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Trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake

From Bagan, I arrived in Kalaw around 2:00am but this time the ever-so-kind Railroad Hotel offered half price for late night arrivals (plus a discount for me travelling alone) and picked me up from the bus stop!

Breakfast was delightful – fruit, eggs and toast, and a pancake! I got some recommendations for trekking and a map and then spent the morning going around to compare agencies. I bumpwd into a pair of Dutch guys and we decided to start a group together and ended up going to Sam’s Family for the trek – it was a good price and had a good reputation. They would send us on our way with a guide and food for 3 days, send our big luggage to guesthouses at the end at Inle Lake, and cover the boat fee across the lake for 45,000.

I finally got to eat some coconut noodles for lunch in the market, and later got some more Abu Shabu to try to clear up my cold congestion. Early to rest for the first day of trekking the next day!

In the morning, we met at the agency and I realized there were at least 20 groups heading out on treks that same day! I was already slightly regretting not choosing one of the less popular agencies to spread the tourism wealth.

We went on our way and ended up being a group of 7 – with the 2 Dutch boys, 2 girls from the Basque Country coincidentally, an Argentinian, and a German. So I got to speak a lot of Spanish over the 3 days!

The trek overall was okay – we went through fields of different crops, some hills, and on the last day through some red dust and rocks. We stayed in villages with local tribe families but this also felt weird and exploitive, particularly the second night when there were some 20 groups in the same village (200 families) and you could feel how much they didn’t really care for having us there. Not interested, slightly annoyed, but tolerant because of getting the small extra payment.

I talked to our guide Cookie about it all and he said that the village was less hppy recently because on New Year’s Eve a bunch of tourists decided to have a party and stayed up late drinking and making lots of noise in the village. So disappointing to hear. Plus add the fact that only the families that host get any actual benefit (around $1/person that sleeps in their house)… and the rest of the village still gets cameras in their faces and foreigners roaming the street.

So all in all, I got some nice pictures and had good chats but mostly the trek just made me feel bad for adding to the circus of tourism. Agencies making profits and the locals getting little more than trouble. But we did have excellent food, had fun taking a shortcut via pick- up truck, and practiced playing Choline, a ball game similar to hacky sack but with a bigger harder ball.

When we got to Inle Lake, we decided to pay 1,000 kyat extra each to mar the jouney across the lake a little longer instead of just going straight to Nyaung Shwe. We stopped at some workshops that are set up for tourists with souvenirs but it was still a little interesting to see how they make the fishing boats, roll the churoot cigars, and my favorite – longyi making wih the looms! Not only with cotton and silk combos but LOTUS!!!!! I sat and watched a woman breaking and rolling the fibers together for ages – it is incredible!! Scarves run around $200 from it, but maybe someday when I am rich and famous!

We watched the sunset from the boat and snapped some iconic shots of the fishermen (spoiler: they definitely posed for us, but at least our boat driver scurried away before they came over demanding tips).

In Nyaung Shwe, I stayed at Remember Inn for $10/night, and the next morning I had my last Shan noodle soup for breakfast (choice between that or pancakes or eggs) and then wandered around the town to mail off postcards and get a Shan noodle salad in the Mingalaba Market.

From Nyaung Shwe, I decided to go straight back down to Yangon back to the Thabarwa Center to finish up my time in Myanmar. I got to see some friends from before and it was the perfect ending to my Myanmar stay – teaching nuns English, going on two more alms rounds with the monks which ended up being the same two groups and places I went when I first arrived (full circle?), and starting  what to do with the influx of foreigners and what kind of volunteer projects they can help with.

I really felt a strong connection there… off the tourist path the people in Myanmar are so lovely and particularly at Thabarwa they can always use more help, so I am contemplating returning later in the trip but on a meditation visa so I can stay longer and also continue trying different meditation centers in the area – not only Thabarwa retreats but also Goenka and Shwe Oo Min. We will see!

 

 

 

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Bagan

I arrived in Bagan on an overnight bus that was not really overnight. Expecting to get in around 4:30am and go for sunrise and save myself that night’s accommodation, I was really disappointed to arrive at 2am at a bus stop outside of the city with taxi drivers swarming the bus with double or triple rates. Without much choice, I got in a taxi with 3 others going to the same place and the driver laughed about how lucky he was to be overcharging us.

We got stopped on the way to pay a 25,000 Bagan entrance fee (which is really only checked at some of the major pagodas at peak times). Strangely, some friends that came in during the day got around paying for this, but I guess they take the time to catch night bus passengers I guess. I would say I have learned my lesson not to take night buses in Myanmar but still 2 more after Bagan!

Too tired to argue more, we made it to Winner Hotel for 16,000 kyat total (which is more than I paid for my trip from the Yangon airport to Thabarwa which took over an hour) and were “lucky” to find out we still had to pay the full rate for that half-night of sleep. They had a shared room for the four of us for $30 – Only it turned out to be 2 beds, but being cheapies we just went with it and shared amongst our newly-made bus and taxi friends.

In the (later) morning, I bumped into a girl Jessie we had met on the bus to Hsipaw and she invited me to join her and two friends for Bagan exploring. We rented some e-bikes for 7,000 kyat and went on our way!

