landscape

6 Months in Central America

 

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40 Days in Mexico

I ended up spending 40 days in Mexico. What was supposed to be just the gateway into Central America became an extended exploration of our neighbor to the south.

I didn’t expect to be in Mexico so long, but I didn’t know the variety that I would encounter there. When I used to think of Mexico two things came to mind: beaches and tacos. Which was totally accurate, but there’s also much more to it. The coast does have beautiful beaches, but they jut up against dense jungle that spreads far inland, before it transitions in Chiapas to rolling hills and pine forests mixed with limestone mountains around lakes and rivers. Tacos are the staple of Mexican cuisine, and they are absolutely outstanding throughout the country, but it would be a shame to just eat tacos when the gringas, quesadillas, panuchas, sopas, pollo asadas, moles, elotes, tamales, and so many more things I’m forgetting are also insanely delicious. I could eat Mexican food every day and not get tired of it.

Beyond the terrain and food there’s a cultural importance that permeates Mexico, both historic and modern. Mayan ruins aren’t just around, they’re everywhere, and they range in style from pristine tourist traps to majestic hidden archaeological sites. It’s actually possible to visit so many Mayan sites that you can’t fathom going to another one, but you don’t regret seeing as many as you did. Towns of interest vary as much as the landscape, from the modern, bustling, energetic capital of Mexico City, my introduction to the country that immediately started my visit off on the right foot, to the quaint, beautiful, and still bursting with options San Cristobal de las Casas, my favorite town in Mexico thus far, plus everything in between like tourist-central Playa del Carmen, expat haven Tulum, and often overlooked but charming in its own right Vallodolid.

Then there’s the people. Everyone hears about the negatives of Mexico – the dangerous drug cartels, the kidnappings, the clash between the Zapatistas and the government, the bus robberies – but the negatives just make headlines. What I encountered was the opposite. I met helpful people, people who didn’t care if my Spanish was beginner at best, who wanted to make sure I liked their country, who took care of me, who greeted me with a smile. Whenever I talked to travelers about why they couldn’t leave Mexico the welcoming people were always one of the main reasons.

So at the end of the day I’m not surprised that I agreed to repeat my route and stay in Mexico longer than intended. I was never in a rush to leave. I feel bad that I underestimated my neighbor to the south, and that I didn’t give it the time it deserved earlier. I will probably go back to Mexico when I have to do a visa run from Guatemala. Because this beautiful country captivates everyone who visits it. And because of the tacos.

A Chicken Sacrifice and a Trash Canyon

There are a couple of popular day trips from San Cristobal. I decided to do two that would give me a little taste of the region: one indigenous town and one natural wonder.

San Juan Chamula
Many people recommended going to see the nearby village of Chamula for its interesting church. Interesting did not properly prepare me for this experience.

The easiest way to get to Chamula is by minibus; it’s a quick 20 minute ride from the main market in San Cristobal. So naturally, I opted to walk, despite the fact that it had been less than a week since my 5 day jungle trek. Because.. I’m me? The walk was two hours all uphill on the side of a pretty major road. That probably sounds bad, but it was actually lovely – the landscape in Chiapas is beautiful, I was surrounded by rolling hills and farmland, I walked past sheep, goats and chickens that were hanging out on the side of the road, and the weather was perfectly sunny with a bit of a chill that made the exercise enjoyable.

When I got to Chamula I was at first entertained by the small town nestled in a valley. I walked past a few souvenir shops on my way to the main square. The church was not free to enter, so I kept walking around to see what else the town had to offer. Nothing. If it’s not a market day, there’s nothing going on in Chamula other than that church. People looked confused to see me wandering past their houses in a part of town tourists stay away from. So I went back, forfeited my pesos, and went inside the church.

I don’t even know if I should describe the church in case anyone reads this before they go see it. I don’t want to ruin the surprise. So if you are one of those people stop reading now. There’s a reason they don’t allow pictures inside.

I did not look into the indigenous culture of Chamula before I went to the town so I had no idea what to expect. I walked into what looked like a colorful church to find long green grass spread out on the floor. Altars to dozens upon dozens of saints lined the walls on each side. I walked past worshipers who were on the ground facing the altar. They had used wax to stick small thin candles to the floor in even lines and were sitting behind them chanting. I stood at the front and observed the emphatic devotees. Then it happened.

