Two more Myanmar Sleeps

(Uploaded chez Cynthia & Joel’s in Bangkok with one more sleep until our Hong Kong night on the town before the long flight home. All the Myanmar posts were uploaded post trip but dated when I would have posted them if there had been internet available)

Almost three weeks and a number of air flights, bicycle rides, boat trips, bus journeys, motorcycle doubles, beach strolls, village wanderings, city tromps, and one horse carriage ride later, Joe and I find ourselves back where our first trip to Myanmar started, in Yangon.   

On yet another city tromp through the hot & heavily diesel perfumed streets for an early dinner of Southern Indian masala dosa (which we found to be cheap and tasty: two dosas and two star colas for 2000k, about $2.25) we traipsed by hawkers selling everything from holographic Buddha posters and plastic drum beating wind-up toys to street side mystery meat fondu and steamed pork buns.  After passing by one more famous golden stupa, and stopping for an obligatory photo, we ended up at the lively and colourful “Tokyo Donuts” shop for a ‘refresh’ stop.  There we sat in the blissful aircon sipping cold sugary iced lemon teas, smiling as we watched maroon-robed monks order up some powdery cream filled donuts as men in longis drank tea and modernly attired students compared study notes, sipped coffee and typed on computers.  It was at this juncture that we became suddenly and excitedly aware that the world wide web was again a few finger taps away (on Joe’s ipod and then on the table as we impatiently waited for it to load).

For our entire trip the internet has been ‘turned off’.  Though we are here in Myanmar during what many describe as a momentous time in this country’s history, (as the military controlled government scheduled the first ‘democratic election’ in twenty years on November 7th), the only hint we personally noticed that an election was coming was a few campaign posters in Mandalay.  And though we were transiting through Yangon on the way to the beach on election day, we saw no evidence of it in the city or countryside, and furthermore no one has spoken to us about it, with the exception of one apologetic guesthouse owner regarding why there was no internet available.  Now back in our sixth floor largely charmless hotel room (which, by the way, smells like a combination of moth balls and urinal pucks) watching an Aljazeera news report from Bangkok, we see they did indeed free pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi yesterday and an ‘election’ was held.  In short, you all probably know more about what’s going on here than we do.

Upon reflection of our trip, Myanmar has indeed proven to be worthy of the feeling of mystery and intrigue it conjured in me before coming.  One of the lingering ones being whether I should refer to the country by its former name Burma (and to Yangon as Rangoon) or its current name, Myanmar.  While some suggest “Burma” to be more politically correct (that is if you don’t politically support the military dictatorship), since the military changed the names back to pre-colonial monikers, I can’t quite see how favouring names imposed by colonial Britain as being a much better option.

Though my romantic leanings tend to naturally gravitate towards its names of old, in honour of the fence sitting pragmatist within, for these trip posts I’ve decided to stick to the names appearing on the visa and stamps in my passport.    

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Sing a Song for Ngwe Saung

The beach stop while traveling is somewhat akin to summer camp for backpackers. It tends to be the place where, whether on or a little off the beaten path, folks come to get away from ‘traveling’. The beach for me is more about hanging out with other travelers and learning about other parts of the world (either about countries where new friends are from or where they’ve traveled to) than experiencing local culture. Some beaches have clearer turquoise water and whiter sand, some guesthouses have sweet and comfortable chill spots like hammocks and pillowed lofts, some strips have fantastic food & drink options, and all seem to have a library of left behind books to read. The length one wants to stay at the beach, however, usually has more to do with the right combination of amenities and the company than how idyllic are its sunsets. Some only need a couple of days at the beach before they get restless for more culture & traveling, but I find at least four days is needed to unwind and if the amenities are hitting the spot then preferably just over a week of beach time is just right.

