Thursday, August 2, 2018

A Village, A School, and an Unforgettable Experience

One of the best things about the tour agency I use is that they really try to help you understand and appreciate how the locals live.  I experienced it last year in Vietnam when I was able to enjoy dinner in the house of a local family that was just so welcoming and excited to converse with Westerners.  The local experience I just had in Burma, however, blew away my family dinner from last summer.  The tour company has teamed with an international NGO that supports a cluster of villages in deeply rural Burma and we were able to spend two days in the village.

As we approached the area in which we would be staying, I didn't know exactly what to think.  The roads were dirt, and in some places so badly eroded our bus had to go off-road.  There were rice paddies everywhere I looked and the occasional cow dotted the landscape.  This was the image of Burma I have always held in my mind.  As we turned a corner, our traditional bamboo huts appeared in the distance and my breath was already taken away.

They were situated right on a lake and there was absolutely nothing else around.  All that could be heard as we exited our bus was the whistling wind and the sound of water from the lake.  This location, which is actually about 2 km from the rest of the villages, was built by the NGO just for our tour company in an effort to bring money into the villages.  In fact, 10% of the price of my tour went to the villages.  The rooms were extremely basic, yet transformed me into the most relaxing state I have been in for a while.  

My bedroom for the night

Group gathering area on the water

Shower rooms

In addition to staying in these beautiful huts, we also had the privilege of exploring the nearby villages.  After a very bumpy tuk-tuk ride over some worrisome hills, we arrived at the first village and were welcomed by the locals who are partnered with the NGO.  

Their village has made so much progress over the past 5 or so years simply because of the money they are receiving from tourists.  So far they were able to build a beautiful school, build enough wells for all families in the village, and are now working on getting an ambulance because there is no medical clinic in the villages.  

The second village we went to greeted us with the most adorable group of kids.  They stuck by our side for the entire time we toured their village.  Naturally, I used the time to practice English with the two boys that grabbed my hands as soon as they saw me and wouldn't let go.  They definitely know their ABCs and numbers to 10!

The kids even helped me plant a lime tree outside the new school library.  The trees are purchased as part of my tour fees and donated to the village.  I'm kind of glad the kids were there to help.  My track record with plants is not good and I'm sure they don't want to have to deal with a dead lime tree.

Before departing this village the kids all broke out in song and it was too adorable.  They even sang English songs!  The kids definitely made this village a trip to remember!

We went to the last village on our second day visiting the area.  While this village brought us fascinating conversations (through translators) with the locals, it also brought a visit to the village school!  Of course, I didn't want to interrupt any instruction, but we, fortunately, arrived just after morning prayers and all of the students were scurrying to their classrooms.  I was able to chat with a few students as well as a few teachers. 


The school was actually quite large for it being a small rural village.  They had 12 total teachers for grades k-5.  The class sizes appeared to be in the 20-30 range, which really surprised me.  Much lower than the number in China.  The teachers make very little money, though, only about US$50 a month.  And that's after the salary increase instituted by Aung San Suu Kyi recently.  Burma is at a strange crossroads as it enters the 21st century.  Almost everyone I have talked to said that now that the military is no longer in control, education needs to be the top priority for the country to continue progressing.  That philosophy is coming from the top down as Suu Kyi is offering more funding to schools for teacher salary and curriculum.  One person I talked to a few days ago said that in this country, teachers are revered at the same level as monks.  I find that quite remarkable.  The country really is putting education first.

Primary Classroom

Lots of posters to help with English

As I watched the students scurry off to the classes and get started with their day, I was really inspired to see education happening in such a rural location of an impoverished country.  It was clear the teachers are working hard as well.  One of my favorite aspects of the school was the organization of student chores.  As with most Asian countries, the students are responsible for cleaning the school at the end of each day.  The way this school identifies the chore each child is responsible for is by using the flags in the picture below as a code.  Each child in the school is assigned a color for the year.  The location of their color in the order of their flags will indicate the chore they have for the day.