A mall pulled a chicken out of a cardboard box. He held it by its head and feet, wings outstretched, and waved it in circles over the candles and over the man to his left, chanting the whole time. I watched these rotations oddly mesmerized, wondering what the man had done to need a chicken waved over his head, and as I was watching the man stopped moving the chicken and pulled hard at its neck. Oh my god, he just sacrificed it. I watched him kill this chicken. In a church.

I had to walk past the chicken on my way out – my scarred walk out – and saw it laying lifeless in its cardboard box. I immediately got in a collectivo and went home. After more time in San Cristobal I learned that the people of Chamula still use sacrifice all the time. It’s apparently worse on Sundays, when dozens of animals are sacrificed in and around the church. They also will still burn someone in the town square if he has mistreated the wrong person. It seems to be an old, lawless, backwards by modern standards society that is still allowed to exist somehow.

San Cristobal still has a vast indigenous population, and Chamula is just one example. There’s a reason it’s the home to the Zapatistas, another group I did not know much about before but learned more about while I was there. Their fight for indigenous rights has occurred during my conscious lifespan, a fact that I was shocked to learn simply because of how little I had heard about it living in the neighboring country. This is all part of the fascination of the Chiapas region, albeit perhaps less enjoyable than the beautiful landscape but worth looking into.

Cañón del Sumidero
Next I decided to focus on that beautiful landscape, so Ale and I went on the tour to Cañón del Sumidero. It started out gorgeous – towering limestone mountains rose out from the green water, reminiscent of Khao Sok National Park in Thailand. Again I marveled at a landscape I did not know existed in Mexico. We saw giant iguanas, a huge crocodile chilling on the bank, and tons of birds. Then it turned sour. We saw a dead crocodile floating in the water. We saw rivers of trash that the boats simply drove around. We wondered how it was possible to have so much tourism money and boat traffic passing these problem areas and still have such a profound issue with garbage.

I tried to enjoy the ride. Our driver took us to a shrine inside a cave, underneath a multi-tiered waterfall, and past trees that floated off the side of the mountains, looking like they’d been put there by some talented CGI engineers. But I couldn’t ignore the trash. And then we reached the end of the river and our boat sidled up next to another boat that was selling snacks and drinks. We scoffed at the blatant attempt to get more money out of tourists, until we saw they were serving micheladas. Two please. If we had to go back through the river dump, we may as well boost the experience by sipping on a tasty michelada.

On the way back to San Cristobal we stopped in a town for an hour, another excuse to spend money. We took advantage of the time to get tacos and 1L micheladas (1 each) and the piñata that was in the Hostal Casa Gaia photo. Blame it on the michaeladas, but we were inspired to bring a little fun back to the hostel.

Would I recommend these excursions? Yes, hesitantly. The landscape of the canyon is beautiful but I would like to see some initiatives to clean it up before sending more people that way. And Chamula, well, it’s part of being in Mexico.

The World I Saw

 

Let the Good Times Ramble On

 

From Logging Roads to the Beach, My Trip to Vancouver Island

For six days I lived in a camper on the back of a 1990 pick-up truck, driving around on logging roads from deep forest to bright ocean, seeing what Victoria Island is all about with someone who knew it like the back of his hand. Before I left Hampi, Sam and I had discussed the possibility of doing a long road trip this fall – Vancouver to Panama – so we decided to do a trial run before I went back to the East Coast. This is how I ended up in British Columbia less than a week after setting foot on North American soil.

We started the journey in Victoria, a charming city with some classic architecture, a thriving port, delicious soft-serve, and, most importantly for us, Sam’s shack of goodies – two old VW vans, two 4×4’s that need some work, a couple surfboards, and countless tools, it was a window into a resourceful man’s world that I’d only heard about from Sam and would experience in the upcoming days. We grabbed what we needed and, after a few key grocery stops, left civilization behind.

Most of our trip was spent in the car, which probably sounds a lot more boring than it actually was. This was a test of road trip compatibility after all. We drove a ton, zigzagging across the southern half of Vancouver Island. I got very used to bumping slowly along gravel logging roads, swerving around potholes and letting the giant trucks hauling tree trunks have the right of way. We chatted, we listened to music, and I stared out the window, endlessly entertained by the gorgeous Pacific Northwest scenery.

