A Little Update…We’re Down to Days, Where Did the Time Go?

Where does the time go? It slipped away from me these past six months. Six months. Ana and I have wandered Southeast Asia for 26 weeks together, and there are just two weeks left before we board our plane for the United States and return home just in time for the hot and sticky season in Florida; a summer of humidity so dense your face melts clear down to your navel.

Oh, wait! That’s what it feels like over here now; the monsoon rains are weeks away from hitting and the air gets heavier with each word that materializes on my computer screen. Well and so, we’re prepared for another Florida summer after avoiding any signs of winter for the past six months.

bamboo train battambang cambodia
Ana and I rode an old bamboo train in the outskirts of Battambang, Cambodia; these are used on the old train tracks and locals transport food and goods back and forth between towns, and through the rural rice paddies!

Right now, we’re camped out at a lovely guesthouse just outside of Kampot, Cambodia with wide open spaces, lush mango trees and plenty of jungle-gym equipment to keep Ana occupied. I’ve forced Ana to act as my tour guide over the past month, it gets her much more involved in our trip that way, and this afternoon she planned us a kayaking trip on the lower Mekong River.

Last week, we ogled at the pretty Apsara dancers, watched a Cambodian circus, saw the marvels of Angkor Wat, and generally took our last month on the road as a complete indulgence. She’s behind on her school work and I find myself spending hours merely answering emails and putting out fires between our sightseeing and epic games of Scrabble (we’re big fans of the game, and Ana’s challenged me to a winner-takes-all-the-glory re-match tonight). My site here is so behind on stories and photos I find myself continually beating myself up over the delays. It’s not that I haven’t written, I have scores of posts and stories, but to take the time to pen them, edit them, then edit and add photos meant hours of Ana sitting in a hotel room watching TV, or playing around on her computer rather than travel.

apsara dancers cambodia
The beautiful Apsara dancers at a show in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

So, from the absence of stories and updates, one might accurately note that we’re enjoying what time we have left in complete abandon of such nonsensical things as a schedule (besides that pesky flight home out of Bangkok airport!) and enjoying our time together.

I’ve been so inspired over the past several months.  Having a giggling 11-year-old to point elements of my trip that never before excited me reignited some wonder. And it’s had challenges; I’m not as cool as a cucumber when dealing with touts and haggling after bickering with Ana in our room about wearing sunscreen and hats. Psuedo-solo-parenting and traveling are a tricky combination and something I occasionally fail at, but she’s still alive, so I figure that’s a win, right? ;-)

frangipani at wat banan
Ana throws frangipani in the air after collecting the fallen blossoms from the floor of Wat Banan near Battambang, Cambodia (and, ::cough, cough:: I won the hat debate :)

Yes, there is more to say. But for now, for now I have a mere 14 days with my sweet little niece before we rejoin our family, and I think I’ll soak it in, I just wanted to let you know that we’re here, we’re traveling, we’re taking time to watch the last sunlight fade from the sky each day, and we’ll both have more to say once the adventure ends and we’re camped out at home thinking back on our SEA trip.

sunset mekong river kampot
A pretty sunset on the lower Mekong River from Kampot, Cambodia.
Temple luang prabang laos

A Little Photoessay… Stories of Culture & History in Luang Prabang, Laos

The pace of life in Luang Prabang, Laos is so very charming. Charming is the only one-word description I can come up with for this low-slung city with wide streets (unnatural for much of Southeast Asia), French inspired post-colonial architecture, monks clad in sunny saffron robes, and a humming buzz of relaxed tourism. I wrote earlier about the changes three years and more tourism brought upon this sweet, sleepy country set between Vietnam and Thailand, but what cannot change in the intervening years between my visits,  is the history. Laos was the first travel destination I took my niece Ana to see once we left our apartment in Chiang Mai, and beyond the elephants, the river, and the Laotians, I really wanted her to experience a relaxed week enjoying the various elements of Luang Prabang.

A slow morning on the streets of Luang Prabang, Laos
Hours before the night market clogs the main tourist street in Luang Prabang, Vat Ho Pha Bang shines against the ultramarine sky and purple bougainvillea within the pristine National Museum complex. The city retains a rural and small-town feel despite it’s place in history as a royal capital in the 8th century, and an active trading hub on the Silk Road for many succeeding centuries. Now, it’s a UNESCO world heritage city, but no longer the capital of Laos, which I think is a very key reason the city has remained small despite globalism and tourism.

The city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and on this trip Ana and I spent simple days watching, observing, and talking about history and how it may have shaped the town, what it might have felt like when Laotian kings walked the streets. I find myself slowing down a lot more with Ana in tow, instead of spending the evenings with a beer at the bowling alley (hugely popular with the backpackers in the city back in 2009), we found a coffee shop on the river. The shop’s well-worn cushions and knee-high, woven bamboo tables were cozy and comfortable as we sipped our tart, icy lime drinks. We people watched for a bit while the boats hummed on the river below, then wrote in our journals of the day’s sights, me encouraging Ana to draw pictures, note specific moments and feelings.

I realized as we sat there that I too rarely reflect on my travels offline and via a handwritten journal. I documented my round the world trip in a journal, but that ended somewhere along the way. Ana was quick to point out that I was a hypocrite for making her document her personal thoughts and journey when my fingers jetting over the keyboard with a clatter rather than the soft hiss of putting pen to paper. I know that I think best on paper, but I am so caught up in what I still need to do-plan-work on that I rarely step away from the computer without conscious effort.

