Sunday, April 24, 2011


Kathmandu: Garbage and Traffic

     The garbage situation in Kathmandu is impossible again.  As I walk down the muddy, pot-holed side street from the Ganesh Himal Hotel, the rancid smell permeates the air even before I turn the corner on to Nhyokha Tole, the main road.  The monthly requisite ever growing pile of garbage at the corner of Nhyokha and the roundabout that rings the Chhetrapati bandstand has grown expendencally over night.  The local black bull that roams the district daily stands contentedly eating from what is becoming a massive pile of vegetable shavings, cooked leftovers, general refuse, plastics and plastic bags.  His rear extends out into the traffic, heavy with honking cars, bicycle-rickshaws, motorbikes, and pedestrians trying to cross the intersection.  Yet all the mechanical conveyances and individuals give the macerating beast a wide berth, as he noshes his way through his morning fare.  Occasionally, in his ardor for the best offerings, he or one of his compatriots in other garbage piles around Kathmandu accidentally eats a plastic bag, which if caught in their intestinal track, would be his death sentence.  But today, the bull busily munches his hearty brunch with not a care in the world, while I, taking my life in my hands as I do daily, circuitously maneuver my way across the five streets that meet here.

  I swallow hard, and began to cross the last street past Chhetrapati Chowk (the bandstand) to Chhetrapati Tole, when a motorcycle bangs into my arm as it rushes on its way through the jam of mangled traffic. The driver heads further into the morning crush unaware that he has hit my arm, which is bleeding profusely.  Upon safely reaching the other side, I wipe off the loose blood and check that all my other body parts are in tack. Then I whip out a handy bandage from my billfold, paste it on my arm and head on my way toward the center of Thamel and my local hangout, Green’s Organic Café. 
 While the ‘Ohm’ prayer musically blasts out from the corner DVD store reassuring me that God, Buddha, Ganesh and the rest are protecting the bull and me.  That he will get his monthly garbage feast and I will again get across Chhetrapati safely and carry on with my endeavors as if it were a walk on the clouds.

The above was written in 2007

I am now on a return trip (2011) to my beloved Nepal and things have certainly changed.  The street from the Ganesh Himal Hotel to Nhyokha Tole has been paved although it has acquired new potholes.  The garbage problem has been tackled, so there are no more massive piles of garbage on street corners.  I have missed seeing my friend, the black bull, but as there is nothing for him to eat; there is no longer a reason for him to be wandering the Thamel streets of Kathmandu. 

Many streets have been made one-way and there are also police directing traffic at peak traffic times.  Occasionally, I have actually seen drivers of both motorcycles and cars receive traffic violation tickets.  And although it is still dangerous, crossing Chhetrapati Chowk is no longer a life-defying event.  The greater hazard now is pollution.  I read in the  Kathmandu Post the other day that in 2008 there were 28,000 cars, and now there are over 50,000.  The roads, the buildings, and the human lungs are not equipped to handle this amount of dirty air and both locals and tourists including me wander the streets wearing facemasks as protection. 

 Green’s Organic Café is still open.  Their vegetable, shaved cheese and nut salad is still wonderful, the Chicken Chili is some of the best in Kathmandu and they still make the world’s very best rice pudding.  The Garden of Dreams has opened a lovely café, Mitho’s Restaurant just off Chhetrapati Chowk and Chez Caroline (for molten chocolate cake with ice cream) are also great choices for good food. The best shopping at the best prices is still Patan with its lovely Durbar Square and numerous little workshops tucked here and there in little streets and ally ways.   Yet, the silversmith at SUN & MOON Jewellery Work Shop on Ihahity Kwabahal in Kathmandu, if you give him a sample of what you want, still does lovely work.  Fire and Ice still has the best pizza, and although expensive, Pilgrims still mails packages rather than have to go 20 minutes away to the post office. As the designs never change, I secretly believe that in the Thamel shops are selling some of the same clothes that hung here in the 1980s.  They have probably dusted off and the same ones and they are still on display in 201l.  Bicycle still rickshaws riddle the streets with tired old men and fresh young ones cycling hard to get tourist and locals around the Thamel area.  Porters still carry 100 kg loads on their backs though out the Thamel streets; with straps across their foreheads they carry refrigerators, carpets, five or six trunks, couches to list a few things.   United Bookstore is still the best for trading used books, and for a few hours out Kathmandu chaos and Thamel craziness the lovely Garden of dreams is the place to go. 

