The Nearly Perfect 10 Day Trip to Myanmar – Leg 2: Bagan

**Sadly, due to recent events, I’m adding this note and suspending the series before completing Part III. In October and November 2016, an increase in violence in the northern regions has led to a number of village burnings and significant loss of life. As a result, I encourage anyone considering a visit to research events and the current status before making any decisions. For the time being, it looks like many of the recent gains made are being eroded.** 
Welcome to Part II of my three part series exploring Myanmar. When we decided to visit Myanmar, we wanted to explore a country we knew very little about. You can read up on all of the misconceptions we had before going in this post. Just joining? Jump back to Part I here.

Life in Old Bagan - Myanmar

Myanmar (formerly Burma), is a wonderful country that recently started to open up again to travel. To recap my previous post, it’s; 1) safe 2) easy to get around 3 ) easy to access 4) still very affordable and, 5) already has a comfortable tourist infrastructure. For some familiar with the earthquake in August 2016, the majority of the damage was to repairs that had been made during a controversial series of repairs 10-20 years ago. In essence, it wiped the slate clean. Everything I’ve seen and read says that most of the temples and pagodas impacted are being repaired rapidly and will re-open soon, if they have not already done so.

Bagan - Myanmar

It’s also worth noting that the famous balloons over Bagan only fly seasonally. So, if you go in July like we did, you will not see them. They’re also extremely expensive. Lastly, we didn’t fly, but apparently most of the material about the internal airlines being extremely unsafe is 2+ years out of date with the Government overhauling things and replacing aged aircraft with new ones.

Navigating Bagan - Myanmar

The Mysteries of Angkor and Angkor Wat

When I first learned of Angkor, it was through photos and stories of Angkor Wat. At the time I had no idea that Angkor Wat was only one small piece of a sprawling civilization and series of cities, temples, and developments that spanned the entire region.  Angkor, the capital of the empire, includes a long list of sites including Angkor Banteay, Baray, Esvara, Gopura, Jaya, Phnom, Prasat, Preah, Srei, Ta, Thom, Varman, and Wat.  In recent weeks announcements have come out that a number of other major temples, some of which are quite large, have been discovered in the surrounding region.  As more exploration is done, it seems complex after complex from the mysterious Khmer Empire re-emerge from the the anonymity of the sands (and jungles) of time.

Angkor Wat - Wonder of the World

Though we don’t talk about it much in western histories, the Khmer Empire ruled the region for hundreds of years. Some historians suggest that the Angkor area was one of, if not the, largest pre-industrial urban area during that period. Interesting, timing and placing when an empire existed within our mental narrative is also something that is always incredibly difficult. I often think of the Mayan and Inca temples having been built around the same time as the pyramids (they were built 2,000 years apart).  For me, Angkor was always the same. I picture it as early – perhaps even parallel to the Greeks or Romans.  Yet, as it turns out, it’s actually closer to the Franks and Vikings and falls squarely within the Medieval Period.

Takeo Angkor Temple

Another of the big surprises for me was just how accessible Angkor is. The modern city of Siam Reap is situated on the border of the National Park and in some places the two nearly overlap. Which makes the commute from hotel to Angkor convenient and incredibly easy.

Southeast Asia – What I Expected vs. What I Experienced

I felt the grinding sound of the landing gear lowering below my feet. That hydraulic rumble that reminds me you’re most of the way through your descent and about to return to terra firma. The palms of my hands were starting to sweat and I felt a rock in my stomach.  Despite previous trips, my last foray into a wildly different culture had been a couple years previous and done with family. This time, I was alone and couldn’t help by second guess my decision.

Exploring Koh Lanta

As the ground raced up to greet me, I looked out over Ho Chi Minh’s skyline.  It was strange…dry….brown…it almost looked familiar.  In fact, it reminded me of landing in Mexico. The buildings, their angularity, their coloration and the semi-organized chaos.

The Four Island Tour

Then with a bump, we made contact. The fear and second guessing subsided, replaced by excitement and acceptance. No matter if I’d made a good choice or not, what would follow would be roughly 19 days of exploration, wandering, and discover.

Lost in Bangkok - Thailand

Though elements of Ho Chi Minh continued to remind me of parts of Mexico – in no small part due to the mixture of humidity, heat, and oft-present sun – Vietnam quickly differentiated itself.  In this post I’ll share a few random observations that stuck out for me as I made my way through the trip, tasting Vietnam, skipping through Cambodia, and swimming just off the beaches of Southern Thailand.

Cambodia in 20 Instagram Photos

I’m currently hard at work sorting through the 4,000+ images I snapped during my visit to Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. However, while the final “National Geographic Standard” shots are starting to go up on flickr (view them here) I’ve been posting Instagram edits taken during the trip. For those that follow my photography, for Instagram I post unique images, a blend of dSLR and iPhone 6 captured shots and/or HDR edits of the photos you’d see on flickr in a more true-to-life format. So, without further delay, here are 15 of my favorite Instagram shots from Cambodia.

