Giving Back to Southeast Asia

I was very fortunate to be able to take time off and travel for 202 days in Southeast Asia in 2015-2016 — mostly in countries where the dollar stretches pretty far because of the disparity in wealth between the country where I happened to be born and the places I was visiting. I decided to give back, in a small way, by pledging a certain amount of money to charity for each day I spent in each country.

Thailand: 72 days

Because I spent the most days in Thailand, I split my donation between two charities.

My closest Thai friend was, like many Thais, reverent toward the royal family. I have my own outsider opinions about all that, but I respect my friend and her values for her own country. The Association for the Promotion of the Status of Women, under royal patronage, provides emergency shelter, health services, vocational training, and many other services to women in Thailand.

 The SET Foundation gives scholarships to those in need, with the unique principle of supporting students for a full twelve years, from elementary through collegiate studies, rather than just for a semester or two.

Malaysia: 11 days

As you travel Malaysia, it’s hard not to notice the oil palms: acres and acres of them, a giant monoculture dominating the landscape. I didn’t visit Malaysian Borneo on my trip, but I went there recently, and I discovered the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, which helps orangutans who’ve lost their mothers to recover and prepare for reintegration into the wild. Malaysia’s unique wildlife is precious and under threat — the oil palm plantations are pressing in, and the lumber industry wants what trees are left — but places like the Sepilok Centre have the potential to drive up the economic value of conservation and diversify the local economy by bringing tourism. And in the meantime, the preservation and restoration work they do is saving unique animals in a unique environment.

Vietnam: 44 days

I met my friend Christina Bui in Myanmar through a chain of travel connections, and ran into her again in Saigon and Hanoi. She works at Pacific Links Foundation, which helps to protect people in Vietnam from human trafficking — being forced into factory work, domestic work, and the like — and empowers women and communities in Vietnam. Slavery is bad and Christina is good, so this was a pretty easy choice.

Myanmar: 23 days

Yangon is a time capsule. Decades of misrule have had the perverse effect of preserving the older part of the city much as it was under British colonial rule. Yangon Heritage Trust is working to preserve and restore the city’s remarkable architecture before it all gets torn down and turned into KFCs, and I hope they succeed in making Yangon the gem of a city that it deserves to be, like today’s Hoi An or Penang but on a much larger scale. (Nothing specific against KFC, by the way. I threw up in the bathroom of the Yangon KFC and they were very polite about it.)

Cambodia: 8 days

Cambodia is rife with terrible NGOs and scammy voluntourism projects, so I wanted to find an organization with a good rating on Charity Navigator, and Cambodia Children’s Fund has that. They take “a holistic, family-based approach” to childhood education, which is sorely needed in this poor and damaged country. They recognize that there are root problems like hunger and violence that can undermine education, so they try to deal with all of these issues as they help young people get the schooling they need and deserve.

Laos: 23 days

Perhaps the most dangerous thing I did in Southeast Asia was go for a walk in Laos.

Laos has more unexploded ordnance (UXO) per capita than anywhere else on earth, a sorry result of a decade of American bombing during the Vietnam War. On a tour of the Plain of Jars, on a trail that was supposed to be cleared, my guide suddenly jumped back and pointed. “That’s a cluster bomb detonator.” He then told me how his brother died: he’d gone fishing and was cooking up his catch in a rice field when the heat triggered an old pineapple bomb that took his head off.

I split my Laos donations between two organizations that deal with the ongoing disaster my country left behind. COPE gives people their lives back by providing prosthetics and rehabilitation to UXO survivors and others with mobility-related disabilities, while the Mine Awareness Group (MAG) works to demine Laos (and other places) and educate the local people about how to avoid UXO accidents, thereby reducing COPE’s potential clientele. I saw both organizations at work in Laos, and at one point even had to stop driving while MAG blew up some UXO they’d found in a field — a field that, when cleared, could provide food and income to a Laotian family.