I thought it was going to be e-bikes like the ones I had used in Madrid where you pedal and a little motor cruises you along, but these were electric scooters! You could have put two people on one to make it cheaper but we thought it was best not to be responsible for each other’s well-being. This proved to be the right choice because down the road, a bus cut me off and I crashed in the sand. Later in the day, all the other girls crashed at different points so we were even. Or I guess e-bikes: 4, us: 0.

Bagan was what I expected and more. A city of countless pagodas and stupas as well as souvenir stalls, but you can find your way to some hidden ones “off the beaten trail”. That was our goal so we managed to bike some sandy trails back to a village and eventually down to the river. We saw a pagoda on the hill overlooking the river and made it our goal to get there. We left the bikes and walked through some mint and other herb fields to the bottom of its wall. How to get up there? Climb the wall and a tree of course!! We eventually figured out this secret pagoda was called #2624 (not even a name on the map). On the way out we took a different path which only took about 30 seconds to get to the main road, making our longer adventure through the forest and village really roundabout but still way more inreresting.

We stopped at several others but that part might have been my favorite from day 1. We ended up at Shwesandaw Paya for sunset since we were running out of time to hunt down a different place. Shwesandaw is THE spot for sunrises and sunsets with buses bringing herds of people in amd the different levels of the pagoda covered in tripods and people taking selfies. Nevertheless, it was a gorgeous sunset. It was funny because a lot of people cleared out before the sun finished setting, and we joked about how they were missing the best part. After he sunset, we stayed a little longer and hen decided to find our way back before it got too dark. Shortly after we got back on the road, the sky turned into brilliant purple and pink colors – oh the irony.

One of my mirrors fell off on the way back (I picked it up and the rental place didn’t seem too bothered so maybe it isn’t the first time) but otherwise we made it back from a day on e-bikes in one piece!

Day 2:

This time I did manage to get up for sunrise! So worth it! I borrowed a bicycle from the hotel to cycle down to Law Kau Ou Shaung. On the way, my lovely dress got caught in the chain, so I had to ripped it out, and then later when I was nearly there, the bike just jammed up and I couldn’t pedal anymore!!! Walking it was… I made it to Law Kau Ou Shaung and woke up a snoozing taxi driver to make sure it was the right place, and the key holder found me and told me it was closed but I could go up neighboring Thein Mazi instead!

He led the way and I found my way up the stairs to meet a nice mini group of 4 people who had beaten me there. We figured out how to climb a little higher and by sunrise another 5 people had showed up. Still, a much more peaceful setting than busy Shwesandaw!

Sunrise itself — incredible. The sun actually rose perfectly out of the top of a pagoda and I took aprroximately 1 billion pictures between the sunrise and the hot air balloons floating in the sky. Someday I will come back not as a budget traveller and get in one of those!!!

After sunrise, the key holder kindly repaired my bike for me so I gave him a little tip, and some sunrise friends and I made our way to a restaurant for some breakfast Abu Shabu! I am cursed with a winter cold so I think I have been going back to this spicy noodle soup every other day to try to clear out of sinuses.

Back at the hotel, I found the girls again and had breakfast number 2 of fruit and coffee (why not?), and then we went for normal bikes for the day. We ended up going to a monastery, passed a local school, and went to two of the most important pagodas – Ananda and Dhamma Yan Gyi.

Outside Ananda, there was a photoshoot place, and we ended up going in for dress-up fun! They had dresses from different tribes and we also got our make-up done (bright pink eye shadow) plus accessories and ended up being a group of Wa, Chin, Kachin and Shan ladies!! The family was adorable in how they shuffled us through the process and directed us for the photos and also did u a favor by taking pictures with our own cameras too, so afterwards we had them all get us on stage together for a photo shoot of them!!!

We made it to North Guni at the end of the day for pre-sunset relaxation before getting our bus. Some cute kids tried to sell postcards and that was pretty sad, but Amalia was painting with watercolors and more kids crowded around little by little to watch and eventually ended up doing some paintings too so at least they got to do something fun and creative besides selling things and asking for money.

We went back in time for showers before getting the bus to Inle Lake (the girls) and Kalaw (me, so then I could pay to walk to Inle Lake instead of course!)

Some people said that you need several days in Bagan but it depends on whether you are really trying to go to as many pagodas as possible! I think a couple of days is fine as long as you make it to sunrise and sunset and for me, I wanted to avoid spending too much time around the souvenir vendors because I felt guilty for not buying more. My favorite was the girl who offered to trade pants for my dress haha.

Bagan was sort of the beginning of my tourist complex – I want to see these places but I am a part of ruining them with tourism. On one hand it brings in business, but there in a huge divide in how that wealth is actually shared – hotels, taxi drivers, guide agencies, the restaurants recommended by Lonely Planet, and of course the government get their share but what about the rest who live there? But I can’t really buy a bracelet or statue or bowl from everyone anyway. And then I get annoyed that my bananas are double the price or laundry soap is quadruple the price, but it’s such a small amount in the conversion really so does it matter or is it ok to get ripped off? Maybe it is just the tax for intruding their homeland. And then the pollution! So many buses and cars and motorbikes shuttling tourists around – pollution and waste management is bad here and tourism can only be making it worse! At least they had the e-bikes in Bagan…

 

Anyway, if this was my reaction in Myanmar where tourism is relatively new compared to other parts of Southeast Asia, maybe I will have to stick to volunteer projects and meditation centers and yoga courses more than the tourist sites or I will cry!

