June 30, 2006

Kunming - City of Eternal Spring

Yesterday, I flew from Kho Samui to Kunming. It was an exhausting trip, since I had to leave at six am, endure a six hour stopover in Bangkok, then another hour long stopover in Chiang Mai. But, I made it in one piece.

Kunming's weather is a welcome respite from thailand's sweltering heat. As we are at almost 2000m, it rarely gets above 25 degrees (celcius). Alas, it's rainy season, so I doubt I'll see much sun over the next two weeks.

Kunming is yet another large Chinese metropolis. 4M people call this modern city home. At first, I didn't like this place - the 10 lane roads teem with traffic, skyscrapers loom over the sidewalks, and people rarely make eye contact. I still can't get used to the constant spitting. In short, it's another Big City. Then, I explored. The city has several immaculate parks, some wonderful pedestrian areas, and an efficient bus system.

After an almost sleepless night (there were mosquitos in my room), I feasted on a huge buffet, and headed out to Xi Shan, which is the mountain range that towers in the hazy distance. It is supposed to have some great temples, stone carvings, and great views over Kunming. The good people at the hotel wanted to sell me a $10 tour package, so I did the natural thing and went by public bus for 25 cents. After an hour (and two busses) I finally arrived at the base of the hill. "This is it?" I thought to myself. I was the only westerner in site. But, there were hundreds of chinese tourists, milling around, taking pictures of random things (including me), and making lots of noise. I dutifully paid my $4 entrance fee and started walking. The views over the nearby filthy, polluted lake were uninspiring and I grumbled "I came all the way here for this?"

But, as I climbed higher, it became more and more impressive. In the 16th Century, a monk had decided that it would be a great idea to dedicate his life to carving statues, stairs, and grottos out of a sheer cliff. How he lived through it, I don't know, since the tunnels and stairs precariously gripped the side of a massive wall. Twice I asked myself why he didn't just train cats, the way the bored Burmese Monks did. Much safer, since after just one misstep you would plummet 500m to your death. Only as you looked over the side did you realize the magnitude of his accomplishment, the culmination of which was a beautiful gate (called Dragon Gate) hewn into the rock.

It looks like I'm going to be eating a lot of chicken while in China. I have yet to see Beef on the menu, and I'm not one to eat pork. Yesterday, I sampled the local specialty, "Across-the-bridge noodles" (with chicken). What a scam! They basically gave a fancy name to noodle soup and charged three times the price! For dinner, I had chilli chicken and once again had to get used to receiving the main dish ten minutes before the rice arrived.

Today, already sick of greasy chicken, I decided to go find my people. I somehow managed to navigate the bus system and got off at the right stop. I walked down a little alley, turned the corner, and there they were. Salaam A Laykum I exclaimed to the surprised Urghur Muslim. And so, to his family's amusement, I feasted on delicously spiced mutton and beef kebabs, accompanied by an Urghur noodle soup.

Tonight, I'm off to Dali, on the overnight train. Should be fun. It's great to be on the road again.

June 27, 2006

Thailand - Still in Ko Samui

I'm just killing time, waiting for my plane to Kunming, China. I leave on June 29th. Ko Samui is quite touristy. I was going to head back to Kho Phan Yang (which is more backpackery), but laziness set in after I spent a few hours trying to get a good deal on my flight and also trying to fix ZMama's ipod (it's officially dead).

There are many package tourists here (mostly English or German), so the place is very expensive. I'm disappointed with the food since it is "thai" that is geared towards the European Palate. I asked for "extra spicy" yesterday and I still had to add chillis. Do that in a normal Thai restaurant and you'll be feeling the after-effects for days.

Books I've read so far on this trip:

Valhalla (Clive Cussler)
Seven Years in Tibet (Heinrich Harrer)
Annapurna (Maurice Herzog)
The Glass Palace (Amitav Ghosh)
Burmese Days (George Orwell)
The Tipping Point (Malcolm Gladwell)

I am currently reading A Fine Balance (Rohinton Mistry).