Indonesia: 18 days

Yayasan Usaha Mulia (YUM) – Foundation for Noble Work has been around a long time and does holistic community work focused on education and alleviating poverty. Finding a good charity in Indonesia — especially one that wasn’t religiously based — was a bit difficult, but YUM seems to have a decent track record.

Singapore: 3 days

For Singapore, I cheated. Singapore is a wealthy country, so there’s not a tremendous need to give there. Instead, I donated to Singapore-based Choson Exchange, an innovative NGO that supports North Koreans with hands-on entrepreneurship training, helping to create an ownership culture and a better standard of living for North Koreans. I’ve met the founder and some of the team, and they’re passionate but not naive about what they’re up against. I admire what they do and wish them success.

You Can Never Leave

Nong Khiaw, Laos

When Glenn Frey checked out, on January 18, my Facebook news feed was still full of tributes and encomiums to David Bowie, who had died eight days earlier. Frey got hardly a mention. Bowie’s career was long, varied, and complex in a way that Frey’s was not, and Frey was just one member of a group. Still, it was a notable silence, especially if you happen to be traveling anywhere in the world that isn’t England or America.

Wherever I go in the world, I hear Frey’s music. Specifically, I hear “Hotel California.” I’ve heard it sung with Afro-French accents on the banks of the Seine. The Filipino bar band in Yangon played it. Today a Lao trekking guide was noodling around on his guitar at a local restaurant in Nong Khiaw, and inevitably he wandered into “Hotel California.” You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave “Hotel California” for long.

I know we’re all supposed to hate the Eagles, for countercultural reasons long forgotten and because The Dude hates the Eagles, but admit it: you know the words to “Hotel California,” and chances are you’ve hollered along to it at a karaoke night or when it was played by some cover band somewhere in the world. For better or worse, it’s the song that everyone everywhere knows. You can stab it with your steely knives, but you just can’t kill that beast of a song.

Myanmar 5: Hpa An and Kyaiktiyo

Hpa An: Guess what’s in this cave

On the road to Hpa An, something smashed into the side of our bus, damaging the window enough that the crew — there seemed to be five or six people involved in running the bus — determined that we could go no further. We were stuck in a small bus station about 50 kilometers from our goal, and no one spoke enough English to let us know what was happening. We saw the bus crew wander off down an alleyway and then reappear. We saw them make many phone calls. We saw them get into a car, then get out of the car. For a while one of the drivers amused himself by opening and closing the bus door with a remote control.

I had made plans to meet Myoungsun for dinner in Hpa An — she’d gotten there a day ahead of me and was leaving that night. Our bus was supposed to arrive by three, but it was now getting on towards four, and any attempt to find out when we might be going — pointing at my watch and shrugging, for example — just led to smiles and nodding. I’d gotten to talking with an older Dutch woman who’d come outside to smoke, and eventually we decided to share a taxi, if we could find one. Somehow she negotiated our way into the back of a truck, and we rode that way into Hpa An, enjoying an open view of the mountains shrouded in mist. Later on, as I went to meet Myoungsun, I saw our bus pulling into town. The driver waved and grinned.


Hpa An itself is a shoddy little town, but you go there for the sights in the surrounding countryside, and you see those sights by booking a tuktuk tour with Soe Brothers Guesthouse. And if it happens to be cold and rainy on your one day in Hpa An? You go anyway. The sights consist mostly of caves full of Buddhas — the same limestone karst formations that created Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur — and they’re pretty cool, but by the time we’d passed through the largest of them, waited for the driving rain to ease, ridden on rowboats through yet another cave, and hiked back to the tuktuk on muddy, shoe-sucking trails and the rain picked up again, we were all ready for the day to be over. But, of course, there was one more cave. Guess who we found inside?

