Tag Archives: temple

Complaints about Permanent Vacation

Vacations, like sunsets, were designed to be temporary. A continuously lit neon sky, filled with rainbow colors from end to end, certainly creates emotions too intense for endless consumption. While no gourmand refuses a piece of rich, creamy chocolate at the end of a delicious meal, even the most dedicated sweet lover would assuredly tire of an endless diet of cocoa flavored goodness.

 

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Arashiyama Bamboo Forest

Like a spoiled debutante complaining about not having enough closet space for her shoe collection or an overindulged teen bemoaning his sore fingers after playing video games all day, there is an obvious danger in complaining about being on endless vacation. No one really wants to hear your lament. If only we all had such troubles.

 
However, I have to admit that as we begin our 7th year of continous travel, we do catch ourselves complaining once in a while. We have now lived in 85 cities in 40 countries. If this trip were a cat, it would surely have exhausted seven or eight of its 9 lives. While hardly a day goes by when something doesn’t happen to make us pinch ourselves to make sure we aren’t dreaming, we do find ourselves, at times, questioning the sanity of living a life of constant change.

 

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Kinkaku-ji Temple

After 18 months of circling Europe and the Mediterranean fringes of Africa and Asia, we needed a little break. It was time to go home. Time to see relatives face to face and perhaps ask a doctor for a professional opinion about our actual state of health. After a steady diet of buses, trams, subways and taxis, we thought it a good idea to spend a little time behind the wheel of our own car. Maybe a month without rice or pasta. Time to have a few french fries with our meal.

 
It was wonderful to see everyone. Some looked a little older and some looked a lot thinner. We had full blown conversations with babies who we used to just laugh with. We remembered how good gravy tastes on mashed potatoes. We excitedly met future family members and saw people we shouldn’t have been away from this long. It was good to be home. We had been gone so long we forgot how much we had missed.

 

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Kiyomizu-dera Temple

Despite what we see on the nightly news, America seemed pretty much the same. Maybe a little fatter than I remembered it. Gas was cheaper and the supermarkets had more choices. Houses were bigger than I remembered and the traffic was a little worse. Televisions now look more like movie screens, but cars are as big as ever. The ability to drive came back to us quicker than we thought it would. The guy in my new drivers license picture definitely looked older. The doctor said we didn’t seem too much worse for all the wear. It was odd to understand every conversation around us.

 
It wasn’t long and we were on our way again. The month passed much too quickly. We loved Europe and are sure we will go back soon. But this time we wanted to try a different direction. Somewhere with a unique culture and a way of life that, while similar, is so much different. Time to cross a different ocean. A little less pasta and a lot more rice. It was time to take on Japan.

 

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We arrived in Kyoto late in the night. The cab driver had white gloves and a dapper hat. He bowed when we paid him. He didn’t want a tip. Is this a real place? Our apartment is small. We only have one burner to cook with. The shower room is designed for water to spray outside the tub. The washing machine and air conditioner have no buttons in English. I hit my head every time I walk through a doorway. We love it.

 
The weather is insane, jungle, center of the sun hot. The thermometer says 95, but it feels like 105. You sweat through your shirt walking to the bus that takes you everywhere. The city is huge and everything of interest seems to be spread out to the farthest reaches of town. Beautiful green hills surround the town and some of the most beautiful temples and shrines are located in them.

 

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The streets are unbelievably clean. No litter is found anywhere. No one smokes on the street. People wait in line and are polite. Bus drivers bow to the passengers when they have shift changes. Old people do not stand on buses when young people are sitting down. People keep their conversations quiet. It is remarkable.

 
Kyoto is said to be the cultural capital of Japan, but it is much more. More than 1600 shrines are located here and the old style wooden houses, called Machiya, can be found in many areas, especially around the Gion neighborhood in the center. However, the train station and some of the department stores in downtown are as modern as any we have seen. The shopping area has any designer brand you could desire. Many Japanese tourists dress in beautiful kimonos and pose in front of the must see sites, but others are dressed stylishly in the most modern fashions. The past seems perfectly preserved within the very modern present.

 

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We have spent our days touring the city from one end to the other. Temples, markets, shrines and bamboo forests have all been destinations. Walks along beautiful rivers during the day and through narrow, lantern-lit alleys in the nights will be long remembered. The hours spent huddled in an 800 year old temple during a blinding afternoon rainstorm when it didn’t seem possible the air could hold that much water, will be with us for a while.

