Friday, February 28, 2014

Genghis Khan

"I am God's punishment for your sins."

These were the infamous words of the Mongol warrior when he laid waste to Bukhara.  On our flight to Uzbekistan, we met one of Genghis Khan's descendants.  Not sure what our sins were, but he was truly a punishment for them.

He was sitting behind Josh.  It started with the typical kicking the back of the seat; no big deal.  Just a few taps and a rattling jar now and then.  Then he began poking Josh with the flight safety information card.  Sliding it between the wall and Josh's seat and wiggling it about, trying to evoke a response.  Josh played along by trapping the card with his shoulder occasionally, and then letting it go.  So far, trade relations were friendly.

Then Little Genghis began slapping the card against Josh's neck and shoulders.  We waited for the parents to step in, but they did not.  So we sat through it, passing back the card whenever the kid dropped it.  He got bored eventually.  But not for long.  Soon he had discovered a new weapon.

We then took a beating from a four year old wielding a small pillow.  He was standing in his chair and buffeting us from behind.  His parents did ask him at this point to sit down.  So he did.  And began throwing the pillow over our seats and onto us.  Why we dutifully passed back the pillow each time, I cannot say.  It was still a game at this point.

When we got tired of giving the pillow back, we decided to initiate a different sort of bilateral exchange.  I took the pillow cover off the pillow and Josh made a hand puppet out of it.  The puppet peeked back through the chairs and said hello to the kid.  His father laughed, but Genghis was not impressed.  We had crossed a line.  In retaliation, he stood up in his chair and smacked Josh's head with his bare palm a few times.  Of course he was too small for it to hurt, so we laughed it off. 

I am not sure the order of events here, but I know that before long, he had crawled over the back of our chairs and had landed head first in my seat.  He was now upside down, feet flopping about, between me and the back of my chair.  Party foul.  We dutifully passed him back.  Because after all, he weighed about thirty pounds.  But what he lacked in size, he made up for in ferocity.  He reached back over and grabbed a fistful of my hair.  I think his parents made him let go.

With my sudden freedom, I took refuge under the only shield in sight: my complimentary airline blanket.  And then he was back with a vengeance.  There I was, holding a wool cloth over my head and shoulders, with a small Uzbek child attacking me from above.  He clawed at the blanket, trying to get my hair, or my nose, or anything fleshy and vulnerable.  I sheltered silently, and waited for someone to do something.  After about thirty seconds, the person in front of me noticed my plight and said something to the parents.  They finally stepped in and restrained the child by force, and his reign of terror ended.  Later on in the ride, after a nap, he would give us both fist bumps, and show us the candy he was eating.  Pax Mongolica.  All was well.

Thursday, February 27, 2014


Post by Josh

Singapore has been a glittering jewel in our travels of Southeast Asia. It is easily the cleanest, most organized, and most developed location along the peninsula, and the scale and technical sophistication of its downtown are unrivaled.

On on way into the city, we got off the subway a few stops early to walk through town and get a feel for the neighborhoods. On the way, we passed Balestier Field - one of the town's oldest parks and athletic complexes. It has been hemmed in by modern construction in recent years, but still boasts a proud collection of historical Sports Clubs along its margins. We passed Indian and Sri Lankan clubs, each advertising live music and cover bands in different languages, and saw Chinese and Islamic athletic clubs along another side of the park. A bit beyond, our hostel was on the south side of Singapore's Little India, where the streets became narrower, pedestrian density became much greater, and Bollywood music spilled out of all the produce markets and pungent streetfront restaurants. It was a lively and delicious place to stay.

The next day, we visited Kampung Glam, the area reserved for the Sultan under British rule and now regarded as the city's Muslim Quarter, and wandered later down to China Town, decorated with paper lanterns and selling all manner of touristy Oriental objects. Each area was surprisingly self-contained. No signs were necessary to know when we had exited or entered a district - the immediate changes in people, shops, and music immediately made it apparent. And while these examples are historicized and commercialized districts, their cartoon-like separation of different ethnic groups became something of a theme as we talked with people there. Singapore is a very diverse country, but it is definitely not a melting pot. There are four official languages - English, Chinese, Malaysian, and Tamil. The ethnic Chinese, Malay, and Indian communities all coexist but fail to actually engage with each other, instead developing their own parallel community centers, sports clubs, restaurants, and shopping centers. Even in the ubiquitous government-sponsored housing projects with ethnic quotas for their residents, neighbors tend to not interact if they are from different ethnic groups.