And so, I made more of an effort to unplug, I mostly stopped blogging for a bit and since Ana and I found ourselves in Luang Prabang for several extra days, I found I still loved visiting this pretty little city. We had a beautiful guesthouse with a friendly proprietress who spoke English, so I had Ana read our Laos guidebook and pick interesting activities, then ask for advice from our guesthouse owner. And even three years later, I still love the temples, smiles, and food. The people, monks, and tourists. All these combine into a city with charm, heritage, and personality that I knew I loved, but needed a reminder to stop and enjoy.

A steaming pot of soup for a traditional breakfast in Luang Prabang, Laos
Tiny stools jut onto the sidewalks in the misty hours of dawn as locals sip a steaming soup adorned with herbs and spices before they took their tuk-tuks and mottos for a full day of work. Though western breakfast shops bracketed this tiny soup-stand with croissants and lattes, it was just as easy to hunker down with the locals, point and smile at the soup, and within minutes be happily slurping down fragrant broth and noodles.
Early morning fruit shake stands set up in Luang Prabang, Laos
My breakfast was complete only after purchasing a 5,000 kip (about 60 cent) fruit shake from the corner stalls displaying colorful cups of pre-chopped mixed fruit ready blend into a condensed milk, ice, and fruit concoction that defies logic on its tastiness! Smoothies are my go-to snack in Southeast Asia, and as we had our shake blended, numerous mottos zipped up to the stand to also grab a blended beverage before zooming on their way!
Excited hellos from the children in Luang Prabang, Laos
With some poppy traditional music blaring from the truck speakers, these kids were happily clapping, singing, and shouting hello. I suspect this was a parade of sorts, or class trip perhaps, since several truck-beds passed by in the late morning with the cheery children, all of whom were giddy with excitement to wave to us as we paused and watched them gently roll down the road, the driver careful not to jolt the truck too much!
This cute little girl found her mom's high heels! Luang Prabang, Laos
With a freedom distinctly uncommon in the United States, this little girl independently toddled down the street on her mother’s high heels, stopping at nearby vendors, grabbing her morning snacks and hugs before heading back to the shop where her mother sold fair-trade crafts and scarves.
An elderly man stokes and tends the breakfast fires in Luang Prabang, Laos.
One of the things I love about Luang Prabang are the family compounds that also act as guesthouses. In many cases, each guesthouse is also the home for several generations of Laotians. This grandfather on my street stoked the early morning fires, cooked breakfast and minded his grandchildren while the middle generation took care of us tourists, cleaned the guest rooms, and generally ran the business; every member of the family feeling useful and needed to balance the dynamics.
A tasty array of vegetarian street eats in Luang Prabang, Laos
The night market walking street comes alive with long buffets of food. Vegetarian buffets were present even back in 2009, and for just over a dollar US we piled our bowl with a variety of flavorful vegetarian dishes. Nearby skewers of meat appeased the omnivores (including Ana), and buckets of cold drinks, snacks and treats were all sold with the quiet soft-sell and placid smiles from vendors.
Grilled fresh fish from the river in Luang Prabang, Laos
Freshly grilled fish was easy to find, and while not something I eat, it fascinates me to see the fully recognizable fish skewered and prettily presented for eating. I find food in the US is often purposely packaged to disassociate itself from the animal it actually is, while  culturally in Asia, they often consume and enjoy nearly every part of the animal!
A morning coffee shake in Luang Prabang, Laos
After just three mornings of a habitual coffee to start my day, the vendor would smile and wave as I approached. On the fourth day, he beat me to the punchline and happily parroted out my precise coffee order, remembering my explicit instructions “noooooo sugar,” which pegs me as so un-Asian since they adore adding condensed milk and sugar syrup to just about every single drink they serve.
A tuk-tuk on the streets of Luang Prabang, Laos
The calls for service from the tuk-tuk drivers pelt out into the day like a woodpecker making his home in a new tree. Every time we passed one of these shared taxis, the driver was quick to list out all the possible tourist activities for the day, and though it could have gotten annoying, I rather like the consistency of their chant, quite unchanged from the one I heard recited several years ago on the very same street corner.
Pretty close up of paper umbrellas in Luang Prabang's nightly street market, Laos.
Colorful paper fans glowed from the rattan mats lining sidewalks of Luang Prabang’s night market. The bright pigments do a fantastic job of drawing the tourists closer to the variety of wares. Like bees to a brightly colored flower, my niece and I followed the magnetizing draw of crafts and conversation humming on the city’s crowded street and dug through the kitsch to find quirky coins and beads for Ana to make into bracelets.
The sprawling city and countryside around the heart of Luang Prabang, Laos at sunset from Mount Phousi.
From Mount Phousi, the highest hill in the center of Luang Prabang, Ana and I watch the sunset over the hills and rivers encircling the world heritage city center. We visited in late November, just as the region’s rainy season finished, and the reward was a landscapes so verdant it could inspire poetry in those more inclined to flowery words than myself. Low-slung streets, shining golden temples, tall palms and quiet river waters make this city an enduring riddle that seems both supremely touristy and yet unchanged throughout the past hundreds of years since construction of the first temple. The city has seen much history, but is so humble.