More on this later and the rest of my last updates from Myanmar! Now boarding my flight for Bangkok!

 

Mandalay

Accommodation: Royal Hotel – $7/night. They were super nice there so they get a good review from me! For breakfast you can either get the foreigner option of egg (fried, scrambled, or omelette) plus toast, fruit and coffee/tea. OR Myanmar style, which I unfortunately found out about too late, of Shan noodles or Coconut noodles! Bummed I missed out on that one. Only lesser than fabulous points are the motorbike taxi they got me for the day “who spoke English” but doesn’t really speak that much if you want to get extra info about the places you visit (otherwise he was a nice guy) and the bus they booked me to Bagan which was supposed to be hotel to hotel – I am thinking it might’ve been cheaper to buy at the station but oh well. In Bagan we only made it to the bus stop, which in retrospect makes sense – I am not sure why I really thought I might get door to door service!

Activities: I arrived late in the evening so my first night only consisted of a delightful hot shower (first real one in 2 weeks! The next day I went with my motorbike taxista to go out and about the surrounding villages/old towns near Mandalay.

We went up north to Mingun first to try to beat the crowds coming by boat, and to my surprise, there was a stand enforcing a 5,000 kyat tourist fee (I really hate these). It was about an hour’s ride to get there so I had no choice. Mingun has two really awesome pagodas – one that is more or less a humongous solid block of bricks, a little cracked along top but you can still climb up for some great views of the area. The other is a gorgeous white pagoda with wavey walls surrounding it. Impressive. There is also an old giant bell and something that is supposed to be a lion, but I didn’t see it at all with all my imagination efforts. Around the area are some tourist stalls selling stuff and some university kids to accompany you and offer information but then they will ask for some kind of payment. Since I paid the extra 5,000 fee and don’t carry much with me, I told them “Thank you but I won’t be able to pay you” and my history lesson ended. Oh well! I am sure Wikipedia can inform me later.

Next was Sagaing, a pagoda surrounded by several other stupas set on a hill across the river and south of Mandalay. Many many steps and I reached the top which had beautiful views and tiled walls and columns.

After that we headed to Inwa. Too many pagodas yet? No way! We stopped at a street stall so I could eat some mohinga noodle soup and an old man tried to teach me some more Burmese before my driver shuffled us along. Inwa was maybe my favorite out of these pagoda tours because its an old village and inside you have fields of banana trees with old pagoda ruins dotted throughout. These were older again and made of stone but many of the stupas and statues still decently preserved. However, some of the larger structures had collapsed in an earthquake.

From Inwa we went to Amarapura, making a few stops along the way at some workshops to see where they make the collection bowls and lids for the monks, a longye weaving workshop, and an antique restoration shop full of Buddha statues, wood carvings, and puppets that the villagers sell to the shop and the shop fixes them up for sale. If I had a home and was going there soon, this would have been the place fo a souvenir. Someday I will come back to Myanmar with an empty suitcase so I can get all the things I want!

Anyway, Amarapura is home to the U Bein Bridge, the longest teak bridge which is super photogenic and ideal for sunrise and sunset photos. Thus, people were swarming the place of course but I still had a nice stroll around the bottom and then back and forth on the bridge and captured some good shots.

The next day, I woke up early to go to Maha Myat Muni pagoda in Mandalay. There they do a special ceremony of washing the golden Buddha’s face and brushing the teeth. By motorbike I arrived around 4am and there was already some 20 people there waiting outside rhe gate and some women preparing the food and flowers to buy as offerings. More and more people arrived and finally around 4:30 the gate was opened and we shuffled inside up to the next gate protecting Buddha. Women are not allowed past a certain point so the men went on ahead of us.

The ceremony began with monks carrying large baskets of flowers inside. They lined them up on a platform on Buddha’s lap and one by one the head monk presented each one before taking them away. Some silky-looking sheets were placed ariund the Buddha to protect the rest of the body and next was the preparation of the water for the washing. The teeth were brushed and then the face slowly and gently sprayed and wiped down and dried. I also really enjoyed the women chanting/singing in Pali while this all happened – so beautiful. I will try to post a video of this later.

Around 5:30am I headed out to get a ride back to the hotel and from there I started walking to Mandalay Hill, yet another pagoda but this time looking over the city. The plan was to catch sunrise but it turns out that the Royal Palace is so massive that it took me forever to walk around it! Sunrise over the water surrounding it was still pretty.

At Mandalay Hill, many stairs once again, I was unpleasantly surprised to find a man asking for 1000 kyat from tourists at the top. Again since I think all these things are free, I wasn’t carrying anything so I offered him my 500 kyat and he begrudgingly let me pass instead of sending me back down.

The view was nice but you can see the traffic congestion clouds as one would expect. However, there was some fantastic colorful tiling on the walls and columns. A huge crowd of locals arrived around the same time as me but someone cleared out before I left so I had the place almost to myself at the end.

Back down again around the other side of the Royal Palace. There were more pagodas on the way but I was a bit on overload so I headed back for breakfast.

I found a nice place around the corner from my hotel which served me some Shan noodles for 500 kyat and then took it easy until my bus to Bagan, except for another food break for some street curry and rice and a trip to a market where I had some kind of delicious dessert of coconut, jelly, strawberry shaved ice, and maybe sweet milk? It was called swey or schwey or shay or something like that.