Kathmandu still suffers with a revolving electrical grid schedule, which means each section of the city only gets electricity eight hours daily.  My favorite hostelry, Hotel Ganesh Himal, has installed a generator so the only time they do not provide electric might be a random night between twelve midnight and seven A.M.  The rooms are very pleasant with a beautiful garden, which is not only restful but also wired for WFI, with a staff that never leaves.  Rinku, Maya, Anju, Mukhiya, Kancha and the gang here make me and all the other guests right at home when ever I come.  And they serve the best curd (yogurt) in the whole wide world.  The Ganesh Himal Travel Desk is at the same high quality as the hotel run by Plalson Gurung and Prakash Upreti, they give great value in flights over Everest, treking destinations and excellent guides.   I’d rather fight then switch.

Treks are just as exhilarating and the Himalayas just as magnificent as ever.  Fortunately I will be returning again in October, which I am told is the best month of the whole year.  

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Sky Thoughts, Bagan Archaeological Zone and Ngapali Beach

When I decided to go to Myanmar my original plan was to go to Yangon take the boat up the Ayeyarwady River, stop at Bagan and then continue up to Mandalay.  Upon our arrival, Samantha and I found that time constraints would not allow this.  Also, Sam’s health was slowly failing (flu or something awful), and that we both needed down time on a warm weather beach.  To solve the first problem, we decided to fly to all our destinations, next we eliminated Mandalay from our itinerary and replaced it with Myanmar’s best beach, and on our way to the airport for Bagan we stopped at a clinic so Samantha could see a doctor.  One strong antibiotic later and we were on our way. 

At the airport, in fact at every landing and departure, although we were within Myanmar’s borders, we were required to show our plane ticket and our passports.
At one point we got off at the wrong stop, Heho the gateway to Inlie Lake. We were immediately whisked back on our plane for our Bagan debarkation.   Although Sam disagrees, when we embarked on our next flight, Bagan to Ngapali, I believe they must of made a note about our previous error, as we were the only passengers who were squired to seats (all flights are open seating) at the front of the plane and told not to get off until the last destination.   The other interesting fact about these flights is they were all propjets.   The Stewardesses were dressed in cute 1950s outfits; on the first flight they even wore matching little caps, and served a little tray lunch.  On all the other flights we were handed rapped supposed chicken sandwiches.  The bread was a white bread bun, which had no opening at all, so I can only guess they used a hypodermic needle to inject the chicken inside the bun.  Certainly a meal I repeatedly chose to miss after my initial bite.  On some flights, they changed their flight plans from what was stated on our tickets.  This, I read later, was because occasionally dignitaries needed to go somewhere and flights were changed to accommodate them.  Sure enough on the one diverted flight we experienced, there was a gentleman being fawned over at the airport by the locals and sent off in a fanfare of friendship.

I really don’t remember when I first heard about the Buddhist temples of Bagan, but I know going there has been on my agenda for at least five years.  I had no concept of the type of architecture or the terrain, and was quite shocked to find a dry, barren plain full of square block-like temples almost Italianate in design.  The dynasty that had this temple building mania survived a relatively short time but left a fine hisAppleMarkfile:///Users/bobbielauren/Desktop/IMG_4128.JPGtoric legacy.

In 1044, King Anawahta began his reign, and consolidated the area into one country.  At the same time, he also became a Theravadan Buddhist.  It was then, he began building Buddhist Temples on the dusty Bagan plain.  The kingdom lasted about 200 years and it is thought that during that time 4400 Buddhist temples were built.  Finally, leaving the country broke because of this fervent temple building; the last king was unable to protect the country from the ravishing of Kublai Khan’s forces in 1287.  

