Archive for March, 2014

Made in the Philippines

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the next highly anticipated stop on this endless journey of mine was my return to the Philippines.  this time to be reunited with my cousin CJ Whittaker in Mariveles at the southern tip of the Bataan peninsula to embark on an adventure of an entirely different sort.

mariveles_roark8you see, CJ is a pack man.  over the recent years, he has become highly specialized in the art of designing packs, working with factories to turn his designs into a tangible form and then baking them into an assembly line for mass production.  he is currently here in Mariveles to help startup a brand new company called “Cotopaxi” – an outdoor gear company with two worthy goals: to make quality outdoor packs and apparel and to help people while doing it by donating a portion of the profits to the specific charity that inspires each product (Cotopaxi is also the name of a volcano in Ecuador).  one advantage that Cotopaxi has over their competitors is that they are direct-to-consumer.  this means that you won’t find their products at your local REI (aka. middle man) but you will find that when you purchase their products, the quality/helping people bang-for-your-buck factor will be turned up a notch (to 11 in fact).  CJ’s role here as design manager is to design their product line and oversee its production.  i had the honor of accompanying him for one week to get a first hand look at his operation and participate in it as well.

a 3.5 hour flight from Bangkok to Manila followed by a 5 hour bus ride brings me to Executive Heights – a quiet hill side neighborhood just minutes from the factory that overlooks Mariveles Bay.  there, i was greeted by CJ and many Koreans.  the name of the factory that we’ll be spending the next week in is called “Dong In”.  it’s Korean owned with several locations around Asia.  this particular location consists of 6 buildings, 5415 employees and 3192 machines.  Dong In is world renowned for their pack producing capabilities and any pack man you ask will attest to that fact.  they are the main manufacturer for popular outdoor brands such as Gregory, Kelty and Camelbak.

but before work time it was play time.  since i conveniently arrived on CJ’s day off, i got to join him and his accomplices on a fun filled day in the sun.  we loaded ourselves and our gear into long boats and headed to a near by beach where we gorged on Korean campfire BBQ, went scuba diving off the shore and sang karaoke after a few too many sips of strong Red Horse beer.

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"I am I said..." (photo courtesy of CJ)

“I am I said…” (photo courtesy of CJ)

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this of course was only the beginning of the Korean hospitality i received during my stay here.  they also put me up free of charge in the pool house, fed me three square meals a day and granted me an all access pass to their espresso machine and beer fridge.

CJ explains to Aaron (from Tessel) the science behind Korean food

CJ explains to Aaron (of Tessel) the science behind Korean food

Monday came along the next day and it was time to start our work week.  from the moment i entered the largest of the factory buildings known as “East Cam” i was bombarded with stimuli.  almost 2000 Filipinos sat at benches in rows, each with a sewing machine, all working swiftly and fastidiously while classic rock blasted over the loud speakers.  just try to imagine the sound of 2000 tiny machine guns firing off all around you while an over-reverberated Ann Wilson sings her heart out (pun intended) in the background.

this week the majority of the sewers were all working on a big push to manufacture a new line of backpacks for one of Dong In’s largest clients.  for the sake of efficiency and continuity, each group of sewers were responsible for one small component of each pack.  each sewer therein would apply their stitch, hand off to the next sewer, take another from the pile and repeat.  further down the line where the backpacks start to take real shape, quality assurance checkpoints are put in place to weed out any packs that don’t meet the standards.  by the time a pack is deemed complete it will have passed through many hands.

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sewing however is only one piece of the pack puzzle.  Dong In is well equipped with the machinery and man power to handle all other aspects of pack manufacturing including molding, laminating, laser cutting, screen printing, welding and forging.

