A Travellerspoint blog

Seven Months of Slow Travel

It's been over seven months on the road now and, to be honest, I am as surprised by this number as anyone. I originally planned to travel for five months tops and go home with the small fortune I made in China relatively intact. But after meeting so many people with so many stories about so many interesting places, the plan slowly slipped away and I found myself moving much slower through places I never even planned to visit.
One month in Laos and Cambodia turned into two. One month traveling the south of China turned into three, and an unexpected stop in Burma added another thirty days to the agenda. Now I am over seven months in and I haven't even made it to indonesia. 
I guess I have to come to realize the benefits of taking my time. I made the mistake of moving too fast on my last trip through Europe and I did not want to make that mistake again. Anybody can see a country in a week, but it takes much more time to experience a country and I am always surprised by the diversity I find in even the smallest of areas. The map of the world today, drawn primarily by colonial powers in the last few hundred years and maintained by ideas of national identity which are typically superficially linked to the true historical origin of various cultures, is a poor indication of the real cultural diversity which exists throughout any given region. Although people of the same country may speak the same language and are conditioned by the same popular media and education, I have found the diversity within a country can be just as striking as the contrasts between countries. Thus, I think it's important to take closer look where ever one ventures. 
The flip side of moving so slow, however, is that I am starting to run out of money and energy. Most of the time I feel strong enough to go on for another seven months but with all the sicknesses and ailments which come with backpacking starting to wear on me, there are times of weakness when I feel like getting on a plane back to Canada tomorrow. 
The honeymoon period I experienced at the beginning of my trip is long gone and life on the road has become somewhat normal. My home is now an endless stream of dorm rooms, guesthouses and bus seats. My friends are the people I happen to meet on any given day and my job is to find and organize interesting things to see and do. Certainly not a bad way to spend my time but it can wear on you after a while and Im finding it more difficult to stay interested. 
Since I began traveling I have felt like I am constantly chasing this euphoric feeling. Its like a travel drug. I get a fix when I experience something truly unique or see something awe inspiring. It comes and goes with the interesting or special people that I meet and sometimes it just appears randomly in the most bizarre situations. The problem is that as I spend more time on the road, this feeling becomes more and more elusive. It takes a lot more to feel impressed by anything. I am so addicted to this drug that I am constantly in need a bigger fix to produce the same effects but I find myself getting a bit lazy.
So I feel like I am waiting for a second wind. If want to continue traveling, I guess I need to work harder to keep myself engaged. I need to search out some truly unique experiences. Push myself to try things I have never done before. Further remove myself from my element. It seems like the only way to keep things new and exciting. To keep the travel drug flowing. I am hoping with it's Islamic tradition and diverse wilderness Indonesia is a good place to start. Because as much as I am feeling a little worn out at times, I am simply not ready to go home. 

Posted by bradenelsewhere 07:27 Comments (0)

Thailand, Take Two

sunny 35 °C

Since my first stop in Thailand wasn't exactly the highlight of my travels, I was not expecting much from the second. I found the north to be far too touristy and now I was on my way to the southern beaches, where the banana pancake trail was first forged by shoestring beach bums and backpackers so many years ago. I think a lot has changed since then so to avoid being disappointed, I was not looking for anything cultural from the white sand beaches and limestone cliffs of southern Thailand. I planned to do what everyone does down there, get a tan, get drunk and get a scuba certification.
I arrived in Bangkok on a flight from Yangon early in the morning. The contrast between the two capitals could not have been more striking. One moment I was in the middle of southeast Asia at it's most real and raw and only a short 40 minute flight later I found myself in the middle of southeast Asia at it's most touristy and glamourous. I wasn't terribly put off by the transition to be honest. A month in Burma had worn me down and I was ready for a little relaxation and a few western niceties. With over a thousand pictures and hundreds of stories from Burma needing to be transformed into a blog entry, I also had a busy couple days a head of me so I got to work. After the stories were written and pictures burned, I still had a little time to hit the town one last time before moving south. So I met up with a group of couchsurfers (mostly local expats) that night and spent far too much money making an idiot of myself in a string of fancy Bangkok clubs. I awoke the next morning hungover and pissed off I had dropped so much cash. But I sucked it up, then dropped a bunch more cash on an overpriced train / boat ticket to Koh Tao. In high season, there are tons of tourists trying to get to the islands but only a few boat companies. Thus, the Thai sailors really have the tourists by the balls. It's one of countless examples in Thailand where a glut in demand results in poor overpriced service.
It was a long journey to Koh Tao, first a 12 hour overnight train followed by a bus then a three hour rocky boat to the island. On the train I chatted with a Dutch woman in her late thirties named Nathalie who was on her way to meet some friends further south. She had a few days to kill before her friends arrived and decided to tag along to Koh tao to do some snorkeling.
We arrived in Koh Tao early and found our way to a beach side diving resort where I organized a four day intensive diving course. Since so many wanna-be scuba divers like myself flock to the island every year it's the cheapest place in the world to get a certification. I had already done my course in my early teens but never logged any open water dives. So I had to do the entire course over but was pretty well prepared.
Once the course was set, Nathalie and I took a stroll around the island. It was a prototypical tropical paradise with palm lined sandy beaches, large vegetation covered peaks and crystal blue waters. Unfortunately, it was also the prototypical tourist destination with a foreigner to local ratio of about 20:1, overpriced pubs and pizza parlors on every corner and posh beach clubs blaring techno music late into every night. On the few nights that I went for a drink, I was always surprised by the sheer number of Canadians that seemed to have annexed the island from Thailand. But its what I had expected from the southern beaches, and part of me was happy to drink beer and eat pizza with canadians for a few days.
I began my scuba training early in the morning with some videos and a dive in the pool. We were a small quirky group of four taught by a very experienced Irish instructor who had over 8000 dives under her belt. There was myself, another Canadian girl from Winnipeg, a swedish guy named Bjorn who I got along with well and a neurotic German math teacher in his mid-40s who had no idea what he had got himself into. Everyone seemed to be getting along fine except the German. His English comprehension level was very low and he was quick to panic in even the most simple situations. I thought it was pretty funny but he drove our instructor mad. He would often get nervous in the water and stop the entire lesson so that he could go pee. One time, while we were all suiting up on the boat to do an open water dive, everyone was horrified when he decided to strip down completely and stand there with his German sausage hanging out waiting for the instructor to bring him his equipment. He was an odd one.
Bratswurst aside, the open water dives were interesting. We never saw any whale sharks (a common occurrence off Koh Tao) but we did get a glimpse of a giant barracuda, a stingray and lots of colorful fish. Four days later, we took our final exams and officially became certified open water divers. It was a fun course and I was satisfied with the money well spent. That night they played us a underwater video made on our final day which included an running race along the ocean floor set in slow motion to the song 'Chariots of Fire'. After the video we got together with some of the other graduated groups for some buckets at the pub then made our way to a local electronic music festival where orbital (a famous DJ) was playing. I woke up once again very hungover and slept the day away before catching an overnight boat and bus to my next destination. The boat consisted of a hundred sardine style beds which offered you literally half a meter of wiggle room I'm which to sleep. It was so rocky that half the boat began puking only twenty minutes into the eight hour journey. It was a long night but after 17 hours of buses and boats, I made it to Koh Lanta where Nathalie and her friends were already waiting for me.
Nathalie had organized a secluded Thai style stilted house in a fishing village on the backside of the islands. The owner was a old Thai healer who was constantly trying to sell us various herbal concoctions or traditional medical practices. He invited us for dinner which soon turned into a lecture on his healing abilities. The food was great (we had to pay for it) but after a while the guy started to annoy us so we went back to the cabin for a good night sleep.
The next day we moved to the other side or the island. The stilted house was nice and had a fantastic view, but no running water, no beach and nothing to do. To be honest, after a very cultural month in Burma, I had come to southern Thailand to relax on a beach for a week. The Thai house was a cool experience for a night, but I was ready to lay in the sand with a book and Koh Lanta is the perfect place do so. It is much more laid back and quiet than Koh Tao with a more thriving local population. The island is very large and flat making perfect terrain for motorbiking. In between time on the beach we would ride motorbikes around the island stopping off at various caves, waterfalls and villages; the three prototypical south east Asian attractions. Same same but different. I decided to to out on my own one day in search of something unique. The island is so big that there is plenty to explore, and I found a few nice fishing villages and a couple perfect little limestone islands off the south coast before returning to the beach.
Before I knew it, I had spent four days in Lanta and was ready to move on and out of the country. I said my final goodbyes to Thailand that night by bar hopping the quiet selection of Lanta's late night joints for a few hours.
The next morning I caught a packed minibus to Penang. As I crossed the border into Malaysia, I was happy to be leaving Thailand. I didn't have a horrible time in the country, but I was hard pressed to find anything terribly special about it. It's got some beautiful beaches but its just, plain and simply, far too touristy to be interesting. I often felt like a mindless cattle be herded around the country. I am sure there are still interesting areas to see in the remote corners. I just didn't think it was worth the effort to try to get off of the very overdeveloped tourist track which seems built to constantly rope you back in. So, I just did the beach thing, put a check mark next to 'Thai Beach' on the to do list, and moved on to the next country.

Posted by bradenelsewhere 00:14 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Livin' la Vida Buddha in Burma

