Thursday, January 28, 2010

A View from the Mekong

Luang Prabang, Laos lies on the banks of the Mekong River and for many years was virtually inaccessible to outsiders and trade. Even today, despite the fact that it has become a major tourist destination the city is very small and relatively isolated. Many foreign goods are expensive here due to transport costs and there is also a severe book shortage--unlike in Burma there aren't homemade copies being sold on the streets. Our boat from Northern Thailand took three days.
The journey was worth it, though. If you ignore the smattering of backpacker bars and restaurants it is a peaceful, beautiful, and leisurely place. The whole town is designated as a Unesco World Heritage site and consequently many old homes, buildings, and temples have been preserved. Five minutes outside the center of town pictaresque village life continues unabated. Every morning at 6 hundreds of resident orange-robed monks line the streets to receive offerings of rice from locals who wish to increase their good karma. It's hard to believe that this country (Laos People's Democratic Republic is still Communist-run) was the victim of so many American bombs only a few decades ago during the Secret War. According to Wikipedia, Laos is "the most bombed country in the world."
In general, life moves slowly like the Mekong, a muddy river that winds through tiny and forgotten villages, caves with ancient Buddhist relics and seems to dissapear into the majestic mountains beyond. We have been spending the evenings here sitting at riverside tables and going on long walks. During the days we took a kayaking trip, a motor scooter ride to Kuang Si waterfall (see pictures below and above), a cooking class (for Ali), a long bicycle ride through the countryside (for Jeremy), and were otherwise deliciously lazy.Also Mango season seems to be approaching and Jeremy just heard back from his first grad school: acceptance with full funding at University of Wisconsin-Madison program of Political Science!

Click here to see some pictures.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

A Small Elephant Story

Since trekking by foot isn't really an option, we've been experimenting from time to time with Asian alternatives. Having started with ponies and progressed to horses, we decided last week (the midway point of our trip) that it was time for the grand finale: elephants.

There are plenty of elephants around Chiang Mai, a pleasant university-town in northern Thailand that in other respects is mildly reminiscent of Portland, and we signed up for a tour that promised plenty of excitement. First, we played with the elephants (or they played with us, depending on how you look at it), petting one another's heads, grasping their trunks and feeding them bananas and other treats. Then, once they were fat and happy, we and our fellow tour members climbed onto precarious wooden benches perched on their backs (two to a bench) and set off across a shallow river.


About half-way across the river things turned ugly. A series of explosions, either hunters' gunshots or, more likely, mischievous youths playing with firecrackers, scared the elephants tremendously. The elephant directly in front of us was especially scared: it reared on its hind legs like a horse, began trumpeting loudly and spouting water out of its trunk, and started running back towards us and the shore.

The unfortunate and terrified mother and son on the bench hung on for their dear lives. A chain reaction ensued and our elephant too began beating a hasty retreat towards shore and trumpeting, albeit on a smaller scale than elephant 1. In the end, the guides calmed their beasts down before calamity struck, but elephant 1's passengers were too shaken to continue. We proceeded onward, over some hills and through some woods, generally enjoying the ride except when our guide made jokes about us going “boom boom” from the elephant, whenever the bench swayed or the elephant got slightly alarmed by some noise.

On another note, one of the main tourist attractions near Chiang Mai is a visit to the Hill Tribes, most of whom reside around the Golden Triangle, where Burma, Laos and Thailand meet. Many guesthouses and tour agencies offer trips to see "Long Neck," and many tourists, strangely enough, are very excited to see people with long necks.



Unfortunately, a few google searches reveal that "Long Neck" refers to a group of female Burmese from the Padaung tribe who wear many brass rings around their necks and who essentially live in a zoo, selling tribal handicrafts and being photographed by tourists. According to a report we found in some Asian newspaper, the Thai government opposed the UN Council for Human Rights' effort to resettle some members of the community in New Zealand and Australia, presumably because “Long Neck” is such a profitable tourist draw. Despite all this, visiting “Long Neck” continues to be a very popular tourist activity.


Anyway, after traveling for three days on a “slow boat” from Chiang Mai we are now in Luang Prabang, Laos, a peaceful and lazy town off the Mekong River where legend has it that you often have to wake up the restaurant owners and taxi drivers and convince them to serve you. Luckily, we've got an electric pot and have rented a two-person bicycle.


If you didn't get your fill of elephant pictures with this blog, click here for some more and also a few of us at an Orchid Farm and cooking class.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Queen of Fruit

Tamarinds- Brown and fibrous, these fruits taste much better than they look. We only recently finished the large sack we purchased for a dollar a few weeks back.