All in all, Mandalay was a big dirty city with some nice villages around it and probably some hidden gems for pagodas and food within if you have the patience for motorbike taxi bargaining and walking around the smoggy and dusty streets.

So for this trip, ta-ta Mandalay!

Hsipaw and train to Pyin Oo Lwin

With 3 of the guys from the meditation retreat, we made our way to Hsipaw. We had a lift from the Thabarwa bus to another junction and a local girl helped us grab a taxi into Pyin Oo Lwin. We were too late to catch the scenic train ride so we decided to go for the bus.

We went the wrong way of course avoiding expensive taxis that tried to charge us 45,000 kyat (possibly a mistake mixing the hundreds and thousands), we ended up in the city center. A kind man directed us back the way we had come but at least we had a mini tour of the town. What I liked were the old horse and buggies going around between the otherwise dusty traffic of pick-up trucks and motorbikes. We met a girl on the bus that had gone ti the botanical gardens there and she said it was like Disneyland of flowers – I guess we missed out!

5 hours on the bus brought us to Hsipaw around 8:30pm and we didn’t have to worry about finding a place because people from at least 4 or 5 hotels were gathered there with signs and brochures to recruit us!

Lonely Planet and some friends had recommended Mr. Charles but we ended up going for the cheaper option of $5/person at Nam Khae Mao (and the guy was really nice!). The guys got a shared 3 person room and because the single room was on a different floor, they gave me a double bed across the hall, same price! Life of luxury… except the shower was warmish, not so hot, but when we were used to bucketing water and sleeping on floos at Thabarwa, we were still experiencing a serious upgrade!

Local noodle soup for dinner for less than a dollar plus some weird milky eggy desert thing we go when Georgy asked fo honey.

Funnily enough, we all still woke up around 4am sans gong. Tom tom (or a similar name) came to chat with us in the morning and to serve breakfast and we got an idea of plans for the day. Trekking is popular in the area but with a shortage of time left on my visa with the other stops I wanted to do, I gave it a pass. Instead, we went on our own little day hike to a waterfull, passing by an old Indian cemetary and garbage dump behind it where a cute old man with no teeth chatted with us! We passed by a few huts on the way and besides bulls and bananas, I was impressed to see that one house had solar panels outside! Makes sense!

Stop number two for the day was a hot spring, which turned out to be a warm spring where the locals go to do their washing. After some villages and rice paddies and a rice noodle factory (so many noodles hanging everywhere!), we made it back and stopped at the first street stall that looked appetizing. Excellent choice – some kind of crepe wrap filled with coconut, another one with fried banana, some sort of veggie dumplings/empanadas, a veggie pancake… a sampling of each came to 400 kyat – or around 30 cents! The stall next door looked yummy too but we couldn’t eat any more.

Back to Hsipaw town center for fruit shakes from Mr. Shake (there was definitely a theme of Mr. – a guide called Mr. Bike, a book shop called Mr. Book, a restaurant called Mr. Food). At Mr. Shake we tried different combinations – the best was probably passion fruit, papaya, lemon, ginger and perhaps banana? I can’t actually remember the combo. The worst was avocado and coffee. Surprise surprise.

Really not too much else. There was another area with the old Shan Palace that is supposed to be really interesting but we were tired and so obviously decided to hike up Sunset Hill instead. Can’t miss a good sunset viewpoint! In total we guessed at least 15km in the day – not bad after a week of mostly sitting and meditating.

Dinner (of course I have to report on the food), we wandeeed for a while being indecisive and finally decided to get a variety of things from different street stalls so everyone was happy. My choice was more noodle soup and a local guy ordered something ahead of us so I asked for the same thing since it looked so good! Wow – sooooo spicy. I was sweating the entire time I ate and afterwards, but what is called Abu Shabu apparently a Rakhine dish, is amazing for colds! So since then, I have had it 2 or 3 more times. It might be my favorite. Dessert were some Shan cakes that were some kind of dense rice pancake with brown sugar (needed) which gets a so-so review, and another yummy cake that is made of some kind of grain maybe? Dinner and two desserts grand total = less than 1000 kyat. I am in food heaven.

The next day, Georgy and I woke up at the usual 4am but this time with a plan to go to the morning market! It starts around 3:30 and finishes around 7 or 8. Vendors lined the street with their products set out and candles to light their tables! Motorbikes loaded up with bags of goodies to take who-knows-where, and the scales they used were old school balances! We bought some fruit and tofu for the day’s journey (and extra breakfast).

Later we all caught the train from Hsipaw to Pyin Oo Lwin – 7 hours for 1,200 kyat. It goes pretty slow but amazingly bumpy and shaky and at every stop these talented women come to the windows or aboard to sell things from baskets balanced on their heads. I really don’t know how they do it. On that note, I have also seen girls balancing stacks of bricks on their heads around the building sites!

Anyway, after eating our way through the jouney and snapping pics of the bridge and the gorge under the bridge, we finally arrived in Pyin Oo Lwin again. We hopped in the back of a pick-up (unfortunately also carrying a motorbike) and along with a Canadian-Colombian couple (yay Spanish practice), we made our way to Mandalay – 1 hr 30 min journey at 1,500 kyat.

In Mandalay we parted ways with the boys going to the bus station to enjo another long journey and me to Royal Hotel near the Royal Palace. Fortunately they had a cheap single room free for juat $7. Dormitories aren’t so common here so elsewhere solo travel is proving to be a pain and more expensive (relatively) than planned. It is not so bad really but basically I would be paying half the price most of the time if I was with a travel buddy!

