Glorious Burma

Everyone in the family agreed that Burma was one of our favorite destinations in Southeast Asia. The country has been isolated and has seen little development, leaving their lovely culture intact.

We noticed right away that almost everyone wears the Burmese traditional clothing, the longyi, a kind of sarong.  Even the men wear them! Kate, Anna and I loved all the beautiful fabrics and designs so much that we had to buy some of our own:

Kate in her new longyi

Our first stop was Bagan, a small village of about 50,000 people that is famous for its 4,000 old temples scattered over the countryside. Yes, I said 4,000 temples!  They pop up all around on the dry farmland amongst the cacti and dirt roads.  Some are tiny (you have to crouch down to walk inside) and others are gigantic.

Temples everywhere in Bagan.

We also noticed that all the women and some children were wearing a tan colored paint on their faces, sometimes in shapes or designs. It is called thanaka and it is made from bark. In our tour of a local market, I bought some thanaka and a woman helped me put it on.  It is used for sunscreen and also for beauty.

Stacy having Thanaka applied at the market in Bagan. (See Kate holding her nose – not crazy about market smells).

We visited so many temples I can’t remember all the names. The first had a long covered breezeway leading to it that the kids loved running through (ahh– freedom!).

The temple itself was covered in gold and stunning in the sunlight.

We took a rest with some novice monks in the shade of the temple.

The kids enjoyed the freedom of chasing each other and birds around inside the temple grounds.  Everywhere we heard the lovely sound of small bells that hang atop the temples and all over the temple grounds.

We walked through many small passages, some leading to Buddhas, some leading to pretty vistas.

Ananda, one of the larger temples we visited, had four massive Buddhas inside – I think they were over 30 feet tall each and hundreds of years old, all preserved beautifully. It was awesome.

Our hotel was lovely and peaceful. The kids escaped the heat of the afternoon in the swimming pool.

We took a horse and buggy ride one evening around the village, farmlands and countryside to see more temples. The dirt roads were bumpy but fun!

Here is a short video from our horse and buggy ride:

The town of Old Bagan looked like this – stilt and thatch roofed houses, and dusty dirt roads:

Old Bagan

We stopped at a temple and climbed barefoot up a set of extraordinarily steep stairs. I had to swallow my motherly fears to ascend this with my kids.

Here’s a short video of the scary but beautiful view from the top:

The climb up was terrifying but worth it – here’s another photo from the top — it looked like an oil painting:

The food in Burma was wonderful – lots of Indian and Thai influence, but it still had its very own unique dishes.  I loved the traditional noodle fish soup for breakfast.  We ate dinner one night at a gorgeous restaurant on the river, where the kids could run around on grass:

Burma has beautiful lacquer-ware. We went to a workshop in Bagan where about 20 people were working on the incredibly painstaking and tedious process of creating all manners of lacquer items – chairs, bowls, trays, cups, etc.  It takes months to produce one product, which has nearly 20 layers and intricate designs.

Lacquer workshop

This is an example of an offering bowl that is about 3 feet tall:

Anna spotted a huge scorpion in the courtyard of the lacquer workshop! When I saw this, I thought how glad I was to be heading back to Cleveland Heights in a few weeks, where all we have to contend with are deer and skunks:

If you’re interested in the fate of the scorpion, watch this video. Let’s just say it involves a pair of chopsticks (but no harm was done to the creature):

We had a chance to ring the bells at another temple:

Our guide took us on a tour of a local village. We got to see some of the homes and people up close.

I think this grandmother rolls her own cigars while the baby is sleeping:

The girls noticed that cactus can be used as an effective fence!

Traveling with children is a great thing.The curiosity was mutual. Lots of people wandered over to see us, too. Everyone wants to know how old Kate, Anna and Matthew are and if the girls are twins.

We took a boat ride on the Ayeyarwaddy River and enjoyed the beautiful sky and clouds.

Our last temple in Bagan at sunset was the oldest (over 1,000 years) – Bu Pagoda, built right on the banks of the river:

Bu Pagoda, the oldest in Bagan

We saw a very funny and slightly naughty puppet show in Bagan that the kids loved:

We left Bagan and flew to Inle Lake. On the way to the lake we stopped at a monastery that was unusual because it was made of wood.

We figured out how the monks get their haircuts:

Their temple had over 1,000 Buddha statues in nooks and crannies everywhere:

The only way to get around Inle Lake is by boat. It is about 13 miles long and very shallow – only six feet at the deepest point. But the narrow, long boats can go just about anywhere on the lake, no matter how shallow the water is. They are very noisy boats! We visited during the monsoon season, so we practically had the entire place to ourselves. Luckily we didn’t have much rain at all and just popped up umbrellas if there was any drizzle. We also had to use the umbrellas for the sun – we all got a bit burned and learned our lesson.

