Began, Burma

The Dinner Guest – Bagan, Burma (Myanmar)

Kipling said, “Burma is like no place you have ever seen.” He was talking about Bagan. A huge temple complex at the bend of the Irriwaddy River where there are over 3000 temples, some as high as a ten story building.These temples date back to the twelfth century, and cover many square miles. They poke up above the plain, some gold, some white, some a red stone. Most are completely abandoned and open.
I arrived in Bagan by steamer. It was my intention to climb one of the taller temples and go out a high window and then climb up the outside to get a good view of the plain to photograph the setting sun slapping just the temple tops.
I rented a bicycle and rode with great difficulty along the dirt paths which crisscrossed the entire plain. It was vert hot. I was sweating a good bit. I was alone, I saw no one else. There was a tall red stone temple which stood above all the others and that’s the one I headed for.

Began, Burma

Burmese Temple – Began

All the temples were surrounded by a square wall, about eight feet high. Each one had four gates. North, South East, and West. I leaned my bike against the wall near a gate. I had about 100 yards to cover before reaching the temple. The ground was hot and parched and full of dead prickly grass and plants. It is an important custom among Buddhists to remove your shoes when ever you enter the temple grounds. I am not a Buddhist, But, I respect their traditions. I removed my sneakers and ran across the hot ground, trying to not step on the thorny plants. I reached the temple right at one of the large ornately carved doors.
It was wide open and just inside was a large seated Buddha, eight feet high. He was covered in dust. I passed him and I could just see a stairway before it became pitch black. I found the stairway and groped up it feeling each step as I climbed upwards. I was very afraid that I might find a snake. I’m afraid of snakes. Especially the poisonous ones in Burma.
I probably climbed five stories before I saw light up ahead. I came to a large doorway that lead out to a stone ledge. I Looked around and decided that I could go higher climbing the outside of the temple.
I figured I had about a half hour before the sun set. So, I climbed as fast as I could. I found a good spot. The Irriwaddi was just in back of me and in front were scores of temples, large and small. Two large white ones glistened in the distance. I decided then that I would see them tomorrow.

Began, Burma

Buddha at Burmese Temple – Bagan

I looked around. Below me was a lean-to hut with a young couple busying themselves around the hut. The woman was gathering small sticks. She took them around to the front of the lean-to and started to build a fire. I watched the small puffs of white smoke rise slowly towards the trees. The husband looked on expectantly. It was dinner time. I started taking pictures of them. When all of a sudden the husband looked up and saw me and waved. I waved back and took his picture. At this point I felt a little embarrassed having been caught. So I raised my gaze to the horizon. Their were yellow parched fields with temples dotted around. In one distant field I could see goats grazing.
A noise startled me. I looked around and here came the husband with a big smile climbing up the outside of the temple. He greeted me with the Burmese word,”Mingalaba” Which means something like “Hey, How ya doing?”. I smiled back, said,”Mingalaba,” and motioned for him to sit down opposite me.
With a big red toothed grin he held up a bag of beetle nuts and offered me some. I took one and popped it in my mouth. He spoke no English and I spoke no Burmese. He pointed to himself and said “Zarni”. I told him my name was “Bill”. I then showed him my camera and pointed to the setting sun and the temples spreading out across the plain. He nodded rapidly several times that he understood my intension. He turned and looked at the sunset and pointed to the beginning of a rising bank of clouds. “Oh Shit” I said aloud. It wasn’t looking good for my sunset shot.
I heard a squeal, and his wife came around the ledge. Her dark eyes were creased in a broad smile. She came directly to her husband and sat up close. He put his arms around her and they both looked at me. So, I took their picture. She said her name was Nanda.
They talked to each other for a few seconds and smiling started to pantomime that they wanted me to have dinner with them. I Glanced at the clouds blocking the sun. I realized that I wouldn’t get my shot, so I happily agreed to dinner.
The climb down was effortless. I kept one hand on the wall to keep my balance in the dark. We popped out into the fading light of day, We went to the nearest gate where I gladly put my sneakers back on. They really felt good. Then we walked towards their lean-to. The fire was just red coals and Nanda immediately left us to gather some more wood.
Zarni motioned for me to go inside and sit down on the bench / bed which ran the full width of the lean-to. There was nothing else in the room except the small fire and a metal grill propped up over the coals. There was no chair. The floor was dirt and the walls were open. A light breeze moved through the room giving some relief to the hot dead air. Underneath the bed was the pantry.