In 1975, an earthquake hit the area and damaged many of the temples (I read the government used slave citizen labor to rebuild and repair some of the damage), and in 1990, the government forcibly moved the villagers out of Old Bagan to New Bagan, about 3 miles away.  Today the area is designated as the ‘twenty-six square mile Bagan Archaeological Zone.’   Except for a few extremely pricey hotels in both Old and New Bagan, Old Bagan has a number of uninteresting guesthouses and restaurants, while new Bagan has two very nice little hotels, one, Thiri Marlar Hotel, the other Kumudara.  The later has a swimming pool and views at night of the lighted Temples.  There is a restaurant-row along the Ayeyarwady River with our favorite being The Green Turtle, which we later learned was one of a chain, although we never found another Green Turtle through out our travels. 

Each day we went in a pony cart with a driver going from temple to temple, overwhelmed by the number and beauty of them all.  Many had murals.  Some murals were historical, while others were religious paintings. We were allow to photograph some, others had signs; no photography allowed. These brutishly block shaped buildings of all sizes with their added spires carpeted the landscape like shells and pebbles washed up by an early morning sea tide onto the beach. 

The horse plodded along daily leading her cart on the both the paved and dusty dirt roads delivering us to each of the temples.  She waited patiently under the shade of the nearest tree as we explored the facades and interiors and avoided being accosted by the barrage of souvenir sellers and the ragged post card selling children at every stop.  At some temples the sellers had even set up their wares inside the temple itself.  Inside one temple a young man observed, “You have nice teeth.” 
Surprised at first by his observation, I thought, ‘Well that is certainly true.’
     “Look at mine, they are really white.  I take care of my teeth.”
     “They are lovely,” I responded.
     “That’s because I take care of them.  I don’t chew betel nut.”  He continued.  I don’t want brown stained teeth.  I want American teeth.”  He said with a broad smile, proud of his pearly whites. 
      “Great,” I responded again.  “Good Job.” I smiled back and went on my way.  ‘American teeth’ another great export idea.  Obviously, it must be our really white teeth that make us great.  Thank you American Dental Association. 

Upon returning to our pony cart, I looked at our driver’s teeth.  Twenty-three and he already had brown stained teeth. I had observed a couple times when I had ask him a question that he had not responded and had to ask again.  It was the betel nut, of course. There was a little bag attached to the handle of his cart.  Every once in awhile he dipped into it and took out the crushed betel nut as well as the leaf.  Said to be a stimulant, it also gives the chewer a sense of wellbeing and euphoria and among other sensations, a heightened capacity to work.  I decided his state of euphoria was obviously the one at work here. I ask him about it and he said he chewed it to get through the day.  When I thought about it, it occurred to me that driving a pony cart to the same places and answering the same questions day in and day out was probably pretty boring for an intelligent 23 year old.

He told me his family owed two horses and carts, and previously both his mother and father had been cart drivers.  But they had now both retired and had turned the business over to their two sons.  He and his brother still lived in the family home. He had a cell phone and a motorcycle, for young man in Burma, he was doing well.
“ I don’t see as many soldiers as I thought I would,” I mentioned as we sat in the cart waiting for my daughter. 
       “They don’t need that.” He responded.  “There are informers everywhere.   I’m a university student.  Our country has a high level of literacy.”  He added as he intermittedly chewed his betel nut.  “University students are all distance learners.  This way the government controls the gathering of student groups. They send me my books and once or twice a year I go to Mandalay and take a test.   But I think the government is loosening up. I think it’s getting better.” He continued.  “Of course they still have the guns,” cocking his thumb and forefinger as if he was going to shoot. “And we…” I waved my hand with a negative gesture, and his sentence drifted off.  At that moment my daughter, Samantha arrived and the conversation ended (no she’s not a spy, anyway I don’t think so. HA!  She just doesn’t like to talk politics).

