Trekking from Kalaw to In Dein – Day 3

This morning  at the guesthouse, Mr. Hti made us crepes!  with fresh fruit and local honey.

We trade stories with other trekkers, brush our teeth in the open air “bathroom”…. then time to get on the road.

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It is foggy this morning, but the road crew is already active in front of the guest house.  2014-10-30_2041

Young women moving dirt with their hoes and bamboo baskets to fill up potholes. Some young men were in the group, but the girls were definitely more efficient workers.  (Road work by day, peanut preparation by night!)

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Village girls on their way to school, close to the wooden monastery.

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The road climbs up toward a pass – the fog is burning off to reveal more colorful landscapes.2014-10-30_21312014-10-30_2118

Two happy trekkers with Mr. Hti!

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People in Burma are mostly Buddhist, but many also practice animistic folk religion. There is a strong belief in the Nat spirits, some of whom are benevolent, some not so much.  Almost every home has a nat shrine, with flowers and fruit offering, to keep the Nats happy. Inside this roadside shrine is a bed for the resident nat, as well as food, water, flowers and a lit candle.

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A little further along, some young monks seem to have escaped their classroom..

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At the top of the pass, there is a sort of café, full of trekkers and locals. Lots of Chinese motorcycles parked in front.

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Dishwashing takes place in the open!

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We make a short stop to rehydrate – and then push on: its all downhill from here to Lake Inle!

We get our first glimpse of the lake.  The water level in the shallow lake has been going down for several years, as deforestation brings more sediment down from the surrounding hills, and climate change causes more evaporation.

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As we descend, the temperature is getting hotter. Would love to cool off like this guy…

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At last we are at lake level – almost there – seven hours after leaving the guesthouse!

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A few more minutes of walking, and we arrive at the river’s edge where our longboat is waiting to take us up the lake to our hotel.  Time for a well-deserved cool drink from a coconut. We made it!  Our trek is complete! YAY!!!

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Trekking from Kalaw to In Dein – Day 2

We left our host family in La Mine village, and set off for day 2 of our trek.

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The morning was cool, and the farmers were working in their fields. Myanmar is incredibly fertile, and in early November just after the rainy season, the fields were quite lush – mountain rice, paddy rice, mustard in full bloom.  Also corn, peanuts, all kinds of beans.

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Water buffaloes are used for plowing – this man was “field surfing” – riding on a board pulled behind his buffalo while plowing…and listening to his ipod!

The path led us along train tracks,

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over bamboo bridges,

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through a rice field,

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and at mid-morning we came to a Pa O village called Pin Nwe. People were busy drying corn, beans and chile peppers.

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The village boys were mugging for our camera – they really enjoyed watching a video of themselves!

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An old woman had set up her backstrap loom along the main path, and was selling her textiles.  It takes 5 days to weave the scarves she is selling for 5 kyat – about $5. She gives us tea and roasted peanuts while we watch.

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We purchase one, and she unwinds her headscarf to put the cash in her safekeeping place.  We continue through the beautiful countryside, watching the clouds gather.  At one point, I slipped on the track, and ending up with one foot in deep, oozy mud – remnants of the previous day’s rain. The guides helped fix that problem…. but we could see that the path could quickly become slippery and impracticable in case of rain.

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We were happy to arrive at our lunch stop – the village of Pop Kè. Mr Hti brought us bowls of noodles and vegetables, with an egg on top, and fried potatoes.

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We had made relatively good time this morning, and were allowed to take a short siesta… until it started to rain! What a downpour! No let-up. It was looking like our afternoon trek over the mountain to the Kone Hla guesthouse was going to be very slippery going.  Finally, we “negotiated” with the guides to hire a pick-up truck to take us the rest of the way to our destination. The pick-up had to go around the mountain, rather than up and over as we could have done on foot, so it took us almost 3 hours – but hey, we were nice and dry in the cab with the driver, and the guides were trading jokes with his buddy in the back.