Nanda returned with an armload of small sticks. She got the fire going again. Zarni and I sat on the bed and watched her. He was so excited at having me as a guest that he didn’t know what to do. Everyone was laughing. The two of them talked excitedly back and forth and a decision was made to show me something. Zarni quickly reached under the bed and pulled out a beautiful bone handled carving knife.
He held it out to me with both hands for me to examine. I took it gently and looked at it carefully and told him in english what a fine knife it was, all the while turning it over in my hands. They were obviously pleased at my reaction. I smiled and said excitedly, “Wait until you see what I have.” I reached behind me and pulled out my buck knife. Not just any old buck, this one I bought twenty years ago in Santa Fe. I was just another tourist walking by the indian vendors at the Palace when I saw this knife laid out next to a bunch of silver necklaces. The handle was made of turquoise, mother of pearl and silver. I bought it right then and have rarely been without it.
I handed it to Zarni and he held it up for Nanda to see. She came over and the two of them admired the knife. They were chattering back an forth while pointing to the different stones. I reached over and opened up the blade. What a great reaction, It would have been a superb commercial for Buck.
Nanda reached under the bed and pulled out their one pan and several rather used looking cans. She put the pan on the grate and dug rice out of one can and brown stew looking stuff out of the other and put them into the pan. Then she brought out the dinner ware. There only two plates and their two forks. She set them down in the sand next to the grate and used one of the forks to stir.
Zarni and I sat there carefully watching her. She squatted next to the grate and very confidently watched over our dinner.
It was dark out side now. I am always amazed how quickly it gets dark the nearer you get to the equator. Dinner was ready. Nanda had put the food on the plates. She handed me my plate first, with the clean fork. After she handed Zarni his plate she squatted on the floor facing us.
Here’s the test, they both sat motionless watching as I took my first bite. Dam, it was good! I let out a woop and laughed and told them how really good it was. Far better than I was expecting. They were so pleased. I felt a real feeling of Love for these two. They had nothing and they shared it. They were pure, uncorrupted. Lao Zu would refer to them as the Uncarved Block.
After a very quiet dinner Nanda took the plates and put them into the pan. Then turned and spoke to me. I think she was thanking me for being their dinner guest. I smiled and put my hands together in front of me and gave her a polite bow.

Began, Burma

Bye bye – Bagan, Burma

I had to think about leaving. But, first I had to find two gifts. I dug around in my camera bag and pulled out a beautiful fan I had been carrying around since China. It was a medium size fan made of white plastic, but moulded to look just like an ancient ivory fan. It was quite beautiful.
When I handed it to her, her eyes got real big and she squealed with delight. Wow, that was a home run. Now what did I have for Zarni? I dug back in to the bag and couldn’t find anything that seemed special. Then I found two very nice ball point pens. I pulled them out and handed them to Zarni. He seemed very pleased. Then he got down and looked on the shelf under the bed and came up with a giant grin and handed me a roll of film. Not in a box but with the tab sticking out the end. I was flabbergasted. And I let him know how pleased I was.
I pointed outside and indicated it was time for me to go. The three of us walked outside. I was glad to see the moon was full. I have to ride about two miles, and I didn’t pay much attention on the way here. They gathered around me and pressed me to come back for another visit. I said I would. We shook hands vigorously, lots of smiles. I felt really good. It was an unforgettable dinner.
I got on my bike and wobbled off into the dark.