I think this part of the tour was especially meaningful for me since it gave me a glimpse into the life of Sunday and his family before they came to America.  I was able to imagine a young Sunday sitting in on the classes and running around the village with the other kids.  Also, this experience really solidified for me that living in poverty does not automatically mean you are unhappy.  The people I met in these villages had meaningful lives that they couldn't imagine living out anywhere else.  They live off the land in their basic accommodations and don't need material possessions to make their lives feel complete.  To me, that's an amazing and honorable way to live.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Temples, Temples, Everywhere!

After a somewhat terrifying flight on a plane that looked about 50 years old, my group landed at a tiny little airport just outside Bagan.  If you have not heard of the ancient city of Bagan, it dates back to the 9th century and contains over 3,000 temples and pagodas in a 40 sq mile area.  At one time, archeologists believe there were as many as 10,000 temples in that same area, however weather, earthquakes, and neglect led to many of the buildings being demolished.  The temples were built over several centuries by various kings as a way to show their wealth and power.  In its heyday, Bagan was the bustling capital of Burma where the royalty, as well as commoners, lived amongst the thousands of temples.

It seems many people compare Bagan to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, which I was able to visit last summer.  While I understand the comparison, they are drastically different complexes.  First of all, Bagan is nearly void of tourists.  It is truly like traveling back in time as you roam around the thousands of temples because it feels like you are cut off from the world.  While I loved everything about Angkor Wat last summer, the number of tourists made it difficult to even get a good photo.  There was just simply no way to be transferred back in time while visiting Angkor Wat.  Additionally, the Angkor Wat area is made up of massive temple complexes which can be climbed and explored.  Bagan's temples are much smaller, although many are in better condition than the temples in Cambodia.  I understand the comparison between the two, however, I really believe they are two amazing sites and both need to be experienced as they are quite different.

For me, another striking difference between this ancient city and Angkor Wat is that Bagan is still very much in use by local Buddhists and monks.  Every temple we visited we were able to see prayers and offerings occurring.  This really made the experience stand out as well since it allowed me to envision what the temples must have looked like as they were used by locals hundreds of years ago.

As part of the tour I am on, we were able to explore the temples via bicycle, which seemed like such a natural way to traverse the sandy roads that weave around the temples.  It was quite exhilarating riding through the area.  We stopped every so often to explore and enter some of the temples.  The architecture is just stunning and truly advanced for the time period.  In fact, some of these temples feature arches that were designed long before they appeared in Greek architecture.

The temples were all constructed from bricks and the bigger ones were supported with sandstone, particularly at the corners.  This advanced technique is what has kept the larger temples intact even after some rather large earthquakes have hit the region.

Originally the temples had all been covered with plaster, although most has been destroyed at this point.  Some of the temples still contain areas covered with the plaster and they are working on restoring the remarkable artwork that adorned every inch of the walls at the beginning of the time the temples existed.  Over the years, the walls had been whitewashed, hiding the murals, but preserving them.  Burma has reached out to experts around the world to find the best way to remove the whitewash and restore the natural murals.  Some had already been completed and it was simply stunning.  It reminded me a lot of the murals on the walls of the Mogao Caves that I saw in the Gobi Desert two years ago.  There is such meticulous detail to ensure every detail of the story being told is shown.  Unfortunately, photography was not allowed in most of these areas in order to preserve the art, but the few areas that allowed photos I was sure to snap a few.

Old Bagan is a site to remember.  I will certainly be back at some point, though, to ride a hot air balloon over the ancient temples for stunning views.  This must do attraction is unfortunately not available during the rainy season, so we were unable to make it happen this time around.  I could have easily spent a week exploring all 3,000 temples, but the trip must go on.  Next stop: a community-based tourism project...I'll be spending the night in a hut!

