Friday, May 22, 2009

My Friend the Fundamentalist

After several restful days in Bangkok (still alone -- Laura's back in Atlanta) I took a Thai Air flight to Dubai. When we touched down at 9:30 p.m. local time it was 100 degrees. My ATM card did not work and none of the exchange desks would take travlers checques. I went to the tourist desk and asked the scowling agent for the cheapest hotel he had. He had one all right -- US$70! Could I take a bus there? He laughed. "It's only a $10 taxi ride," he snarled at me.

Welcome to Dubai.

(Mattrah, Oman)


My main reason for coming to Dubai was to go to Oman. I have wanted to go to Oman since years ago I read an account of traveling there in that great American newspaper, the San Fransico Chronicle.

(Old Muscat)


My $70 hotel room in Dubai was pretty poor considering what you can get elsewhere in the world for half that, though it did come with a good breakfast -- pita, yoghurt, cucumbers and feta cheese. I spent the day in Dubai, which is a great place if you have a few hundred thousand dollars to blow. Otherwise it's a cultural wasteland dotted with fantastic highrises.

(Along the corniche in Mattrah)


I got the late afternoon bus for Muscat and crossed through a red and brown world of rock and sand and camels. Crossing into Oman the immigration officer waived my visa fee and as the sun set we cruised through small desert towns and into the sprawling suburbs of the Omani capital.

(Dhows in Aliya, Oman)


Muscat is a very nice city -- and much more interesting than Dubai, though it shares Dubai's handicap of a dearth of affordable accommodation (my $60 room was in a hotel which featured not one but two niteclubs with Egyptian and Indian dancers; pimps and drug dealers were a part of the lobby crowd). I spent two days in Muscat, drinking coffee and talking to the locals and walking along the spectacular corniche -- the seaside promenade -- at sunset. Like all Omani cities, Muscat is guarded by ancient forts, castles and watchtowers, which make for an intriguing background. It's also bestowed with a fantastic souq -- woodwork from Syria, rugs from Iran, coffee from Yemen, frankincense and sandalwood from the south of the country, antique swords and gold and silver jewelry from all over.

(Muscat's waterfront)


From Muscat I moved on to Sur, a small seaside city on the far northeast tip of Oman. I stayed in the souk (expensive hotel, but minus the dancers and drugs this time) and wandered narrow alleys of whitewashed buildings which dumped out on a wide sandy beach dotted with pickup soccer games.

(Overlooking Muscat from one of the city's many forts)


Oman is a country of great beauty, but it's likely the most frustrating I've been to. Most of the major attractions are not reachable by public transport, or if they are, they don't have affordable hotels. One way to visit them is to sign up for a tour and go as a day trip -- a great option if you don't mind plunking down $100 for 4 hours and a sack lunch. I did not feel comfortable spending that amount of money, and with few other options, I went old school -- I just hung out. I read a lot, I drank a lot of coffee, and I walked around aimlessly in the afternoons once the temperature dropped below about 105 (Oman, ever hot, was experiencing a heat wave e even the locals complained about -- morning lows were in the 90s and afternoon highs were more than 115.) I talked to a lot of locals and a lot of the people who work in Oman -- mostly Indians, who come over to work menial jobs at miserable pay in the blazing sun. For the most part, they are friendly and lonely but have appalling personal habits. Actually, meeting regular old Omanis was at times difficult. Most of the nation -- and the same went for United Arab Emirates -- is comprised of guest workers. They hail from all over the Middle East and Africa. The first thing you do when meeting someone is ask where they are from. I met Kenyans, Tanzanians, Afghans, Pakistanis, Nepalis, Indians and Bangladeshis, among others.

(The Arabian Gulf coast west of Muscat)


To every place I go I bring a set of stereotypes and expectations. In many ways these are useful tools, as a individual assessment of every culture you meet would be a mindboggling exercise. But I realize now that for me no culture has carried the sorts of beliefs and stereotypes than the Muslim Arab culture has.

