Tuesday, January 11, 2011


When I think about where to begin explaining what has happened since December 15th, it seems a bit overwhelming. It really hasn't been that long! Even though it feels like I've been gone for months, I haven't even reached the one month mark. So what I'm getting at is there is a whole lot to tell you that I'll try to condense down into a fascinating, ridiculous, acoustically and visually stimulating tale!

As plans changed at the last minute when I arrived in Delhi, I must make clear how ridiculous my journey was into Asia to reunite with Bert and Coe.

The flight over was supposed to be a long, outstretched journey in the first place wherein I would fly from LAX at 10:40am on December 15th, arrive in Delhi on December 16th at 9:50pm, fly to Kuala Lumpur on December 17th at 9:00pm and arrive on December 18th at 5:30am, and finally fly to Yangon on December 17th and arrive at 8:30am to find Coe and Bert celebrating with me in the airport and starting our barge across Burma. It almost worked out like that, but Bert and Coe decided last minute to go to Mandalay instead at the start of their trip and meet me in Bagan. This meant that because flights were booked from Yangon to Bagan, I had to take that long, 16 hour bus ride from Yangon to Bagan, again, on December 18th at 2:00pm.

Bagan (Dec 19 - 23, 2010)

After 5 days of traveling from LAX with 3 whole days of layovers, I arrived at 5:30am in a familiar town, Nyaung U. This little town still and will always hold a spot deep in my heart as a place full of amazing memories and the most genuine, helpful, understanding people I have ever met. And most of all, it is in close proximity to this amazing sight:

Bagan, the ancient capital of Myanmar, is still one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. And to that song? "La de" (beautiful) as the Burmese would say. I caught this sunrise just in the nick of time, after grabbing a horsecart to one of my favorite pagodas.

On the bus ride over, I met Tin Tin-Sein, a woman who is responsible for over 400 orphaned children. She owns a hotel in New Bagan, an area where all the locals of Bagan currently live. All of her proceeds from this hotel go to orphanages across Burma. I could not resist supporting her cause, so I decided to stay for a few days in her place until I had successfully found Coe and Bert. Her hotel was beautiful, with art that spanned from every province of Burma. One piece of art in particular was acquired right along the riverbed of the Irrawaddy River.

These stones were acquired by a young man who sifts through the sands of the Irrawaddy riverside. They are ancient gems, and some have been proven to date back over 400 years. This guy makes a killing. He sells these necklaces at $280! To give you an idea of how much that means financially for Burmese, that would put a single student through his entire university education (for how top-notch that may be), or even feed a large family for an entire year.

I had little time to spend talking to Tin Tin and her treasure hunting friend (I have forgotten his name), as I planned to ride my bike to Nyaung U to find Bert and Coe later that morning. I really misjudged the difficulty of this ride. It's not the distance that mattered, its the bike and road quality that made the 45 minute bike ride absolutely ridiculous to finally end my extensive, 5 day journey to reunite with Bert and Coe. But at the end of it all, I could not help but soak in the incredible luck I received.

Upon arriving at May Khar La Guest House in Nyaung U, I dashed up to the front desk to see a small note on the calendar behind: "Bru, we're in Rm 111 come find us. - Coe & Bert." I had caught them just in the nick of time before they had started their own little bike tour and gotten lost in the beautiful countryside of Bagan and its ancient temples. What a reunion! I can't describe the feeling of meeting friends from home across the world. It's one of the most intense, uplifting moments I have ever experienced.

The 12 dollar meal for 3. Some appetizing dishes, some are way too greasy. I have a love hate relationship for Burmese food.
Our adventures were awesome. We charged all over the small trails of Bagan, super stoked on every nook and cranny to be found and explored. The bikes fell apart every once in a while, and tires went flat, but people all over the area were willing to do whatever they could to help us, and all of them free of some financial catch at the end of such a service. In fact, Min Min, financially struggling as he was, absolutely would not take the money I practically forced upon him for paying a bike repair man time and time again.

When the evening came, Bert, Coe and I found out there was a Pagoda Festival going on. We decided to partake on this party that would be the only night life activity going on after 9pm for a hundred miles in every direction.