sunny 28 °C

The moment I emerged from my guesthouse that hot and humid morning I was immediately captivated by my surroundings. I stood dazed and dripping with sweat in the stifling heat as I took it all in. I was encircled by an odd combination of aging colonial buildings, shimmering white mosques, hole-in-the-wall internet cafes and a torrent of bustling cars. My attention was fixated on the large glowing golden Stupa which formed the centerpiece of the traffic circle before me. Locals leisurely strolled around the circle smiling widely at the confused foreigner. Their sun beaten faces were worn and weary but exhibited a simple contentment with life unique to this small corner of the world. Both men and women wore colourful patterned sarongs and decorative tops to match. Minority religious groups flaunted their distinct styles, from Muslim men in their large white gowns and little white hats to Hindu woman in their brightly coloured jewel studded outfits. I caught a glimpse of some western attire but it was worn by few and the styles were quite terrible.
Women had their faces painted with a thick white paste. The classic design was a streak across each cheek and down the front of the nose. The result was near tribal. The men had bright red teeth and looked as though they had recently been punched in the mouth, the product of years of betel nut use.
“Hello! One man show?” someone yelled from a distance undoubtedly wondering what this poor puzzled soul was doing alone in the middle of unfamiliar territory. I threw the man a ‘thumbs up’ in return.
The city they strolled through was run down and grimy. From the buildings to the sidewalks to the cars, everything was coated with a layer of rust and crawling with overgrown rats. Pedestrian paths looked like they had just been hit with an earthquake and every few steps there was a fresh opportunity to fall into the deep holes opened up in the cement. The scent of sewage crept through broken drains and dispersed into the air, stronger in some areas, weaker in others, but always present. There were so many car parts, toys and other assorted goods piled onto sidewalks that it was nearly futile to use them. Noisy traffic jams full of honking cars and buses formed in the streets while people jams formed on their periphery as everyone tried to find their way through the maze of store front junk. Nobody seemed to be in any hurry. Many took a moment to stop and examine the random white face in the crowd.
I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder. “Are you lost?” said a wrinkled elderly lady who had been witness to these first bewildering moments. “Maybe” I replied “but I am right where I want to be.”
This was my first impression of Burma, a country where they drive on the right side of the road in cars made for the left, where the woman all wear face paint while the men all wear skirts and where you can't walk more than half a mile without stumbling upon a stupa.
As it was in isolation for much of the later half of the twenty first century, when I visited Burma it was one of the least understood and least developed countries in Asia. The ethnically diverse population was desperately poor, had been ruled by a string of oppressive military dictators for decades and had been subject to a constant stream of devastating natural disasters. Life in this country was challenging to say the least. But despite their hardships, the people in Burma were some of the gentlest and most generous people I had met anywhere in the world. Perhaps it owes in part to the strong Buddhist tradition which resonates throughout the country. Perhaps it was because they had been shutoff from outside contact for so long. Whatever the reason and as I hope this chapter illustrates, the people of Burma were simply awesome.
My first few days in the country were interesting but not without challenges. I arrived in Yangon late and was quick to learn how difficult it is to find accommodation in the country. There were no hostels, the government only gave licenses to a limited number of guesthouses in each town or city and Myanmar was accommodating far more tourists than any other year in history. Beds were expensive and a pain in the ass to find. The only thing I could locate on my first night was a four bed dorm in a back alley guesthouse. This ‘dorm’ consisted of four straw mats placed on the ground of a filthy attic filled with old furniture and bike parts. I had slept in worse places so I didn't really mind. After being turned away almost every other licensed guest house, I was just happy not to be sleeping on a park bench. However, when I was woken up at one in the morning by bed bugs which had obviously developed a taste for backpacker blood, I decided a new guesthouse was in order. I awoke early the following morning, found a basic room across the street and set out into the city.
Yangon was unlike any other capital city I had been to. There were a few fancy government owned hotels and a handful of ‘western’ restaurants in the downtown area but beyond that there was not much catered to foreigners. Coming across a franchise business was rare. Almost every store, restaurant or teashop was a hole-in-the-wall. I found virtually nothing in the way of nightlife. In fact, after nine at night, I couldn’t even find a snack. The streets were aligned in a grid system which was constantly grid-locked. There were only a few buildings above six stories high. Although Buddhist temples and stupas formed the majority of holy monuments, many other religions were represented by various mosques, churches and even synagogues.
Everyone was very friendly and curious. As I wandered the streets, I received a constant stream of welcoming smiles and greetings. If I stopped to look at a street sign for even a moment, I was often quickly approached by an elderly local eager to point me in the right direction. Nobody requested anything in return. There were no scams. No funny business. They all just genuinely wanted to help. As Burma was a former British colony, the elderly spoke English much better than the youth, one of many strange oddities which made traveling Burma a pleasantly unique experience.
One of the first sights I visited in the country was the famed Shwedagon Pagoda. This large stupa forms the centerpiece of the city and remains one of the oldest Buddhist monuments in the world. Locals claim that it has been a pilgrimage sight for well over two millennia. At one hundred meters tall and covered in a layer of pure gold it was an impressive sight.
That evening, while eating dinner at a street side restaurant, I began chatting with a couple of travelers sitting at the table opposite mine. Rali and Pauline were two friends on a whirlwind tour of South East Asia. They had only a week to travel Burma but were doing their best to make the most of it. They seemed friendly and we quickly discovered our shared interest in a well known trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake. We agreed to travel north and do the trek together once we had our fill of Yangon.
I got to bed early that night. My old travel buddy Dana was on her way down from Mandalay to meet me the following day and I wanted to have plenty of energy. She was just finishing her second stint in Burma. On her first she met a Burmese man and had returned to visit him. I was really looking forward to seeing her. We had both done quite a bit of traveling since we parted ways in Northern Laos and we had plenty of stories to share. I was preparing myself for the onslaught of beer which would surely soon follow our reunion. Dana and I were known were putting back a few in each others company. However, at around five in the morning that night, I was finally hit with my first bought of serious food poisoning. I had survived six months of travel without any problems. During this time, I had become very adventurous with the street food. I guess it was bound to happen in Burma where it seems as though everyone gets food poisoning at least once. When I met up with Dana the following afternoon, my insides felt akin to a pressure cooker. I could only watch her drink beer. I couldn’t even keep water down. But we nevertheless had a good long conversation over travel and various things. She had developed an intimate knowledge of Burma and had some valuable tips for my month ahead. Our night was cut short when I had to retire to guesthouse to get some much needed rest. We promised to meet again somewhere down the line.
Once my insides had settled a bit, Rali, Pauline and I caught an overnight bus north to Kalaw. As is typical in Burma, our bus arrived at four in the morning and we were forced to find our way to a guesthouse in the dark. We awoke the following morning, to find ourselves in the middle of a quirky little hill town. The dusty main street was lined with mom and pop restaurants. Simple wooden shacks built onto the hill side housed the town’s small population. A bustling market full of farming hats, colourful sarongs, dried fish and strange crops sat in the middle of settlement. We spent most of the morning strolling through this market. We were given quite a few second glances. These confusing looks were often followed by a welcoming smile. Most townsfolk seemed quite happy to have us as guests.
In the afternoon, we had our first taste of true Burmese cuisine from a traditional restaurant off the main drag. The restaurant was owned by a small family. The interior looked like their living room. There were family pictures and random trinkets scattered about. A weathered wooden door led to a small kitchen where an old lady prepared our meal. The man of the house was sitting behind the counter flipping through static on an aging television. Their son brought us our order.
I was very curious to try Burmese food. After all, the country is sandwiched between three culinary heavyweights; China, India and Thailand. Our first meal had some elements of all three, however, the chilli pepper was strangely absent from almost every dish. Our plates consisted mainly of mild curries, potato mixtures, fish pastes and strange looking vegetables. In true Asian style, everything was served with noodles or rice. To be honest, the food was nothing to write home about. Most dishes were rather bland. What was more interesting was the presentation. We only ordered one dish each, however, we received ten side dishes free of charge. They included vegetable soup, various vegetable curries, a peanut mixture, fresh veggies, dried fish and fruit. Upon finishing any of the side dishes, we were immediately brought another free of charge. I would soon learn that this was a custom common to all Burmese restaurants. Even when eating alone, I was always presented with up to ten side dishes free of charge. The food may not have been as flavourful as in Thailand or China, but I never left a table hungry.
Soon after finishing our meal we organized a guide to take us to Inle Lake the following morning. An early night was necessary as we were to leave very early the following morning. I was awake before sunrise as a result of further bowel issues. Although my stomach had recovered enough of its strength for me to finish a meal, everything I consumed was traveling through my system far too fast. At least I got it all out before we left the guesthouse.
The trek was through dry farmland and friendly minority villages. It was more of a cultural experience than a nature walk. The landscape was surprisingly dry. It felt nothing like the rest of South East Asia. Some areas even felt akin to a desert. The hills were covered with a patchwork of various colors and textures. It resembled a giant homemade quilt. The sheer variety of crops grown in the area was amazing. We ventured a guess that this had to do with Burma's recent isolation. Perhaps the Burmese farmers had to be more self-sufficient than elsewhere in the world.
The hike was split over two days. We spent the night in a village which had clearly been designated as the trekkers stop off point. On the trail, we had not seen another white face and yet this village was full of foreigners. We slept in what felt like a big barn. It was a cold night.
I once again awoke before sunrise with a gastro-mergency and had the pleasure of locking myself in the communal village outhouse for twenty minutes to handle the issue. I was beginning to realize that I had picked up some type of persistent bug. Once back on the trail we were treated to some striking morning scenery. Mists had settled around the hills on the horizon creating a dreamlike backdrop as the sun climbed over them. We winded our way through landscape, cutting through farms and hopping over small streams. There was no discernable path. We were just doing what the guide did. It took another six hours before we began our descent into the Inle valley.
Inle lake is one of the four destinations which make up Burma's small tourist diamond. The others are Bagan, Mandalay and Yangon. Since I had come to Burma during the holidays to avoid the Christmas rush in Thailand, I was surprised to find so many foreign tourists in Nyuang Shwe, the lakeside town which acts as its visitor base. There were very few backpackers, mostly older French couples and tour groups. This was the remnants of Burma’s recent isolated history. Before opening itself to the world, almost all tourism in Burma consisted of package tourists booked on government sponsored tours. The main strip was lined with travel agencies and there were even a few tourist restaurants offering anything from pizza to burgers. The Nyuang Shwe locals were friendly but did not display the same unconditional kindness found in most other parts of Burma. I was often stopped on the streets by boat operators attempting to sell me a tour around the lake. For the first time in Burma, I got the feeling as though I was looked at as a wallet.
The popularity of the lake was understandable. The area was stunning, full of interesting adventures and so huge that once I left Nyuang Shwe, it was easy to find a quiet spot where I felt as though I had the whole lake to myself.
I rented a bike in town to explore the countryside. Against the backdrop of barren mountains and mist laden reflective waters, I went a little photo crazy on all the longboat fishermen, lively stilted villages and aging monasteries. Everything was interesting and beautiful in its own quirky way. Fishermen balanced precariously on the end of thin wooden rafts with both hands minding a net, one leg on the boat, one leg wrapped around an oar dangling in the water. It was an incredible circus like balancing act. Farmers walked over strange bamboo contraptions that allowed them to grow crops floating on the surface of the lake. Village parties full of music, dancing and strange costumes raged throughout the afternoon. I couldn’t get enough.
The following morning I rented a boat and a driver to take me on an organized tour of the lake. I'm not crazy about tours but it was the cheapest way to get out onto the water. My ever-smiling guide spoke not a word of English but happily shuttled me from floating villages to floating farms and finally to a floating monastery. It was named the ‘jumping cat monastery’ since the monks had trained local cats to jump through hoops. I was returned to Nuang Shwe in time to catch a sunset over the lake. Save for a couple emergency bathroom stops, it was a wonderful day.
Christmas was fast approaching so I decided to catch a bus to Mandalay to increase my chances of meeting a few backpackers to celebrate the event with. I spent Christmas Eve on a stuffy overnight bus. The seats were tiny and lacked head rests making it nearly impossible to sleep. Noticing my distress, the young Burmese fellow in the seat next to me insisted on sitting in a fold down aisle seat so I could stretch out over two seats and get some sleep. I felt horrible seeing him slouched over in the aisle with his head in his knees but every time I insisted that he take in his normal seat, he insisted that I lay down. He wouldn't have it any other way. Such random generosity was difficult to comprehend. In Burma, it was everywhere.
I arrived in Mandalay at four in the morning on Christmas day and I made my way to the closest guesthouse. There was no vacancy so the clerk let me sleep on the lobby couch until a room was ready. As is the case with most accommodation in Burma, the guesthouse was not a place conducive to meeting other travelers. There were a few couples around and some Burmese families but no one was interested in spending Christmas with a lonely traveler. I spent the day alone doing laundry and sending emails. In the evening, I caught a taxi to Mandalay's only foreigner oriented bar sure that I would find at least a few expats or travellers enjoying the holiday. It was empty. I just drank a beer alone on the rooftop patio. It a sobering moment but I couldn’t have expected much more from a Christmas in Burma.
Early the following morning, I caught a bus north to Hsipaw, one of Burma’s trekking headquarters. It's a friendly little town situated in the northern highlands and surrounded by a plethora of hiking opportunities. My guesthouse was run by a priceless old Buddhist woman who displayed the utmost concern for my enjoyment of her little town. She was full of tips and advice. When I told her I was only to stay for a couple nights, she drew me a detailed map of area and urged me to rent a motorbike. “There is just too much to see” she said “you don’t have enough time!”
Her map first guided me to a waterfall. When I stopped on the side of the highway, unable to find the proper trail, a local teenager abandoned his wheelbarrow to guide me the rest of the way. We trekked through thick bush for about twenty minutes before stumbling upon the small waterfall. It was nothing special but the surrounding scenery was worth the trip.
From the waterfall, the map directed me up onto a large plateau. My rickety old moped struggled its way up the steep rocky path. The little beast barely made it to the top but the plateau was worth the trouble. Several tiny farming villages full of curious faces dotted the landscape. The view over the misty foothills to the north was spectacular. Most of my afternoon was spent following the plateau trail from one hilltop village to the next. Eventually I was forced to turn back due to an impending sunset. I left my descent a little too late. I barely caught the last moments of the sunset on from the top of Hsipaw’s ‘sunset hill’. I ran out of gas as I reached the summit and had to coast all the way back down in the dark. Luckily, a local at the bottom of the hill was eager to help and guided me to the nearest rest station to fetch a litre of gas. I made it back to the guesthouse in time for a quick meal before retiring to my room.