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to put it quite simply, backpacks are a big deal…  when you’ve got one slung across your back while going about your daily commute, trekking into that uncharted wilderness or hitchhiking to a faraway land, it’s easy not to consider the journey that your pack first had to take on its own so it could accompany you on yours.

before your pack even had the chance to reach its complex mass production phase, it first had to undergo a lengthy ideation phase.  what starts as a sketch on a piece of paper then morphs into physical form through countless iterations of trial and error until every stitch, buckle, pocket and zipper are in their exact rightful place.  this phase is where most of the hard decisions are made.  this is also where CJ and i will be spending our work week.

allow me to draw your attention up two flights of stairs to the sample room.  here, a wonderful woman named Sandra and her team of pattern makers, cutters and sewers work with clients to bring their designs to life by building prototypes and then iterating on them until they are production ready.

sample room

the sample room

after just one day of watching CJ in action it became apparent that in order to be effective in a role like this, one really needs to be an artist, a MacGyver and a diplomat all wrapped into one.  CJ exhibits these three qualities admirably.  he is on a first name basis with most of the sample room staff and from the moment we set foot in there they all felt at ease around him.  CJ takes a collaborative approach to bringing his artistic visions to life.  he recognizes that Sandra and her team are the true experts of the craft and he solicits their input whenever he can.  he maintains an easy work environment while asking a lot of them.  it also helps that he rewards them all with Jollibee for a job well done.

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out to lunch with Sandra (photo courtesy of CJ)

out to lunch with Sandra (photo courtesy of CJ)

it’s often the case in sampling where an artist’s vision gets compromised by material logistics.  a plan that works so beautifully on paper can get foiled by reality when you learn that your cleverly laminated nylon/EVA foam concoction is not quite the elegant solution you hoped it would be.  it’s times like these when the MacGyver needs to come forth with the real-time creative workarounds necessary to keep the ball rolling (and no, paper clips and duct tape wont cut it).  my mind was opened to these realities this week as i watched both CJ and his colleague Aaron Puglisi (who is working on a line of packs that will lift you off the ground) MacGyver their way through many hard problems.

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in order to drive these ideas a little further into my brain, CJ had the brilliant idea to put me to work by having me design a product and get it production ready by the end of the week.  it has been over a year since i have had a job or anything resembling responsibility so you can imagine the excitement i was feeling at this point.  i graciously accepted his challenge and then started at the beginning of designing a new Cotopaxi product.

kickoff meeting paraphrased:

me: so… um… what should i design?

CJ: you are the world traveler among us.  what do you need?

me: well… i sure could use a snazzy case for my Kindle.  how about i design one of them and you can market it as a “Kindle Sheath”?

CJ: i probably can’t sell a Kindle Sheath but i *could* sell an iPad Mini case, one that you could most certainly use as a Kindle Sheath.

(he hands me a wooden replica of an iPad Mini)

me: ok, i’ll design one of them then.

CJ: make is so.

step one was to make lots of annotated sketches to get my ideas flowing and to come up with several design candidates.  so i did exactly that and gave them all clever code names like “Spectrum”, “Straight Laced”, Nintendo”, “Cubby”, “Minimalist” and “Mr Blank”.  after a brief design meeting we decided on an adapted version of Mr Blank.  i then drew up my final sketch complete with measurements and notes (the industry term for this is called a “techpack”) and handed it off to my new team.

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i first meet with Sandra and explain to her all my hopes and desires.

courtesy of CJ

courtesy of CJ

then Rodel draws and cuts out the patterns.

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then Mario cuts the fabric using Rodel’s patterns.

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then Dervine sews it all together.

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finally, Charlito binds the inside edges and within twenty minutes i have the first prototype in my hand.

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not only was prototype #1 a bit lackluster, but it wouldn’t sheath a Kindle or an iPad Mini.  from there it was a long uphill battle with sizing and finding that perfect laminated foam/fabric combination that wouldn’t warp when you turned it right-side-out.  finally, several days and 4 iterations later i had a prototype that would not only sheath a Kindle and an iPad Mini, but it would look cool while doing it.

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meanwhile back on the ground floor after their annual fire drill, the sewers take a well deserved rest before clocking out for the day.

fire drill

fire drill

then after the last sewer leaves, the machines, classic rock and lights all get shut off.

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when all through the factory not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse

however if you’re lucky, you might find them right outside engaged very competitively in a company wide volleyball or basketball tournament.

courtesy of CJ

courtesy of CJ

courtesy of CJ

courtesy of CJ

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‘congrats U-rock <3 Roark’

Cotopaxi is now in the final stages of development on their new product line and after having seen and sampled several of their final prototypes, i am thoroughly excited.  several thousand promotional packs are being assembled right here in preparation for their upcoming “Questival” event on April 11th and 12th in Lehi, Utah.  soon thereafter, Cotopaxi will raise the curtain and unleash their first-ever line of packs and apparel.




the best of luck to you cousin.  it’s been a very awesome and informative week!