My plan for today:

Get some food
Lie on the beach
Get a haircut
Watch the football matches (Go Brasil!)

June 24, 2006

Thailand - The islands

I decided to take a break from the backpacker life and headed down to the islands in the south of Thailand, via Bangkok. Since my flight from Bangkok to Samui was at 6am, it seemed like a good idea to stay up all night and party with a few friends from school. The Giant South Asian (who I had arranged to meet in Bangkok) also thought it a good idea. We hit Bed Supperclub and then another fancy late-night place before heading to the airport. Let's just say that we were feeling it after a flight, then a ferry, then a taxi, then another boat ride. However, I ended up in Kho Phan Yang in one piece and spent a few blissful days in a secluded bungalow right on the beach. The hardest part of my day was deciding what to eat for lunch.

I am now in Kho Samui, which is pretty touristy. Lots of European package tourists roasting on the beach. I made up for it by sharing a bbq'ed fresh white snapper and bbq'ed fresh red snapper with some friends from Wharton. Good times. The weather is beautiful, the sand is white, and the water is a wonderful shade of turquoise (I'm told).

June 20, 2006

Back in Yangon

After a short 1 hr flight from Inle Lake, I arrived in Yangon. Much better than 22 hrs on a cramped bus! The flight was rather amusing, as there were only 6 people on the plane. I was served a rather disgusting "Seafood Pizza." I took one bite and opted to wait for food until after we had landed.

The first place I headed was the Biryani joint. The mutton biryani was delicious. I'm planning to have roast duck tonight.

After having seen a lot more the country, I'm even less impressed with Yangon. The people here are unsmiling, unfriendly, and uninterested.

I'm off to Bangkok tomorrow and will then decide on my next destination.

June 19, 2006

King of the Road, Inle Lake

Had two relaxing days in Inle lake, staying in my own stilt bungalow on a river. I loved sitting on my porch, watching the lazy river life. I hated being woken up at 5:30am when the first of the motorboats would roar past my window. A bungalow, with private bathroom, breakfast, and a wonderful 3-course home-cooked meal cost $5/night. Queen Inn was run by a cheerful, well.-fed woman who made sure each of her guests were comfortable and completely full after her meals.

Yesterday, I spent 12 hrs on a long-boat, going around the lake. We visited pagodas, floating markets, and a whole lot of workshops (with attached, overpriced stores to pry dollars from unsuspecting tourists). Visiting these workshops was like stepping back in time as we watched children weave silk and lotus longyis on 100-yr old looms. At another workship, 12 yr old girls rolled 500 cheroots a day. For this, they earned all of 50 cents. The proprietor assured us that the girls only worked on "school holidays," but they were way too adept to only do this job occasionally. Later in the day, we visited a monastery where the bored monks had trained cats to jump through hoops. Throughout the day, the local fishermen showed off their boating skills by rowing with one foot. Interesting, but slow work.

Today, I hired a bike and went out into the countryside. A month ago, Shazz had tried to convince me to get a bike in Kathmandu. I refused on the grounds of the crazy, frenetic traffic. "But we'll be King of the Road!" he exclaimed. "We'll have the wind in our hair and the run of the land!"

And so it was today, for the second time in Myanmar (I had also hired a bike in Bagan), that I was King of the Road. I rode past rice paddies, small villages and pagodas on the hill. I stopped and watched an old, grinning woman try to coax a stubborn water buffalo out of the mud. I raced a small boy who was on another Water Buffalo (he won). I strolled through villages while an army of small children ran alongside yelling "Bye Bye!" I rang my bicycle bell in greeting to local bikers and was rewarded with smiles and waves. And, on my way home, I was soaked by the afternoon thunderstorm. But, the Queen Inn Matriarch had a cold beer and a fresh plate of french fries waiting for me to enjoy on my porch.

June 17, 2006

To Inle Lake

I had to wake up at 4am to catch the local bus from Bagan to Inle Lake. The 250km journey took 12hrs, in a creaky, fragile minibus that lacked air-conditioning. When I fell asleep, there were only 10 people occupying the bus' 20 seats. I had been placed behind the driver, right on the engine with very little leg room, but the driver was adamant that I not move. I found out when I woke up 2hrs later to find the bus full of people. There were at least 30 people inside the bus, some standing, while there were another 10 on the roof. One person had two chickens in his lap.