What a ridiculous experience this turned out to be! We strolled around the festival, playing traditional Burmese games. Coe completely obliterated a game where you throw a ball at a stack of cans and bet money on how many will topple. Somehow, after agreeing upon all the rules, he did not win what we would soon learn was prize money. They kept saying that he had thrown a ball wrong or such and such. After watching some interesting Burmese musical performances (sorry, I'm definitely not a fan), we finished off the night with a couple of drinks from a fine bottle of Jameson that I had purchased on the way over in the Malaysian airport. What a ridiculous finish! Coe ended up disputing nuclear power with some German travelers, and well... I can't really tell you what happened after that, except that I woke up to them still disputing this a few hours later. We wobbled back empty bike path all the way to May Khar La Guest House.

Traditional Burmese festival game. You bet on where the wooden rod is stabbed in a spool of nylon. If the nylon is caught by the rod when it is completely unraveled, then you win the gamble. If the nylon comes free, no money for you!
Burmese singer. Fun to watch and listen to, until the band came out. I feel bad for not understanding their musical rhythm, but man, that music was so ridiculous.
A perfectly captured moment!

Beautiful Bagan. Sunrise.

A monk shares the last sunrise with Bert and I. Timeless.

My time with Coe was short. We only had 2 whole days together with Bert in Bagan, but it was ridiculous and full of surprises. Many things happened between the three of us, and a lot of it is a bunch of short, ridiculous moments that I just can't remember off the top of my head. If you want to know more besides seeing incredible, ancient Buddhist architecture, listening to the most annoying and absurd Burmese music, and watching some of the most beautiful sunsets of my entire life, then ask me and I'll reference some more ridiculous stories out of my hand written journal.

So much more happened after I parted ways with Coe. Bert and I realized we were running short on money. Bert and Coe had fallen victim to one of the few groups of people that you actually can't trust in Burma: money lenders on the street. They had cheated both of them of a significant amount of money, and neither of them had really brought enough. I had taken out a little extra cash in Malaysia, and it put us far in the clear for the rest of the trip, but we had to calculate our expenses and make sure that we only spent so much a day.

The result of our calculation was one of the best Christmas celebrations of my life, where Bert and I would travel to Ngapali and stick our feet in the sandy shore of the Bay of Bengal.

 Ngapali (Dec 23 - 26, 2010)

Wow. Bert and I had reached paradise.

Getting to this picture though involved a ridiculous story in its own. While still in Bagan, I had talked to Tin Tin-Sein about places to go in Burma. She urged us to go to Ngapali, and on top of that, to stay in a "wonderful, 50 foot by 50 foot beach home" that she owned. She said that we could stay for 12 dollars a night each, a price she insisted was the cheapest we would find on the whole beach. Were we in for a surprise...

We arrived in Ngapali, and the bus driver from the airport had taken us to the wrong location. We were 4 miles away from Tin Tin's home, and on a road full of pot holes my rolling suit case (a stupid move bringing it in the first place) was not going to work well. Tin Tin had mentioned that the house was right next to a 5 star hotel called "Amazing Hotel" (totally fitting, we would later see). While waiting for a local bus to take us back the other direction towards the house, a Mercedes Benz rolled by with a big "Amazing Hotel" sticker on the side of it. Bert's initial reaction was to flag him down, and we immediately realized that it would probably cost us a fortune. The driver said "7,000 kyat (7 dollars. trust me, that was a lot for us)." Bert jokingly threw out "hey, how about a ride for free?" The guy stared at Bert for a long moment, and all of the sudden "okay, get in!" The driver, Joe, would soon become our most valuable friend in Ngapali.

Joe was so nice he took us straight to the house we were looking for. What a surprise, as I said! The house was abandoned! There was no bottom floor, only a huge pile of wood rubble. The top floor, what Tin Tin had said was the "wonderful, 50 foot by 50 foot beach home" was windowless, had no doors to the balcony, holes in the roof, plants growing into the foundation at every end, no furniture, no bathroom, and worst of all, no beds. Bert and I were done for, victims of a massive onslaught of mosquitoes and other ridiculous insects.
I'm glad I never encountered this, because we decided on a very difficult note to find another place no matter how expensive it may be to sleep comfortably. So why not try Amazing Hotel? Sounds nice...

The name says it.
Amazing Hotel was literally across the street from the brick shack home stay. It was five star, no doubt about it. And it was 80,000 kyat a night ($80). Bert and I were hopeless. We had no were to stay, and the sun had just set on the most amazing (haha) Beachside hotel we had seen in Ngapali. 