As I finished the last pages of a novel late that night, I considered my adaptation to Burma’s solitary days of exploration and long lonely nights of reading and sudoku. It was a different kind of travel. I wasn't meeting any other young travelers but the locals were just so genuinely kind and friendly that I couldn't help but feel fulfilled by my experiences. Everywhere I went, people were smiling and eager to assist me in any way they could. The energy they gave off was always so positive. I couldn’t help but wonder what made this country so unique. It surely had something to do with its recent period of isolation, a time in which the local population was completely cut off from the world. They seemed to crave outside contact. Nonetheless, the country’s strong Buddhist tradition was also a key aspect. The countless temples and stupas found throughout the land were a testament to the importance the people of Myanmar place on Buddhism. It remains one of the most devoutly Buddhist nations in the world. Surely this was a factor in fostering the outstanding good-will and compassion they displayed.
During my early teen years, I had done quite a bit of reading on the subject of Buddhist philosophy but had since forgotten much of what I studied. Being in Burma re-sparked my interest. While perusing a small English book stand, I had picked up a copy of Wolpola Rahula's "What the Buddha Taught". As I began reading through the basic tenets of Buddhist lifestyle, I soon realized that I was already following many of the rules. My stomach problems had forced me to avoid eating any meat and thus prevented me from destroying any life. There were no night clubs in which I could consume intoxicating drinks or chase woman. Everyone I encountered was so honest and forthright that there was no need to lie or cheat. I did not even need to bargain. And constantly being witness to the unconditional compassion of Myanmar’s people had caused me to react more compassionately in return.
I soon came to a decision. Given my relative isolation and freedom from temptation, there was no better time to experiment. For the remainder of my time in Burma I would ‘live la vida Buddha’. I would not drink alcohol, eat meat, have sex, lie or cheat until I left the country. I vowed to begin practicing a few simple meditation techniques, to be more mindful of my sensations and perceptions and to act with more compassion whenever possible. Of course I didn't expect to be a Buddhist by the time I left Burma, nor did I want to be. I considered my time in Burma to be a good opportunity to explore a philosophy in which I have always been so interested but too lazy to follow.
Unfortunately, my next destination was probably the least Buddhist place in the whole country. From Hsipaw, I caught a train to Pwin U Lwin. I had not yet taken a train since foreigners pay up to ten times the price of local fares, but this particular ride was heralded as the most beautiful in Burma. The train felt as ancient as the mountains it rode over. It was loud, moved at a snail’s pace and heavily rocked back and forth, up and down and in every other possible direction. Every few minutes a large bump on the track would send me into the air only to crash back down onto the hard wooden seats. It was a painful ride but too comical to be frustrating. We chugged through the dry landscape past farming villages and friendly towns. The scenery was beautiful. The highlight was a deep gorge which we crossed by way of an old colonial era bridge. The bridge creaked loudly as if it was yelping in pain under the weight of the train. I felt as though at any moment it could collapse plunging us into the ravine below. In the seats across from me a couple of crazy Brits were drinking beer, poppin' valium and playing music the entire ride. They convinced me to rock out the guitar for a few sing-a-longs. They had passed out by the time we reached our destination.
Pwin Oo Lwin was clearly the elite retreat of Myanmar, where the country’s small circle of rich government officials and businessmen went to relax and play golf. The plateau town was full of old colonial British mansions and posh Beverly Hills type estates. The downtown boasted plenty of western style cafes and clothing shops. This was high class Burma. I can't say I liked it very much.
The town’s main attraction was its national gardens. Using a drainage ditch which led underneath the barb wired fence, I avoided paying the six dollar foreigner entrance fee. I wasn't too concerned about the money but was trying to reduce the amount of cash I placed into the pockets of the oppressive government. To this end, I avoided almost every government fee in the country. It was part of being a responsible tourist in Burma. I was glad I didn’t pay to enter the gardens as they were nothing special.
Pwin Oo Lwin may have been boring, but its surrounding countryside was quite nice. A few miles out of town there was an impressive waterfall which made for a nice escape from the city. From the edge of the plateau I could see far into the plains of Mandalay below.
I only spent a couple nights in Pwin Oo Lwin before catching a pickup back to Mandalay. I had spent Christmas day in Mandalay doing laundry and writing emails but had seen very little of the city. This time around, I gave myself a few days to explore.
After checking into a dingy room, I set out to experience the old British Capital. It was certainly not the beautiful royal city that its name conjures images of. It was a smelly, loud, dirty place with horrendous traffic. The streets were falling apart, there was garbage piled everywhere and even walking from one place to the next was difficult. Assaulting to the senses as Mandalay was, however, I quite enjoyed it. It felt like the biggest, busiest village in the world. Many neighbourhoods still had dirt roads with shacks on either side rather than streets. Even the paved avenues did not have traffic lights. At busy intersections, hundreds of motorbikes cars and pedestrians did their best not to hit or be hit. I saw more than a few accidents during my short stay.
The peaceful ‘ying’ to Mandalay’s chaotic ‘yang’ is its long history as an important center for the study and practice of Buddhism. I could not turn a corner without seeing red robes and shaved heads. Unlike in Thailand, these monks did not brandish iPhones or Nike sneakers. Most carried only their alms bowl and their robes. They roamed the streets seeking donations. In keeping with Buddhist tradition, it appeared as though they could only consume what was given to them. There were hundreds of monasteries and meditations centres in the city where most of robed sages congregated. I assumed many of them lived in such centers as well.
I learned from my guesthouse owner that it was typical for Burmese males to spend at least two years before the age of twenty as a monk and another two years before they die. Thus, there was always fresh supply of young and old men to be ordained.
In keeping with its Buddhist tradition, Mandalay’s surrounding area is home to several ancient Buddhist cities. On New Year’s Eve day I drafted a moto driver to take me to two of them. It was hot and sunny, the perfect day to be on the back of a motorbike. Our first stop was Saigaing. This small assortment of steep hills was capped with hundreds of golden stupas. The hike up to the tallest peak took less than an hour from which the stupa studded view was striking and unique. The sea of golden stupas surrounding me ranged from a few metres to almost a hundred meters in height. Beyond the hills there was a wide river with the plains of Mandalay further in the distance.
My second stop was Amurapura, a small settlement on the bank of a meandering river. It is home to the longest teak wood bridge in the world. I arrived just in time for a stunning sunset. Monks trekked back and forth across the bridge between the town’s monastery and a nearby village against the backdrop of a vibrant red sky.
As I crossed the bridge, a group of elderly monks insisted on taking several group photos with me. I found this role reversal to be quite ironic since monks are usually the ones having cameras shoved in their faces by tourists. It took nearly a half hour for me to reach the village on opposite side. It was clear that not many white faces bother visiting as I received quite a few funny looks as a strolled through. Unfortunately, while crossing a narrow street, I caused a motorbike which was speeding towards me to skid into a ditch. I was left untouched but feeling guilty as hell. Even though there was no major damage to the bike and the two young riders appeared to be unharmed I gave them some money and apologized profusely before slinking away. I took this mishap as my queue to head back to Mandalay.
I arrived back at the guesthouse with little time to make a plan for New Years. Luckily, I met a couple of friendly French girls named Sophie and Geraldine and an Irish traveler named Louis in the lobby. They were also solo travelers looking for a way to celebrate the New Year. We found a local restaurant which served beer and snacks. We chatted about the quiet life of a traveler in Burma, the ups and the downs of backpacking in relative isolation. I broke my vow to not drink alcohol that night but it was New Year’s and I limited myself to two drinks. As midnight approached it appeared as though it was going to be a pretty quiet night. That is until the restaurant owner asked if we were going to see the countdown. He told us that a hotel near the palace grounds was hosting the event. We decided to check out it.
Our moto drivers sped towards the hotel. The further we drove the busier the streets became. By the time we reached the west Palace gate, we were surrounded by mayhem. Thousands of Burmese had descended on the streets with bottles of cheap whiskey in hand. The bottles were passed around from person to person as large groups of youth became belligerently drunk. These clearly were not the devout Buddhists I had encountered so far in Burma. Most were quite young and adorned in cheap western knockoff clothing. I did not even know such a demographic existed in the country. Many were racing motorbikes through the crowds and setting off fireworks. As our driver weaved his way through the drunken chaos, one firework exploded right in front of us catching him in the chest. He started swerving as if he had just been shot and sputtered to a stop. I jumped off the bike to see if he was okay. He quickly assured us he was fine but had an ugly burn down the side of his neck. We decided to walk from then on out.
The epicentre of the congregation was an absolute mess. Drunken Burmese were challenging each other to motorbike races and pulling wheelies with friends balancing on the back seat. Cars and tuk-tuks became makeshift dance floors as large speakers blared Burmese style covers of western songs. Abandoned buildings became makeshift night clubs as a party pioneers set up speakers and hundreds of followers came to dance. This was clearly the first partying experience for many. Countless youth were lying in puddles of their own puke. Others were running around screaming as if they had just snorted five lines of coke. For a country that has virtually no nightlife, I found this all to be quite odd.
The French girls felt understandably unsafe so an hour after the countdown, we returned to the guesthouse. Part of me wanted witness what antics the crowd would get up to in the wee hours of the morning but I had an early bus.
The following morning I caught a ride to Bagan. This stupa covered desert plain is probably Burma's most famous destination. Since arriving in Yangon, I had heard a lot about the ancient city. Many compared it to Angkor Wat, its only other competitor as far as South East Asian ancient attractions go. Most of those who had visited told me it was overall more impressive than its Cambodian counterpart. Considering how enchanting Angkor Wat was, I was a bit sceptical.
Soon after dropping my bags at a guesthouse in Nyuang U, a town on the edge of Bagan, I rented a bike and rode into the plain to catch my first of three sunsets. As I approached the ancient city limits, small stupas constructed from worn red bricks rose our of the dry desert landscape around me. As I rode further, the stupas became larger and more numerous. Eventually, I found myself amidst a forest of religious monuments.
With less than a half hour before sunset, I found a large stupa which had steep stone steps leading to a terrace near its pinnacle. This would be my sunset viewing spot. I slowly climbed up to the terrace, being careful not to slip on its dusty red bricks. Upon reaching the top, I was quickly taken aback by the view before me. The plain was vast and covered with stupas of various shapes and sizes. There were thousands of them reaching towards the bright red clouds above. A few larger structures made strong impressions on the horizon. To my right laid the wide Irrawaddy River and in the distance to my left were barren mountains. Dust from horse drawn carriages and bicycles settled like mist in between the monuments. The sun grew in size and turned bright red as it forced its way through all the particles. Several minutes after the sun had disappeared behind the mountains, the sky remained smeared with deep purples and reds. I left wanting more and decided to wake up early the following morning for sunrise.
After returning to Nyuang U, I ran into Sophie and Geraldine who had arrived on a later bus. We had dinner and agree to meet before sunrise the following morning to explore the plains.
It was chilly when we mounted our bikes and began our search for a stupa by flashlight. We weren’t the only ones with the idea as we followed a small parade of cyclist all searching for the perfect sunrise spot. We settled on a monastery next to the river which offered a nice view of mountains and waited in the chilly desert air. The sunrise was just as spectacular as the previous day’s sunset with the added bonus of dozens of hot air balloons looming over the temples. Many tourists pay an exorbitant fee in order to take part in a sunrise balloon ride over the plains. This was far beyond my backpacker’s budget, however, I was more than happy with the view from the stupa.
Once the sun had risen, we spent the majority of the day exploring the landscape. It was so vast that we often found ourselves alone without another soul in sight. It seemed as though each monument we passed was more impressive than the last. Some had ancient scriptures or statues nestled inside. Since the area has not been fully developed for tourism, most of the temples lacked any measures to prevent visitors from entering or climbing to the top. We took advantage of this only on the structures which looked as though they were not on the verge of collapse. Since the plain was flat and only sparsely covered with trees, almost every stupa was accessibly by foot. Nonetheless, the stories we had heard of large poisonous snakes which lurk in the tall grass generally kept us on the paths. I thought that perhaps these stories were more folklore than truth but later learnt that Burma had the highest incidence of death by snake bite in the world.
In the evening, we returned to town for a nice local meal full of vegetable curries and stir fries. I wanted to bed with a smile on my face and a full stomach. I awoke only a couple hours later to quickly empty my stomach of everything I had consumed. It was my second bought of food poisoning in Burma. I didn’t understand how it had happened. I had been quite careful with my utensils and had only been eating vegetable curries and rice. Nonetheless, some Burmese bug had managed to bore its way into my bowels and it would be several days before I was able to move freely without constantly keeping my eye out for a bathroom.
Once my stomach had settled enough, I boarded a bus bound for Pyay, a small riverside town in between Bagan and Yangon. I rode in a rattling old bus which arrived just after sunset. My first order of business upon disembarking was finding a toilet. Then I had to find a room. Unfortunately, Pyay only had a couple guesthouses that were licensed to house foreigners. One was full. The only room available in the other was a four by six foot prison cell. It had plywood for walls, a broken fan and swarms of mosquitoes. Needless to day, I did not get the sleep I desperately needed that night. The following morning, the owner allowed me to switch to an odd isolated room on the top floor of the building complete with a working fan and a Buddhist shrine. Happy with my new accommodation, I set out into Pyay to explore. The city was slow moving and friendly. It felt much more tropical than the desert like landscape to the north. Palm trees and thick forest covered most of the town with a few golden stupas poking through the canopy. Perched atop a set of low-rising hills in the center of town was a large pagoda complex. It afforded wonderful views of the river in the morning. The surrounding forests made for a peaceful afternoon stroll. I stumbled across an odd makeshift driving range amidst the trees. One wealthy Burmese man was the only patron. He let me take a few shots with his five-iron before I continued on my way.
I emerged from the hills near on the bank of the Irrawaddy River just in time for sunset. Several local families and couples sat in the grass next to the slow moving water waiting for dusk. I decided to walk down the bank of the river to get a better vantage point. I was enjoying a leisurely stroll along the water when I suddenly felt my left foot sink deep into the ground. My eyes had been fixed on horizon and I had unwittingly walked right into a dense patch of mud. As I struggled to pull my leg out of the ground my other foot sank as well. The more I moved the deeper I went. Eventually I was up to my knees and completely stuck.
I heard the cackling laughter of small children approaching. I did not dare try turn around for fear I would sink further. Then I felt a large hand on my shoulder. I tried to swivel only my head to get a better look. Three toddlers sat giggling on the riverbank in the arms of their mother. The father of the family had already taken off his shoes, rolled up his pants and was now knee deep in the mud trying to save me. It took several minutes of pushing and pulling to until both of us were safely on solid ground. I quickly washed the mud from my arms in order to shake the man’s hand. But when I turned around, he had already gone right back into the mud to save my sandals. It took him several more minutes to pry them free. I couldn’t believe his generosity. I thanked him profusely for his help. He just nodded his head and smiled. I could read his mind: silly foreigner. As the family continued down the riverbank, the youngest daughter, a girl who was no more than six years old, ran back to me as if she had forgotten something. She motioned for me to open my palm. In it she placed a handful of sea shells she had collected on her riverside journey. Then she smiled, waved and rejoined her family. Those are the moments a backpacker treasures.
Still covered in mud, I was ready to head back the guesthouse for a shower. As I passed a small road side tea shop, however, a group of local friends invited me to join them for tea and snacks. One of the men was a young university student who spoke English quite well. He introduced himself as William and acted as my translator. For a couple hours, we drank tea, ate snacks and laughed about various nonsensical things. When the group dispersed, William insisted on taking me on a tour of his home town. From the back of his motorbike, I was given a look at William’s Pyay.