I find myself oddly drawn here, and Ana asked me if I wanted to maybe live in Luang Prabang, to become an occasional expat in the city I waxed poetic about even before we arrived. I surprised her by answering “no.” No, I don’t want to live in Luang Prabang. I love the lazy sunsets enjoyed at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers. I love the ability to spend several days biking around the streets, eating a crusty warm baguette (a remnant of the French influence), and visiting temples and waterfalls. The city is compelling, but no, I don’t actually want to live there, a visit every few years is enough, for now.

A Little Water… Floating Gardens, Fishing, and Farming on Inle Lake

Growing up I didn’t much care about the word “ecosystem.” I took many classes on Florida history (they made us study state history extensively–at least twice before graduation!), and the Florida Everglades was one of those places I took for granted until I reached adulthood, started to care more about the environment and realized “holy cow, there are some intricate and interesting ecosystems!”

Inle Lake Fishermen, Burma
Men fish the shallow waters of Inle Lake from long, flat wooden boats at Inle Lake in Burma (Myanmar).

This epiphany carried over to the present, and into my days navigating the marshy waters, thin canals and open expanse of rippling waters on Inle Lake in Burma last month. The most iconic photos of Inle Lake picture the fishermen, their conical nets resting on long wooden boats as the men paddle with one leg wrapped like a vine around the wooden oar digging into the placid lake waters. It’s a beautiful, practical custom that, in all its “foreignness” to the Western eye, pulled my focus as I marveled at the old-school nets in place of a modern fishing pole, the lazy motion of leg-led rowing and not a boat motor. The male fishermen stand on the bow of the boat so they can see down to the lake floor, and their legs are a powerful way to more easily row through the marshy weeds that grow nearly to the surface since Inle Lake averages just seven feet deep.

Boats on Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar).
Looking deep into the weeds and water grass, the fishermen on Inle Lake fish for both trade, and for their dinner!

But that’s just one tiny, indelible piece of life on Inle Lake.

The super productive ecosystem around this shallow 44.9 square mile lake created a separate lake culture, different from the Bamar majority in Burma, and even different from the Shan minority group, even though Inle Lake is within Burma’s Shan State. Instead, an Intha culture and language grew, specific to Inle, where the lake and its ecosystem have allowed the culture to thrive.

traditional wooden house, Inle Lake
A tall wooden stilt house sits over the canal waters, laundry drying in the sun and boats stored underneath!

The villages embraced their creativity over the years in order to make this lake environment their home. Myths even surround the founding of the culture–some believe a former king banished part of the Royal Army from Burmese land, and to keep their word they created moved onto water! Floating land created from dried and hardened weeds and floating hyacinth secure the floating huts and bamboo villages to one fixed spot.

No joke, floating land.

floating tomato gardens, inle
Dense vegetation on the floating gardens, in particular, stop-light red tomatoes grow well in this ecosystem.

And once the Intha mastered the floating land, then agriculture became a cinch—after all, they have an endless supply of water. So, as our driver navigated the canal waters, I watched farmers slosh around their cultivated square farms of land, marveling that oxen and humans both easily traipsed around the water farms.

Some farms are kept on much thinner land, and miles of fragrant tomato plants tumbled over each other on the lakes surface, beautiful birds dipping into the canals near the gardens when they spotted fish from above. So, now you’re wondering, okay, they have stilt houses, floating land for farming, and gardens, but why doesn’t it all just float away?

I puzzled over this mystery, I even spent time musing out loud about hundreds of 10 foot tall bamboo sticks poking out from the lake in every direction. Ah, the sea of khaki colored bamboo affix a garden to the lake surface. Then, the gardens are tended, sold, and moved if need be in the future.

Floating gardens, Inle Lake
The tall sticks hold the floating gardens in place on Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar).

Genius!

The entire lake sustains a purpose-built community around the ecosystem.

Fishing.

Crops.

floating gardens burma
A worker tends to his floating garden on Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar).

Animals.

water buffalo, burma
A giant water buffalo is out for his late afternoon snack and a stroll in Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar).

Temples.

Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar).
Temples floating on the shallow surface of Inle Lake

And the seagulls.

Feeding the seagulls was a highlight of the trip. Over the past five months I watched Ana guffaw with laughter at random moments, and smile with patience and curiosity as locals explained the inner workings of something to her, and even frown with concern at the treatment of street animals.

Ana is delighted to watch the seagulls circle overhead while we fed them on Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar). A hand feeding the birds at Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar).

And the seagulls on Inle Lake brought sheer joy. She abandoned all thought of being a serious preteen and she and her friend M (from GotPassport.org) threw chunks of deep-fried dough with childish abandon. The birds swooped down to pluck chunks out of their hands and noisily fought over bits flung into the air. And as the sun set over Inle Lake, we cozied into our warm blankets and all enjoyed the bite of cool in the air and the squawk of birds tailing our speeding longboat.

Sunset Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar).
Warm blankets and a content smile accompanied a spectacular sunset :)

Far from subtle, behind us a maze of saffron and pumpkin exploded into the sky nearest the setting sun, while a quiet rose tint settled on the surrounding mountains and we jetted back into the small town center for fresh dinner and a warm bed.

A Little Sweetness… Hospitality and a Lesson in Burmese Jaggery Candy

The thudding of a large motor caught our attention as we carefully navigated our bicycles down the pothole-strewn road. A glance to the right showed the slanting sun reflecting off an expansive sea of dry, off-white husks coating the yard of a house. I cocked my head to the side perplexed … the day before, Ana and I had noticed these houses with husk-like debris where grass should grow, and now, as then, I was unable to explain their curious presence in yards all over this region of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma for a whole host of reasons).