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We arrived at the guesthouse just at dark – and just in time for dinner!  (such yummy things to eat in Myanmar!)

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Other travelers were still out on the mountain – a group of 3 french women arrived well after dark – totally soaked, and with dead flashlights, but at least under their own power.  An older couple and their guide had still not arrived – and we heard that a bullock cart had been sent out to find them.  The French ladies had some hot tea at the guest house, and then continued out in the night to the local monastery where they were to sleep.  We heard that the guides we not encouraging people to sleep in monasteries any more, as there have been a few problems with the rules.  The monks do not drink alcohol, and men and women must sleep in separate dormitories. Apparently some trekkers were sneaking in beers or stronger stuff after a hard day’s walk, and there was a little too much “visiting” between dorms going on after dark.

After our dinner, we were happy to turn in – but there was quite a lot of loud banging going on just outside our window.  In the morning – we learned that this happens regularly as the unmarried village girls shell the harvested peanuts by pounding them – and the young men gather to observe which of the ladies is the best worker/prospective wife.

Snorkeling in the Gulf of Bengal

The beach in Ngapali is beautiful. Stretched out in front of the hotels, sand is the colour and texture of brown sugar, the water turquoise and clear. There are a few big rocks, for interest, which are dry at low tide. And a nice line of breaking waves… Just right to roll over unsuspecting bathers. Needed to keep our mouths closed!

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Two sizes of crabs, fist sized red ones scurry side ways in crab fashion. And pea-sized tiny white ones pop out of their holes to deposit gobs of sand in concentric arcs around their homes.

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The rocks are covered with the tiniest mussels I have ever seen, but not much else.  We needed to see more sea life!

We arranged for a snorkeling trip in a local boat…destination Pearl Island, just offshore. At 8 AM, the boat motored up opposite to us…on the other side of the breakers (not too big at 8AM)

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Carefully, they negotiated the waves…perpendicular to the beach, and stern first. We waded out and climbed aboard!

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Close to Pearl Island, we jumped in the nice warm water….no need to stick in a testing toe first…it was wonderful. The visibilty was not ideal, however, and the corals were rather dull colored. Lots of tiny fish. Annie saw a calamari, who saw her at the same time and jet-propelled himself away.

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We visited the local fishing village, motoring through the fishing boats back from their nightly catch. They all have ramps of electric lights mounted on bamboo poles. We could see them dotting the horizon after sunset every day. In the village, the women were preparing the fish.

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Smaller ones were sorted according to kind, and laid out in the sun on bamboo matts. Larger ones were gutted or filetted, and then dried. Fish paste was being prepared in the vicinity… lots of aromatic clues to that effect. The village market was just winding down… Many women were leaving the village with their purchases on their heads, joining their men in the smaller boats to go back to their own villages.

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Two women were carrying a big rectangular cardboard box labelled “solar panel”.

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We saw a bullock cart bringing more stuff down to the shore to be loaded on boats.

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One more snorkeling session then time to motor back to the hotel. Navigating the breaker line once again, backing onto the beach… Hopped out into the warm, shallow water…on our way to lunch!!!! (Snorkeling is hungry work)

Trekking from Kalaw to In Dein – Day 1

The challenge was to trek from Kalaw to Lake Inle – a 60 kilometer distance – over three days. The guide books and websites say this is an easy walk – 4 or 5 hours a day – through picturesque landscapes and colorful villages. Photo ops!! The descriptions were all true—except for the hours!!!

After a solid breakfast, our Burmese guide Thêt introduced us to our trek guide Mr. Hti, and the 4 of us set off in a cloud of mosquito spray. Kalaw is a former colonial hill station – with a mixed population. Roads are narrow with oxcarts, Chinese trucks, motorcycles, Japanese cars all zipping around.  Traffic drives on the right, but most cars have steering wheels on the right…  Military vehicles move fast, and have the right of way – and this woman moved over a little too much to avoid one.  Our guides helped her get her front wheel out of the ditch, and we walked on.