 

An old Cambodian gentleman resting in front of Aangkor Wat.

A photo posted by Alex Berger (@virtualwayfarer) on

The Human Safari

As children, we often assume different roles while re-enacting grand fantasies. All hail to Cesar, riding atop a palanquin, or to the Astronaut floating above the world looking down at it.  The doctor saving lives, or the war photographer documenting the rawness of the human condition and the horrors of society as it fails. Then, we grow up.  We settle into our role within our socio-cultural strata and send subtle ripples across the fabric of the society that surrounds us.

As tourists, we recapture some of that wonder.  We gain the opportunity to stand in the midst of the Coliseum, to stride casually down the halls of grand empires and to snap photos of exotic peoples, destinations, and in some instances candid moments.  These rich experiences add to the substance of who we are and let us get back in touch with the beautiful sense of exploration which defined our youth. They are, for many, what make travel wondrous, expansive and oh-so addictive.

But, what happens when that sense of exploration leads us to moments and experiences which carry with them a taint of exploitation or dehumanization?  What happens when we suddenly become a modern incarnation of the aloof Roman dictator, well fed, wealthy, and separated by an invisible but nearly impenetrable wall from the people we’re visiting?  It’s something that happens easily, innocently and far more often than we’d like to admit.

The Stirrings of Realization

For me, two instances stand out. The first tickled my awareness with a mild sense of intangible discomfort. The second brought clarity slamming into place combined, strangely, with a sense of helplessness.

Faces of Zambia

The first was during my time in Zambia.  We’d elected to do a Safari with a fantastic company in the South Luangwa region. They invest heavily in protecting the animals, a light footprint on the land, and in the local community.  Yet, as we sat in the back of a large safari Landcruiser rolling along the pockmarked blacktop I looked out at the hundreds of locals that could readily be seen along the side of the road working their yards, walking the road, or going about their business.

Faces of Zambia

Often they’d look up at the four of us, often smiling, and in the case of the children, waving…then bursting into laughter when we’d smile and wave back.  We stuck out like sore thumbs, and not just because of the color of our skin. It was nearly everything about us – from our clothing, to our glasses, camera, and the way we were traveling. Just as often as I waved back, I’d sit, camera raised to my eye, set in sports mode snapping away while watching the landscape race by through my extended zoom lens.  Each shot allowed me to capture a candid photo of daily life. And, if I’m to be honest, each shot was much more comfortable than had I been on the ground, walking from house to house, snapping photos.  Just as fast as I snapped the photo or they looked up, the Landscruiser had spirited me away, erasing any possibility of a confrontation or interaction.

Faces of Zambia

It was only as I sat in that same vehicle the following days, snapping photos in the same fashion of wildlife that I started to register the stark and uncomfortable similarities between the two situations. Somehow, without intending it, I had gone from great explorer on a grand exploration to Dictator atop my palanquin utterly separated and detached from the local people who I was there to meet. True, I was there, but in this instance it would be far more accurate to say I was in actuality just seeing them, not truly meeting them.

The Stupid Myths We Believe as Western Travelers Time and Time Again

I’m narrowing in on accomplishing a major life goal on my bucket list. Before I turn 31 my aim is to have visited 50 countries…and yet, fresh back from my 45th, 46th, and 47th, I’ve just had a profoundly eye-opening and humbling experience. I had, once again, ignored the lesson I’ve learned time and time again, and bought into/believed the enormous pile of bullshit I’ve been fed by the western travel narrative about non-western destinations.

Worse than that, I realized quite vividly that I’d been gobbling down, consuming, and allowing myself to be poisoned by said bullshit for years. I always get annoyed when people tell me they can’t travel because it’s unsafe (my chances of getting robbed, stabbed, shot, or killed are far worse in Arizona than when wandering Europe) or when I read announcements like the US’s recent worldwide terror alert which only served to scare people while delivering virtually none of the context needed or adding any real value. But, the real truth highlighted for me time and time again is that I buy into my own version of this nonsense. The part that really pisses me off about the whole thing is that it keeps me from embracing amazing experiences, makes me stand-offish, much more conservative in my approach when I start, and adds bucket-loads of anxiety.

AsiaBlogPost-2916

I’ve talked about misconceptions a few times in the past, such as how wrong my preconceptions about Turkey were, or my African travel fears series looking at how Africa wasn’t nearly the life-threatening-bodily traumatizing disaster adventure I had anticipated. But unfortunately, I still hadn’t learned my lesson.  I’m going to do my best after my latest trip to really finally internalize this lesson and hope you’ll all join me in identifying, acknowledging, and then utterly dismissing the stories and nonsense that we’re spoon fed. It’s also worth noting that I think travel bloggers, myself included, bear some of the responsibility for perpetuating these myths.

