Thursday, January 2, 2014


Sunset (Kerry Laws)
(Isaac Epp)

I'll just start off by saying Bagan is a unique place. There was some serious beauty and with some distance, the temples will shine a bit more, but I did not find the charm in the town as I did elsewhere in Burma. The place we stayed wasn't very good (hello rat walls and off-gassing stench). The whole area was booked however, so we couldn't move on. It's hard. The town was the most overburdened of the places we say in Burma. There simply isn't enough infrastructure to support the local or international interest there yet. Power, internet, food, transportation... All were in a not-so-great state.


(Isaac Epp)


That being said, the temples there, (all 1,000+ of them, yes there are that many I'm not being my usual hyperbolic self), are always impressive, interesting, and sometimes absolutely jaw droppingly stunning. Some were small and you felt a sense of cute charm, while others were so tall and vast they soared with 100' plus ceilings full of bats and ancient statues and paintings. It really was staggeringly vast and diverse.


(Kerry Laws)

We got around most days there with a horse buggy driver named Kyah Gyi (he pronounced it like Cho-Ji). He was nice, knew the area and temples very well, chewed betelnut constantly (I can still smell the horsey wintergreeny scent), and had a horse he was gentile with. If you were not getting over food poisoning and didn't want a guide, bikes were a viable option, but for us, the horse cart worked pretty well actually.


(Isaac Epp)
Buggy shot


We have loads of pics from the temples, but I must say, it is basically impossible to really get any sense of the place with still images or little videos... It's just so big. You ride along a trail for maybe 20 min., pass a few smaller temples or shrines, and see the larger cluster you are heading towards keep getting bigger and bigger until it's too close to really appreciate scale.


Larger (Isaac Epp)


All-in-all, it is a place that probably need another ten years or so to really adapt and re-find itself. It's there, and will probably not have as many empty temples to explore someday, but it will be much more ready for your visit. In the meantime, here are some photos!


(Kerry Laws)
(Kerry Laws)
Bath time in the river (Isaac Epp)


This is the last Burma post before our quick pop through Yangon, and then on to Bangkok for some decompression with our friend Tom Stader before we head back into SF in the new year.



Wednesday, January 1, 2014

On Lacquerware

The etching artist (Isaac Epp)


Bagan is the heart of Myanmar's lacquerware industry. You find it everywhere in the country, but it is generally all made in little workshops here. We were referred to one called Golden Cuckoo which is the location of a now five generation lacquerware family business. The shop is set up with an entry shop room which houses the low-to-mid quality wares which is what most tourists are used to seeing in street markets all around. Behind that room is an antique room and a high quality room.


We were not allowed to photo in the antique or high quality area, but it was staggering to see the contrast in quality once you saw it. One special note in the antique room were large teak panels etched, gold leafed, and colored full-body portraits of "The Lady" Dau An San Suu Kyi. Some of the highlights in the high quality room was a stunningly beautiful motorbike helmet [sadly not DOT cert.], a guitar, and some small chests of drawers. The most expensive item I saw was one such chest of drawers which cost $11k USD!


No glue (Isaac Epp)


Along the paths between the rooms of varying quality were small stations and small rooms where the crafting took place. The first station was where they took bamboo, and carved it down to thin strips which are then layered tightly around and around until it creates a solid and light structure, with no glue. The process then goes through a very time intensive process of layering, polishing, and layering more of natural lacquer harvested from lacquer trees near Inle Lake. That process of layering takes a minimum of seven months for high quality items... And that is before the etching has even started!


Skilled hands. (Isaac Epp)


The etching process is equally intense. First, men do some rough shape etching, this is then colored with natural coloring (low quality just uses chemical coloring), which is then set with natural glue and dried. Next the first pass of high detail carving begins, all done by very talented women, who by hand etch in the sub-millimeter animals and traditional patterns. Each time a new color is desired, it goes through at least one of these carving, coloring, and setting passes. The etching process adds minimum of 2 months for high quality lacquerware.

From that moment on, it was quite easy to spot the multitude of low quality stuff that pervades the vast majority of shops throughout.



Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Burmese Marionette Theater


There is a wonderful little puppet theater in Nyaung Shwe, (the main little town on Inle Lake), named Aung's Puppetshow. It is a four generation production certified as a cultural heritage site by the government. We caught the late show at 8:30pm, and it turned out that we were the only patrons and so were treated to a fantastic personal show. The back wall of the small theater housed a large collection of antique puppets made by Mr. Aung's uncle in Bagan where the theater used to be based. The ceiling and all other walls other than the state were covered in more modern creations made for tourists.


