architecture

My Final Mayan Ruin: Palenque

After Mirador I had one ruin left that I felt I had to see: Palenque.

For weeks I’d heard travelers talk about the allure of Palenque, a ruin whose jungle location and restored structures earned it top ratings. At this point I had already seen Teotihuacan, Tulum, Chichen Itza, Ek Balam, Uxmal, Tikal, and El Mirador – I was pretty much “ruined out,” as people say, but told myself to push through for this final one.

So back to Mexico I went, and in the mosquito-ridden jungle heat I stayed, to see what all the fuss was about.

As so often happens, Palenque deserved the hype. Most of the ancient city is still covered by jungle, so wandering through the site feels like being part of an expedition. While there is a main uncovered square around which large temples and the palace stand, impressive in scale and design, it was the less crowded side temples and houses that I more enjoyed discovering. Buildings were scattered around, hidden by trees or up a stone staircase. A side group of temples had a fantastic view out over the main square and to the jungle beyond. I sat up there for a while, contemplating my final Mayan site and all the other ones I’d been to.

Palenque was that same appealing mixture of wild jungle and restored buildings that Tikal was, but the sheer mass of tourists, even within the first hour it was open, and stalls selling kitchy trinkets were distracting like at Chichen Itza. It’s the only ruin in Mexico in the jungle, setting it apart for most tourists, but I had just come from five days in the jungle at Mirador plus Tikal before that, so this typical fascination was lost on me. It was, however, the only one I saw with a river running through it that led to a beautiful waterfall, which made the walk to exit uniquely gorgeous. I appreciated being able to climb up and wander through most of its buildings, especially the expansive palace, reminiscent of Tikal and Uxmal but better due to how much was open to explore. In the end, I ranked Palenque second in my Pre-Columbian ruins tour.

What is the final ranking, you ask?

  1. Tikal
  2. Palenque
  3. Uxmal
  4. Ek Balam
  5. Tulum
  6. Chichen Itza

I purposefully left out El Mirador and Teotihuacan: El Mirador because it’s so unlike the others, it’s more of a jungle exploration than a visit to a ruin, and Teotihuacan because it’s not Mayan. I realize I put the New Wonder of the World last, but I suppose I just wasn’t as impressed as whoever comes up with those rankings.

I was in Palenque for just one night. I opted to spend my night in the town of Palenque instead of the more popular backpacker choice of El Panchan. I had had enough of the jungle by the time I got there and wanted to be near the bus station. The town itself is nothing special, although it does have some very delicious gringas (tacos with cheese), and was sadly uneventful for Day of the Dead. On a return journey to Palenque a week later (I’ll explain how that happened soon) I actually saw El Panchan so I can now recommend staying there instead of town, as long as you’re in the mood for some jungle time.

Since I was there on a Monday the museum was unfortunately closed, so my time at the Zona Arqueologica was done by noon. Anxious to get to San Cristobal, I got on a 2 pm bus out of town. A short but necessary visit, beautiful Palenque was a good way to close out my Mayan exploration.

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A Quiet Morning at Teotihuacan

Monday morning I woke up to the sound of rain. Damn. Today was the day I had planned to go to Teotihuacan. Located just an hour outside of Mexico City, Teotihuacan was the largest Pre-Columbian city in the Americas, and a must-do for me. I would not let the rain deter me – I was going.

It was early enough that the Metrobus wasn’t crowded, so my commute to the Terminal del Norte was painless, although the walk between the Potrero Station and the Terminal is not one I would suggest to the uneasy traveler. Finding the blue triangle sign that signaled the bus to Teotihuacan was easy, and after paying MX$88 for ida y vuelta I was told my bus would leave in 5 minutes. 15 minutes later I boarded the bus marked “Piramides.”

I had almost forgotten what taking a bus in Latin America was like. Someone greeted me by putting three chocolate bars on the seat next to me, then came back around asking for money for them. Someone else walked the aisle offering nuts for sale. Halfway through the journey a duo boarded with acoustic guitars to serenade us. I smiled at it all.