— Bill Stanhope

Burmese women sleeping on the train tracks - waiting for their ride

Sleeping on the Tracks – life in Myanmar/Burma

This is my favorite photo!  I was in Rangoon Burma waiting for the fast train to Mandalay.  I had time to kill so I left the magnificent late nineteenth century British railroad station and walked out to the yard. I was surprised to see cows walking through the tracks. There were also many people camped in the yard. I saw a small walk over bridge which took you from one side of the yard to the opposite side. As I was walking over the bridge and looked down to see these two ladies waiting for some train. It was an amazing sight.

Another wonderful dispatch on life in Myanmar/Burma from the intrepid Bill Stanhope – [Kevin เควิน Khaosan]

Riding up Mandalay Hill in Burma

A few years ago I was backpacking through Burma. I arrived in Mandalay by the fast train (which took 18 hours, and stopped at every station that I could see) from Rangoon. One of the places I wanted to see was Mandalay Hill. There was a great temple at the top where the Buddha had stood and pointed down to the plains, and said “Someday their will be a great city here. So Mandalay was born.

mandalay hill lovely ladies

Giggling up Mandalay Hill

When I got to the bottom of The Hill there were two ways to get up. The first was to walk by the two giant guardian protectors and up 400 steps. The second way was by taxi. It was really hot, so I decided to go up by taxi. I know what you are thinking, Bright yellow cab with a meter. That’s not it. It was a 25 year old Nisson pick up truck with a fabric surry on top of the bed. Fine with me. Waiting with me were five young Burmese ladies. We stood there in the sun waiting for the signal, from the driver, to get in the back of the truck. It came, and we all piled in. I smiled at them and they all giggled.
The ride up was slow and bumpy. I had my camera on my lap, and picked it up and motioned to them that I would like to take their picture. They giggled and chattered back and forth to each other. I took that as yes and started taking a few pictures. They laughed and giggled and several covered their faces with their hands.
We reached the top and I thanked them and bowed. They all giggled. The Temple is huge on top. There were many rooms. It was breath taking. I just walked around taking pictures. And every so often we would run into each other and they would dissolve into giggles every time they saw me. And, I would take their picture.

Down the Irrawaddy River on a Chinese Steamer

Down the Irrawaddy River on an old Chinese Steamer

I was traveling on a 50 year old Chinese steamer down the Irrawaddy River in Burma. It was a three day trip on this local steamer because it stopped at every village along the way. I was the only westerner on the boat. And I was the only westerner that some of the passengers had ever seen. Young children burst into tears at the mere sight of me. Which caused the parents to smile and laugh at their children’s discomfort and to assure me that they were fine with my being there. No one has a beard in Burma and I must have looked pretty scary.

I had no idea what to expect when I climbed up the one wooden plank to board the ship. I had paid for a cabin and it turned out that I was the only person staying in one. Everyone else quickly marked off their place on one of the three decks. As I walked past this colorful mass of people, many people called to me to join them, and started to make room for me to put down my blanket. I smiled and thanked them, but, I didn’t feel comfortable doing that. At least not right away. So I went past a bunch of unoccupied cabins to find mine. It was a metal box with two metal beds attached to the wall with space between them, a sink, a window and one bare light bulb in the ceiling. Well it was quiet. The bathroom, I found out, was a big common room with a trough on one side and several holes in the floor. Right out in the open. And it was at the stern of the ship.

The first day we slid down the river like a dream. Dotted along the banks were beautiful gold and white temples. Every village had it’s own pagoda. Sometimes just the top of a golden spire was visible poking up through the palm trees. The new passengers were huddled in a colorful mass at the edge of the beach, with there bundles, and bags of vegetables, and chickens. The steamer would just plow into the sand beach and put down a single plank and they would scurry aboard in a big hurry to get their spaces marked out.

I spent the first day standing by the rail and watched the countryside slip by. I was anxious to take pictures, but, I was afraid of insulting the passengers. So, I just had the camera with me. Pretty soon some family would smile at me and indicate that they would like me to take a picture of them. Gradually they excepted me and my camera and when I pointed my camera at the them, everyone would smile.