(Sands in United Arab Emirates)


I met Salom and Omar -- both Omanis -- while walking through a park along the corniche in Muscat. They were crane operators on a dinner break from their jobs in the nearby port. Walking around alone you get constant invitations from men (and only men -- you hardly ever see children or women) to sit down and have a chat and a bite. They plied me with pitas spread with soft cheese, hot sauce and crushed potato chips. Salom did most of the talking. He asked about Thailand and America and Obama and if I had any interest in Islam. He made a number of offhand comments I was not sure what to make of. Most of them concerned women.

Salom's break was over. He and Omar had to go back to work. He said he wanted to give me something, and we made plans to meet back up at the same place the next night. Walking out of the park I got more invitations to sit down. One guy handed me an ice-cold Coke. Another wanted to add me as a friend on Facebook. I walked out to the beautiful seaside promenade known as the corniche and watched the sun set. The next evening when I came back Salom handed me a Borders bag. Inside were four books, in English, on Islam for new converts. They made for nice reads and got lots of friendly comments from the locals.

From Muscat I headed back to Dubai. There were no problems crossing out from Oman but I got stopped repeatedly entering UAE and got a full belongings search which held the bus up for about half an hour. I Dubai I went back to the tourist desk, this time one in town, and again asked for the cheapest room they had. $65!

Dubai is a sort of New York for the Middle East. It's a center of trade, finance, industry and politics. Dubai made its money on oil and the city grew exponentially beginning in the 1980s, though the growth seems to have accelerated in the past few years. Like anyone with lots of sudden money, you can do two things -- spend it like it'll be gone tomorrow or save it for a rainy day. Dubai has spent like no other city on Earth has ever spent -- smooth freeways, 160-story buildings, indoor ski resorts, sprawling artificial islands, expansive malls. Somehow along the way Dubai has convinced the world it's a great tourist destination. If you want to go somewhere, spend heaps of money shopping, dining and on hotels, and rent Ferraris for the afternoon, Dubai is perhaps the place to go. Beyond that, however, it's a pretty superficial place. It's top tourist spots can easily be seen in an afternoon. The heat is like opening an oven door. The traffic is legendary. It's got all the panache of a suburban American shopping mall. Top it off -- the locals are surly!

(Main Mosque in Der Dubai)


I spent another day in Dubai trying not to spend too much money before heading back to Bangkok. On June 5 we resume the round the world portion of our trip -- we fly back to Dubai and connect to Mauritius.


It's been a while since I updated this list. I long ago decided if I was going to waste my time reading I was only going to read good stuff. Most of these books are by Nobel winners. Not all, it turns out, are good, but all are important in that they represent the highest level of human art and cultural advancement.

Herman Hesse, Siddhartha (very good)

Orhan Pamus, The White Castle (excellent)

William Golding, Fire Down Below (a disappointment)

Mervyn Brown, War in Shangri-La: A Memoir of Civil War in Laos

Albert Camus, The Plague (quite good)

Peter Matthiessen, The Tree Where Man Was Born (a book of exceptional beauty)

Ernest Hemingway, Garden of Eden (great)

Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent (BORING!)

Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass

Balzac, Eugenie Grandet (very nice book)

Herman Hesse, Narcissus and Goldmund

Ford Maddox Ford, The Good Soldier (too hard to understand)

Robert Louis Stevenson, Kidnapped (very boring)

Emile Zola, The Beast in Man (quite good)

Monle Sayadaw, Formation of Five Aggregates, Four Noble Truths and Law of Dependent Origination (similar to many such Buddhist pamphlets I've read on the trip, this was so grounded in jargon and gobbledygook it was unintelligble. Such traits are common among Buddhist texts, I've found.)

