Month: February 2015

Thoughts from Bagan

February 17, 2015. Sunset at Pyathada Pagoda, Bagan, Myanmar.

“Again, thousands of miles across the globe, I find myself waiting for the sun to set. Sipping a Sprite this time though, not beer. Why did I stop drinking Sprite? So refreshing.

As I was biking to my final destination temple where I knew I would spend the last moments of daylight I thought back to how many times in the past almost 8 months I have sought out a place to watch the ball of fire drop below the horizon. I remembered sitting on the wall overlooking the Caribbean in Cartagena, way back in August. I remembered hiking to the top of the hill in Copacabana to watch it set below Lake Titicaca. The time our sandboarding group had pisco sours at Lion King Rock, overlooking the otherworldly Atacama desert. There was the dock in Colonia del Sacramento, with the boats in the harbor. The time Habibi sent the sun down with a standing ovation in the Whitsundays. I watched it with the penguins at the St. Kilda Pier in Melbourne. Then from an infinity pool in Vinh Hy Bay. And with hundreds of bats in Battambang. Pascal and I raced to catch it in Khao Lak, but barely missed it and had to settle for just-after-sunset light over the Andaman Sea. My sister and I made it with happy hour drinks in Ao Nang and again in Gili Air. Utopia was the perfect setting with Simo in Luang Prabang, and Huay Tung Tao Lake outside Chiang Mai with my border crossing friends. And now here in Bagan I’m sitting on top of Pyathada Pagoda watching it set over a landscape dotted with temples, the Mekong and a mountain range serving as a backdrop.

How many times in how many places I’ve watched this natural phenomenon. The base idea may be the same, but the changing setting makes it look new every time.

I’m sure I’ll have the same experience with sunrise tomorrow – remembering Kaikoura, flying into Sydney, Lan Ha Bay, Angkor Wat, and Gili Air – even though there have been fewer sunrises than sunsets in my travels. Still, that doesn’t lessen their beauty. In fact, I tend to prefer the peacefulness of sunrises to the crowds of sunsets.

I find myself wondering if I’ll keep up this habit of watching daylight begin and end once I’m back in a daily routine. Maybe it’s better if I don’t. This is not something that should be routine. It never has been in all these places because the setting was never the same. So maybe it’s a ritual I’ll reserve for new places or certain ones that deserve it. Only time will tell. The great thing about sunrises and sunsets is that they’re not going anywhere. Wherever I end up, the sun must go down, and it must come up again. There’s something wonderfully comforting about that.”

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The Temples of Bagan

The array of buildings in Bagan is impressive, there’s no denying that. Looking out over the landscape dotted with thousands of temples, pagodas and stupas takes your breath away. To me, this is the best part of Bagan, seeing it from an elevated viewpoint. When it’s dawn and hot air balloons are floating quietly past it’s even better.

Let me rewind. I had three days in Bagan and think that was the perfect amount of time: Day 1 for biking around the Old Bagan area and all the most popular temples, Day 2 for sunrise and an afternoon boat trip on the Ayeyarwaddy River (which will have its own post), Day 3 for the southern circuit of temples and New Bagan. It’s impossible to recount every single temple I saw, so instead I’m going to try to describe the overall experience of exploring Bagan and let the pictures speak for the specifics.

I set out on my 1,000 kyat/day bike with a strong feeling of anticipation. This was one of the most important sites in Myanmar and one of the reasons I wanted to come here. As I cycled past the first brick buildings I became giddy; my day was dedicated to riding a bike around in summer weather through an Archaeological Zone surrounded by temples. This was a great way to spend a day.

I was also happy to be alone; if somewhere looked interesting I went there, or if a tour bus full of camera-wielding octogenarians pulled up I could get out as fast as my legs would pedal. That was the best part about exploring on a bicycle: I had the freedom to stop anywhere I wanted to and as much (or as little) as I wanted to.