Jaggery shop, Inle lake
Sugarcane stalks line the ground of a small housing compound near Nyaung Shwe, on Inle Lake that makes local jaggery candies.

We cycled past the compound, the motor’s grinding peaked at the edge of the fence, then faded quickly as our bicycles whisked forward. Like yesterday, we were about to simply let the confusion sit in complacency and continue on our merry way, our legs pumping hard on the creaky, dual-gear bicycle that was clearly not built for sand and gravel roads.

Another moment passed and I was mentally kicking myself. Two days in a row we just drove right by…we’re in Burma, what’s the worst that could happen if we stop and ask to look around? This country has only been friendly. I felt like a poor teacher to my niece at that point, after all, the whole point is to teach her curiosity for the world and how to seek answers. So, was it fear of walking into a stranger’s house, or laziness preventing me from stopping and asking questions?

Maybe it was both.

Ox cart and driver, Inle Lake, Burma
An ox cart driver ambles down the semi-paved road to Hot Springs near Inle Lake.

I called out to the group to stop for a pow-wow. Ana and I were bicycling back from the Khaung Daing Hot Springs, a mere 45 minute bike ride into the countryside around Inle Lake, with two other travelers we met that morning over breakfast at our guest house.

A quick look at the other adults, and I could see the men had been curious too. Without another word, Mike, a sweet British man traveling solo for the first time in his life, announced: “Alright then, let’s check it out!”

Moments later, the tentative smiles from two young children met us at the gates of their housing compound.

Burmese Children at Inle Lake
Two adorable kids play at their sugarcane and jaggery candy factory near Inle Lake, Myanmar (Burma).

The kids hesitated before scattering toward the clanking contraption nearby, motioning for us to follow.

It looked like an open tractor engine sprawling across the packed dirt floor. Two men manned the front of the machine and with a flash of understanding I realized my feet were resting on a soft bed of dry sugar cane husks. The churning motor and huge metal gears spun the wheel and generated enough pressure to squeeze out every drop of sweet moisture from the sugarcane stalks.

Sugarcane juicing machine, Burma
The sugarcane press is a huge handmade machine, with long belts, an engine, and a pressing parts that squeeze the juice from the sugarcane stalks into a bucket for jaggery candy processing, near Inle Lake.

We had chanced upon a candy factory!

And though it was a far cry different from stumbling into Willy Wonka’s world of wonders, the efficient teamwork and huge boiling vats of scented juice ignited our collective curiosity.

The men processing the stalks paid us no mind—and not out of unfriendliness, but rather out of affection for their limbs; the huge gurgling machine would not easily forgive a slip of the fingers.

Just as I noticed the children had disappeared, they burst out of the house nearby, with their mother walking at a clipped pace with a tray of tea and Burmese sweets toward our ragtag group of five. She shyly motioned us over to the low, woven bamboo table and gently proffered cups of pale Chinese tea. As we stood and sipped, she took a moment to break up the thin, flat block of jaggery sugarcane candy. Spying Ana’s curious gaze on her every move, the mom (in an understanding all mom’s must have) handed over the first piece of sugarcane candy to Ana, carefully watching for Ana’s reaction as she bit into the hunk of pure sugar.

jaggery sugar candies, burma
Tea and freshly made jaggery candies at Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar) make for the perfect Myanmar sweets.

A grin split Ana’s face. Jaggery, or rather, sugar candies, are popular sweets all over Burma—we loved this aspect of Burmese food culture—and Ana relished the opportunity to once again have free reign over a bowl of pure sugar.

I nabbed a square myself (I’ll openly admit to my wicked sweet-tooth). With the hospitality now covered, the mother smiled and gestured to production line, letting us know it was okay to go investigate what they were doing.

With our gazes once again focused on the workers, the men spurred into action, and even though there wasn’t a lick of English spoken, each man patiently demonstrated the candy-making process at his station in the room.

Raw sugarcane stalks process through the pressing machine, and the once juicy stalks are left as dry husks while the liquid drains into a bucket.

Boiling sugarcane into candy, Burma
Huge boiling vats of sugarcane juice are being processed into jaggery sugar candies near Inle Lake, Myanmar.

A tube runs from the bucket, over the ground, and into nearby open vats where the murky green sugarcane juices collects for even more processing.

The greenish hued sugarcane juice is a popular snack all over Burma (and South Asia for that matter!) and the mom passed around a glass of warm, fresh juice for sampling. Traditionally, if you order sugarcane juice on Burma’s city streets, it’s served cold with lime and it’s a popular mid-morning snack. We sipped our juice warm and fresh from the press just to get a taste of the flavor just before it goes into processing (Ana’s verdict on the juice was not favorable, but hey, she’s just a kid, what does she know!).

Thickening sugarcane juice
Huge boiling vats of sugarcane juice are thickening so they can turn into Myanmar sweets, Inle Lake, Myanmar (Burma).

After squeezing, the juice enters a long boiling process, where it is slowly transferred down the line, vat to vat, until it’s in the vat nearest to the hand-stoked fire and boiling rigorously. The entire process seems to take hours for one single batch, but we were lucky to catch the juice in its final stage, when it became a thick, brown syrup ready to be poured, spread, and dried.

Spreading the boiled sugarcane juice, Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar).
The compound owner spreads the thick liquid on a woven mat to cool—once it’s cooled the huge block will be cut into chunks of jaggery candy.