Jim Harrison, Julip

V.S. Naipul, In a Free State (a great, beautiful book)

Heinrich Boll, The Lost Honour of Katharine Blum (deceptively complicated)

Pearl S. Buck, A House Divided

Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Manor (very nice)


Mandalay Beer, Myanma Breweries. Light tasting 7 percent beer brewed by the government

Sri Lanka Breweries Lion Ale -- soso

Gold Label Taiwan Beer -- chewey and skunky

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Behind the Iron Palm Frond Curtain

The night before we were to fly to Yangon, Laura got devastating news: her dad had cancer, and surgery was imminent; she might need to fly back to be with her family. After a consultation which went deep into the night, we decided it was best if she stayed in Bangkok while I went on to Myanmar. Nothing defines "dead end" like Yangon, and if she had to get out in a hurry it would be hard if not difficult. Bangkok, conversely, does not have those problems. So, nervous and somewhat scared, I went to Yangon alone.


Even before Laura got the bad news, I had been apprehensive about going to Myanmar. The country has been run by a military dictatorship for 24 years (it was hard line socialist for 20 years before that). It is not a place you associate with "human rights" and "fun under the sun." Reading about it beforehand, it reminded me too much of places I had been to in Africa, places where you could get in serious trouble by taking pictures of, say, a bridge or an airport. Plus, I had lied on my visa application -- they don't let in journalists, and while I am no longer a reporter they wanted a job history, and I fibbed all over. But I flipped through our guidebook one last time that night and decided I would go for it -- I was only going for a week, and there seemed so much to see. So I was up at 3 a.m. for the 4 a.m. airport shuttle. It rained hard that morning, and I had a long wait in the airport. The small Air Asia plane was only half full, and I I talked to an Argentine woman. It was a bright sunny morning in Yangon; I shared a taxi from the airport with two Americans. I went to a cheap hotel. I was in Myanmar.


A day in Yangon convinced me I did not want to roam far and wide in Myanmar. Conditions are primitive and transport verges on diabolical. I had originally thought of heading to Bagan, Inle Lake and Mandalay. I decided instead to do a tight circle around Yangon; go slow, go easy, enjoy things. I met a German girl and an Irish guy, and the next day headed to Kinpun. That afternoon we took a bus to Golden Rock, a place Buddha visited and where later a hermit donated three of Gotama's hairs; the rock, painted gold, seems to hang on the edge of the abyss. The summit was full of monks and hermits. They moved on the next day but I stayed and wandered around the tiny town.


Later I went to Bago, and was met at the bustling bus station by a boy on a bike, who drove me to a hotel and offered to be a guide the next day. Early the next morning he knocked on my door. Bago is a small city home to sacred temples, massive reclining Buddhas and a temple home to a gargantuan snake said to be the reincarnation of the temple monk's mother.


The next day it was back to Yangon, where I spent two days looking around the center of the city. By this time, as has happened to many other times on this trip, Myanmar was in the news (though not the domestic news, which is heavily censored, but from the number of police around you could figure out something was up): the nation's Nobel Prize winning democracy activist, already in jail in one form or another for two decades, had been arrested again. I kept a low profile.


In traveling to Myanmar I became one of just a relative handful of vacationers to go there. This backwards country is not on the tourist trail: it's hard to get permission to visit, it's hard to get to, and once you are there it's hard to do just about everything. The government is openly hostile towards its people. Many travelers are justifiably reticent to go there because as a traveler you inevitably wind up paying taxes and giving money in one form or the other to the government -- money which is then used to oppress its already rather helpless citizens. (I tried to minimize this by using private transport, eating in private restaurants and staying in private guest houses.)


So what is life in Myanmar like? It's presumptuous of a tourist who has been in the country for a week to make such an estimation, but I think it's safe neverless to say that life for the vast majority of Myanmar residents is pretty damn shitty. You could say the economy is in a freefall, but that would suggest it can still go somewhere down.


Most people eke out a desparate existence in any way they can. The sidewalks are full of people selling the random fragments of their lives: half used toiletries, dowries and family jewels, fruit culled from garden trees. Girls sell flower wreaths to the few passing motorists who drive rattletrap cars of no discernable make or model. Many live in once comfortable homes now rotting into the red earth. Most get around on foot or by bicycle. Cell phones are practically nonexistant, as are private phones and satellite TV.