So off we went and just like the day before, touts (both children and adults) were waiting at every Temple to sell, sell, sell.  As with most of the Burmese we had seen everywhere through out the country, these people put streaks of tan thanaka power on their cheeks and foreheads. Applied in streaks like the war paint of Indians of the old American West, I was told by the staff of the Motherland 2 guesthouse that it was their form of sun block and it was important to use everyday.

Post cards are for sale at every stop, and at one, a little boy was selling post card pictures he had drawn himself.  “Those are great, “ Sammy said as she pointed them out to me.  “Buy them Mom,” she requested and I did.  After all, great art should never go unappreciated.  Unfortunately, three other little boys came running after us with real post cards and the horse was so slow that the boys were keeping pace with us even as the cart crossed the road and into the next field.  So we stopped, and now I own enough sets of Bagan post cards too become a tout myself.  “These people are very poor.” Our driver explained as we pulled away a second time, leaving four smiling faces. 

The second day the horse had to work particularly hard as most of the roads were rocky sand and dirt.  A couple of times, we got out and walked so the horse could traverse the gnarled rocky path.  At the end of our second day, we ended up at the beautiful Pyathada Paya temple and it was here I saw the best sunset I have ever seen in my whole life.  Do I have a picture? No.  Ran out of battery just as it showed it’s magnificent shades of reds, drifting to oranges.  Guess I’ll have to go back, won’t I?

Note:  The Bagan area is also Myanmar’s lacquer ware making center; everything from small delicate bowls and miniature animals, chests of drawers to room divider screens.  Each decorated with beautiful individually designed patterns and motifs.  Because of the time necessary to make these handmade pieces, they can be highly expensive.  Bamboo is the base material used in making lacquer ware, and selling the bamboo to the lacquer ware factories is an extremely lucrative business.  The house of the man who owns the bamboo ‘forest’ used to make these lovely pieces was pointed out to us, and looked it out of place in its impressiveness in relation to the other little wooden homes we saw in the Bagan area.


Niagara Beach (0ur last stop)

Myanmar has a number of really nice beaches.  Two are touted in the guidebooks, Chaungtha, which has marionette shows, inexpensive fish restaurants and various other street entertainments along the beach.  It is used by locals and tourist alike but like most of the beaches is only accessible by a five to seven -hour bus ride.   Nagapali, the more exclusive, beautiful two mile white sand beach is set aside for foreign tourists with most hotels having high western standards; massive pools, business centers, spas, and room prices ranging from $120 to over $320 a night like the Amata Hotel. The clientele for all the expensive resorts are mostly Germans on pre-paid packaged tours. So it is not necessary for them to carry a great deal of cash. 

We stayed at the locally owned Royal Beach Hotel.  Our rooms at $30 a night were somewhat tacky.  Once we got there we found they had built a new wing nearer the beach, which were priced at $50 a night.  We certainly would have changed to that wing but there were no rooms available.  The location was lovely.  Cushioned beach lounges and towels were provided daily, the dining porch overlooked the beach and breakfast was included.  Would we stay at this hotel again, absolutely but in the new wing. 

 Behind the resorts, the road was dotted with a plethora of fish restaurants and an occasional gift shop.   Each evening we tried a different one but we found there was not much to distinguish one restaurant from the other. Probably our best meal was when we splurged for lunch two hotels down the beach at the Amata Hotel.   Along restaurant row, the local moneychanger (oddly, always a woman in each community we visited) was one of the gift shop owners.  Also along the road was a local medical clinic.  Under a covered parking area were four beautifully well-maintained charming snub-nosed white buses right out of a 1930s style Brit-com with whimsical green palm trees painted on their sides.  

On our last morning I walked to the little fishing village south of the resort and found wonderful photographic subjects who were so willing to pose.  In some countries, people have their hand out begging to be paid if you want to take their pictures.  Here everyone was delighted at my interest and one man riding his family on his tricycle-shaw, reached into his knapsack and gave me the gift of a large conch shell for taking his and his family’s picture. 