The final candy is very hard and difficult to break into small chunks, so before it’s packaged for sale in town they slice it into manageable cubes. Sugar candies are one of the more humble and popular Burmese desserts; we found small candy jars on most restaurant tables. The type of sugar candy on offer though, varies from region to region. Most often we found jaggery, a treat much like maple syrup candies in North America, but they are instead made from Toddy Palm sap. The Toddy Palm plant shaped rural life in Burma throughout history, and the jaggery treats are just one use for Toddy Palm. The palm is still today used for shade, medicines, cooking, and utensils…and because of the plant’s multiple uses, it’s a wise use of land as Burma expands into more agriculture and farming.

Rural areas favor these grainy, sugar-based sweets because they are made locally and thus are often flavored with other nearby fruits and flavors. And though our fresh sugarcane candies were delicious, Ana and I both fell in love with the sour plum candies in the Bagan region of Burma—the tart plum is a needed counter to the jaw-clenching sweetness of pure sugar and toddy palm juice!

sour plum candies burma
Hand-rolled sour plum candies made in the Bagan region of Burma.

As we nibbled the last of our sugar candy, it was about time to leave the family to their work, but I felt guilty that I had no real way to communicate our sincere thanks for such open hospitality.

Just as I slurped my last sip of Chinese tea, a young teenager came barreling into the yard. He cheerfully yelled out an English “hello” and announced he was a cousin to the family who was called to the candy compound from across town so he could answer our questions.

I was both baffled and overwhelmed. Tea and sweets were not enough, seeing us English speakers so curious about their work, the family sent for a relative who could communicate with us.

candy making shop burma
Our translator, a cousin to the candy makers, requested a cellphone photo before we left the shop near Inle Lake, Burma!

As the cousin started his line of questioning, so familiar to me at this point, every single person in the workshop gathered around for the translation.

“Where are you from?”

Grins broke out on their faces when they learned our group was from France, England, and America.

“How long in Myanmar?”

Just three weeks, but it’s been beautiful.

Then it was our turn to ask questions and the cousin explained the family structure. Mother and father to the two children nodded as the cousin pointed. That’s the uncle. A brother. Another cousin.

It was a family affair in the candy workshop and as the cousin’s English petered out, and the men drifted back to stoking the fire and stirring the vats, we gave profuse and generous thanks for the more than an hour we had spent in their hospitality.

Jaggery candy processing workshop
The jaggery candy making hut near Nyaung Shwe, Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar).

The children watched with curious owl-eyes as we hopped back onto our bicycles and sang out one last cheery thank you, “chezu tinbade!

Then we disappeared down the dirt road, the thudding motor fading quickly as we pedaled into the late afternoon.

I rode back to town in wonder of the warm and open hospitality that functioned as a rule throughout Myanmar, rather than the exception. What started as the simplest of bike rides ended up showing me a spirit of kindness and inherent friendliness that is not put on for the sake of tourism, or a mask for show.  The government’s forced isolation means that tourists are still a novelty, an occasional accent to a local’s life when a foreigner rides a bit off the path. I wholeheartedly believe the true power of travel lies in responsible, socially-minded local interactions on the road. In Myanmar, the reward for journeying down the harder road (and let me assure you an hour down a questionably paved road is tough!) was always met with smiles and stories.

Read Next: Plan your Myanmar travels with my free guide to backpacking Southeast Asia, or enjoy a travel story about the how traveling in Yangon resparked my love for travel.

sule paya night Yangon-Burma-Myanmar

A Little Wonder … Finding the Travel Spark in Yangon, Burma

The boyish voice of a Myanmar rapper crooned from the car radio. My taxi had reached its peak before I was born, and the aging metal jumped and jangled down the road; the car’s groaning audible over the blaring music. The taxi’s modern control panel for the radio flashed a psychedelic rhythmic pattern of colors on the ring around the dial, the flashing lights alternated in rapid fire. In sensory overload, I debated with myself if the near constant bumps and thumps were potholes on the road or the base pumping out of the speakers near my head.

I glanced at the young driver manning our jalopy. I watched as his thumbs tapped the steering wheel in time to the music, never missing a beat even as he stuck his head out the window to give a good-natured yell to the trishaw bicycle blocking our path in the middle of the intersection.

Chinatown in Yangon, Burma (Myanmar)

As the rapper reached a fever-pitch of excitement, my taxi driver settled back into his seat he glanced over at me, a wide grin splitting his face before he pointed at the radio and shouted over the music.

“YOU LIKE, YES?!”

I figure, I had three options at this point:

  1. Shout back my assent and try for a conversation in hopes he’d lower the volume.
  2. Nod in agreement and give a silent thumbs-up of approval.
  3. Bust a move to the beat…

My closest friends, those few who are privileged enough to have seen me dance to hip-hop music, are reading this and thinking: “Oh god, she didn’t. Please tell me she didn’t start pulsing her arms air in her spasmodic “rap” dance that can only be described as something akin to the Elaine dance from Seinfeld.”

I did.

yangon streets, burma

And my driver rewarded me with a huge, instantaneous and bubbling guffaw. He laughed so hard he had to slow the car to catch his breath. He lowered the music (let’s not lie, probably in the hopes I wouldn’t “feel the moment” again) and began the normal line of questioning:

Where are you from?

How long in Myanmar?

Then his English ran out and we lapsed into a comfortable silence, the music still vibrating in the background as we rounded the corner into probably the prettiest roundabout in the world, Sule Paya.

