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Karen's Perspective on Traveling Alone

Latest Travels, Myanmar and Bali: Winter 2014

Things that call for us to find them can only be imagined things, idealized things. If we find them, they may be, or may not be, what we imagined; but the search itself is always an exercise in being alive. We are gripped by a new kind of energy, and lifted by our own intelligence and innate curiosity. -  Gary Thorp, Caught in Falling Light, Mountain Lions, Zen Masters and Wild Nature

If you are actually traveling to Myanmar and want names of specific accommodations and activities,  visit my blog post at Lonely Planet.

2014 and my 6 week trip to Myanmar (Burma) and Bali marked the 10th year that I have traveled during the winter months somewhere in the Southern hemisphere. I organize the flow of my year, knowing that I have the freedom and choice to venture to some far flung locale and then plan, organize and reflect on the trip and previous trips throughout the year. In moments of greatest stress, the release valve or the refuge of the road as my imagined escape from responsibilities keeps me whole. Writing the travelog is a way for me to reflect upon my experiences and bring closure to the trip. It has taken me longer than ever to get down on paper what I want to remember, mainly for myself. I imagine that someday when I am old and unable to travel as easily as now, I will enjoy reading my old travelogs and going back to the sights, smells and emotions of each trip. 

I chose Myanmar because I know everything about the country is changing rapidly and I wanted to see it before it becomes overrun with more tourists. Until a few years ago, Burma (now officially called Myanmar) was mostly boycotted by travelers because of its oppressive politics. The latest news of a January massacre of 40 Rohingya,  a Muslim group of 1.3 million in a country where 89% are Buddhist, shows that Myanmar is still on the brink of international censure.  When a sizeable portion of a country are denied citizenship, work and freedom of movement, the West takes notice. Disturbingly, when I twice queried a couple of educated Burmese about the violence against the Rohingya, they accused them of causing their own misfortunes. 

Bali was an easy choice as my dear friend and travel buddy Mas lives in Singapore and had invited me numerous times to visit her and her favorite nearby tropical island. I had visited Thailand and Cambodia in 2006 so I am somewhat familiar with Buddhist countries but although Myanmar borders Thailand, its particular geography, located between India and China, and oppressive military rule since 1947, make it a hot spot for the adventurous and curious. In a word: Myanmar is coming out of a time warp into the 21st century. And while there are the busloads of Italians and Koreans in some hotels in Yangon, Bagan and Inle Lake, Myanmar still has great appeal for the independent traveler who can navigate the frustrations and be open to the rich possibilities of a country in the midst of a dynamic opening. Myanmar is a large country, about the size of Texas,  and although some of the roads and rivers are adequate for river, bus and train travel, those with limited time and appetite for long and possibly uncomfortable rides should consider some domestic flights, as I did, since the flights are relatively inexpensive (as compared with most accommodation.) Also, in general, I was pretty disappointed by the local food, especially the street food as it was almost all fried and super oily. The best Burmese food I've ever had remains here in Oakland, as I am an aficionado of tea leaf salad, but found out that the best tea leaves are exported--right to Oakland, I imagine.

Yangon and the Adventure of Getting Left on a Bike Ride
I arrived in Yangon and having read about the weekly bike rides that Bike World hosts on Friday and Sundays, I called in advance, then rented a bike from Jeff (Australian), the co-owner with his wife Soe Soe (Burmese). The mountain bike they gave me should have been pumped up but I didn't notice until almost the end of the ride. About 30 mostly younger men showed up to ride, mostly Burmese but some expats as well and 2 other women. At first the ride was fun and a Burmese man, I think from Bike World, made sure to hang back with me and get me to the stops. In the end though, Jeff and the group left me to fend for myself at 11:30 at night. I had NO idea where I was and had to find a nice man whose phone I borrowed to call SoeSoe. She was apologetic but seemed more worried abuout getting the bike back than my distress. Luckily, as I am an experienced traveler, I didn't freak out but told her I was taking the bike to a nearby hotel and left it with the secuity guard and took a taxi home. As I actually occasionally lead bike tours, I always have a sweep for the slowest person (me in this case).  I was glad I have a store of what we call "true grit" from Texas and resolved to ask more questions and take better precautions in the future but my welcome to Myanmar was a bit of a bust.

