Friday, February 17, 2012

Heaven on Earth in Ngwe Saung, Myanmar

pretty Burmese child wearing Thanaka face paint

The people here walk slowly, languidly, their every movement like a cat stretching in the sun. There is no sense of urgency, no hurry. My day, like that of just about everyone at Ngwe Saung, starts when the first pale rays of sun toss light on my pillow. I can hear birdsong and the omnipresent voice of the ocean. Just outside my window, a boy with skin the colour of caramel sings as he waters the flowers.

The appearance of this place? It is like that one common cliché of heaven, the one where a good man dies and wakes to find himself on an empty stretch of beach, deep blue expanse of ocean on one side and fringed row of tall green palm trees on the other. Ngwe Saung is the earthly incarnation of that paradise.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve visited culturally significant parts of Myanmar. I’ve been to Bagan and Inle, places where all tourists are expected to go. I’ve also been to a few places where tourists, at least white tourists, are such a rarity that the monks end up photobombing me.

Hey monk! Hey random Burmese girl! You're in my frame.

My travels through inner Myanmar were amazing but also, they were intense. It’s rough traveling here alone, especially on the local buses, which sometimes break down and usually end up leaving me (and the other passengers) a few miles from town in the middle of the night. Even more stressful is making a bus transfer, as there are no written schedules and very few people at the bus stations speak English. For this reason, I once end up stuck overnight in the wrong city.

And so, I decide it’s time to relax. I’m ending my travels through Myanmar by spending a week at the beach. It is serene here, gorgeous, lonely.

coastline of Ngwe Saung

When I first arrive, I ask if I can get a discount since I’ll be staying over a week.

“Sorry,” responds the staff girl with a smile. “Not possible. This is high season.”

I look up and down the beach. It’s mid-day. Within my range of vision, I see a total of five people.

“Um, yeah,” I say. “I’ll have to try and come back when it’s less crowded.”

My bungalow is on the far right, just behind the first row of palms.

My bungalow manages to be both beachfront and in the shade of palm trees. At $15 a night, this is the most I’ve spent in Southeast Asia – out of my 5 months of recent traveling – on accommodation. But it’s also on the low-end of hotel resorts in Myanmar. If I stay at the Bay of Bengal Resort, for example, I could be paying around $200 a night. It rather confuses me as to why some people spend so much on their hotel rooms. I guess that roaches the size of Volkswagens – (Do you suppose that’s how the Volkswagen Beetle got its nickname?) – are less likely to make an appearance in bathrooms at a fancier hotel. Not having to deal with them – which I do by closing the bathroom door and coming back later, after they’ve had time to squeeze themselves back down the drainpipes –  would definitely be worth a few extra bucks. But that much? The fancier hotels also often boast of having a seaside pool as a great amenity, but it seems more than a little hipster ironic to sit in a chlorine-laden swimming pool and stare at a gorgeous, gentle ocean that’s only a few steps away.

After just one week of Giardia, you, too, can be ready for swimsuit season!

I meet some Norwegian men also staying at Ngwe Saung, but instead of staying in a bamboo and wooden bungalow like me, they stay in a fancier, pricier place. They hate it.

“I’ve been to a million beaches like this,” says Peter, with a dismissive flick of his wrist toward the stately palm trees and turquoise ocean I’d already fallen in love with. “There’s nothing to do here.”

It suddenly strikes me that paradise has a lot to do with one’s perspective.

"Yeah, it's nice and all, but where are the go-go dancers?"

There are no fire dancers on Ngwe Saung’s beach, no full moon parties. There’s no loud music thrumming in the air. Peter’s right. There’s nothing to do here, really – just swim in the lukewarm water, dream beneath thatched-palm beach umbrellas, watch the colours of the ocean change throughout the day.

So that’s what I do.

mermaid looks out from Lovers' Island

At one point, as I walk along the ocean’s edge, I see dozens of jellyfish, the size of my hand, scattered along the shore. They are as translucent and seemingly as delicate as glass. At another point, I find maybe seven sand dollars, half-buried in the sand and sun-bleached white, having lain there for who knows how many days or hours. They are brittle, and though I collect them very carefully, most of them break before I return to my bungalow. Still, having found them makes me feel lucky, like the way, as a kid, I used to feel a surge of happiness at finding a quarter on the street, even though there was not all that much, even back then, that a quarter could buy. It was more the feeling of luck to find something overlooked by all other passersby. The smallest of treasures.

another day has gone

The sun does not set here, but disappears. Through the course of the day, it arcs across the sky and by evening leans over the Bay of Bengal. About 15 minutes before nightfall, the sun blushes brilliantly and lowers itself by the sea – but then, at a certain point in the horizon, still well above the water, the sun simply vanishes. The day has gone. It is time to shutter the bungalow windows – there are no screens – and tuck the canopied mosquito netting around the bed. It is time to be lulled asleep, once again, to the sound of waves against the shore.