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Many houses from the colonial period remain… the British preferred to spend the hot summer season here in the cooler mountain region.

This colonial era house was occupied by the Japanese during WW2. Our guide Thêt detected hostile ghosts here, and refused to approach.

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Kalaw train station, on the line from Yangon to Mandaly.  Switching is done manually.

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Along the path, we see many of these water stations.  Earthenware jugs, with lids, that always contain fresh water for travelers.

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Onward! Heading east.

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Discussions and cultural exchanges with the guides along the way – life stories, experiences etc.  2014-10-29_3303

The guides consulted their cell phones regularly, and Thêt’s ring tone was Don MacClean’s song Starry, Starry Night. Coudn’t get that tune out of our heads all day….

Flaming flowers that brightly blaze, Swirling clouds in violet haze,
Colors changing hue, morning field of amber grain

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You never know what will come around the corner ahead…..

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Always an opportunity to take a selfie with a new friend.

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Around noon, we came to a one-room school.  The children were seated in  circles on the floor eating their lunches.  No adults were around.

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The blackboard listed some English verbs: Running, walking, cutting etc.  The kids repeated  them after me and this made them laugh a lot!

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At the entrance to villages, there is often a water station under a huge banyan tree (sort of ficus). Houses are constructed of woven bamboo panels – often with no windows, and just one door.  This keeps the sun out of the interior, so the house is cooler.  Corrugated metal roof – or thatch.

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Solar panel on one pole, and TV antenna on another. This corner store has everything you need!

The village houses are made of bamboo, but the monasteries are more solidly constructed – and we saw many, many monasteries being built. People generously donate money or their time to earn merit – useful for future re-incarnations. These women were mixing concrete for bricks – the names of other donors were listed on the walls.

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As we came to the Taung Gyi Chay village, we noticed a wedding celebration in progress!  A small booth had been set up in front of the bride’s house, and friends were gathering the gifts brought by guests.

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We added a small contribution too, good luck for the new couple!

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At last we came to the lunch stop…we were already running pretty late on our schedule.   Mr. Hti prepared our lunch in the local kitchen: a clear soup and fried rice with an egg.  Also some fried tofu with a fiery dipping sauce. Myanmar beer! We were HUNGRY!2014-10-29_1710

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Mr Hti and Thêt investigate (and document) Annie’s iPhone 6 plus – rare!

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So, OK, ready to visit the Buddha grotto in Myin Ma Hti, an underground complex of tunnels and caves, chock full of statues of Buddha.

This is a holy place (as always when Buddhas are present) so no shoes allowed.  Green plastic mats are on the floor, preventing slips on the dripping surfaces. There are dozens of buddha statues in the different grotto rooms (also some bats). Our guide Thêt sits us down within a circle of Buddhas for a meditation lesson….

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It was pretty late after the grotto visit – about half an hour from sundown – and we still had quite a way to go to get to our overnight destination.  Our guides rustled up some young men with small motorcycles that were willing to give us a ride. Let me just say that straddling a moped in a trekking skirt is a challenge – there are videos of this … no further comment.

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They served us a delicious meal on a high table between their woven-bamboo kitchen and the two-story house (also made of woven bamboo).

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The couple in their 70s had 3 sons and 5 daughters, 4 of which were still living in the village. Their granddaughter was studying to be a teacher, and was happy to try her English on us! The house had just been wired with electricity a few weeks before, so there was a small TV set with 3 Burmese channels.  2014-10-29_1769

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The “bathroom” facilities were basic, but we slept very well, and  the breakfast was wonderful!

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Trek day 2 to be continued….

