Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Koh Samui

Sam and I took a ferry the morning of the 20th to hop over to the next island over, Koh Samui, to begin our week long silent meditation retreat.  Took a taxi to The Icon, and then got picked up by the retreat staff and taken to a secluded oasis in the island hills.  Had a few initial conversations with other retreaters and was a little sad to think I wouldn’t be able to talk with them more the next week.  Took a tour of the property with the group and checked out our accommodations, which was a long room with many wooden boards, straw mats and a wooden pillow for each person.  Yeah…a wooden pillow.  That evening we started the silence and began to fall into our daily routine.
4:30am – Wake Up
5:00am – Morning Reading
5:15am – Sitting Meditation
5:45am – Yoga
7:00am – Sitting Mediation
7:30am – Breakfast
9:30am – Dhamma Talk
10:30am – Walking/Standing Meditation
11:00am – Sitting Meditation
11:30am – Lunch
2:00pm – Meditation Instruction and Sitting Meditation
3:00pm – Walking/Standing Meditation
3:30pm – Sitting Meditation
4:00pm – Walking/Standing Meditation
4:30pm – Chanting & Loving Kindness Meditation
5:30pm – Tea
7:30pm – Sitting Meditation
8:00pm – Group Walking Meditation
8:30pm – Sitting Meditation
9:00pm – Bedtime
9:30pm – Lights Out

The whole week blends together now, but overall I thought it was a really great experience.  The whole purpose of the week was to teach us about the belief in Buddhism to live completely in the present.  “Nothing whatsoever should be grasped at or clung to.”  In Buddhism, the ultimate goal is to be completely unattached from things, people, your body/emotions, etc. 
The first few days I was really engaged and the days went by quickly, and on day three the meditation and the talk from the retreat volunteer Pierre, really broke me down in the best kind of way.  He talked about forgiveness, of yourself and of others, and it was so powerful and related so well to my life.  I left the retreat with the reminder that forgiveness, along with gratitude, are two of the most important capabilities in one’s life.
Around day four I started to lose focus and spent the majority of my days daydreaming, which is exactly what you’re advised against because the goal is to always live in the present.  Each day was a struggle both physically and mentally, and through it my mood shifted frequently between extreme confusion and intense clarity.  The fact that we weren’t allowed to talk didn’t ease any concerns.
On the last full day of the retreat, they drove us to a beautiful beach where we all sat together and meditated.  They then told us we had an hour to roam around the beach, and at this point everyone decided the silence was broken.  We all stood by the water’s edge and a few even felt compelled to jump in with their clothes on.  Once back on the retreat grounds, we ended the night with the opportunity to share how we got to the retreat and what we learned from it.  Despite my discomfort with public speaking, I got up and shared my story.  After each person shared it seemed as it gave the next person courage to share their deeper stories.  One person shared his struggle with depression and suicide, another told us he’d recently found out he was HIV positive – it was a good reminder that everyone has their struggles in life and to try to be empathetic as you never know what others are going through.  
The morning of the 27th I woke up as usual, headed to the meditation hall, and this time took a seat at the head of hall to read the last mornings reading.  It was called “Chief Seattle’s Message” and it was a speech he’d given to his tribe in the Pacific Northwest in the late 19th century.
Our last breakfast I spent chatting with Pierre as I was so interested in his life and how he’d arrived at this meditation center to guide us all.  Turns out he was an economist in Canada with three failed marriages behind him, and a few years ago he’d left that life and moved to Thailand to practice Buddhism.  He encouraged me to keep meditation and mindfulness in my life.  I think the biggest thing I realized during this week was that my whole life I’ve been floating, just getting by being genetically blessed with some general intelligence and athleticism.  I’ve never really applied myself to anything or followed through with things I attend to accomplish.  This week, even though at times I wanted to leave, I stuck with it and that alone felt really rewarding.  I hope that when I go home, if nothing else, I live every day with a little more intention and determination than I had in the past.
Headed off into town and walked around until we found a place to stay.  Sam and I split a little beach bungalow at New Huts on Lamai Beach for $15.  Spent the day lying on the beach and fell asleep to the sound of the waves that were 30 feet outside our front door.