I am on a roll wih these updates, trying to catch up at least a bit more before leaving a 3-day hike tomorrow… let’s see if I can squeeze one more in… Mandalay adventures!

 

 

Shwe Chaung Thabarwa Meditation Retreat

7 days of meditation starting off with a 15 hour busride (bus meditation?)

Uzin our leader and teacher took us in one bus and another driver took the 2nd bus. Unfortunately the 2nd bus broke down on the way and he had to drive back 3 hours each way to pick everyone up! Fortunately our bus had enough good karma on it that we made it okay, with the exception of changing a flat tire.

Arriving around 5am, we tried to get a little sleep before the breakfast bell rang maybe 2 hours later. The first day was more of a half day mixed between rest and waiting for the 2nd bus.

The rest of the days we followed this schedule:

4:00 Wake up gong

4:30-6:00 Reciting the 8 precepts and whole group meditation

6:00 Breakfast

7:00-8:00 Walking meditation

9:00-11:00 Dhamma talks/Meditation  with Uzin (Separate English group)

11:00 Lunch

1:30-3:30 Dhamma talks/Meditation with Soe Win Htut (Separate English group)

4:00-5:00 Walking meditation

Juice break!

6:00-8:00 Whole group Dhamma talks and meditation

And early to bed!!!

This was the first time I really tried meditation apart from a few session jn yoga workshops, and it was so difficult! Not only do you have to be mindful of your thoughts (and of course all those thoughts you avoid and distract yourself from come flooding in), but not moving for the whole time is another thing! Pain in the legs, the random itch, or flies landing in your eyelid also must have no reaction.

Fortunately with practice it gets easier. All those thoughts come and go -they say it will be impossible to just have a clear mind at the beginning but you should just be mindful of what comes, not rejecting nor grasping them. If you can push past the early twitches and urges to move, they go away too. If you succumb to the desire, another one will pop up again and it is harder to ignore.

Uzin had some wonderful guidance through the meditation. Let it be. Be mindful. If you can’t deal with the flies, how will you ever become enlightened. Even if a snake comes and bites you, hold on, don’t give up. Whatever, whatever, let it be. Even if you die, don’t give up. There are others older than you, younger than you, more experienced and less experienced. You are not the only one.

There is more related to Buddhism wisdom and the 4 noble truths and the cyxle of suffering from creative truth, but I won’t explain it well here (it took us hours to wrap our own heads around some of the explanations in person), but if you want to learn more, there are lots of talks and information on the website: http://www.ThabarwaRatana.org.

5 of us foreigners went through the whole week and I think we all came out better from it. The trick is carrying on with meditation and that mindfulness and applying it to the rest of life’s turbulence.

Other parts of the retreat were fantastic! We made some more local friends with the meditators and nuns and the food was AMAZING. So many delicious and healthy dishes that we graciously devoured. As a parting gift, we pooled some money as a donation and one of the other guys with us actually made a beautiful painting of the Shwe Chaun center to present to them.

Most people headed back down to Yangon area and the Thabarwa Center in Thanlyin but we decided to stay in the north for our own adventuring.

So next, part 2 of my Myanmar trip = tourism!

 

Yangon/Thanlyin Thabarwa Center

After a long journey from Hong Kong (cleverly or not-so-cleverly planned through an overnight in Bangkok airport), I arrived in Yangon early in the morning.

My first shock was the currency exchange. 1 euro is about 1,430 khat and apparently bills only go up to 5,000. However I only found this out later because in my case, they only gave me 1,000 notes. So first moment was me uncomfrotably getting a giant stack of 1,000 khat notes and figuring where I can discretely put the pile!

Next was my hunt for the bus into town. I walked out of the airport and passed the taxis going along a road which was supposed to take me to a 20-cent bus. I ended up walking into some village with people spitting what looked like blood all over the place (this is actually a kind of red chewing tobacco) and when people were directing me up and down the same street I finally caved and took a taxi.

An hour or so later with stops for the taxi driver to ask motorbike taxis for directions to this strange mysterious place I was going, I finally made it to Thabarwa.

I filled out some foreigner form with lots of details I don’t think anyone looks at and they sent me off to another building to find my room. So many questions…. does no one speak English? Who am I supposed to talk to about being here? I can’t remember the name of the contact person… is there wifi? Should I panic yet? When I tried to ask for someone to speak English, the kind lady of the house showed me the squat toilet haha. Ooo this is going to be interesting.

Eventually a nice English speaking nun came to my rescue! She gave me a tour of the center, where the two dining halls were, how to get food (which later became “stand here and look hungry and confused and someone will help you”), and we walked through the basic hospital areas with elderly patients, an ICU area, Saturday acupuncture clinic, and she introduced me to another English speaking nun who teaches the local kids on weekends. Ahhh.. communication, I missed you!

After lunch, I tried some meditation in the foreigner’s and found a couple other foreigners being taught by an Italian nun. I got there in time for the lying down meditation and I am pretty sure I just fell asleep haha. In the afternoon I went back to the “school” to chat with Seyeley and practice English with the kids. It was short-lived since I was suffering from jetlag and Seyeley had lost her voice so instead she took me to the nun school to introduce me to her teacher who apparently started becoming a monk at the age of 8 and met some of the other nuns who were so delighted to speak a little English. They invited me back for breakfast the next day. I tried and failed with some more meditation in the evening but at least got to chat a bit more with the other foreigners staying there.