First he introduced me to his parents. They were selling oranges by the side of the road with his younger sister. The family was ecstatic to see that William had made a foreign friend. William’s father gave me a peeled orange and encouraged me to take a bite. They all waited in suspense for my verdict. When I approved, William’s mother quickly filled a large plastic bag full of oranges and insisted that I take it. They would not accept any payment.
From the orange stand, William drove us across town to watch a bizarre miniature soccer game. Around a small dirt field with two miniature nets at each end, a large crowd of locals cheered on two teams of sweaty bare-backed men as they chased a miniature ball up and down the pitch. It was a fierce little competition.
From the miniature match, we traveled to a local chinlon festival. On the way William explained to me that chinlon was his country’s most popular past time. I knew what he was talking about. From bus windows, I had seen it played on the side of the road by men all over the country. William called it a sport but it looked more like a social activity. Several men would make a circle and work together to keep a small straw ball in the air. Each player was given a turn to complete a trick shot which often sent the other players diving to prevent the ball from hitting the ground. It was similar a game of hacky sack between friends.
At the festival, uniformed teams took turns entertaining the crowd from a raised platform surrounded by plastic chairs. The participants were far more professional than the locals I had seen from bus windows. Some of their trick shots were unreal. One would pull off a spinning back kick passing the ball to another who would twirl the ball around each foot before launching backwards into the air. It was more like a performance than a competition. I was kept in awe for more than an hour. I would have stayed for longer but William had to return home to get some sleep before an early morning class. He dropped me back at my guesthouse and wished me goodnight. I thanked him for showing me such a good time. As I fell asleep that night, I remember feeling truly fortunate to have met such a friendly group of people. This feeling was becoming all too familiar in Myanmar.
Early the following morning I started a long and difficult journey to Mawlamyine in South Eastern Burma. Due to unrest, this minority controlled province was mostly off limits to foreigners save for a few areas. I had to plan my route carefully. As my stomach had not yet recovered from its most recent poisoning, I was not looking forward to the two long bus rides which stood between me and my destination. I packed my pockets full of toilet paper and hoped for the best.
The first bus dropped me at one of Yangon’s bus stations after eight long hours over bumpy terrain. The four hour stop over at the bus station gave me enough time to find a washroom and calm my innards. I didn’t dare eat anything before boarding the ten hour overnight heading south. The distance between Yangon and Mawlamyine was not great, but I was told that the bus was to arrive at a long bridge in the middle of the night which, for some reason, could not be crossed until sunrise. Essentially, the ride was going to take much longer than was necessary.
The road was surprisingly smooth heading south. I had actually managed to fall asleep, a rarity for me during bus travel, when the bus lurched to a stop at around three in the morning. We had arrived at the bridge. I had a few hours to kill before sunrise so I disembarked to sit at a local tea house. They had some European football match playing on an old fuzzy television. I had no idea who the teams were but decided to root for the men in blue. I got pretty into it after a while even cheering when they scored. An hour passed and my team was up two to one with only a couple minutes left. Confident in the victory I began walking back towards the bus. Much to my surprise, it had disappeared. I didn’t understand. It was no where near sunrise and the other buses were still parked in a long line. Only my bus had vanished. I ran the door of another coach which had just started its engine and asked the driver where my bus had gone. He shrugged and pointed down the road.
This was a big problem. My luggage was still onboard and the bus was only going to make a short stop in Mawlamyine before continuing into the far South where foreigner travel was restricted. If I did not chase down my luggage before it ventured into the south, it may be lost forever. The driver understood my predicament and invited me on board as he gunned it towards the bridge. We passed several buses but none that I recognized. It was ten minutes later that we came to a traffic jam at the mouth of the bridge. I jumped off and began sprinting up the long row of coaches. They all looked the same. I could not even remember what my bus looked like. I had not eaten, I was tired and my stomach was still upset. I ran out of steam pretty quickly and was left keeled over and panting on the side of the road. When I looked up, I recognized the driver of my bus standing on the road smoking a cigarette. He threw his arms in the air and laughed when he saw me. He had clearly been waiting for a while. I boarded the coach still breathing heavily from the two hundred yard dash. The driver tossed away his cigarette, jumped behind the wheel and we were off again.
As is usual in Burma, I arrived in Mawlamyine at four in the morning. Unfortunately, none of the small town’s guesthouses opened til five. I was dead tired and my stomach was in knots. I needed a bed. Of the three licensed guesthouses in town, only one had its lobby light on. I knocked heavily on the door. A skinny old man opened it slightly and poked his head out. His face was wrinkled into a permanent smile and his pants were nearly up to his neck. When I asked for a room, he kindly invited me inside as he told me that the guesthouse was currently full. I would have to wait at least another four hours before someone checked out. I asked him if I could just sleep on floor in the lobby until then. There was desperation in my eyes. He smiled thoughtfully. “I have to open the guesthouse now anyway. Just take my bed” he said. I was a little taken aback. It was not even five yet and I thought surely he would want some more sleep. But he assured me that he had slept enough and insisted that I get some myself. It was yet another unconditional act of generosity from a Burmese local. I slept like a baby in this old man’s tiny wooden bed until, four hours later, a room became available.
With rest my stomach settled and I had regained the energy to explore the town. Mawlamyine sat on a wide river bound in by low lying hills and dense forests. A long raised promenade lined with colourful shops and restaurants stretched the entire waterfront. A busy two story market dominated the town center. The locals redefined the word ‘friendly’. I could not walk more than three steps without someone saying hello, asking where I was from, or shooting me a big red-toothed smile. While looking into the window of a shop, a man on a motorbike hit his brakes, got off his bike, took of his helmet and ran over to shake my hand. "Hello, how are you? Where are you from? Do you like Myanmar?” He said. “It’s wonderful” I replied. “Good!" he yelled as he jumped back on his bike and drove off. These types of encounters were quite common in the South.
Over the next couple days I visited some of Mawlamyine's surrounding attractions. I climbed up to the town’s highest pagoda for a view over the city. Then I rode pickup out into the hills to see the world’s biggest reclining Buddha. From a distance, the mammoth statue looked incredible. Its giant body stretched the entire distance of the village underneath it. A closer inspection, however, revealed poor workmanship. It was recently built with concrete and steel. Much to my surprise, it was completely hollow. Inside its belly there were a congregation of bizarre statues depicting devils driving pitchforks through peoples' heads. Not the most Buddhist imagery.
The following morning, I traveled across the river and up into the mountains to visit a local pilgrimage sight. I rode on the roof of the pickup surrounded by styrofoam containers full of fish. Sitting across from me was a straight faced elderly man. Throughout the journey, he continually peeled oranges, passed me the peels and insisted on me sniffing them. I could not figure out why.
The pilgrimage sight was of the supernatural sort. Perched on a steep mountain peak there were three large golden boulders precariously stacked one on top of the other. Of course the gold was placed by human hands but locals contended that the boulders were discovered in their original position several hundred years earlier. How these three massive rocks found themselves balanced perfectly on top one another was beyond my understanding. How they had somehow managed to survive the countless earthquakes which had surely rumbled through the area was even more puzzling. Some other man made or mystical forces must have been at work. I returned to the guesthouse scratching my head.
The following morning, I sailed down the river to Hpa-an in a longboat. The journal was quite interesting. Our rickety old vessel passed through thick forest and riverside villages where the kids waited along the shore for a chance to wave at the faces floating by. Soon we were in the midst of a gorgeous karst limestone landscape. Large jagged mountains rose out of an otherwise flat setting making bizarre impressions on the horizon. The topography was different from anywhere else I had been in Burma.
The boat dropped me off near the center of town. I walked to the closest licensed guesthouse and inquired about a bed. Only a double room was available. A British fellow who was standing in line of travelers behind me immediately offered to split the cost. He was a young backpacker of Indian descent who introduced himself as Sat. I certainly did not want to pay for the whole room by myself so I agreed to share. Sat was an interesting character. He had participated in several extended meditation retreats in India and was traveling through East Asia both to sightsee and develop his knowledge of Eastern philosophy and religion. As we strolled around town, Sat and I chatted about Buddhism, meditation, India and China. He had a lot of interesting stories to tell from his retreats and encouraged me to continue practicing meditation. He traveled with a back loading film camera that must have been at least thirty years old. He swore by it, claiming that its limited capacity forced him to carefully plan every shot he took. Since I am the like Rambo with a camera, shooting everywhere and often, I quietly disagreed.
After a good nights sleep, Sat and I awoke early the following morning to catch a ride out to a local cave. The large cavern bored straight through a limestone mountain. Waiting on the opposite end from the entrance was a peaceful lake surrounded by dangling trees and limestone peaks.
I parted ways with Sat in the around noon when he went back to town. My mission was to climb to the top of the tallest mountain in the area. I had heard that there was a tranquil monastery perched atop its highest peak which allowed overnight stays. I began climbing shortly after lunch. It was an exhausting ascent. The trail was not long but felt near vertical at times. I was sweating bullets when I finally stumbled into the monastery a couple hours later. The view out over the surrounding mountains and plains, however, was spectacular. Colossal chunks of limestone poked out of the otherwise flat landscape as if they had been dropped from the sky.
I quickly introduced myself to one of the three monks who lived in the mountain top haven. He spoke no English but understood my desire to stay overnight. He approved of my request by directing me to my sleeping quarters. The large room had a concrete floor and was completely barren save for one straw mat and a blanket. I left my bag on the floor and joined the other monks on the terrace. As the sun began to set, the monasteries visitors began their descent. By the time the sun was near the horizon, I was all alone on the terrace. That is until some curious monkeys joined me. Just a few at first, but the group quickly grew. Eventually they had taken over the terrace. The turned the monastery’s stupa into a jungle gym. I was surrounded.
The monks returned to the terrace with scraps to feed them. It became apparent why they all of sudden appeared in such great numbers. They were used to being fed at sunset. Generally they were very well behaved and used to human contact. They had no qualms over taking a seat right next to me and just staring me in the eyes. Once the sun had set, they disappeared.
I retired to my sleeping quarters shortly after sunset. As I stuffed a sweater into my daypack make a pillow, the monastery’s eldest monk entered and bowed. In very broken English, he asked me if I was comfortable. I was indeed comfortable but very hungry. I had not eaten since lunch. I asked if it was possible to buy some food. He smiled and invited me into the prayer hall. I sat silently on the floor as heated a package of instant noodles on a small electric hot plate. Once sufficiently cooked, he removed the noodles from the heat, placed them on the ground and sat on the ground opposite me. I thanked him by nodding my head and began eating.
He sat quietly while I ate. After a few minutes he began asking, as best he could, some questions about my life in Canada. I slowly answered each one doing my best to use only a limited vocabulary. I also began asking some questions of my own. I wanted to know more about local meditation techniques and practices. Little of what was spoken between us was understood by either party, but enough to have an interesting conversation. We must have sat there for at least two hours. During this time, the temperature dropped considerably. When I retired to my straw mat I was quite cold. The wool blanket which was provided for me was not enough to stay warm on the cold cement floor. Nonetheless, I slept quite well that night.
The following morning I woke up at five and walked out onto the terrace to watch the sunrise. I practiced a few of the techniques the monk had taught me night before as I waited in the dark. Once the sun poked over the limestone peaks, the monkeys returned for breakfast. At around ten, sweaty pilgrims and tourists began arriving at the monastery. Then a large group of university students entered. The peaceful atmosphere of an hour earlier was quickly lost when the giggling students began lining up, one by one, to take a picture with me. I must have posed for about thirty pictures before I was finally able to make my escape. I thanked the three monks for their kindness and left a small donation as I made my way out.
I had a feeling of euphoria as I descended the mountain. Staying at that monastery had been a special experience that I would not soon forget. I met various locals on the trail down. None spoke English but most had the same two questions for me. I couldn't help but laugh when the men asked "One man show?" meaning 'are you alone' and the woman asked "Are you happy?" meaning 'how are you?'. Since I descended the opposite side of the mountain from which I climbed, it took twice as long as the climb to reach to solid ground. When I did, I was not even sure where I was.
I wanted to visit another cave which I had heard was near the mountain but I had no idea how to get there. I stopped at a roadside spice shop to ask for directions. The two shopkeepers spoke no English but pointed down the road towards two distant limestone mountains. I assumed the cave must have been somewhere amongst them and began walking. I only made it fifty metres when one of the shop keepers pulled up beside me on a motorbike and motioned for me to jump on. She drove me directly to the entrance of the cave about ten minutes away. When we arrived, she refused any payment and returned from the direction we came. Delivering me to the attraction was simply another unconditional act of generosity.
The cave was a smaller version of the one I had seen previously so I did not spent much time inside. Instead, I decided to return to town to take a nap. I walked from the cave entrance to the main road. Unsure of which direction I had to travel, I pulled out a map so check my bearings. As I stood, studying the map, a white pickup truck stopped in front of me. A scruffy looking man poked his out of the window and asked where I was going. “Hpa-An!” I replied. He said he was on his way there and waved me aboard. I thought perhaps he was expecting some of payment. But after a while, it was clear he was only looking for a little conversation. He told me all about the Kayin people who live in the Hpa-An area. He made clear the distinctiveness of the Kayin culture and pointed out the many Kayin flags posted in front of every house. Undoubtedly there was a lot of local pride in this area. I assumed that the Kayin people were yet another minority who were at odds with the central government. A short ride later, he dropped me at the doorstep of my Hpa-an guesthouse. Before he drove off, he left me his phone number in case I needed anything help before I left. Yet another unconditional, unprovoked act of generosity.
Early the following morning, I took a bus to Yangon and went straight to the airport to catch a flight back to Bangkok. My thirty one days in Burma had finally come to an end. I wanted to stay for longer but I had already over stayed my visa. Paying a small penalty at the airport for doing so was necessary before I boarded my plane back to Bangkok.
Burma wasn't the easiest place for me to travel. My stomach was destroyed by the food, rebuilt and destroyed again. The bus rides were long, cheap accommodation difficult to find and fellow travelers few and far between. Backpacking in Burma was a solitary experience to say the least. But even if I found myself feeling down, the locals were always quick to return a smile to my face. The kindness and generosity of the people of Myanmar was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. Whether it was a little girl filling my palm with seashells, a teenager ecstatic to introduce me to his parents, or a old man just throwing me a big toothless grin, travel in Burma was an endless string of priceless exchanges with kind a welcoming people. Given all the hardships they face, their small selfless acts of generosity really made me reconsider my own daily conduct and even re-sparked my interest in Buddhism. I quickly recognized that these were people I could learn a lot from.
On the flight of the country, I was already planning my return. There was still more to see, more to experience and more to learn. However, I felt the need to return soon. Something told me that in five years time the country just wouldn’t be the same. The tourists were just beginning to plant their seeds and the roots had already begun to take hold in places like Nyuang Shwe and Bagan. As in many other South East Asian countries, as tourist dollars flow in, the attitude towards foreigners would likely change. Unfortunately, I felt as though it was only a matter of time. I was lucky to see Burma when I did.