 
We were hypnotised by the deafening sound of hundreds of cicadas as we sat alone in an ancient Buddhist cemetery outside a stunning mountainside temple that we surprisingly had all to our selves one afternoon. We found ourselves stunned by the beauty of our first sighting of a Geisha as we sat alongside a tiny stream that runs past ancient wooden houses. Her tiny steps and flowing kimono made her appear to float as she made her way quickly and silently across a tiny ornate bridge nearby.

 

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We made our way to Arashiyama bamboo forest early one morning to avoid the crush of tourists that descend every afternoon. Our effort was rewarded as we listened to the early morning wind pass through the giant shoots that towered 100 feet above us. We loved the taste of the shaved ice we enjoyed in the shade of the tiny alleyway outside an ornate Shinto shrine. The ice cream and sweet bean paste additions were unexpected but delicious.

 

 

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We loved our time at home. It was wonderful to visit loved ones. It is them that makes home what is. We didn’t miss America as much as we thought we would. It will always be home, but as we start our 7th year of our journey, we realize how much we enjoy our time discovering new places. We still have not cured our wanderlust. As always, we have found a few things to complain about. But nobody wants to hear about that.

 

 

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Kinkaku-ji Temple

 

 

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Up the Ayerwaddy without a Paddle

Rudyard Kipling wrote many years ago, “This is Burma, It is quite unlike any place you know about”. With the lack of accurate information available today, we wished that he had of been a little less vague. Myanmar is changing rapidly and nearly anything you read may no longer be accurate. Usually reliable Lonely Planet was last updated in 2011 and is hopelessly outdated. Prices seem to have doubled and many restaurants are no longer open. Making independent travel even more difficult is lack of access to the internet once you arrive in the country. Most all hotels have Wi-Fi access, but the speeds, which often reminded us of the dial-up days, are uniformly so slow that making reservations on airlines, future hotels or any transportation virtually useless.
We spent four days in Bangkok planning our trip. We were exhausted from 5 months in the heat of Asia and in some ways would have liked to visit Myanmar at some other time. After changing hotels throughout Indonesia, Northern Thailand and Laos every few days for the last couple of months, just hanging out in the hotel in Thailand was a welcome change of pace. We spent our days planning the trip as best we could and unfortunately catching a cold. We were told that what ATM machines were available in Myanmar rarely worked and we made daily trips to the ATM in Bangkok to withdraw our 400 dollar limit. We weren’t sure how long we would be in the country and we would only be able to withdraw 1600 dollars and didn’t know how long that would last.

Yangon Streets
Yangon Streets

We planned to move into a hostel on the last day in Bangkok that offered bag storage. We had decided to travel with fewer things than normal (60 pound bags each plus cameras and computers). We arrived at the hostel only to be told that they didn’t accept anyone older than 49 years old. Maybe Nanci could have faked it but after 5 months on the road, I looked and felt older than I am. They also offered washing machines and we had been saving dirty clothes for a week. Seemed we were going to Myanmar fully loaded and with a pile of dirty clothes.
We left early from our hotel to head to the Don Maung airport in Bangkok. The driver said he knew a shortcut to avoid the tolls on the freeway. Seemed like a good idea and after about 40 minutes of back streets we started seeing signs to the airport. Unfortunately the signs were for BKK, the huge international airport in Bangkok and not the one we wanted to go to. We were farther from the correct airport than when we started from our hotel. Luckily we had plenty of time to catch our flight. This journey already seemed to be cursed and we hadn’t even left yet.

