|We visited a lot of Buddhist temples on our vacation. By "a lot" I mean maybe fifty or sixty. By "a lot" I mean a few too many.|
I write to you from a hotel patio on an island off the coast of Thailand. Palms are rustling, tropical birds chirping, some French kids splashing around in the pool. I can hear, but not see, the ocean. It's pretty nice, but not quite paradise because it's also roasting hot and we're totally lethargic and covered with mosquito bites. My bathing suit is too tight and we keep nervously joking about tsunamis. Did you see The Impossible? Don't! It will subtly darken any future visits to the beaches of southeast Asia.
I won't bore you with a long blow-by-blow account of this beautiful trip Isabel and I took to Myanmar and Thailand. Just a short blow-by-blow.
Day 1: Yangon
I'd decided this trip was a huge mistake about a week before we left. I worried Isabel wouldn't enjoy it, that she'd sigh and complain about the heat and exotic food, I'd lose my temper, we'd bicker and have a miserable or even just mediocre vacation together and then she'd go off to college and I'd never see her again. Something like that.
We arrived in Yangon after twenty hours of sleepless air travel and our guide took us straight from the airport to see a Burmese white elephant. Standing there in the soupy heat looking at this white elephant (actually, pinkish beige) I began fretting about Isabel's state of mind.
|They call this a WHITE elephant?|
There's more I could say about Yangon -- about the lovely British colonial architecture, the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda, the Reclining Buddha, how quickly you become accustomed to women with thanaka paste on their cheeks and men in longyis -- but I promised to keep this short.
Day 2-3: Bagan
There are more than 2,000 pagodas in the ancient kingdom of Bagan and we visited a good number of them. (My picture does an ok job capturing Bagan's splendor, but this one does it better.) We climbed pagodas, circled pagodas, admired carvings outside pagodas and murals in the cool, dark interiors of pagodas, where you could hear and occasionally see the resident bats. Has David Quammen's Spillover been translated into Burmese? It should be.
|Overheated dogs slept on the terraces of the pagodas. The dogs in Myanmar appeared to be dead all day and then came to life when the sun went down.|
|In my favorite Bagan temple, an enormous buddha was packed as tightly as a chick inside an eggshell. Super-weird!|
Wrong we were. Myanmar isn't all that touristy yet, and I'm ashamed to report that authentic Burmese food terrified us.
Not only were there no English translations on the menu at this restaurant, there was no menu. We sat down and scowling waitresses began smacking dishes on the table in front of us. Dish after dish after dish of murky, room temperature mystery food. Seventeen dishes in all, including dessert. We finally identified some chicken and pork in oily sauces and a pile of leathery fried fish. There were also pastes and pickles that resembled those we'd just seen an hour ago, mounded in baskets and dotted with flies at the local market.
|The hot food definitely wasn't hot, nor was the cold food cold.|
Sad, but true.
Days 4-5: Inle Lake
Inle Lake is a vast lake in the middle of Myanmar where villagers live in stilted teak houses built on the water and travel around on long, skinny boats. We saw lots of babies during our time on Inle Lake, but no barriers or baby gates between the living spaces and the water. I'm a product of my (anxious, death-fearing? sensible, life-loving?) culture and couldn't stop thinking about the dangers. Eventually I asked our excellent tour guide if babies ever fall out of the houses and drown. She answered promptly and cheerfully, "Sometimes they do, yes."
And that was that.
There are really easy measures one could take to prevent babies from drowning, and I would certainly take them if I lived on Inle Lake. But then where exactly do you stop? I thought about this a lot in Myanmar, where they have come to very different conclusions than we have.
Because it was monsoon season, we were among the only tourists on the lake and while we were drenched by the rains, it was absolutely great.
|In a temple on Inle Lake you'll find a museum that contains valuables -- cash, watches, jewelry -- that devout visitors decided they cared too much about and gave up.|
|These buddhas in the same temple were originally shaped like humans, but have been so thickly layered with gold leaf that they have become blobs.|
|A few of Myanmar's 3 million monks waiting in line for lunch in Mandalay.|
It would be easy to chalk this up to Buddhism, but Thailand is also Buddhist and we sensed no such tranquility among the Thais.
Make of my facile generalizations what you will.
Next post: Bangkok.