The first building that caught my attention enough to pull over – Htilominlo Temple – was huge and intricately carved. It was a good example of how elaborate the buildings Bagan could be. I did a slow circle around the temple, soaking in the beauty of what I was standing in front of and the fact that I had made it there. A kind woman showed me the way to a neighboring ruin that I could climb for a view of the area, which was good for orienting myself, before she led me to her shop and tried to sell me things. This was my introduction to the other side of Bagan: peddlers. People are set up at every major temple asking if you want to buy their clothing, paintings, postcards, books, or jewelry. I heard this is a recent addition since tourism has grown and wonder what it would have been like to visit before, when your approach to the temple was quiet instead of “please just looking.” (This is an interesting approach that’s used in Myanmar – instead of “would you like to look at my stuff” they say “please just looking yes?” which is true but you can’t say that or they try to sell you more.)

I continued on, making my way down the main road to Old Bagan and pulling over to explore a number of temples, from small ones I didn’t know the names of to big ones highlighted in my guidebook. The big ones certainly were big – I could see them from across the land so approaching them was almost daunting – and some were white, which was a nice contrast to the rest of the mostly brick structures. Old Bagan was much smaller than I anticipated. I biked from end to end with a stop to look at the river in probably an hour, which was good because I needed lunch. I tried another round of chicken curry and decided that it’s just not my meal. But for 1,000 kyat I wasn’t complaining. And I do still enjoy the colorful variety of little side dishes it comes with.

The afternoon was more of the same, checking off the main attraction temples on my way down to the one I would watch sunset from. I avoided the most popular sunset temple – Shwesandaw Pagoda – so I didn’t have to fight hundreds of tourists for a view. I did stop there though to see what all the fuss was about and have to admit that the view is fantastic. The one I chose instead – Pyathada Pagoda – was probably second most popular, but thanks to a huge rectangular platform there was enough room for all of us. Sunset honestly was a bit disappointing; it was great to see the expanse temples, as always, but the sun did the same performance as in Mandalay, disappearing behind hazy cloud cover that denied us a colorful sky.

Dawn was not disappointing though, quite the opposite. I got up at 5 am and so did my dormmate, so we decided to take on the task of finding the recommended stupa for dawn – Buledi – in the dark together. We biked through the barely-lit streets wearing our headlamps. At one point we heard a strange loud sound and then saw fire shoot up into the sky; it was where the hot air balloons launched from, but with just the noise and fire in the dark morning it was kind of spooky. Once we found the stupa (the little lights of other people’s flashlights on top helped us out) we climbed to the top in the light of our lamps, claimed an east-facing spot, and waited.

I love how the sky slowly starts to light up for sunrise. It’s a hopeful time of day, filled with anticipation as the rising sun approaches and breaks through the horizon line. A misty layer made the tops of the temples appear like they were floating as the sky went from black to blue. Shortly after the sun was up, it was the hot air balloons’ turn. They added a magical element to the scene. Watching these orbs float by, some close enough to our stupa that we could wave to the passengers, with the temples as their backdrop was the highlight of my visit to Bagan. It was gorgeous.

My last day was focused on the less popular temples further south. From the beginning I could feel that I was less enthusiastic than I had been on my first biking day but told myself that would change once I got out there. My first temple was a quiet one; no one there but me and the nice man who, on his day off from the Archaeological Museum, gave little tours and sold his paintings. He was delightful, telling me about the design and history of the temple, clarifying what made it a temple (temples you can climb up and go in, pagodas you just go in, stupas you just go up), and answering any other questions I had, like the different positions of Buddha. I gave in and bought my first real souvenir from him: one of his paintings of the Mynamar zodiac, with months and days of the week. There’s something fascinating to me about this importance on the day of the week you were born, something that I learned more about Yangon that made me even happier to have this souvenir. More on that later.

I cycled on happy with how the day had started but quickly started to lose steam. The next temples were in Myinkaba Village, which made them feel a little congested, and on the road to New Bagan. I still explored but with a little less energy, eventually stopping for a mediocre tourist lunch in New Bagan. I pushed through the heat and the dust to make it to my final stops, listening to my iPod as I cycled around to help make the ride a bit more enjoyable. What saved this day was that most of the temples I was seeing were known for their murals instead of their size. It was a good change from just walking up, down and around ruins. These had preserved images inside, and they weren’t just a few scattered paintings but whole walls covered with intricate art.