There comes a point with any sort of sightseeing where you’ve hit your limit. I met a guy once who’d traveled across Africa, south to north, and he told me he got to the point where he was, like, “Oh, good. Another fucking giraffe.” I’ve hit that point with maharajah’s palaces in Rajasthan, with Buddhist temples in Thailand, and in Hpa An we all hit it with Buddhas in caves. In fact, I was nearing my limit with Myanmar as a whole, with the exhausting pace I’d set myself, with the mediocre hotels and mediocre food, with the uncomfortable transport, with the sights that were supposed to blow me away but kind of didn’t. I even kind of wished I didn’t have to go on the next day to the Golden Rock. But I’d already booked a pricey hotel room up on the mountain close to the rock, and I’d made plans to travel with two Japanese women I’d met on my Hpa An tour, and really, what else was I going to do?

Kyaiktiyo: Golden Myanmar

There is no easy way to get to Kyaiktiyo. No matter how you get to the town below — we went by bus, then by truck taxi — you have to ride up to the pagoda, perched on a mountain, in the back of a giant open truck tall enough that you have to climb a platform to get in and out. The ascent is vertiginous, and it involves multiple long stops to listen to Buddhist pleas for money. You get dropped off in the middle of a temple bazaar, where porters hound you for the opportunity to put your luggage in a basket and carry it to your hotel for you.

But the moment I stepped out onto the balcony of my hotel room and took in the vast panorama of mountains and the plain below and the Golden Rock itself in the distance, I was giddy.

As with similar sights — the Taj Mahal, the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower — it seems smaller at first than you’re expecting. But then the wonder emerges. Crowds of devotees light fires of candles and incense, they kneel and pray, they take selfies, they apply bits of gold leaf to the rock. For all that Kyaiktiyo is a tourist destination for foreigners, the overwhelming majority of visitors are Burmese pilgrims. They take selfies too, but they’re there for the spiritual power of the place, which they recharge through their devotion.

At our first approach, the rock was shrouded in mist, but that soon lifted, giving us a clear view in the shifting light of the sunset. I came back again alone to see it at night, all lit up, and then we returned in the morning, before dawn, to see the breakfast offerings and warm our chilled feet by the offering fires and catch pilgrims waking up from a cold night spent on the tiles of the temple grounds, open to the elements.

At last the sun crested the peaks behind, and the rock caught fire, gleaming in the first light. Here at last I felt like I’d found the magical Burma I had heard so much about. Here, even more than in the long-dead temples of Bagan, I felt the presence of something unique. I lingered through the morning with the monument and its surrounding temple site, and then it was time to go.


Myanmar 4: Yangon again

The night bus

I wanted to go back to Yangon to see my Filipino friends on a Saturday night, plus the next places I wanted to see were all to the south. I could have flown, but that would have cost close to $200 when you factored in taxis to and from airports plus the overpriced flight itself. I opted for the $15 “VIP bus” instead.

The way you ride a VIP bus is you get picked up at your hotel and squeezed into the back of an open-air truck, which takes a half an hour to go to a bus station where you stand around for another forty minutes waiting for your bus, while other buses come and go, and everyone surges forward waving a ticket to see if this is the right bus. When my bus did finally come, though, I was pleasantly surprised: I got a wide reclining seat, a blanket, and even a neck pillow.

I was also surprised when we stopped somewhere for dinner and the curry was edible. Burmese curry, as a rule, is oily and upsetting, and there were too many times when I walked past a restaurant and wasn’t sure if what I was smelling was the food or the toilet. I ate well in Shan State, while trekking and around Inle Lake, but the rest of the time, Myanmar’s food ranged from passing to terrible. The worst meal was on the road to Kalaw. The woman at the bus stop restaurant asked, “Chicken rice?” When we asked for a menu, she said, “No menu. Chicken rice?” So yes, chicken rice. What arrived was a plate of plain rice, a foul-smelling broth, and the saddest chicken legs we’d ever seen: the foot cut off but the nub still visible, and a drumstick and thigh that somehow had no meat on them. I peeled off some leathery strips before giving up on what we came to think of as the zombie chicken. Where these old chickens that were killed when they stopped laying eggs? Were they roosters? Whatever they were, they were horrible.