The drive was beautiful, but slow. The narrow road winded up through the mountains past logging sites and a constant caravan of precariously teakwood laden trucks inched past us. Our driver was suprisingly cautious, but this may have been since his minibus couldn't manage more than 30km/hr. We passed two wrecked buses that served as a reminder of how tight the roads were. I patted myself on the back for buying a $65 plane ticket back to Yangon - the 22 hr ride back was supposedly one of the most dangerous in SE Asia.

I had an interesting conversation with some other travellers today who had some local Burmese friends. While I knew the country is isolated, uneducated, and oppressed by the corrupt, inept government, it wasn't until I head their stories that I realized the depth of it. Most of this information came from an American who is teaching English in Yangon.

- Many Burmese believe the Earth is Flat and is one of four islands floating in space. They cannot believe that someone has walked on the moon.

- They believe that what they see on TV (including shots of NYC and other cities) are representations of the future. Cities like NYC cannot exist.

- There is no concept of sex-ed. They believe it is a "courtesy" to wear a condom for the first two times, but that they are unnecessary after that. As a result, HIV is rampant.

The Military Dictators have no real education. Examples of their policies:

- Declaring certain note denominations worthless, thus wiping out life savings overnight.

- Deciding that since many people cannot afford basic necessities, that the solution is to increase public servant wages by 300%. Then, in order to fight inflation, sending men with guns to force shopkeepers to keep prices steady.

- Deciding that teachers make "enough" so it is illegal for public teachers to supplement their income by teaching privately. This backfired once the generals realized their children could no longer get a good education.

- Declaring that instead of driving on the left, the country should drive on the right. Accident rates shot up as most cars have the steering wheel on the right.

- Imposing a $20K tax on imported cars. The country's fleet is old, falling apart, and quite unsafe.

- Gas is $1/gallon, but you are only allowed 5-10 gallons/week, depending on "need." It is prohibitively expensive on the black market.

June 15, 2006

Here's a temple, there's a temple

I found a somewhat reliable internet connection here in Bagan. At $2.50/hr, it's ridiculously expensive - this, in a town where you can rent a bicycle for 50 cents a day or get a a horse, cart, and driver for $5 from sunup to sundown. The "internet cafe" is nothing more than a small room with a desk, a plastic chair, an ancient computer, and a dialup connection. But, in its defense, it is the first connection I've found in Burma that has managed to connect me to the pathetically bloated Hotmail Live.

With over 4400 temples and stuppas scattered over a 42 square km plain, Bagan easily rivals the historic sites of Petra (Jordan) and Angkor Wat (Cambodia). While it lacks Angkor Wat's dense, lush jungle-ruins atmosphere, it makes up for this with sheer numbers. The structures range from small 2m stuppas to towering 70m high golden domes that dot the arid desert. The temples were built between 1100AD and 1300AD and most are in good shape, since the military gov't had them restored (with forced labor) after a devastating earthquake in 1975. Many of the temples' upper levels are closed to tourists, but you can climb up a couple of the reinforced temples for amazing views over the pancake-flat plain. As far as the eye can see, there are temples and stuppas, framed by the massive Ayeyarwady River and some mountains in the distance. It's absolutely incredible.

There are a couple of ways to get around: you can either rent a bicycle for the day, or a get a shaded horse-cart. Due to the oppressive heat (it's about 40 degrees Celcius at mid-day, with no shade for miles around), I opted to split a horse cart with two other travelers. Thus, I've spent the past two days bouncing around over dusty roads, staring at a horse's arse.

June 12, 2006

Mandalay, Myanmar

Greetings from Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma)! After a lot of persistence, I finally found an internet connection in this city. My email is mostly blocked (the government censors everything), and this computer is an ancient Pentium 3, 500MHz, running Windows 98. The power comes and goes (the government only allows one side of town to have power at a time) so writing this has been a bit frustrating.