By the time I made it back to Nyaung-U I was exhausted and all templed-out. I didn’t mind that my 6 pm bus to Inle Lake caused me to miss my final sunset. Even with a strong interest in architectural history, I don’t think I could have visited any more temples. At some point they all start to blend together. At one point I overheard a foreigner who, when being convinced to walk into another pagoda, sarcastically summed up how I felt by the end of the day: “Let me guess, there’s four sides, and each side has another Buddha.”

Even so, Bagan is spectacular. It entirely deserves the praise it gets and is a must-see for anyone going to Myanmar, even if you just make it for a day – as long as that day includes sunrise.

This is Myanmar: Mandalay

I arrived in Mandalay airport and was immediately approached by taxi drivers offering their fares to get into the city through mouths full of apparently decaying red-stained teeth. I could barely focus on what they were saying, all I could think was, “What the hell is up with their teeth?!” This was my less than great first impression of Myanmar. (I would later find out that this is betelnut and most everyone chews it here, causing lots of red mouths and red spit left on streets. It’s probably my least favorite trend in this country.)

Leaving behind that welcome, I made it into the city to my extremely budget hotel at US$19 a night and immediately set out to try to see as much as possible; I would be leaving on the noon bus for Bagan the next day. On my way to find a local bus to the somewhat faraway temple I wanted to see, I made it just to the end of the street before I got sidetracked by a different temple, which ended up being a precursor for the rest of the day: large, ornate, shiny, and gold. Myanmar temples are built to impress, in scale and decoration.

I kept going and quickly learned that Mandalay is not a city meant for walking around. I guess it could be if you don’t mind walking on the street with all the bikes and cars. It’s hectic, and the main street to get to the buses is one of the busiest. I dodged people and vehicles and finally made it to the right turn only to find the other busiest street in town and no easy way to figure out what pick-up truck (aka local bus) would take me where I needed to go. So when a mototaxi dropped his price down to 1,000 kyat each way (US$1) I said screw it, why not. He ended up driving me around all afternoon to every sight I wanted to see in Mandalay for 5,000 kyat.

Just like Battambang with Sokoma, Moo ended up being more of a guide than I expected he would be. He also loved the US: “USA number 1!” He showed me pictures of his family, taught me a few words in Myanmar, and helped clear up some confusion: “This is Myanmar. I am Myanmar person. I speak Myanmar language.” Burma means nothing to Moo.

When we got to the Mahamuni Paya, Moo played tour guide as he took me through the temple and told me some of its history. Since it was a Sunday it was packed with locals praying to the giant Buddha, who was being given new gold leaf by the men (women are not allowed in the sanctuary). Weekends have become my favorite way to see places of worship; they’re being used like they’re meant to be. The complex was impressive but I preferred the next stop.

Shwe In Bin Kyaung is a quiet monastery constructed in teak wood, with beautiful carvings inside and architectural details outside. I was greeted by two friendly monks who told me a little bit about the monastery as we walked around. We drove past Mandalay Palace and its giant moat/wall fortification on our way to Kuthodaw Paya and Sandamuni Paya, an impressive array of carved marble slabs telling the Tripitaka canon in what is called the “world’s biggest book.” Each slab is housed in its own white mini-paya, which are arranged in rows around a large gold stupa, creating a stunning landscape of pointed white peaks.

The tour ended at Mandalay Hill for sunset. The barefoot 760-foot climb to the top took me past pagodas and shops. No shoes or socks are allowed on pagodas; you can imagine what my feet looked like by the time I reached the top. I joined dozens of people waiting for the supposedly beautiful view over the sprawling city. I could barely make out the buildings below underneath the haze. The sun turned into an orange ball of fire and then disappeared beneath cloud coverage, never to reappear. So much for that sunset. The way back down I chatted the entire time with a few friendly novice monks who were on the hill purely to work on their English. They were excited to meet an American – they understand our accent more easily since they hear it so frequently in movies – and we talked about their studies, literature, traveling, Myanmar.

Moo dropped me off at my hotel and I thanked him for a great day. I wandered to the night market, typically a reliable place for cheap food stalls, to discover that in Mandalay night market means some ill-lit tables of books and clothes set up alongside and in the middle of the street, with lanes for the traffic to keep driving through. I found a stall though that some locals seemed to be enjoying and had my first multi-dish Myanmar curry meal. Sadly the chicken curry was the most disappointing part – a questionable drumstick – but when combined on the rice with all the sides it was pretty tasty. There’s some weird flavor though that I am not a fan of; I have yet to figure out what vegetable it is but it turned my face into something unpleasant.