Yangon again: the Filipino bar party

As you travel, you sometimes make chains of friends. In Nyaungshwe, Myoungsun had introduced me to a Korean girl she’d met in her dorm; we met for dinner in Yangon, where she introduced me to a Vietnamese guy she’d met on her bus, who walked into the restaurant, spotted some women he knew — two Asian-Americans and a white girl, all doing NGO work in Southeast Asia — and we all ate together. Then the two Asian-Americans joined me for the Filipino party.

The party, thrown by my Filipino friend for a colleague’s birthday, was at Ice Bar in the posh Sedona Hotel, which is described on its website as:

Bespoke for the music and party enthusiasts. Features live band performances amidst white large-blocked walls, mysterious ice sculptures, transparent modern furniture and dim blue lighting for a cool igloo-like effect.

This may be overstating the case. But there were walls, and blocks, and furniture, and it was dim.And the igloo effect was amplified by the  TV over the bar, which was tuned to CNN’s wall-to-wall coverage of the blizzard then engulfing the Eastern United States. By the time we arrived, there were several tables of drunk Filipinos, and a bar band was doing passable covers of classic rock songs. Now and then they’d break, and four girls in pleather would come out and do semi-coordinated dances to Top 40 and Kpop medleys.

The next day, I tried riding around on the circle line train, but I gave up after two stops. I was exhausted after a night on a bus and another night out at a bar party. What I really wanted to do was hide in my hotel room and eat KFC for dinner, and that’s pretty much what I did. I went out to watch the sunset from the Yangon River ferry, and then I had me some fried chicken and a sundae before getting up early to head to my last two destinations: Hpa An and Kyaiktiyo, the Golden Rock.

Myanmar 3: Kalaw to Inle Lake

Kalaw: Cheap everything


From Mandalay, Myoungsun and I made our way to Kalaw, a scruffy but likable mountain town that serves as a base for treks to Inle Lake. It was cold enough that by evening, wearing my sweatshirt and my new Burmese sweater and hat, I still felt the need to go to the marketplace and buy a heavy coat with a hood.

Everything in Kalaw was cheap. I got a haircut for less than a dollar, a bowl of delicious Shan noodle soup for less than 50 cents. Even trekking gear was cheap: a midsize knapsack for $10, a headlamp with batteries included for a buck. We went to a video game shop boasting a PlayStation 2, and we played the soccer game Winning Eleven because it was the only game they had, but hey, it was about 25 cents an hour.

Our trek, which we arranged at Uncle Sam’s — the place for treks, judging by the crowds there coordinating various groups and plans — was also cheap, at just $35 a head for three days, two nights, a guide, a chef, two homestays, seven meals, and the boat across Inle Lake to the town of Nyaungshwe. Myoungsun and I were joined by Leo, a young German jazz drummer; Sophie and Edouard, a finance guy and an animator from Belgium; and Jorg, a retired teacher from Switzerland who was avoiding his Filipina wife’s visit home to her mother. That Jorg was trekking at all was remarkable: some years earlier, he’d developed a fistula in his brain that led to extensive paralysis. He’d had to relearn how to walk, and now he was trekking in the Burmese mountains, keeping up with a group of people in their twenties and thirties (and, yes, one in his forties).

On our last night before the trek, we stopped in at Hi Snack & Drink, the best (only?) bar in Kalaw. It’s a warm, dark, inviting little hole in the wall, free of the usual Burmese fluorescent lighting, with groups of locals grabbing the available acoustic guitars and belting out local pop songs. Soon it drew a crowd of backpackers as well. I got to talking with the owner about the political changes in Myanmar, which he said would have been impossible just a few years before: there was a military security guy who used to come and sit in the bar to watch everyone.