Monday, July 30, 2018

Yangon, a City Stuck in Time


I am quickly approaching the completion of my first full week in Burma.  It really is quite difficult to even describe this country.  My first few days were spent in the former capital, Yangon - previously known as Rangoon.  The city was small in scale, although nearly 6 million people call it their home.  There were no skyscrapers or even medium sized buildings.  In fact, Yangon still has nearly all of the colonial style buildings from the British era of the country.  They really were quite amazing to see.  Most Asian countries have some trace reminders of their colonial times, but much has been demolished to make way for more modern buildings.  Not in Yangon, though, as it was cut off from the world due to military rule until 2010.

It is clear, however, that the west is moving in.  While the country does not yet have a Starbucks or McDonalds, I have seen both KFC and Pizza Hut, which are both staples around Asia.  We also passed the construction of one of the largest buildings in all of Yangon - right near a lovely lake.  Upon closer inspection, I realized it is going to be a Wyndham Hotel!  So, yes, Burma really is opening up to the world.

Yangon has a beautiful culture, filled with tea shops and temples.  It has also has been the only city so far where I have been able to actually find coffee.  The restaurant I discovered was definitely geared toward expats and tourists, but I didn't care - they made a perfect cappuccino.  Typically in Burma, tea is the main beverage of choice.  Tea shops line the streets of every city.  They are used as a hub for social interactions as well as for business.  It would not be unusual for a man to spend an entire day at his tea shop of choice.  Also, you need to immediately change the image of the tea you have in your mind because Burmese tea is nothing like what we are used to at home.  It is layers of black tea and sweetened condensed milk served in very small glasses.  It is an unusual taste that comes across as very sweet and definitely takes some getting used to.  I have naturally gravitated back to my usual coffee.

Yangon is steeped in history as it used to be the capital during both colonial times and military times. The capital was moved to a newly designed city in 2006 to be more centrally located in the country.  During the time of military rule, Yangon/Rangoon was the face of the resistance movement.  Several famously brutal protests took place in the city, including one known as the Saffron Revolution where about 30 monks were killed. The biggest protest in the city, though occurred on August 8, 1988 (8-8-88).  This protest, organized by students at Rangoon University, resulted in up to 10,000 deaths and a defeat by the military regime.  Being on those streets, the places where history was made was quite chilling. I think it is safe to say, now, that those people did not die for a lost cause as Burma has made great strides toward democracy in the past eight years.  The results of that protest are still seen in the city today.  Since the protest was organized by students, lots of precautions have been mandated by the government to ensure students do not have too much time to interact with each other.  The students stay in the same classroom all day and the teachers rotate to prevent students from different majors from plotting additional revolts.  The military also banned any kind of student union or social location on college campuses for the same reason.  These rules are still followed today even though the military is no longer in power.

In addition to the protest sites,  we also were shown where General Aung San was assassinated.  This famous general, and father to Aung San Suu Kyi, was in line to take on the presidential role at the conclusion of British rule in the country.  His assassination started the country down the long and arduous journey of oppressive rule that lasted nearly sixty years.  The building where he was shot is currently being restored in hopes of being preserved for future generations.

Probably the grandest site in the city on Yangon, though, is the Shwedagon Pagoda.  In fact, it is well renowned around the entire country.  Historians believe the temple was built between the 6th and 10th centuries, although local legend says it was built over 2,000 years ago.  If that were true, it would make it the oldest pagoda in the world.  The entire structure is gold plated and contains over 3,000 rubies and 5,000 diamonds including a 76 carat one.  Beyond the rare gems, though, the temple is well known for the relics it contains from four previous Buddhas.  The day we visited was a national religious holiday and the place was absolutely packed with locals visiting to make offerings to the monks and pray.  It was a truly remarkable experience.  Pictures just cannot even begin to do justice to the experience of being there, but here are some to enjoy anyway!

I am currently in the ancient city of Bagan having an amazing time.  Keep an eye out for my next blog to read about this magical place!