That night I reflected on my introduction to Myanmar. Mandalay is a tough city – busy, dirty, and clear poverty scattered throughout – but I was happy to have stopped there. As I rode around on the motorbike I realized that this is what people had meant when they said it was Southeast Asia before development really happened. I felt like I’d gone back in time a bit, and really crossed over into a world so unlike my own. There was something sadly fascinating about it.

This first city also showed me something that would soon be solidified in my impression of Myanmar: the people are some of the kindest, friendliest, most helpful, and genuinely wonderful people I’ve met. I’ve never had such great interaction with locals as I have in this country, and that alone makes it worth visiting.

Cities in Southeast Asia

As I come to the end of my three months exploring Southeast Asia, I’ve noticed a few things that the cities here seem to have in common.

1) Sidewalks are not for people. If sidewalks even exist, which is a big if, they are there for motorcycle parking and street stalls. Want a snack? T-shirt? Knock-off electronic? Souvenir knickknacks? Head to the sidewalks where you can find all you could ever want and not want blocking your path. Get used to walking on the road if you want to walk around most of these cities.

2) Traffic lights are few and far between. Once in a while you can get lucky and find a light, although being able to predict when you get to walk is not likely. Mostly though traffic lights or signs are absent. This contributes to the real life Frogger experience that is trying to cross the street. Walk forth with confidence and you will most likely make it. If you’re a thrill seeker you can try to ride through this chaos on a motorcycle.

3) Temples pop up out of nowhere. Unlike European cathedrals which tend to be surrounded by open space, temples and pagodas are in the middle of it all. One minute you’re walking past 7/11 and the next a shiny gold stupa or tiered-roofed wat has appeared alongside you. It’s a bit of a chicken or the egg situation, although I’m guessing the temples were there first. And it’s never just one temple; these cities have tons of them. Just try to walk around a Southeast Asian city without running into one. I dare you.

4) No one minds being barefoot. Take off your shoes at the entrance to the temple. Take off your shoes to go into the tattoo parlor. Take off your shoes at the bar. Take off your shoes to enter your hostel. Take off your shoes to climb over 700 feet to the top of a hill because there’s half a dozen pagodas on the way. This is why cutting my foot on a rock in a river was such a problem.

5) Honking means everything. It’s hi I’m behind you. Watch out I’m going to pass you. Ok you can pass me. Thanks I’m past you. I’m going to turn in front of you. You turn first. Thanks for letting me turn first. I swear drivers from Southeast Asia must think New York City is full of the friendliest, most polite drivers.

6) If it’s from a cart, it’s probably cheap and delicious. Food carts are everywhere, and despite all the warnings about street food, they’re often the source of tasty cheap bites. It’s like the original food truck, just without the strict sanitary regulations. Eat at your own risk.

7) Someone made a killing in the beer sign industry. Plastered on the side of buildings or used to advertise an establishment, whether it’s a restaurant or hotel, there’s a good chance a sign will have the local beer logo above the name of whatever it is. I actually got used to looking for “Angkor” signs in Cambodia to find somewhere to eat. And it’s usually a beer named after where you are: Hanoi and Saigon, Angkor and Cambodia, Beerlao, and Mandalay and Myanmar are all beer names. If only Chang was spelled Chiang, then it could be linked to Northern Thailand.

8) Southeast Asia is in serious need of electrical engineers. Power lines hang like vines that have been allowed to grow wild, clinging to the corners of buildings in huge clusters. And while interior lighting and internet may be dim, sparkling, flashing lights adorn the exterior of hotels, restaurants and bars like year-long Christmas decorations.

The Decision to Go to Myanmar

I added Myanmar.

In the original plan I was going to India on February 9th but, seeing how it’s almost the end of February and I’m not in India, that flight changed along the way; it was more important to go to Holi so now I’m flying to India on February 28th. This opened up a new three-week window in my Southeast Asia itinerary.

When this change happened I saw it as a chance to add another country. Myanmar is the place to go now, everyone says, since it just opened to tourism recently and will probably change drastically in the next 10 years. I’d heard so many great things about this country and knew I’d be just a hop away in Northern Thailand so it sounded like a perfect use of my new-found time.