The Burmese are lovely, kind gentle people, who suffer many indignities meted out by an unkind government.  There are many small nomadic tribes who, although located within its borders, are not accepted as citizens by this government. Some are still at war with the government, while others have moved deeper into the mountainous un-surveyed northern interior.  The Mon people, who were probably the first settlers of what is considered modern Burma, are, now mostly located in a no-man’s land between Thailand and Myanmar.  These people are considered non-citizens by both countries and have been carrying on a mini war against the Burmese government for years.  If the government will not give them freedom from its control, the Mon would at least like citizenship, and the autonomy to carry on with their language and cultural traditions.  

Burma/Myanmar is a country sitting on much of the world’s natural gas, off shore oil, numerous minerals and the most rubies of anywhere in the world.  Yet it is still a major poppy grower and continues to be one of the world’s main exporters of opium. It has one of the world’s most feeble human rights records; reflected in the government’s free use of citizen labor, network of citizen informers and jail internment of its citizens for ‘subversive’ (disagreeing with the government) behavior.   Because of its poor human rights record, some guidebooks question the rationale for even going Myanmar.  But as I stated in the last section, I will definitely return.  Even though the government benefits greatly from the infusion of my American dollars, my presence gives people jobs and just as importantly a slight insight into an outside world that would otherwise be closed to them in their current society.    


Notes:   If you decide to visit Myanmar (Burma) it might behoove you to read the following: 
              The Glass Palace
              Finding George Orwell in Burma
  And G. Orwell’s three books:
              Burma Days
              Animal Farm
             The later two books are ban in Burma so although you may carry them within the country, you will not be able to buy them there.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