Sule Paya in Yangon, Burma (Myanmar)

colonial architecture in Yangon, Burma

My niece Ana and I had visited Sule Paya, a pretty pagoda in downtown Yangon, earlier in the day. Then, the harsh daylight lit the golden stupa and highlighted the rushing rusty cars, the dirty, sun-faded colonial buildings, and the claustrophobic crush of people.

But at night, well, it’s an altogether different experience at night. This taxi ride shuttled me around the city on a late-night solo errand to find a new guesthouse and I for most of the ride I was stressed and worried about Ana, back at the hotel by herself.

As we headed back toward Ana, though, with the hotel now sorted and my concentration centered on the taxi ride back, riding through the Sule Paya roundabout in Yangon wholly captivated my attention. My world slowed, time hiccuped, and the rush of preoccupation swarming my head slowly faded away into the buzz of nighttime in Yangon.

A wash of smells enveloped our car, which had suddenly slowed to a crawl as a carnival of sorts occupied a quarter of the roundabout. The tangy scent of incense tingled in my nose. Warm heat washed over my face from the deep-fried donuts just below my car window. The rich, pungent aroma of grilling meat, human sweat, and fragrant soup broth combined into one army of smells marching toward my open car window.

sule paya at night
The shining gold of Sule Paya at night from an overpass in Yangon, Burma (Myanmar)

I was hit with a freeze-framed moment of wonder and awe.

For the first time in years I was wholly caught in the moment. Sule Paya glinted gold against the distant black sky. The deep rumble of chanting echoed from the pagoda’s loud speakers, combining with the excited screech of children reaching the apex of the nearby Ferris wheel—pure joy. The dull roar of Myanmar rap in my ear now in harmony with the waves of sound coming from the crushing crowds slowing my taxi.

The world swirled around me faster than my senses could take in and a trickle of laughter bubbled up inside me. Content, I rested my head and hands on my rusty car window and watched the pulse of life fade away as our car jerked free onto the open road beyond. In a snap, fresh, cool night air filled my car.

And I couldn’t help but think: “this. this is why I travel.”

Because some days, the moments just take my breath away.

***

A Little Happiness…Making a Unique and Merry Christmas Abroad

The sweat cooled from my skin at 7:30am Christmas morning as I pondered this holiday travel experiment with Ana; on the opposite side of the globe my nephews back home slept in eager anticipation of heaps of presents, but instead of a big traditional Christmas here in Thailand, I gave Ana an entrance ticket into a 10K run in the Chiang Mai Christmas Marathon…roughly 6.2 miles of running at 6:00am on Christmas morning…

Not exactly the same.

Okay fine, not even remotely the same.

Lanna bowling Chiang Mai
Ana and I were the only two with cheery Christmas hats.

But I faced a challenge traveling on the road with my niece. How do I illustrate my views on traveling lightly, ditching rampant materialism, and valuing experiences with people over things…all without crushing the spirit of a pretty lively and typical 11-year-old girl who really at the end of the day loves her iPod and hair accessories?

turkey at bake and bite Chiang Mai
Ana enjoys a delicious Turkey dinner on Christmas at the Bake and Bite restaurant in Chiang Mai

I’m not so much with the preachy-preachy about how to go about Christmas, it’s all good whatever works for each of us. And let’s be honest here, I gleefully remember tearing into Christmas presents as a child, with red Santa Claus wrapping-paper wildly flinging around the room as my brothers tackled their new cars/figurines/swords/video-games/etc.

A beautiful Thai dancer in cheery red and greenA Thai singer rocks out some holiday carols on stage.

But from a practical standpoint, it just wasn’t possible for me to buy her heaps of presents because we flat-out don’t have the room in our backpacks. And from the goal standpoint, when I mentioned the six things I hope Ana learns on this trip, gratitude and the seeing the possibilities in the world were in the list. And they’re pretty high on the list, right up there with addressing materialism and the mass consumption model in the US through real-world examples.

So with all this in mind, I worked on crafting a day of experiences and fun events as the focus of our day, and filled red Christmas hat with a few cute (small) gifts as an addition, but not the focus.

Colorful bowling balls at Lanna bowling in Chiang Mai, Thailand.A bowling ball Christmas tree!

To start the holiday festivities, Ana and I joined a group of traveling friends for Christmas Eve bowling, and what a hoot that was! Lanna Bowling in Chiang Mai is the cleanest bowling alley I’ve ever seen and we spent several hours swapping stories and chatter while I bowled two games in a row that came in well under 80 (yes, how awesome are my mad skills!).

Christmas eve bowling
Ana watches the ball closely as she gets her first strike!

The next day, after a Christmas Day nap to recover from our run, we hefted some of our makeshift cookie supplies over to a friend’s apartment to make some wackily improvised Christmas cookies. There are no ovens in the apartments here in Thailand, so we made do with packaged cookies and wide crackers for the gingerbread houses. Shawna and Chais (of the Full Course Travel blog) provided the mulled wine and Christmas carols while we frosted in contentment, decorating with such delicacies as: coco puffs, chocolate chex, mini-M&Ms, nerds, Nutella, pirouettes, and other fun sweets.

cookie decorating

Which brings us back to the other main event of our holiday, the Chiang Mai Christmas Marathon. Yes indeed my friends, I gave my niece a long and tiring run for her holiday present. Ana and I ousted ourselves from bed at 4:15am and met up with Paddy, a friend and fellow expat, for our 6am 10K run.