By the time I arrived at Teotihuacan the rain had stopped, and I realized I had timed it just right. Whether it was the morning rain, the 10 am arrival, or the day after Sunday, when it is free for Mexicans, or a combination of all three, I was practically alone. There were a handful of other people taking their time exploring the ruins, but for the most part it was a peaceful morning there.

I proceeded down the Avenue of the Dead, the main thoroughfare of the ancient town. I could see the gigantic pyramids lurking ahead but I took my time reaching them. Along the way were brief informative plaques and other subsidiary ruins to climb around on. The whole procession required climbing up and down over staircases into plateaus, a system devised to combat the incline of the site.

Then I reached the final plateau. To my right was the towering Pyramid of the Sun. As I approached I looked up at the daunting staircase I was about to climb. Without a break in my step I began the ascent, and about halfway up remembered that Mexico City is at elevation. At least that’s what I’m blaming for the quickness with which I lost my breath. But I powered on and made it to the top, where the view was beyond rewarding. Not only could I see the extent of the old city and the Pyramid of the Moon at the Avenue of the Dead’s end, but I could see the entire valley around me and the mountains in the distance. The top of the Pyramid of the Sun was believed to be a sacred place with strong energy, and there is no denying that it felt special up there.

After taking it all in and having some lovely conversations with an Australian couple and an American man – a welcomed reminder of how easy it is to meet people no matter where you are – I moved on. The hawkers were starting to appear and I wanted to make it to the Pyramid of the Sun before it was too crowded. The road ended in a square surrounded by the ruins of temples. It was a humbling space. I climbed the shorter ascent up the Pyramid of the Sun and looked back out at the town I had traversed. Even though it is in ruins, it is still impressive.

I liked it there so much that I decided to linger for a while, so I found a temple on the main square but off to the side where I could be alone. I sat at the top and took it all in. I meditated. I wondered at the ancient civilization that had built such a place and the beauty of what remained.

When the jovial Chinese tourists came up my pyramid to take a picture in my spot I took that as my sign to go. I had enjoyed a relatively quiet morning in Teotihuacan, but the masses were coming. I walked out and a bus back to the city was waiting in the parking lot; it left just a few minutes after I boarded.

Teotihuacan affected me more than I thought it would. I was in awe of it, and I recommend everyone go there. But beyond the site itself was the moment I had at the top of my pyramid, when I looked out at the spectacle below me and said to myself, “I’m back.”

Kumamoto Castle

Before I left Japan I wanted to get in one more architectural site. Kumamoto city was a necessary junction between Nagasaki and Mt. Aso, and it happened to be home to one of the most impressive castles in the country, so I planned a one day stopover to see it.

It is a pretty incredible thing to see an early 17th century castle in the center of a modern city. Kumamoto city looks pretty much like any other city in Japan: clean streets, an efficient network of bus and tram transportation, temples interspersed amongst low- and mid-rise blocks, and a pedestrian-only covered center of town. But then, peering above or around these modern conveniences, is a monument from a time long ago.

I walked from my hostel through this 21st century scene and up a gentle slope to the entrance of the castle. Crossing the gate into the castle grounds felt like stepping back in time. The foundations rose around me like giant stone waves, arcing at first gently and then steeply to ward off potential intruders and protect the wonderfully crafted wood structure perched above. The castle itself is rightfully renowned; its tiered construction and sweeping rooftops are the archetypal Japanese style. They portray beauty and stability, pleasing in arrangement and visual character.

Inside the castle felt very much like the Hiroshima castle experience. The first floor had a well thought out exhibit about the castle’s history and construction, but as I climbed up the exhibits drastically dropped in interest and content. By the third floor it was just pictures of other castles around Japan. The top again became the main attraction with its sweeping views out over Kumamoto to the mountains beyond. Unfortunately it was an overcast, drizzling day so I couldn’t see my next stop, Mt. Aso, in the distance, as you usually could.

