Friday, May 10, 2013

Backpacker Paradise Anniversary

Snorkeling on live coral reefs has become a rare experience in the past few decades.  Before coral bleaching began, coral reefs were accessible in warm waters off the coasts of many countries.  Coral reefs are mostly surviving in deeper waters now, so only scuba divers are able to enjoy the beauty of the gardens under the seas.  One of the last seas with really great coral reefs in shallow waters is the Andaman Sea, off the west coast of Thailand.  Day trips from coastal areas are possible, or from established islands like Phuket (which no longer has good snorkeling reefs itself).  The backpacker’s island of Koh Lipe, a few hours south of Phuket by speedboat, is much closer to the living corals in the Thai Tarutao National Park.  And so it was that a couple of grandparents, teetering near the edge of their seventh decades, found themselves roughing it in the company of people about the ages of their children.

This is why it's called Sunset Beach

Just about 33 years ago, my Dear Husband and I were married in Cambridge, and flew to Key West for our honeymoon.  And a perfect time for our visit it turned out to be!  The Mariel Boatlift was underway from Cuba, and Key West was occupied by US Navy personnel and briefly by Cuban refugees.  It was a great time to honeymoon there, because we had the place to ourselves and of course, that’s the way we preferred it.

I was a Yankee clergyman’s daughter, and he was the son of teachers from the desert Southwest.  We had had no experience of the warm Gulf waters, and were very curious about life under the sea.   We bought our first snorkels and masks at a dime store (a thing of the past now) and dunked our faces in the water right off the beach by the Southernmost Point of the United States.  Wow!  We had no idea how magical it was under the water’s surface!  And so, two snorkeling addicts came into being.

In the past decades, we have snorkeled, together or apart, wherever we could.  Together, we’ve been to Florida (again), Mexico, and Malaysia.  My Dear Husband, the inveterate business traveler (while I stayed home with the kids), has also experienced snorkeling in the Philippines, the Red Sea, and off the east coast of Thailand.  Nothing has ever measured up, for either of us, for our first view of the coral reefs, then vibrantly alive, off the coast of Key West.  Living in Southeast Asia gave us a rare opportunity to snorkel as we did on our honeymoon.

We were making this plan at pretty much the last minute, having chosen a period around a weekend during which my Dear Husband could remember no pressing appointments.  We ransacked booking sites until we came across a “resort” on the northern, or “sunset”, coast that promised a thatched bamboo hut in a quiet, romantic setting.  The island was said to have good snorkeling right off the beaches, funky bars, and great Thai seafood.  Since the pricier hotels close to the main beaches of Koh Lipe were full, we booked into the sunset beach resort.

The resort's restaurant

The way in is by ferry, and we chose to fly to the ferry terminal on the larger island of Langkawi, Malaysia.  Of course we were imagining as easy a trip as to Nantucket.   So we just packed our bags, and took off.

Langkawi Harbor

Our first shocker was when we arrived at the Telaga Ferry Terminal in Langkawi.  Seems that boating from Malaysia to a small Thai island with no Immigration office is not simple.  The ferry personnel hold your passport from the moment you check in for your ferry until after you have landed in Thailand, during which period of several hours you simply must trust them not to abuse this possession of your most powerful document.  We freaked out, to put it mildly.  Then it appeared that we really had no alternative, if we were not to give up on the whole trip, except to let these authorities take and hold our passports.  So we did that, and gritted our teeth throughout a rough and rainy ride to Koh Lipe, until, after jumping off the ferry into the Thai surf, we were reunited with our precious documents.

Our fellow travelers have just jumped off the back of the "ferry" into the water on the beach.

After wading through the water up onto the beach and retrieving our passports and bags, we set off down the beach to secure a “longtail” taxi.  We shared one with a friendly young (everyone here was young) couple from Kuala Lumpur.  Their eyes grew wider as the longtail slowly approached a deserted little beach.  Greeted by a friendly dog as we jumped into the surf, we began the steep hike uphill to what was clearly not yet a resort.

Island Taxi Parking Lot

Straggly gardens, partially washed out dirt steps, an open-air restaurant with four tables, no reception desk, a staff of five (including the dog) only one of whom spoke English, no swimming pool, and a half hour walk down the steep hill to reach the busy commercial part of the island.  

The back view of our bamboo and thatch hut reveals its concrete underpinnings.

The brand-new air conditioner in our bamboo hut was a nice surprise, but the hut had a gap between the walls and the roof so we still had to use the mosquito net over our bed. The door to our bathroom was a curtain of seashells.  But it was quiet, and the view from our little balcony lovely, the resident dog was awesome, and inertia has a lot of power over us as we age.  So, we stayed, never completely comfortable but okay, for five nights and four days.
During the almost-daily heavy tropical rains, the bathroom ceiling leaked!  Also, the outlets shown were all there was.