I asked the barkeep the same question I’d been asking everyone, which is why the military government decided to relinquish absolute control, and he gave the best answer I heard. He explained that the generals, as they looted the country, tucked their money away in American and European bank accounts. Then came targeted sanctions, and they lost access to their money. The political opening has been designed so that the military maintains economic and some political control. There will be no trials for past wrongdoing, and there’s no state seizure of assets controlled by the generals: the banks, the mining companies, real estate holdings, etc. But the sanctions will be lifted, the bank accounts unfrozen, and Burmese generals will once again be able to send their children to the UK for school and their wives to Paris for shopping.

From Kalaw to Inle Lake: Village life

Photos: Trekking from Kalaw to Inle LakeInle Lake

Trekking has been good for the villages around Inle Lake. It brings in money and contact with the outside world, and we felt welcomed. There are lots of new brick houses, which are what people prefer over wood or bamboo-mat-sided houses, and almost all the thatched roofs have been replaced with corrugated metal. The villages were mostly off the electrical grid, but many people had solar panels that they used to charge LED lightbulbs — tricky in the monsoon, we were told, when the sun won’t shine for days — and a few had car batteries for the same purpose. In some ways, these villages were in better shape than some of the villages I saw in Northern Thailand. They also still had their populations of young adults, who haven’t gone to the cities to look for jobs because there are no jobs in the cities.

One shouldn’t glamorize the poverty and stresses of rural village life. On our first night, after dinner, we were taken to meet a family that was staying in a small house for a visit. There was a fire going in the middle of the room, with no stove, and a young child coughed quietly from her bedroll. The matriarch shocked us all when we asked her age and she said she was fifty-four (Khinkhin, our guide, translated); she looked older. Working in the rice and ginger and pepper fields every day is hard. Carrying water from the village tap is hard.

I was also reminded how little privacy there is in villages. Showers happen out in the open. Houses have one or two rooms, and everyone eats and sleeps together. Toilets are outside and shared. If you have a fight with your wife, or if you run to the bathroom too many times in the night, or if you sneak out to meet your boyfriend, everyone knows. Mirrors are not common. You look at yourself less and everyone else more. The whole concept of the self as I know it — as an American who had my own bedroom from the day I was born — is foreign to village life.

The cultural lines were striking when we arranged the beds on the first night. Khinkhin and Nanda, the chef, lined up some mats and blankets for us so that we’d be sleeping next to each other all in a row, two people to each mat. It would keep us close and add warmth, which made sense. The Westerners looked at this arrangement, thought better of it, found an extra mat, and spread things out so we’d each have our own personal space (except for the Belgian couple). As for Myoungsun, she’d confessed back in Mandalay that she actually preferred hostel dorm rooms to private hotel rooms. She’d grown up sleeping in the same room as the rest of her family, and she likes a certain amount of ambient noise. When we arranged our beds for the second night — no extra mats this time — she was happy to flop down somewhere in the middle, while the German and the American took the ends.

And it was cold at night. I woke up in the middle of the first night after dreaming that I was wandering Times Square on New Year’s Eve, looking for a place to warm up. I put on my coat and got back under the covers. Later, near dawn, I went out to the bathroom and was amazed by all the stars I could see. The moon had set, and the nearest electric lights were beyond the ridgeline.

The trek was mostly through villages and farmland rather than through wilderness and forest. It was the season for ripening pepper, and I was struck by just how much global effort goes into growing and picking and drying and grinding and packaging and shipping was is essentially just a flavor additive without much caloric value. People were also hard at work watering and washing their buffaloes, which are used for labor, and also as “buffalo banks,” places to store value for when you need it later. Once again, it was Myoungsun who had the bridging experience between the Burmese and the Western: she was the only one among us who’d ever done a day of labor on a pepper farm, as part of a youth volunteer program in Korea.

At last we came to Inle Lake and took the boat across to Nyaungshwe, where we said goodbye to our guides and went our separate ways, though we reconvened for dinner. The next day, Myoungsun and I joined the Belgians for a boat tour of the lake, which was both touristy and interesting. The lake is dotted with villages on stilts, and life is lived on the water. We visited a boat factory, a weaving shop, a silversmith, and a shop where women from the famous long-necked Karen tribe served as a kind of human zoo, which felt creepy. We also visited temples, because you always visit temples.