Koh Phangan

Illness combined with miraculous recovery combined with extreme partying has delayed my documentation of the trip, so now this whole week is a big blur of activities.  Our first day here Sam, Emilie and I went to Ao Haad Yao, a beach of the west side of the island.  We met up with some of her friends from Michigan that night at Amsterdam Bar to watch the sunset, and then headed over to their hostel, Ringside, where we got ready for the Jungle Party.  Taxis dropped us off literally in the middle of the jungle where they had set up drink stands and a stage for a DJ.  Had a nice time dancing and getting to know the Michigan group.

The 15th was the day of the Full Moon Party, so we went around town to get neon t-shirts for the night.  Again went to Ringside, and then took a taxi over to Haad Rin, which is a beach on the east side of the island.  As we walked onto the beach, we were overcome with the music and lights on display at each different section of the beach.  There were people playing with fire (Sam even jumped over a jump rope that was on fire) and people hanging out on the beach, but most everyone was just dancing and having a great time.  Initially I was very concerned with how crazy the night would be, but overall I thought it was well put together and maintained, and only a few people had looked like they’d overdone it with the alcohol buckets.  Talked to a lot of interesting people that night and watched the sunrise from the beach.  

Understandably, we spent pretty much the whole day of the 16th in bed sleeping.
Took Emilie to the pier at 6am on the 17th and it was really hard to see her go.  She’s at the end of her traveling journey and we’ve just  begun ours.  Met up with the guys from Michigan later in the day and headed over to Koh Phangan National Park on the east side of the island.  A small beach with much courser sand, but there was a whole neighborhood built into the side of a cliff and it was a really cool place to spend an afternoon.  Had dinner at the local market across the street from Miriam’s (spring rolls for 10baht, pad thai for 60baht and fruit shakes for 30baht).

On the 18th the boys picked us up on their motorbikes and we went to Wipeout for a few hours to watch them attempt a water obstacle course.  We headed back to the beach they were staying at and spent the rest of the afternoon there.
On the 19th Sam and I headed out to the streets to find a place to stay as the room at Miriam’s was booked for the night.  Literally walked down the street and paid 250baht to stay a dorm style room.  We also bought our boat ticket to Koh Samui (200baht). 

A Tribute to Modern Pharmaceuticals

January 13 – Disclaimer: this is not a happy post and thankfully unrepresentative of the majority of this trip so far.  I want this blog to be share the full picture of my experience her so if you don’t want to hear any bad news, don’t read this.
In retrospect, there are many things that happened the day before that resulted in one of the absolute worst days of my life.  While I had been feeling a little off through the majority of Myanmar, I had thought it was just getting used to the food there.  After so much traveling, heavy exercise and not drinking enough water I was extremely dehydrated, and woke up a few times during the night only to try to fall back asleep.  When I did finally get out of bed, I knew something was really wrong, so I opened the door to our room (and thankfully Sam had picked up that I was out of it) and everything went white and I couldn't support myself anymore.  Sam and some hotel staff guided me onto the bed and got me some water.  After a little while I was feeling a little better, talked briefly with my parents and then packed up all my stuff and headed down to the taxi that would take us back to the airport.  At this point I was a complete zombie and so grateful to be with Emilie and Sam who really helped me with my luggage and whatever else I needed.
Once in the airport I really started to feel bad, so Sam shipped a few of my things home while I pleaded with people in the security line to let me in front of them so I could get to the pharmacy inside the terminal as soon as possible.  I talked to a pharmacist who gave me a concoction of various pills, which I promptly took and promptly threw up.  Yup…I was that girl, puking in an airport trashcan.  Cool thing about being sick at the airport was that I got an escort that wheeled me around everywhere I went so at least there was that I guess.  So we were waiting by our gate and I was really having trouble being a functional human being so I tried to take all the pills again and made myself a little home in the closest bathroom.  Again pills unsuccessfully stayed down, and there was definitely a point where I questioned if being on a flight, bus, and then boat for the next ten hours was really a good idea for me.  Pushed through, took a nap in my own row of the plane, and started to feel better (probably because there was nothing left in my body). 