The "resort" dog offered a complete package: welcoming services, guarding, companionship, and good humor.

On two of those days we signed up for snorkeling tours of the reefs off the nearby islands.  We shared a longtail on each tour with 4-5 other people, huddling on wooden planks under a tarp roof for shelter from the merciless sunshine.  Each day we visited between three and five reefs, and snorkeled at each one as long as our captain would permit.  The varieties and the psychedelic colors of the corals and the lovely fish are beyond my description.  If you have been to a good aquarium with tanks of living corals and tropical fish, imagine swimming in warm water marveling at such beauty around you.  We saw velvety purple-edged giant clams, huge blue starfish, and even a sly moray eel, waving innocuously on the sea floor.

Cheat Alert:  I took this photo at an aquarium!  Don't have an underwater camera!  Am no Jaques Cousteau!  But this is to give you an idea of the beauty of the tropical coral reef we saw in the Andaman Sea.
One of our snorkel tour boats
Island Lagoon Picnic Area

 Each seven-hour trip featured at least an hour’s ride to the reef area each way, and lunch on a nice island.  There were also stops for us to admire odd islands, like one made entirely of smooth stones where we were expected to stack as many as possible.  We also visited a Monkey island where it was clearly not safe to eat your lunch, or even swig from your water bottle (monkeys are daring thieves). 

Monkey with Plunder

Amazing Balanced Boulders in the Tarutao National Park
Unlike the 20-somethings with us, the exertion tired us.  After the last few 45-minute swims, it became an increasing challenge for us to heave ourselves, suddenly no longer weightless, up onto the boat by means of a barnacled and rusty ladder made of steel pipes.  I was grateful I’d at least been faithfully doing 30 minutes of yoga daily and taking long walks. After the last swim, I nearly landed myself on the floor of the boat (and a few laps) after finally hauling myself on board.  Hard as that was, I was proud that I could still manage it, could still reach outside my comfort zone, and experience wonder.

Scrumptious Thai Barbequed Giant Prawns
Funky Island Bar

Most of the other island visitors were from Thailand and Malaysia, with a smattering of Westerners speaking a variety of languages.  With few exceptions, we were twice as old, and out of shape, as everybody else.  On our last night, strolling Koh Lipe’s “walking street” after dinner, I heard American voices behind us and turned to say hello.  The three had just graduated from college, and were glad to talk to other Americans for a few minutes.  After swapping stories of our Koh Lipe experiences, we modestly mentioned that this place was kind of hard for a couple of grandparents and the girl from Pennsylvania said, “I know, right?  You have huge cred!”  We needed that pat on the back!

But a gentle pat, because on our last snorkeling trip, I had somehow missed a few square inches on the backs of my legs with the 110 SPF sunblock which protected all the rest of my absurdly fair skin.  Now I have a little memento of our trip, a deep but quite small tan (after the peeling ended), and memories to last through our next 33 years together.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Me 'n Myanmar (Part II): Beyond Yangon

Mandalay.  The very name, exotic and evocative, drew us to visit this small city north of Myanmar’s largest city and former capital, Yangon.   The 400-mile road to Mandalay (thank you to Rudyard Kipling, and also Bob Hope) turns out to be a very slow one from Yangon, so we had to fly.  The other options were either a train (reputed to take as long as 16 hours) or a bus (cheaper, but lacking onboard toilets, and taking as long as 14 hours).  A one-hour flight on a rickety plane lacked local color but it gave us another whole day to visit the sights.

We were met at Mandalay International Airport, many miles south of the city itself, by our tour guide and driver, and started touring long before we checked into our hotel.  We joined a throng of tourists in Amarapura, an ancient capital of Myanmar, at the  Mahargandayon Monastery, madly taking photos as the monks lined up for their lunch, the last meal of their day.  Over 1,000 monks arise daily about 4 am, and study and pray until their 10:30 meal, donated by the faithful.  

We were also fascinated by the cooking facilities where the meal for all the monks was prepared.  

Also interesting was a well-preserved room where the monastery’s founder, Janaka Bhivamsa, had lived, written numerous Buddhist books and set the example of study, worship and strict adherence to Buddhist disciplines for which the monastery is famous. 

Not far from the Mahargandayon Monastery is the U Bain Bridge, the world’s longest teak structure which spans the narrow waist of a lake, Taung Tha Man Inn.  The bridge was built of salvaged teak columns from the Amarapura Palace when the capital (and the Palace) were moved to Mandalay in 1859.  The bridge is more than a kilometer long.  

Being a chicken about heights and a big baby about the heat during our visit, I stayed near the end of the bridge and had to tolerate endless begging by children whose job it is to earn a few cents this way every day.

Mandalay is Myanmar’s commercial center and so we visited the various city quarters (not in the city center, which now belongs to new residents from China) where teak carving, embroidery, weaving and beaten gold are produced.  