Schwedagon Pagoda – cont…

The Schwedagon is a gilded pagoda, 99 meters tall.  It dominates the skyline of Yangon, and is considered the most sacred of shrine for the Burmese Buddhists.  It contains relics of four Buddhas (there were 28 Buddhas, the most well-known being the Siddhārtha Gautama, the sage on whose teachings Buddhism was founded.)  The relics include 8 strands of hair from this Gautama Buddha. The hti or umbrella at the top of the stupa is encrusted with thousands of diamonds and precious stones, the largest of which is a 72 carat diamond.

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Legend has it that this pagoda is over 2600 years old – but most historians think it was begun around the 5th century. Shwedagon is constructed entirely in bricks and plastered over with fine stucco and the whole monument is then gilded. The gilding is entirely redone every five years, as weathering dulls the gold leaf.   This year Pagoda officials forecast the use over 81 kilos of gold to gild the pagoda’s circumference.  Religious associations and donors contribute gold, money and labor to accomplish the task. Bamboo scaffolding  is set up, and teams of volunteers on the ground send up batches of gold to the workers high up on the stupa via a small red cable car trailing streamers of flags and paper umbrellas.

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We visited Schwedagon during the Tazaundaing, or Festival of Lights, marking the end of the rainy season. During this time, robe-weaving competitions are held throughout the country, and specifically at Schwedagon. Teams of weavers work non-stop to weave silk robes for Buddha – some winding the thread on bobbins using a modified bicycle, some working the looms as fast as they can while their sisters fan them and cheer them on. Quite a clatter!

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Many pilgrims visit Schwedagon during this festival month – local “tourists” from all over the country. Many have never been to the city before – and have never encountered Westerners.  Lots of mutual curiosity, and picture taking with “exotic” people to show the folks back home!

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There are many temple bells around the complex, some of modest size, some much, much bigger. Beside each bell is a wooden striker, and visitors ring each bell three times, accompanied by wishes for good fortune and blessings for their families and friends.

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King Singu’s Bell (42 tons of gold, silver, copper, lean and iron alloy) is associated with an interesting history. In 1825, British attempted to steal it from Shwedagon Pagoda. However, the ship that carried the bell to India sank in Rangoon River together with the bell. After several unsuccessful attempts to salvage the bell, British finally gave up. Then, a group of Burmese people successfully raised the bell restored it to its original position in Shwedagon pagoda.

Donors make sure there is a plentiful supply of pure water available for offerings to the Buddha statues, and for pilgrims to drink.

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This is Buddha’s footprint! One of 3 to be found at Schwedegon.

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Taunggyi Balloon festival

Every year in November, buddhists in Myanmar observe their festival of lights.  Hot air balloons lit with candles, are released to celebrate the full moon day.. The balloons are released as an offering to the heavenly home of the Buddhist devas, or as a way to drive away evil spirits, The main happenings take place in Taunggyi, in the Shan state over the week leading up to the full moon. Every evening, there are contests…beginning with children’s small paper balloons, and leading up to larger constructions festooned with lanterns holding candles and trailing panels depicting scenes from Buddha’s life outlined in thousands of small flames. The final episode every evening, beginning around 10PM, involves contests between different groups for the largest, most elaborate paper balloons, lavishly decorated and lifting a bamboo structure heavily loaded with fireworks that continuously ignite as the balloon ascends into the night sky.
The Taunggyui festival was not in our original itinerary, but as it was only about a 30 minute drive from Naung Schwe where we were staying, we “negotiated” with our guide to take us there. He tried to dissuade us, explaining the danger involved.  The festival is attended by dense crowds and the lighted balloons take off in the middle of the throng. Accidents happen regularly, when the the fireworks ignite prematurely, or a balloon burst into flames and crashes into the crowd. Unbeknownst to us at the time, several people had been severely burned the day before, and we heard reports of at least one death.
Our guide agreed to take us, and arranged for a car and driver. We stopped in Naung Schwe to pick up some fried noodles for our dinner, and some chicken to go. We arrived close to Taunggyi after a half hour drive, but got mired in a dense traffic jam. There had been an intense thunderstorm that afternoon, which caused some landslides, and downed trees across the road.