When Paddy cracked a joke of this being possibly the “worst Christmas present ever” it gave me pause, because even though she was pretty much joking, there’s a truth to it…I would have boycotted this gift if I was given it inside the cozy house I grew up in throughout childhood.

But traveling is different and being only temporarily in one place means the “norms” change– I had to find something neat/interesting/different that wasn’t trying to poorly simulate Christmas back home. And, beyond just the run, the act of training for the Christmas run over the past weeks actually gave us a purpose, and gave us both an outlet for some “joint” alone time as we pounded the pavement with our iPods securely tucked into our ears.

Then there’s the accomplishment aspect of a run.

Ana didn’t think she could do it.

In fact, she really didn’t think she could make it the entire 10K and she made me promise we could stop at 6K (which was the most we ran during our training). But she did finish; we both jogged across the finish line just one hour and 23 minutes after that burst of adrenaline first took us off into the dark, pre-dawn hours of Christmas.

And though exhaustion masked some of the sheer exuberance bubbling underneath, I could tell she was proud of herself at the end.

chiang mai christmas marathon
Paddy, Ana, and I completed the 10K run in 1 hour and 23 minutes, not too shabby for a Christmas morning run!

And heck, I’ll be honest, I type away at least six hours each day, so I hadn’t been sure we could do it either.

But we did finish. And we did it together! It wasn’t typical, and she openly proclaims she never wants to do one on Christmas again to be honest…so, maybe it will take years before she fondly remembers this odd Christmas that involved running, Christmas eve bowling with other expats, and wonky cookie decorations, but I am pleased with how we shaped and changed the more traditional holiday spirit to work into something that embraced the holiday spirit and our current traveling lifestyle!

How did you spend your Christmas? Any fun/unique/out of the ordinary Christmas traditions? Anyone else do a run, I hear Christmas marathons are actually a pretty popular tradition?!

Rice Paddy in Hongsa, Laos

A Little Trial … Travel Versus, Well, Travel

Hats off to the traveling parents out there, the homeschooling, road-schooling, traveling adults with children in tow because man, it’s harder than I first imagined. My niece and I are a month into our trip and the pace of life has changed significantly for both of us. As a serial solo traveler, this past month plus was so much harder than syncing travel rhythms with another adult; instead I plan and plot out our days around school-time, downtime, fun-time, educational time…

So many “times” to figure out each day!

rice paddy laos
Rice paddies and thatched houses outside in the rural parts outside of Hongsa, Laos.

Our first month in Thailand was the trial run, and for the past ten days Ana and I have shouldered our small backpacks and we traded easy days spent in our Chiang Mai apartment for the dusty roads, slow-flowing rivers, and long travel days in Laos. The rusty waters of the Mekong River were our constant companion as we journeyed into the quiet center of Laos, stopping in sleepy villages and remote towns until we made it to the UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang, at which point we plopped down for several days to enjoy this riverside city that offers a slice of ambling locals, quite streets, and a peek at a modern-day Laos echoing strongly with hints of the country’s hilltribe culture, post-colonial influences, and a “baw pen nyang,” or rather “no worries,” pace of life.

Mekong River, Laos
The banks of the Mekong River and surrounding hills on the slow boat down to Pak Beng.

And throughout these past ten days we navigated the even more difficult trails of actually traveling. That first month in Thailand was a baby-step into travel; we have a small but comfortable apartment, a television (though very few English channels thankfully), and a routine with old friends, new friends, and familiar restaurants. The kiddo is happy in Chiang Mai, she quickly acclimated to the nuances of westernized Thai culture suffusing Chiang Mai and made some assumptions about Asia in general from these first glimpses.

Hongsa, Laos
Definitely not raised in the country, these cows and the pretty hills of the Sainyabuli province in Laos captivated Ana’s attention, especially when the dog ran into the fray and started herding them!

And then our visas expired and the real adventure started. I warned her, Laos is not like Thailand. It’s slower and less Westernized; the country comes across in waves of rural towns, poverty, unexpected smiles and happiness, few healthcare options, less English, and endlessly long travel days on uncomfortable transportation plodding down sometimes unpaved roads riddled with potholes and stray animals.

Tourist slow boat on the Mekong River
A long wooden slow boat, filled with old bus seats for the long trip down the Mekong River in Laos.

She has taken it all like a champ even though those first days generated dozens of thoughtful questions, plaintive complaints about the transportation, and surprisingly perceptive observations about the new things we’ve seen and done over the past ten days.

On my end, the entire process of traveling with Ana is so much more time-consuming than I once imagined. And this is not an “oh woe is me, let’s pity Shannon,” but rather an observation that kids are hard work on the road! I am still working as we travel, which forces me to be more effective each day than in the past—between my job, writing posts, photo-editing, and actually schooling Ana, it’s been a lot of work and I am endlessly glad I initially decided to use Chiang Mai as a base, it was a good call on my part.

mekong at sunrise
A hazy and cool morning on the Mekong as we board the boat in Pak Beng on our way to Luang Prabang, Laos.

Ana and I have just five more days left in Laos before we return to Chiang Mai, and boy, do we need a rest! This two-week trip into Laos was essentially a visa-run so we can stay in Thailand for several months now and it proved to me all of my long-held beliefs about slow travel are even more true with children—slowing down and spending several days (or a week) in each place is far more effective for not only learning about everything we are seeing and doing, but stopping for the week here in Luang Prabang (instead of our plan to cram everything into two days) has saved Ana’s sanity and my own!

fruit shake luang prabang laos
Ana enjoys the routine of daily street-side fruit shakes in Luang Prabang, Laos.