Posted by bradenelsewhere 02:12 Archived in Myanmar Comments (1)

Northern Thailand

sunny 30 °C

Thailand: the epicentre of Southeast Asian travel. Its white sand beaches and crystal clear waters have been attracting travelers from all over the globe for decades. Families, honeymooners, backpackers, partiers and sex tourists alike all flock to this small Buddhist nation for various different reasons. As a result, the country has become one of the most touristified destinations in the world.
Everything I had heard about Thailand gave me the impression that it was not a place I would soon fall in love with. I am easily annoyed by tourist gimmicks and don’t enjoy being catered too as a foreigner. Nonetheless, I had to fly both in and out of Bangkok in order to reach Burma and I am not one to make decisions solely on hearsay, so I decided to give Thailand at least a few weeks. I had heard all the crazy stories about the southern islands: the pristine beaches, the overdeveloped tourism industry and the westerner dominated parties. I decided to save that trip for another time and just spend a couple weeks in the north relaxing before my flight to Yangon. I had heard that the north was a lot less touristy and far more laid back than the south. I thought maybe I could even find a few untouched corners of this giant traveller magnet.
I arrived in Bangkok mid-afternoon and in mid-peak season. Crafted from popular media in the west, my mental image of the city of an underdeveloped, dirty, wild metropolis was fully intact. That image, however, was shattered soon after leaving the airport. Perhaps it was because I had been in China for too long, perhaps it because I was traveling through a nice part of town, but as I rode the air-conditioned shuttle bus from the airport into the heart of the city, I couldn't believe how clean and modern Bangkok looked. The traffic was not as bad as expected, the sidewalks were relatively well kept, and many of the buildings looked quite new. Almost every major western fast food and clothing chain was represented and there were two Seven Elevens on every block. I was a little taken aback.
I thought surely this was a facade. This couldn’t be the same Bangkok that inspired movies like the Hangover II or songs like ‘One night in Bangkok’. After the sun went down, I set out into the city with a small group of travelers from my hostel determined to expose the true dark and crazy underbelly of this infamous city. I was surprised by what I found.
The after hours streets were far from the untamed chaos that I had expected. If anything, they were more like controlled illusions designed to trick tourists into thinking they in midst of something wild and crazy. There were massive strip clubs and go-go bars where bored Thai girls pick up old sex tourists, tourist bar streets where the only Thai people I saw were selling t-shirts, seedy sex show bars full of creepy old men and Thai only clubs where travellers are typically shunned. Everywhere I went I had the distinct feeling that this whole system was far more regulated than it appeared. It was big business and it seemed unlikely that the countless tourists throwing money into the cesspool could get themselves into any real trouble. It was like a big performance.
To be fair, this initial impression could have something to do with the group of travelers I was hanging out with on my first few nights in Bangkok. My hostel was full of three week vacationers who were only interested seeing sex shows and hangout at strip clubs. In some cases, it was the only reason they had come to Bangkok. I certainly expected to spend one of my nights in the city at Nana plaza or Patpong watching a ping pong show. Witnessing an unattractive Thai girl shoot a dart out of her private parts is simply part of experiencing Bangkok. Nonetheless, I assumed this was not the only thing to do in the city. As much as I lobbied for the hostel group to try something new like look for a normal bar or a market, night after night, sex tourism is all anybody seemed interested in. These travelers were generally adamant at the beginning of the night that it was just for kicks and they would never actually pay for sex. But on a couple occasions, I was forced to leave the go-go bars alone in search of other people to hang out with since it was clear my bars mates were not leaving until sunrise.
Needless to say, I didn't really enjoy my first few days in Bangkok. To be honest, I was not in the best state of mind for that city anyways. I was experiencing a 'China Hangover' of sorts. After being immersed in China for so long, arriving in Thailand precipitated a bizarre type of culture shock, but not from Thai culture, from my own culture. Like so many major travel destinations in the world, Thailand had developed a huge western cultural bubble created and fostered in large part by tourism. I wasn't used to seeing or hanging out with so many westerners again. I felt suffocated by all the chain restaurants, honeymooning couples and college frat boys. I found the attitude towards Asia that many of these tourists held to be pretty ridiculous and only possible where a cultural bubble exists. South East Asia was a playground to these people. I place where they could ditch their sensibilities at the airport and explore their dark impulses while still surrounding themselves with all the western niceties they could ever want. Of course this is a broad generalization but, as a backpacker, I felt like a minority.
My china hangover was further exacerbated when, after a few days in Bangkok, I received some bad news from the big country to the north. ZhuQi, a girl with whom spent a short but intense two weeks in Dali, had arranged to fly to Burma to travel with me for a week over Christmas. She had booked her flights and we had started planning a trip together. A few days after she sent me her flight details, however, she mysteriously cancelled her trip. She refused to even give me a reason. I had been really looking forward to seeing her again. Instead, I was left confused and angry. Being in Bangkok did not help. I wanted to get out of the city but I had to wait for my Burmese visa to process. Since there was a national holiday in Thailand, this would take one week. I was stuck.
With a few days of rest, my outlook eventually improved. I took many long walks through Lumphini Park, a large peaceful lake filled area in the middle of the city. It was my favourite place in the city. As I was relaxing on one of the park’s many wooden benches one humid afternoon I noticed a young Thai woman studying English on the bench opposite mine. On a whim, I decided to strike up a conversation. Her English was basic at best but she introduced herself as Fay and told me she was studying for a University exam. It wasn’t long before we made a deal. I agreed to help her study if she toured me around her city in her free time.
She was wearing a bright yellow shirt. Apparently, it was the King’s birthday and everyone was expected to wear his favourite color. After sunset, she took me to the Royal Palace to celebrate the event. We stood amongst a sea of over ten thousand yellow clad Thais as the congregation held a candle light vigil in the King’s honour. The event concluded when the crowd sent hundreds of lanterns into the night sky. It was a unique experience and my first taste of the real Thailand.
My last few days in Bangkok were more enjoyable than my first. I met Fay in Lumphini park for several more afternoon English sessions. She repaid me by touring me through Bangkok’s more local neighbourhoods and attractions. In the evenings, I sampled the city’s barrage of cheap and tasty street food. Sweet Pad Thai, steaming green curries and sizzling oyster omelettes became my favourite memories of Bangkok. The flavours and aromas acted like food therapy relieving the stresses of the city grind.
After a long week, I was able to pick up my Burmese visa and move on to my next destination. I had only ten days before my flight to Yangon so I decided to head north to Chiang Mai. I was hoping this ancient city set amongst the Himalayan foothills would be more relaxed and less touristy than Bangkok. Perhaps I was expecting too much.
Chiang Mai was certainly more relaxed but unfortunately just as touristy as Bangkok and the immediate landscape was surprisingly flat for a city that was supposed to be at the base of the Himalayan foothills. Hundreds of ancient temples were scattered throughout the city center and the old city walls were surrounded by a shallow moat. In contrast to the temples, most of the city’s buildings appeared to be relatively new. There were Italian restaurants, French cafes and British bars on every corner. Strip clubs and go-go bars also had their enclaves. The traffic was loud and intense. The ancient atmosphere I was expecting was nowhere to be found.
I met an interesting group of people at my hostel. We spent a few good nights taking advantage of the western establishments around town. We also attended a reggae festival which sported a couple decent acts. The festival grounds were packed with partiers but the ratio of foreigner to Thai was about nine to one. This was typical of the nightlife in Chiang Mai. I remember hearing some festival-goers drunkenly convey their love of how Thai culture expressed itself through partying. I wanted to turn to them and say "this is not Thai culture, this is our culture implanted in Thailand..." but I bit my tongue. I could never quite put my finger on it, but something about the general attitude of travellers in Thailand always seemed to rub me the wrong way. Perhaps it was just my state of mind at the time.
I quickly grew tired of Chiang Mai’s temples and rented a motorbike to explore the foothills a few miles outside of town. The sights adjacent to the city were not particularly interesting but as I drove deeper into the foothills the scenery improved. The highway turned into a road and the road into a trail. Eventually I found myself on a thin dirt path racing through the forests. I came across a few hill top villages where ethnic minorities grew crops. Most lived in simple shacks and rode bicycles. The area felt remote but I was clearly not the first foreigner to have ventured this far. Even these hidden villages had makeshift gift shops where they sold simple crafts. I spent the entire day exploring the hills returning just as the sun disappeared below the horizon. It was the nicest day I had spent in Thailand thus far. I craved more. Upon returning to the hostel I informed the desk clerk that I would be checking out the following morning but keeping the bike for four more days. I had decided to drive through the mountains of northern Thailand to Pai, a small hippie town close to the Burmese border.
The drive was only supposed to take four hours but I awoke early to give myself plenty of daylight. It took an hour to get out of the city in the morning traffic. From there, it was another half hour before I turned off the busy highway. The trail from the highway to Pai was nicknamed the ‘762-bends road.’ It was known to wreak havoc on the stomachs of those prone to car sickness. The path was windy but well paved with only a few potholes. It snaked its way around and over densely forested hills past stray dogs and monkeys waiting for scraps. Hill top bluffs afforded beautiful views of the surrounding landscape.
I arrived mid afternoon with a sore butt, a mouth full of mosquitoes and eyes full of dirt. It was immediately apparent that Pai was yet another tourist mecca where foreigners outnumbered locals two to one. With only three thousand or so Thais residents, Pai had more western style bars than Yantai, a city with over six million. Nonetheless, the tourist bubble in Pai was far more tasteful than anywhere else I had been in Thailand. Not many of the sex tourists made it this far north, the bars had a distinct hippie vibe and backpackers seemed to dominate much of the traveler culture. The setting was striking. Lush green hills and rice patties were intersected by slow meandering rivers. Simple riverside bungalows were scattered throughout the farmland. I found a comfortable shack for a reasonable price and settled into the pleasant surroundings.
I spent much of my time in Pai with a friendly Maltese Rasta man who was on a winter vacation and a young Spanish university student who was in the midst of a gap year. I cannot remember their names since we always referred to each other by the names of our respective countries. After traveling for a while, nationalities provide useful monikers since rarely do people actually remember each others names. During the days Malta, Spain and Canada rode motorbikes around the countryside. At night we hit the bars for some pool and drinks. It was a relaxing routine. I always slept well in my quiet bungalow, the sound of the river slowly trickling over rocks in the background. I enjoyed my time in Pai and, when it was time to leave, I was happy to be sad to be leaving somewhere in Thailand for once.
I rode my motorbike back to Chiang Mai then quickly caught an overnight bus back to Bangkok. I arrived in early in the morning a day before my flight to Yangon. My task was to withdraw one thousand American dollars in cash for my trip to Burma before the banks closed at six. At the time, Burma had no foreign ATMs and no credit cards. I was forced to bring my entire budget into the country in the form of American dollars bills which could be traded for local currency on the black market. Furthermore, the bills had to be brand new with no tears, creases, stamps or writing. Burmese currency traders were very strict. Any small imperfection in the bills and they would not be accepted. I assumed finding such bills in Bangkok would be easy. After all, the city was international business center with many branches of large American banks. This task proved to be much more difficult than I had imagined.
I began by searching for foreign banks which would allow me to withdraw American dollars directly instead of withdrawing baht and converting it. Changing currencies once instead of twice would save me a big chunk of change in the end. The locals pointed me in several different directions but I could not find a foreign bank with new American dollars on hand. Since it was a Saturday, many of the foreign branches’ currency exchange services were closed and few English speakers were available to help. I ultimately gave up on the foreign banks and began asking around at exchange booths. Still I had no luck. It was exhausting trudging from bank to booth to bank in heat of Bangkok. I must have pleaded my case to over thirty tellers and yet no one seemed to have any new bills.
I had been hunting bills for the better part of the day when I glanced at the clock and noticed I had only a couple hours to spare before all the banks closed at six. My flight left early the following morning so I would have no chance of acquiring the funds necessary to travel to Burma if I did not do so before the end of the working day. Panic set in.
A couple of local tellers had spoken of a large currency exchange center called ‘Big Money’ in a Bangkok suburb. However, no one knew for sure whether the trade center would have American bills or whether they were still open. With limited options, I decided to make the trek. The exchange center was open but there was a queue out of the door when I arrived. When I reached a clerk, he assured me they had plenty of new bills which would pass in Burma. Since the banks were to close in less than an hour, this news came as a huge relief. All I needed to do was withdraw thirty thousand baht to trade for the bills and show them my passport. The ‘Big Money’ ATM would not accept my bank card nor my visa so I left in the building in search of another. I quickly found one down the street but was once again denied. I tried a several more international banks in the area but received the same message. ‘Access denied’. I did not understand. I had used this card at several Bangkok ATMs before. All I knew was that this was the absolute worst time for my card to fail me. I tried five more ATMs. Each time, the machine spit out my card and gave me a Thai error message. My heart sank as I realized that I simply could not withdraw the baht in needed and had less than a half hour until the exchange center closed. Without the necessary funds, it appeared as though I would be forced to miss my flight to Yangon the next day. Furthermore, I was already within the forty eight hour deadline that Air Asia offers for flight changes and would likely have to book a completely new flight with no refund.
I took a cab back to my hostel to use their internet connection to call my Scotia bank branch in Canada. A cheerful support representative named Bill informed me that I had a foreign withdrawal limit on my cards which did not allow a withdrawal of thirty thousand baht in one day. The simplicity of the problem made the whole episode all the more frustrating. Bill immediately raised my limits but by that time it was after six. The banks were closed and I was screwed. The mishap was going to cost me the price of a new flight and a few extra days in Bangkok. It doesn't sound like much, however, on a backpacker's budget, it was a tough pill to swallow.
I was wallowing in self-pity when the hostel owner entered the room. He had overheard my telephone conversation and assured me that all was not lost. According to him, the banks in central mall were open later on Saturdays and may carry the American bills I so desperately needed. As a last ditch attempt I jumped on the back of a moto and told the driver to book it to ‘Central Mall’. He understood the urgency and gunned it. We weaved through traffic at break neck speed until we arrived at a large shopping complex. But something was amiss. I had been to Central Mall before and this was not it. I later learned that there were two ‘Central Malls’ on opposite sides of the city and he had taken me to the wrong one. He quickly realized the mistake and gunned it in the opposite direction.
Twenty minutes later, he dropped me at main entrance of the Central Mall I was looking for. I quickly scanned the store directory for banks. There was only one name that I recognized on the third floor. I ran up the escalators to find the bank doors still open. I had thirty minutes to spare until closing time. Still gasping for air, I asked the desk clerk if they bank had any new American bills. She could see the desperation in my eyes. She opened a drawer with a key hung around her wrist and glanced inside. Looking a bit confused and slightly suspicious, she nodded yes and politely asked me to wait in line like everyone else. I raced over to the banks ATM to give my card one final try. I typed in my password, selected my withdrawal amount and pressed ok. I waited anxiously as the machine decided whether to grant this poor tired backpacker the cash he so desperately needed. A few long seconds later, the ATM made a ‘ding’ sound and began spitting out baht. I was so relieved I yelled out in triumph. This drew a few disconcerting looks from other customers. I returned to the clerk with thirty one thousand baht bills. She promptly exchanged them for one thousand American dollars in crisp new bills. I finally had the funds I required. It appeared I would be going to Burma the following morning after all.
After such a long stressful day of slogging around in the stifling heat of Bangkok, I was looking forward to a long night’s sleep. As I entered my hostel, however, a group of backpackers were on their way out for some drinks. They invited me to tag along. I had an early flight but figured a couple drinks were well deserved after my recent ordeal. Little did I know I would be consuming a lot more than a couple.
We had a great group of people that night. There were a few backpackers and a few young professionals traveling on business. No one was interested in going to Nana Plaza or Patpong. Everyone just wanted to have some drinks and some good conversation. We started at a Thai biker bar, moved on to a local pub and ended up on a strange street full of camper vans which had been converted into cocktail stations. We jumped from camper van to camper van sampling strange concoctions until sunrise. At seven in the morning, I was forced to return to the hostel to gather my things and book it to the airport. It was nice to finally have a good night out in the big durian. I felt as though it was overdue. Perhaps Bangkok had a little something more to it than I originally thought. I boarded the plane to Yangon dead tired but feeling good.
Despite my last enjoyable night in Thailand, I can't say my first stint in the country was a positive one. The scenery in the northern hills was nice, Pai was a special spot and Bangkok had its moments. However, I’m not sure Thailand is the best place for a solo backpacker.
Traveling is just as much about the people you meet than the places you go. In Northern Thailand, instead of meeting other solo travelers like myself, I typically met big budget vacationers or those only interested in sex tourism. Its not that I didn’t like these people, I just didn’t gel with them like I had with so many backpackers previously.
I also found it very difficult to experience the culture in Thailand. It seemed to me as though the tourist track was so well developed that it had become obstacle to experiencing the country itself. I felt as though I was constantly being catered to instead of being immersed. Overall, I was exposed to more western influence than Thai influence.
Maybe I wasn't in the best state of mind during my stay. Maybe I was too rushed and missed some of Northern Thailand’s gems. Perhaps my perception of the country was skewed by the people I spent my time with. Nonetheless, Thailand was the first country I left with no great desire to return.