The next day turned into a crazy one! They dressed me up and braided my hair “Myanmar style” to prep me for a day out in Yangon!

Two of the nuns took me under their wings for the day and we went into the city to get some things they needed from the market and then went to Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon together. Shwedagon Pagoda has relics from 4 Buddhas inside (8 strands of hair from Gautama Buddha, the staff of Kakusanda Buddha, the water filter of Kawnagamana Buddha,and netherrobe of Kassapa Buddha) making it top of the top for important pagodas.

Too late to get the bus back, we shared a taxi and then hopped on motorbike taxis (I forgot how much I love motorbikes).

The next day, I ended up going for alms round back to Yangon! We hopped in a minibus with the monks and some laypeople. What an experience!!!!

First you have to take off your shoes while going around for alms and you walk alongside the line of monks to take the larger or bulky items that people give in baskets. I had a basket for dry items and then there were more trays and buckets for wet food donations. Other trays were just for the monks to empty their bowls of rice when needed. There were more people doing runs between us and a cart with bigger bins to empty our buckets.

Soooooo many people!!!! I cannot describe it well enough but there was a man in front with a megaphone basically announcing the arrival of the Thabarwa monks and then people were literally lined up and waiting in the street with their donations from money to bowls of rice to pots of stew or bags of instant coffee.

We walked up and down these narrow streets through more residential ones to streets lined with shops and even one crowded one with a full-on street market! Even people that didn’t have time to come down threw a crumpled up note down to give. Never in my life have I experienced something like this. I was on sensory overload. Absolutely amazing.

Now I understand how they can manage to support the center with over 2500 people living there. Several trucks go out every morning and we had more than enough to feed hundreds of people with just our group.

New foreigners had arrived so I tried some more meditation with them (mostly still fidgeting and giving up) and in the afternoon we went to one of the good will villages connected to the center for homeless families to live and collected trash from the streets with some local kids. Super cute kids that tried to teach me some Burmese but in the other hand, the rubbish situation was pretty horrible. A lot of the houses are raised off the ground and we passed one that had a toddler taking a nap on the bamboo floor while under the house there was a pool of plastic garbage. In general, the rubbish system here is just a dumping area in a corner, and there is still a lot of litter around in other places. Since they have more huilding projects to go, one of the other foreigners suggested compacting the trash to make bricks, but I think the likelihook of that system developing is slim.

There is a lot going on at Thabarwa and a lot of projects could be done but having longterm volunteers is tricky, and the rest of the longterm yogis have other activities they are involved in already. Same story with these kinds of places… always in need of more money and more people!

My last days at Thabarwa in Thanlyin were some meditation attempts including standing meditation for an hour (first time I made it through the whole time!), chats with our monk teacher about Buddhism and Myanmar life, and another alms round in a nearby town.

We celebrated New Year’s Eve with a giant watermelon and some Chinese and Russian sweets. Early style at 10pm and then I was in bed before midnight! Crazy crazy.

On the 1st, we left for north to go to the Shwe Chaung Center near Pyin Oo Lwin! More on that next.

 

Hong Kong

Super late report but for Christmas I went to Hong Kong! Pictures will have to come later because I can’t upload from my phone for some reason.

By coincidence, I met up with my friend Thomas fromthe Basque Country who is now working in Japan. He popped over to Hong Konfor a visa renewal and our days overlapped!

We met on Hong Kong Island for some dim sum and a wander to the botanical gardens. The place where we went to eat was proper local and they sat us down to share a table with an older couple that helped us figure out what to actually do to get our food. They give you a piece of paper that kind of looks like a bingo card and you take it up to get marked for whatever items you choose and then pay at the end. Yum yum! Botanical gardens were nice to for some monkey watching, even though sad to see them in the cages.

Later in the day Andrew finally arrived from his work trip on mainland China! We stayed on the Kowloon side and wandered down to a park and the waterfront for a lit-up skyline view before seeing Star Wars!!!

The next days were some fooding and wanderings around Kowloon markets – they have streets sectioned for your shopping desires from sneaker street to goldfish street and flower street. Now I am contemplating having a flower shop someday… surrounded by plants all day = a dream come true. There was also a bird garden which was interesting and depressing all at the same time. Birds in cages to buy for pets or some kinds are just there to pay for their release as a sort of freedom-granting good deed.

Temple visits are a must for me so we went to Wong Tai Sin which is a temple that has a mix of Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist elements all in the same place (we CAN just all get along). Lots of burning incense and shaking sticks in boxes for wishes, and I didn’t see it myself but I know there are lots of other paper offering items you can buy to burn and send on to your ancestors, from paper money to paper food, paper cigarettes, and so on.

Another temple hunt the next day was a little further out and an uphill hike but it is called 10,000 Buddhas Temple so there are Buddha statues lining the whole walk up! Some nice views from the top of the city too.

What else… we made it to the race track to see some horse races. This seems to be the foreigner gathering zone on Wednesdays haha.  No bets made but now I can say I have seen a horse race. It’s realy short and I have no idea who won but I guess that is besides the point!

Andrew left for the States on Christmas Eve so I went out around Hong Kong Island to hike Dragon’s Back trail. Amazing views of the sea and a pleasant escape from the skyscrapers and crowds. Being Christmas, shops were packed so being out in the forest and ending on a little beach was perfect for me.

