Bite-sized Bugs

As you probably know by now, my traveling revolves mostly around food – any kind of food. So when I browsed through some of the snack food options and saw a pile of fat, juicy, deep-fried locusts, I became intrigued. I probably wouldn’t have been crazy enough to eat any of the winged critters but the smiling lady selling them by the bag offered me one for free. How could I possibly decline?

Watch this video if you want to see a first-time-locust-eater, and to find out whether I could convince Tony to be part of this experience.

Drowning in Gold

Mahamuni Buddha

“Come!” insists the monk, “Come!” He grabs my arm and pulls me through the crowd of pilgrims towards the huge pedestal supporting the holiest Buddha in Mandalay, the Mahamuni Buddha. He charges through the praying disciples, a monk with a mission, namely to get me and Thomas up onto the elevated platform.

Myanmar monks scare me. One week in this country has taught me that encounters with monks come at a cost. In a nation filled with some of the most generous people on the planet, it has become clear that materialists head straight for monkhood, Buddha be damned.

“It’s OK,” I answer hesitatingly, “I’ll just stay down here.” Reflex causes me to glance up at the phenomenal site. The monk immediately detects my weakness and goes in for the kill. Shoot, that slip is going to cost me Continue…

Tatmadaw

Tatmadaw Banner

Tatmadaw, the military controllers of Myanmar, remind Burmese and foreigners alike of who is in control. Locals whisper warnings that we are under constant observation by a silent army of invisible “spies”. It’s hard to believe among such wonderfully hospitable people, but when you see these threatening propaganda signs, it makes you wonder.

Transvestites, Texans, and the Meaning of Freedom

Myanmar is a place to reflect on the nature of freedom. It’s all too easy to stroll the shady streets of Yangon chatting with smiling locals and willingly accept the illusion of happy, shiny people that the government is so keen to project. Eager to uncover hidden injustices masked by an oppressive regime – they are definitely widespread – I uncovered something far more surprising, a few small freedoms which seemed all the more noticeable in a land overwhelmingly associated with human rights abuses.

Seated in our overnight bus to Mandalay, I apprehensively awaited the moment the bus conductor would switch on the on-board TV. Western visitors to Asia almost universally condemn the nightmarishly inane “entertainment” that tortures us on the travelers trail. Boppy boy bands, giggling girl groups, sickeningly saccharin cartoon montages, Hello Kitty hell… “Oh God, he’s going to turn it on!!!” I thought.

And, suddenly, there it was… cartoon hearts floated across the screen as a high-pitched voice squealed about happiness and love. The girl on screen contorted her face into a freakish expression meant to convey bliss. To me, it looked more like a grotesque mask meant for a B-grade horror flick.

And then, the most unexpected thing happened – the bus conductor fast forwarded to a new set of videos. A man belted out a guttural song in Burmese which sounded like a bizarre mix of Tibetan throat singing and Ramstein. Next, a short-haired woman dressed in what looked like a stylized nun’s habit sang a throaty tune that sounded quite a bit like a punk version of Melissa Etheridge. Song after song challenged my preconceptions about Asia and revealed an unexpected edginess. This is a small country with little money, but the music seemed shockingly well produced. Are the Burmese expressing themselves, their frustrations and their dreams, through music? Since I don’t speak Burmese, I have no way of knowing.

But the musical stylings of Myanmar were only the beginning. The next DVD featured the Continue…

The Shwe Dagon Pagoda

There are endless reasons to visit Yangon, but off in the distance, towering above the city, you can see one attraction that literally stands above all the rest – the incredible Shwe Dagon Pagoda. One of the world’s most impressive structures, the Shwe Dagon Paya towers over the city flaunting its opulence.

Said to house eight of the historical Buddha’s hairs, the pagoda is one of the most revered Buddhist sites in the world. It is definitely one of the most bejeweled. The 322 ft. (98 m) gilded central stupa is topped with an ornamental umbrella piece decorated with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies. The umbrella’s top bud is a single 76 carat diamond. Not too shabby!

Westerners are often shocked to discover that many of the temple’s Buddha statues are backed by flashing neon halos. Many find this a kitschy distraction from the ancient pagoda’s beauty. We, on the other hand, found it a rather interesting nod to neighboring India’s habit of using flashing neon lights in its Hindu structures.

I have been dreaming about visiting the Shwe Dagon since I was a teenager. Unfortunately, we arrived during the regilding process, so the lower sections of the stupa were covered with bamboo scaffolding and woven mats. Bummer! Oh well, just one more excuse to come back to Myanmar. All the same, even with the scaffolding and mats, the pagoda is a phenomenal sight.

Moo Teh, the Milkman

Moo Teh, the Milkman

Taking the bus without knowing Burmese can be quite a challenge. Luckily, on our first day out in Yangon, we ran into Moo Teh, a young Burmese guy with enough English to point out the right bus going to Chaukhtatgyi Paya.

To our surprise, he got onto the bus with us. We were about to hand over the 600 kyat fare to the conductor, when Moo Teh indicated that he had already paid for our tickets. We were incredibly moved and embarrassed by his generosity! Insisting on paying him back, he reluctantly accepted the money. Granted, the equivalent of $0.60 is not much for Westerners, but it is a substantial amount for Burmese considering that many people don’t make more than Continue…

Reclining Leviathan

Chaukhtatgyi Reclining Buddha

As we explore the wonders of Yangon (Rangoon), we thought we’d share the incredible industrial-scale reclining Buddha at the Chaukhtatgyi Temple. Judging by the this monster construction, which is housed in something that strongly resembles an airplane hanger, bigger is better in Buddhist Burma.

As if the size weren’t enough, the crown is encrusted in diamonds and other precious stones, not that you can really see them clearly without binoculars. To get a real sense for the size, notice the man in green sitting closer to the statue in the picture above.

chaukhtatgyi-reclining-buddha-2

Mad Exchanges

Myanmar Kyats

First order of business in Myanmar – money!

Unlike most of Southeast Asia where you can just walk up to an ATM, insert your card, and withdraw what you need, Myanmar recalls a bygone age of complication and confusion that once plagued the continent.

To begin with, visitors to Myanmar cannot exchange travelers checks or use ATM cards – you must bring all the money you need in American dollars. That’s right, CASH! As if that weren’t awkward (and risky) enough, all the dollars must be in pristine condition – no rips, no marks, no creases, no folds – it’s insane!

But the nuttiness doesn’t stop there. The official exchange rate is 6.3 Kyat to the dollar. The black market rate is around 1000 Kyat to the dollar. 1000!!! Needless to say Continue…

Myanmar – The Golden Land

Shwedagon Paya in Yangon

Bangkok has been a blast, but it’s about time we kicked things up a notch. A short hop on the discount airlines, AirAsia, and we find ourselves in Yangon, Myanmar, also known as Rangoon, Burma.

Some of you news junkies might be gasping in disbelief at our decision to visit such a questionable country. You might even be asking yourselves why anyone might choose to go to such a place. True, there are many ethical issues one must consider when deciding whether or not to visit Myanmar, and we intend to discuss some of these in upcoming posts, but there is a very easy answer as to why someone would come here Continue…