Magician puppet from the 1970's (Kerry Laws)


The puppets themselves are about two feet tall and have roughly 10 to 20 strings all deftly manipulated by the diminutive Mr. Aung. The movements he was able to communicate through the puppets were enchantingly lifelike. He is a true master.


The Ogre puppet (Kerry Laws)


The show itself was a collection of vignettes, each featuring a different character from a monkey, horse, magician, a ball player and many more. The two standouts were the magician, which involved a lot of string spins, high kicks, and dancing. The other favorite was the ball player who juggles a thatch ball from knee, to foot, to hand, to head through means I could only almost ascertain.




Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas from Nyaung Shwe medical clinic

Artist's rendering of events (Kerry Laws)

So.... That dinner we had with the French couple on Dec 23rd? Either that, or one of the shops on the lake where we were given tea, gave us "traveller's sickness". Isaac and I both came down with a really bad case food poisoning that included a fever for Isaac and dehydration for both of us. The morning of Dec 24 we asked one of the folks who ran our guesthouse to direct us to the towns only medical clinic, and he was nice enough to go with us to translate. The clinic was very rough. The nurse directed me to go to the trash strewn field next to the clinic if I needed to vomit and the doctor gave us some anti-vomiting medice and sent us on our way without an examination. Our guesthouse translator mentioned how the nurse was "not saying good things about us" and seemed pretty upset with her.

Fast forward to Christmas Eve, and we seem to be getting worse. We have a skype call with our American doctor who suggests IV fluids immediately. We go back to the clinic, with our guesthouse warning us that the doctor may not help us and certainly won't do so just because our doctor requests it. The doctor was reluctant to give us fluids but relented after taking our blood pressures and seeing how low it was for each of us.

We ended up spending the next 5 hours getting an IV drip, in a room with open (glass missing) windows (it was roughly 50 degrees F), covered in thin blankets with blood on them, while a stray dog wandered in and out of our room. The dog seemed friendly enough. Towards the end of the night the head doctor came in with all the nurses and asked if they could take photos of us. Somewhere there are glamour shots of me with bloodshot eyes, dirty hair, and a nurse pretending to adjust my IV for the camera.

I will say that the one good thing to come out of being so miserably sick is that we were able to see what wonderful people the couple who ran our guesthouse are. They translated at the clinic, brought us extra blankets when they came to check on us, brought rice to our room on Christmas Day when we were recovering, and let us have an unofficial late check out when we had to leave on the 26th. I cannot recommend staying there highly enough (Mingalar Inn).



Monday, December 23, 2013

Bogyoke Aung San Market, Yangon


We explored the Bogyoke Aung San market our second day in Yangon before we were to fly out to Inle Lake. The market is named after one of the key figures in Burmese independence who also happens to be the father of Aung San Suu Kyi. We got there early, before many stalls had opened and before any customers which made for a really fun and peaceful stroll.


We hung out in a local cafe and read for a bit before then venturing back into a more awake marketplace.


The market itself was roughly broken up into functional areas, (e.g. wicker, textiles, jewelry, antiques, etc.) and was pretty sizable.


Cute finch eating some cute rice


One of my favorite moments was seeing some pretty chirping birds in a tree when I noticed there was some kind of bird feeder attracting them. In a short conversation of charades the owner of said bird feeder walked up to happily point out that it was dried unhusked rice plants.

After finding a few souvenirs, we went back to the area near our hotel and got a quick bite before our flight. Kerry and I agreed the Chinese pork buns we had were some of the absolute best we'd ever tasted.



Inle Lake


Our first full day in Inle Lake began with a young French couple approaching us over breakfast to see if we wanted to share a boat for the day. Happy to find some serendipity we agreed and set off on a really incredible day full of beauty.


Isaac and driver in the floating gardens (Kerry Laws)


The fisherman of the lake have a truly unique method for rowing that involves balancing standing on one leg with the other leg wrapped around an oar to steer and propel the boat. This leaves their hands free to manage the nets and traps they use. It's all very picturesque and it's hard not to get at least few frame worthy shots. We were on the lake all day so we got some in full sunlight and also at sunset.

(Kerry Laws)
(Isaac Epp)
(Isaac Epp)
(Kerry Laws)


We passed through floating gardens and stopped at a number of floating villages throughout the day. The first floating shop we stopped at specialized in the weaving of lotus fibers into scarves and such. I had never heard or seen of anything like it before. The process is a little ridiculous. The scarf I ended up picking up was made from 8,000 lotus plants and took 20 days to make! And that is just a smallish scarf.


Gathering fibers from the lotus plant (Kerry Laws)
Floating village (Kerry Laws)
(Kerry Laws)

A quick aside: It's worth noting that the people we ran into in town and on the water were supremely warm and welcoming. Even the folks selling something were never all that pushy or aggressive which is something one tends to expect in places like this. It was very much welcome and surprising. Anyway, back to the boating...


