joins her in song. Romance fills the air.

Most sex tourism, most child rapists in Southeast Asia aren’t Westerners. They’re locals. And it’s easy to see how in the culture. Westerners flee to Southeast Asia to find a haven for their appetites of young, under-aged Asian flesh. Local males can feast upon it at will. It’s part of the culture; it’s common and normal. The night belongs to them.

Here, I’m the freak and outlier.

I think of the Madonna-Whore syndrome. That attraction to the Madonna figure of Virgin Mary, and that lust for the whore and slut. You walk around the bars and clubs of cities of Southeast Asia enough, and you see both blended together – the sweet innocent faces of Cambodian and Thai girls, wrapped in sexy clothing and erotic dances.

I think of myself. Being a white male, you often get attention from the girls. They’d wave, or say hi flirtatiously, or run over to exchange a few words and run back giggling to their girlfriends. The playful flirting is fun. The attention is nice. They’re mostly schoolgirls, probably barely out of highschool.

When does friendliness end and pedophilia begin? When do we cross the line and begin to become the monster we hate? Like Nietzsche wrote, “You gaze into the abyss and the abyss gazes into you. Stare not at monsters, lest ye become a monster.”

Among the backpacker and traveler circles, we rightly voice self-righteous indignation at sex tourism. But most of us are sex tourists as well. We don’t go to rape children, or buy Thai and Cambodian “love” for a night of passionate fucking, but we go as silent witnesses, silent voyeurs into a world of rape and exploitation and brutality. And then we return to our bars and our guesthouses, and voice our indignation to each other, patting ourselves on the back for being better than the sex tourists. But many of us go to see the culture of exploitation; it is a twisted, perverted tourist attraction, another cultural experience to photograph and pocket in our bag of experiences, and move on to the next one. And we become sex tourists as well.

I’m in a bar now. It’s an unlikely place to find myself. Cambodian girls dance around poles and on tables in sexy outfits; girls talk and flirt with you to get you to buy them drinks, which they earn a commission for. A mid-aged American sits down across from me. He tells me about his wife working in Burma for MSF, all the while he wraps his arm around a young Cambodian beauty next to him and slides his hand over her legs. I meet a nice pretty girl. She doesn’t seem to belong here. I suppose she doesn’t belong here. None of them do. People shouldn’t have to sell themselves. People shouldn’t be for sale as objects, even if they consent to it. Anymore than anyone should be willing to buy someone like an accessory at a market. What corrupting, corroding effect does that have on our soul?

I look around and I see people that treat women as nothing more than meat and objects to be exploited and used. I look around and see young girls trapped in a prison of sorts, wanting to study and have careers but forced to sell themselves in order to survive and support their families. I look around and see men eating it up, devouring youth and real beauty.

I look around and I see my enemy. And it is myself.

I left in the morning. Paid for my drinks. My entrance fee. My contribution to a culture of selling youth and beauty to the eager appetites of elderly and young men. They offer love, marriage to some of the women. Seeing love as another commodity to be bought. Offering another form of prostitution decorated in the veneer of respectability.

I started this trip reading Thomas Merton’s classic work, Seven Storey Mountain. Similar to Saint Augustine’s confessions, it’s a story of being lost and finding one’s way through the fog, a story of intellectual and physical debauchery before returning to a simpler, more spiritual path.

I haven’t crossed any line that most would find wrong. But me.

I went for a night to witness and experience. I forgot that my silence has a voice, and a price.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

expected value

When I tell people I used to work for UNICEF, some of them ask me whether it’s worthwhile giving money. Being somewhat cynical about development aid, it’s a hard question for me to answer, and usually I give some long-winded and vague response. I have written before about the problems of development, so I won’t revisit them now. Rather, recently I thought of what the proper response to that question is, or at least, the way I think about it now.

There’s no guarantee the money you give to charity will help. Sometimes it may hurt. But in general, and especially regarding the best organizations like MSF, Oxfam, UNICEF, etc, charity is at worst ineffective. It’s at worst a waste of money. But we gamble on things all the time. We gamble on a movie we haven’t seen, betting that we’ll enjoy it. Or going to a restaurant we’ve never been to, or try a dish we’ve never had. Gambling is simply part of life.