The beach at Ngwe Saung kept us captivated happily for the first four days due to the company of a number of new travel friends. They were all independent travelers, around our age or older, and all impressive and expressive in their own unique way. Most were traveling alone. There was Paolo the firefighter from Bologna who regaled us with insights of Italian culture and stories of their seemingly very insupportable yet popular prime minister (who among other things is the 74th richest man in the world), Kim, an Aussie who has cycled more countries than I have been to on foot all on her own with Myanmar being one of her favourites thus far, Carla from Ireland, a single woman with grown children, who had just decided to start traveling the world at 50 something – first stop Columbia, second stop Myanmar – which had me marveling at her courage & fortitude, and Fred from France who for the first two days we referred to as Jean-Paul with the rest of the group as no one had caught his name yet. Oh and the group of Russians who were most entertaining at dinnertime for reasons that can only be explained by actually having been there.

It’s a good thing we were in such good company because the beaches and backpacker huts on the coast of Myanmar are no Koh Phi Phi or Koh Phangan. Indeed, though their beauty and serenity rivals many on Thailand’s coast, the scene is decidedly ‘un-ammenitied’, if you will. By day four the company at our resting pad had dwindled down to only one other couple (older Germans whom we hadn’t yet bonded with). I was also out of reading material (other than on the Ipad which while perfectly appropriate for poolside, is not conducive to sandy reads) and the few books in the ‘library’ were all German. Furthermore, we’d finished off our “Red Cat Whiskey” ($1.50 a mickey) for our morning coffee and afternoon star cola. Trips down the beach a kilometer in each direction revealed either completely deserted bungalows or completely derelict bungalows, and the ‘town’ was too far of a stroll for a meal.

On the fifth day we decided to make the trek along the beach to the end of the strip (maybe about an hour and a half walk). The pattern of deserted mixed with derelict continued until just past the town where we found two resort style accommodations that appeared sparsely (at least) populated. We climbed up the pebble steps, past the glistening pool and padded poolside loungers and asked how much. Surprisingly affordable compared to similar setups in Thailand or Bali, so we borrowed the desk clerk’s moto and were back with our stuff in time for lunch and a margarita poolside. Here we happily idled away our last two days before the return to Yangon and the homeward journey. Funnily enough at these types of resorts people tend to actively separate themselves rather than trying to include themselves in other guest’s dinner conversations. Indeed in fancy resorts, people watching (rather than talking) is a favourite past time for Joe and me.

In the end I’m not sure I can say which experience I enjoyed more. If the backpacker bungalows had had a few more perks or creature comforts, it would win hands down, but there is definitely something to be said for a breakfast buffet that includes a cheese plate from Europe, crispy bacon, multigrain toast, pancakes with maple flavoured syrup, tasty muffins and real coffee when you’ve been eating poorly cooked eggs, cake toast, bananas and nescafe every morning for the last three weeks. And there’s also no sneezing at margaritas brought with a smile and some peanuts to your poolside lounger as you read a classic on your Ipad, nor at the fluffy robes and quiet air conditioning. It’s a tosser really. A little of both made the most memorable combination.

Lingering memories of our Myanmar beach stop (off the top of my head) – red cat whiskey and margarita fueled merriment, the strong scent of cardamom on jaunts to town for the most delectable seafood dinners away from the resort and, um, okay the cheese plate. Maybe the resort won out in this trip.

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The Circuit

As is the case with many destinations, Myanmar has a circuit with key tourist stations that most foreign visitors follow whether traveling with a backpack or a tour group.  In my experience, Myanmar is second to Vietnam in the almost robotic adherence with which tourists are shuttled (or shuttle themselves via train, plane or bus depending on their budget) from site to site on the circuit.  Partially this is because, similar to Vietnam, it is difficult to get off the well trod trail due to little or no tourist infrastructure outside of it.  But it is made even more challenging in Myanmar due to the fact that many areas are closed to tourists completely (like the beckoning white sand flanked finger that extends south bordering Thailand) and only registered guest houses are allowed to lodge foreign tourists – which renders many locales impossible to stay in, even if you are able to figure out a way to make your way there.  Pair that with a fickle and protectionist military government that changes its mind with the wind, weather and random political uprisings, and you’re left with a basic travel itinerary of: Yangon & around Yangon, Bagan, Inle Lake, Mandalay & around Mandalay, topped off with a beach stop.