Posted by bradenelsewhere 05:01 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

China: The Last Chapter

rain 15 °C

I left off my last post in Chengdu where I took a few days to relax after an interesting Tibetan adventure. As I boarded an overbooked train to Chongqing, I began the last leg of what had become a long journey through Southern China. I was facing quite a few challenges at the time, with burns not yet healed and a stomach still recovering from too much yak meat. But I was enjoying myself nevertheless.
Many travelers had told me to avoid Chongqing. It was described as an overly polluted, dirty mega city with little worth interest for the common tourist. Since it has a population which almost tops that of Canada, however, I was curious to see this super metropolis for myself. Upon arriving in the city center, I was instantly captivated by its immense skyline. The heart of the city was jam packed with countless modern high rises towering above the junction of two of China’s largest rivers. The city center was certainly grittier than China's other first tier cities but had some atmospheric old neighbourhoods and many modern amenities. I saw very few foreigners on the streets but the locals were more pleasant than is typical of major Chinese hubs.
On my first night in town, I had stopped to order some road side noodles when a local businessman randomly invited me to join him and his girlfriend at their table for a drink. He happened to be from Yantai and when I told him that I had worked in his hometown he was ecstatic. He wanted to hear all about my experience and insisted on treating me to some Chongqing style hotpot. I left my noodles on the table and followed him to one of the city’s top hot pot restaurants. Chongqing is famous for its delicious but ridiculously spicy hotpot. Many a foreign stomach has been destroyed by this local delicacy which is far from delicate. As much as I love spicy food, I was a bit anxious as we entered the restaurant and sat down in front of a steaming pot of bright red liquid. I knew my new friend would not be not stop ordering until he was certain I had my fill and, to avoid insulting him, I would not be able to refuse anything he put in front of me.
He removed the first piece of brisket from the pot, still dripping with chilli broth, placed it on my plate and smiled encouragingly. As I placed it in my mouth, my eyes widened and began to water. It was even spicier than I had imagined. Throughout the meal, I was forced to take two sips of beer for everyone one bite of food. By the end, my mouth was on fire, my stomach was simmering and my head was swirling from all the alcohol. The meal was fantastic but all that chilli pepper stayed with me for a few days.
As I made my way back to the hostel, I was tipsy enough to stumble into a fancy downtown club. As a backpacker in jeans and a torn t-shirt, I felt a little out of place. Chongqing’s rich and stylish youth sat at lavish tables filled with expensive bottles of alcohol and surrounded by beautiful women. I found a seat at the bar and perused the drink menu. The cheapest beer was eight American dollars, the equivalent of eight bowls of noodles. I was about to make for the exit when young businessman sat down next to me and immediately ordered us a round. As we chatted and played liars dice, several more drunken patrons stopped by to hand me a drink. I was forced to finish most of them on the spot. It was impossible to refuse. Some dragged me onto the dance floor where I received even more attention. Unfortunately, it was mostly from drunk men competing to bring the foreigner back to their table for a shot. I felt like a status symbol being dragged from group to group. Eventually I had to leave just to avoid getting sick. I had gone out earlier that evening with the intention of grabbing a bowl street side noodles and getting a good night sleep. Instead I returned at three in the morning, full of spicy food, beer and liquor. I hadn’t even spent a dime. Another strange night out in China.
When I awoke the following morning I was tired, hung over and had a bad case of the shits. Nonetheless, I downed some electrolytes, stuffed my pockets with toilet paper and set out into the city. China’s juxtaposition of tradition against modernity was no more apparent than in Chongqing. Giant futuristic skyscrapers towered above traditional neighbourhoods like new trees growing from old roots. High flying business executives sat at street side noodle stalls next to elderly men adorned in old communist memorabilia. You could literally see China rapidly emerging from its time-honoured past. It was an intriguing atmosphere.
That evening I took a cheap boat cruise along the skyline with a sea of kissing couples. After sunset, the exteriors of Chongqing’s riverside buildings illuminated with various animated patterns. The light show stretched the entire length of the riverside. The result was spectacular.
I packed my bags the following morning and made my way over to the ferry terminal. Since Chongqing sits on the Yangtze, I decided to book myself into a cheap cabin on a two night “pleasure cruise” which sails through China’s famous Three Gorges as I continued East. The boat looked nice enough in the pictures and I figured the journey would be relaxing. In China, however, initial impressions can be deceiving.
Inside my cabin were six small wooden planks and a toilet which had not been cleaned in ages. The sheets were dirty and the roar from the engine rumbled the walls. I had slept in worse conditions and I seemed to have the cabin to myself so I was not too concerned. My outlook further improved when a gorgeous Chinese woman entered the room and settled into the bed next to mine. We began chatting and she seemed friendly. For a short moment, I thought I would be sailing down the river with just a beautiful Chongqing local for company. But fifteen minutes before the departure time, five rambunctious eighty year old ladies entered the room and settled into the remaining spots. The boat was overbooked so two had to share a bed. They didn’t care though as they had no intention of sleeping. Instead, they drank Chinese whiskey, ate peanuts, laughed and gossiped all night long. One of them stole a table from somewhere and placed it in the center of our room so they could play cards and Chinese chess. It was pretty funny and cute at first but when this senile cabin party continued well into the wee hours of the morning I got pretty annoyed.
I searched the decks for a quiet spot to relax but the boat offered no refuge from the cabin. It was dirty, cold and lacked any proper amenities. There was no restaurant and no common area, only a small shop that sold packaged chicken feet and instant noodles. Though it was called a ‘pleasure boat’, 'pleasure' consisted of singing karaoke or playing cards. If you wanted to indulge in these ‘pleasures’, you had to pay a fee to enter a 'pleasure room'. Hanging on the wall in this room was a menu of ‘pleasurable tasks’ each with a fixed price. Tasks included ‘singing a song’, ‘dancing a dance’ and ‘sitting’. Yes, ‘sitting’ was a pleasure. If you wanted to sit anywhere on the boat, you had to pay for a small plastic stool and carry it wherever you went. I guess that’s what you get for a fifty dollar cruise.
Means of transportation aside, the gorges themselves were stunning. The jagged peaks flanking the river were steep, mystical and shrouded in mist. The ravine was wide in some areas but quite narrow in others allowing little space for our boat to squeak through. Unable to sleep, I caught a beautiful foggy sunrise over the XiLing gorge and spent much of my time on the top deck admiring the scenery. Late in the afternoon on our second day, we arrived at the enormous three gorges dam. I couldn’t wait to get off the boat. I quickly made my way to the bus station to catch a ride to Wuhan. From Wuhan’s terminal, I went to the closest cheap hotel, booked into a single room, took a long shower and got some desperately needed sleep.
Wuhan is a monster city which I saw very little of. It was raining heavily during my stay and I was too tired from the cruise to be bothered to leave my comfortable room. I only ventured short distances to KFC or the internet café. I spent most of my time watching bad Chinese movies.
After two nights of this recovery routine, I caught a train to Hefei then transferred to Tunxi, a small town which serves as the access point for Huangshan (Yellow Mountain), one of China’s most famous landmarks. I had heard many wonderful stories about Huangshan’s mist laden peaks and alluring sunrises. It was time to finally experience the mountain for myself. I had been looking forward to it for weeks.
As I prepared for the climb in my Tunxi dorm room I began chatting with an American who slept in the bunk opposite mine. He was a professional tuba player who had been working in the Beijing orchestra for the last three years. He seemed friendly enough so we agreed to hit the trail together early the next day.
When our minibus dropped us at the base of the mountain, it was cloudy and chilly. As soon as we hit the trail the skies opened up and the mountainside heated. The early morning scenery was spectacular. The yellow tinged cliffs were smooth and rounded but rose into sharp jagged peaks. Lazy trees clung to mountainside digging their roots into the rock face and swaying in the breeze. As we climbed higher, the peaks of surrounding mountains poked through the heavy mist which had settled in the valleys below. Layers of mountains made themselves known in the distance.
I was surprised by how simple the climb was. The Chinese government make these popular landmarks accessible to anyone with two legs by paving stone steps from the bottom to the top and providing cable cars for those unable or too lazy to climb. Nonetheless, the steep ticket price of over forty American dollars really means these sites are accessible only to the elite.
As I happily walked up the mountain, the convenience of the paths lulled me into a false sense of security. Instead of watching my step, I was walking more as I would on a side walk, taking pictures all the while. We were about half way to the summit when I failed to notice a break in the trail. One way led up and the other straight down steep stone steps. I unwittingly walked into the path leading down and quickly lost my footing. I still remember the moment, mid-flight, when I realized what was happening. I had removed the bandages from my burns only a few days before and now here I was again, facing another potentially trip-ending scenario. I hit the steps hard and tumbled a good two meters more bouncing from one stone step to the next. When I finally came to a stop I, along with my hiking buddy and the twenty Chinese tourists who witnessed the incident, thought for sure I must have broken something. The fall was from a good height and onto nothing but stone. When I stood up, I was bleeding from my left shin, right knee, left hand, right arm and chin, not too mention a badly bruised ass cheek. My right knee got the worst of the fall but, amazingly, not even it was broken.
In the immediate aftermath, I was more mentally than physically shaken. As I peered down at the steep stone steps below, I quickly realized how bad the fall could have been.
I had to take a moment to regain my composure before dusting myself off and continuing the climb. From similar soccer injuries, I knew my knee was damaged in a way that afforded me a few hours before the real pain set in. My best option was the continue climbing to the top and hope to find a mountain top clinic.
We reached the summit just in time for sunset. Countless jagged peaks glistened in the waning sunlight. The colours so were so breathtaking that I nearly forgot about my injuries. By the time it was dark, however, the pain slowly began to creep in. There were a few hostels on the summit but the only available clinic was closed for a holiday. This did not bode well for the climb down. Unsure of what to do, we found a couple warm bowls of noodles, a chilly dorm room and did our best to get some sleep.
At five in the morning, we were awoken by several loud tour groups preparing to watch the sunrise. I yelped in pain as I slowly swung my leg over the side of the bed. My fears had been realized. The tenderness of the injury had finally settled in and the knee was almost completely immobile. I managed to hobble out to the hotel balcony to watch Huangshan's famous sunrise. It was well worth the short painful trip. Layers upon layers of mountain tops rose out of the thick mist which had settled overnight like countless jagged islands in a milky white ocean. The knee loosened up slightly as I stood amongst the sea of Chinese tourists taking in the landscape but by the time the sun was far over the horizon, I was far from in climbing condition. With limited options, I had to come up with a plan. A six kilometre hike along the top of the mountain stood between me and the closest cable car. Either I made it to this cable car or I paid a few porters a hefty fee to carry me back down the way I came.
In hindsight, it may not have been the best decision to make for the cable car. I was lucky enough to run into a group of older foreign tourists who, due to their issues with arthritis, had a mobile pharmacy full of muscle relaxants and painkillers. They gave me two Aleve and two extra strength Tylenol. Thirty minutes later, I could not feel anything in the knee at all. Come to think of it, I could not feel anything period. We began to make our way towards the cable car. In the wake of the medication the pain had subsided. Nonetheless, the staunch stiffness was a constant reminder to take it slow. A couple hours later, we were off the mountain and on our way back to Tunxi. I stayed in bed all evening to give my battered body a rest.
The pain returned the following day but was much less severe. Confident that I had not done any serious damage, I caught a taxi to the bus terminal and boarded a coach to Hangzhou where I would get an x-ray just to be safe.
I arrived in Hangzhou on a sunny fall afternoon. My first order of business was obtaining a much needed visa extension. I was hesitant, however, to head to the visa office since I already had five Chinese visas in my passport and not all of them were credible. I kept wondering if I had perhaps pushed my luck too far. Only three days were left on my current visa so I would be facing difficult circumstances if denied. My only option would be to book a last minute flight out of the country. I trimmed my beard, combed my hair and put on my nicest clothes before heading to the public security bureau.
The immigration officer mumbled ‘buxing’ (not good) under his breath as he took a look at my passport. He clearly was not impressed by all of my visas. He told me that a hotel registration, bank statements showing in excess of three thousand American dollars and a full itinerary of my travels were necessary before I could even apply for an extension. He took pleasure in the irritation clearly evident on my face. I wish someone had told me this before I waited in line for an hour.
Tired and frustrated, I limped back to my hostel, asked them to register me in the system and requested to print off my bank statements. Of course, they didn’t have a printer at the hostel so I was forced to hobble around the city for well over an hour before I found a tiny print shop down a dark back alley. Once I was sure I had all the proper documents printed and in hand, I made my way back to the visa office. I waited in line for another hour before being confronted by the same officer who had turned me away earlier. He studied each of my documents carefully. After reluctantly confirming that I had all the proper paperwork to apply, he informed me that the Hangzhou visa office offers only fifteen day visa extensions which take one week to process. Essentially, by the time I would get my passport back I would have seven days to leave the country. It was pointless. This was Chinese bureaucracy at its worst. When I asked him what I could do to get a normal thirty day extension he told me to go to another city.