The land border between Thailand and Myanmar is a tricky crossing, and since I’d had some recent bus frustration I looked into booking a flight from Chiang Mai. In thinking about timing for Myanmar I had outlined the last two weeks of February; the cheapest flight happened to be on Sunday the 15th, which aligned perfectly. Over the past months I’ve had route questions that always ended up working out in the way my first instincts thought they might, so I decided that would probably happen again and I should just book the flight. As much as I hate booking definite things like flights, I prefer buses mainly for the ease of getting tickets on short notice, it seemed like the right thing to do. I had a visa (acquired in Singapore) and a now-unmovable date to India, so this was the time. I was going. Flight, purchased.

Then Shambhala happened. The last day of Shambhala was February 15th, the day of my flight, meaning I would have to go back to Chiang Mai a day before it ended. I was torn up about this. Here I was in one of the best weeks of my trip and I had to leave a day early because I’d jumped the gun and booked a flight, something I rarely do. I cursed my planning self. My mindset at the festival was all about the now, the moment I was living, and the desire for ultimate flexibility. I’d already ditched my Pai and return to Chiang Mai plans, I could ditch my flight too. My visa was good until April, I could go after India; or screw the visa, it wasn’t that expensive. Then I could have more time to go to Pai and hang out in Northern Thailand. Why had I added Myanmar anyway? I should’ve just had more Thailand time.

Every day at Shambhala I was back and forth on this decision, but it was Josh’s encouragement to stay till the end of the week then still make my flight that stuck in my mind. He was right – this was an amazing experience, but for one final day I was going to completely miss out on a country that I had previously been excited about going to. I realized that while I was having the time of my life there, it would soon end, and once back in Chiang Mai I would remember just how much I had given up.

So I left. Goodbyes were hard; it felt like I was tearing myself away from my happy place. I had to convince myself the whole bus ride back to Chiang Mai to not get on the first bus right back to Chiang Dao.

Now I’m in Myanmar and I can, without hesitation, say that I made the right decision. This country is spectacular. It’s not easy by any means – hotels can be expensive, buses are always a question mark, and the signs of a country that is behind in development are obvious – but the sights and the people more than outweigh the hard parts.

As I write this I’m looking out over the town of Kalaw, nestled in between green hills. Single story tin roofs mix with multi-story stucco boxes advertising hotel names in big block letters. This is Myanmar, changing before my eyes, and I have become one of those “everyone” saying: “Go now. Go before the air conditioning tourists change it all.”

Recent Travel Realizations

Dreamtime and Shambhala shared something important to me.

I’d been at other places like Dreamtime before but only stayed one night; I had to stick to the plan. Dreamtime was the first time I let myself ditch the plan and stay for three days. It still wasn’t enough. Shambhala I was supposed to go to for one day but felt that it was special enough to ditch the plan again, this time staying for six days.

I’ve never been more sure in this trip that I made the right decision than these extended stays. But I’m not satisfied yet.

These were good starts, moving towards a place I want to be now nearing the ending of this trip, but not quite all the way there yet. I still left Dreamtime to make it to Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, and I still left Shambhala to make it to Myanmar. It was the most flexible I’d been but it wasn’t all the way flexible. Not yet.

I hope that I get there. When my plan ends in mid-March I want to achieve ultimate flexibility. Stay anywhere for as long as I feel, move on when something inside me tells me to move on. Dreamtime and Shambhala were fantastic starts and I feel like they affected me more than I can describe here. It’s up to me to reach this final goal. Ultimate freedom from myself, from my planning. I can do it. I will do it.

I Found Home at Shambhala In Your Heart Festival

Where to begin?

At the beginning I suppose.

When I was at Dreamtime, Benji told me about this festival just north of Chiang Mai called Shambhala In Your Heart. He had such an amazing experience last year that upon returning home to Vientiane he promptly quit his job and has been living life ever since. It just so happened I would be in Chiang Mai at the exact time the 10-day festival was taking place, so I decided to check it out.