Interesting for a dictatorship, however, is that the government really has little control over people's lives. In fact, the government simply seems oblivious. I think my most enduring aural memory of Yangon, a city of 5 million, will be the sound of twostroke engines. The capital has power for only 6 hours a night, and a few hours during the day.


Those who can get by with generators, which hum outside doorways and seem to add to the heat. The evening news is read by a stone cold sober woman standing in front of a picture of a power plant. After the news is a short video karaoke show: the current popular tune was a girl dancing in front of a hydroelectric plant. I'm sure the irony of it all is not lost on residents watching the news courtesy of a diesel generator. (After the news, BTW, is a game show called Puzzle Palace; occasionally the camera pans to show an auditorium devoid of spectators. And after Puzzle Palace is English soccer, relayed off India's Star Sports, played with the volume off so the Burmese announcers can give play by play.)


Such absurdities and injustices, however, don't outwardly affected the Burmese. They are quiet, look out for one another, and have the widest smiles in the world. They lead the purest, most innocent lives you can imagine. They listen to transistor radios. They touch each other tenderly when they are talking. They bemoan their plight only in private. Despite living in a rather filthy world they are always freshly dressed. Men and women alike wear long skirts called longyis, which are said to be good for dealing with the heat.


Almost all girls and women, and quite a few boys, wear mud on their faces. The mud acts as an allpurose sunscreen, makeup, perfume and moisturizer. On a handsome boy it is striking. On a pretty girl it is captivating, if not breathtaking.


Despite being shy, the Burmese love to talk to you. You can get a good sense for who you are talking to by how they refer to their country. If they say, How do you like Myanmar? you know you are dealing with someone who does not want to talk politics. If they say "Burma" -- the name the nation was called before the junta took over -- you are likely talking to a patriot. One such patriot was the owner of the hotel I stayed at in Yangon. He talked frankly about the country's troubles and his hopes for the future -- namely planned elections in 2010, which are scheduled to introduce democratic representation. He's planned ahead -- with his brother he has purchased 200 acres in Kinpun, and plans a sort of eco-resort. Such a purchase shows great hope in the future, as any land transaction involves hefty bribes and the knowledge the land can be repatriated at any moment. He is not alone in his hope for the future. Several others I talked to spoke of 2010 with hopes for change while keeping a realistic notion that change has been talked about now in Myanmar for a very long time.

(Of course, it's entirely possible that by the time change comes, Myanmar will no longer be the beautiful place it is today, a place where golden temples seem to light the sky and girls wear mud on their faces.)


Am I glad I went to Myanmar? Sure. I'm glad I have gone everywhere I have, if only for the knowledge that I don't want to go there again. There are plenty of places I never want to return to -- Peru, Bangladesh, Hungary. Those are places I either grew to loathe or whose benefits were far outweighed by their drawbacks. There are other countries I never want to return to, but for different reasons. One of those was Ethiopia, a country so exhausting and beguiling and beautiful it simply stunned the senses. I don't despise Myanmar because it's ugly. I despise it because I have no way of appreciating its beauty. "This is Burma," wrote Rudyard Kipling. "It is quite unlike anything you have experienced."

Laura stayed in Bangkok for three days before catching a flght via Tokyo for Atlanta. She got a roundtrip in hopes she can rejoin me on June 3. I head for Dubai and Oman on May 23 and return June 1. On June 5 we pick up again our round the world tickets, a complicated set of one way and round trip fares which are not changeable, not refundable and intricately linked. Now in Bangkok I'm airing my things out and restocking on provisions and trying to rest up for the next leg.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


With a few days to kill last week we decided to heat up to Vientiane.


We spent several days in the Lao capital on our RTW in 2002 and loved it. On that trip we also went upcountry to Vang Vieng and the phenomenal Luang Prubang, but with the country's primitive roads and our limited time we decided just to hang out in Vientiane this time.


We caught a night bus from Bangkok which wound through the heartland of Thailand. It was a very uncomfortable 12 hour ride to a town just before the border, where we pulled into a nondescript lot in the predawn.