Only ate a slice of toast and drank lots of water for the next 24 hours.  After getting to Koh Phangan and getting a new set of antibiotics, I immediately felt better.  The body is really an incredible machine.  Even though I remember that I felt like I was on the verge of death, my body can’t recall that feeling anymore (thank god).  Fingers crossed that was my one and only bad health scare here.

Friday, January 17, 2014


January 10 - Woke up at 4am to get all packed up and took a taxi to the jetty to get on our boat headed for Mandalay.  Boat left at 5:30am and got into the city at 5pm.  Not a bad boat ride, especially since there were only about 10 passengers, so no fighting to get a good seat in the recliner style chairs.  Served an egg and banana for breakfast and fried rice for lunch.  Beautiful weather and such a nice way to see the Myanmar delta area.  Ticket was $35.

Interesting conversation with Sam on the boat ride over.  I think during trips like this its not uncommon to have that "what am I doing feeling".  Sam and I are both confused about what we want to be doing with our lives and what the "right" decisions are.  Both of us are also a little scared to return home and be faced with decisions and responsibilities that we don't want to deal with quite yet.
Twelve hours stuck on a boat leaves little mental protection from the wandering mind.  Thinking a lot about past decisions and struggling with things that aren't going to change.  "Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past."  Very fitting quote from George Orwell's 1984 which I read a few weeks before I left for this trip, completely unaware that it had such strong ties to Orwell's experiences in Burma in the 1920's.  I've been reading Emma Larkin's Finding George Orwell in Burma for the past few days, and its been very helpful in understanding more about this country's history, which I knew very little about before.  Not sure if Myanmar has recovered from its sordid past or if the peaceful and friendly atmosphere here is merely a facade.
The Irrawaddy River is a very interesting place.  I'll quote from Larkin as she puts it much more poetically than I could.  "It is a hauntingly timeless landscape.  The rivers are milky brown-the colour of weak cocoa-and water hyacinth grows so thick it sometimes covers the entire surface with softly undulating blankets of vivid green...Small huts of bamboo and thatch sit amid the forests of mangrove and coconut trees, and every so often the golden tip of a pagoda can be seen above the greenery."  Everything moves rather slow here, but I don't see it as the dreary and monotonos place I've heard it described as.  Then again, I'm only just passing through.

January 11 – Woke up and met Mr. Htay, our taxi driver for the day, outside ET Hotel.  Initially a little concerned with his driving capabilities having a lazy eye and all, but turns out he was a great driver and an overall good person.  Started off in the morning at the Mahagandayon Monastery in Amarapura where hundreds of monks line up for breakfast each morning.  It was cool to get a better glimpse into their daily lives and routines.

Stopped for a quick peak into a silk weaving factory, which really is remarkable to see how much work they have to put into each piece.  Then off to Sagaing Hill where we walked up hundreds of steps to explore a few of the many interconnected pagodas.  Really could have spent a whole day there wandering from temple to temple but with only one full day in Mandalay we had to keep it brief.  My favorite was U Min Thonze Cave, which was this long, narrow room with buddhas lining the wall with pieces of glass in mosaic patters behind them.

After a quick stop for lunch, we crossed Myit Nge River by ferry boat and took a horse and carriage to explore the Inwa village.  After taking the ferry back to meet up with our taxi driver, we went to U Bein Bridge to watch the sun set.  The bridge itself is really just flimsy pieces of wood nailed together but it’s so long and perfectly positioned in the foreground of the setting sun that it really does look remarkable.

January 12 – After breakfast we took a taxi to airport and flew into Don Muang airport.  Piya’s mom had informed us that we were coming in a day before some serious protests in Bangkok so we booked a hotel close to the airport called We Train.  After grabbing some food from the restaurant downstairs, Sam and I went on a run around the neighborhood and then played a game of basketball with two guys staying there as well.  Overall it was a nice, relaxing day to prepare for the day of travel ahead.