This has been a continuous and surprising theme for me throughout Southeast Asia - the continuing importance of ethnic identity. Thailand marketed its ethnic Hill Tribes as though they were people's forgotten by time, Myanmar is still unable to forge a lasting political alliance between its 130 fractious but surprisingly similar ethnic groups, and Malaysia has strong affirmative action policies for its ethnic Malay population that have begun to treat the rest of its population as second class citizens. Simmering resentments, either from modern political power imbalances or legendary slights between ethnic groups in the past, threaten to derail current agreements and progress.

Mayhaps the melting pot of the US worked because the sheer number of different immigrant ethnic groups never allowed any single group to achieve dominance - cooperation between smaller groups was required to move project forward, reducing the importance of ethnic identity. Singapore is very diverse, but has long had three strong and separate groups that could function independently. They each have their own well-developed culinary, political, and religious traditions, which remove a lot of the common ground on which US groups tend to move. People we spoke to mentioned a difficulty in actually making friends in Singapore - that interactions tend to be conducted in a transactional manner, purely to achieve an end rather than to build connections. The city was also described as very transitory, with young people tending to stay for only one to four years before getting out. This might create an environment where the effort required to make connections or friendships outside of your ethnic group seems too high, based on how much effort it takes to reach out and on how long such a connection may last.

I wonder how long it will take to build a unified Singaporean national identity. In discussion, we floated that the lack of external threats to the nation encouraged the different groups to focus on their internal conflicts rather than banding together to achieve a common objective. Or maybe the endowment effect is at play, wherein people on the island value the safety of their own ethnic group and identity more than the potential gains of forging cross-ethnic links or a comprehensive national identity. Singapore has compulsory military service for all males, which may be an effective common ground for social bonding, but we were not certain how well this worked or what other shared avenues of experience exist.

I am very curious about this, and look forward to seeing how racial dynamics will play out as we continue to move further west. I would also love to hear your comments on this post and to get a dialog going here.  For now, we'll continue to watch things unfold in our last days in Kuala Lumpur, then in Uzbekistan tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Silky Southeast Sailing

Ancient road number three: the Maritime silk road.

A ship's passage from the Gulf of Oman to the southern coast of China, through the Strait of Malacca.  Does this count as a road?  I would argue yes.  Especially since it was the safer alternative to the overland Silk Road after Central Asia became unstable about a thousand years ago.  We have been in Singapore and Melaka (an old port city in Malaysia) the past few days and here is what surprised me:

1.  The Arabs were intensely successful at seafaring and religious conversion!  Crossing the ocean on boats made of wood sewn together with coconuts husks.  I can't imagine.  They did a lot of trading here, and apparently a lot of preaching too.   Malaysia has tons of Muslims now.  It is really different from the rest of Southeast Asia (other than Indonesia) in that respect.  I wonder if the Malays were more interested in Islam than in other outside religions because the Arabs were such awe-inspiring mariners.

2.  The whole European conquest thing is way more complicated than I thought.  On the one hand, they destroyed a lot of the Malay settlements that existed in Melaka and elsewhere.  On the other hand, they did restore and rebuild Singapore after it had been destroyed by the Siamese and the Javanese.  The legacy they left is still felt in the language (mind the gap when alighting, etc.) and in the names of many parks and buildings.  But Singapore seems to have rebuilt itself so often that it can feel surreal.  Check out these giant concrete trees they built. 

3.  There were so many peoples trading here during the heyday.  Yet we always see plaques and depictions of the same few groups: Chinese, Indian, Arab, Javanese.  I now wonder why the Burmese, Mon, Khmer, Cham, and other groups we saw and heard about in Cambodia and Myanmar, were not featured in these Maritime silk road histories.

Tomorrow, we leave the maritime silk road for its terrestrial cousin.  Uzbekistan, here we come!

