That Bangkok Year

“Part of the urge to explore is a desire to become lost.”

Myanmar feat. the Parents

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I didn’t mean to stop writing. A broken laptop, a draining job, and law school applications have been sapping my resolve. Obviously that ends now! This will be the first of a few posts that catch you up on the last 6 months of my life.

In early May mom and dad came to visit for a week. The plan was to stay in Bangkok for one day, go on to Myanmar for five, and then back to Bangkok for 2 more days. To prepare for their arrival, I decided I’d try out a new look.

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I was going to have to shave the beard I’d been growing for the duration of our 2.5 month break from work anyway, so I figured I’d try the father/son dueling moustache thing for a day or two.

We spent the bulk of our first day exploring the city, specifically the Royal Palace area. To get there we took a ferry down the Chao Phraya River.

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Once we got there we saw the royal temple, Wat Pho home of the the resident giant Reclining Buddha, and some other touristy sights.

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I bet you can all guess which of those statues is my favorite. I wonder if you have to go to extra school to get a hermit MD.

The next day we got on a plane for Myanmar. We spent two days in the former capital of Yangon, and then three more in the famous city of Bagan, home to thousands of pagodas rising from the desert.

Myanmar was the fourth Southeast Asian country for Kara and me to visit. It’s prized by travelers as being untouched by the eroding effects of westernization on it’s culture due to it’s repressive government’s history of isolation policies post-British colonization. Tourists have been pouring in looking for an experience they can’t get elsewhere before everything changes.

The city of Yangon, formerly Rangoon, is being hailed as the next Southeast Asian city to explode economically. While the fuse has been lit, I wouldn’t say it’s booming quite yet. Walking around the city felt similar to the way I imagine Bangkok 40 years ago. Old brick buildings, dirt roads, no chain restaurants. Women and children still cover their faces with thanaka, a paste derived from tree bark. The men wear Longyi’s; skirts that wrap-around your waist and are held up by a tight knot.

On our driving tour of the city, we drove by Nobel Peace prize winner and heroine of freedom Aung San Suu Kyi’s home. She was imprisoned for 15 years before being released in 2010.

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That afternoon we visited the jewel of Myanmar, the Shwedagon Pagoda. Every foreigner I know living in Asia has the same attitude about temples. They’re amazing, beautiful, impressive, and basically all the same and a bit tedious. Thus I was totally unprepared for the 320 foot tall pagoda.

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Its tiers are plated in gold, studded with diamonds and capped by an orb bearing 4,500 diamonds and a 76-carat diamond on top. Burmese people come from all over the country to worship; many wearing beautiful traditional outfits. My mom, Kara, and our guide posed for a picture with a woman from an old tribe visiting from her local village.

The incredible wealth on display is shocking when juxtaposed with the poverty of Burmese people. The majority of Burmese citizens have an annual income of less than 200 American dollars per year.

The next day we got up early to beat the heat and visited a lakeside park.

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In some of the photos you can see the Shwedagon Pagoda in the background. I was particularly fascinated with the water Zamboni cleaning up all the lillypads. We also saw Burmese supermodel Moe Hay Ko doing a photo shoot, complete with fan girls giggling a short distance away.

In the afternoon we visited a monastery and school for young novice monks, as well as the one for nuns across the street.

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After the monks and nuns we visited another reclining Buddha.

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In between our planned events we wandered around the city, perused street markets, and relaxed at the historic Governors Mansion Hotel.

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The peaceful looking man above gave Kara a card that promised her good luck for a whole year! So you know she’s got that going for her, didn’t help with out NFL Pickem’ pool though.

Early in the morning of our third day in Myanmar we boarded our small plane to fly to the original capital of the Burmese Empire, Bagan.

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Getting off the plane the first thing about the Bagan region that jumped out at us was the heat. March – May is the hottest season in this part of the world, and for the three days we were there temperatures reached 110 degrees. However, a dry 110 was not nearly as unpleasant as a muggy Bangkok 97. The area is arid, dry and flat producing a hauntingly still atmosphere.