Dragon Fruit-One of Ali's favorites, the dragon fruit is much more exciting on the outside than on the inside, where it is white and full of little things that look like poppy seeds. Really, it's like a big kiwi, with a different color scheme. We sometimes eat them in the morning.
Mangosteen-Don't quite know what to make of these little guys. They aren't like mangoes at all, but they seem to fill the void when mangoes aren't in season and are supposedly very popular. They taste pretty good, but we've only bought them once.

Coconut- We've probably gone through about 100 coconuts since the start of our trip. In India , it costs about 25 cents for one of them. The vendor will hack off the top with a huge and sharp knife and stick a straw in it so that you can drink the coconut water. Once you have finished slurping, he will chop it in half and scoop out the coconut meat for you. In Thailand, female vendors either carve the coconuts so that they look pretty and then give you a straw, or pre-hack the tops off and pour the tasty water into small plastic bags which you can buy for 50 cents.


Durian-The so-called "queen of fruits" in Thailand, this massive, mushy fruit is prickly on the outside like an oversized pineapple (it can weigh up to 7 pounds). But don't be fooled! It is positively nasty and smells strongly of rotting egg. Avoid at all costs.
Myanmar Pancake-At Ali's insistence we feasted on this delicious and nutritous treat every morning for breakfast while in Burma. The Burmese make their pancakes out of rice and mung bean flour and when ready, they are all sticky and fluffy and savory. They are sprinkled with ground peanuts, roasted mung beans, ground green peas, bean sprouts, and coconut and served with a side of sticky rice and tiny, tiny spring rolls.
Pad Thai-It's even spicier and fishier and better in Thailand.

"American tower"- This sundae was on the menu at a frozen yogurt shop in Bangkok. We found it funny and we hope you will too.
Ali, hungry and at a delicious buffet-Fancy hotel in Chennai on Christmas day, courtesy of Ali's mom and step-dad.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

New Light of Myanmar

Despite the censorship, there are a few half-decent independent newspapers operating in Burma. The Australian-run Myanmar times even publishes in English and boasts a host of ex-pat writers and globe-trotting Burmese reporters. That said, real news pertaining to political events in Burma is conspicuously absent from all
publications.

The New Light of Myanmar, the government-run paper, offers an Orwellian lesson in propaganda. For those of you who complain about Fox News (or, depending on who's reading, The New York Times), here's a little poem that occurs regularly on page 2. It's called "The People's Desire:"

Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding
negative views.
Oppose those trying to jeopardize the stability of the state and
progress of the nation.
Oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the state.
Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy.

For the readers who might get bored reading about the government's
numerous accomplishments, which heads of state sent "felicitations" to
Senior General Than Shwe, or how much it snowed in China, The New
Light of Myanmar also provides cartoons. This one ran while we were in
town. It's called, "Only with Peace and Stability." It features 4
students having a chat over tea.

Student A: "Now we have passed the 62nd anniversary of Independence."
Student B: "I, for one, favour stability and peace, which are
essential for maintaining the Independence."
Student C: "Then only, will we be able to achieve the goal of
peaceful, discipline flourishing democratic nation and safeguard the
Independence, won't we father?
Invisible father: "Of course."
Student 5: "For me, I'm opposed to riots."Sorry the cartoon is a little dark, we took a picture of it from a display case showing the most recent issue outside the New Light of Myanmar office at nighttime.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Burma


We arrived in Rangoon, Burma's biggest city and until recently it's capital, just in time for Independence Day. Some shops and schools had already closed down, and people in Rangoon seemed to be making the most of their time off. Even in the busiest streets, areas had been sectioned off for teenage boys playing soccer. The partying escalated the following day, and as we wandered through a neighborhood near our hotel we were delighted to find numerous themed block parties. On one block, people had set up a karaoke stage and teenagers and 20-somethings paraded on stage belting their hearts out to Bollywood and American pop songs. They were enthusiastically cheered on by an audience of over 100 people, in addition to many who sat and watched from their balconies. People on other streets played soccer and various spoon/egg type games. But we lingered longest around 46th street, where there was a serious tug of war competition between fifty or so neighborhood women who probably spanned 6 generations. We were particularly impressed that they were duking it out barefoot on a gravel road and yanking on the rough and very thick rope bare-handed. We were welcomed into the gatherings with curiosity, but also warmth, generosity and occasionally embarrassment, and were struck by the strong community and seemingly carefree environment.

Everywhere we went this past week deepened these first impressions and we spent a good deal of time puzzling over how to explain Burmese positivity in the face of tyranny. For while the people appear cheerful and friendly, their country has been ruled by an oppressive military dictatorship for almost half a century, and the Generals' “policies”—if they can even be called that—are transparently idiotic and cruel. We're not sure how to resolve the incongruence, but one taxi driver explained the phenomenon like this: “they smile because they want you to help them.”