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Crews were at work, but progress was very slow, so we turned around and tried a different approach. Didn’t want to miss the show…it was already around 8. A mile or two later, this road was blocked too! More downed trees.  We finally made it to the balloon area, what a sight! Huge Ferris wheels where set up, many strings of lights, all sorts of food stands…loud music, revelers. Vendors were hawking helium balloons, all sorts of trinkets. One man was walking through the crowd carrying in one hand a pan of boiling oil suspended over a charcoal brasier (with red hot coals) and in the other hand different food items to be deep-fried to order. Whenever he encountered  a customer, he just sat the whole thing down, prepared the food, made the sale, poked his coals and continued his way through the crowd.
We sat down in a tent serving drinks and ordered beers (and water) to accompany our noodles.  The temperature was about 20°C but the locals were all bundled up against the “cold”… wooly bonnets, and ski vests!

Next to the tent, a group was preparing one of the big candle-decorated balloons. The process takes quite a while, as the main balloon is inflated with hot air using hand-held torches, and as it slowly inflates, small lantern/candle holders are attached all around it.

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When it is almost ready to lift off, the candles that make up the panel must be lit, one by one. Finally the balloon becomes bouyant, and lifts itself and its panel up, up floating over the crowd up into the night sky, towards the full moon. Everyone is cheering, and its really beautiful!

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The next group has begun inflating their balloon, but this one doesn’t quite work out. Inflation is not happening fast enough…and the judges call time-out. Disappointment for them.  Now its time for the main attraction, the bigger balloons which will hoist the fireworks displays. These groups and their followers are really fervent, all crowding closely around. Our guide shepherds us off out of the crush. He finds us a spot on a small rise with a good view, but next to a firetruck. He rustles up some plastic stools for us to sit on, and more bottles of water. Down on the field, the first of the big balloons has inflated just barely, and has started moving horizontally just over the crowd. The fireworks fuse hadn’t been lit,and the balloon sank back to the ground. Failure for them. The second balloon was looking more promising. It rose up more quickly, nice and round, the fireworks platform reached a good height and the fuses were lit. The balloon stopped rising then…OHHH NOOOOO, and starting bobbing up and down at head height shooting off firecrackers, and heading in our direction YIKES. The Balloon of Death!

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It got hung up on an electric wire about 100 meters in front of us …. the firemen sprang into action with their water hoses and shot it down. Ooouf.

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( we had retreated to shelter between some vans). Meanwhile, a third balloon was puffing up out on the field. This one was looking good. It rose quickly, the fireworks payload deployed correctly and it was just fabulous.

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Huge lit-up balloon rising up in the dark shooting off minutes and minutes of colored fireworks.

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The successful team was elated, driving around and chanting and dancing on their little truck!! More balloons were in preparation on the field, but we had had enough excitement…. Back to the hotel at 2 AM.

Ngapali elephants!

There are 2 elephants here in Ngapali, they belong to a young man with lots of business sense. He and his family run the Angel restaurant and arrange the elephant tours. 7 AM pickup in a little van. The driver asks if we would like to stop in the village along the way for a snake. WHAT?? Oh, no, a SNACK. Well, ok then. He hops out in the village market, and comes back shortly with a big bag of something, and a little bag of sweet sticky-rice snacks for us. We continue to the end of the road, in group of small houses. Our guide is on his cell phone, the elephants seem to be a little late, so we hike up to meet them. On the way we pass a chicken farm ( he tells us that these chickens are “organic”..and somehow this is not hard to believe at all!!).  A woman is putting a basket of betel nuts to dry on her roof. The kids are going to school…( Fall full-moon 4 day holiday is over now). We come to a clearing…and can hear the mahouts talking to each other and to the elephants ( can also hear buddist chanting coming out of some loudspeaker at a monastery).  The elephants come down the path through the rice fields , and back up to us.20141111185833_IMG_6099 They have had their morning shower! Theses are two females in their 40’s who were working in the teak log industry. Heavy pulling for $100 per month. Even though they could still work for many years, they are making much more money now for their owner carrying tourists. The guide gets out his big bag..which is full of elephant treats! Bunches of bananas! He distributes them to us,and we get to feed the big girls. Annie offers a whole bunch at once, which gets stuffed in the pink mouth….glm,glm a big mouthful. Better to give one at a time.