Stoked level: 100%.
Who would come to our rescue but Joe the Mercedes driver. He called Lin Thar Oo, a three star hotel about 4 miles down the beach. He haggled them down to Burmese local prices, and got us a 40 dollar room for 20 dollars a night, on the beach. Not only that, while his assistants did this work for him, he served us two beers free of charge, then gave us a ride all the way to the hotel, free of charge. We promised Joe that some time before Christmas Day, we would visit him and buy him a drink, on us.

Bert and I were like kids in a candy shop. We had just scored a bungalow on the beach, with what we would soon find included an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet every morning. We spend the next morning feasting, immeasurably stoked on life and this moment of glory. We had taken a bodacious journey to a ridiculous beach and been hooked up better than any other moment in our lives. Righteous.

Life only got better that day. We took a walk all the way down the beach, and being the adventurous, crazy, and ridiculous dudes that we were, we decided that on Christmas Day we would rent an inner tube, two sets of flippers, snorkels and goggles and swim out to this island that was only a couple hundred feet from our own beach line (more like a quarter mile, we would later discover). 

Bert playing cane ball with kids that were obsessed with his moisturizing lotion.
They fiended for it so hard that he had to give in.
On our way back, we accidentally went through the wrong hotel beach front and ran into an awesome woman, Laura, whose family had been to Burma for the past 6 years. She had spent the last 3 years celebrating Christmas holiday on the beach with her family. She heard our ridiculous story later on when we ran into her and the family at a local restaurant, Htay Htay's, where Bert and I bought a red snapper caught that day, 2 huge bowls of soup and 4 cocktails for $10. BOOM baby!

Laura insisted we were crazy (that we were) and would not do well on this excursion to Pearl Island (we would have made it, for sure). She proposed an alternative, that all three of us go on a boat ride for Christmas Day and snorkeling out around Pearl Island.

Stoked? Totes.

I have never seen so much biodiversity in my life while snorkeling. I was swimming through hundreds of little orange-tailed, silver schools of fish, and gazing below at electric-blue, yellow, red, green, and orange striped fish of many size and shape. To top off our snorkeling, the boat driver docked on a beach we had seen in the distance from our hotel. We sat down and for $10 got a freshly caught, barbecued tuna, red snapper, and 3 coconut cocktails.

That'll be $12 for the boat, please.
For a $4 boatride each, coconut cocktails, freshly caught, and freshly caught, barbecued fish, Bert and I were soaking up the bliss of a beach paradise. When we returned to the mainland, we realized that we had a whole lot of money to spend in 2 days ($30), all converted into kyat that would not be easily exchanged for US dollars. It was time to celebrate Christmas, any way we wanted.

Merry Christmas homie.

We went out for the evening to feast on a massive Christmas dinner across the street. Laura had mentioned a Burmese music party was going on that evening down the road a few miles, and through a series of connections, Laura got us set up with a rented motorcycle for the entire night for $10.

This festival cannot be put into words, and none of it was caught on camera. All I can say is that Burmese youth have a lot of energy that is stored up inside of them, and when a punk/metal/cover boy band comes up and sings 90% cover songs, they are the craziest drunken mass of super fans that I have ever experienced.

We returned to Yangon on the 26th. I must say, it was really sad to leave Ngapali. I met some amazing people there, but plan to return on another Christmas as I know there is a good chance I'll be in very good company, even if I were on my own.

Right there with ya, Andre.
Yangon (Dec 26 - 28, 2010) 

Having been to Yangon before, not much was new to me. But there is one thing I did not mention on this trp that completely blew my mind. If you ever do go to Burma yourself. I would say that the bus ride from Yangon to Bagan is completely, utterly worth the hassle. Why? Nay Pe Taw. This is the most undocumented, uninhabited area of the entire country. Here, as far as you can see in every direction, suburbia, maximum security banks, 7-star hotels, and a copy of Schwegadon Pagoda lie. And no one lives there. I looked out my window as far as I could see, and miles off into the distance in every direction was development. It looked like Bakersfield, except 100 times bigger and not a single soul in site. Nay Pe Taw is the newly formed capital of Myanmar and it is completely empty. The sight, though unexplainable through my own primitive knowledge, is one not to miss.