Friday, February 21, 2014


How do you get around on an island with almost no roads?  The common answer here is a sea taxi.  You can get picked up at any of the village jetties here and taken to another jetty on a private boat, for a fee.  But this was not good enough for us.  We are devoted walkers, and we are trying to see places by foot.  Besides, Tioman is pretty small and there is a lot of shady rainforest.  We figured, there has to be a trail.  And we were right.  Sort of.

Starting from the north end, we walked ten miles down to the southern beach village of Genting without a problem.  We noticed that there are usually footpaths that follow the electric cables on the island as they run from village to village.  Even better, these cables often run through the forest and across some excellent scenery.  So far so good.

At Genting, we were told that there is no path to the next beach.  This didn't make sense, since we could see the cables clearly running through the forest in that direction.  Undeterred, we scouted along the path.  It went through a village of abandoned huts, gorgeous deserted beaches, and eventually became a wooden boardwalk through the tree trunks until it ended at a fancy private resort.  We continued following the cable until the resort staff stopped us.  The man said he usually does not allow people to walk through, but he made an exception for us, and led us to a giant boulder.  Up there, he pointed, and to the right.  He smiled as we clambered over the railing and scurried right under peoples' guest rooms. 

We were back on the trail.  Except you could hardly call it a trail at this point.  Steep, and meandering, and difficult to find at times, but always within sight of the cables.  It took us to yet another resort, except this one was still under construction.  The construction workers there pointed out for us that the best way to continue would be out to sea.  Yup.  They meant for us to go into the sea, around a boulder pile, and then back on shore on the other side.  We did our best but, waist deep in water even as the tide was pretty low, soon decided that we would rather go over the rocks than around them.  Didn't want to lose our electronics in the South China Sea.  So we went back to the cables where they stretched high above the water.

The next four hundred meters were the hardest, but most fun.  There was almost no trail at this point, just trees and roots holding together piles of boulders.  We began scrambling and holding onto vines and jumping across some tiny chasms, following the cables all the while.  This jungle is full of amazing plants that almost seem like they want to help you, giving you armholds and footholds.  And there are those thorny ones that seem almost unnecessarily cruel.  But it is so full of life back there.

We finally emerged from the jungle and landed at Nipah, which is easily the most spectacular beach I have ever seen.  A long clearing that stays shallow for a surprisingly long stretch, with smooth footing under clear water, black sand and yellow sand, a river flowing into the ocean, a magnificent sheer rock face in the background, and islets dotting the horizon.  And almost no one in sight. 

The owner of the beach huts looked behind us and, seeing no trace of a water taxi, asked us if we got here by spaceship.  They clearly were not expecting visitors, but he was happy to rent us a room.  Content with the beachtime for only so long, we had acquired the taste for the jungle during the walk here, and we wanted more.  We had been going around the island but what would we find if we went higher and deeper up into it? 

Well you can't just walk around in the jungle without a path.  It is way too dense and full of aggressive plants.  And there is not exactly a trail map here.  Fortunately, at Nipah the stream that flows out of the jungle also serves as an excellent path up.  We spent about four hours clambering up the dry rocks of the stream bed seeing how far we could get.  We were above the canopy at various clearings and ended up in spaces unlike any I have seen before.  The bird calls were wild and the chittering monkeys quite territorial.  In our search for the elusive binturong, we also saw two new animals, one I think a flying lemur and the other maybe a mouse deer.  There were a panoply of brilliant butterflies and humongous ants.  We turned back when the streambed became overgrown and thorny, but who knows what we would have seen if we had kept going?  All in all, it is wonderful to be here.  But after so many days of jungle trekking, we think we may take the sea taxi back after all!

Sunday, February 16, 2014


Hello, South China Sea! 

We have arrived at Tioman Island, after a bus ride from Kuala Lumpur to Mersing and then the very bumpy and wobbly ferry ride out.  Monsoon season is here for just a bit longer but the rain feels so nice!  Being used to cold rain, we had our rain gear on and were ready to rush out of the boat to our rooms.  Instead, when we actually got off the boat, the droplets felt so balmy we slowed down and inhaled the gorgeous rainfall and felt silly for worrying.