There are several villages along the lake and people here live in stilt houses over the water – the houses mostly have thatch roofs and the sides are made of woven bamboo. It is very rustic. Some places have no electricity, but most places do.

The fishermen row their boats using their leg to row the oar.  The wrap their leg
around the oar and balance on the other foot, all while casting a net. You have to see it!

Leg rowing on Inle Lake

We went to a temple where the cats were taught to jump through hoops for a treat. The kids loved that. We also saw another bunch of cats – a man is trying to preserve Burmese cats and is breeding them in a house on Inle Lake. I think there were 40!

The kids bought carved wooden slingshots at the market which provided hours of entertainment.

A market in Inle Lake with a boat parking lot in front

In addition to fishing, people earn money through farming huge floating gardens on the lake, which are secured by bamboo poles. They mostly grow tomatoes, which we ate loads of in salads with peanut sauce.

Floating gardens on Inle Lake

No day would be complete in Burma without a visit to a temple. We took a hike up into the hills to see some that are under renovation but beautiful.

The sounds of the thousands of tiny bells created an other worldly feeling, and it was a great place for hide and go seek. To hear the sounds, take a look at this video:

Inle Lake has lots of wild life – there are snails, crabs, butterflies, two black swans in the water around our hotel (imported), lots of shore birds, flowers and fish.There are no cars or motorbikes. We played Scrabble a few times and enjoyed every minute of our peaceful stay.

Feeding the black swans at our hotel on Inle Lake

Family Scrabble game!

We drove back to the airport and flew to Yangon, the capital city of 5 million.On the drive we saw lots of people loaded into trucks on their way to work on farms.

Michael gave two lectures on entrepreneurship in Yangon. The first was hosted by the American Center (with a great panel of Burmese entrepreneurs) and the second was hosted by Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI).   Several hundred people attended the lectures.  There is a great deal of enthusiasm among entrepreneurs there regarding the opening of the Myanmar economy and opportunities to start new businesses.

Because of Michael’s lectures, we were able to meet some of local entrepreneurs who kindly treated us to a wonderful dinner and show at a beautiful restaurant.

Dinner with our new Burmese friends

We drove past Aung San Suu Kyi’s house and stopped at her party’s headquarters (the National League for Democracy) to pick up some t-shirts and other goodies. The Lady (as she is affectionately known in Burma) was in Europe accepting her Nobel Peace Prize, so we didn’t get a glimpse of her.

The gate outside Aung San Suu Kyi’s house in Yangon.

Buying National League for Democracy t-shirts

We visited an old synagogue in Yangon, the first we have entered in more than seven months! Yangon had a thriving Jewish community, most of whom fled during WWII; now there are only 25 Jews left in the city. The 120 year old synagogue is located downtown in what is now a Muslim neighborhood. The friendly keeper of the synagogue and one of the remaining Burmese Jews, Moses, showed us the Torah and lit the candles with us on Shabbat. There were not enough people for a minyan, so sadly there was no service.

Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue in Yangon

Motorbikes and bicycles are not allowed in Yangon, so we were surprised to see the orderliness of the roads in the city.

Downtown Yangon

The cars were mostly old, especially the taxis. We were amused by this one in particular, and our family is still debating if it was ever used as a hearse or ambulance. I am of the opinion that it was made this way because it just looks so darn cool.

Only one night left in Hanoi, then a visit to Thailand, then back to Cleveland! We are so sad to leave, but also ready to get home to our family, friends and dog. We’ve really missed Coco – she’s been ignoring us on Skype. We are hoping she will forgive our absence when we see her in Chattanooga in July at Poppy and Susu’s house.

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Overnight Trains and a Fresh Chicken Update

A few days ago we took our family to a place in Vietnam called Sapa.  There are several minority ethnic groups that live in small, very rustic villages in the mountains and grow rice in terraces cut into the mountainside. They dress in traditional clothing that they make themselves. It is a beautiful place.

Rice fields in Sapa

The ONLY way to get there is by overnight train. A special train that makes lots of abrupt stops throughout the night. A train that has some kind of animal or bug eating your complimentary crackers on the table right next to your tiny bed. A train whose air conditioner that might go out in the middle of the night and whose conductor pretends to be asleep and ignores your pleas of “Em Oi!” (hey!) to fix the air. A train that you board at 8:00 pm and exit before five the next morning, bleary eyed but excited about your adventure. A train that, despite all its issues, is an absolute wonder for children under the age of 10.

Our berth on the train to Sapa. Matthew and Anna shared a tiny bed!

Despite the rain, we were able to get out and explore the villages and town of Sapa. It was surprisingly cold, but we welcomed this after 100 degree heat in Hanoi!

The market in Sapa.

We walked through two small villages. The houses were very basic, with dirt floors and lots of farm animals including many cute baby pigs and chickens.

Most adults were out working in the rice fields.The children were left at home to play with each other. They came out to see Kate, Anna and Matthew.  The curiosity was mutual.