Thus far, I have loved this country. The people are especially welcoming, friendly, and curious. A smile is quickly rewarded with a beaming grin, a happy wave, and the inevitable "where from?"

I arrived in Yangon (Rangoon) about five days ago and discovered a town empty of tourists. The locals are a diverse mix of Bamar, Indians, Chinese, and Colonial English who peddle everything from jelebi and buddha statues to small, colorful condoms. Yangon is a run-down, broken capital with dusty, leafy streets that are relatively empty of traffic. Bicycles, Trishaws (bikes with sidecars), and noisy, ancient pickups seem to be the main means of transport, while those associated with the military ride around in shiny new jeeps. The city's centerpiece is the Swedagon Pagoda, a 100m high golden stuppa that towers over the city. I explored the stuppa grounds in the company of a charming young monk and his sister, both of whom wanted to improve their english.

After a day and a half in the Capital (where I had some wonderful mutton Biryani), I endured a gruelling 16 hour bus ride to Mandalay. The bus seats are not built for large western men and to make matters worse I was in the back, where it is bumpiest.

Mandalay is a charming city with a number of beautiful monasteries, stuppas, and religious monuments. Due to constant power outages, life grinds to a halt after dark, but during the day, it is a quiet bustle of people. The food is not as diverse as in the capital, but I have found an amazing little Chapati stand where for 50 cents you are given 2 freshly made chapatis, mutton curry, dhal, mango pickle, and onion. Delicious!

Over the past two days, I befriended a trishaw driver (well, he "claimed" me) who took me around several ancient cities (one of which you have to navigate in a horse-drawn cart) and to see the sunset over the Amarapurra Teak Bridge. Two days ago, I climbed Mandalay Hill in the company of four charming young Burmese who wanted to practice their English. I was peppered with questions:

"Excuse Me! What is your favorite color?"
"Excuse Me! What do you like to eat?"
"Excuse Me! Do you like Myanmar?"
"By the Way! What are your hobbies?"

One girl completely confounded me with:
"Excuse Me! Is it possible to live life without love?"

Last night I went to see the famous Moustache Brothers perform their enduring, illegal vaudeville show. It is a cheesy, cornball affair with political satire, song and dance. In 1996, they put on a show criticizing the Military Junta, for which two of the three brothers earned 7 years of forced hard labor. The third brother kept up the show and for some reason was tolerated by the regime. After the other 2 brothers were released, they kept up the show for tourists. It was odd listening to Burmese openly criticize their government and interesting listening to their points of view. Since it is low season, it was just myself and two other tourists sitting on plastic chairs in the Moustache Brothers' living room.

I'm off to Bagan tomorrow.

June 07, 2006

Off to Myanmar (Burma)

I held my breath, paid the extra for premium processing and even bought a plane ticket before I got the visa. And, it all worked out (so far). Tomorrow morning I'm off to Burma for two weeks. I'm not sure what the internet connection is like out there, but I will do my best to report back.

Currently, my plan is to fly into Yangdon, then go up to Mandalay for a few days, then head down to the temple complex of Bagan, and finally do the hairy trip to Inle Lake. I'm currently reading The Glass Palace which is a historical piece of fiction out Burma. Great read!

Last year Burma had 200,000 tourist visitors. I'm pretty excited to see this rarely visited country.

June 06, 2006

Subsidized Medicine

Before I left for this trip, I dutifully visited the Travel Specialist at Upenn's Health Services and explained to her that I would probably need Malaria pills. She agreed, and prescribed 14 Larium pills (one a week). Unlike my father and brother, I have not had any reactions to this medication. I had the prescription filled at Rite-Aid and packed the little bottle. What I didn't notice was that Rite-Aid, to protect me from addiction and side-effects (and to also maximize profit), had only put 4 of the 14 pills into the bottle. I only noticed this in Nepal.