I ventured up the second, lower tower and actually had a few minutes up top by myself. Not as many people seem to climb this side. The view of the surroundings were not as good but the draw here was the ability to look at the main tower from a halfway up point.

Aside from the main castle tower I went into the Honmaru Goten Palace building, where I saw a unique kitchen set up and a pristine long hall where the daimyo would receive visitors, which culminated in a gorgeously decorated room for the most important guests. The gold panels and colorful paintings made my jaw drop. I exited the palace the long way, walking down and around the stone walls and remaining turrets, until I reached the bottom and got one last good look at the impressive castle up above.

I wouldn’t go out of my way to get to Kumamoto, but if it works in your route it’s worth a day to see this beautiful piece of Japanese architectural history.

Go to Hampi

I had one more place I had to see in India before I could leave. Travelers around the world said I had to go to Hampi; even when I was debating just staying in Goa for my last few days, expats who loved Goa enough to make it their new home still told me I had to go to Hampi. So in a final push, despite my tired frustration with India transportation, I committed to going to Hampi.

Thank god I did.

Hampi was everything I’ve loved on this trip. It was beautiful, nature, history, architecture, new friends, middle of nowhere, motorbikes, sunrises and sunsets, effortless enjoyment, peaceful, an instant connection, and a hard place to leave.

I arrived as the sun was rising, sometime around 6 am, with a business card for a recommended guest house from a traveler in Hampi whose address was “On the Other Side of the River.” This is how everyone told me where I should stay: the other side of the river. But what side of the river had I been dropped off on? Was this the side or the other side?

After talking to one of the many rickshaw drivers who had swarmed the bus, I found out we were on the Other Side. So I set off with two new friends who I’d just met getting our luggage off the bus, Sam and Guy, to find Manju’s Place. We skeptically reached the end of the street and were directed to a small path cutting through a rice field. That way? That way. As soon as we decided to go for it I could have cared less whether or not the hostel was at the end of this route – it was – walking down this dirt path flanked by green rice plants as the sun was rising over hills made out of boulders was one of the best arrivals to anywhere I’ve been. It was a sign of what was to come.

Manju’s was the perfect place to stay. We each had our own little clay hut, complete with double bed and mosquito net, in a clearing surrounded by palm trees. The common spaces were two covered pavilions with cushions on the floor, welcoming lounging day and night. And every time I went anywhere I had two choices: walk through the rice field or along the river. There was no bad choice.

The river walk was our next discovery. After we checked in we went to find breakfast and chose to go this other route. We climbed down through trees and overgrown bushes so we couldn’t see what was up ahead, but when we popped out the other side we all gasped and laughed at the beauty of the scene in front of us. More mountains of boulders glowed in the dawn light, as did the tall Virupaksha temple and all of the ancient ruins across the river. I think this was the moment we all fell in love with Hampi.

Most of my three days in Hampi were spent ogling my surroundings. One day was dedicated to walking around the immediate area across the river, climbing up and around the scattered ruins, trying to imagine what this place was like in its heyday. We paused in our explorations to watch dozens of monkeys run around on the walls and temples. Even after months of monkeys and temples there was something different about this sight. I was mesmerized. We ended the day on the hill for sunset. Kids came by offering chai and lemon juice, and a group of about 50 gathered to play music. Apparently sunset is the big event of the day every day and I could see why: the view, the vibe, it was all perfect.

The second day started with sunrise again, back up on the rocks. This time it was just me and Sam watching the day begin. Then it was time for more temples further outside of Hampi town. We gave in and took a rickshaw, it was 41 degrees Celsius (that’s 105 Fahrenheit) and they were pretty far away. Our driver was stunned when we spent three hours at the first place, Vithala Temple. I was happily surprised by how amazed I was. Again, I’ve seen my fair share of temples lately, but something about this place was different. The amount of detail was incredible, the carvings ornate, delicate and sturdy at the same time, and the subterranean walk around the center was eerie and breathtaking. We roamed two more places – the Queen’s Bath and the Lotus Mahal – before returning to Manju’s exhausted, sweaty, and thoroughly satisfied. Everything we saw was beautiful and worth making it out to.