Myanmar Fisherwoman
Myanmar Fisherwoman

Our AirAsia flight to Yangon took just a little more than an hour. We love AirAsia. They are cheap and the service is great. We had not been able to make reservations for a hotel prior to arrival, so we headed toward our best choice from our outdated Lonely Planet. No luck, they were fully booked. Our cab driver, who spoke perfect English, recommended a nearby hotel. We decided to try it. It was now dark and we needed to get something quick. The new hotel had a couple of rooms left, so we got one without much inspection. It was OK, but doubly expensive by SE Asia standards. The funny part was the ceiling in the room was barely 5 ½ feet tall and even less in the bathrooms. Not good if your 6’ 4”. We arranged with our cab driver to take us on a tour of the city the next day. He had some good plans for us and not having access to buses made having an English speaking driver for the day sound wonderful. Monsoon season was in full force in Yangon and riding all day in a cab sounded like the best plan.
We spent the next day touring Yangon visiting the colonial downtown, multiple Buddhist temples containing Buddha relics (hair, teeth), giant reclining Buddhas, White Elephants and Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s house on Inya Lake. The highlight of the day was Shwedagon Pagoda, the most famous site in all of Myanmar. We have seen hundreds of temples in our travels of SE Asia and to be honest have become a little jaded. We didn’t think we could be amazed anymore but Shwedagon proved to be far beyond our imagination. It was absolutely stunning and one of the highlights of our entire trip so far. It is located on top of a hill in the center of town with wonderful views of the entire city. Overall an exhausting, but wonderful tour and enjoyable day.

U Bein Bridge
U Bein Bridge

We spent the next morning walking through downtown Yangon. I love classic old hotels and could hardly wait until a decent hour (it must be noon somewhere!) so I could get a beer in the famous Strand Hotel which is located on the waterfront. It felt like stepping back in time as we ordered our drinks from the stoic Indian bartender. Downtown Yangon really shows the effects of 50 years of neglect by the military government that has been in power for so long.
We wanted to visit Golden Rock which is located near Kindun about a 6 hour bus ride southeast of Yangon. With no access to internet we had trouble getting info about schedules. We found that every hotel in Myanmar can make flight or bus arrangements much easier than we could independently. There is usually a small service charge which was well worth the lack of aggravation. We got our bus tickets from the attendant at the front desk who also arranged for a taxi. The ticket was totally in Burmese and we were glad that the cab driver helped so much getting us to the correct bus. Yangon’s bus station is the most unorganized place we have ever travelled. There must be 100 bus companies all located in small sheds around a multi-acre gravel lot. No signs in English and not much to assist in getting on the correct bus. We were booked for a 9 AM bus but ended up leaving on a 7:30 bus that was late leaving the terminal. The buses were cramped and while air conditioned the drivers did not seem to want to turn it on. All the drivers chewed betel and preferred to leave the doors and windows open so they could continually spit the red juice while driving.

Novice Monks-Inle Lake
We got dropped off from the bus on the main road and needed to catch a small truck to the town of Kindun. It was nice to be off the uncomfortable bus and we enjoyed talking to a young couple from France who were going to Golden Rock also. They planned to make their way up the hill to the rock and return to Yangon on the same day. Must be nice to be young.
We got up early the next day to catch the truck up the hill to Golden Rock. It is about a 45 minute ride in the back of a 5 ton dump truck completely loaded with pilgrims. The trucks don’t leave until they are completely packed to the brim with about 45 people sitting on narrow padded boards arranged uncomfortably in the back. After getting all the people loaded it took another 10 minutes to load vegetables, meat and assorted other smelly items into any spot that was available. There is a small town located near the top and everything needs to be trucked in. Half way up one of the vendor ladies dropped her hat and we had to wait about 15 minutes while the lady made her way back to pick it up. The driver decided to have a bowl of soup in one of the roadside stands further slowing our ride.

Ayerwaddy River
Ayerwaddy River-Mandalay

We arrived at the top and were surprised that it was quite the amusement park setting with many hotels, restaurants, temples and other services located near the rock. The weather was extremely foggy at the top and to be honest the rock was a little underwhelming as far as famous tourist sites go.
I started feeling incredibly sick while walking through the maze of buildings. I have struggled with a recurring sickness since we were in Mexico 2 years ago. I have had 3 episodes where I get extremely tired and have chills, fever, joint and muscle aches which completely make travel very uncomfortable. I’m not sure if it is caused by Malaria, Dengue or just some kind of food poisoning. Anyway, it hit like a ton of bricks and we only stayed for about an hour before heading back down the hill to the hotel. I basically hit the bed by noon and slept until the next morning.
We got up the next morning needing a good hotel to rest in for a couple of days while I recovered. We had to go back towards Yangon and we weren’t sure what to do after getting off the bus. It was my hardest day of travel ever repeating our crappy ride on the un-air conditioned bus back to Yangon. We didn’t want to sit in Yangon for more days and decided to catch a cab from the bus station to the Yangon airport. We didn’t have a reservation but found a quick flight on Air Bagan to Mandalay. An hour later we were in Mandalay and heading toward an expensive hotel right on the Ayerwaddy River. It was 100 dollars a night but it was new and had an excellent bed and a nice restaurant so Nanci could get meals without much effort. We made arrangements for 3 days and I did nothing much but sleep.