I discovered there was no dining room. Everyone brought their own food. I had brought three packages of Ramon Noodles which is almost all I ate. Their were faucets of boiling water which is how I made my soup. I was often offered food by the passengers, but, I always politely refused. I was afraid of getting sick. But, I did except one egg and a banana. I thought they would be safe.

As the day wained the steamer prepared for the coming night. I found out that because of all the sand bars the ship didn’t run at night. What they did was ram the steamer into the beach and a crew member would scramble off the bow with a rope and drag it up into the jungle and tie us to a tree. Then as the evening darkened other ships, attracted by our bright lights would maneuver next to us and tie the boats together. In about an hour we had five other ships hooked on. The bright lights attracted a plethora of moths. They were every where. But, all of a sudden the lights went out. My cabin was black.

I walked back to the deck and was amazed to see little cooking fires, like fireflies, all across the deck.

There was an excitement in the air. A din of conversation chirped through the night. After dinner and clean up. Everyone began singing the most haunting melody. These were Buddhist prayers that everyone knew. It was beautiful beyond description.

The 10th World Film Festival – Nov 16-Nov 25

10th Edition World Film Festival, Bangkok, ThailandKriangsak “Victor” Silakong, Festival Director, brings you the 10th Edition of the World Film Festival here in Bangkok. A truly international event, the festival brings films from a wide range of countries including India, South Korea, Iran, Jordan, Taiwan, Indonesia, Myanmar, USA, France, and a host of others. A total of around 50 films will be shown.

The festival is well-known for promoting independent Thai film-makers and in the past has unearthed considerable local talent.

The event takes place at Esplanade Cineplex from November 16 to November 25 and tickets are only 100 baht a shot. It couldn’t be easier to get to – it’s on Ratchadaphisek Road and you can get there by the MRT underground – the Thailand Cultural Center station is right next to it, so no excuses. The festival opens Friday November 16 with Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Mekong Hotel – an hour-long film that was shown in Cannes earlier this year. 

Check out the festival website… 

An Introduction to Burma

Introduction to Burma
Introduction to Burma
Introduction to Burma

Often still referred to by its former name of Burma, Myanmar is a beautiful diamond-shaped country spanning roughly 575 miles (925 kilometres) from east to west and 1300 miles (2100 kilometres from north to south.

Myanmar is part of Southeast Asia and is bordered by Bangladesh and India to the west, China to the north, and Laos and Thailand to the east. This is a country rich with natural beauty, culture, wildlife, forests, coastal resorts and temples and in many ways is the perfect tourist destination.

However, Myanmar is ruled by a brutal military regime, and many people avoid visiting Myanmar in order to avoid supporting this regime. However, the sad truth is that most tourist services such as guesthouses, restaurants and tours are run by the people themselves and not the government. The recent reduction in tourism has simply meant that the people of Myanmar are forced to suffer from lost earnings in addition to the numerous hardships and constraints imposed by the government. As long as you are careful to avoid government run hotels, buses and other services, it is possible to experience the most of this captivating country and possibly make a bit of a difference at the same time.

Although various parts of Myanmar are currently closed to tourists, the tourist numbers have been rising over the last couple of years, allowing many resorts to reopen. The Irrawaddy River runs through the centre of the country and this is a great way to travel and see the countryside.

Travelling through Myanmar feels like stepping into the past. Even though the capital city is fairly modern compared with the rest of the country it is still perhaps half a century behind many modern Southeast Asian capitals such as Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, while the country’s remote villages have changed little of the last few centuries.

This is a large part of Myanmar’s charm and as you explore you will discover ancient marvels such as the 4000 sacred stupas which are scattered across the plains of Bagan and the mysterious golden rock that somehow manages to balance on the edge of a chasm. As you ride in a Wild West stagecoach you will pass grand British mansions and men wearing traditional long skirt-like cloths around their waists.