The third day was my third sunrise, this time at the river by myself. It was my last real morning in India (I would be on an overnight train that night on my way to my flight out of Delhi) and I wanted to give it the proper goodbye. Sometimes I do these solo sunrises and usually I find them peaceful, contemplative, rejuvenating. But this was India, and instead of the total clarity that I usually experience I was worried about the pack of stray dogs trying to get close to my perch, and then the two men wandering close by with no one else around. Couldn’t you just give me one moment of happy peace? Nope. So in some way I suppose it was a good end to India. It felt like it was time to leave.

But first I had one final day of adventuring in Hampi. Sam had rented a motorbike, so we jumped on and went in search of the lake people had mentioned. Turns out it’s a reservoir with a crocodile – swim at your own risk – so we just enjoyed a picnic on the shore. It was still pretty, like everything in Hampi. Riding around on the bike was a highlight in itself: we were on a road lined by palm trees winding through more rice fields with boulder mountain backgrounds. We drove behind a truck with tons of kids tirelessly waving to us. We almost got hit by a stubborn cow crossing the street. We stopped at a random hill with a temple and scampered up to the top, rewarded for our efforts with the most stunning view over the insane landscape that surrounds Hampi. It was the perfect last day.

Before I sum this up, I have to give a quick shout out to Sam. All the “we” in this post is because from the minute I got off the bus until I left town I hung out with Sam. It was like Sam and I had decided to come to Hampi together; you’d think we’d known each other forever with our exploring compatibility and easy conversation. He’ll always be connected to my time in Hampi and for that I’m very grateful. There have been people along the way (who I’ve mentioned here) who have had a lasting impression on me and I hope will be in my life forever, and Sam is one of those people. And since he lives just up north in Canada, I am not even a little bit worried about seeing him again. That’s inevitable.

Hampi was my favorite place in India. It was unlike anywhere else I’d been, but also so like places in other countries that I put at the top of my highlights list. It was small, removed, and the daily activities were wander around a gorgeous landscape, watch the sun rise and fall, and chill. It was exactly what I needed after two weeks of traveling around that insane country, but more importantly, exactly where I needed to be when I reached the end of my Round the World itinerary. I wrote my blog post marking that momentous occasion from my favorite cafe in town (the site of one breakfast, two lunches, and one dinner) on the afternoon of my last day, an hour before I left to catch my train. I don’t believe I could have written anything like that anywhere else. Hampi inspired me; it affected me in a way I want to thank it for.

Go to Hampi. Like everyone told me before, I’m telling you now, you have to go to Hampi. Then you can understand why you will be the next person telling the world to go to Hampi.

Time for South India: Mumbai

I’m going to breeze over Agra and our return to New Delhi. Basically after the Taj we got back to Delhi as fast as possible. Agra is another busy North Indian city that we’d been told wasn’t worth spending much time in, so taking into consideration our exhaustion from the past week and Kwaz’s lingering illness we decided to just get the hell out of there. It was the right move. We enjoyed a relaxing night at the wonderfully modern Madpackers Hostel – we ordered in Lebanese food, I did some “work,” and Kwaz got a ton of sleep to finally get healthy – before our flight down to Mumbai the next morning.

In the two weeks Kwaz and I traveled India together we had inadvertently split them down the middle: one week North, one week South. Mumbai was the beginning of our South India chapter, and we had high hopes for how this week would go.

Mumbai was a breath of fresh air. It revived and reinvigorated us.