At my hostel I met Gina, who had also heard of this festival and was curious to see what it was all about, so we decided to take on this adventure together. On Monday we boarded a bus for Chiang Dao. It was a very full bus so they placed the only other Western girl in the seat with me and Gina. She introduced herself – Kel from Oakland – and somewhere in my mind I recalled what Simo had told me before we parted ways: “An awesome girl I met in Don Det from Oakland might be going to the festival too. You should meet her.” So I asked, “Do you know Simo?” She looked at me like a crazy psychic person and responded that yes, she did in fact know Simo, how do I know Simo? Long story short (that we love to tell people), Kel had been to Dreamtime and told Simo about it when they met in Don Det, then Simo met up with me and we went to Dreamtime where I met Benji who told me about Shambhala, who had also told Kel about Shambhala when she was there, and now we were sitting next to each other on the way to the festival. The world is mind-blowing sometimes.

Kel was with Johannes, who had also been part of the Dreamtime/Don Det group, and a new friend Josh, so all five of us jumped on a tuktuk and entered Shambhala together. It didn’t take long to find Benji, Mike, and Michelle (from Dreamtime), and the 8 of us – plus new friends Till and Romina – became one happy Shambhala family. These people are the main reason I had such a fantastic time there. They all mean a lot to me, and are missed daily.

Shambhala as a whole felt like one happy family. The festival is all on one field; from across the river you can see pretty much all of if. There was one main stage, a second music area for daytime acts next to the kitchen, stands of incredible cheap food (my favorite was the place that served curries and rice in banana leaves, but the avocado burrito place was very popular), a dorm building, a bathroom building, a few teepees for daytime shade lounging or warming up by a fire at night, and scattered hang out spaces around the river, in the field and by the campsite. Tent villages were set up in two areas; the larger one down a hill behind the stage was where we called home. In the afternoons people set up bamboo mats near the food, creating a little shopping gallery where you could buy amazing handcrafted pieces from wool scarves to essential oils to the silver earrings I picked up, as well as Thai massages and Kel’s by-donation Neck Up Check Up neck massage. Despite the small size of the festival we were still discovering new food places and chill spots every day. It never ceased to amaze me.

We quickly met many congenial festival-goers who we would greet like old friends as we continued to see each other around the grounds. People from tents next to us or nighttime campfire singalongs or attempts at acroyoga or just sharing a table for a meal – everyone was a friend at Shambhala. It’s this atmosphere that made the entire experience so incredible.

It’s hard to explain the days at Shambhala, and I’m not even sure I want to try. It was 6 days of doing whatever it was that felt right at the time. I hung out at camp with the family; Kel led Gina and I in some morning yoga; I learned how to juggle, spin poi, and do acroyoga with Kel; we relaxed in the hot springs, and cooled off in the river next to them when they got too hot; I played in the river with a Thai girl, even though we had a terrible language barrier; I listened to didgeridoo and drum circles by the water, and chill daytime acts near the kitchen; I read in the shade; I stared at nature, wondered at the colors and the movements; and I snacked on all the delicious offerings. It was relaxed, it was blissful, it was the kind of experience that’s impossible to share through words.

After the sun set the music would start. Most days I almost forgot we were at a music festival till someone would start playing on stage. The music was incredibly varied, and pretty much all Japanese and Thai performers. We saw a solo experimental guitarist who blew us away. We danced like no one was watching to a didgeridoo/brass/guitar/drums band who got everyone on their feet. We cheered for Johannes and Josh when they took up the offer of a solo act for anyone who can play music to join them on stage. Every act was a guessing game, no night had a theme of music. It could go from a shaky sounding trio to a professional level full band. That was the fun of it – we knew none of these bands or what they would play, so nights were filled with new discoveries.

When the bands stopped the festival kept going. One night there was a fire performance show that I watched with jaw dropped. They were incredible. Most nights people simply wandered around with their guitars and drums looking for whatever campfire had something going on. Impromptu drum circles or jam sessions would pop up for a while, and whoever knew a song would sing along. We were the main camp one night with probably 30 people at our tiny little campfire enjoying the spontaneous music of anyone who felt like playing. Till took it upon himself to make sure that we would never have such a small fire again, and Benji picked up tea and coffee to give out next time. Everyone just wanted to make the festival better for all. I never knew what time we went to sleep. I never cared.

I went to Shambhala for 1 day. I stayed for 6.