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so that’s what a year feels like

IMG_0388yup it’s official, today marks my one-year travel anniversary!  it was one year ago today that i left my home in Seattle, got on that airplane and never looked back.  ever since then i have been traveling non-stop.  in fact in this past year i have made exactly 118 stops in 10 countries and the longest i have stayed in one place is only 13 nights.  perhaps you are wondering how i know all of this?  those of you who know me even a little bit will not be surprised to learn that i have actually been keeping meticulous track of all of the places i have been this entire time and i think now is an appropriate time to share it all with you.

please allow me to introduce to you the “Travel Stats” page.  therein you will find both a per-country and per-place breakdown of my travels including an ongoing list of the now 20 motorbikes i have rented and the clever nicknames i have given them.  you will also find a link to my “TravellersPoint” profile which plots all of (well most of) the places i have been onto a map in a connect-the-dots sort of way. quite the tangled travel web i have woven eh? i will of course try to keep this page as up to date as i can.  i realize i have made a lot more work for myself by creating it but what the hell, a fellas gotta geek out somehow right?

happy travel anniversary to me!  don’t worry friends and family, i’ll come home eventually:)

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the golden land

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as of August 28th 2013, the Union of Myanmar opened four of its borders to allow foreigners to enter overland from Thailand for purposes of actual travel and not just Thai visa runs.  a little more than four months later, i got to be among the first of my kind to cross at the Mae Sot border just 200 kilometers south of Chang Mai knowing that i could continue all the way into the heart of Myanmar.  i must admit it felt pretty good.

with only 28 days on our visa, Nicolas and i had a lot of ground to cover and we were prepared to sacrifice as much sleep as necessary to carry out our aggressive plan.  for the next 27 nights, i would end up spending only 19 in an actual bed.  the rest would be spent either in transit, on a hard bamboo floor or draped awkwardly across one or more chairs.  it was hard traveling but it was also some of the most rewarding.  here is a warp speed rundown of my Myanmar month:

once we made it across the boarder into the town of Myawaddy, the Thai comforts dissipated mighty fast as i felt the clock turn back to something like 1975.  ancient full-size trucks retrofitted with cheap lawnmower-sized engines whizzed through chaotic streets all crowded with friendly faces.  the looks we got were a little jarring at first but we soon came to recognize them as the unmistakable warmth of the Burmese people.  Myanmar is a country that adores its visitors.  it’s not even uncommon to see “warmly welcome and take care of tourists” signs posted in trains and on street corners.  not that the people need any reminding of course.  they simply are the most genuinely kind, honest and helpful people in existence.

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our first stop was Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, aka “The Golden Rock” – a precariously balanced gold leaf covered boulder  believed to be resting stable on a single strand of Buddha’s hair.  to get there one has the option of either the seven mile holy pilgrimage or packing one’s self into the back of a sixty person truck.  we chose pilgrimage.  i even did it barefoot.

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from there we took a bouncing train… that’s right, i said bouncing train…

 

…to the Mon state capital of Mawlamyine.  there we toured the giant Pa Auk Taw Ya Monastery/Nunnery and then got fed a free hearty meal which we gladly ate until our bellies burst.  the mosquitoes here are so thick that each monk and nun are provided with their very own meditation mosquito net.

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and i didn’t escape this town without getting a mosquito-bite Pangaea on my back

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dengue… malaria… bring it on!

 

on the nearby island of Ogre, a slew of useful products are made in miniature factories INCLUDING RUBBER BANDS!  have you ever wondered exactly how rubber bands are made?  perhaps this video will demystify the process for you.

 

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Yangon is Myanmar’s largest city and former capital.  settled and abandoned by the British, then bombarded with Chinese and Indian influences.  traversing the many streets in a zig-zag fashion is a must-do here.  the character-driven decaying colonial architecture mixed with just the right amount of chaotic street markets is really what makes this city shine.