Despite their years of suffering, the people of Myanmar are friendly, gentle and have a unique sense of humour. As you wander through villages and small towns you will probably be invited to get to know these people and share a part of their lives, an incomparable experience.

One of the best things about Myanmar is that it hasn’t been inflicted by the blight of Starbucks, McDonalds and other chain outlets that cover most Asian countries. Myanmar’s charms are subtle but they are authentically Asian and this is one of the few places in the world where you can experience true Asian culture without the integration of Western consumerism.

An Introduction to Laos

laos_gibbon_experience_bokeo_3Poetically dubbed the “land of a million elephants”, the charming country of Laos is situated in the centre of the Indochina Peninsula. Bordered by China to the north, Myanmar to the northwest, Vietnam to the east and Cambodia to the south, Laos embodies everything that makes its neighbouring countries great.

You will be sure to find a warm welcome and broad smiles as you explore Laos and discover all that the country has to offer. Despite years of war and hardship, this former French colony has managed to retain its unique culture and stunning natural scenery. The pace of life here is gentle and as you explore you will be seduced by the chilled-out attitude of the people you meet.

Laos has only been part of the tourist trade for just over a decade, yet it has a lot to offer those with a strong sense of adventure. There are plenty of opportunities to get away from the tourist scene and discover the dense forests and wander along dusty back roads where you will be greeted by waving children and friendly families as you pass.

North-eastern Laos is still very underdeveloped and this is a great place to head if you want to escape the tourist scene and really get to know the country, while to the south you will find plenty of pretty islands and beaches and even the chance to view the elusive Kratie river dolphin.

However, there are several small towns and villages geared towards tourism, such as the enchanting village of Vang Vieng, where visitors are encouraged to relax with a good meal and a beer or two, surrounded by spectacular views of the limestone cliffs and sparkling river.

This is a great place to go trekking and explore the countryside, spending the night in a traditional village with a family. White water rafting, kayaking, rock-climbing and cycling are all popular, while to the south the Four Thousand Islands offer the perfect piece of paradise.

Travellers in Laos will never go hungry and there is a good range of dishes available for those with a sense of adventure. Lao food has been influenced by the French, Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese and throughout Laos you will discover culinary delights such as French baguettes, spicy Thai salads and Vietnamese noodles. 

Laos is a good place to explore at any time, but it really comes alive during its festivals, especially the New Year and Rocket Festival. It’s a good idea to time your trip to coincide with one of these festivals as the streets are filled with singing and dancing and people put on their best clothes and biggest smiles.

Location and History of Laos

Location and History of Laos
Location and History of Laos
Location and History of Laos

Covering 236.800 square kilometres, Laos is a small landlocked country situated in the Indochinese peninsula. Bordered by Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand, the population of Laos is around 5 million.

With a tropical climate, Laos is a country of stunning natural beauty. The southern most part tends to be the hottest and here you will find a variety of pretty islands. The centre of Laos is covered with dense forests, while there are dramatic mountains to the north.

Laos’ past is somewhat turbulent and the country has suffered greatly from the effects of war and poverty. The people of Laos originated from Thailand and it can be observed that the culture of Laos has a lot in common with that of Thailand. It was also formerly a French-Indochinese state and you will still find French influences as well as traces of the Vietnamese and Khmer cultures.

After centuries of invasion from neighbouring countries, Laos took a severe beating during the French Indo-China war and again during World War II. Laos finally gained full independence from France under the reign of King Sisavang Vong in 1953, although peace still did not follow as the monarchy was opposed by the Laotian Patriotic Front. Years of warring followed, with the LPF forming an alliance with the group that would become the Viet Cong.

Finally, after years of instability cultural and bilateral trade agreements were signed with China in December 1987 and the political situation began to improve. Relations were improved with neighbouring countries and the west and the king retired in 1991, allowing a new constitution to form. Laos has been governed by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party since 1975 and the political situation finally seems stable, allowing the country to rebuild and resettle.