Next up: a night bus back to Yangon.

Myanmar 2: Bagan and Mandalay

Bagan: Koreans in the sand

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I’d decided to fly to Bagan rather than attempt a 12-hour bus journey while sick, but even flying was hard in the state I was in. Hell, packing was hard. All I wanted to do was sleep. In Bagan, I finally had the good sense to ask for a doctor. He arrived, wearing a longyi, checked me out, and gave me antibiotics. Thank goodness for Cipro.

By morning I was well enough to head out into Bagan’s wondrous landscape of desert sands and old temples. There are thousands of temples and pagodas scattered across the area, some of them enormous and well populated with tourists, others abandoned and alone in the fields. I got around on a rented ebike, which is a scooter that runs on battery power.

As I cruised around, I noticed a surprising number of Koreans, and I fell into conversation with some ajummas on a group tour at one of the temples. Toward sunset, after abandoning a crowded temple just before the sun went down, I was scooting along on a sandy trail when I ran across three young Koreans who were struggling with a single ebike and looking for the famous sunset spot. We got to talking in Korean, and I gave one of them a lift back out of the Central Plain, and we all had dinner together. For the next couple of weeks, I would travel with Myoungsun, a journalist, and intermittently with Hyesun and Kihoon, two students who had come to Myanmar together.

Bagan really has a magic about it. You can go off by yourself and climb around a 900-year-old temple and climb up to see dozens more from the rooftop. There’s no one monument that stands out, but all of them together create a strange environment. At times, I would look out at the miles and miles of temples and think, what a colossal waste of government money. I suppose poor governance is nothing new in Burma.

Mandalay: A wall and a tour


Mandalay is a dump. It’s a big, endless grid of wide streets, many of them crumbling to dust. I found no districts with distinctive character, except for a very small area that is Mandalay’s poshest mall — not that posh — plus some new apartments. There’s not a lot to see or do in Mandalay. The character of the city is summed up in its central monument, which is a very, very long wall that just repeats and repeats, enclosing a military base and a poor-quality reconstruction of the old royal palace.

What you do in Mandalay is leave Mandalay and go outside of it. Hyesun arranged a taxi tour for us, and we spent a day zipping from place to place: a giant heap of bricks that was supposed to be the world’s largest pagoda but never got finished; a hill with a bunch of temples; a town you see by horse cart. It was all mediocre. After Bagan, it was going to take more than a pile of bricks to impress. For sunset we went to U Bein Bridge, which is famous for being long, wooden, poorly built, and lacking in handrails (it looks rustic in photos). It was packed with tourists, of course, but it was pleasant enough to descend from the bridge and watch the sunset from a small island river, where there are bars set up for the tourists.

In some ways, though, the most interesting day in Mandalay was the one where we didn’t do anything much, other than go to the city palace and decide it was boring. Hyesun and Kihoon had gone ahead to Kalaw, while Myoungsun and I lingered for another day. We went to an optician to replace Myoungsun’s lost glasses, and we got to see the way that they used a case full of different lenses and a pair of test glasses to work out the prescription strength; we went to a mall, where I bought a sweater and a knit cap at the grocery store in preparation for the cold of Kalaw and trekking. It was a brief experience of Myanmar as a place to live in rather than tour across. It wasn’t appealing exactly — I have zero desire to live in Myanmar — but it was illuminating in its way.

Next up: Kalaw and the trek to Inle Lake.

Travel and Vacation

There’s travel, and then there’s vacation.

After a long stint of travel in Myanmar — buses, trucks, taxis, boats, trekking, and hotels with odd flaws like bathroom odors, water that pulses hot and cold, wheezing pumps near the room, etc. — I’ve been on a bit of a luxury vacation in Thailand, first at Cape Dara in Pattaya, and now for a few days in Bangkok at the trendy and spot-on Aloft Hotel. On Monday I didn’t even leave my hotel until evening. I had lunch in the hotel restaurant and sat in the rooftop pool for a while. These are not backpacker joints. They’re fancy hotels, pleasant and stylish, and a bargain for the price.