Sunday, January 12, 2014


January 7 – Overnight bus wasn’t horrible.  Emilie said it was the best she’s been on in all of Southeast Asia.  We paid about $18 for the overnight bus from Yangon to Bagan and got in around 5am.  Ended up taking a horse and carriage to the hotel for about $5, which was probably a very inflated price, but it was 5am and we were in a new city so that’s what happened.  Luckily, the hotel we were staying at, Bagan Umbra, let us into our room early and we took a nap, and woke up around 9am.  A friend of Emilie’s had gone on a balloon ride there (for $360), and met the people who worked there, and they agreed to show us around a bit.  Gavin, a UK native, picked us up at the hotel around 10am with his coworker Kyaw Kyaw (pronounced Cho Cho) and they showed us around a few of the local temples.

We then went back to Gavin’s hotel which was absolutely amazing.  Right on the river with a perfect view of the setting sun.  We hung out with him and his other ballooning coworkers for a few hours and even joined them at Queens for dinner.  We got duck, chicken curry and prawns with mushrooms which were all phenomenal.  We also tried the traditional Burmese tea leaf salad and rum drink called Caperenia.  Such a lovely group of people from Europe and Canada, we really enjoyed ourselves and planned to meet them early the next morning to either watch the sun rise or, if they had anyone drop out, ride in a hot air balloon for free!

January 8 – No luck at the balloon place this morning, but they drove us over to a temple close to our hotel to watch the sunrise.  The landscape of Bagan is absolutely amazing.  Very flat with a mix of green and browns, with temples scattered in every direction.  Came back to the hotel, had breakfast, then met Gavin at 10:30am to head to the market and to Kyaw Kyaw’s village.  His whole community works on beautiful laquerware pieces and it was awesome to see the process from start to finish.  Kyaw Kyaw’s sister painted the traditional Burmese face paint on all our faces so that was a cool experience as well.  After the village, we had a quick lunch and met up with the whole balloon crew to take a boat over to a sand bank.  I can’t express how amazing all these people are and how quickly they’ve adopted us into their little clan.  Had a great time with all of them and then went to dinner again at Queen.

January 9 – Woke up again around 5am to see if there would be any extra spots on the air balloon, but again no luck.  We watched them take off and then Sam and I walked back to our hotel while Emilie got a lift with the crew.  Fell asleep by the pool for about half an hour after breakfast, then we headed off to the market and bought a few items.  Went back to Gavin's hotel and laid out for a few hours with his balloon crew family and had an amazing time (as usual) with them.  Joined a few of them for dinner that night and then said our very sad goodbyes.  Really cannot believe we got so close with a group of people in only a few days and almost a little sad that we've had such an incredible experience here our first week in Southeast Asia because I know its not going to be this pleasant when we're in cities where we .  Got a few don't know anyone.  Got some of the crews information and hoping to keep in touch with them.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014


January 4 - Sam and I got a cab to the Don Muang airport and met up with Emilie once there.  We shipped a few things that should arrive in approximately 2 that will be a nice surprise when it shows up.  We met Emilie there and after a quick flight we landed in Yangon.  Guide told us we could hire a private car for around $800 for the three of us for our eight days in Myanmar, but we decided to do it on our own.  Can't wait to travel when I'm older and actually have the money to afford a little more comfort/convenience.
Got to The Motherland Inn 2 and ordered some food (fried rice, chicken, soup) for about $8 total.  Took a taxi to the Grand Pagoda ($8) and explored the complex a bit.  As we exited the elevator a female monk gestured to us to follow her and she showed us around all the different areas.  Very few words were exchanged as she spoke only a few words in English but the experience was really awesome.  On our way out a monk came up to us and asked if we spoke English.  He asked if we would come back to his monastery and we obliged (sounds way worse than it was...he clearly was a good person).