Starting with our lovely AirIndia flight, complete with Bollywood movie and veg or non-veg food options, and the well-signed airport, to the very kind man who helped us find the AirBnb apartment we would be staying in, even calling the owner himself to get accurate directions and giving us his number in case we needed anything, things were looking up.

We sprung for an AirBnb in the chic Bandra West neighborhood. We spent the afternoon wandering up and down the oceanside walk past the apartment complexes where all the rich and famous live – Mumbai’s Hollywood Hills – and tasting local street snacks of pani puri. We were shocked to get 6 per order for just 45 Rs, and even more shocked when we expressed how we didn’t realize we got so many and we should have split an order and they actually tried to give us our money back. People were so kind in Mumbai! After a bottle of wine in the apartment and a couple of hours in a dive bar that felt like home, Tito’s Garage, we were declaring our love for South India.

Our only full day in Mumabi was dedicated to one thing: Elephanta. Elephanta to Kwaz was like the Taj Mahal to me. This is the number one thing that she wanted to see on this trip and after going there I totally get why.

But first, we had breakfast at a bagel place. BAGELS. Sure they were no Jersey bagels but still, a little taste of home. Especially since we got one with avocado on it. Then we took an UBER to the ferry terminal. Were we really in India? The terminal was in the colonial part of town so the surrounding architecture was a mixture of European styles. The whole morning was a jarring difference from the India we had seen in the previous week.

An hour boat ride – always an enjoyable way to travel – and a 30 minute uphill climb brought us to the main cave on Elephanta Island. Standing in front of the row of pillars carved into a rock face imbued me with a sense of anticipation. “There’s something amazing through there.” And there was.

Art and Architecture of India came to life around me. We entered a hall of columns, rows of them carved into the cave as if they were holding up the whole mountain above us. Off to the right was the shrine for the linga, with its protectors carved into the walls around it. Images from class came rushing back to me and I smiled in the realization that I was actually there, seeing this in person. All around the cave were reliefs depicting Hindu scenes, most revolving around Shiva, and even though they were in various states of ruin I could still see the immense detail and care that went into creating them. We read the little guide Kwaz picked up and played “find the detail” with each one. At the center of it all was the impressive and emotive sculpture of the three heads of Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Protector, and Shiva the Destroyer. We stared at it for a long time, and no matter where we were in the cave, my eyes kept going back to this amazing piece. It commanded attention in its scale but allowed contemplation in its expression.

We explored the secondary caves but felt like we’d already seen everything we came for in the main one. Elephanta was the experience that was missing from the Taj Mahal; actually being there was a level above seeing the pictures. It was like Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu – places that I knew would be stunning but the reality of walking around far exceeded the expectation. And for Kwaz, it was a life dream come true. I felt honored to be there with her for such an emotional moment, and seeing her reaction to this place only made me appreciate it even more.

The return ferry dropped us off somewhere else in Mumbai. It smelled rank of fish and with barely any taxis in sight we totally overpaid just to get out of there. The ride back to our area was a surprise, and fascinating in its own way; it was the other Mumbai. We drove through slums like I’ve never seen before. I felt almost guilty looking out the windows of the taxi, knowing this was a part of the city I wouldn’t have purposefully gone to but oddly happy (happy isn’t the right word, but I don’t know if I could ever find a right one) to have accidentally passed through it. Structures that can only be described as shacks were piled one on top of the other, with dirt paths weaving into and through them, hovering over the edge of a river or pushed up to the sidewalk of the main thoroughfare. People were everywhere, and so was garbage. It was overload in every way, literal and sensory.

To decompress from the day, the overwhelming traffic, and the intensity of what we just saw, we went to endless sangria happy hour before our flight. It was a quick trip to Mumbai but one that left us wanting more. We agreed that the next trip to India we would fly directly to Mumbai and move South from there.

The Taj Mahal

The other day Kwaz asked me why I wanted to come to India. My answer: the Taj Mahal.