When the sun came up the bus took us to a sort of restaurant where we were handed immigration slips for the entry to Laos. We checked out of Thailand, no problem, and changed busses to cross the bridge and enter Laos (Laos drives on the right, Thailand on the left, hence the bus switch). At the Laos border post we had to apply for visas, and the line long, and to kill time I wandered over to the ATM machine.


I've marveled before on the incredible convenience of ATM machines worldwide. Card = cash. I stuck the card in this one and asked for 1 million kip (sounds incredible, I know, but it's actually a pedestrian $120). The machine crunched around for a while, seemed to hesitate, and then went blank.


And took my card with it.


A minute later the machine revved up, and a messaged flashed on the screen, in Lao, French and English: "Initiating startup procedure. Standby."


I guess I started to go into a sort of public panic, because a Lao porter wandered over and said something to the effect of "this machine, many card, bye bye."


But in true Lao fashion he whipped out his cell phone, dialed a number and handed the phone to me. It was the People's Development Bank 24 hour hotline. A man on the other end, in broken English, told me I could collect my card the next day at the downtown location.


Whew. And I actually got it back.


Forays into thirdworld banking systems aside, Vientiane is a nice place (but hot as hell). It's a national capital with a mere 230,000 people, decided lowrise, noticeably French, primitive yet sophisticated, and full of intrigue and great food. Russians, Cubans and Chinese mingle on the streets.


You can speak French as easily as English (in many ways, some 55 years after Bien Dien Phu and their ouster, the French seem to be gaining a cultural and political foothold here). And almost every restaurant features espresso, thincrust pizzas and steak au poirve for $6 in addition to a healthy wine cellar.

We saved $4 a night by staying in a hotel which once had been pretty spiffy but unfortunately had not been cleaned or renovated in the last few decades. We drank coffee. We ate pizza.


I had battered deep fried lemongrass -- a memorable meal. We visited the city's incredible wats with sacred Buddhas. We walked along the Mekong and took shelter during some unbelievable thunderstorms. We spent $30 a day!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Off to ... Oman?


Yes, Bangkok, the frenetic capital of Thailand, has a lot to offer. Sensuous temples, narrow alleys full of ancient shops, rivers that link the city like highways, smiles galore, and more.

We like the city, however, for other reasons. More than once while in some Indonesian or Sri Lankan backwater we wished hard for instant beaming to Bangkok, where you can get stuff that works, tastes good, and is fun.

Pirated CDs for $3? Hourlong foot massages for $6? Artists setting up on streetcorners when the sun sets? Bookshops with real books? It makes Bangkok a fun place to kill a few days in between flights. So here are some of those delicacies in photo ...

(Reason to like Bangkok #1: pretty boys, ah, I mean, pretty girls -- well, let's not think about it too much ...)



Like I said earlier, we built in about two months into this trip to stay in Bangkok ... not to see the sights but pick up some cheap airplane tickets. What I originally had in mind was much different than how it's working out. What I thought was we would buy one mammoth round-Asia package which would leave from Bangkok and go to -- get ready -- Colombo, Yangon, Shanghai, Taipei, Thimpu, HongKong, Beijing and Ulan Bataar before heading back to Bangkok.

When I really started to look into this package, however, a number of problems arose. Myanmar had implemented new visa procedures that made travel look iffy. China had increased its visa application fee to such a high figure ($230) that it totally put us off the idea of going there. Bhutan only allows tourist flights to originate from Bangkok -- and the roundtrip fare is close to $1,0000. And any flight to Mongolia was going to be hundreds and hundreds of dollars -- as much as $600 return from Seoul!

(Reason to like Bangkok #2: made to order diplomas and licenses -- about $8)


What we wound up doing -- which was probably a much better plan, anyway -- was picking up a series of roundtrip fares from BKK. We went to Colombo on Cathay Pacific and Taipei on KLM; next we are heading to Dubai on Thai and Yangon on good ol' Air Asia.