Today, I discovered that the only way to get this drug is to go to the Hospital in Bangkok. So, I nervously walked into a sparkling clean, brand new hospital after a harrowing tuk-tuk ride that cost me $1 (after some serious negotiation). The tuk-tuk driver lecherously pointed at every attractive girl we passed and exclaimed "Lady! Lady! I take you to massage?" He was rather disappointed that I only wanted to go to the hospital.

On arrival at the hospital, I was informed that I would have to visit with a doctor and that I would be charged for this, plus a hospital service fee. I resigned myself to an expensive visit, but told myself that malaria was not a disease to trifle with, especially in Myanmar where it is quite prevalant. The process itself was quite painless, as I was waited on by a small army of smiling, very attractive Thai nurses.

Overall, I was surprised at what it cost. The medication, plus the doctor visit, plus the hospital's service fee was, all-in, $10US. To put this in perspective, I paid a $20US copay for the 4 Larium pills that I bought at Rite-Aid. This reminded me of the many cases we did at the Wharton School to humor all of our Healthcare majors.

June 05, 2006


I had forgotten how hot and humid it is here. Wow. I'm staying in the backpacker ghetto in a crappy little $5/night room while I wait for my China and Burma visas to be processed. I miss the Kathmandu Guest House and Tibet seems so far away right now. I feel rather old over here.

The service on Thai Airways, by the way, is fantastic.

June 03, 2006

Back in Kathmandu

Who would have thought that I'd refer to Kathmandu as "back in Civilization?" Yet, here I am, comfortably shaved and clean after a hot shower. My lungs are thanking me for the abundant oxygen, and this time tomorrow, I will once again have clean clothes. The good folks at the Kathmandu Guest House greeted me like family, inquiring about my trip to Tibet, excitedly telling me about how Shazz had stopped by earlier in the week, and finally rewarding my loyalty with a large room for half the price we had paid last week (despite the fact that the place is now twice as busy as before).

Yet, I miss Tibet. Kathmandu is a hot, chaotic, polluted anti-thesis to the quiet, lonely plains of the Tibetan Plateau. After five days of gazing upon arid, desolate peaks, the lush, verdant humidity of the Kathmandu valley was a shock to the system. So was the traffic, the constant honking, and the perilous, almost suicidal driving habits. I appreciated Tibetan Driver even more after placing my life in the hands of a maniac for the 4 hour mountaineous sprint from the border to Kathmandu.

After watching the sunrise over Everest, we left for Nepal. Today I descended 3800m, a vertical drop that took me from the 5124m Taro-la pass, with its amazing views over a Himalayan paradise, down to the 1300m Kathmandu Valley. Our drive took us from a lifeless desert, down through a rainforest jungle with waterfalls, raging rivers, and greenery that left me speechless. I miss the thrill of being the only one on the road, one of the few to enjoy the views, the silence, and the dusty plains of Tibet. For hours on end, it was just our Land Cruiser, perhaps a lonely shepherd and his herd, and the occasional friendly settlement of waving children. Then, we arrived at the Nepali border, and suddenly there were people everywhere, begging, touting, and pushing. Thank god the food is excellent. I am looking forward to a good tandoori tonight, and puri and batetas tomorrow morning.

June 02, 2006

At the foot of Giants

This from my diary:

Tingri is a dirty little place where the locals demand money, the accomodations are rather filthy, and the food is bland. Yet, Tingri has one redeeming feature: it lies at the foot of the Great Himalaya Range. I am sitting at the top of a small hill, a 2km hike outside of town, and am gazing upon a panorama of Snow-Capped Giants. The North Face of Everest peeks (haha) over a 4500m foothill, while the 8100m massif of Cho Oyo looms over the valley. We have been blessed with blue skies, temperate weather, and a gorgeous vista of 23K ft high mountains. The only sounds are the birds chirping and the occasional curious cow. The valley is green with the recently flooded rice paddies and the irrigation streams twinkle in the sunlight.

We started the day on the wrong foot. At 5:30am, with only an hour to get to the checkpoint before the chinese closed the highway for 12hrs, we discovered a flat tire. Driver struggled heroically to change the tire in the dark (with help from my flashlight)... and succeeded. We arrived at the checkpoint with minutes to spare.