We went to the monastery and he showed us around.  Everyone was very friendly and we were even served fruit, cookies and tea.  He was pretty desperate to get us to come back the next morning to participate in their English class, but we were pretty clear that if we could come we would meet him at the monastery.  Taxi home and bed relatively early.

January 5 – Woke up at 6:30am because I wasn’t sleeping well and went outside for breakfast.  Ended up talking with Lars, this massive man from Sweden, about traveling mostly.  He’s traveling with a girl, Madhu, who he met while traveling through India.  They both seemed awesome so we agreed to meet later in the day.

Around 9am I’m sitting with Emilie outside on the porch and she turns to me, wide eyed, and said “Laura, he’s here.  The monk is here.”  It was generally a very uncomfortable situation but he ended up leaving after we told him we already had plans.  Emilie met a woman from New York named Kym, and the four of us went to the train station to take the loop around Yangon for three hours ($1).   The ride was incredible and it was so awesome to see how the people there live.  Everyone was extremely friendly and when we rode by the kids usually waved at us.

After we got off the train we headed into the city and walked around the local market for a while.  There was a young boy on the street painting and making these beautiful landscape portraits so I bought one for 1000k ($1).  On our way back Emilie got her palm read, rather inaccurately, and then we saw a protest but couldn’t see/understand much.  After a quick rest at the hotel, we met back up with Lars and Madhu and went to dinner down the street at a little restaurant called 711.  We had dishes of noodles, chicken, duck, shrimp and vegetables and ended up paying less than three dollars each.
We then went to 50th Street Bar to have a drink.  Almost like being back at home, with mostly only white people watching the game and playing pool.  We left the bar and Emilie, Sam and I walked home but got drawn into a local celebration where a stage had been put in the street and dancers were performing for a crowd that filled a whole street.  They were still celebrating their Independence Day, which had been the day before.  Once we got back to the hotel, I realized I’d left all my American dollars at the bar, in an envelope, in my notebook.  I quickly called the bar and asked if they had my notebook, and they said yes, and then asked if I could come pick it up, and they asked for how many people… so I hung up the phone and took a taxi back to the bar, and was elated to find my notebook still there, with the envelope inside.  Left the bar a tip as a thank you because that would have really made this trip much more difficult.

January 6 – For breakfast we ordered tradition Burmese dishes - onnoth khawk (noodles with coconut milk gravy), nan gyi thoke (thick noodle salad), and pe nan bya (naan and garbanzo beans).  The three of us spent most of the day lounging around, getting ready for check out, and then we took a taxi to the Kan Daw Gyi Nature Park and walked around for a few hours.  Had lunch/dinner at the hotel and took a taxi to the bus station headed for an overnight bus to Bagan.
Overall Yangon is a very interesting city.  When we first arrived at the airport, I thought the men’s’ mouths were bleeding because they were all red, but turns out it’s a kind of tobacco they all chew here.  Men and women both wear traditional long skirts call longyi.  In general everyone here is very friendly though, and kids are always very excited to say hello to us.  There isn’t all that much to do here – hoping Bagan and Mandalay will be a little more exciting.

Saturday, January 4, 2014


Hello friends and family!  Serious apologies for getting this up so late, Piya's place didn't have wifi and Myanmar wifi is extremely unreliable.  But Bangkok was incredible and Sam and I were so fortunate to know Piya, our Thai friend from Davis, who has been our personal tour guide the last few days.

December 31 - After a painful 23 hour flight with a layover in Manila, Sam and I got to Bangkok in the afternoon and got a taxi towards Piya's.  First poor planning mistake of the trip was not getting Piya's Thai number, so I had to turn my data on to contact her and get that (thanks for the international plan Dad).  I'd barely slept the last two days but once we got to Piya's I was so excited I didn't want to rest, so we walked down her street where I was coaxed to dance in the street with some man who was selling CDs.  I told him I wanted to buy some CDs (3 for 100 bhat - a dollar each), and he picked one out and shooed me away without paying, so that was a nice welcome gift.  Piya then took us to a local market called The Old Siam and we looked at all the local food and desserts.