The Taj was one of the pillars that outlined my route. I learned about it in multiple classes – I did take Art and Architecture of India in college – and was at one point able to describe its layout so well that my professor thought I’d been there. So I didn’t mind at all the 5 am wake up to try to beat the crowd and the heat (a successful strategy), I was finally going to see the Taj Mahal.

It looked exactly like it did in the slides I studied. This was the cause of both my amazement and my disappointment.

The Taj Mahal is perfect. It is pristine, gorgeous, impressive. It is every positive adjective you’ve ever heard people say about it. The first glimpse of it through the entry gate’s tall arch takes your breath away, and seeing the full expanse of the garden procession to the hovering building just increases the sense of awe.

It was the same garden that I had described so well, with its four rivers leading to the central fountain and its perfectly manicured lawn and bushes. Maybe that’s why I expected so much from it and was sad to feel so little. The procession leading to the Taj was supposed to feel like an honor to walk up with the building growing ever larger, but I just felt like it was any other walk. The building looked impressive but that was apparent from the start. The walk was more focused on platforms from which the best pictures could be taken. I yearned to know what it looked like with the original trees and fruit plants obscuring the view, causing the white bulbous domes to appear floating above Paradise.

Once I reached the Taj Mahal itself there was no way to stop staring at it. Every stone, every inlay, every detail, and every angle of the building commanded my attention. I ran my hands over perfectly carved flowers in vases, wondering how it was possible to create such a delicate image in such a hard material. I slowly walked the circle around Mumtaz Mahal’s and Shah Jahan’s tombs, my eyes scanning from the woven stone circle around them all the way up the ceiling. The amount of detail was astounding. When I made it back outside it lightly rained, a strange occurrence considering the bright blue sky, which made the stone plinth reflective (and slippery). I took my time walking back around from the river side to the garden, taking in the four corner towers, the side buildings (both beautiful in their own right), and the garden approach from this side. It is an amazing complex. It is Paradise on Earth, as intended.

After we finished our tour – I recommend the audio guide, it was informative but not long-winded – I sat on a bench to the side of the center fountain, staring at the Taj. It deserves nothing less than quiet contemplation, this perfect compilation of art and architecture.

After we left the Taj I expected to feel elated. I had just seen the one thing I wanted to see most in India. Something held me back. The Taj was as expected, and nothing more. There was a lack of an emotional, experiential connection. I remembered Angkor Wat and the feeling I had there, overwhelmed by the greatness that just being in the presence of the structures made me feel. The Taj is beautiful, but it didn’t have the same effect. I suppose that will happen sometimes. I wonder if it’s because I’ve seen its image so many times or seen so many amazing things in the past almost 9 months. Regardless of my slight disappointment, I still think the Taj Mahal is an incredible piece and a must-see, and I am thrilled I made it there.

Last Stop in Myanmar: Yangon

Yangon is a big city. Bottom line. At first the former capital felt like it could be anywhere, but I soon noticed its distinct Myanmarness: the produce on the street clearly grown in the surrounding farmland, the food stalls with the water (or is it oil?) bubbling in the center to cook the skewers that surround it, or the ones with a dozen different dishes to accompany rice, the telltale red stains on the streets, the gleam of a gold pagoda rising up from behind the walls of traffic, and, specific to Yangon, the lack of motorbikes. They have been banned in Yangon and I didn’t realize until I got there how strange it is to me now to just have cars fill a street. I haven’t seen a city without motorbikes in so long.

I was initially worried that two days in Yangon wouldn’t be enough, but it turned out to be plenty. I had arrived on a night bus, reaching my hotel by 6:30 am, and after waiting in the lobby for three hours and being told my bed wouldn’t be ready till after noon I had to get out and explore. I did a self-guided walking town of Central Yangon, starting by weaving through the crowded sidewalks of Chinatown overrun with produce stands on my way to Sule Pagoda.

This pagoda is in the center of traffic and surrounded by dingy little shops. I didn’t bother paying to go in, I just wanted to see it from the outside. It reminded me of Patuaxi in Vientiane but much grander. It’s a shame the base is all covered in storefronts.