I have never been on such a stereotypically "tropical island."  Mykonos was dry and desolate in comparison, and Vieques flat and marshy.  Here, sparkling coasts surround hills that slope up to a central ridge and it's all covered in trees.  There are amazing fauna: monitor lizards, slow loris, and binturong!  

Josh and I have already seen the lizards, digging through trash at the northern end, but we are still on the lookout for mammals.  Life is abundant here.  First day after lunch, Josh picked up a random pretty shell off the beach and put it in his pocket, joking that he would make it into a necklace and sell it.  When we got back to the room and he emptied his pockets, the shell started moving.  A poky little crab looked out, righted itself, and started scrambling about.  It was adorable.

Yesterday we rented a kayak and snorkel gear and paddled to Monkey Bay.  Anchored in the shallow harbor was an american boat.  We pulled up alongside and asked the crew (a man and a woman) where they had come from.  They said, Seattle, in 2008!  Wenchatted for a bit about the things and people they had seen during their voyage across the pacific.  It was incredible.  Then we snorkeled in the richest reef I have ever seen.  An eel, angelfish, zebrafish, sea cucumbers and urchins, and so many others I can't name, all swirling and dancing in the tide.  Josh was very excited to see a live squid.

While we were out, a monkey came down to the beach, rooted through our bag, and stole a pack of crackers.  We are very grateful it chose not to take the tablet, so that we can now share with you these adventures!  We now trek south on the island for a place to trek in the jungle and maybe climb its highest peak.  


One of the coolest things we did in Myanmar happened on the last night we were there.  While heading down to Chinatown for the night market, we heard music coming from a nearby alley.  We looked down the length of it and saw a stage set up at the far end.  Thinking it may be a concert, we walked in for a closer look.  A short way in, we reached a point past which people were taking off their shoes.  Sacred event space?  Intriguing.  That day was a national holiday, Union Day, so it was probably a public event with Buddhist backing, or vice versa. 

We took off our shoes and walked further in.  The street was covered in woven sitting mats with a central red aisle for walking.  On both sides of the aisle, people were seated in clusters and holding pages covered in Burmese script.  We walked and walked past about four sets of mini screens and loudspeakers, and maybe two hundred sitting folks, until we got close enough to the stage to see what it was.  A big golden throne, in front of a splendid backdrop depicting what seemed like paradise to me.  The throne was empty though. 

We sat down on the mats and took our places among the people.  Soon, a man came over and handed us each a plastic bag with a bottle of water, a juice bottle, and a baked item.  It felt like kindergarten snack time.  People around us were looking at us and smiling.  Some dude walking around with a big looking camera even got us to pause for a photo, maybe for a newspaper.  Then, the music changed.  It went from being instrumental and recorded, to being a live, single voice chanting.  The chant was slow, sounded nasally and female, and was in Pali I think.  People shifted their posture so they were now sitting facing the aisle rather than the stage.  Some had their hands in their laps, looking down, and some were looking up with their hands pressed together at their chest.  We turned to face the aisle as well. 

A bell started ringing, about one chime every ten seconds.  Then we saw from the same direction we had come, a procession.  In front were two men carrying a bell shaped gong between them.  In the back was a man holding a golden parasol.  And in the center of the procession, under the parasol, an old monk.  As the monk walked past, people on both sides of the aisle bent and touched their foreheads to the ground over and over.  When he came by us, it was very difficult not to bow.  The monk finally reached the stage and sat down in the golden throne.  The chanting continued.  It was beautiful and well orchestrated and felt like just the right amount of ceremony to end our visit to the most overtly Buddhist country of all that we had visited. 

We decided to leave before the monk started talking, because that seemed like the least disrespectful course of action.  Picking up our shoes, we took the sidewalk all the way back out of the alley, put our goodie bags on the table at the entrance, and felt grateful for the chance to witness Union Day, Buddhist style.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Busloads and boatloads