We also saw a group of children playing on some water buffaloes as if they were as tame as puppies. We were amazed at how comfortable they were on these massive animals with big horns!

We went inside one home and took a tour of the kitchen:

After just one night, we headed back home on the overnight train again!

Back at home we had a very busy week to end a great school year. Matthew had a big role in a school play (really an operetta) – he was the narrator in The Three Nanny Goats (kind of like The Three Billy Goats Gruff).

Anna created a video about how to buy fresh chicken in Hanoi. Right by our house is a woman selling fresh chickens (she butchers them right on the street). We’ve passed by it daily and marveled at how different food production and distribution is here from what we’re used to at home. There is no doubt that we are eating some of the freshest (and most tasty!) food. And by the way, Anna edited this entire video by herself!

After school one day we took a family walk around our neighborhood and found more interesting things, as ever. The summer short haircut is very popular here.

Another beautiful sunset over West Lake.

When the weather got hot, sugar cane juice machines popped up everywhere. We finally had a chance to try it.

Making sugar cane juice in Lang Yen Phu.

Today was the last day of school, and we sadly said goodbye to all our friends. Kate celebrated her birthday at school today.

And Matthew graduated from kindergarten!

The electricity went out in the afternoon so we had to get out of our sweltering apartment and do the only thing that was left to do:

Ice cream and swimming at the Hanoi Club!

Michael and I are saying goodbye to our friends, too. The good news is that in order to get to see everyone in the coming years, we will have to travel to other parts of the globe….

Einat and Zafrir

On to Burma on Friday…. then Thailand…. then Cleveland, OH!

Napping in Hanoi

I think the heat is making everyone sleepy here in Hanoi. We went to the fabric market and my friend Yossi pointed out this tired vendor:

When we ate dinner at a restaurant, Kate went to the bathroom and discovered a door with an open window. When we looked in, a few people were taking a nap right next to where we were eating!

We were at a temple last weekend, and Anna discovered a sleeping monk!

Taking a nap can happen anywhere.  This guy is parked by a very busy street (although what street in Hanoi isn’t busy?)

Other things happen on the street that are surprising to us…. like getting a haircut or shave:

Mohawks are popular here for the summer:

And if you have lice or gray hairs, that’s something else you can take care of (this is a common sight on the street):

I have seen 2 dishwashers in total since I arrived in January, and they were in the homes of two embassy families (they have very nice places). Mostly people just do it the old fashioned way, right on the sidewalk:

We were so happy this past week to welcome our friend and final visitor to Hanoi, Jackie Acho. Her husband John was a real hero staying at home with their two kids so she could come to Asia for the first time in her life. One of my Vietnamese friends was so surprised that she would come so far and leave her family at home for a week. I told her we American women were very lucky and we had great husbands. Of course we had to take Jackie out to one of our favorite street food restaurants, Bun Bo Nam Bo:

Here is a shot of the kitchen. As is usual with these kind of places, they make one thing only here. The noodles and herbs are so fresh. The food in Vietnam is amazing. We are going to miss it.

We took Jackie to our friend Phuong’s house – it was her daughter’s 1st birthday, so there was a big meal!

Here is the birthday girl, Ming Que:

Phuong took us to an orphanage near her home called Bo De.  We brought rice and milk and Matthew handed out some baseball cards to the boys. It was very sad and difficult to see 150 children without parents.

Sadly, a lot of people who mean well bring the children candy and junk food. They had lots of rotten teeth.

Some of the smallest babies were sleeping in hammocks!!

Later on the way home we had to squish into a taxi, and Kate sat on my lap in the front seat…we’ve gotten lax here!

The next day we were walking around Hanoi and saw a Pentecost celebration outside the Catholic cathedral. The costumes and music were beautiful.

We had dinner at a friend’s house that has a beautiful view of West Lake.

Hanoi is so full of sights. It’s a delight to walk around and take photos. Even after 5 months, I cannot get over seeing children riding on motorbikes without helmets. Many of the infants ride with netting covering their heads – maybe to keep the bugs off?

If you’re pregnant, it’s best to ride side-saddle:

And who says you can’t have an ice cream cone on a motorbike?

Hold on tight!

Even though it’s well into the 90s most days, many of the Vietnamese cover up all their exposed skin so they don’t get a tan:

And some other funny things I saw today… guinea fowl and other wild birds being sold on the side of the road:

Gourds for sale:

And a children’s photographer called Tom and Jerry???

Speaking of wild birds, collecting them and hanging their cages around your house and business is a very popular hobby here in Hanoi:

Some people have 10 or more birds!

Anna found double banana twins!!

While we’re still enjoying our last few weeks here, we are really excited to get home and see family and friends. We are especially eager to meet a new cousin of ours that was born in NYC right before we left, so we have yet to meet little Leo!  Except by Skype, that is.