The highlight of any trip to Yangon includes Shwedagon, perhaps the most important Buddhist temple in SE Asia, 2500 years old and visible from almost all parts of the capital city of 5 million.  Shwedagon is covered with hundreds of gold plates and the top of the stupa is encrusted with 4531 diamonds; the largest of which is a 72 carat diamond! Like everywhere in SE Asia, one must run the gauntlet of vendors selling the sacred and profane, with mostly the profane for those of us who feel that such commerce takes away from the spiritual experience. (Of course, I understand that many folks rely on these sales for their livelihood, especially women.) I hired an excellent guide upon arrival named Moe (means rain) and visited in both day and night as nighttime is lovely with many families  eating their dinner and lighting candles.  Devotees pray at various Buddha images and I struck the same enormous gong that President Obama rang last fall on his visit.  I found out that I was born on Tuesday and made offerings at the "Tuesday corner." I had the sudden urge to leave flowers for Aung San Suu Kyi at her home and National League for Democracy party headquarters (see The Lady, an excellent movie about her life). I later enjoyed a live American pop band at My Garden (nice restaurant with just locals) that included a talented woman lead guitarist who complied with a request.

Bago, Wetlands Sanctuary and Trekking in Hsipaw
I took the train to Bago ($1), a former capital city and rented a bike for most of a day and visited lots of the local temples (skip the one with python as it's pretty hokey). I upset the monks at Mahazedi Paya as I walked up the white marble stairs to see the view of many other temples, dotted over the dense green landscape.  Apparently because I don't have a penis it's a big problem, but I just chanted "namaste" back to their "NO". I am willing to respect local cultures such as in Bali that ask all non-Hindus to not enter their temples, but to discriminate based on my gender is not something I have ever been willing to abide by. I guess I might get arrested at the Wailing Wall if I ever went to Jerusalem but doubt I will ever get there so it's just a scene I play out in other places. On the way to Bago I enjoyed seeing my first glimpses of the countryside. As George Orwell wrote in Burmese Days, published in 1934 and seen in the hands of many Western travelers, "Sometimes a white pagoda rose from the plain like the breast of a supine goddess." I enjoyed that description and saw many "breasts" in my three weeks, beautiful and hauntingly austere pagodas, some white and many leafed in gold.

From Bago, I took a bus north 30 km to Moeyungyi Wetlands Sanctuary, perhaps the highlight of my trip,  as I am bird watcher. The floating houseboats are rustic but comfortable and the manager is the chef and excellent bird guide. Expect to see open billed storls, black headed ibis, kingfishers, bee eaters and exquisite pink lotus flowers, mimicking the ones I later saw in ancient murals in Bagan. The stars and quiet (after generator goes off at 9pm) are stunning and the heat was at the edge of my comfort zone in the mid-afternoon but delightful as the sun set. In general, some of my favorite experiences on a long trip center around small and simple locales next to a wetlands sanctuary or a smaller town where there are decent birding guides such as Mindo in Ecuador, Lake Naivasha in Kenya, Chaparri in Peru and Guacamayas in Chiapas, Mexico. I always do extra research for the best birding locations in any country I visit and I'm rarely disappointed with these experiences. In fact, the local bird guides often turn out to be the folks who are my soul mates, as they are sensitive beings who live to protect the environment and are eager to show an international guest the best their country has to offer. I flew from Yangon to Mandalay and took a shared taxi and arrived in Hsipaw, the last frontier in the Shan mountains toward China some 5 hours later. Hsipaw is the jumping off point for treks into the mountains and I joined up with a group of 4 English "blokes" in their late thirties, all professionals including 2 physicians who are working in SE Asia with the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders. The village communities we passed are so isolated that they speak different languages, even if only separated by a few kilometers. Most folks in this area are working the fields of coffee and tea but major poppy fields for cocaine and teak are located not too far from this region, But, surprise, surprise--foreigners are not allowed in those areas. Because I was tagging along with folks who were doing a 3 day trek I spent like $15 to take a bone rattling motorbike ride, retracing the hike and arriving after dark. Chalk it up for not asking enough questions as apparently I could have done a lower elevation loop with a waterfall through a competing guesthouse. For the return to Mandalay I took a 12 hour train ride back, fun for the first 6 hours, then a bit grueling and cold after Pyin Oo Lin where most folks opted for a shared truck or taxi but as I was already cold, I decided to just spend 4 more hours going at a snail's pace. Still, it's best to take train back as it leaves at the decent hour of 9:30am (costs $6 and DO get the upper class seat) and you can see the famous Gokteik Viaduct. The train from Mandalay leaves at 4:30am and there are sometimes derailments, as there was 2 days before I took it back. (No one was hurt but delayed the train 3 hours). 