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Golden Rocks and Bumpy Trucks

After achieving a life goal, entering Burma,  my experiences are already off to a good start, although I do wish Sunday and his family were here with me, but that will hopefully happen in the future.  After arriving in the country I enjoyed a very long taxi ride to my hotel.  Traffic in the city of Yangon is crazy!  I am pleasantly surprised with the condition of my hotel.  It's much nicer than many hotels I have stayed in back home!

Also, does anybody else find the lack of colorful cars unusual??

I arrived in the city a couple days early to experience a pilgrimage most Burmese make several times during their lives.  The destination is a massive granite rock at the top of a mountain that appears to defy gravity.  There is extreme religious importance with this rock, which I will explain in a bit, but first, I must share the story of the journey to the Golden Rock. 

Now, Keep in mind, it is currently monsoon season in Burma.  Every day I am here there is 100% chance of rain.  Needless to say, this is NOT the tourist season here.  Unfortunately, I am pretty much only available to visit at this time of the year.  I went into the Golden Rock trip understanding it would be rainy.  In fact, I had a really difficult time trying to find a tour guide who would take me!  I quickly got over the rain, though.  I have my trusty umbrella along with some disposable rain ponchos.  I was fine.

The REAL excitement of the journey, though, came from the truck ride up the side of the mountain.  Upon arrival at the base camp of the mountain, my guide and I transferred to a large truck that held about 50 people in the back.  It was tight and uncomfortable, but felt exactly how I expected.  The real fun started when the truck started bolting up the mountain, easily going 50-60 mph, which would be fine except the incline of the road was so steep I was just waiting for the breaks to fail.  It was extremely exhilarating and not unlike riding a roller coaster that had zero safety precautions.  It was a blast!  Also I had nothing to worry about because my 70¢ ticket included full life insurance!

Among the backdrop of the beautiful Burmese jungle, it was a picturesque trip that gave me my first "wow, I am really here" moment of the summer.  These picture don't do the situation justice, but try to look beyond the truck.  It to impossible to get a good photo as I was going 60mph over extremely bumpy mountain paths.

Upon reaching the summit of the mountain, I quickly descended into a swarm of fog.  I could only see a few feet in front of me and everything I saw had a hazy dreamlike quality.  Not ideal for viewing the valleys around me, but absolutely stunning for seeing things up close.  After taking off my socks and shoes, I made my way into the sacred area.  There were Buddhist monks and pilgrims nearly everywhere praying and asking for a better quality of life.  There were chimes all around that gave the experience a automatic peaceful felling.  My guide led me around to the different areas, first to the closest spot women could get.  In buddhist culture here, women are still seen as lesser than men.  My tour guide (who was a woman) had a clever view on this archaic belief -- she said, jokingly, she thinks they have that rule so the men don't get distracted by the beautiful women when they are supposed to be praying 😆

With the above picture as my view, my tour guide gave me the history of the rock.  There are of course different stories behind the rock, one scientific and another religious.  The religious story states that a farmer, many years ago, met the buddha as he was traveling.  The man was given two hairs from the Buddha as a thank you for his hospitality.  In this sect of Buddhism, physical artifacts are found to be the most sacred religious icons.  The man, knowing how important it was for the hairs to be preserved, set off to find a place to store them.  His quest ended near the ocean where he found the massive rock, which he then transported to the top of the mountain and balanced it as seen in the picture.  At the top of the rock, he built the stupa, which to this day contains the hairs of the Buddha. 

An endearing tale, but not one that matches the science behind the rock.  My guide informed me that the two rocks, the golden one and the base rock, are one of the same.  Over the years, layers have peeled off, almost like an onion, to the point that they are joined by only a 1.5 square foot area.  Furthermore, the golden part, which is made gold through the application of gold leaf, has remained in place, not because of the hairs of the Buddha, but rather because of the laws of gravity.  Scientists have determined, although it may not appear this way, but the center of gravity for the rock is pulling the rock away from the cliff, keeping it from toppling over.  Unless there is a change in gravity, the rock will be there forever!