Ngwe Saung wishes you were here! Just not too many of you . . .

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Fierce Adventure

I hate bedbugs.

I hate leeches, roaches, and rats. I hate sunburn. I hate touts. I hate arriving alone in a strange city past midnight. I hate traveler’s diarrhea. I especially hate it on a bumpy 12-hour ride on a bus with no toilet. I hate scams, even when I’m (occasionally) smart enough to outwit them. 

These are all things I’ve experienced within the past six months of my around-the-world trip. Yet the truth is that I am happier than I’ve ever been, and I cannot imagine a more amazing life than the one I am living right now. Everything I’ve worked, planned, saved for, and dreamed of the past several years? It’s even better than I hoped it would be.

Bring it on, Year of the Dragon!

In the past six months – since I last posted in this long-neglected blog – I’ve visited seven different countries: Japan, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and my current location, Myanmar. It’s been sensory overload – bright pink petals fallen on a dusty footpath of the sleepy  4,000 islands, the ever-changing labyrinths of Hanoi’s traffic, Burmese women with whorls of yellow face paint streaked across their cheeks and foreheads, an isolated Hmong village funeral where all the men get drunk and spin in circles while blowing banshee-like tunes on old hornpipes, impossibly beautiful sunsets of rose and gold on Railay’s sandy beaches, a boyfriend acquired as my sole souvenir in the clouded mountains of Cameron Highlands. It’s been difficult for me to write about my travels, as I can never identify an ending to this story. There has been no time for reflection, just a continual dizzying forward momentum.

But in Myanmar, a country I chose to visit simply because I know so little about it, time is slow. You can almost see it pass as falling grains of sand in an hourglass. I am traveling alone, and the need to document my travels flares up again, not coincidentally along with the pain that flares in my sprained knee. I am forced to sit still and reflect. 

In a rare cafĂ© that offers Internet, I share a table with three other women – a girl from Hong Kong and two Spanish sisters.  As solo female travelers, these are my sisters on the road. 

Don't mess.

We are strong. (“I’m not paying an extra $5 to the bus driver to be taken to our actual destination. I’ll walk 11 km before giving money to the scammer,” I proclaim, at a different city in Myanmar, jumping off the bus and leading several other travelers to a pickup truck where we ride the last 11 km into town for only $1.) 

We are brave. (“The black market money changers in Yangon cheated us,” Mettea tells me. “They swapped all our money around very quickly, and after we walked away and counted it again, we realized they stole $100 from us. I was so mad that I marched back into the booth and snatched back my $100. Then I grabbed another $100 bill because I felt if they could steal that money from me, then I had the right to steal the same amount from them.” Medea pauses a moment. “Do you think that was wrong?”) 

We all have mothers who worry about us. (“Hi Mom! Thailand’s great!” Natalia messages her mother, believing it better not to worry her with minor details, such as the actual, somewhat unstable country she chose to visit.)

The girls and I first met at the bus station in Bagan, where, contrary to the promises of the different travel agents who sold us the bus tickets there, we did NOT arrive at “7 or 8 am” but at a chilling, pitch-black 4 am. Rickshaw drivers circle foreigners at the bus stop like predators circling their prey, but we instinctively gather together and set out on our own.

“We like walking. We want to take exercise,” explains one of the girls to one aggressive rickshaw driver who follows us.

“It’s a lovely night for a walk,” I add. When I speak, my breath leaves my mouth as little puffs of chilled air. We all stamp our feet from the cold.

The driver laughs at us, not unkindly, and leaves us in peace.

The dark sky is salted with stars. There are no street lamps, but the moon’s dim light guides us. We walk past one, two ancient, bell-shaped temples. A small boy curls his body in sleep as he lies on white-washed stairs leading to one of them.

"sunrises in Bagan are unforgettable"
(Lonely Planet's Guide to Southeast Asia)

Our group of foreigners-met-by-chance walks on to several hotels. Their gates are locked and no one answers when we tiredly rattle the iron bars. We notice a cement ledge outside one of the hotels. A guy from Argentina pulls out his sleeping bag and we huddle beneath it, waiting for morning. As the early rays of dawn lightly redden the sky, a line of young monks clad in maroon robes silently marches by.

Idoia, whose native language is Spanish, tends to produce charming phrases when speaking English. The moment is, as she describes it, “fierce adventure.”