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…though most people think it’s the Shwedagon Paya which actually does shine when the sunset hits in that perfect way.  Shwedagon Paya is a 100-meter tall gilded pagoda on the top of a hill surrounded by hundreds of ornate temples.  it’s the most important religious site in Myanmar.

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250 kilometers northwest from Yangon along the Irrawaddy River is the town of Pyay and home to the ruins of Sri Ksetra – the ancient capital of the Pyu dynasty.  after a long day of touring its impressive stone pagodas we took a stroll along the river to admire the riffraff and wreckage.  we came across one boat that was so encumbered with crushed rock it was almost sinking.  a crowd of locals used bamboo baskets and sacks to carry load after load of rock onto the shore.  i felt i had to do my fair share and help them out.

 

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courtesy of Ines

courtesy of Ines

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it was also here in the town of Pyay where my Myanmar experience took a turn for the even better.  Pyay acts as a fork in the road of sorts where many travelers are faced with one very important decision – “do i continue on the heavily treaded path knowing that my visa-clock will tick within my control? OR do i throw caution to the wind and spend an unknown amount of days attempting to travel deep into western Myanmar to and from the highly coveted town of Mrauk U?” (pronounced like a cat’s meow) – a medieval archaeological masterpiece of a place, bordering the very off-limits Chin state and home to the former 15th century Arakanese Kingdom.  the tension was quite high at breakfast that morning when Nicolas, me, a Slovenian girl named Ines and two German guys: Matthias and a soap opera star named Stefan were all trying very hard to talk ourselves down from such an adventure.  one thing you have to understand about Myanmar is that as long as you conform to the beaten path, most of your transportation will be straight forward and predictable.  you just board that twelve hour bus and arrive at your destination at 4am sharp.  oddly enough this rule seems to apply no matter where you are going or coming from.  but once you decide to stray from this path, things can get a little fuzzy.  as a foreigner visiting Myanmar, the government has strict guidelines in place dictating where you can and can’t go, how you can get there and where you can stay once you arrive.  there are many hotels in Myanmar but only a small fraction of them are licensed to house tourists.  there are often many ways to get from point A to point B but if the shortest way is not approved for your travels then i’m sorry man, you are just going to have to go the long way.  why?… there is no why.  as Myanmar continues to open it self up to the rest of the world, these guidelines concerning access and transportation will keep changing on a seemingly monthly basis.

…so therein lies the adventure, hence the high tension at breakfast.  the tension finally lifted once we admitted two undeniable truths to ourselves: 1. the worst thing that could possibly happen is that we try and fail and get so behind our travel schedules that we have to overstay our visas and get fined an alarming $3 a day!.. and 2. we had already entertained the adventure idea too long to back down now.  so it was settled.  me and my newfound ka-tet would set out that evening on a quest to reach Mrauk U the long way.

our first stop on this journey was the small port village of Taunggok along the west coast (via night bus arriving at 4am of course).  there we had a layover day while we waited for a boat that was rumored to anchor here only a couple times a week.  it didn’t take long to realize that this place doesn’t see many outsiders (call it traveler’s intuition).  soon after we set out later that day after taking some rest at possibly the only tourist licensed hotel, we were befriended by four small girls who could obviously see the lost looks on our faces.  they immediately took us under their wings and showed us the ropes.  they took us to the local pagoda where they taught us the correct way to pray to Buddha and then took us home with them where their mother fed us warm soda and biscuits.  the girls would huddle and whisper quietly to each other in order to determine the best use of english to use on us.  meanwhile the other kids in the village showed up one by one as if they could smell foreigners in their midst.

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courtesy of Ines

courtesy of Ines

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

not too far down the road is a Buddhist monastery for novice monks.  it’s here and many places like it where children come to be fed, housed and educated free of charge.  after a period of time, each novice must make the decision to either become a full fledged monk for life or head back out into the world.  it’s always a gamble when you barge into a monastery unannounced but here we were greeted with overwhelming positivity.  not only did we get to sit in on their sacred nightly chanting session, but we also got to fraternize with the elder monks.  the elders warmed up to us quickly and casually while the children could barely contain their astonishment.  needless to say, Taunggok turned out to be a layover day filled with unexpected genuine moments.

courtesy of Matthias

courtesy of Matthias

courtesy of Ines

courtesy of Ines

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

courtesy of Ines

courtesy of Ines

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we spent the entire following day on a ferry boat that headed up the coast to the town of Sittwe.  the interior of the boat was frigid, crowded and fraught with ear piercing Burmese pop music videos but the exterior was serene and the coastline was some of the most stunning that i’ve ever seen (ah-ha, so *this* is why they make tourists go the long way).  we witnessed the sun rise and set from this boat and we passed most of the time on the back deck either reading or chewing betel nut.