I had planned to go to Pai for two days then back to Chiang Mai to do the things I’d heard I should do but didn’t get to yet. Everyone said I had to go to Pai, it was the best. For me, Shambhala was the best. Pai, the elephants – these things aren’t going anywhere. But what I lived for a week at Shambhala can never be duplicated, replaced, or forgotten. That mixture of the atmosphere of the festival, the people I was with, and the excitement of what I had discovered outside of and within myself is something truly special.

I didn’t get why it was called Shambhala In Your Heart and I haven’t looked it up to find out why. I just know that to me it makes sense. Shambhala is in my heart, forever.

Hepopa.

 

Chiang Mai, My First Livable City in Southeast Asia

Chiang Mai is a bigger city than I thought it would be. When I arrived I was initially surprised by the built up busy streets and seemingly sprawling urban landscape, and the fact that it was rush hour didn’t help. But once I got to explore more on foot, especially venturing into the Old Town, I started to get a sense of why so many expats stay here longer than planned.

It’s actually a manageable, walkable city. The traffic is not nearly as overwhelming as it is in other major Southeast Asian cities, with a noticeable absence of honking horns. The food is reasonably priced and good, with a plethora of fresh fruit and cold drink options. Markets, abundant across the region, are actually pleasant to walk through. The park in the corner of the old city is, as a friend put it, “Venice beach for expat hippies,” where slacklines and acroyoga are a focal point for the people lounging on bamboo mats. I have been hard-pressed to find any city in Asia that I felt like I could live in, but Chiang Mai might be the first one.

My days in Chiang Mai were a mixture of exploring and hanging out. I happened to be there during the Flower Festival (the second Flower Festival of my trip, the first was in Medellin), so I watched some of the morning parade and checked out the floats by Thapae Gate on my way into the Old City. I entered the Old City with a plan – temples, lunch, massage – and quickly discovered that a plan was not only not necessary, but not wanted. This is a city to wander around. Everywhere I walked I passed another temple. Which one is this? No clue, most of their names are written in Thai. It doesn’t matter really, they’re all pretty. I just roamed the streets toward the one destination I knew I wanted to find, stopping in any temple that looked worth stopping at, happening upon an outdoor photography display outside the Chiang Mai City Arts & Cultural Center, and getting a sense of the city. I had the traditional soup of Chiang Mai for lunch, kow soy – which honestly was a bit disappointing, I added some extra spice to the curry but the chicken piece was fatty and it was overall a bit greasy, but at least now I know – and then reached my one destination: my first Thai massage.

There was no better way to cure the feeling my body had after a rough 24 hours cramped on minibuses than getting all my muscles worked out by a Thai prisoner. The Vocational Training Center of Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution Centre trains inmates in massage techniques, which is where I originally tried to go but it was all booked for the day, so I ended up at the place where the graduates work. One hour massage is just 180 baht. What a steal! A Thai massage is unlike any massage I’ve experienced before. I was bent, twisted, poked, and rubbed in all kinds of ways, and even had to participate at times, like when I was asked to lift my upper body off the bed as my arms were pulled behind me into a back bend. Different, but still felt great.

As the afternoon wound down I made it to the final big temple I wanted to see and ran into Pat and Mirco, companions from my Laos minibus adventure. We roamed the temple and went to the park – they had bicycles so I rode on the back seat of one of them – but before we got there we found a street fair with food and the Flower Festival floats. It was a happy surprise and great to walk through, plus we got snacks for the park. This solidified my opinion that just wandering through Chiang Mai is the best way to see it; you never know what you’ll discover.

My second day was unexpectedly chill; I meant to go play with some elephants but unfortunately overslept, so I joined Pat, Mirco, Ivana, Katharine, and Leon for a motorbike adventure to a nearby lake, Huay Tung Tao. Just driving around was enjoyable with this group. I rode on the back of Mirco’s bike, and this crazy Swiss wanted to see how fast he could go on the highway on our beaten up moped. We hit 100 km/h. A bit fear-inducing but fun nonetheless. We spent most of the day hanging out in bamboo bungalows suspended over a picturesque lake; it was lovely. And a good way to get over the hangovers.