Later I stopped around Central for some antique markets. If only I had a magical bottomless bag and a home to take things to, I would definitely pick up souvenirs more often. Oh well.

On Christmas Day I met a girl from Couchsurfing and she took me to “the real Hong Kong” out of the center for some dim sum. A hike was planned but the weather was against us so we went for coffee and cake instead! I tried some kind of tea that is good for health according to Chinese medicine and we chatted about travel plans and teaching life, since Flossie plans to try to go to South America to teach there.

All in all, Hong Kong has sooo much shopping in the central areas but some great natural areas once you take the subway or buses out a bit further. If I ever go again, I would definitely shoot for more hiking trails, surprise surprise.

Merry Christmas!!!!!

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Nothing like a 7 hour layover to finally get me to update here again. My apologies for being blog-MIA for a while. The end result: Super short recap! Ok, not that short.

Basically the reason I wasn’t writing was because I had such a crazy month and didn’t know how to write about it yet. Biggest news – I met my birth family in Korea! It was a surreal and emotional event, from meeting at the adoption agency with my case worker and parents, going to my birth city Daegu to meet an aunt and my 4 brothers and sisters to celebrate my birthday, and then going down for some of my last days in Korea to stay with them (and truly feel the reality of the language barrier!!) If you are even reading my blog, I have probably already talked to you about most of this anyway, but I can’t exactly leave it out of my updates now!! I am really open about talking about it all, which is probably also sort of therapeutic to do, so feel free to ask questions next time we speak.

In other news, November of course had more hikes and also brought me some visitors from the US!

Kyung Hee University organized a class trip to Seoraksan (3rd time for me ha!) but it got rained out so we mostly just ate food and took silly pictures. It was nice to hang out with my classmates outside of class for once though.

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My friend Jiwon and I also finally hiked Bukhansan, the mountain north of Seoul, with Climbing in Korea. I have really come to be fond of this hiking group – seeing a few familiar faces over the past few excursions. It is a nice mix of long-term expats with a lot of Koreans, and if I were staying in Korea longer, I would definitely continue meeting up with them. This hike was really fun because we got to use ropes to climb up some of the steep slopes, did a mini yoga session on top (and nap), and afterwards got some delicious Korean BBQ!!!

Then Sam and Scott came to visit so we did some Seoul exploring, yummy food eating, and finally got down to Busan too! In short, fun times all around.

I actually am not totally sure where all the days of December went… I took my final exam for my Korean course (good scores, woohoo!) and met up with friends to say goodbye in Seoul, Suwon, Jeonju and with my family in Daegu.

Next stop: Hong Kong! (This actually has come and gone already but my hands are tired of typing for now)

Next next stop: Myanmar!

Naejangsan National Park

Almost the end of hiking season for me! Just one more trip to go I think before I give up to the cold. Winter hiking is actually really popular here but I don’t think I will make it in the end… Another year!

I went with the meetup group Climbing in Korea again and this time the weather was against us. Everyone at the very busy guesthouse this weekend said it was rain all weekend, everywhere, but I stayed in denial until the last minute!

We met for the bus at 7:15am and snoozed for a few hours, arriving at Naejangsan Park around 11:00. The idea was to hike over 3 peaks and make our way to Naejangsa Temple by 4:00 and back to the bus by 5:00.

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In typical Korean fashion, we started up many many stairs. No messing around with zig zag routes here, they just send us straight up to the clouds!!

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After about an hour or so thinking “hiking in the rain isn’t so bad really,” we made it to a divide and regrouped and proposed making two groups – 1 to go down into the valley after the first peak and the other to continue to the other 2 peaks. Basically no one wanted to be the ones to be less ambitious so we all continued together to see how things went. We got to Bulchulbong (622m) and this was the point where we realized we were CRAZY.

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It was so windy and the rain was slapping us in the face so much that we just were dying to find a little bit of shelter, so in the end we all took plan B and started down into the valley. Even with the fog and clouds, we were able to catch glimpses of the view – the colors were still there and it would have been gorgeous with a clear day.

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We smelled some ramen and eventually found a few groups of Korean hikers huddled under a wall/cave so we joined them for our lunch break too. Finally the wind didn’t block out all sound so we could talk to some more of the hikers and we reunited with some teacher friends and met a bunch of guys from Samsung! We chatted our way down to Wonjeokam Temple…

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… And then we continued to Naejansa Temple. Beautiful colors everywhere! It definitely made it worth the cold and rain.

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From Naejangsa it was about an hour to get back to the bus, and we ended up walking through a little market they had there – got hotteok, a sort of sweet pancake filled with caramel and nuts, and others had some octupus, roasted nuts, and there were even creepy people in costumes singing karaoke! Only in Korea!

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On the bus, we all were regretting not bringing more dry clothes, but we survived the trip back to Seoul. I got back and had to close up the guesthouse while my boss is away for a few days, and then my life was saved because just as I was complaining that I hadn’t had enough to eat and my only option was another granola bar and then sleep, some Korean guests popped their heads into the kitchen and asked if we wanted to share a pork leg with them! Ola says the trick is to just always think outloud and someone might grant your wish haha. We chatted and ate a late midnight meal with a bit of soju and it was the perfect end to the night! And I got to use about 5 phrases in the day and night in Korean haha. Success!