All of that said, Laos is just as special as I remember and I’ve found a bit of inspiration that was missing these past few weeks (i.e. why the blog has been so sporadically updated). I hope all of my US friends had a wonderful long weekend over Thanksgiving (Ana and I ruthlessly hunted down a slice of pumpkin pie here in Luang Prabang on Thanksgiving and enjoyed every morsel of it), I anticipate penning more Laos stories on our epic 10 hour bus ride down to Vientiane tonight :)

sunset mekong river
The sun slowly sets with a tangerine sunset over the Mekong River in Laos.
Holi Elephant Festival in Jaipur, India

A Little Adventure … Six Things I Hope She Learns

airplane at airport
Ana at the airport, excited to go on her very first plane ride!

The adventure officially began today–although Ana and I landed in Asia yesterday, we slept for hours on end to combat the jetlag and the 35+ hours of plane rides, layovers, questionably tasty airplane food, and well, more layovers. Her jaw was permanently stuck in the open position once we left the airport in Chiang Mai, Thailand and our fairly large taxi SUV threaded through the humming traffic like a tiny sharp needle making quick work of a sewing project–in short, in zipped through the lanes like a go-cart even though it dominated nearly every other car on the road! She was amazed at the traffic, the motorbikes, and the fact that we’re on the opposite side of the road and noted it in hushed tones from the backseat as she plastered her face to the car window.

Ana’s own blog officially launched; I’ll be frank, it definitely made me smile when she noted that she wanted to share her own travel stories at A Little Adrift Jr (and those stories of other traveling kids, so she says); I swear I didn’t put her up to it, but I think it’s super cute :)

I’m not sure what the next six months will hold, but I know we will learn so much more about each other and ourselves on the journey. There so many character traits easily learned and honed while traveling; so, while it’s a tall order to expect all of these traits to manifest immediately, there are pieces and behaviors inherent to the process if you’re traveling slowly and these are a few I highly value. For myself, in the past three years on the road I watched each of these grow in myself, so I am hoping to plant the seeds within her for each of these traits, to aim for a deeper understanding of the different cultures, ideas, and people on the road.

Gratitude

Ana and I have so many privileges and opportunities by virtue of birth in the United States– and while this has it’s own drawbacks at times to be sure, she has never known hunger and was born with the right to a free education. Living on the road has taught me just how little I need to be happy, that although my smartphone and fancy shoes are certainly handy (and I like them a whole lot), they are not necessary. I hope she learns to be thankful for the things she has and the kindnesses shown to her by others wherever she may travel now and later in life because gratitude is one of those rare qualities that is never in surplus no matter how much you have flowing from you!

Wonder

I highly value education, and not just learning for learning’s sake, but rather learning out of a deep-seated curiosity about the world. When my niece returns to public school, she will have so many “other” things vying for her attention and trying to take her focus, I hope this jaunt through Asia ignites her curiosity in the world, her wonder at the differences and similarities between cultures, and her thirst to always ask questions and figure things out–children grow wonder inside of them, it erupts naturally in a way adults somehow lose with age. In fact, I know having her by my side will reignite some of my own wonder that was too quickly replaced with an alarming nonchalance over the years. In just two days, she has already made me grin at the pieces of life in Thailand I forget to properly appreciate and notice.

A jade Buddha at a Wat Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Thailand
A jade Buddha at a Wat Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Consideration

At 11 years old, Ana is truly just beginning to fully learn the meaning of being considerate — children can be delightfully self-involved when they are young, but as they get older that shifts into a larger awareness in the world around them. In seeing the people and cultures so different from our own, I hope she learns empathy for the people around her and manifest that empathy in kindness and compassion toward everyone she meets. Throughout our time here in Asia we will seek out volunteering projects and ways to give back to the communities we meet and find some perspective; something I have always done on my trips but that I hope we can continue together.

Humility

Again, this is a tall order for an 11 year old, but a dash of humility and humbleness can go a long way. Who knows though, she occasionally wants to be a pop-star at this point so, in that pursuit, humility might not serve her. But, in all things non-pop-star related, having concerns and awareness outside of her own bubble of life has no choice but to give way to the consideration and gratitude.

Live From a Place of Possibilities

I tell her daily that her dreams are only limited by her imagination, that children can change the world and many do change the world. That she can live any lifestyle she chooses, pick her own priorities, become a teacher, an explorer, an entrepreneur–that the world is full of possibilities and in actually looking around and taking in the information around us so many new avenues and paths open up. For Ana, this means sharing with me the fun and quirky ideas she has, training her brain that there is no single “correct” answer to questions and ideas (which is what we teach in school). I love Asia for the many, many quirky, wacky, nonsensical “sense” this place makes every time I visit, so if she can wrap her brain around this place, then she’s doing pretty well in my book!

Elephants in Decorations
An elephant decked out in paint and decorations for the Holi festivities in Jaipur, India

Fun

Flat out truth: I want her to have such an amazing time that it lights her flame of wanderlust. I know there are some (gasp) non-travelers in the world content to build a home-base, a family unit, and a steady career. All wonderful, and I salute you, no doubt one day a piece of that dream will be hers no matter what we do. But for now, Ana and I have adventures to find,  elephants to hug, temples to photograph, mountains to climb and food to eat; it’s gonna be great and my chief goal through all of this is to make sure she has a really great time wherever we may roam :-)