The working conditions are pretty primitive and this fine work is done with looms and tools that have been in use for decades.  After a brief lunch stop we were back on the trail of sights.

We were delighted by the old teak Shwenandaw Monastery.  

This was originally part of Mandalay Palace, and its builder King Mindon died there.  His son Thibaw, the last King of Myanmar (he lost finally to the British in 1885), moved the building outside the Palace walls as tribute to his father.  A good thing he did, because the rest of Mandalay Palace was bombed flat by the Japanese in World War II, and the Monastery is the sole surviving Palace structure.

There was still no rest for the weary.  Next we visited the important Kuthodaw Pagoda, lovely in the late afternoon sun.  Here, marble tablets inscribed with the entire Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism form the world’s largest book.  Each of the 729  marble tablets is housed in a carved white stupa.  

As the sun began to set we were driven to the top of Mandalay Hill.  The drive is just one of many examples of how the brief time we had to visit Myanmar forced us to miss many “don’t-miss” sights.  Four flights of steps from each point of the compass lead to the top, with sights to see along each way.  We reached the hilltop pagoda just as the sun was sinking in the hazy sky.  From the top you get a panoramic view of the surrounding flat plain, dotted everywhere with golden pagodas, stretching even beyond the lazy Ayerawaddy River. 

Finally we were deposited for the night at the Mandalay Hill Resort, the second of our four luxurious Myanmar hotels which made us feel incredibly guilty.  

At dinner we were treated to a traditional Myanmar puppet and dance show, mostly put on for tourists.  At least these traditions are being kept alive.

Early the next morning, on the shores of the Ayerawaddy, we witnessed the vibrant riverbank district of those Myanmar poor who work the river.  

Women hauled huge baskets of sand on top of their heads up the hill from the water.  

Homes and “shops” alike were made of tarpaulins and salvaged bits of corrugated iron and scrap wood.  Children played happily, small ones free of diapers, in the sandy soil.  

Parents improvised an infant’s swing from a shawl, and pulled it back and forth to keep that baby asleep.

Mingon, upriver, is renowned for having the ruins of the world’s largest (unfinished) pagoda, and an enormous bell, the largest uncracked one in the world.  Mingon was loaded with opportunities for tourists to spend money, but also had some charming bullock-cart taxis.  

The boat ride was pleasantly breezy and the life along the river, pretty much as it was 60 years ago, very interesting.  Boarding and disembarking from our little ferry was a pretty scary trek along wooden planks placed between five other boats, as our ferry had the berth furthest out.

A brief flight from the Mandalay International brought us to the small town of Bagan, another of Myanmar’s former capitals.  The Bagan Archeological Zone is 26 square miles of dusty plain, studded with an astonishing 2,000+ “merit-earning” temples.  Some are from as long ago as the 12th century and each features differing artistic styles and expressions of devotion.  

Bagan is in the driest, most desert-like part of Myanmar, and March is one of the hottest times of year there.  Our hotel here made us feel the guiltiest, as its choice location right near the archeological sites betrayed its ownership by cronies of the military regime.

Bagan’s tourist industry is in an early developmental stage.  By that, I mean that the locals who find themselves with the money-making opportunity of an influx of tourists are just beginning to learn how this business works.  Most are still in the stage of bugging tourists non-stop until they are paid to go away.  After a while I started telling “friendly” sales persons that I came from Canada and had no money.  (If you say you are from America, they assume you are loaded.)  Nothing else worked.  Sometimes I had to tell this story four or five times to a given would-be vendor.  This primitive stage of Myanmar’s tourist industry was one of the least pleasant aspects of visiting Bagan in particular.

Our visit came to an all-too-soon end with a final night in Yangon.  By comparison with the sleepy villages of the Bagan Archeological Zone, Yangon seemed like New York City.  We arrived late in the day to find ourselves in yet another embarrassingly luxurious hotel, and just in time to eat at a local Burmese-cuisine restaurant before they locked their door at 9 pm.  Luckily, our ever-thoughtful hosts had arranged that our driver from our first days in Yangon met us at the airport that evening, and he returned the next morning to bring us back there for our flight to Singapore.  Negotiating the trip to an unfamiliar hotel in the dark was a daunting prospect.

And should you go to Myanmar now?  Yes, unhesitatingly.  If you can, go as soon as you can arrange it.  The weather is apparently best in November through January, hottest from then until April, and wettest from May to October.  Myanmar deserves all the attention it can get from visitors, and needs all the dollars we can spend, preferably directly to the craftspeople and chefs rather than to the suspiciously-well-placed middlemen with big businesses.  Most of all, Myanmar’s wonders should be seen at first hand, before it catches up with the modern world, and its lovely, devout, friendly people should be given the little helping hand they need so much.