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courtesy of Matthias

courtesy of Matthias

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

courtesy of Ines

courtesy of Ines

courtesy of Matthias

courtesy of Matthias

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

when we arrived in Sittwe we learned the hard way that all the tourist licensed hotels were fully booked so we had to use the Jedi mind trick on one hotel manager to coax him into thinking that it was a good idea to allow the five of us to occupy a three person room which was the only one they had left.  he was not comfortable with this idea at first but then gradually started to see things our way.  it was clear we had won him over when he came up with the brilliant idea to bring us an additional mattress that we could put on the floor.  none of this did a lick of good of course because at (yup you guessed it) 4am sharp we were all bludgeoned awake by the Burmese butchered version of Stevie Wonder’s “i just called to say i love you” being blasted at an ear damaging disciple level.  after taking a moment to realize who i was again i crawled outside and climbed up a nearby water tower to peak out over the wall at what vile beast could be making such a wretched noise and saw (yup you guessed it) a bus station… with just one bus that had just arrived and was packed to gills with people all bearing the same complacent stare.  the music was of course emanating directly from this bus.  from across the street i had to hold my head with both hands just to keep my sanity intact.  i couldn’t even imagine what it must have been like for all the people inside the bus.  i have been many places, seen many things and encountered many different cultures with an open mind but there are just some things in this world that i will never be able to comprehend.  i guess i just have to make my peace with that.

then after another full day on another breathtaking boat ride up the Kaladan River, we finally made it to Mrauk U (and it only took 4 days!).

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courtesy of Ines

courtesy of Ines

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mruak U was once the capital of the Arakanese kingdom – an empire that once reigned over much of Myanmar and half of Bangladesh.  now a fine collection of temple ruins remain scattered over a rolling hill landscape, many of which contain maze-like hallways filled with thousands of Buddha statues.

courtesy of Ines

courtesy of Ines

courtesy of Matthias

courtesy of Matthias

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

further up the river, several remote villages along the Chin state border can be visited.  there one can see evidence of the old tradition of face tattooing of women.  it used to be that every female at an early age would be forced to get a grid-like pattern that was unique to their region tattooed all over their face.  this was meant to deter invaders from kidnapping them.  this practice has since been phased out by Burmese authorities but some of the older women can still be seen with the markings.  these days their primary job is to sit on display and let people photograph them.

courtesy of Ines

courtesy of Ines

courtesy of Ines

courtesy of Ines

courtesy of Matthias

courtesy of Matthias

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

this woman takes a break from her human-zoo gig to massage buffalo shit into this woven bamboo basket.

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on our way back from the Chin border villages we decided it was a play-time-free-for-all.  this started off with dropping anchor and swimming in the river which then lead to commandeering a carved wooden canoe and attempting to operate it.  once we got the hang of that, Stefan and i tried very hard to establish our own private ferry service.  we were certain that the villagers had need to transport themselves and their goods back and forth across the river but despite our best attempts to help them or even humor them, we realized in the end that we were trying to solve a problem they simply just didn’t have.  meanwhile, Ines found herself getting put to work in a near by peanut field.  they of course paid her in the peanuts.  at that moment i got to taste a freshly picked peanut for the first time in my life.

courtesy of Matthias

courtesy of Matthias

courtesy of Ines

courtesy of Ines

 

we ended up spending four full days in Mruak U which is the longest time i’d end up spending in any single place in Myanmar.  we toured the town and surrounding area on bicycles and witnessed an epic sunrise.  on our final night together before going our separate ways they threw me a surprise birthday party.  that’s right!  using covert methods, they managed to gather and MacGyver a cake, 34 candles, hard boiled chicken and quail eggs wrapped in news paper and a party hat fashioned from a plastic water bottle.  it truly was the best darn birthday party a nomad like me could ever hope for.