Since Myanmar receives significantly less tourists than Vietnam, (due in part to foreign travel advisories, calls for tourism sanctions by pro-democracy groups both within and outside the country, and ever-changing visa & entry requirements), the circuit overall felt to me less robotic, the locals less jaded and the experience more rewarding than in Vietnam. If your budget affords plane transportation (which is surprisingly cheap and plentiful) you could feasibly do the circuit in ten days, but with two weeks you could happily idle about at at least one stop that strikes your happy fancy.  Since Joe and I had three weeks, and one less-trod locale we’d planned to visit (Sittwe & Mrauk U) was hit by a small cyclone right before we landed (and was therefore closed to tourists), we found ourselves with a little extra time on our hands for our beach stop:  bummer.

We chose the less flashy (read less expensive), but apparently just as beautiful southern sister to the popular Ngapali Beach: Ngwe Saung Beach (pronounced ‘new song’ – ish).  The Lonely Planet (aka ‘the beeble’) assured us that it would transport us to seventh heaven.  Since it appeared to involve an unavoidable four to six hour bus ride from Yangon, we sincerely hoped the author had the same taste in beaches.  The hour and a half wait at the bus station outside the city (a hole in a concrete wall lined with wooden benches) was an unusual reminder of home.  On the back wall, hung prominently on its own was an almost life-size poster of Avril Lavigne and when the karaoke DVD was fired up for our amusement, a Celine Dion song was the first track to belt out.  Oh Canada, Avril & Celine unwittingly stand on guard for thee in Myanmar.  

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The Three Muskateers of Bagan

The Three Muskateers of Bagan: Ohoh, Zozo & Jojo

Bagan is home to over 2000 Buddhist temples and who knows how many actual Buddhas.  It served as the capital to many ancient kingdoms, and locals still farm vegetable crops amidst the acres and acres of temple sprawl. The total visual effect is simply jaw dropping.  Though there is a bit of gold involved here and there, these temples’ real beauty lies less in the glitter and more in the sun-baked afterglow.  Sunsets here are breathtaking.

Though most tourists see the temples from a horse drawn cart, or a tour bus, Joe and I decided to stick to our preferred mode of transport – the Myanmar bicycle.  Albeit a tad hot as a mode of transport – due to temperatures in the mid 30′s – the bicycle lets you see the world at a slower speed, and often I find the most interesting experiences while traveling happen during the in between times, when you’re not actively site seeing.  Myanmar bicycles are especially suited to this as they have only one speed: amble.

As we were ambling about on our first day at Bagan, without our guidebook, stopping off at whatever temple drew our attention (rather than focusing on the ‘must see’ ones), we were casually joined by three young boys also on bicycle, out of school for the day on a national holiday.  They were carrying the requisite postcards for selling to tourists (frustratingly for me in strips of the usual 10, only 4 of which I would have chosen to send ) and after answering the requisite “What country?” question, the least shy of the bunch introduced himself as Zozo (centre in the picture).  The second one followed suit telling us his name was Ohoh (left of Zozo).  The third (right of Zozo), who spoke only three words in English as far as I could tell (“postcard”, “1000K” – about $1.20 for ten cards – and “bonbon” which is actually a french word but I got the gist), didn’t offer up his name, but instead just kept repeating sporadically his three words.

The boys decided to appoint themselves as our private tour guides and took us first to one of the biggest and most visited temples – nicknamed “Sunset Pagoda” as apparently this is the premier temple with a high vantage point for watching the sunset.  It was not yet close to sunset, but the views from atop Sunset Pagoda were truly awe inspiring and worth the small gaggle of locals following us about trying to sell their paintings, figurines and rack of ten postcards.