I returned to the hostel empty handed and frustrated. I had to consider my options. It was Friday and my visa was to run out on Monday. To make matters worse, all of China’s visa offices were closed Saturday and Sunday. Either I stayed in Hangzhou and paid for the pointless extension or risked trying to obtain a visa on Monday in Changsha, my next destination. It was a tough decision, but I just had too much more to see in China. Seven days was not enough. I booked an overnight ticket to Changsha leaving Sunday night and hoped for the best.
With my visa problems on hold, I considered what to do about my physical ailments. My knee had loosened up considerably but was far from one hundred percent and some of my other wounds had become infected. The hostel owner spoke of a good international clinic in the area. I staggered around for thirty minutes before I found it. Out front the white building was a large sign which read “24 Hour Seven Days a Week International Health Care Service!” I walked up to the front door in the middle of the afternoon on a Friday to find that it was locked and nobody was there.
That empty clinic nearly sent me over the edge. I had been in China for almost a year and had dealt with many a frustrating episode. ‘This is China’ was a mantra I would often recite to calm myself down. But with the visa issues, the injuries and the daily frustrations of being unable to accomplish anything, my limits were being tested. I eased my worries by drowning them in beer with a group of foreigners from the hostel at a local bar that night.
The following day, I took some time to calm down next to Hangzhou’s renowned west lake. It was the perfect atmosphere to ease my troubled mind. The water sparkled in the late autumn sunlight. Willow trees hung over grassy shores from which I was afforded stunning views of the nearby foothills. Surrounding the lake were several pedestrian streets and traditional neighbourhoods. Colourful pagodas capped several hill tops west of the lake and the entire district was full of trendy bars and cafes. Hangzhou was far fancier and more westernized than the China I was used to but an agreeable setting nonetheless. The lovely city afforded a pleasant means for ignoring my problems for a couple days. On Sunday, I snapped back to reality as I settled into the hard seat of an overbooked thirteen hour overnight train to Changsha.
I knew nothing about Changsha beyond it being the capital of Hunan province and the former home of Chairman Mao. The city was certainly not a typical stop on the east coast backpacker highway. I didn’t much care about the setting though. I just prayed that its visa office as more relaxed than Hangzhou’s. Upon arriving at the train station after a long sleepless night, I went straight to they city’s only hostel to drop my bags and register. Since my visa was to run out in less than twenty four hours, the desk clerk said he was not allowed to register me as a guest. They advised me to go to the visa office and return with proof of a visa extension. I tried to explain to him that I could not apply for a visa unless I was registered at a hotel in the city but my broken Chinese was simply not good enough to get the point across. Finally the clerk took me to the police station to register with an officer. I was unsure whether the little slip of paper the officer gave me would be sufficient to apply for a visa but I had no choice but to try.
Running on fumes, I arrived at the visa office with my makeshift registration and the documents I had already printed in Hangzhou in hand. I did my best to fill out the pre-application paperwork and waited for half an hour to see a visa officer. He carefully inspected all of my documents. After a short deliberation period, he informed me that I had all the proper paperwork but my bank statements were three days old and had to be reprinted. The dates on the bank statements had to match the date of the application. He was unwavering on this point and I was sent back into the city in search of a printer once again. I first asked at the hostel, no luck there. I found a small print shop down the street but their printer was out of order. I went to the closest internet cafe but they had no printers for public use. I searched the streets but could not for the life of me find a printer. It was two hours later that I finally stumbled upon a hole-in-the-wall print shop near the university several kilometres from the hostel.
With my registration, up to date bank statements, itinerary and application paperwork printed, I returned to the visa office late in the afternoon. This was my last chance. If I was turned down I would not have enough time print off everything again and return before closing. Without a new extension, I would have no choice beyond heading straight to the airport and booking any available international flight. I waited anxiously while the officer once again closely examined the papers. Seconds felt like minutes. He left me in suspense for far too long. At last, he told me to pay the fee at the front desk and come back in one week to pick up my passport. I was so relieved I nearly jumped across the desk to hug him.
With my visa issues finally solved I took a long wonderful nap and awoke feeling much more relaxed. Even my knee was feeling a bit better. Then I took a walk into downtown Changsha to find that it is actually one of China’s most happening cities. Since Mr Mao was born only an hour away, I thought the city would be more on the conservative side. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It is one of the few places I’ve seen in China that has a lively home grown nightlife. The street side corners were packed with large groups of locals, both young and old, eating spicy hotpot, drinking, playing cards and singing songs late into the night. There were several large night life districts and an eclectic mix of clubs, bars and cafes. Chinese style night life is typically all about the glitz and glam, high-priced drinks, strobe lights and shitty top40s music. While Changsha certainly had plenty of this, it also boasted many small music bars, trendy shops and European cafes. Most of these establishments were run by local students or recent grads. This was something I had not seen anywhere else in China save for perhaps a few small corners of Beijing or Shanghai. Speaking a little Chinese, it was an easy place to make friends.
At one of the student bars, a cute five table live music joint called ‘nothing bar’, I found myself ordering a beer and listening to live covers of western indie tunes. The musicians could not have been older than eighteen but were quite talented. The young woman who brought me my drink did not work at the bar but was helping out a friend who owned it. Her small frame was adorned with all sorts of funky attire and accessories. She took the seat opposite mine as she placed a cheap Chinese beer in front of me and introduced herself as Cheng Te, a twenty one year old fashion consultant. Apparently, this meant she taught classes to woman in their mid twenties on how to dress. She had done quite a bit of traveling in the west of China and we chatted about our favourite destinations. Various guitarists and singers took the stage as we passed the time sharing travel stories. When the bar closed, we moved to a late night noodle joint. We continued chatting well into the night. Much of our conversation was beyond the scope of my mandarin abilities but I did my best to keep up. It was almost sunrise when I finally made it back to the hostel. We agreed to meet again the next evening.
I spent a lot of time with Cheng Te over the following week. It was a week of much needed relaxation. My routine was simple. I often slept til the afternoon before taking a short walk around the city. In the evening I would meet Cheng Te for dinner at one of Changsha’s posh international restaurants. Several promo cards from her work allowed us some high class meals. She also exposed me to Changsha’s mouth numbing street food. It was delicious but spicy as all hell. One dish in particular “malatang” was very interesting. At a malatang stall, you pick from a wide selection of fresh vegetables and types of tofu. Then the cook turns your selection into a spicy bowl of noodle soup. It soon became one of my favourite Chinese street snacks. After dinner we would often sit along the river, hang out at a cafe or just walk the busy streets. We always found something interesting to do. One night I taught her how to ice skate at Hunnan province’s only ice rink. On another we witnessed Changsha’s spectacular weekly fireworks show on the riverside. Except for the nights she took me shopping or to get her hair done, I always enjoyed myself.
The week seemed to fly by. Soon my visa was ready and it was time to move on. Cheng Te saw me off at the station as I boarded a bus bound for Zhangjiajie City. She was sad to see me go but, as is often the case when traveling, we both knew that our time together was limited. I only had three weeks left on my visa and lots left to see. We promised to stay in touch.
My reason for travelling to Zhangjiajie City was to visit its famous national park. Locals often claim that the movie Avatar was filmed amongst its giant limestone spires and thick forests. I always believed Avatar was filmed in a big blue room and put together by CGI experts but I was curious to see what all the hype was about. I spent a night in the city before trekking into the park. The weather was warm and sunny when I arrived. It was immediately apparent why locals associate the area with scenes from Avatar. Thousands of vertical spires, some several hundred meters tall, covered the bizarre rain forested landscape. The pinnacles rose out of canyons and valleys at near impossible angles with trickling streams and mossy rocks settled on the forest floor below. Various plateaus provided stunning views of the bizarre landscape.
The main paths were littered with Korean tourists so I took a lesser known trail following a clear water stream into the heart of the park. The climb to the top of the plateau was more difficult than I had anticipated. I realized that my knee had not fully recovered from the fall on Huangshan. But from the top I had a beautiful view of the sunset over the spires. Tucked away in the forest was a cozy little hostel where I stayed the night. I was lucky enough to have a heated dorm room all to myself. Since I was to turn twenty four at midnight, I considered it an early birthday present.
I awoke the following morning to the sound of heavy rain on the hostel’s rooftop. The clear weather from the day previous had all but disappeared and the park was shrouded in fog. I spent a few more hours hiking around the area but left early in the afternoon to return to the city before evening. It was my birthday after all and I wanted to treat myself to a nice dinner and a few drinks.
My hostel was empty and the city devoid of foreigners. I had no one to join me in my birthday celebrations. Setting off into the town center alone, however, did not bother me. I had become quite use to it in China. Although it was considerably smaller, Zhangjiajie City had a nightlife vibe similar to that of Changsha. There was no shortage of happening joints to grab a drink. I hopped from bar to bar chatting with locals in each spot. Everyone was receptive and friendly if not a little confused by my presence. Eventually, I ended up at a KTV bar owned by two beautiful Chinese sisters. They treated me to a few birthday drinks and persuaded me to sing a couple songs. By that point, I was far too tipsy to refuse. When the bar closed around three in the morning, they invited me out for a late night snack.
‘Zhu ni shengri kuai le’ (happy birthday) one of the sisters said as she placed a large steaming bowl of soup in front of me. It was filled with a dark broth and had the severed foot of a pig poking through its surface. This was my birthday gift. Chopsticks and spoon in hand, I hesitated as the foot’s three steaming toes stared me in the face. ‘Happy birthday’ I said to myself as I threw my inhibitions aside and dove in. It was actually quite tasty. After our late night meal, the girls dropped me off at my hostel. I thanked them for their generosity. They had made my second birthday in China a day to remember.
The next morning I slept in and nearly missed the bus I had booked the day before. I jumped aboard as it was pulling away from the gate. Three short hours later I arrived in Fenghuang, a funky ancient town set upon a meandering river amidst misty hills. The town’s traditional buildings hung precariously over the riverbank kept from falling in only by thin wooden stilts. Unfortunately, domestic tourism had clearly made its distinct mark on the settlement as inside every beautiful old building was a hotel, restaurant, trinket shop or loud KTV bar. This detracted from the cultural atmosphere, however, Chinese domestic tourism is a cultural experience in itself. It rained constantly during my stay but the town was a good one to experience in the rain. The stone streets and walls reflected the colourful paint which barely clung to buildings and statues in the downpour. Mist roamed in and out of alleyways as much as the Chinese tourists. Elderly townsfolk stayed hidden underneath umbrellas as they meandered through the maze of windy streets. After sunset, the whole riverside was illuminated with colourful Christmas lights. Every post, window, rooftop and bridge glimmered brightly. It was a spectacular setting, but I only spent a couple nights in the old city. It was too touristy for my tastes.
From FengHuang I caught a bus to a town called HongJiang. For anyone who feels as though China has lost some of its traditional roots, I recommend a trip to HongJiang. I knew little about this hidden gem upon arrival but quickly fell in love. The ancient commercial center was full of thatched roofs, cobblestone streets and weathered stone walls. Many of the old retirees who represented the majority of the demographic still wore traditional clothes and played traditional Chinese games around street fires. There were no tourists, only old families living out simple lives. It felt very authentic and was a nice change from the touristified Fenghuang.
The locals were all very curious and friendly. Several old men offered to buy me a bowl of noodles. Many old ladies stopped me on the street to chat. How they expected me to communicate in their local dialect I am still not sure. All I know is that their welcoming attitudes along with Hongjiang’s laidback atmosphere and beautiful surroundings quickly made the town one of my favourite destinations in all of China. I could have stayed for weeks but I only had ten days left on my visa and no trip to China is complete without a visit to Guanxi province. So, after three short nights in Hongjiang, I packed my bags and hopped from bus to bus until I finally reached Yangshou over ten hours later.
Next to the great wall, Yangshou is probably the most famous scenic area in all of China. I was certainly surprised to see so many tourists in one Chinese town. One look around, however, and the tourist migration is understandable. The scenery was absolutely sublime. Countless bizarre karst limestone peaks jetted out of the flat landscape. In between the towering formations, farmers tended to rice paddies and raised cattle. The large Li river winded its way through the region splitting and rejoining itself to accommodate the strange formations. The area was full of well trodden trails which connected the many small villages and allowed an easy escape from the hoards of tourists. It was perfect biking territory. I occupied most of my time doing just. When the rain did not allow for biking I visited a limestone cave with a natural hot spring nestled inside.