Heaven. For a while, anyway.

Tomorrow I’m back on the road, to Saigon for Tet. I don’t know what it will be, but I am hopeful it will be something. I needed some nothing for a few days — a chance to catch up on my writing and blogging and photo posting, to lie around, to feel zero pressure to go be a tourist and see the sights — and now I’ve had my fill.

The second half

I suppose this is a kind of halftime lull, even if it’s a few days before the midpoint. Plans for the second half are starting to come into focus:

  • Vietnam for Tet and then a little beach time until mid-February.
  • Cambodia, Laos, and Northern Vietnam from mid-February to mid-April.
  • Back to Thailand for Songkran in mid-April, with maybe some South Thailand beach time before or after.
  • May in Singapore and Indonesia.

Now’s the time to get in touch if you want to join me for any of those places.


Myanmar and Vietnam galleries are up. There will also be a trickle of Myanmar blog posts over the next few days.

Myanmar (January 2016)

Vietnam (December 2015-January 2016)

Myanmar 1: Yangon


Myanmar is where Asian buses go when they die. You see them trundling down Yangon’s avenues, exposed engines belching, the Korean or Japanese or Chinese route destinations sometimes still visible. I began to think of Yangon as a sort of Buddhist hell realm for buses, like the bottom wedge of a Tibetan thanka painting, where they’re reincarnated as flayed beasts that have to pay for the sins of their past lives. At moments, too, I had the weird fleeting hope that I could hop on one of these buses and leave behind the dusty, crumbling chaos of Yangon for, say, Shinchon Station in downtown Seoul.

Myanmar was daunting. Internet connections were hinky and slow. There’s not yet much of a backpacker scene, travel options are limited, food can be terrible, roads are bad, English speakers are scarce. It was by far the most difficult place I’ve traveled on this trip, though I don’t want to exaggerate the hardship either: I stayed in hotels, rode in VIP buses, went to tourist sites where I met other travelers. Still, everything’s a little trickier and more arduous in Myanmar: getting on a VIP bus means riding for a half-hour in the back of an open truck to get to the VIP bus; staying in a hotel by the airport still results in a half-hour taxi ride over rough roads to get the airport four kilometers away.

And some of what made Myanmar feel like a slog was how I approached it. I was on the move more than I had been in other countries: before Myanmar, I was averaging close to four days per location; in Myanmar, it was more like two days. But also, the travel was physically harder: a three-day, two-night trek that meant a couple of freezing cold homestays on hard floors; an overnight bus; some very uncomfortable minivan rides. By the time I reached the end, I was exhausted and ready to leave.

Filipinos in the synagogue

The heart of Yangon, along the river, is a dense grid of mostly old colonial buildings from the turn of the 20th century. Like Cuba, Myanmar has spent a long time cut off from global capital, resulting in a kind of accidental preservationism, though the old buildings are mostly in terrible shape. There’s a dearth of basic modern conveniences like grocery stores. Done right, Yangon could transform itself into a UNESCO World Heritage city like Melaka and George Town in Malaysia or Hoi An in Vietnam, but on a grander scale. Done wrong, and in ten years Old Yangon will be nothing but cheap, shitty glass boxes and a faint memory of what was and what could have been.

You could feel, walking around, that Myanmar is changing. There are cell phone shops everywhere. Art galleries have sprung up, with explicitly political paintings; one artist cuts up old Myanmar money to make collage portraits of Aung San Suu Kyi. You see posters for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in shops, too, and books about her in the book stalls. I was in Myanmar after the election in which the NLD took about 80 percent of the vote, but before they took over parliament at the beginning of this month. You could feel that hopes were running high, though tempered by a long history of disappointment.