The Wonder That Is Bagan
I flew from Mandalay to world famous Bagan, as impressive as anything I've experienced and right up there with the Pyramids of Giza, Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat (Cambodia). The monuments seem to overwhelm the landscape. There are about 2,000 of them covering an area of 16 square miles on the eastern bank of the Ayeyarwady in the center of the country.  They are in different sizes and in a bewildering variety of shapes. They are also in varying stages of preservation and disrepair. Some of them throb with life, visited by devotees, a few have become little more than piles of bricks. Bagan became a central powerbase in the mid 9th century under King Anawratha, who unified Burma under Theravada Buddhism. And if the landscape weren't enough, with better restaurants and artists at work making puppets, wood carvings and umbrellas, Bagan will steal your heart. I was surprised when on the drive from the airport, I immediately began seeing the pagodas rise up dramatically (not so much like breasts here) and then suddenly I was at my fancy hotel in Old Bagan,  Bagan Riverview Hotel. There were a couple of 12th century pagodas right in the middle of the hotel grounds, complete with large Buddha statues inside! I later learned that the owner still has ties to the government (big bummer) but it's got the best riverfront view of any hotel (Bagna Thande is a close 2nd). I spent 2 delightful sunsets here with good drinks.The lit up pagodas at night are super romantic and the weather was perfect. Because the distances on the plain are vast, it's best to rent an electric bike for at least a day or two ($8 a day).  I spent the next 4 days, renting both regular bikes and electric bikes and hiring a good young guide named Moe (again? popular name for guides?) for my first day. My favorite days were ones spent getting lost for some hours in the midst of the temples, imagining how it must have felt through the centuries as the bricks for many of the buildings were shaped and fired, the construction site that must have buzzed with activity for hundreds of years.

Inle Lake
I took the 9 hour bus from Bagan to Inle Lake, second only to Bagan for its natural beauty and interest, and the 2nd largest freshwater lake in Myanmar.  I might fly if I were doing it again but the bus was comfortable and stops for lunch. The people of Inle Lake (called Intha), some 70,000 of them, live in four cities bordering the lake, in numerous small villages along the lake's shores, and on the lake itself. The population consists predominantly of Intha, with a mix of other ethnicities. Most are devout Buddhists, and live in simple houses of wood and woven bamboo on stilts; they are largely self-sufficient farmers.

Most transportation on the lake is traditionally by small boats, or by somewhat larger boats fitted with single cylinder inboard diesel engines. Local fishermen are known for practicing a distinctive rowing style which involves standing at the stern on one leg and wrapping the other leg around the oar. This unique style evolved for the reason that the lake is covered by reeds and floating plants making it difficult to see above them while sitting. Standing provides the rower with a view beyond the reeds. However, the leg rowing style is only practiced by the men. Women row in the customary style, using the oar with their hands, sitting cross legged at the stern.

I did the usual day trip on the Lake plus an extra 3 hour bird trip (skip it) the following day as not many birds or species. I loved seeing the traditional handicrafts of boatmaking, blacksmith, weaving, umbrella making and cigarette rolling, plus the floating garden and especially the side passage up to see Inthein, even though you have to walk the "plank" of endless vendors. I had excellent wood fired pizza at Starflower,  and met a fellow American single woman traveler, the only one I spoke to the entire trip. Inle is a great place to walk around at night and do get a massage at Win Nyunt Family massage. It's a communal experience with Win and his bro chatting while they work, the baby crying etc but the massage is awesome and affordable with him walking on my back hanging from rafters above. The photos of Aung San and Aung San Suu Kyi hang proudly in front of the massage room. I was enthralled by the remaining puppet show in town with 2 performances nightly, called Aung Puppet Show. His nephew who was helping the night I went is a charmer and he is a true puppet master as he is from a family of puppeteers. His rendition of a puppet playing the national sport of chinlon (a sort of foot volley) is a show stopper.