It took a bumpy and dusty 4hrs to reach Tingri, but we arrived to a beautiful view over Everest. It was with a bit of regret that I passed the turnoff to Everest Base Camp, but I knew it was the right decision: too many tourists end up sick from the altitude and end up disliking their visit. I knew my poor asthmatic lungs would be no match for the lack of oxygen at that altitude. The view from Tingri is quite worth the trip, despite the interesting accomodations. We checked out 4 equally grubby "hotels" and finally settled on the one Driver took us to. This one, Lhasa Hotel, was quite proud of its Hot Showers, which consisted of a barrel of water dutifully heated with Yak Dung and firewood. The toilets are in a drafty concrete outhouse with noxious fumes that waft up the the three slits and a distinct lack of privacy. The hotel does have its charm, though - the common room, with its electricity that comes and goes, is full of friendly locals playing cards, dice, and other Tibetan games. Driver was quite happy to lose a few yuan to his friends here.

I have been traveling with a delightful German Couple, both of whom are PhD candidates and are avid mountaineers. Tonight, for the fourth meal in a row, to my traveling companions' delight, I ordered something off the menu (Yak Meat with Potatoes) and was the only one to get something completely different (Pork with Greasy Fries). I was summoned into the kitchen to explain to the matriarch why I was sending back the meal. After a good laugh, I eventually got my Yak meat.

June 01, 2006

Curious Tibetans in the middle of nowhere

Once again, I am in the middle of nowhere. Yet, there is internet access!

Today we were blessed with juicy-fruit blue skies, amazing mountain vistas, and 2 hours of paved roads (and later, 5 hours of dusty, bumpy, gravel tracks). I continue to marvel at Driver's aptitude with the car. He doesn't talk much (and when he wants to communicate, he'll grunt or point), he loves to sing along with his Tibetan music (which he blasts as loud as he can, and which sounds like a combination of a wailing cat and nails on a chalkboard), but he's a hell of an asset behind the wheel.

Today's journey took us 2 hours on a straight as an arrow road from Gyantse (3950m) to Shigaste (3900m), site of one of Lhasa's largest monasteries. Since our guide had informed us that the chinese government was pocketing the entire exhorbitant $10 entrance fee (instead of sharing it with the monks), we decided to join the throngs of pilgrims on their hour-long kora around the monastery. This circuit was special, since it was entirely lined with prayer wheels (instead of having to vocalize their prayers, buddhists can spin these wheels and get the same credit). Also, it had several tests of devotion, in which pilgrims had to rub various body parts against rocks, walls, or trees. And so we walked slowly, thronged by smiling, joyous Tibetans, who paused to say "Hullo, Hullo!" and stick out their tongues at us.

For lunch, we went to a chinese restaurant that was dubiously named "Joe's Greasy Diner." I didn't see anything on the 5 page menu that appealed to me, so I got up, went into the kitchen, and picked out my meal. I pointed at a chinese eggplant, some shitake mushrooms, chilis, and then vaguely waved at the rest of the spices, inferring that the chef should use his discretion. It was delicious.

After Shigatse, we bounced along the Friendship Highway to Lhatse (4050m). The drive was spectacular, as it took us through a parched desert thronged by barren peaks, past a few oases where Tibetans eked out a living, and over a mountain pass which gave us a beautiful vista over the valleys.

Lhatse is nothing more than one paved road, a huddle of guest houses, and a few restaurants. We spent the afternoon in the fields behind the town, smiling (and talking a bit) at a farmer and his family as they plowed the field with their two Yak. Alas, I made the farmer's baby cry. His mother came over to me and explained (by pointing at her nose and touching my arm hair), that my big nose and strange looks had scared Baby.

There is no running water in my hotel and the bathroom consists of a platform with two holes (separated by a barrier, but no door). Imagine my surprise when, while I squatted and took care of business, a whistling tibetan walked into the bathroom. There I was, in all my glory staring up at him, and he actually took the time to peer over and inspect me (while he continued to whistle)! After a nod of approval, he then noisily got down to his own business.