Our next stop took us to a floating blacksmith, (no I had never thought that might exist either). They were hammering away on hot iron as you might expect and sold lots of things like gongs, knives, bells, etc.


(Isaac Epp)


After seeing a few more craftsman's shops like silversmiths and cigar makers, we went to Nga Hpe Kyaung, also known as jumping cat monastery. Sadly, none of the many adorable cats wanted to be held and the monks were too preoccupied to show us any tricks.


We also took a little river jaunt to Shwe Inn Thein Paya which has 1,054 mostly ruined stupas from the 17th and 18th centuries. It is also notable as the only place we found in Burma with very aggressive selling and outright begging. It was hard to get a picture to capture the enormity of the place.


(Kerry Laws)


After we got back to home base in Nyaung Shwe, we went out to dinner with our new pals Anna and Arnaud (the French couple), and got to hear more about his work at the French embassy in Bangladesh and her upcoming world travels. It was a really great way to end the day.




Sunday, December 22, 2013

Day 3 of trip: Yangon (Rangoon), Burma

We arrived in Yangoon late in the afternoon, and the first thing we noticed is that the guidebook was right- almost all the men, even young fashionable ones with spiked hair are wearing longyi (long skirts), many people have blood red teeth from chewing betelnut, and many women (and a few men) have their faces painted with yellow-white thanaka. You'll see it in some of our photos on the blog, mostly as white circles on the cheeks. We grabbed a cab and made our way to our hotel through some of the most chaotic traffic I've ever seen. People in Burma drive on the right side of the road, but since this was only mandated a few years ago almost all vehicles have the steering wheel on the right as well, which makes for interesting driving. We've mostly seen people driving pretty slowly though, which is good because there are tons of people and bikes going every which way, plus the occasional car that wants to drive on the left.



After about an hour in traffic we arrived in downtown Yangon, checked in, and immediately headed back out so that we could catch Shwedagon Paya at sunset. Shwedagon is the largest and most holy site in all of Burma, and the pictures really don't do it justice. It's covered in gold leaf every 5 years and the top is covered in gemstones, jewelry, and large gold plates donated by Buddhists seeking merit. It is stunning.


Sadly traffic meant another hour (total taxi fare- $2 USD) before we got to Shwedagon and it was already dusk, but fortunately the whole area is illuminated at night and maybe even more beautiful. One definite advantage of seeing it at night is that they put a spot light on the 76 carat diamond at the top so you can see it sparkle from the right vantage point.


After seeing Shwedagon we wandered to a nearbye night market where we saw monks gambling, a stall offering quick tattoos, and a lot of carnival type games. Another $2 cab ride and we were back at our hotel where we had some decent curry at the restaurant next door. All in all a successful first day in Burma!



Friday, December 20, 2013

A protesting Bangkok was less unstable than feared

Here is our view from our room. That pseudo shanty town is surrounded by modern towers. It is hard to not constantly be struck by the juxtaposition of old with new, and poor with extravagant.

Kerry and I had a lot of fun exploring some areas that were new to us in Bangkok including the area around the old customs house along the river and around Wat Hua Lamphong.

The Wat certainly felt like a locals only sort of place but was still welcoming (no English signs and not swarming with touts and tourists). I found it just about the perfect way to enjoy the peaceful morning back in one of my favorite cities. The smells of incense and charcoal, the sound of chanting and bells, the warm sun cut with a breeze, and the empty Wat felt almost like a hug. Also there were cats. Lots of cute little cats all around the temple (with collars no less). The temple is, interestingly enough, known for being a place for people to donate funeral arrangements for those who cannot afford it.

We stumbled on the old customs house, which was really enchanting in an old ruins sort of way. Now a firehouse, it is set in a bunch of winding allies along the river. Lucky for us it is also next to the most storied hotel in the city, the Mandarin Oriental, which is where we had an absolutely lovely early lunch watching the water roll along.

In dodging a few touts trying to scam us, we inadvertently learned that there were going to be "meetings" for the next week. Meetings being a euphemism for the protests that have begun to spring up as of late. Though, at least from what I saw, it did not look like much more than parading vehicles clad and filled with Thai flag bedecked people blowing whistles and the streets lined with more of the same. Everyone wore a smile and and pleasant demeanor which to me was not what I expected or feared when hearing of political unrest. I hope the warm positive atmosphere continues! If my only complaint is all the constant whistle blowing, it is still far less of an irritant, and far less likely to spark violence than the awful Xmas music that our hotel is continually blaring.

Hearing just now that our visas came through, we are off to Burma (Myanmar) tomorrow morning!