We have ridden three night buses now, and that is enough for quite a while.  Two of them played the same DVDs, so we have repeatedly heard Burmese versions of La Isla Bonita, La Bamba, and Gangstas Paradise.  We are now fans of a Burmese sitcom that feels like The Taming of the Shrew.  And we did indeed witness the barf phenomenon, though to a far far lesser extent than any other travel blog narrates. Maybe we didn't pick sketchy enough bus companies. The most memorable ride was from Myawaddy to Yangon.  Advertised as arriving at 5 pm, it actually arrived at 3 am.  My right heel remained numb for part of the next day.  I have never been on a more congested, narrow, beat up, and inefficient road.  Again, since this was a new border, our passports were checked four times.  Huge respect to the local people who never expressed frustration at having to wait for us at these passport checks.  They gave us the best seats in the bus while many others sat in the aisle on plastic chairs for the entire ride.  And the view was great.  Along the mountain pass, cars piled with people and electronics and food bumped along, while nuns stood at the side of the road here and there and shook their begging bowls.  The rattling noise from the bowls must have been rocks.  Myanmar does not have coin currency.

The two other night buses took us to Bagan and Inle Lake.  The former is a field of reconstructed Buddhist temples and the latter a big shallow inland lake with floating gardens, villages, and market.  The word floating does not mean on a boat.  It means they are built on dredged dirt with a snaking series of canals.  Some houses and monasteries are on stilts above the water but most are on "ground."  Lots of tourists focus photos on the local fisherman, who use a unique paddling technique where they snake their leg around the oar - it was fun to watch and would have been more fun to try.  But my favorite part was going to the market, which was clearly not built for anyone of Western height (Josh bashed his head on three separate stall canopies), seeing the people in different "ethnic groups" wearing their chosen patterns, and seeing old ladies paddle around with boatloads of stuff.

As we head out to Malaysia,  I think the thing I will miss most is interacting with people who are not used to tourists.  The thing I will miss least is the haze.  Looking forward to somewhere the horizon is visible…

Thursday, February 6, 2014

I heart Rangoon

Today was the first day during this entire trip where I felt like having a beard helped me fit in. Facial hair is scarce in Japan, Cambodia, Thailand, and for that matter much of Myanmar.  However, in one beautiful neighborhood of Yangon, I found my people.  Desi reunion!

Do you know how good it feels to speak the local language?  So far, speaking has been the most frustrating part of Myanmar.  I am pretty good at languages but Burmese is totally giving me a run for my money, with the combination of tones and stress and unvoiced final consonants.  So today, walking along Mahabandoola Road west of Sule Pagoda, in an area the guidebooks called Little India, I decided I would say, "Hindi?" to people before trying to speak Burmese.  After three tries, no luck; everyone stuck with Burmese.  Then, at one clothing stand, the shopkeeper I asked shook his head and said "Urdu."  I almost could not believe it.  I had not been asking people if they spoke Urdu because I figured Pakistan is so far away, across India.  But duh!  Myanmar is close to Bangladesh, and Bangladesh was once called East Pakistan, and thus the Urdu trail spreads farther East than I had realized.  I finally noticed the people here were wearing beards and white caps and kurtas mixed with Burmese longyi.  So I asked the man about his merchandise, and he beamed when he heard my Urdu.  He told me his name was Mohammed Yunus.  He was born in Yangon, though he called it Rangoon, and his whole family lives here.  He said the neighborhood is mostly Muslim, though there are Hindus as well.  It was magic.  This is probably the closest to a homecoming I will get on the trip. 

We sat outside the restaurant next to Mohammad Yunus' stall and ate paratha, idli, and chickpeas while sipping masala chair and lassi.  I almost did not care that I hadn't gotten my Indian visa.  Maybe Rangoon does it better anyway. 

On that note, to anyone at all interested in Indian food, you must check out Burmese cuisine.  Their version of curry feels so fresh.  Small plates, sauces, sliced veggies, stewed meats and every shop's special hinjo soup - we have eaten it for days and no two places' taste the same. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Angkor part II - Angkor Wat

Ankgor Wat. The crowning accomplishment of Khmer culture. The archetype for all religious architecture in Indochina. The pride and national symbol of Cambodia. The 8th Wonder of the World.  Angelina Jolie's first destination in the Tomb Raider movie.

It's that important.