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courtesy of Ines

courtesy of Ines

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

out here in travelland it’s not very often you find a group of individuals that jive as well as we did.  this right here is one crew for the history books.

courtesy of Matthias

left to right: Stefan, Matthias, Ines, Nicolas, Roark (photo courtesy of Matthias)

 

the next leg of our journey was not the one for the faint of heart… nor any heart for that matter.  we had just learned about a new bus route that had been approved for tourists only three weeks prior.  it connected Mrauk U to Mandalay (Myanmar’s second largest city) and would end up taking 22.5 hours.  this would be by far the longest single bus ride i have ever taken in my life but i still felt lucky to be on it because it meant we didn’t have to backtrack for 3+ days in a direction we’d already been.  Nik and i were slightly short of mortified once we saw the thing that would take us there.

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at first it was actually pretty funny but then reality began to sink in once people actually started to board the thing.  and then we just… well… boarded the thing… because that’s what ya do.  soon after we hit the main road the bus filled with consistent gusts of dust that billowed in through the open windows and the many holes in the walls and floor.  it became quite cold at night too.  i wrapped my face and body in all the clothing i had so i could breath and stay warm.  i managed to get some sleep on some of the gentler roads by turning around, wedging my body down underneath the seat in front of me and using my seat to support my head.  i could only sustain this position for twenty minutes at a time before my entire right leg would become numb.  luckily there were several security checkpoints along the way which allowed us to stretch our legs and beat the dust off of our clothing.

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unfortunately for the most part i found Mandalay to be a flat characterless sprawl of a place but with one saving grace witch was an awesome performance by the Mustache Brothers – a comedy trio who gained world wide recognition when two of its members got sentenced to seven years hard labor after publicly poking fun at their government back in 1996.  they were released after six years and put on house arrest after Amnesty International lead a campaign.  now they are only allowed to perform for foreigners out of the garage attached to their house.  there were only two brothers left when i saw them.  one had passed away five months prior due to kidney disease, which the brothers suspect is a result of lead poisoning from the prison water tanks.

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from Mandalay we took yet another bouncing train ride…

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…into the Shan state village of Hsipaw and embarked on a 3-day/2-night trek lead by a “Mr. Lion Man” – probably the most sought after trekking guide in these parts.  best known for his ability to consume mass quantities of rice wine and fall asleep just about anywhere.  and if you can imagine, he is also quite popular with the ladies.

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Mr. Lion Man

once you get past his hard liver and good looks you’ll find a top notch guide with worthy knowledge of the region and a heart to give you the most authentic experience he can.  Nik and i, along with an Aussie named Brad and a very nice couple from my home town of Seattle, followed Lion Man into the unknown.  we traversed the beautiful country side, visited schools with classes in session, greeted villagers in their local tongue, ate elaborate meals cooked in the fire place of people’s homes and then slept on their floors.  it was a fantastic first introduction to the gentile, kind and hospitable rural Shan people.

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on my final day of the trek i woke up a different sort.  considering all of the places i’ve been in this past year and all of the questionable things i have ingested, it is surprising to me how little i have become ill.  i was actually beginning to think i was invincible and this was becoming a source of pride in my life.  well, today the record was set straight because i was sick as a dog.  i was also not the only one.  Nik had been up the whole night before hurling his guts out in the horse stable outside.  i couldn’t keep anything down either.  every bone in my body ached and we had a long hot road ahead.  each step i took seemed to take a little longer while i became more dehydrated and the sun became hotter until finally a plume of smoke revealed itself on the horizon.  the end was in sight and a smidgen of hope was in my heart.  well as it turns out, that plume of smoke was nothing more than a burning field but by then the hand full of painkillers (a godsend from Nik’s personal stash) i fought with all my might to keep down were finally starting to do their job.  i am pretty sure that if you looked up the meaning of the word “miserable” in the dictionary that day you would have seen this picture with a caption that read “this man is miserable”.

this man is miserable

this man is miserable

 

by the following day i was feeling much better.  i also woke everyone up at 6am to partake in the live streaming of an audio broadcast of the Super Bowl.  the connection was far from adequate but my new Seattle friends and i still managed to piece it all together.