I took a short break in a patch of shade in the park, with a view of the Independence Monument and City Hall, before continuing my walk up a main avenue to the Bogyoke Aung San Market. This complex has the typical tourist market things like bags, jewelry, and lacquerware boxes, but it also has sections for fabric, wood carvings, and antiques. Antiques are a big concern in Myanmar; there are warnings everywhere about not being able to bring antiques out of the country. I didn’t get anything, just wandered, killing time until I could get into my room. On my way back I stopped for some street noodles and a spring roll – a steal at 800 kyat.

After finally checking in I waited till late afternoon to go see the biggest attraction in Yangon: Shwedagon Pagoda. I’d heard that if I do one thing in Yangon, this should be it, and I see why. The pagoda is not simply one structure but a whole complex of them, all ornately designed and shimmering with decoration. Unfortunately half of Shwedagon is under cover as it’s being worked on, but the top is still impressive, and even just wandering around could take hours depending on your pace. I spent three hours there, taking my time to soak in the architecture and waiting for sunset, when the lights turned on and lit up the spires against the darkening sky. As this happened the pagoda became a hive of activity: monks lit candles, people poured holy water on different statues, volunteers in an orderly line swept the ground, and all around people prayed.

While I was happy to wander alone, I had two conversations at Shwedagon that were the final note in the symphony of kind, friendly, talkative people of Myanmar. First was a girl just two years older than me. She asked to take a picture with me, then sat down next to me and we talked for a while. Beyond simply where I’m from and “only one?” (the Myanmar way of asking if I’m there alone) she asked what I thought was important for our lives. A deep question for a new acquaintance. She absorbed my response and said “thank you for your answer.” She was humbled when I told her my positive opinion of the people in her country and told me if I needed anything at all she wanted to help me. I said I was perfectly content, but thank you.

Second was a monk who, in his 70’s, is studying to become a teacher of Buddhism. After working 14 years in banking he left his profession to live the simpler life of a monk. We talked about mindfulness and how the base reaction to all things around us is like and dislike. Through betelnut-damaged teeth he explained to me the meaning of the days of the week in the Myanmar zodiac, and what the phases of my life would entail based on the day I was born. I just finished a good phase and am in a worried one until 35. Then I can marry and live in very good for 19 years. In my 50’s though I’ll have to move around a bit as a slightly bad patch comes back, but just 12 years later that’ll be over and I’m golden till the end. I was enthralled by his explanation, and he wrote it in my book so I could always have it and explain it to others. On a page now dotted with red spray.

Having done all the most popular attractions I wanted to in Yangon on the first day, my second day was relaxed. I had one task for the day: go to the National Museum. Just like mountains make me happy, when I’m a little overwhelmed in a city I’ve found that taking some time in a museum calms me. I remembered Phnom Penh and how at home I felt in the museum there; the same with Brisbane, Buenos Aires, and Rio. It’d been a while since I had been in a museum so it felt like the right thing to do.

I walked into the first gallery and was shocked at myself as I slowly observed the paintings and wood sculptures. I was emotional, overcome with happiness at where I was at that moment. I wonder if traveling has made me start to let down some of that emotional barrier I’ve always had up and actually acknowledge moments like this. Food for personal thought. Anyway, the museum started out great but as I moved up the floors it became less a museum and more an anthropological study. It didn’t help that the painting galleries were closed, but as I wandered through musical instruments, fossils, and mannequins wearing traditional tribal clothes I started to lose the initial joy I’d felt upon entering. It took just an hour and a half to make my way through all 4 open floors but for me personally, I don’t think I could have picked a better activity for my day.