October Round-up

Lumping it all together!

Student Life: Kyunghee University

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My first month of Korean classes has been pretty intense but at least I feel some improvement. It is only level 1 out of 6 levels to proficiency, but we have gotten through the basics: family, places, dates and time, common verbs, introductions, shopping phrases, talking about where your live, hobbies, present tense and past tense.. Then through in the various ways you can speak – informal, more formal, even more formal… The hardest part is honestly time! In Korean there are two sets of numbers and for time you use one form for the hour and the other for minutes! Ughhh…. Anyway, our midterm is this week over two days – it will be rough!

We have class 5 days/week, 4 hours/day and there are I think 15 of us in the class. Mostly from Sweden, we break the standard of classes mostly being from China or Japan. Kyunghee must have some kind of connection to a Swedish university because I have no idea why we have almost all the Swedes in Seoul. I am also the oldest in the class – they refer to me as 누나 (nuna) 언니 (onni) which means older sister, because that’s how you address people in Korea… Age is a very important factor that determines how you can speak to someone.

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Class is split into two parts, the first half grammar, and the second half alternating between speaking, reading, writing and listening. I have a glimpse of Korean education now and I think it is full of lectures, tests, and memorizing – even for language not as much practice. We parrot phrases and do a lot of srillingut not as much speaking practice as I would like. I know it is a beginner level but from experience, I know there is still more we could be doing. I like both my teachers though!! We have lots of homework every day (I don’t know what MY students used to complain about!!) and have to watch videos that are on the online course part too. So time-consuming! Overall, I am satisfied with it though. I think I will have a good base to start trying to practice and pick up more, but I am not sorry I won’t be continuing for another semester either.

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There was a protest one day outside the main gate that turned out to be a protest against the teachers who were against a new decision by the government to make national standardized textbooks. Strangest thing to have people actually in support of that, but it turns out Korean modern politics are a disaster anyway. More on that later.

Culture life: Hi Seoul Culture Festival — Not what I expected to see (fire dancers and live painting), but it turned out I was looking at the 2014 schedule. Instead, I got to watch some breakdancers dancing to Classical music, and some other performers swinging around on a giant ladder!

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Hiking life: Ansan night hike with Seoul Hiking Group

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Spoiled life:

Another highlight is when I met up with a friend to go to a jimjilbang, or Korean bathhouse. It was AMAZING!!!! No pictures to share, but you can see the website in English for Silloam Sauna. And maybe because I have been in Europe for a while, but it wasn’t so bad adapting to being totally naked in the bath area. First you strip down and go to shower and if you want, you can get scrubbed down all over for extreme exfoliation by an ajumma (old woman) and a shampoo, facial and massage for about 60,000 KRW or less than $60. Then you can use the variety of baths – jade, charcoal, mudwort, massage, cold – and wet saunas (with salt to rub on yourself inside). We spent a good hour and a half or so trying those, then it was on to the dry rooms, aka “fomentation” rooms. The internet has no explanation for this translation, but basically they are other rooms to give you a health boost. Hot saunas all decked out in jade stone, loess balls, or just super hot, and cool down rooms with charcoal, oxygen pumping through the room, or the ice box, which does not feel cold at all after being in such hot rooms. I want to go back again. They also have a restaurant, sleeping rooms, with a separate snoring room, game room, ping pong room, gym/fitness room. If you forego the scrub and massage, it only costs about 12,000 won to access it all!

Social life:

Otherwise I think I have mostly stayed up to date on that… Meeting people through Couchsurfing, hiking groups, and an adoptee organization called Koroot (they hosted the makgeolli workshop and I have stayed in touch with a few people since then). Great contacts and good to relay travel stories, compare how we are finding life in Korea, and of course adoption issues. Apart from the adoptees, I also have met some girls who grew up for their early childhood in the US, then moved back to Korea, had to go to international schools because even for them integration was difficult in the school system, then back to US for university. Unfortunately, even as much as they seem more American culture-wise than Korean, visa issues for the US are so complicated that they don’t have much choice in home now. Lovely immigrant life. On that note, watch this TEDtalk on home, being a local, where you are from, etc. And of course, some other Koreans are filling me in on Korean politics and culture. I will have to write more about that separately someday. So interesting!

Halloween life:

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This weekend was Halloween and it is the first time I celebrated in so long! Halloween is not celebrated in Spain – the costume excitement happens around Carnival. Here however, there is a massive population of American expats and Koreans also have gotten into it. I started off Saturday working at a school’s Halloween party for kids, making dirt cake, mandarin jack-o-lanterns and playing bingo at a home converted into library/school. Met some long-term teachers that are married with kids here in Korea (ahhh the lifer life) and I was happy that 2 hours of fun is the closest I am getting to teaching again for now.

Then at night the adult celebration with some friends coming from outside of Seoul! We went to Hongdae and after wandering into a cat cafe just to pet a cat and leave without getting actual service (in our defense I don’t know where the worker was), we saw some drum circles, people-watched and got some craft beer. Lots of good costumes out there, but I was happy with my warm pumpkin hat in the now freezing temperatures. Another year I will get the creative juices flowing again! At the end of the night, I successfully avoided getting ripped off by a taxi with my basic Korean skills, and was able to tell my nice and surprised taxi driver I found later on about the ordeal. Maybe that means I can survive here now haha.

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