A few hours were idled away this way with the three boys.  Joe kept teasing them that he wanted to go to “Banana Pancake Temple”, and being true to their self-appointed tour guide status, the boys led us to their friend’s mom’s cafe where I was served up the most delicious guacamole with papadoms and of course Joe had the banana pancakes, served Asian style, like a crepe with bananas inside.  At a previous stop the boys continued the tradition of children giving me flowers by plucking off the plumes at the top of the maturing corn crops and making a bouquet.  To discourage them from the continuing destruction, when we left the cafe, Joe and I divided the bouquet and gave them each some back to decorate their bicycles and we affixed them wherever we could find a hole.  Thus we rode off to the next stop, corn plumes fluttering, to a smaller temple off the beaten track to watch the sunset.  Never would we have found this temple on our own.

At this juncture I tried again to ask our as yet nameless friend to tell me his name.  His three word refrain had continued throughout our entire time with the boys, even though midway through their ‘tour’ I finally agreed to buy one set of postcards.  After a few tries he finally understood what I was asking and beamed out a confident “Zozo”.  Caught in their game, all three laughed and the ‘real’ Zozo said, “haha he gave my name, but really his name is Jojo.”  And then the three-word-refrain boy, sheepishly points at himself and says “Jojo.”

Up on the temple top, the three boys who have clearly seen Bagan sunsets from every possible temple vantage point all of their lives, amused themselves by disecting their corn plumes into little darts and spearing them into their bags set up on the temple wall like dart boards.  Kids in this part of the world amaze me.  So poor by any standards we measure by, but yet so rich in imagination and with an entrepreneurial spirit to boot.

After the sunset we climbed down from our temple perch, made our way back out to the road and waved a cheery goodbye to our three muskateers: Zozo, Ohoh & Jojo.  I wish all three a childhood of endless sunsets and a life of good fortune.

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Endeavouring to Walk in Buddha’s Footprints

Moving on to Mandalay, a quick flight north from Heho, we boarded our 19th flight of the year Joe informed me. How very environmentally irresponsible of us, I thought.  But at least while we’re in Myanmar our ecological footprint is smaller in general (as being a locovore is the only option, electricity is out a great deal of the time, showers are almost always cold and therefore short, local mode of transport is usually by foot or bicycle and buy nothing days are frequent – other than food and lodging of course).

The main reason we decided to head to Mandalay was to see the famous U Bein bridge – the longest teak stilt walking bridge in the world I think.  Indeed the bridge does make a pretty picture (and in fact dons the cover of the current Myanmar Lonely Planet), however it’s over-touristed and in my opinion not worth the inevitable two to three day stay in Mandalay.  Though Myanmar’s second biggest city has its interesting asian city market nooks, and some rather pretty pagodas in its surrounds, in my opinion it lacks charm.  The air is thick with smog and humidity which at night gives it a sultry aura due to low to no city overhead lights and vehicle headlights low-lighting the permanent haze.  It’s gritty, literally to the point where your eyes get irritated as you walk, scarring up clouds of dust and leaving footprints in your wake.

Speaking of footprints, on a day of touring the sights around Mandalay with our Indian/Burmese guide “Wombat”, we were delighted to find the most beautiful hand stitched old wall hanging of Buddha’s footprint.  An apt treasure from this particular trip as Buddha sightings are racking up at an alarming rate.  This country is seriously overflowing with Buddhas (gold ones, new ones, old ones, dressed ones, bejeweled ones, wooden ones, reclining ones, ones missing a hand and ones that have their teeth brushed every day).  And our next stop Bagan, home to a serious amount of stupas (each with at least one and sometimes more than a dozen Buddhas) will likely see our Buddha sitings climb even higher.  Onward Ho!

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Quilts, Stilts, Jumping Cats & Frangipani Flowers

On the short flight to Heho (pronounced Hey Ho) an hour or so from the town of Nyaungshwe located on a channel off the north shore of Inle Lake in the middle of Myanmar, I felt the first real pangs of Zoe’s two-year-old refrain ‘me so happy’ since I bit into my first burrito at our favourite Mexican restaurant in Chiang Mai.  The landscape below looked like a dreamy rolling green patchwork quilt dotted with shimmering gold pagoda exclamation points.  I could barely await to ‘alight’.  On the taxi ride to town several deep relaxing breaths cemented the happy feeling with clean scents of rich red earth and verdant green hillsides. 