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Time to board now!  These mahouts are very kind to their animals. No hook here, just voice commands, and a small bamboo stick for emphasis. The big girls get down, back first, then front and we scramble on to the “saddles”. Then UP and we are off! Steering and speed control is done by a barefoot massaging of the elephant ear on the appropriate side. Lots of munching of vegetation was happening along the way, also stream slurping. Lovely early morning ride. When we arrived back at our little van, one elephant explored the inside with her trunk… Maybe she wanted us to take her home?20141111200755_IMG_6216

Sunset and Moonrise on the Schwesandow pagoda

Having seen wonderful photos of the full moon floating over a misty landscape of thousand year old temples, we chose the dates for our Myanmar trip to include a full moon… Sunrise over the Bagan plain scattered with dreamy silhouettes of half ruined pagodas was also something we wanted to witness. We did our homework and had the perfect date!! On November 6, the sun was to set at 5:30 pm and the full moon was to rise just a half hour later at 6pm. All we had to do was find a tall temple to climb that had a wide enough ledge all around to view the sunset on one side and then shift around 180° and bingo, full moon.
Our guide suggested the Shwesandaw Pagoda and took us there. There were all sorts of vehicles glommed around the access gate…electric bicycles, scooters, horse carts, minivans, buses (Bagan is getting more popular by the day) and looking up at the 5 terraces, we could see that this spiritual experience was going to be shared with a multitude. This being a temple, we left our shoes at the gate and joined other barefoot visitors swarming like ants up the very steep steps, up,up, to the best viewing spots. The temple was bristling with photography equipment, all sizes, all brands, all pointing west toward the….oops. Bummer. Masses of clouds building up on the horizon.
The sky was clear on the east side, though, so I staked out a position and set up the tripod. The dissapointing sunset had come to an end on the west side of the temple, the visitors were draining down the narrow, steep steps…skies still clear in the east, moonrise expected soon!
And then, OH NOOOO, the guardian came around “temple close now, must go” wtf. Arrrggghhh.
Navigating those high steep steps in the dark was borderline suicidal for anyone without a flashlight, ok, we folded the tripod and went down. 😦

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What people make and what things cost

What people make:
Girls doing roadwork: 3$ per day

Girls making cherrut cigares 5$ /day

Grandma weaving ~1$/day (scarf for 5$ takes 5 days to make)

Guides make 40$/ day and 2-10$\day just in tips

Doctors make 100$\month

What things cost:
1 liter of gas = 1$

1 liter beer = 2$

1 coke can = 1$

1kg rice = 2$

“Hiking” Shoes = 4$

Huaewei smartphone 80$

Wedding longy 90-300$ (these take 2 girls 1 month to make)

Scooter 200-500$

C-section = 300$ but must bring your own medicine

15min Ride on the back of a scooter – 3$

2hour ride with Toyota pickup – 60$ (Guy had to go back 2hr)

Bus and driver for the evening = 80$

Largest kats note is 5000 (5$)
Everyone walks around with a big pile of money 🙂

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U Bein bridge

This evening we went to watch the sunset at the U Bein bridge across a lake near Amarapura. It is 1.2 kms long, is about 150 yrs old and is built of teakwood. Lots of photographers were out, with impressive gear…but big clouds made the sunset much less spectacular than last night from Mandalay hill. Still a beautiful setting.

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