With something as complicated as development, you can’t expect a guarantee that it’ll help a child go to school, or give a sexually abused girl psychological counseling, or save someone’s life. The question is not whether charity will definitely help. The question is whether you’re willing to take the gamble that it might.

When I give money, or when I work for an organization like UNICEF, it’s not because I know it will help. There may be only a 10 or 20 percent chance that I will do any good, but when we’re talking about saving a life, or giving a child an opportunity to have a future, that’s a gamble I’m willing to take.

I was also thinking about this recently because it relates to life in general. Most of our decisions are gambles. The trips we take, the hotels we stay at, the bars we go to. We obviously have ways of calculating the odds, but in the end, it’s a roll of the dice. In probability, they talk about the “expected value”, where you calculate the risks and potential reward or loss, and then get the expected value of any endeavor.

A few of you will know what I’m talking about, but I suppose I decided the odds are low anything will happen or work out with the path I’ve set myself on. But even so, if it does, the rewards, the benefit could be so great that the expected value is still high, and the gamble is the right one.

Monday, February 9, 2009

S-21 (Cambodia)

Tuol Sleng. S-21. The infamous prison of the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh. After Vietnam invaded in 1979 and the US switched political support to the Khmer Rouge, Vietnam transformed S-21 into a museum, documenting the atrocities.

Many things strike you about the museum. It’s old. Run-down. Many of the torture chambers left as they were, the instruments lying on the metal beds, a single large photo of the victim on the beige wall. You can walk through the tiny cells, some separated by wood, some by brick, the balconies covered in barbed wall to prevent desperate prisons from jumping to their deaths, euthanizing themselves against more torture. You walk through endless rows of pictures of the prisoners – men, women, young, and old. Young girls and boys stare at you with blank eyes, sometimes a tinge of anguish peaks through, or you see a slight grimace in the otherwise set stares. Women with babies in their arms face you in black and white. The faces seem to stretch on forever. You want to move quickly through them, spare yourself the silent torture of their penetrating gaze. But you can’t. Or I can’t. I looked at every face. Everyone who had a story, a family, a life. What right did I have to turn away. In Guatemala, victims walked weeks just to go to some run-down commissioner in a tent to tell their story to the truth commission. The desire to tell stories, to explain what happened, to be have your sufferings heard and recognized, it burns deeply within us all. What right did I have to not listen to what they had to say. After all they went through, didn’t their silence at least have the right to be heard.

The rows of pictures continue, and begin to transform to scenes of torture. You recognize faces of inmates you saw earlier, now twisted and distorted in anguish and horror. Children tortured to death in the burst of revolutionary fervor, in a desire for an agrarian utopia. It’s often overlooked that genocide is a utopian ideology; it’s idealistic in the purest sense. Genocidiares have a vision of an ideal world, and set about establishing it, with blood and fire.

I think of the pretty Cambodian girl I hung out with last night. I see her face among the rows of black and white photos. Her in the cramped prison cells.

I flip through the notes from previous visitors. Never again. Nunca mas. Never forget. Words of outrage.

And Darfur still burns.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Battambang (Cambodia)

In Battambang, I took a bike around to explore the main temples and sites. It turned out to be a magical day. At one of the temples (which actually served as the inspiration for Angkor Wat), I met some kids on a school trip to the temple, and ended up chatting with them in bits of Cambodian (Khmer) and English. They offered me some food (slices of mango and oranges), and then told me about a cave around the base of the hill that they were going to. I followed them down the steep path to cave entrance, where two young kids in tattered clothes and flashlights were waiting. Over the next half hour to an hour, they led us through the cave, crouching and crawling through tight spaces, which opened up into large caverns with sunlight piercing the roof hundreds of feet above us. The final stopping point was a small Buddha shrine in one of the caverns, surrounded by dripping stalagtites.

Similar to Burma, Battambang receives few tourists, and probably as a result, the people are especially warm and welcoming. “hellos” and “bye-byes” greet you at every turn, and girls giggle and wave at the sight of a white man wandering through the countryside. My little bit of Cambodian (Khmer) makes their response especially enjoyable, as they respond with surprise and delight, or run away giggling after exchanging a few words. At lunch, I juggled for some young school kids, and they shyly hide from me anytime I tried to take a picture (at the request of their mother). I have some great shots of them burying their faces in their arms.