Angkor Wat was a fantastic conclusion to our exploration of the Khmer monuments. It is a massive temple. From the main west entrance, one first crosses a naga-lined causeway over the moat, passes through an extensive entrance portico, and continues on a long raised platform between pools and libraries before entering the temple itself.  Four concentric squares of galleries, each higher and airier than the last, lead up to the central sanctuary, towering 55 meters above the ground. The effect of this approach and procession are impressive. And unlike all the other Khmer temples, this one has been continually used since it was built - first as a Khmer Hindu site, then as a Buddhist temple into the modern era. It never had to be reclaimed from the jungle or reassembled from collapsed stones. Because of this, its interior carvings are sharply detailed and its columns bear inscriptions and dedications from nine centuries of use. The first gallery is famous for its virtuosic bas-reliefs, which show stories of Khmer military triumph and tales from the Ramayana.

We were able to be there while the crowds dispersed for lunch - it's a poor time for photographs but essentially the only way to not be surrounded by loud tour groups. We were able to lurk around the highest levels in near solitude, gazing over the ancient carvings and wondering how these elaborate spaces would be used in the temple's heyday. While I was sketching in the courtyard on the second level, one of the Apsara guides sat down on the ledge beside me and began to play the troh, a traditional stringed instrument of Cambodia, sending his simple haunting melodies to echo off the towers above. It was a beautiful and incredibly relaxing experience, and my favorite of our time in the mightiest of Wats.

Khmer architecture is all about hierarchy - the center is always the tallest and grandest, with every other part of the composition focused on it; doors were marked by elaborate cornices with tall carved central pediments, roofs were constructed of multiple levels that all stepped up to the center, and the towers of a temple always led to the mightiest and most sacred place at the very center - the metaphorical holy mountain. Cambodian and Thai traditional architecture still follows these rules.

Seeing Angkor Wat also drove home the fact that everything weathers over time. All the temples made use of canonical tower forms, door pediments, carvings, and the like. All of these were clearly discernable and exquisitely done at the fist temple we visited - Banteay Srei - but had worn down to near indiscernability at Angkor itself. The scale and exposure of the large temple subjected its sandstone ornamentation to the full brunt of the weather. Its famous towers now look more like stalactites or giant mushrooms up close, and its elaborately textured roof stones have been reduced to near Modernist geometric simplicity.

Hammad and I both noticed that many of the ancient stone temple buildings we saw looked uncannily like Victorian train stations. Part of this was due to their weather-worn simplicity, but more of it had to do with the common cultural heritage behind almost all of the great civilizations of the Old World. The incredibly familiar column and molding shapes used in Khmer temples show a direct lineage from those of the ancient Greeks, probably carried via India from the time of Alexander the Great. The train station deja vu probably went the other way, as the British adapted the richly ornamented and evocative material cultures they encountered throughout the Empire into their own distinctive look during the Victorian periods.

(Post by Josh)

Angkor part I - The Khmer Civilization

The Khmer were one of the first modern peoples to establish themselves in Indochina, migrating down out of Central Asia around the second century AD. By the time the Laotians, Siamese, and Vietnamese moved into the regions they currently occupy, the Kingdom of Cambodia was a firmly established, powerful military state. Their culture was based around the Tonle Sap lake and its fertile seasonal floodplain, where their cities sat raised on wooden stilts to ride out the rainy season and their traditional festivals centered on strong rains and successful harvests. At the center of their cities rose great temples to the Hindu gods, built as earthly representations of the heavenly Mt. Meru and the only structures sacred enough to be built out of stone. As political fortunes waned and Khmer cities moved or were abandoned, everything rotted away except for the temples, and even they were lost to the jungle. It is these remaining monuments that we have come to Cambodia to see.

The Khmer civilization reached its height from the 900s through the 1200s, when their god-kings repeatedly moved the capital and embarked on aggressive building campaigns, each trying to outdo the devaraja before him. This has left monuments scattered over a broad swath of land; visiting colonials grouped 20-odd of them into a 'Grand Tour' when the sites were rediscovered and modern tour companies will follow the same route in one jam-packed day, but we decided to see fewer of the sites and take the time to fully explore each one while we were there. This was one of the locations I was most excited about in this entire global tour, so I wanted to do it well.  We spent three days amongst the temples - the first at distant and secluded sites, the second within the walled city of Angkor Thom, and the final day at fabled Angkor Wat itself.