With respect to why most cars have steering wheels on the right and also, usually, drive on the right side of the road, the same taxi driver informed us that the first Burmese dictator—Ne Win—had an astrological insight one day around 1970 that cars should switch from the left to right side so as to prevent accidents, and issued a decree at once. The roads were changed overnight, resulting in a large number of accidents, probably, but most cars have failed to follow suit. Other political decisions, too, have been based on astrology, including the temporary move at one point to eliminate existing currency in favor of new notes that were divisible by 9.


Unsuccessful attempts to ban gmail, yahoo and hotmail and other policies that reflect pure incompetence belie the truly oppressive and harmful effects of the Generals' rule. For the most part, these are hidden from public view, and the worst crimes take place in villages that are off-limits to foreigners. In a country where forced labor, indefinite prison sentences, and violence against minority groups is commonplace it is remarkable that a typical tourist visiting the major sights across the country could easily imagine Burma as a sweet and gentle country. In some ways, we did too.


One day, though, we took a trip to Twante, a rural village a few hours outside Rangoon which was off-limits for a time after Cyclone Nargis paid a visit, but was recently opened up to tourists who apply for special “permission to travel” permits. We were shocked by the small flimsy bamboo huts most villagers were living in after the cyclone, and it seemed certain that they will be destroyed again within the decade. Obviously, Twante is just the tip of the iceberg. But censorship, travel bans, and harsh punishment for citizens who criticize the government make it difficult to dig any deeper.


More on this later. Needless to say, the Burmese government did not figure out Jeremy was a journalist--though we were turned away from an internet cafe a day after we read the news and did some google searches about a retired Burmese Jewish general there--and we are back in Bangkok safe and sound.


Note: Although the military government changed Burma's name to Myanmar, the opposition still uses the colonial name. Same goes for Rangoon, which is now known as Yangon.


Click here to see our pictures, we took some good ones...

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Sawatdee Pi Mai

We left India feeling pretty confident about our capacity to eat very spicy food. Ali even said- let's find a really spicy meal once we get to Thailand. After having some extremely delicious but not very spicy noodle soups, papaya shrimp salads, and pad thais this past week, we decided tonight to get a spicy meal. We found a simple but bustling local joint and ordered a soup without an English translation, a "spicy noodle salad," and lots of rice. Feeling pretty pleased with our choices, our suspicion was aroused when the waitress smirked at our order and then laughed with the cook while pointing at us. A half an hour later we were served two rather appealing dishes which Ali eagerly took huge bites of before realizing they were garnished quite heavily with red chilis and peppercorns. Fortunately, we had with us a 2 lb sack of tamarinds, which we had accidentally purchased earlier in the day, and which apparently have effects on the stomach comparable to tums.

As we understand it, Thai people celebrate New Year's Eve by praying for merit in mass gatherings at temples from 4pm-12:19am, or by joining together in a huge Times Square-like celebration at Central World, a large and glamorous shopping center, where they walk around in an orderly fashion wearing mickey mouse ears or flashing devil horns (even women in burkas do this). Some people participate in both. We began our New Year's Eve celebration by visiting a temple, writing our wishes for the New Year on gold foil paper, and then tying them to small trees while hundreds of people chanted prayers in unison. Having thus satisfied our urge for wholesome spirituality we advanced to the mass gathering at Central World. It was a very exciting and surprisingly non-belligerent atmosphere to welcome the New Year, as we were surrounded by extremely friendly Thai people wishing us a Happy New Year "Sawatdee Pi Mai" and telling us we were beautiful.

Another strangely endearing part of Thai culture is the constant allegiance paid to the king. Throughout the city there are shrines and large photos of the king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, and the national anthem is played frequently in public, for example, before movies. At around 6pm, it starts playing in the public park, and all the joggers, picnickers, and tiny children going down slides halt and jump to attention standing erect with their arms at their sides.

Bangkok is a vibrant and varied modern city with a refreshingly friendly and mellow vibe in many areas and it has been a real relief to explore in such hospitable conditions after all the hassle of being in India. Unfortunately the sex tourism industry is alive and well here and it is infuriating and upsetting to see so many old, fat Western men walking around town with a scantily-clad 17-year-old Thai women on their arm.

We both have some mild trepidation about this post-India part of our trip where we will be moving countries every couple of weeks. It was really luxurious to spend so long in India, fully absorbing and learning about the customs, getting to know how to buy train tickets and how much to pay for rickshaw rides and fruit. We leave to Burma tomorrow, and then head to N. Thailand for a week, before going to Laos.

Click here to see pictures from Bangkok

Click here to see more pictures from Auroville and Chennai