As some long-term readers will know, up until two weeks ago, I had never been to Eastern Asia. While this is a very common and popular region for many travelers, especially budget travelers, it has for a long time been my “dark region” in that I had never been. Why? There are a number of factors which range from simple fear, lack of interest, cost, and then desire to protect and cherish the novelty. What do I mean?

  • Fear: Simply put, the Asia I had built in my mind was a very alien place where getting around using English would be difficult, where everything would be deeply exotic, and where even the most basic of daily activities would be challenging. Add to that a fear of a large amount of human and animal suffering. It was a part of the world I always had very mixed feelings about.
  • Lack of Interest: When I was younger I had a very strong interest in Greco-Roman and Medieval history. I find for many young people, tend to be drawn in strongly by Asia or Europe, while others sort out to Latin America, or Africa to a lesser extent. There were elements of ancient history in these other regions that offered passing interest, but beyond that I felt minimal draw. I felt their history was somewhat uninteresting, was not enamored from a cultural dating perspective, and had only minimal interest in cultural creations like anime and food.  As I’ve traveled more, learned more history, been exposed to more culture, and pivoted more to an interest in food, much of this has changed and Asia has increasingly grown in appeal and draw.
  • Cost: This is an odd one, as SEA (Southeast Asia) has always been extremely popular because of its relatively low cost areas. It’s why regions such as Vietnam and Thailand are thick with travel bloggers and has been a major tourist draw for decades. But, the flights from the US were usually fairly significant and even once I got to Denmark, prices and availability when I looked at SEA as a destination never seemed to work out. In 2010 I almost booked a trip to Thailand but, at the last minute, opted for South America (Argentina) instead based on pricing. Had the other factors mentioned in this section not also been weighing on me, perhaps I would have prioritized it.  Never the less I didn’t and the rest is history.
  • Novelty: This is a tricky one to convey. I’ve written in the past about how important it is to travel and experience things NOW in THIS MOMENT because the destination will change and evolve just as you do. You will never see or experience a place the same way as you would have if you went now and the more we travel and are exposed to, the more our relationship with novelty and novel cultures evolves. Globally, if we stereotype regional cultures down to geo-cultural macro-groups there are regions that share some (albeit very limited) cultural characteristics. As my travels took me to different continents and exposed me to different cultures, I felt a shred of sadness as the fear, novelty, excitement and sense of pure discovery that came from exploring an entirely new culture faded away. As I got a taste of Europe, Central America, South America, the Middle East, and Africa, I felt as though the last great region to explore and discover became Asia and perhaps as a separate entity Eastern Eurasia and India. While I still have an enormous amount of exploration, discovery and novel cultural exploration to do in all of these areas, I found myself keeping Asia to the side as one of my quasi-last opportunities for that utter sense of the unknown.

But, this winter I decided it was time to explore. I opted for a teaser trip to SEA which started purely by coincidence in Ho Chi Mihn Vietnam. Somehow I would then touch base in Cambodia’s Siem Reap region to see Angkor Wat, and then terminate from Bangkok with a few days in either the north or south to explore. This was far too much ground to cover properly in 19 days, but the goal was to test the waters, explore a bit, see how I coped, and if I liked it/where I wanted to go back.

AsiaBlogPost-0310

The Myths

I mentioned that for years I’d been very resistant to a visit to SEA because of different fear-based factors. Eventhough I ultimately found these to be greatly exaggerated, that is not to say that if you go into rural areas, have bad luck, or are in the heart of a heavy tourist area some of these won’t hold some truth, but they are far from the prevalent, unavoidable, and highly experientially potent experiences we’ve been led to believe.

Life Abroad a Dhow in Dubai – Weekly Travel Photo

Much of what we see about Dubai focuses on the flash, the glamour, and the city’s opulence. Yet, that is only possible because of the tens of thousands of working class folks who brave Dubai’s scorching heat and brutal humidity on a daily basis, all in the hope of scraping together just enough money to survive on.  These folks are often hidden from sight as locals and tourists alike frequent the city’s grand malls, wide boulevards, and awe-inspiring structures. Despite being nearly invisible these hidden people are the foundations upon which the city survives and thrives.

Old Turkish Couple and Scarpa Mojitos – Weekly Travel Photo

Reflection - A Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

Of the multitude of moments that I experience while traveling there is one type in particular that always warms my heart.  These are the moments where old couples that have obviously shared and made a life together are spotted relaxing or interacting.  Often set to the backdrop of ancient city streets and gorgeous historic landmarks.  In these moments the detail and complex stories worn into the faces of the lovers mirror the rich depth and history of the backdrop that surrounds them.  These moments add such incredible warmth and light to otherwise dead and lonely views that I often find myself smiling and hoping that some day, forty or fifty years from now, I’ll enjoy the same type of close relationship and rich history. Who knows, perhaps if I’m lucky I’ll even capture the imagination and lens of a young traveler as he or she explores an alien land and vibrant culture for the first time.