We decided to park our packs at the Teakwood Guesthouse, and happily left behind the charmless (albeit friendly) abodes of Yangon for the dark teak planked and pebble studded guest room on stilts.  The next day we rented typical Myanmar bicycles (the kind with wide seats that you can sit on with perfectly strait posture and carry a basket of bananas on your head if you are so inclined), and peddled aimlessly about the quaint packed-dirt town lanes shooting pictures of fishing boats, river side life, monks – pink robe clad nuns and the regular saffron robed variety, and the cutest mini variety (children) in both colours – more than a few pagodas and a number of rustic tomato sorting warehouses.

The next two days were spent out on the lake at a cooperatively owned ‘resort’ built on a floating dock with cabins on stilts connected by a wood plank foot bridge also built on stilts.  From our deck we idly watched lake traffic, sunsets over two golden pagodas and fisherman rowing their boats in their unique to Inle Lake way, standing up with one leg maneuvering the paddle.  The ingenuity of the people living on the lake was astounding.  We quickly realised where all the tomatoes came from: acres and acres of floating berms on the lake farmed from shallow canoes.  Though most definitely visually serene, the soundtrack, however, was not quite as relaxing.  The unmuffled diesel boat motors literally sounded like a high traffic helipad was next door, and the buddhist calls to prayer at the crack of dawn, tho most likely peaceful in their message, were not conducive to sleeping in.  

Earplugs firmly in place, we explored a number of stilted and river side villages via our own noisy canoe.  Highlights included a monastery where the monks had trained the resident cats to jump through hoops for treats, a weaving complex where women used the fibre from lotus flower stems to make a hemp like cloth and a jungle wine making operation (strong yummy and saki-like).  Wherever we stopped, kids trailed after us giving me frangipani flowers they’d picked and giggling as they posed for photos. And if all that wasn’t sensory heaven enough, we were lead into a seriously old and incredibly beautiful pagoda complex, my favourite of the trip.  And again the perfect calm “doing it right” feeling descended.  I wish I could report that the air was scented with frangipani and lotus flowers, however in reality the air was perfumed with dry caked mud, diesel fumes and, you guessed it, fish sauce.  

Destination Inle Lake: beyond a perfect ten for the eyes, less than a perfect ten for the nose, and utterly aurally bereft (given I didn’t even mention the night critter living in our roof and the karaoke until the wee hours outside the Teakwood).

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First Impressions

Yangon Alms

I will confess that during the last few days in familiar, easy and fun Thailand, I spent one mostly sleepless night fretting over our trip to Myanmar.  Firstly because the lung infection I left home with seemed to be getting worse and Myanmar felt like the last place on our travel to do list (possibly next to Bangladesh) that I’d want to be seriously ill.  Secondly, I’d just spent over an hour pouring over the Canadian government’s travel advisory, which needless to say said in no uncertain terms that I was heading into an unpredictable and dangerous land.  On the first point I solved the problem with a quick search on the internet for the appropriate antibiotic for pneumonia and an even quicker trip to the chemist who cheerfully handed over the medication with nothing more than helpful instructions and a smile.  As for the Canadian travel advisories, a click back on their web site to check out other dangerous travel destinations (among which India and Thailand – which we travel to every year – were both featured as just as scary if not more so than Myanmar) made me chuckle at myself and fall into a dreamy slumber fueled by the anticipation of new exotic sights and scents.