We took a tuk tuk from the market back to Piya's house and got ready to go out to dinner with her family.  We went to a rooftop buffet dinner which was a great way to try different Thai dishes.  Around 11pm Piya, Sam and I headed through town to get to the SkyTram, which was difficult since the streets were flooded with people.  After a quick ride, we got to a club called Narz about 10 minutes before the countdown.  Had a great time with Sam and Piya as well as meeting all kinds of new people.  Got about three hours of sleep but so much to do so little time :)

January 1 - Woke up at 7am and headed down towards an area of the city to grab a minivan shuttle to Ayutthaya.  Once there, Piya arranged for a tuk tuk to drive us around for a few hours for 1000 bhat for the three of us (approximately $10 each).  A young guy that also took the shuttle seemed to be alone, so we ended up inviting him to spend the day with us.  His name was Xander, he's from Kuala Lumpur, and when he's not working he's off exploring the world and taking awesome pictures.

We went to Ayutthaya Historical Park, Wat Chaiwattanarm and Wat Phra Mahthat, and also checked out an authentic floating market nearby.

Once we got back to Bangkok we headed to Khao San Road for dinner.  This whole time I'd been in Thailand I was under the impression that there weren't many tourists were visiting, but really they all just choose to congregate around this one area.  Very glad I was able to experience Bangkok through a local because I really wouldn't have enjoyed the town if this is all I'd seen.

At Khao San one of the most popular stations was the bug cart.  We saw a husband and wife eat a cockroach and scorpion, and then Piya and Sam both ate a cricket.  I stuck to normal food and had incredible Pad Thai for dinner that set me back a whopping 20 baht (less than a dollar).  Street food here is unbelievably cheap but a lot of it is usually too spicy for my taste.  We also had Roti, an egg dessert sprinkled with condensed milk, and sticky mango rice which is amazing.

January 2 - Sam and I woke up at 7am to get to the Burmese embassy early.  Got there around 8am, they opened at 9am and we were out around 10am.  We had gone without Piya so we had to search around for wifi so we could connect with her and ended up wandering into a hostel down a little alley, where the woman who worked there was kind enough to let us use the wifi and answer a few questions we had.  We went back to Piya's and the three of us headed out to check out some of the temples in Bangkok.  We saw Wat Arun, Wat Pho, and the Grand Palace (didn't actually go inside because it closed).

At Wat Arun we sat down in front of the monks and received a blessing from them, they splashed some water on us and then they tied a bracelet around our wrists.  Good thing we had some spiritual powers on our side because those were the steepest stairs I've ever climbed up, and I had some serious anxiety on the way down.  On the way back I bought a painting which is now in the mail (expected arrival in two months..).  After the temples we took a tuktuk to a mall where we did some serious shopping.  The mall was absolutely massive (five stories, hundreds of stores), and you could bargain for everything.  I bought some colored contact to follow.

After the mall we went back to Piya's, had a beautiful dinner prepared by her maids, got ready and headed out to Soi Eleven, which is this awesome area in Bangkok with a mix of upscale hotels and restaurants and VW wagons parked along the street that have been renovated into bars.  The three of us shared a bucket of tequila sunrise.  Then we took a taxi to SkyBar of Le Bua and saw this absolutely amazing view of Bangkok.  Perfect way to end an awesome day.

January 3 - After sleeping in a bit, we went back to the local market called The Old Siam.  We got guichai, kanomkrok, foythong thongyip, oleng, saimai, chompoo, kanoon and thangmay.  I have no idea what most of those are but I asked Piya to give me the names of what we ate.  Once we got back to Piya's we quickly packed our stuff up and headed out to catch a cab.  We went back to the Burmese embassy to pick up our visas, and then headed over to the hostel we had wondered into the day before.  We were the only two guests in the hostel (she just opened a few months ago), and she was throwing a bachorlette party for one of her friends, so we joined them briefly for pizza and champagne before heading to bed early.