Of the things I experienced in Yangon, the best was meeting a High Buddhist Monk who was responsible for teaching over 500 monks in a 60 monastery complex. The teacher who has been practicing for over 40 years. He gave me a fortune egg, a rock of gold (I only hope) that he declared would bring good business and health to me over the years as long as I never lose it. Haven't lost it yet!

Here are some incredible sights that I saw in Yangon that blew my mind even after seeing some of them again:

Schwedagon Pagoda, considered to be the most sacred temple complex of the Burmese form of Buddhism. The center stupa, pictured here, is over 100 feet tall. At the very top, where there is a small bulge, over 20 diamonds (all 50+ karat) are encrusted into the gold. Atop it all, a 100 karat diamond shines as the sun sets over the massive golden complex.

Intricacy of Schwegadon Pagoda

One of the oldest statues of Buddha, carved from solid teak wood. It is from the 4th century.

The largest reclining Buddha in the world. It is close to 200 feet long.

The feet of the reclining Buddha pictured above. Each piece represents a different part of the Buddha's life.

Another massive piece across the street from the reclining Buddha. At the center of the forehead, a dozen diamonds worth close to $20 million are encrusted.

Farewell (Until Next Time...)

Burma and its wonderful people hold a very close tie to my heart. Few people truly understand the mess of governmental atrocities, architectural beauty, communal hospitality, and more. In no way do I support a militant government that believes in ethnic genocide. Yet, by visiting this country a tourist puts money into the hands of its people, so long as they seek to truly experience the culture of such a community. If you don't want to support that government's rule, then stay with the people and avoid the aesthetic drive of a 4 to 5-star hotel that is known to help its militant rulers. Therefore, I find it unreasonable and ridiculous for anyone to even think about leaving it off their list of places to see in Southeast Asia. From the experiences I have had myself, and from the words of the few other foreign travelers I encountered, Burma is and will always be one of the most amazing places to see on this side of the world for more reasons than can be explained in words. You'll just have to see it yourself.

To those that I met along the way, "twe ya da wan ta ba de" (it is very nice to meet you).

Tips For Traveling Through Myanmar:
  • There are no ATMs in the entire country
    • Bring enough money to last you the entire time you are in the country and beyond that by at least a week.
  • Bring perfect $100 bills
    • What is a "perfect" 100 dollar bill?
      • No creases, not even in the middle where it's always folded.
      • No ink marks
      • Try and avoid bills with a serial code "CB." They sometimes question them.
      • NO TEARS, not even a tiny little cut or missing edge on the corners of the bill
  • Never trust money dealers on the streets of any city
    • These are the first group of people you absolutely cannot trust
  • Never buy any jewels, rarities, or anything that is considered to be valuable on the street
    • These are the second group of people that you actually cannot trust in the country
  • Who is a trusting money exchanger?
    • Motherland Inn in Yangon is the single best exchange rate I have ever heard.
  • You cannot leave the country without paying $10!! You will need a perfect $10 bill to leave the airport on your flight. There is an Airport Tax that is enforced on everyone. Bert and I were literally on our last perfect dollar when we left and were thankful to have remembered this $10 we both needed.
  • Buses are the most reliable form of transport, in my opinion. Even though they take forever. 
  • There have been ridiculous crash ratings for:
    • Myanma Air
    • Yangon Airways
    • The rest of the airlines are safe to travel, yet they are expensive. Each flight can be assumed to cost over $80.
  • When you get out of the airport, you will be assaulted by a wave of taxi drivers in some cases. You can trust any of them as far as I am experienced. All others I have met in Burma have said the same thing.
    • Taxi drivers are sometimes very knowledgeable of everything to see in the city, but only sometimes
  • If you have a month to travel in Myanmar, then leave yourself open to new paths that you may take by hearing stories from travelers (ex:I learned about Ngapali because of travelers I talked to as well as Tin Tin in Bagan).
  • If someone approaches you to give you a tour of any religious complex, there is a good chance they are asking for money first. You can trust that if they do not ask for money at first, you are absolutely not obligated to give any money away for their service.
  • To understand just how trustworthy, genuine, and thankful for your presence a local is, let them spend some time with you. If you give people your time of day, you may see immense surprises arise!