We arrived in Yangon at dusk and were ushered into a mini van with other tourists heading to the same budget hotel.  The hotel lobby’s sliding glass door to the street and our windowless bare bones room reminded me of New Delhi’s no nonsense, barely passable as clean hotel environs, but the lingering scent of fish sauce in the air and palm tree dotted city streets were all South East Asia.  Wandering around the next day it felt as though South East Asia smacked up against India and Yangon fell out, crumpling up all the sidewalks in its wake (seriously treacherous pavement bits abound!) Then someone came along and sprinkled a little bit of China on top for good measure.  On our first half hour city walk to check out the market (to see what we might be able to purchase for the store) we passed churches, a mosque, buddhist stupas and a crazy south Indian temple.

Our first taste of Yangon was cut short however as we learned from another traveller that there was a flight leaving for Inle Lake, in the centre of the country, that afternoon.  Eager to get out of the smoggy noisy city and on to a more restful country environment and give my lungs a much needed break, we bought our plane tickets and headed north, deciding to save the exploration of pagoda and culture rich Yangon for the end of our journey.

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Bye Bye Chiang Mai

The other morning we stumbled upon a moment in time right across the lane from our guesthouse. These beautiful intricately carved doors, a favourite photo op for me in Asia, stood open to reveal the most unexpected tall walled secret garden filled with terra-cotta statues in various states of repair, arranged along a stone path inviting exploration. As soon as we walked through the door it was instantly calming. After wandering about for a few minutes literally agape at the beauty created simply by broken statutes, vine draping trees, a cloak of moss and tropical flowers strewn about here and there, I felt like maybe I should mediate or pray. Or perhaps, the feeling I was having was similar to what one experiences when they’re doing it right (meditating or praying that is).

In any event, Southeast Asia often unexpectedly has this effect on me. The doing it right effect, I call it. It happened again yesterday when Joe and I were visiting the country house and studio of the woman who creates the exquisite Thai handbags we buy for our store every year. There were a few modest but serene houses there, a grouping of workshops where people made her bags in intricate and detailed stages, an organic garden that her mother tends and a small possee of puppies. Joe was the one to comment out loud that people in Asian countries are doing it ‘right’, i.e. family members supporting each other and pooling their financial resources together daily and happily. Financially you can’t argue that it doesn’t make sense, but for me, it just felt, well, intrinsicly right – that country spot that Chirada and her family built.

It almost made me want to move to Thailand. Then I remembered my skin’s tendency towards puffiness in humidity and the fact that all my family lives in Canada. Anyway, I’m feeling a little self conscious for the loooong rambling nature of my last post, so I’d best sign off. We bid farewell to fair Chiang Mai this morning and are on route to Yangon, for a first visit to Burma. I’m looking forward to meeting this most mysterious country.

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Poached Eggs, Songtaews, Sisters and Lin Ping the Famous Thai Panda

This fall’s annual sojourn in Chiang Mai has been one of firsts for me, starting with our new guest house, Pak Chiang Mai, which we decided to try out based on a Trip Advisor commentary telling us we were idiots if we didn’t stay here after learning about it. Having stayed at every kind of accommodation in Southeast Asia from backpacker beach huts to five star hotels, I can certainly see why the Pak Chiang Mai has charmed its audience. Situated on a bend in a relatively quiet cobblestone soi (lane), the outside’s ivy coated walls and wooden shutters are warm and inviting. And it only gets better on the inside. You walk through a heavy wooden double door to an open concept half indoor, half outdoor chill zone, complete with flowering tropical jungle trees, huge colorful pillows, a stonework wall fountain feeding into a winding koi canal complete with a bridge to more pillowy spots, AND homemade ice-cream. Add to that the very friendly staff (who folded my messy pile of clothes while I was out today), the yummy included breakfast, free bikes for guests and the carafe of herbal tea left in the room every evening, and I totally get the gushing that goes on for this place.

Other firsts this trip? Well starting with breakfast on the first day, I ordered poached eggs at our new guest house secretly crossing my fingers under the table, and low and behold, they arrived PERFECTLY cooked with a piece of home made wholewheat toast on the side. As a general rule, Asia is not a good place to order eggs, unless you like floaty stringy tendrils in your soup, in which case you’re in luck. That’s another star earned for the Pak Chiang Mai.