On my way back I stopped for lunch at a street stall near the museum that no tourist must ever have stopped at. I walked up to the woman behind the curry stand and she looked at me with a terrified expression. She signaled for the only person who spoke English to deal with me. Through a few words I ordered chicken curry with rice and some side dishes – “all of the vegetables” – which I ate at a plastic table and chairs fit for a five-year-old. I swear I felt their sighs of relief hit my back as I left, but maybe they at least found some entertainment in my strange presence. From my side, this last chicken curry was by far the best I had in Myanmar, in the most random of places.

I treated myself to an iced coffee on the walk home and took an evening to relax. This was my final night in Myanmar; the next morning I would board a flight to Bangkok, spend another night in the BKK airport, then go to India. It may not sound like I did much in Yangon and maybe I didn’t do it all, but even just walking around was an activity there. I think I got a good feel for the city.

Yangon also confirmed something that I had a suspicion of before I even got there: cities in Southeast Asia just aren’t for me. With the exception of Chiang Mai, I can’t point to a city in the past three months that I really felt comfortable in. To me the best parts of Southeast Asia are the rural parts, the small villages, the places where the pace of life is slower and the scenery is the draw.

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.

Vientiane: Daytime Bowling and Not Much Else

There’s not much to see in Vientiane from a tourist perspective. It’s Laos’s largest city, but it’s still very small with more of a village feeling. It doesn’t take long to walk around the main part of the city and see attractions like Wat Si Saket, Haw Phra Kaew, and Patuxai.

Wat Si Saket is an example of what happens to beautiful temples when there is not enough funding to maintain them. The interior used to be covered in murals but they’re sadly fading away. There were two things that struck me about Wat Si Saket and Haw Phra Kaew. First, the wood construction. After so many grand stone buildings it was almost jarring to see temples made out of dark wood. They mixed with stone in some places for support but the roofs were still largely wood. Second, the mini Buddha statues. Inside and on a periphery wall were alcoves filled with small Buddhas, looking like a 3-D wallpaper supporting the larger Buddha statues in front. It gave a unique texture to the spaces.

Patuaxi is Vientiane’s Arc de Triomphe minus the elegance. It’s a hulking stone structure in the center of a traffic circle. Once you safely cross the winding traffic (not so bad compared to the rest of SE Asia but an adventure nonetheless) you have the option of hiding in the shade on a bench underneath, which is what we did and not as pleasant as we’d hoped, or climbing up to the top to look over the low-rise city and the circle of cars, motorbikes and tuktuks whizzing around. We didn’t climb, it was damn hot and didn’t sound worth the money, but if you’re strapped for things to do go for it.

We were searching for something else to do and found it: the bowling alley. I’d heard of bowling alleys in Laos but for their late night activity not mid-afternoon bowling. Laos has a curfew on bars, sometime around 11:30 pm, so when they close down people flock to the bowling alley where the night rages on; at least that’s the story in Luang Prabang. I would assume it’s the same in Vientiane because they were clearly shocked to see us walk in around 3 pm to bowl a game. But it was hot out, we were looking for a fun activity, and who doesn’t love a little beer and bowling on a Wednesday afternoon?

We finished our day by playing cards by the Mekong and enjoying a delicious Lao dinner at Lao Kitchen. I love the spiciness of the Lao papaya salad. We had no qualms about deciding to leave the next morning. Vientiane may be the biggest city in Laos but it was by far my least favorite place. However my opinion of Laos would improve greatly from here.

So who’s the “we” now? The most exciting part of Vientiane was meeting up with my Laos travel buddy Simo. Months ago I’d gotten an email from my cousin connecting me to Simo, her husband’s cousin who has also left the States for an extended trip around Southeast Asia. After lots of back and forth we finally overlapped for 9 days in Laos. I was so stoked to finally meet the guy I’d gotten all the witty emails from and he did not disappoint. His adventurous spirit and inquisitive conversation was a constant pleasure during our time together and he was a huge part of my positive experience in Laos. So for the next few posts get used to his name, we had some great times. See you in San Francisco whenever we both return Simo! (Also check out his blog, he’s a talented writer: https://medium.com/re-orient)