I stayed in a funny little hostel called Monkey Jane's which sported a rooftop bar complete with beer pong and cheap tsingtao. I spent most of the nights there playing drinking games with a bunch of Scandinavian backpackers. On American thanksgiving we bought an assortment of fresh meats and vegetables at the local market and prepared a large half western half Chinese feast. The Scandinavians cooked up some meat balls, a Valencian traveler made us a Spanish omelette and the Chinese cook whipped up a few stir fries. Everything was delicious. I was stuffed when I boarded a bus bound for Shenzhen that night.
As anyone should after a thanksgiving meal, I slept well on the cushy sleeper bus to Shenzhen and arrived in need of a toilet the following morning. At the time of my visit, Shenzhen was China’s biggest ‘special economic zone’. In the late 1980s, businesses willing to invest in the area were given free rain to conduct commerce with low taxes and little government interference. The region went from being nothing more than a backwater to a modern skyscraper filled financial center in little more than a decade.
To be honest, as a backpacker, I found it to be pretty boring. There was not much to do beyond business and shopping. But the main reason I went was to visit a girl, Annie, who lived in nearby Dongguan. We had watched ‘Kung Fu Panda’ together at our Shangri La hostel two months previous and kept in touch ever since. After I found myself a cheap room, I met Annie in the downtown core. There was nothing to see beyond towering skyscrapers, so we spent most of our day in a park chatting about our experiences in the west of China and strumming on my guitar. In the evening we ate Sushi and drank at a fancy Japanese restaurant. The prices were high and I felt out of place as a budget traveler but the conversation was good. I always enjoy reconnecting with people I met while traveling. When Annie returned to her sister’s home, I walked back to my guesthouse with a significantly lighter wallet.
It was nearing midnight but I was wide awake. I found a small café with an internet connection next to my hostel to write some emails. The owner, a hip local woman who was dressed to the nines, told me that the café would close in only a few minutes. As she brought the chairs in from the patio, I asked if there was a bar nearby which had a WIFI connection. She misunderstood my question and invited me to join her and her friends at a posh night club. I certainly had no intention going out that night but I rarely turn down an opportunity to party with locals.
One hour later, I was sitting at a large round table in the middle of a ritzy Shenzhen club with a group of classy Cantonese friends. We drank, we danced and we played liars dice. The entrance price was steep, but bottle after bottle of fine whiskey seemed to appear on the table with no sign of a bill. When the club thinned out, our large group got a room at a fancy KTV joint. The drinks continued to flow as each member of the entourage took turns singing sappy Chinese love songs. I was eventually forced to sing “Wonderwall”, the only English song I could find in the system.
At five in the morning we ditched the KTV joint in favour of a late night seafood restaurant. The server placed a gigantic bowl of rice pudding stuffed full of strange ocean creatures in the middle of the table. It took almost an hour for seven of us to polish it off. As the sun was rising, one of the more rambunctious of the group suggested another after hours club. I told them all I had to catch a bus in only a few hours, thanked them for showing me such a good time and returned to the guesthouse. I remember thinking to myself how these unexpected random nights were becoming much less unexpected in China.
I managed only a few hours to sleep before catching a bus to Guangzhou. It was pouring rain when I arrived in the Cantonese mega metropolis. I was tired, hung over and fighting off a nagging cold so I quickly settled into a hostel and planned to spend a couple days reading, writing and recuperating indoors. That is until I got an unexpected text from Cheng Te in which she told me that she had taken a day off work and was catching a train to GuangZhou to see me before I left China. To be honest, a small part of me wanted her to stay in Changsha. The part of me that was desperate for some sleep. Nonetheless, I was excited to see her when she arrived at the train station late that night. We spent the following day huddled under an umbrella as we explored Guangzhou’s streets. Even in the shitty weather, the city was quite nice. It had an interesting mix of traditional and colonial influences with a distinct international flair. The street food was fantastic and we caught a memorable lunch at Guangzhou’s most famous dim sum restaurant. The huge spiralling Guangzhou tower was also a worthwhile attraction. The surrounding area was full of chic modern architecture and fancy parks. We had little time to explore. Early in the evening, less than twenty four hours after she arrived, Cheng Te and I parted ways as she caught a train back to Changsha. With me leaving China the following day, we both new that this goodbye was final.
I took a short bus ride to Dongguan where I was to spend my last night on the mainland. Annie, who had returned to Dongguan to work, met me at the bus station. We grabbed another delicious, although thankfully much cheaper, Japanese meal and perused the streets of Dongguan before I retired to my guesthouse.
Early the following morning, I made the short trip back to Shenzhen to cross the border into Hong Kong. At the border control, an immigration officer stamped my passport, officially concluding my stay in China. It was a sobering moment. I felt like I was leaving behind a second home unaware of when I would ever return. It was difficult saying goodbye to a country that had had such an influence over the last year of my life. Nonetheless, I was ready to experience something new. I had spent a long time in China and, despite its wealth of cultural diversity, life inside its borders was starting to feel too normal for the backpacker in me.
It wasn’t long before my contemplative thoughts were interrupted by the awe inspiring spectacle that is Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour. It was not the first time I had laid eyes on the towering jungle of steel, glass and concrete but the view never gets old. For someone who loves skylines as much as I, it’s the ultimate sight.
Hong Kong is one of my favorite cities in the world. It boats an ideal mix of natural and man made beauty. It is a place where you can find literally anything at any time of the day or night and there is no where in the world quite like it. The fast paced Cantonese culture is much different from that of mainland China and the western influenced government fosters a much more liberal environment.
The high costs make backpacking through Hong Kong difficult but the city can be experienced on the cheap. My method was to go straight Chung King mansion, a massive building in Kowloon which houses hundreds of tiny Indian run guesthouses and sweatshops. I had discovered this gem one year earlier when Yahia and I showed up in Hong Kong on New Years Eve without a room. If you know how to bargain, it’s by far the cheapest place to stay in the city.
The building is organized into five massive blocks and stretches seventeen floors. One cannot access one block from another and the few flimsy elevators servicing each block are always jam packed. As a result, I was forced to carry my backpack up and down the stairs from guesthouse to guesthouse searching for a good deal. The sweatier I became, the more desperate I looked and the more difficult the bargaining. I had to take breaks in the stairwell to regain my composure. It took well over an hour to find a decent price. For $20, I booked a small private room with a clean bed and a bathroom. I dropped my bags and took a quick shower. There was no time to relax as I had already agreed to meet a local friend for dinner.
I had met Rains on the New Years Eve previous when I was in the city last. We had stayed in touch ever since. She was a young financial planning consultant who was born and raised Hong Kong. The crazy city really is a great place to know a local. Rains spoke often of what she despised about her hometown but clearly enjoyed showing a foreigner around. Aware of my limited funds, she took me to Temple Street to get some cheap local Cantonese food. Everything was smothered in sweet and sour sauce and dripping with oil. It was exactly what I needed after a long afternoon of trudging up and down stuffy stairwells. After dinner we sat at the harbor, drinking 7-11 beers, chatting and enjoying the view. The late night winds from the ocean eventually forced us back to our homes. It was late December after all and even Hong Kong can get chilly.
The next day Rains had to work so I took a few hours to wander Kowloon. I had spent most of my last visit to Hong Kong on the main island. Kowloon, however, felt like a whole other city. The buildings were older, the streets narrower and the demographic more multicultural. Shopkeepers from around the globe peddled anything from fake Rolexes to greasy samosas. Colourful signs stretched their bright neon arms out over the streets in a futile attempt to gain the upper in hand in a competition over limited advertising space. It was an interesting environment.
Rains took the following day off work to take me to Cheung Chau, a small island forty five minutes by ferry from Victoria Harbour. This little island town was a great getaway from the big city. There were no cars and the buildings were no more than two stories high. Countless fishing boats scattered throughout the bay supplied the tasty cheap diner style restaurants in the center of town. We took a nature walk along the water which passed by secluded coves and dark tunnels. It was hard to believe we were still in Hong Kong. It was the perfect example of what is often overlooked in this place. There is much more to this business hub than fancy buildings and big city lights. We explored Cheung Chau until sunset at which point we caught a ferry to the city.
Back amongst the towering skyscrapers, we met a friend of Rains’ for a drink on Prince Edward Street, one of Hong Kong’s main night life districts. The bars were busy and the prices wallet crushing. I could only afford a couple beers on my backpacker budget. We capped off the night with some street side grilled octopus, yet another ‘must try in Hong Kong’. I think I could write a book on this subject after spending a couple days with Rains. I thanked her for all her hospitability as we parted ways that night. Once again, a friendly local had made my experience.
I woke up early following morning to catch the subway to the airport. An Air Asia flight bound for Bangkok was waiting for me at the gate. I settled into a cramped window seat and closed my eyes. The plan raced down the runway and propelled itself into the sky. As I opened my eyes, I caught my last glimpse of the Victoria Harbour skyline through the fog. It finally set in. My year in China had come to an end.
My experience in this wild country was full of interesting adventures but not without its challenges. The mainland can be an infuriating place for a foreigner to live and travel. As my visa issues can account to, the mistrust of outsiders in the high levels of government makes it difficult for even lowly backpackers to trek through all the red tape.
Communication was always obstacle, even when I was able to speak a bit of the language. It seemed as though every city had its own unique dialect. Each was distinctly different and often only loosely connected with mandarin. Outside of the central districts of a few major cities, English speaking Chinese and translated signs were rare.
A large tourist infrastructure was available in popular areas of China, however, it was clearly designed for domestic tourists, not foreigners. Even in touristy areas, I often felt immersed in a culture which was fundamentally different from that of the west, where I often had no choice but to do what locals do. When I took a train or a bus, I was almost always the only white face onboard. In restaurants, I was reduced to pointing at pictures on the wall, at dishes on other tables or randomly at the menu. Outside large city centers or major tourist spots, I seldom came across those small western niceties that keep a westerner sane like pubs, cheese or sit down toilets.
Nonetheless, these challenges are what made my experience in China more interesting and rewarding in the end. China is a country where you get what you give. Being willing to step out of the large commercial centers, explore remote corners, deal with everyday frustrations, give that weird street food a try, take that bumpy mountain road into unknown territory or learn a bit of the language is what ultimately opens the door to experiencing the depths of what this massive country has to offer. Once I opened that door, I found China to be a true traveler’s smorgasbord.
China has some of the world’s largest and most modern city centers and some of its most remote minority villages. It has rain forests, snow covered peaks, deserts, plateaus and everything in-between. Each region has its own distinct traditions, languages and cuisine. In some cases, visiting neighboring cities feels like visiting different countries. Even within cities, stark contrasts are apparent. Fancy cars share the streets with mopeds and horse drawn buggies. Around the corner from trendy clubs and cafes you find groups of old men playing Chinese chess by firelight. Even in the center of China's largest metropolises, beneath the towering skyscrapers and five star hotels you still find little old ladies selling one dollar bowls of noodles.
The cuisine is diverse and the selection infinite. If it is edible, it is eaten in China. From insect meat to pig’s feet, I came to realize how the Chinese have developed a talent for making anything taste delicious. But ultimately, as a backpacker, my culinary judgment of a country depends on how good of a meal I can get for a dollar. China is unmatched in this respect. Not only could I get an excellent meal for a dollar but the selection was bewildering. From tofu cracker wraps to peanut rice noodles to street barbecue eggplant, there was always something new and delicious to try.
The Chinese certainly have a bad reputation among neighbouring countries. They are often described as loud, brash, impolite and greedy. They are dismissed as unfriendly and unruly. But many of these impressions come from those who have not spent enough time outside of China’s few major cities or tourist attractions.
Contrary to the big city stereotypes, most Chinese are very welcoming and interested in outsiders. Many have had little contact with foreigners beyond what they see on TV or in the movies. They want to know where we are from, how our home differs from theirs and what our impression is of their country. Most want us to leave their small corner of China with a full belly and a wide smile. Their chief obstacle is communication. Learning a bit of the language opened up a whole other world for me. Once I was able to cross the communication barriers, I had never felt so much kindness from so many people. Locals often felt obliged show me the way when I was lost, treat me to dinner when I was hungry or show me around when I was curious.
The Chinese may lack the social civility and communicative ability of people in more developed countries. Yes, they yell, they spit, they don’t line-up and they are brutally honest. But these things are cultural; they do not speak to character. Manners aside, the vast majority of the people I encountered in China were some of the most genuine and welcoming I had ever met.

Posted by bradenelsewhere 21:57 Archived in China Comments (0)

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