After getting settled into our picturesque hotel along the Irrawaddy river, we went via van to the local market. Unlike markets in Thailand, there was no focus on providing silly chotchkies for tourists. It was cramped, loud, and pulsing with life. Everyone in the small town visits the market daily to get food and supplies.

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Kara and I couldn’t help buying our own Longyis. I swore I would wear it again but it hasn’t left my closet since returning to Bangkok.

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That’s some type of dried blood. It’s commonly found in soups both in Myanmar and Thailand.

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We came prepared with some whistles, tops, and balls to give away to kids we met. This little guy loved his new toy.

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This cute woman ran up and insisted on giving Kara a hug and taking a picture with her. This was the most authentic market I’ve been to thus far, and my second favorite only to the one in Luang Prebang, Laos.

After the market we were taken to see some historic buildings, including this temple known for it’s intricate wood carvings.

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I don’t remember the story behind the creepy guy hanging on the wall.

We spent a lot of time walking, horse carting, and motor biking around the area marveling at the several thousand pagodas.

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We painstakingly captured some magical sunrises and sunsets.

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We rode motorbikes around the area and had some delicious local cuisine.

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Burmese food is a little less visually appealing than Thai, but it tasted very good. I especially recommend the quail eggs in brown sauce.

At one point we narrowly escaped a stampeding herd.

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The family in the cart bringing up the rear generously and completely unsolicited gave my dad some fresh mango, which we promptly devoured.

We took a day trip to Mount Popa, a peculiar mountain topped by a Buddhist monastery. On the way we stopped to eat lunch and gape at the geological marvel.

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How anyone could possibly build a monastery up there is beyond me. To reach the monastery, we had to climb the 777 steps and dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge the locals.

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The monkeys live on the steps, dependent on people to buy food at the bottom of the steps and feed them. They look adorable, and they were, but they were also vicious. I tried to get a little too close at one point and was lunged at in an “I’ll rip your face off” kinda way.

At the top, the views were predictably awesome, although the monastery itself was a little mundane. (ultimate nitpicking)

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On the way back to Bagan, we stopped to see how Burmese people make their ornate lacquerware products.

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The secret is pretty much hard labor. The items are layered with different paints and glazes approximately 20 times over the course of several months. In between layerings they sit in a cool underground room and harden. All of the intricate images are hand drawn and unique. I was a little concerned about all the fumes and toxins the workers were essentially living in, not that I have any solution.

Here are some final Myanmar pictures.

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Lacquerware Technology College.

 

 

 

 

 

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Kid who helped me with my bike.

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Five days isn’t nearly enough time for any country, let alone one as diverse and untamed as Myanmar. That being said, it made a hell of an impression on us and there’s nothing I would change our time there. Except maybe not try duck brain.

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We returned to Bangkok early in the morning with two days left in my parents trip. The first day we took a canal tour of Venice of the East. The trip was highlighted by a temple with an unusual color scheme…

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A floating market…

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An orchid farm…

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Feeding the fish…

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A traditional puppet show…

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and of course the canals themselves.

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The next day took a Thai cooking class.

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That’s our final product above. Oh man can we cook when given the exact right ingredients, tools, and close supervision. I’m praying Kara and my mom truly learned something so I can reap the benefits someday.

At night we had some fancy dinners, one of which was at the number restaurant in Asia according to some random list I found on the internet!

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It’s not pictured but the first night we had the best Chicken Tikka Masala anyone could ever have. The second night “best restaurant in Asia” didn’t quite live up to the hype.

After dinner at Nahm I surprised my parents by taking them to the famous Skybar featured in Hangover II for unparalleled urban views and one last moment together.

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Needless to say it was a great week. Despite all the activities some of the best moments were spent just playing cards or catching up by the pool. It’s been about 6 months now since I’ve seen the ‘rents and writing this post been a reminder of what’s waiting for me at home!

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As usual photo credit to Kara and not as usual to my mom. More updates to come soon!

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