In evening though Battambang really comes alive. The main riverside garden or park is packed with food vendors and Cambodians dancing. Similar to one park in Bangkok, the dance is a combination of yoga, aerobics, and choreographed moves. The scene was picture perfect though. The sun setting over the river, a park packed with Cambodians dancing to variety of songs including some oldies and Beatles hits, and children playing all around you. As I said, magical.

Sitting in the park, watching the various dances and children around me, I thought about another thing I had seen today, one of the killing caves of Battambang, where the Khmer Rouge bayoneted, bludgeoned and shot to death thousands of people, dumping them deep in the cavernous mouth of the earth. The killing cave is now mostly a series of concrete steps down into the cavern, where you find a platform with a reclining Buddha, peacefully smiling at you, and various shrines and cages filled with skulls and bones –all mixed together, a jumbled mess as identity was lost and forgotten in the mass grave. My driver for the day told me about the people in his family who were killed by the Khmer Rouge, and how they still don’t know where their bodies lie. Perhaps in that gash in the earth, mixed among the bones, lie members of his family.

More steps led me further into the darkness, deeper in the earth’s mouth. It was almost pitch black except for a stream of light from the surface, piercing the darkness. I wonder how many people stared up from this point, in their final moments. How many died here.

I’m proud of being an American. But in Cambodia, staring out from the grave in the belly of the earth, today is not a proud day. America failed the Cambodians. America betrayed them. And America bears a terrible responsibility for the brutal bombing inflicted on the country, for its abandonment of Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge, and for providing political support to the Khmer Rouge after Vietnam invaded in 1979 and stopped the genocide.

Today was a magical day. But not all magic is good or heartwarming. Seeing the Cambodians now, feeling their warmth and hospitality, watching them dance to Beatles songs as the sun lights up the sky, I can still feel the dampness of the killing cave. Its magic will also stay with me.


I’m in Cambodia now. I just spent three days biking around Angkor Wat. Like many foreigners, you’re mobbed by children throughout the temples trying to sell you books and souvenirs, begging you to buy from them. It’s easy to be annoyed and frustrated at them ruining the peace of your excursion by trying to make a living.

After a day of this, I decided to try to and see if I could get some kids to loosen up, and interact with them as kids rather than just a hassle to be ignored. That morning I biked the 15 kms out to Roulos group. The normal swarm of kids converged on me before I made it to the temple entrance, and then converged again after I left. I bought a soda (to recover from the long, hot bike ride), and then went searching for rocks. Recruiting the kids into my quest, and I preceded to juggle with rocks, entertaining the kids for awhile. The kids quickly warmed to after this, and even prepared some gifts for me out of flowers, and would continually bring me more rocks whenever I dropped (which given the various shapes of the rocks, was quite often...)

The next day, continuing my experiment, I met some Cambodian girls at lunch, and after joking around with them for awhile, talking about their lives, etc, I introduced them to the metal band Volbeat on my ipod and tried semi-successfully to get them to dance with me (meaning two of them sorta did, but the other two didn't). Still all in all it was quite a successful day. Oh, and of course, on the way, I saw some amazing temples like Ta Phom and Angkor Thom and Bayon, etc :)

Side note, the night I juggled with the kids at the Roulos Group, I also met a cool Canadian, who happened to be a magician, so we spent the night with me teaching and showing juggling tricks and him weaving his crazy card magic. Quite a night. Siem Reap is taken over by the western circus.

Golden Rock (Burma)

It hard to overstate how friendly, warm, and charming the people of Burma are. Yesterday Taylor (an American that I’m traveling with) and I went to speak at an English class and just talk with students for a couple hours. Afterwards, we made our way over to the Golden Rock, which is near a town called Kyaiktiyo. After arriving in Kyaiktiyo, you take a pickup truck to the base camp, Kinpun, for trips the Golden Rock. The Golden Rock a precarious boulder, just balancing off the edge of a cliff. Supposedly it rests there on a Buddha hair (holding the boulder in place) and on top of the boulder is a large golden stupa. Anyway, the base camp Kinpun is quite an interesting town. All along the main street are souvenir vendors, and the main souvenirs seemed to, I kid you not, large bamboo machine guns with a little wind to make the sound of a gun shooting. Along the side of most of these guns is written, in big letters, “U.S.A.”