I often do some of my best reading on trips. I think it's because I have long, uninterrupted hours for reading, one of my favorite pursuits in life. Also, I have less ability to interrupt my flow by remembering that email I forgot to send, the dirty dishes to do. During my Myanmar days, I treated myself to Take Me With You by yoga buddy Brad Newsham,  Land of Green Ghosts, Burmese Days and Where China Meets India--all quite helpful for context. Take Me With You moved me deeply as it's the true tale of Brad going on a 3 month trip around the world with the intention of inviting a random person he meets to visit him in the US for a month.

Myanmar had been a true adventure, but after 3 weeks, I was ready for the beach, better food and meeting up with friends. On to Bali!

Bali and the Land of Senses
On landing in Bali, the first thing I noticed was the hot and humid air of the tropics. I left Kuta as soon as possible to head to the north of the island to Lovina, a budget town with a great guesthouse owned by a German painter and my first Balinese massage that exceeded my expectations. Comparing Myanmar and Bali seems unfair on so many levels but I couldn't help myself. On every tropical island I have ever visited, the culture is sensual in every sense of the word and the Balinese take delighting in the senses to a degree I had never experienced before. Especially in Ubud, the cultural capital in the middle of the country, every meal, restaurant or guest house, no matter how humble, takes pride in its visual appeal. The tropical vegetation of a volcanic island is on display in every street corner and in the way the world famous rice paddies are arranged and cultivated. I immediately fell into the charm that is Bali, relaxing into a way of life that appeals to foreigners since Walter Spies from Russia/German helped put Bali on the map as an artistic mecca since the 1930's. And I'm sure that many single women have been looking for the same love that Elizabeth Gilbert chronicled in Eat, Pray, Love along the way. The Balinese don't seem to kowtow to tourists. Instead, they mostly just seem to live their lives in the ways of their ancestors, adapting and making money from tourism, but keeping most of their traditions alive. I'm sure if I actually lived as an expat, I would see more of the strains, especially on the environment, but for the average independent traveler, Bali is bliss.

From Lovina I took a day trip with a driver to visit the GitGit waterfall and the protected rice paddies of Jatiluwih. The Balinese irrigate their rice paddies by gravity and a complex system that protects the rice farmers in lower elevations. They hold the water collectively and by seeing rice paddies in various of cultivation, I finally really understood for the first time how rice is grown from seedlings, harvested and threshed. Where in Myanmar, rice farmers still used water buffalo for ploughing the fields, here the Balinese used a collective rototiller, also called a "Chinese water buffalo." Along the way, we came upon a cremation procession with family and friends dressed in their Balinese best. Around 20 men dressed in matching turquoise garb played bells and a massive gong while the women carried what I think must have been clothing from the deceased plus flowers and candles. As we retraced the road later in the day while it was raining, the same women used palm leaves over their heads to keep the water off their colorful sarongs. Mass transit is difficult in the north so I ended up hiring a driver to take me to Amed, a popular snorkeling and diving destination in the far northeast corner. I enjoyed some decent snorkeling right in front of my guesthouse and was awakened in the middle of the night with the strangely plaintive, clacking sound of a gecko which sounded like it was right above my head inside my cabana. It sounded like this. Two impressive Balinese women performed the traditional dance with the distinctive rapid eye movements that are both sultry and bold.