The weather matched our route perfectly. It was overcast with a misty rain for our hikes in two old growth forests, first to Canada’s Gnarliest Tree and then to Sam’s favorite tree, which has to be the biggest tree I’ve ever seen – it was sprouting full size trees as branches. These forests have been around much longer than any of us; they are impressive, spiritual places that reminded me just how small we really are in this vast world. Then when we reached the west coast the sun came out to welcome us to the ocean. We had perfect weather for our Tofino day, which we thoroughly enjoyed by parking the camper in a lot right on the beach so we could cook and eat breakfast with an ocean view. Tofino was already Day 4 of our trip and the most time we spent in a town; after our beach breakfast we went to the Roy Henry Vickers gallery – a gorgeous collection by this acclaimed local artist – and the Tofino Brewing Company for a tasting flight.

Each night we camped at a different site. The first night we were seaside at Port Renfrew, the second on Lake Cowichan, the third at an official campsite in Ucluelet (with showers!), the fourth at a new site on Kennedy Lake, and the fifth on Salt Spring Island. While they all had their own charm, and were really pretty, my favorite by far was the fourth night. We were the only people in this lovely brand new campsite. We played our new favorite radio station loudly and had a fire going late into the night. Attempting to find our way out the next day, lost deep in nameless logging roads, we saw a logging chopper land (apparently a rarity judging by how excited Sam was) before stopping to ask a man for directions. He happened to be a very talented carver and showed us some of his projects, including an orca whale that had a baby orca inside it that could be lowered down by a rope, and a figure that would support the roof of his house. His work was beautiful and we were happy to have had the privilege of speaking with him about it.

Along with just enjoying the incredible scenery the trip was a lesson in self-efficiency. I learned that in Canada firewood is not purchased but cut up with a chainsaw on the side of the road. I then learned how to chop said wood with an ax and build a better fire. I also learned how to drive an old stick shift truck with a camper on the back, play a djembe drum in sync with Sam’s acoustic guitar, and new ways to cook salmon and bacon-wrapped halibut. Every night we parked at a new site and set to work making a fire and cooking dinner together – we cooked some great meals in that camper – and then hung out late into the night in the warmth of the flames. It was a great way of life.

At the end of my trip I was sad to return to a city. Vancouver Island is truly gorgeous and a perfect place to live a simple life out of a camper, wandering around at will. I can’t thank Sam enough for inviting me up to his home and adventuring around with me.

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.

The Train Journey from Inle Lake to Kalaw

There’s something romantic about train travel, something old-fashioned, that evokes the movies back when they were called “the pictures” – the tooting of the horn signaling it’s time to go, the slow churn of the wheels starting, and the landscape passing by the windows like frames on film.

As soon as I read that it was possible to take a scenic train from Inle Lake to Kalaw I was sold. I had to do this. Forget the popular trek, I was captivated by the idea of seeing the countryside of Myanmar from a rickety train cabin.

So that’s exactly what I did.

The train only leaves in the morning, 8:30 and 9:00 am I was told, so I left my hotel at 7:30 am for a piercing cold 30-minute tuktuk ride from Nyaungshwe to the Shewnyaung train station. I didn’t mind the cold though; I looked out at the passing land blanketed in mist and reflected on where I was, how far I’d come in the past eight months, and how I felt about my trip. Overall, fantastic, but those thoughts are for a different post. I got my ticket when I arrived at the station for the whopping price of 1150 kyats (about US$1.50) and was rushed out to the platform – the train was leaving at 8:00 am. In a country where buses are perennially late, the train left earlier than expected. Good thing we’d left a little early.

I quickly found my seat and not a minute later I heard the horn prompting our departure from the station. My car was nowhere near full and all the windows were open, so I settled down in my jacket, hat and gloves, ready to watch the world pass by.

The train is scenic in a uniquely “Myanmar in the dry season” way. We rumbled slowly first past green farmland, then through a forest, engulfed by tall trees on either side with a misty background obscuring any distant view. We popped out of a narrow mountain passage and the scenery changed entirely: rolling hills were covered in trees and home to an occasional small wooden cabin. I wonder what this looks like in the rainy season when everything is saturated and green.