Yangon (first impressions), Myanmar

Myanmar is in a time warp much like Havana.  Yangon (Rangoon), the capital reminds me of Bucharest, Romania just after the fall of the Berlin wall, which at the time was one of the most unkempt cities I had ever visited.  Like Bucharest in June of 1990, Yangon’s boulevards are shrouded with weeds and scrub growing among uncared-for shrubs and trees, giving major city roads the essence of importance without the reality.  Areas where the general public live are cluttered with many eight-story ram shackled, unpainted cement apartment buildings lacquered with a patina of dirt intermixed with small cafes and little shops, some, mere indentions into the walls of these buildings.
  Men and women still wear the traditional Longi (a long piece of material worn in a skirt like manner).  There are neither western chains, nor fast food shops of any kind and much of the town’s transport is either by rickety automobiles (every car owner must be a amateur mechanic) or by sidecar bicycle rickshaws.
  Behind my hotel, the Motherland 2 guesthouse, it is littered with trash weathered by a dry hot sun.  The dry season will soon end and I am told heavy hot sultry rains will descend upon the whole country.   Motherland 2 is on the edge of the city very near the railroad tracks. Between midnight and two AM every morning passing trains sound their high-pitched whistles.  The hotel has four floors with a labyath of staircases ultimately leading to many of the same rooms. Our rooms are clean if utilitarian and we have hot water and TV, ‘though mine never worked. There is a dining room which serves a free western breakfast or if you order the night before a Burmese noodle breakfast, as well as meals throughout the day.   There is Internet in the lobby of one US dollar and hour, but it generally doesn’t work.
   Free pick up at the airport is on a rickety old ‘school bus,’ painted white with red trim.  Upon our arrival, about other 20 people and their luggage boarded the bus with us in the cover of darkness, and then we headed for our Hotel.  But wait a minute!  We took a detour to let one passenger off at the famously breathtaking Shwesadrogon Paya, the internationally renowned temple with spires that sparkle in the day and glow of gold at
night. When we finally reached our destination, the bus stopped in front of a dirt-covered sidewalk, next to an arid grassy area with bits of plastic bags strewn about, bordered by a brick and broken corrugated fence.  What a shock; this was a major travel book’s top budget pick?  Unbelievable.  Trip Advisor, where are you now that I need you?  Albeit the service was outstanding and friendly, the room rate $16 a night and the guests international, I still couldn’t get passed that old wooden building smell, the noise and the surroundings.
 Except for the temple, the whole city has a rancid smell about it.  Yangon is tired, worned out, more like a withered octagenean, ready for a face-lift.  What has happened to all the euros and US dollars taken in by the government?  A government that only deals in crisp fresh dollars, Euros, and scabby Kyats.  I have heard that for the generals, Singapore is their Paris of the East.  Much like the Emirates, where deposed dictators go to morph into comfortable, if anonymous silence, Singapore obviously keeps its countance. 
 Also, the generals have spent a massive amount of money building their new underground capital city, Naypidaw, as well as a massive above ground new parliament (I have heard that the government commandeered citizens as slave labor to build both of these projects) at the same location, both of which are said to have cleaned out their financial coffers.  Yet it is rumored, they are currently building underground bunkers near by; is there a hint of paranoia here?  
   Because there are no foreign banks in the country (gross human rights abuses caused George Bush’s administration’s to impose such strong sanctions on the country that all the foreign banks left), there is no way to use international ATMs or credit cards.  All transactions are in cash, US dollars, Euros or the local Kyats. Added to this inconvenience is that all foreign currency must be in perfect condition, a creased/folded bill or one with bent corners might easily be rejected.  Because the exchange rate is vague, I was at odds to know how much cash to take.  I had been quoted anywhere from 650 to 1160 Kyats to the US dollar (we got 860 using $100 bills).  In one travel guide it stated that the cost for a mid-range vacation for a week, was $750.   I took 1800 crisp fresh US dollars for two people for nine days and found that was cutting it close (this is not a cheap country in which to travel).  Albeit we flew to all our destinations, and eat in the restaurants of our choice, this did put constricts on our choice of hotels and some of our shopping.   Beautiful peach colored pearls, although inexpensive, were out of our reach and much of the lacquer work, some of which is exquisite.  Another $600 would have covered a change in our hotel room choices in Yangon, Bagan, and an upgrade in rooms in Ngapali, plus a pearl pendent.  As for the lacquer, a piece of excellent quality can be pricey and one would have to figure into their budget a sizably bigger amount.  Also the concern of having to carry so much cash is worrisome.  Most of the travelers are European; there were many German tourists this year on package tours at the beautiful, pricey Ngapali beach resorts (most rooms priced from over a $100 to beyond $300 a night).   This makes the cash problem a lot easier as their trips are pre-paid and it is only necessary to carry cash for souvenirs, transfers and dinning out.   
  Samantha and I, contrary to previous impressions, are great walkers.  Sam designed a walking day, which took us down to a temple by the Ayeyarwady River to a great restaurant, Monsoon for lunch. Then passed some lovely but crumbling British Colonial architecture ending up by early evening, at Shwedagon Paya.
        It’s spellbindingly beautiful main Stupa’s dome ‘rises 322 ft. above its base,’ and although it is many years older, its golden dome has been the symbol of Myanmar (Burma) since the 1500s.  Between the golden domes of the temples and stupas, it’s massive size and the gems throughout; it is not only a religious symbol of the country but also the ultimate Burmese work of Art. 
      Upon our arrival, we decided a guide was in order and Mrs. Khin Saw Aung charged us five US dollars for a wonderfully descriptive walk throughout the enormous enclave of temples, Buddhas, bells and statuary.  Near the end of our tour, at the one of the many famous bells, Mrs. Khin and I both banged the mallet on the ground than struck the bell three times as we each made a wish. 
      Although since being in Yangon, I have read about another good restaurant in Yangon. The Monsoon was our favorite (see Eat your heart out), and we ate there twice. 
      As we only had nine days, we spent three nights in each of our destinations:  the Capital Yangon, the Bagan Archaeological Zone, and Ngapalo Beach.