Despite former hardship, the people of Laos are warm and welcoming and smiles are frequent and genuine. Today Laos is one of the world’s poorest countries, with agriculture the main form of economy. Laos’ main products are rice, pulses, fruit, sugar cane, tobacco and coffee, with coffee being the country’s largest export.

The official language of Laos is Lao, although a range of tribal languages as well as French, Vietnamese and English are also sometimes spoken. The majority of people are Buddhist, with a range of other religions such as animism, Confucianism and Christianity practiced by the tribes people.

Luang Namtha, Laos

Luang Namtha, Laos
Luang Namtha, Laos
Luang Namtha, Laos

Bordered by both China and Myanmar, Luang Namtha province is situated to the north of Laos and is home to 39 of the country’s ethnic groups. This is a good place to pause before making your way into China as the Chinese-Lao border crossing is located nearby at Boten and connects Laos with Mohan in China. Visitors to Luang Namtha will notice some similarities between the local culture and that of China, and those familiar with Laos will enjoy making comparisons between this province and the rest of the country.

This region is famous for its stunningly beautiful rainforest and unspoilt monsoon forest and no visit to Luang Namtha would be completed without a trip to the Nam Ha National Biodiversity Conservation Area. There are plenty of animals to spot here including tigers, bears, clouded leopard, and gibbons as well as a large collection of colourful birds and reptiles.

Luang Namtha is a good place to rest and relax and immerse yourself in the beauty of the area. Walking is a good way to explore and there are several villages where you can stay for a day or two and simply explore or relax by the river and listen to the wind in the trees.

The town of Luang Nam Tha is a good place to stay and you will find plenty of basic places to stay and evening entertainment at the night market. Surrounded by a pretty patchwork of rich rice paddy fields, this is a great place to stop for a day or two and get learn about the diversely different tribes that live in the villages nearby. The town sits on a hilly area and provides great views of the surrounding countryside.

A popular activity around Luang Namtha is trekking. There are a number of experienced guides available and embarking on a trek with a qualified guide can be a rewarding experience as they can provide an insight into the unique culture of the region and make can provide access to the many villages and villagers themselves.

Tranquil and picturesque, the town of Muang Xing has a great collection of friendly guesthouses where you are sure to receive a warm welcome and a good meal. This is a good place to arrange trekking and hiking trips and to meet fellow travellers to share a beer or two in the evening and swap stories with.

Bokeo, Laos

Bokeo, Laos
Bokeo, Laos
Bokeo, Laos

The name Bokeo means ‘gem mine’ in the Laos language, and this small province is famous for its sparkling sapphires. Situated to the northwest of Laos near Thailand and Myanmar, this is Laos’ smallest province.

Most people travel to Bokeo to visit the Bokeo Nature Reserve, which is managed by The Gibbon Experience. Visitors to the reserve have the unique opportunity to stay in tree-top accommodation and observe the beautiful black crested gibbons in one of their last remaining habitats in the world. Visitors can also trek through the forest along the picturesque Nam Nga River.

Bokeo is home to 34 of Laos’ ethnic groups, with the largest being the Akha. These ethnic groups each follow their own individual traditional cultural practices. There are more than 450 villages in Bokeo to explore and trekking through the countryside can be a very rewarding experience.

Take a walk to the Chomkao Manilat temple and climb the steep flight of steps to the very top witness stunning panoramic views over Houy Xay city, the Mekong River and surrounding mountains and countryside.

Also known as ‘the Land of Sapphires’, panning for gold and mining precious stones is still a profitable job in Bokeo and you can witness this and perhaps pick up a bargain or two in the picturesque village of Ban Nam Khok.

A boat trip is a very relaxing and pretty way to explore Bokeo and it easy to arrange trips upstream from Houixay, stopping off at traditional villages such as Ban Namkeung Kout, Ban Namkeung Mai and Ban Done Deng on the way through the province.

The people of Bokeo are warm and welcoming and you are sure to be well received wherever you go. In the evening, head to the local markets for a good meal and some light banter with the people who work there.