My nights in Chiang Mai were unexpectedly lively. Just hours after I arrived I went to a drag cabaret show with some people in my hostel. It was entertaining, to say the least. The next two nights I went out with the group I was at the lake with. We would meet up on the street outside the tattoo shop – an odd meeting point, but the only place we all had in common since we were riding to my hostel on the bikes when we ran into Ivana who had just gotten a new tattoo, and with her injured ankle she took my place on the bike for a ride back to their hostel and I walked the rest of the way home. Random, but it worked. I should go in and thank them one day, they have no idea how helpful they were for us. We started our nights at bars near the tattoo place and twice ended it at the club Spicy. These were late, drunk nights with lots of dancing and playing with Leon’s tourist tchotchkes that he kept buying – the frog, the light-up spinning top. It was fun to have some nights out like this with new friends.

The day I left Chiang Mai for Shambhala In Your Heart Festival I planned to go from the festival to Pai then come back to Chiang Mai on Friday so I would have another day in the city before my flight on Sunday to Myanmar. As I will soon write about, those plans changed entirely. So I never did get to play with the elephants, do a cooking class, or spend more time in cafes or the park, which I don’t regret, I had a great time in Chiang Mai, it just means that I’ll have to go back. I’m already thinking that I could go back after my big plan is done. It’s a city worth revisiting for sure.

I Wish I’d Spent More Time in Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is one of those cities that I instantly liked. It’s a small city with lots of character. French colonial architecture and traditional Lao temples peacefully, and picturesquely, coexist. Bakeries have delectable croissants, both regular and au chocolat, and markets have cheap Lao dishes. On the peninsula roads are orderly and sidewalks exist, but further south rocky roads wander through green forest. It’s the kind of city that doesn’t need time for attractions but for just living; where I could see spending days hanging out by the river, having coffee and croissants while people watching in town, or reading a book at the amazingly chill bar Utopia.

Again, I had two days in Luang Prabang, but with a day out of town and a day in town I felt like it was a good window into what this place has to offer. The mountainous landscape around Luang Prabang is known for its waterfalls, so the day we arrived we went straight to the best one: Kuang Si Falls. The light turquoise water didn’t look real, and the multi-level cascades were just too perfect. It was one of those jaw dropped at the beauty of it all moments. We hiked up to the top and looked out over the water and the land. Laos is pretty. Then we tried to go in and that didn’t last long. It was so cold! We found a patch of sun to stand in to try to get warm and dry.

That evening we discovered Utopia, an oasis bar with a view that made it onto Simo’s top bars list. A great place to enjoy some Beerlaos. We wandered the Night Market, which has to be one of the more impressive ones I’ve been to; they close down the main street for multiple blocks and venders are set up along and in the middle of the street, creating two lanes. Neither of us bought anything but it was fun to walk through. We stopped at an alleyway for dinner: 15,000 kip for a bowl that you could fill as much as you want with anything from the many dishes on a table. Our eyes were bigger than our stomachs but I was pleasantly surprised how good it was (and that we didn’t get sick). We ended the night with a sidewalk glass of wine, watching the activity on the street.

The next day I had to say goodbye to Simo. We had a final brunch at a restaurant overlooking the river and reflected on how great Laos had been. It worked out so well meeting up and traveling with Simo, and it was sad to say goodbye. It always is. But he lives in San Francisco, and we have some people in common, so I know I’ll see him again. And I’m sure when we do reunite all we will be able to do is talk about the awesome time we had together in Laos.

I spent the rest of the day wandering through the city. I went in every temple that didn’t cost money, hiked up and down the big hill in the center of town, and made it all the way out to the end of the peninsula to see the rivers meet. I also ran into the Israeli guys from the border again, we took a selfie, and Susan, the Dutch girl I met in New Zealand and saw again in Australia. The world is so small sometimes.

I left not feeling like I’d missed a lot in Luang Prabang. There are some waterfalls and things around town that I could have gone to but I wasn’t bothered to have skipped them. But I did leave feeling like I could spend more time just being there. This was also my last stop in Laos – that night I boarded the dreaded minibus for Chiang Mai – so I was a little sad about moving on. I honestly didn’t know what to expect with Laos before I went and I can say that I was pleasantly surprised by it. I had no idea it was such an active, beautiful place. Just like its neighbors, Laos is on the must-return-to-one-day list.