This particular moment was captured in Istanbul in the courtyard for one of the city’s many large mosques. I’d been sitting and relaxing after a tour of the mosque’s gorgeous grounds and decided to rest my feet. With my feet sprawled out in front of me, I sat in a corner as a mixture of tourists and locals entered the courtyard and made their way inside.  The couple in this week’s photo had just exited the mosque and decided to relax in the shade of a nearby corner.  As they slowly and careful settled down onto the stone steps they looked after each other, and moved with the flow and synchronicity that comes with sharing a lifetime together.  Reflecting on that moment still brings a large grin to my face.

Scarpa Mojito Shoes

Scarpa Mojito Shoes – Product Review

The folks at Blacks Online recently reached out to me and asked if I was interested in reviewing a pair of shoes.  As you may recall, I have my long-running boot gallery which has, up until recently, been populated predominantly by shots of me in my Keen Targhee IIs. I told them I was looking for a replacement that was waterproof, durable, good for hiking on dirt paths, but also wearable and attractive enough for use in the city.  As a backpacker I typically want a pair of shoes that won’t get wet if it rains, that are incredibly versatile (rain, snow, mud, you name it), and which let me tromp through Scottish peat bogs during the day, and then get into a relaxed night club that evening for cocktails.  The Keens have been good for walking around the city and tramping through wet marshes, but are unfortunately quite ugly.  Not crock ugly, mind you, but they definitely leave something to be desired for a casual walk around town that doesn’t scream “tourist”. A similar challenge that seems persistent across the board when talking about hiking/city crossover shoes.  I don’t understand what it is about shoe companies that makes them think garish colors and hideous shoes should be the only option on the market. The Keens are also absolutely worthless on ice and wet rocks where the tread/rubber combination has left me awkwardly ice skating on multiple occasions.

My contact at Blacks came up with a pair of Scarpa Mojitos as a suggestion.  I liked the look, and was particularly drawn to the fact that they have both Gore-Tex uppers and Vibram soles.  I’ve had the Mojitos a couple weeks now and am so far very impressed.  They’re a great shoe for walking around the city, quite comfortable, and seem to be extremely durable.  I’ve spent several 6 hour days walking the city in them, in both sunny weather and rain and been quite happy with how my feet felt afterwards. Especially given that my feet are still adjusting to the shoes.

There are two quirky aspects of the Scarpas…one which I think is advantageous, the other less so.  For those familiar with climbing shoes, you’ll notice that the Mojitos have a similar appearance.  This comes from the laces which travel all the way to the toe of the shoe where they meet the rubberized toe guard. Scarpa describes the Mojitos as approach shoes and definitely borrows from their reputation and experience in the climbing shoe sector. The added laces seem to provide a better fit for my feet and one of the things I loved about my Keens was the rock-guard that protected my toes and the shoes in cases where I dragged my feet, or accidentally hooked a protruding rock. While not as robust, the Mojitos retain this feature, and the rubberized nature of the covering also helps keep the shoes dry when walking through wet grass, rain puddles or snow.   This is also where the second quirky aspect and my one complaint comes in. Because the shoe laces stretch all the way down to the toe, it means that the gap between the shoe tongue and sides of the shoe is longer and closer to the ground than in other standard hiking shoes.  While experimenting with the shoes in an outdoor fountain (trial by fire), I noticed that the proximity between the toe and the start of the laces made it much easier for water to sneak into the shoe. This wasn’t an issue with the suede Gore-Tex tops which worked perfectly, but rather with how close the seam is to the toe. For general/casual use this wouldn’t be an issue, but as someone who periodically likes to walk across shallow streams and creeks, it means I’ll definitely have to be slightly more careful and keep the water depth about an inch shallower than I have in the past.

I’ve been very happy with the build quality of the Scarpa Mojitos.  The shoes appear to have an excellent tread, and I’m always impressed by the quality of Vibrams soles. The suede uppers which make up the majority of the shoe have high quality stitching and are both durable and attractive.  The shoes MSRP for 125 GBP on the Blacks website which is comparable to most hiking shoes in their category. If you’re looking for a good crossover shoe, they’re definitely worth considering.  The shoes have lived up to my expectations so far, and I’ll be taking them as my primary traveling shoe for my upcoming trip to Belgium.

You can find out more about the product on the Blacks website and a direct link to the Mojitos here.

Would you like to see previous Friday Photos? View past travel pictures here.

**The pair of Scarpa Mojitos reviewed in this post were provided as a complimentary sample by Blacks Online for consideration.  My review of the shoes and their performance is independent and in no way influenced by Blacks or Scarpa.