For a military state, which has quite a bit of animosity towards USA, these USA labeled guns at one of the most sacred sites in all of Burma was quite interesting in itself. That the kids would run around pretending to be Rambo (and specifically Rambo 4 according to them), whose latest movie is banned for featuring, among other things, Rambo massacring the army of Burma’s junta, only added to the bizarre act of playfulness and political defiance. The arrival of two American’s, Taylor and myself, I think added to the fun as we played with kids, pretending to be shot and shoot eachother.

At the store, I bought a bamboo bracelet for 300 kyats, or approximately 25-30 cents.
The store owner and presumably their father gave Taylor and me each a nice necklace as a present. Each necklace probably worth more than the bracelet. Which is both remarkably generous and a remarkably bad business model.

We walked around some more. I’ve never been such a tourist attraction before. Girls will point and giggle, come over and pinch you and then walk or run away. People come out to the streets, almost lining the walkways like adoring fans, just to wave and say hi as you pass by. Child stare and then wave and smile when you mumble a few Burmese words or simply wave.

Today we hiked up to the Golden Rock. Most tourists take a pick-up truck most of the way, only hiking the last 45 minutes, so for most of the way up, foreign tourists weren’t a rare sight, they were non-existent. But along the way, we passed many pilgrims from Burma making the return trip, toting their large bamboo USA guns on their shoulders. Our greeting on “min-gala-beh” received a wide range of responses to “oooooh! Mingalabeh!” to boys waving their hands and pumping fists, “Mingalabeh!”, to Burmese women telling us we were beautiful, to girls giggling and pointing. The greetings of “bye-bye” instead of “hello” were also endearing. Near the top of the ridge, we can caught beautiful views on either side and found a small place where I bought a squirrel (roasted to a crisp) and ate it (while Taylor took a few weary bites). The squirrel looked thoroughly disgusting, though it just tasted like well-cooked turkey jerky. The owners of the shop amused themselves by bringing out various things to shock us like a large stuffed muskrat and other heads of dead animals. After that short stop, we continued up and reached the temple complex for the Golden Rock (paying the exorbitant foreigners entrance fee, oddly always charged in US dollars. Sometimes they’d let you pay in kyat, but you pay not in the government rate, which is 400 kyats to the dollar, but the black market rate, which is 1200 kyats to the dollar… so the government doesn’t even follow its own rules on the exchange rate, after all they want to pump us for as much cash as possible).

After watching the sunset at the Golden Rock, we headed back down the mountain, catching the last pickup truck to Kinpun camp. Taylor and I decided to celebrate the day with an ice cream shop we managed to find after much searching. But ice cream is well worth the quest.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A Witness...

Of all the countries I have been to so far, Burma has been my favorite. Burma contains everything a traveler like me is looking for. The scenery is spectacular and interesting - from sweeping rivers cutting through karst filled landscapes and towering limestone mountains to ancient teak monasteries. The people are friendly, helpful, and shockingly generous. Poor store vendors offer gifts; monks approach you at cafes and offer you food from their donation or alms bowls. Strangers greet you like old friends and take you out for dinner without asking or expecting anything in return.

Peering from off the edge of the towering Zwegbin mountain, you could watch the sun slowly descend from its perch in the sky, casting the Than Win river in bright red glow. Almost every day, I would simply sit down and think what a great trip it was, how every day was filled with a special type of magic, from simply sitting around a lunch table piecing together conversations with bits of Burmese and English, or biking through the 3000 temples of the plains of Bagan, there was a magic, a sense of mystery that still pervades and emanates from the country. This mystery is perhaps most apparent in Shwe Dagon Pagoda, the massive 98 meter golden stupa (painted with real gold) that dominates Yangon, the former capital. Especially at night, when the stupa is surrounded by candles (lit as offerings to the Buddha) and the gold shimmers in the soft light, hundreds of pilgrims come to pray and meditate, and you become lost in place of magic and wonder, and swept along in the slow tide of pilgrims making the slow, deliberate clockwise orbit around the stupa in the center of compound.