Just as quickly as this landscape appeared it disappeared and we were in a town with small single-room houses and people on the streets. I could see people going about their lives from my window, something I wasn’t privy to in the hotels and restaurants of the tourist hubs I’d been staying in.

The next scene was dry farmland, tan and brittle, with a backdrop of rolling hills covered in a patchwork of browns, reds, and golds. Sometimes there were people working in the fields, sometimes cows grazing. We passed another small village. People of all ages came to the tracks to watch the train pass by and wave. I waved back. I watched a kid racing to try to catch up to us; I hoped he would make it but he disappeared behind a bush and I didn’t see him again.

The train moved slowly and jumpily, the car behind us visibly shaking back and forth. At one point I was worried we would actually tip off the tracks but it held on. We stopped only twice along the way, and each time women approached the train with all manner of snacks perched on their heads in case someone in the windows was hungry.

It took 3.5 hours to get to Kalaw but I could’ve stared out the window for even longer. This was my activity for the day. I’ve taken many night buses, prioritizing activities at the next destination over the route to get there, but once in a while I love making the journey the priority. The whole ride I watched the world go by, the world of rural Myanmar, not tourist Myanmar, and by the time I got to Kalaw I felt like I’d already had a full day.

 

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.

The Beautiful Playground of Vang Vieng

I wanted to go to Vang Vieng for the tubing. I admit it. Who doesn’t want to bar hop by floating down a river in an inner tube? But when I got to Vang Vieng I realized just how much more there was to it than the tubing.

For starters, it’s gorgeous. The mountains, the fields, the river – there is no bad view in Vang Vieng. If I had more time (how many times have I said that?) I would have loved to explore more of the area. I heard fantastic things about nearby hikes and motorcycle rides. Unfortunately though we only had two days, and due to a surprising bout of food poisoning (I think?) I was not feeling up to too much activity.

This didn’t stop me from enjoying my time there though. Day 1 was all about the tubing. I would not let my food poisoning take this away from me. It’s true that the bar scene has been severely reduced from the old “tube at your own risk” days, but it’s not totally over. Maybe it’s my old age, but after experiencing it now and then seeing some videos of what it was like before, I think I prefer it how it is today.

Here’s how it works: you go to the one place in town that still does tubing (it’s not hard to find), rent your tube for 55,000 kip plus a 60,000 kip deposit that you get back when you return your tube before 6 pm, then they load you and your fellow tubers into a tuktuk and drive you upstream to the launching point. From here, you can already see the first bar.

The distance between bars is much smaller than I thought it would be. In reality, we spent maybe 10% of our day in the tubes and 90% at the bars. To get to the bar, guys threw strings with weighted water bottles on the end in our direction and then dragged us in. The bars are more than simply a place to get drinks: the first one had volleyball, the second had a balance beam over a water pit and a water-spraying basketball net, the third was a huge dance floor, the fourth had more volleyball, ping-pong, and a stick of fire you could limbo under. I opted to not try that one. It’s like recess with alcohol. By 5:00 we were at the last bar and out of time to make it back by floating – it takes an hour and a half back to town by the river this time of year – so we jumped in a tuktuk and returned our tubes before 6. It was a fun day for sure, my only sadness was the lingering sickness that took me out of it a little. If it was me in full healthiness, and maybe with my San Francisco friends, things probably would have gotten rowdy.

Along the way we’d made friends with some other travelers and had a good group. After dinner together we decided to push through and experience Vang Vieng nightlife. Moral of the story: the fun is the tubing, not the nightlife. Although drinking beers down by the river after the bars closed at midnight was nice.

Day 2 Simo went rock climbing, but I opted to stay in town and hang out with some friends from the day before. Dan, Michaella and I had an active day of breakfast and Vang Vieng’s famous shakes, followed by a hike up a small mountain with a beautiful view of the area, and chill time at Smile Bar. Definitely go to Smile Bar. Michaella relaxed in a hammock while Dan and I floated in anchored tubes in the river for I don’t even know how long. It was a great day. Then I cut my foot on a rock walking out of the river. Why was I so beaten up in Vang Vieng? It wasn’t even because of tubing.

We left on the night bus for Luang Prabang, happy to have made this stop. Good scenery, good activities, and good people combined for a positive impression of Vang Vieng, even if it is a town made entirely for tourists. But at least that means they show Friends at dinner every day.