I hitched a ride with a Russian couple to the most holy Hindu temple at the foot of Gunung Agung, the tallest and most sacred of the volcanic mountains. An elderly woman was blessing a group of devotees with water by having them drink three times from her palm and then sprinkling it on their heads. I decided it was time for a blessing even though I wondered if the water would at the same time give me any intestinal issues but it tasted a bit of charcoal so I think it may have been boiled. Next up was Tirta Gangga, which literally means water from the Ganges and it is a site of some reverence for the Hindu Balinese. I realized about halfway through my trip in Bali that I was often surrounded by the sound of water, coursing through the rice fields or close by as a fountain in most guesthouses or restaurants. The sound is soothing for the nerves and I was under the Bali spell. The Tirta Gangga water palace is a maze of pools and fountains surrounded by a lush garden and stone carvings and statues. The one hectare complex was built in 1946 by the late King of Karangsem but was destroyed almost entirely by the eruption of nearby Mount Agung in 1963. It has been lovingly re-built and restored and has an air of authentic royal magnificence. I enjoyed a refreshing and almost brisk late afternoon swim, followed by tea looking down on a Full Moon festival at the adjoining Hindu temple. Later that evening I rode up to my guest house in a nearby village on the back of a motorbike, watching the full moon ascend and later playing and singing music with my host Budi for hours. He knew songs like La Bamba and Knock Knock Knocking on Heaven's Door and also sang a few songs in Indonesian. The day had been one of the best of the whole trip, completely unscripted and full of surprise encounters. These are the kind of days I relish when traveling alone, the kind that I often daydream about when back working in Oakland.

The next stop was Ubud, a short bus ride away and where I would hook up with Mas, a friend of hers named Aida and my dear friend Meg, on a week vacation from CA. I was excited to travel with folks I love as sharing these experiences after such a long time being by myself is always special. I enjoyed almost everything about Ubud with its delicious food, affordable massages and lovely rice fields. There are a few roads, such as Monkey Forest Road, where the catering to tourists' consumerism is too much for my enjoyment, but Ubud is the place for live performances and I went three nights in a row to see a shadow puppet show, then legong (with gamelan playing and dancers) and my favorite, kecak, a syncopated and choreographed performance of only vocals with maybe 60 bare chested men with red camellia flowers behind their ears. The performers may not have all had the best voices but the collective enjoyment was contagious as they mostly sat on the floor, occasionally lying back, three in a row on the chest of a neighboring singer. The sensuality and ease of the men together is something we almost never see in Western culture. Their energetic beauty reminded me of the SF Gay Men's Chorus, men in a collective setting that wasn't about sports or winning, just making art together. Even though kecak is traditionally performed by men, there are weekly performances by women, something I made a mental note to experience the next time I return.

I spent 3 hours one morning going on Bali Bird Walks with Su, a passionate birdwatcher with a quick eye and a schoolteacher's enthusiasm for making sure I was learning everything I could. We saw many species on our languid walk through the rice fields, stopping for a cool drink of fresh coconut water, offered up by a an ancient rice farmer. We saw the Indonesian (Balinese?) kingfisher plus 2 kinds of elusive bitterns and many swamp herons. Su joined my posse for lunch the next day at Sari Organic, a famous organic restaurant set in the middle of the rice paddies. But all is not nirvana here as some of the rice farmers are selling off sections of the incredible paddies to build a small (or sometimes quite large) guesthouse for tourists. Su and I had seen one monstrosity on our walk that she called "the Hong Kong jail" since its owner was from Hong Kong and it did, in fact, seem as out of place as a jail. Mas and I took trip to ride on mountain bikes, starting up high near Mt Batur and snaking our way down through fields, then a village devoted entirely to sculpting before arriving at our guide's village for lunch. Meg and I spent a morning climbing the steep stairs down to Gunung Kawi, an 11th century temple complex with 10 rock-cut shrines carved into the cliff face. With a "river running through it", the location was dramatic but also meditative.

After 5 days in Ubud it was time to move on to Gili Air, a tiny island in a chain off the eastern coast of Bali but the swell was so high that we couldn't take a fast boat. Instead we opted to fly to the much larger island of Lombok, then take a 2 hour car ride to arrive at the dock where we took an expensive private fast boat since the public ferry was also not running because of the large swell. Gili Air is a car, motorbike and dog free island, and the only ways to get around are by walking, bicycle and horse cart. Because of the ocean cloudiness the snorkeling was only good on the last couple of days but I thoroughly enjoyed the slow pace of yoga, renting bikes, long meals, watching movies on a DVD player, reading, talking and incredible massages. From our rented house and later cabins on the west side of the island, we could sometimes see sacred Gunung Agung raising its head above the fog across the sea in Bali.  The beach was covered in coral, some a red the color of a ripe tomato. Most of the folks who live in Gili are Muslim and there is a mosque with its call to prayer. But mostly what we heard day and night was the sound of the ocean calling us back to ourselves and connecting us to our original birthplace, the waters of the planet.
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