But there is a way in which this is the saddest country I’ve ever been to. It’s remarkably beautiful. The temples amazing; the people sweet and friendly. But hanging out with the Burmese you meet, you catch glimpses of the horror and fear they live under. You can hear the slight tinge of terror in their voices around soldiers and even police; the hushed tones about Generals they don’t like (and hence temples they avoid because they were build by them); the coded references to the “incident” around Shwe Dagon pagoda (meaning the monks who were massacred there last year). It's eeire walking the streets, knowing recently that had been crowded with protesters and then flowing with the protesters blood as the government cracked down with their full fury and viciousness. The people are cute and sweet, offering gifts from a necklace from a store owner around the Golden Rock to fruits and sweets in Moulmein, and it seems so sad. Cuteness, sweetness trapped in this hellish country – this beautiful country become hellish by the vicious regime in charge.

Many travelers avoid this country partially due to the travel ban that Aung Suu Kyi advocated years back. But as she continues to remain under house arrest, the travel ban feels like a collective house arrest for the people in this country. Unable to leave because of travel restrictions from the government, they remain caught in a large prison of sorts. War and conflict surrounds them in the Kayin, Rakhaing and Shan states of Burma. The government maintains a hidden but ubitiquitious presence. Monks point out “spy” monks near Shwe Dagon Pagoda; military checkpoints keep track of both local and foreigners movement throughout the country.

It’d be easy to move around this country and just see the beauty and history. Like in Sierra Leone, lost among the white sand beaches and rolling mountains, lost in the lush forests and caught up in the friendly people. But there’s a deep hidden horror, just beneath the surface, just barely hidden from view and you need only spend a little time, a little effort to see it in all its brutality. The horror of day to day fear, the horror of poverty, the horror of a regime bent on retaining power at costs and all the brutality that entails. You notice the absence of street children in many cities. A seemingly positive sign, yet also a silent reminder that Burma has the most child soldiers of any country in the world, some 80,000. Street children disappear into the military, brutalized and brutally turned into the governments instruments of brutality throughout the country.

I have spent the last four weeks in Myanmar, in Burma, traveling all around, witnessing beautiful, amazing, wonderful things. But perhaps more than anything else, I am a witness to horror.


Mount Zgewin and a field of 1200 Buddhas in Hpa'an

Shwe Dagon at night

Sunrise at Bagan

Burma and Cambodia

So I'm back from Burma, and I recently arrived in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Because of government restrictions and monitoring of the internet, I wasn't able to blog while in Burma. But over the next couple days, I'm going to begin posting some of the notes I wrote while I was there, not necessarily in chronologically order. For a short summary of the trip, it was simply amazing, the amazing trip I've taken so far. The people were charming, friendly and generous; the scenery spectacular, and the religious sites really retain the sense of mystery, magic and wonder. Even in Angkor Wat, I must confess I find myself fairly underwhelmed after exploring the 3000 temples in the vast plains of Bagan. But that's all for now. I'll delve more into the stories and places and people in my following posts.

Friday, January 2, 2009


I'm off to Myanmar/Burma tomorrow, so I probably won't be posting for awhile.

One picture from Ko Panyi before I leave:


I just spent the day biking around the ruins of Ayutthaya. Watched the sunset at Wat Chai Wattaranam and then the crescent moon take its position over the main prang. I think some of the pics speak for themselves... back to Bangkok tomorrow and then Yangoon

new years

I ended up spending New Years in Phitsanulouk. I opted against Chiang Mai for several reasons. Chiang Mai was becoming quite lively around New Years, with numerous parades, dance performances and live music performances, and New Years was obviously going to be quite a celebration. Yet Chiang Mai, being the "go-to" spot for all tourists (Western and otherwise) was becoming completely flooded by tourists. Phitsanulouk seemed small enough (and close enough to the more popular spots of Ayutthuya and Chiang Mai) that it wouldn't receive many tourists. Yet Phitsanulouk was also large enough and lively enough to hopefully have a decent celebration (and hopefully a less Western one at that). So that was my gamble. And after ten hours on the bus (three from Tha Ton to Chiang Mai and then seven more to Phitsanulouk), my gamble paid off.

Phitsanulouk is a cozy town by the river with a huge, lively night market. The night market became the center for the festivities with three separate stages for dances and music. Endless rows of food vendors and souvenir stands lined the streets, with people setting off firecrackers into the river. The middle music stand was devoted more to the young crowd with (yes, Brandon and Maya you can be jealous), Thai heavy metal and rock bands performing all night long.

As for the tourism, I think I was one of maybe three. All in all, it was pretty awesome.