I went to the pagodas you’re supposed to go to, and they were OK, though not as beautiful as Thailand’s major temples. What was best in Yangon was the street life. On my second night in town, in one of the open-air barbecue restaurants on 19th Street, I met some expat Filipinos and one Burmese friend of theirs, and we had sort of a party at the table with whoever else happened to sit down beside us. The next night, I took the whole crew to the local synagogue, which has been kept open all through the years by the Samuels family. It was Friday night, and I ended up leading the prayer services for the few Jews there: a photographer, an Australian family, and a Samuels daughter. The Filipinos had never seen a Jewish ritual before, and they applauded after each bit that I sang.

We were all supposed to go out clubbing, but the stomach troubles that had been plaguing me since Malaysia now took a turn for the worse. My new local friends were kind and helpful, taking me to a pharmacy before sending me back to my hotel. It was a long night, and the next day’s trip to Bagan, I knew, wouldn’t be easy.


Today is my ninetieth day in Asia. If backpacking around Southeast Asia were a twelve-step group, today’s the day I’d be allowed to qualify — to speak at a meeting about my experience, strength, and hope.

Ninety days is a long time. A season. Long enough for something radically new to become a habit, a new pattern, a new way of being. It’s long enough that you have begun to have some idea of what this new experience is about.

That’s certainly the case for me. It feels like there’s a yawning gulf between the initial anxiety and confusion of those first weeks in Bangkok and beyond, wondering how I’d make friends and not spend half a year alone, and the day-by-day exchange of one friend or group of friends for another as I bump along the muddy tracks of southern Myanmar. (It has been freakishly cold and rainy here the last couple of days.)

My moods still swing all over the place, depending on how tired I am and how much companionship I have. But I’m much more aware of how it all works, and what’s just a passing sense of exhaustion or loneliness. I know that the big cities are alienating, that I’ll feel better when I get to the little places with the interesting things to see, that I will meet other travelers on the way, that I have some friends in a few spots around the region who are happy to welcome me back when I need some time with someone I know. I know I can buy medicine when I need it, that there will always be snacks somewhere, that I can still handle the stresses of bumpy rides in tuk-tuks, night buses, weird curries, awkward weather.

It feels like it has been forever, and it’s not even half way. After Myanmar — which has been challenging in a number of ways — I will take some relative ease with a week in Thailand and a couple of weeks in Vietnam with friends. I am looking forward to good Western food, 7-Eleven, locals who speak English, and a general awareness of how service works.

But soon enough, I’ll want to get back on the trail, to head into Cambodia and Laos and see what they’re about. The journey is old enough to qualify, but ninety days is just the beginning. And even if it’s nearly half of this particular trip, it’s still just the first short phase of my new life in Asia.


Something Building Up Inside

You know that Guns N’ Roses lyric, “I got somethin’ I been building up inside / For so fucking long”? I keep thinking of it when my stomach churns and I have to go puke again, which happened a bunch of times tonight in such delightful locales as the Muslim-run Golden Tea, the local synagogue, and a KFC (in their bathrooms, fortunately).

Luckily I met some locally based Filipinos and a Burmese last night, one of whom is a pharmacist, and they took me tonight to get medicine, crackers, and Pocari Sweat. I kept down the antiemetic, and now some crackers. I’ll survive.

And I was well enough to go to the synagogue and lead Shabbat services for the small group of tourists, my new friends, and the one local woman, Dina, whose family has maintained the synagogue all through the years. (Despite all the struggles through the years, thanks Mom and Dad for making sure I can daven in a pinch.)

But now there’s devotional songs and Buddhist chanting going on through loudspeakers out my window. And tomorrow I fly to Bagan at 10 am, which means leaving the hotel at 7 am.

Travel can be rough even when it’s interesting, and interesting even when it’s rough.

“Somtimes it’s easy to forget where you’re goin’ …”

(Also, Guns N’ Roses was, briefly, such an exciting band. Just watch Axl dance!)