IMG_2317at the north end of town in a decaying Shan palace, a woman named Fern has an incredible story to tell.  she paints a very clear picture of her husband’s uncle Sao Kya Seng – the last Shan prince of the region who ruled in this palace along side his Austrian wife.  he along with all the other princes were imprisoned in the early 60s during the military coup and then later released.  all except for Seng who was never seen or heard from again after that and to this day the government denies ever having arrested him in the first place.  after Sang’s wife and children left the palace to move to America, Fern and her husband Donald were asked to be caretakers.  Donald used to show tourists around the palace until he got arrested in 2005 for “operating as an unlicensed tour guide”.  the palace laid quiet until only last year when Fern opened the doors to the public once again.  her mission is to educate anyone who is willing to listen.

Nicolas, Brad and i had not quite had our fill of trekking by the time we reached Inle Lake so we booked another 3-day/2-nighter that wound through the foothills next to the lake.  on our first night we stayed at a Buddhist monastery in the tiny village of Yin Phar.  right next to it, a foundation had been dug into the side of the hill to build a new “oration building” to be used for the induction of new monks.  as they explained to us, before a single brick is laid the ground must first be cleansed.  this of course involves an elaborate ceremony followed by a feast, which means that the timing of our arrival in Yin Phar was just about perfect.  all the villagers came in their best attire.  the procession music began and the monks marched up the hill and gathered around the opened ground that had a grid pattern drawn onto it with chalk.  they filed in and lined themselves in rows along one side of the grid, knelt and chanted, then rose, then graduated themselves one square forward, knelt and chanted again.  they kept repeating this until they got to the other end of the grid, then they positioned themselves on a different side and started all over again.  after completing all sides they moved on to other patterns, some of which were reminiscent of the classic video game “Snake”.  they went on like this all day long until feeding time.

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the feast was quite the ordeal.  everyone seemed to cook, eat and clean in shifts.  they packed themselves into raised bamboo houses and gorged themselves on a wide variety of dishes, many of which just can’t be explained.  i was well aware at this point that food in Myanmar is a complicated matter.  when staring down onto it, one can really appreciate it for the vibrant masterpiece it is.  but when it comes to taste, your experience can range from the most comforting thing imaginable to an awkward assault on your taste buds.  that dark brown substance on your periphery may seem harmless but once it comes in contact with your mouth, all out carnage will ensue causing your brain to think it has just been violated by the bitter sap of a pine tree.

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and of course there is the boiled pig fat…

courtesy of Brad

courtesy of Brad

 

our Inle trek concluded with a leisure boat ride on the lake itself.  Inle Lake spans almost 50 square miles and contains many villages, gardens, fisherman and other oddities as well.

 

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i’ll leave you now with this image of a sunrise taken from atop Buledi temple in Bagan – by far the most visited place in Myanmar with a flat desert landscape and the remains of over 2200 temples and pagodas.  at this hour, hot air balloons begin to line the horizon as the sun slowly starts to reveal a vast assortment of spires.

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Myanmar is the most beautiful and strangest, kindest and hardest to negotiate country i have ever been to.  it’s an extensive and rapidly changing world wrapped in a shroud of mystery with a convoluted history of corruption and oppression.  its ancient sights and gilded religious monuments are ubiquitous.  its vast fertile lands are plentiful with a diverse array of cultures, many of which are isolated and waiting to be explored.  none of this however holds a candle to the real charm of these lands and that’s the people that live there.  hospitality, genuineness and selflessness take on new meanings when you come to Myanmar.  it’s no secret that the people here have endured a long road of injustice and have been humbled by it.  many are too shy to discuss it but they all seem patient and hopeful for the inevitable overhaul of their government.  much of this hope is placed in tourism and many locals will view your visit as an agent of change for the better.  and when you do visit Myanmar you will have the chance to take part in this change by taking every opportunity you can to evade supporting their government in all its various forms.  a great deal more of this hope is placed in key events that will transpire over the coming year that could likely expedite this change and drag Myanmar kicking and screaming into the present.

Thanks Myanmar.  keep opening those flood gates and i’ll keep cheering you on from the sidelines.  that was one hell of a month we had.  one that i will never forget.

 

 

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