The stunning site of the rock set among the foggy background will be with me for a long time.  I have heard stories of this rock for nearly 10 years from Sunday and his family.  To see it in person felt surreal to say the least.  Additionally, the rock is one of three national icons - the other two being pagodas in different areas.  Legend states that if all three sites are visited within a year, all of your wishes will come true!  I will be visiting the next two during my time here, so I am getting my list of wishes ready....I'm not sure Buddha knows what's to come 😆

I am meeting up with my tour group today.  I have a roommate this time - he is a second grade teacher who will be heading to teach in China after our trip here!  I can't think of a more perfect roommate match.  I'm looking forward to joining back up with a group to see the rest of this remarkable country.

Sunny Days in Singapore

I can’t believe my time in Singapore is over. Last night I was sitting at the Gardens by the Bay waiting for the light and sound show to begin.

This seemed to be the perfect ending to my time in the country. .  I was surrounded by others who were just as enthralled by this magical city as I was over the past four days. 

In my short time here I have learned so much about the city I had previously only heard about. First of all, I was shocked at how westernized the city presents itself. It was the perfect reprieve after visiting China and before going to Burma. I was able to go to Starbucks daily, and choose from one of THREE on the same block as my hotel. I was able to eat amazing western influenced food (eggplant parmigiana and pizza 🤗.) I was even able to speak to everyone I met since English is the national language. This city brought the perfect mix of the east and the west, although it had much more of a western feel than any other Asian city I have visited. 

I had spectacular experiences while here as well. My first night in the country I visited the famed Night Safari at the Singapore Zoo. The experience was so unique. It is a (mostly) free range zoo that contains only nocturnal animals. I arrived to the zoo at 10pm since, unlike other zoos, this one is only open at night so you can experinice the night dwelling animals in all their glory. Besides seeing a lot of animals I had never before seen, I really got some amazing views of the animals up close...including a powerful lion that was roaring only a few feet from my face! Best of all, the mission of the zoo truly is conservancy. Many of the animals they take are on the endangered species list. Their zoologists work to breed the animals in hopes of building up the population to prevent extinction.   My favorite animal was probably the tapir.  They are native to the Malaysian peninsula, so local, but they were also so tame. They came right up to our team cars!

The photos I took really did not come out well since it was all in the dark, but these few are worth seeing

My next day in Singapore was spent around the Sands resort, which sounds lame, but it really is a remarkable part of the city.  A truly ultra-modern oasis.  I started at this amazing ArtScience museum, which is centered around the idea that art and science are inter-related and require each other in order to exist.  The first exhibit I went to ended up being for young kids, but I still loved it!  If only I could pick up the museum and move it to Philly -- it would be the perfect exhibit for my second graders.  It was all about how our communities are integrated and how communication and cooperation are essential to human survival.  It was all presented to the kids through a digital interactive experience.  It was truly awesome for kids.  At one point, they were able to draw something new to add to the city (a building, car, plane, etc..) and then scan their image into the digital town.  I was very impressed.

After this exhibit, I went to one on MARVEL Studios, which was, as expected, super cool.  Not only did they have fantastic artifacts from the movies and great photo opportunities, they also taught about the science behind the super powers along the way.  What an amazing way to learn science!  This museum was a perfect creative blend of science and art.

After enjoying an amazing superhero exhibit, I switched superhero sides and went to a DC comic cafe!  I had a ridiculous batman themed lunch, but geeked out through every second of the meal.

I loved my time in Singapore.  I could have spent several more days in the city, but I do feel like I am leaving having a much better idea of the historical importance of the city as well as a general idea of the current culture.  I hope to come back one day and explore some more.  For now enjoy this clip of the Gardens by the Bay light show!