Temples of Bagan
Temples of Bagan

We were able to get out one afternoon for an uncomfortable tour to the famous U Bein Bridge which is supposedly the world’s longest teak bridge at 1 ½ kilometers. We walked across the bridge and took a small boat back to take pictures of the bridge. We were also short of money having not been able to find a working ATM since we had been in the country. We paid a cab driver to take us to several and on the 3rd try we found one to replenish our money supply.
I have always wanted to take a riverboat down the Ayerwaddy from Mandalay to Bagan. We asked about the ride and we could only get on the government boat which doesn’t have very good accommodations and while scheduled for 10 hours could take much longer. I really was still feeling weak from being sick and basically not eating for 3 days. I just didn’t think I could do it and opted for a quick 45 minute flight. Disappointing but probably the right decision.
We arrived in Bagan and checked into an expensive but beautiful resort hotel located just outside the gates to the walled city of Old Bagan where most of the famous temples are located. The hotel was well above our budget but we needed something to improve our luck. We took a short walking tour of the temples visiting the nicest of the 3000 temples located on the plain and also one of the only ones that are climbable so we could get an elevated view of the entire area.

Old Bagan City Gate
Old Bagan City Gate

We arranged a half day tour the next morning which took us to the Nyaung U local market as well as several beautiful temples out of walking distance from our hotel. One of the best things we did was take a break in one of the coffee shops frequented by locals. It gave us a good chance to discuss the military ruled past of Myanmar as well as what people thought the future would be like. We were pleased that people see improvements but are still cautiously aware that things could go backwards at any time. There is still a noticeable wariness about discussing politics with strangers.
We had one more place to visit and were glad we had saved it for last as it was the highlight of our trip to Myanmar. We booked plane tickets through our hotel to Inle Lake for the next morning and after a quick flight back through Mandalay arrived in our last stop. We stayed in the small town of Nyuang Shwe on the north end of the lake.
Inle Lake is full of very nice guesthouses and we had a beautiful cabin-like hotel room with a lovely wooden porch. The air was cool and good restaurants were easy to find. The next morning we booked a full day tour of the lake. We were surprised to find that the waiter from our hotel was also our boat driver for the day. Many locals have switched from being farmers and boatmen to the more lucrative tourist trade.
We loved being on the water and the overcast skies kept it very cool all day. We enjoyed seeing the hydroponic farms on the lake, the houses on stilts, the leg rowing fisherman and the cat filled monastery. It was by far the best day we had in Myanmar and should not be missed by anyone visiting the country.
We were able to easily book flights from Inle back to Yangon but found it impossible to get from Yangon back to Bangkok without buying tickets at the airport. We were lucky that we only had to wait about 2 hours for a flight. By early evening we were back in Bangkok after 13 days in Myanmar.

Temple Workers-Inle Lake
Temple Workers-Inle Lake

I was glad to have had the opportunity to visit Myanmar. The people are unique and unbelievably friendly. The country is surely difficult to travel in and twice as expensive as other destinations in Southeast Asia. I think the country is changing rapidly and I hope people find the changes they certainly deserve. Even though this was the most uncomfortable part of our visit to Asia, mostly because of being sick, I enjoyed our chance to see the country before it changes too much. I will never forget the painted faces of the people, the long skirts worn by both men and women and the upbeat attitude that the people of Myanmar have despite years of repression.
We are headed back to the US to rest up for a couple of weeks before continuing our journey. We have been on the road non-stop for over two years and have discovered that moving too quickly is not for us. The heat has been oppressive and excessive walking has taken a toll on us. We both started with new shoes for our six month journey in SE Asia and have both worn holes in the bottoms of our shoes. It’s time to kick back and get a little bit of regular life mixed in with our travels. We are looking forward to getting back in a car and having a few meals that aren’t in restaurants. We really need some time to reflect on our recent journeys and have confidence that with time the good times will far outweigh the struggles of this portion of our trip.