Later that morning we met some sisters in a songtaew – essentially a pick up truck with two benches along the sides of the bed and a canopy over top (song meaning two and taew meaning seats) which serve as popular local public transport. Sisters as in Sister Mary Margaret, though their name tags just said ‘Sister’. They were from Idaho, and judging from their overly enthusiastic friendly demeanor and frilly high collar white blouses and long skirts, we guessed they were perhaps of the Mormon faith. In any event, besides the oddity of seeing a gaggle of Mormon girls in a Songtaew in Chiang Mai, they also provided us with another first. The first Americans of any we’ve met traveling anywhere who responded to the question, ‘Where are you from?’ with ‘America’ rather than their state or city name. I’ve taken note, that no matter where you are in the world, every other traveler from every other country you meet will respond to that question with the country they are from, and only offer up more information if you enquire further. Americans on the other hand, from our albeit limited pool of experience, seem to assume everyone knows they are from America and tell you their state or even city name (that is until the sisters came along). At first I thought this ‘may’ be because they think I am also an American or at least North American, but our Swiss friends from travels in Vietnam also confirmed this to be their experience.

Our day only got better when we met Lin Ping the famous Thai panda at the Chiang Mai Zoo. Being a Saturday the Zoo was packed but surprisingly pleasant over all, and ended with a zoo spectacle including a ferret that cleans up trash and a miniature bicycle ridding parrot. The zoo experience was another first for me, both the bicycle riding parrot and the fact that generally I find zoos depressing at best, and horrifying at worse. But this zoo was not ‘horrible’ and Lin Ping and her parents seemed like fairly content pandas, and they are most certainly adored by the Thai people. Lin Ping is on everything from T-shirts to her own reality tv channel in these parts.

Then wouldn’t you know it, on the way back home from the zoo, who did we see out the back of our songtaew, but the same white frilly high collared blouse clad sisters cycling about. I’m not sure what seemed more out of place in the end, the bicycle riding parrot or the bicycle riding sisters, but really by sheer tenacious friendliness, I think the sisters had it in the bag.

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Ode to Ocimum Tenuiflorum

Basil is by far and away my favourite herb. I could roll in it. The smell is divine and its taste nirvana. I mean I really get off on basil. It was no big surprise to me, then, that on the first day of this fall’s Asian adventure, when I was handed a tray of herbal infused massage oils at Asia Herb Association in Bangkok, for my first of hopefully many Thai massages, I chose the bottle labeled ‘Holy Basil’.

I tried to want the ginger scented oil, as I’ve been plagued with the dread head cold lurgy for going on three weeks now and pragmatically I thought ginger a better option. Alas I just couldn’t resit the heady aroma of the basil, epecially since they’d labeled it ‘holy’. A little wiki-ing upon my return home reaffirmed once again that for me listening to my intuitive sensibilities is more often than not a better choice than listening to my want for pragmatic reasoning. As it turns out, the essential oil of Ocimum Tenuiflorum, the holy basil plant, is widely used in Asia for treatment of the common cold, headaches, and skin irritations. Hallelujah! Add to that impressive list the use of its leaves for balancing stress and it stacks up to be Twangy’s Wonder Drug.

Ironic that the two countries I hang out in most (other than my own that is) deem my favorite herb holy. The holy version is not to be confused with its more common culinary brethren, neither the Italian version nor the minty anise like purple Thai variety. Holy basil is used in Thai cooking as well, most often in a traditional dish called “phat karaphao” which is essentially stir fried chicken, beef or pork with holy basil. I’ve had this dish at The Atlanta Hotel in Bangkok on a previous sojourn and it was delicious. But in India it’s more of a religious experience: called “Tulsi” it translates as incomparable one!

It seems my good taste in India and Thailand goes beyond choosing handicrafts! Oh and by the way, the massage was heavenly and if you ever find yourself on Sukhumvit Soi 31 in Bangkok, I highly recommend stopping in for a rub down.

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