The two sites on our first day were a perfect introduction to Khmer architecture. The first, the diminutive Banteay Srei, is a perfectly preserved minor temple that has some of the finest stone carving in the world. It illustrated the standard layout and iconography of the Angkor temples while staying compact enough to be easily intelligible, and its fiery demons and gracefully dancing Apsara figures were in better condition than any others we saw.

As a fitting contrast, our second site for the day was as large as any at Angkor but has been completely overtaken by the jungle. Beng Mealea was an enormous square temple, complete with moat and stone causeway, monumental gates, four concentric rings of walled galleries, and a massive central tower. Much of this has collapsed and weathered away.  What remains is the perfect Indiana Jones / tomb raider landscape of crumbling galleries, shattered towers, mossy piles of stone blocks concealing hidden rooms and carvings, and everywhere the jungle extending its roots and branches deeper into the structure.   We clambered over rocks and through collapsing false arches here for hours, getting a feel for the organization and majesty of the Ankgorian temples. And just having a blast. Our tuk tuk driver seemed a bit exasperated at how long we had spent at the temple, but it gave us much to think about on the long drive home.

Our second day was the great walled city of Angkor Thom, located immediately adjacent to the more famous Wat and containing a host of temples and public buildings from the height of the empire. We walked its walls, climbed its reconstructed temples, explored an archeological site run by a Japanese team with a penchant for volleyball, and wandered through the elaborate carvings of elephants, demons, and gods that adorned the terraces fronting the public square. The main temple of the city was Bayon, thought to be one of the more bizarre temples in the area for the giant faces that adorn its towers. This whole area was literally flooded with tourists - bus loads and bus loads of them, from Japan and China and Vietnam and France - so most of the temples had been carefully cleaned and cordoned off to control the flow of people. Most of the buildings thus felt half-finished, with all the parts that had been crumbling carefully removed, leaving safer but incomplete monuments. They were majestic to see, but lacked the intensity and sense of age as the more remote sites. They made me look forward even more to seeing Angkor Wat itself on our final day among the temples.

(Post by Josh)

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Wheel

Whew!  We made it to Myanmar.  We made it on by bus and by foot, across a border that literally just opened to foreigners five months ago.  We are in a little town called Myawaddy.  When we arrived at the border, we were escorted to a "foreigners lounge" and the agent told us the news.  The buses only run onward every other day, and we got in too late that day.  So we would have to wait two days to get a bus out of town.  Luckily, Myawaddy is the most interesting middle of nowhere that we have ever been stuck in.  For example, this:

Almost no one speaks English, and there are no maps, but it feels very welcoming.  Almost everyone had yellow face paint on their cheeks when we arrived, and we assume it was because of Chinese New Year.  Hungry, we walked through an outdoor market until we found the only thing that looked like a restaurant: a table and chairs and pots and some women sewing.  One of them bade us sit.  She poured a dark vegetable broth and rice noodles into bowls for us, slid tamarind and chili our way and cut fish and tomatoes into the bowls with scissors.  She told us the Myanmar words for everything, and kept refilling the noodles and broth.  The food was less tangy than Thai food and had more hints of lentil and  black pepper.  Perhaps because we were hungry, it tasted amazing.  And it was all 1000 kyat.  One dollar.

After dinner, we followed the lights and sounds of music until we entered a place where people were taking off their shoes.  We were at a Buddhist temple, except this night it was also a carnival.  Picture it: golden statues and bouncy castles, ancient bells and wood carvings and a ferris wheel.  Ferris wheel?!  They were looking for people to get on, so of course we did.  I got nervous when four young men in flip flops climbed onto the outside of the ferris wheel and found positions in the framework near the top.  What is going to happen to them when this thing starts, I wondered.  Then I realized they were the reason it was going to start.  There was no motor.  They all shifted their weight at once and the wheel started turning.  Fast.  I held on for dear life as the little Burmese kids across from us giggled.  The young men pounced off the spinning wheel right in the nick of time.  I thought their job was done, but no.  They stood right under the wheel, bent backwards like they were doing the limbo.  And flicking their bodies at each car to keep the momentum going.  The human powered ferris wheel, in a Buddhist temple, on Chinese New Year, in a Myanmar border town.  Absolutely worth it.