The flight to Dubai is not to take in the sights of United Arab Emirates but is instead to head into neighboring Oman. I looked for about a week for discount fares to Muscat from Bangkok but nothing rang in as affordable. I then broadened the matrix to have us landing in Abu Dhabi and Dubai and then bussing over the border, but even that was costly. Finally we went into a travel agent's office -- yes, we did it the old fashioned way -- and the agent immediately found a discount fare on Thai.

(Reason to like Bangkok #3: pleasant streetside cafes)


Why Oman? It's a place I've wanted to go ever since seeing photos of Muscat in a magazine article years back. But besides that, after months in south Asia we are both interested in a change of scenery. The Middle East is a place neither of us has really never been. Also, excepting for a few spots like Japan, Korea and China, we've run out of places to visit in south and east Asia and central Asia at this point is neither affordable nor safe.

(Reason to like Bangkok #4: cool t-shirts)


So how much is this all costing? Well, even cheap flights between farflung countries are pretty expensive, especially when our budget for Asia was to be $30 per person per day. Our flight to Colombo was about $250 round trip. Taipei was a tad more and Dubai came in at about $390 per person. Air Asia's flight to Yangon is a slim $55 per person round trip.

(Reason to like Bangkok #5: cocktail buckets for $7)


Flying incurs other costs, however, that we had not originally fitted into the budget. Getting to airports is expensive, often you have to pay a tax to board your flight and if you are stuck somewhere on a layover then you are looking at a pricey meal.

(Reason to like Bangkok #6: streetcorner artists)


I did the budgeting for this trip before we left. I did a fair bit of research into countries we would or might be going to -- both from guidebooks, our ealier travels and from posting questions on messageboards.

(Reason to like Bangkok #7: 24-hour juice stands)


My "budget" took into account everything we would spend in the course of a day's travel -- hotel, bus, food, deodorant -- but did not take into account the roundtheworld airfare, which we bought in two packages and go into a separate expense account along with insurance and pretrip expenses, like shoes and socks.

(Reason to like Bangkok #8: hour long foot massages for $7)


The RTW did not get figured in because it was impossible to figure out how much each leg cost, and the cost of continent hopping would have grotesquely skewed the daily cost of living. The daily budget did, however, need to include the smaller flights we have picked up along the way -- places like Borneo, Lombok, Philippines, Taiwan, etc. -- because I saw those as nonnecessary flights and, what's more, intercontinental rather than intracontinental. To wit: while in Asia we could have gone to Taiwan on a plane, or we could have taken a bus to Vietnam. Since a bus ride would have been figured into the daily budget, the flight should be to. (Incidentally, I used the same tactic on our last trip, when we picked up flights from Dhaka to Kathmandu, Kathmandu to Bangkok and Lhasa to Kathmandu along the way.)

(Reason to like Bangkok #9: Asia's best bookstores)


We did very well on our budget before coming to Asia, and actually the budget here did not come off the rails until just before flying to Philippines. In South America our budget was $45 per person per day and at the end of 120 days there we had spent about $44.50. In Australia the budget was $40 per person per day and we killed that by spending just $35 per person per day.

(Reason to like Bangkok #10: Cds and DVDs for $3 -- downloaded to your mp3 for a dollar more)


In Asia our budget was $30 per person per day and so far we are clocking an average of $36 per person per day -- pennies, when you realize what we are doing, but significant in that we've failed to achieve a goal and do not have infinite amounts of money. In retrospect, I realize we are taking more flights than I had originally planned on taking. Also, though I adjusted our 2002-2003 Asia budget for inflation and a currently weaker dollar, I did not take into account the fact that we would just plain old want a higher standard of living this time around than last.

(Reason to like Bangkok #11: chicken satay with peanut chili sauce for 30 cents)


The budget for the remainder of the trip should not suffer as much as the Asia budget has as we will be in fixed countries for relatively small periods of time -- either one or two weeks -- and will not (hopefully) be picking up any more flights.

(Reason to like Bangkok #12: really cool stuff -- these are fold-up lanterns)


We were successful this week in getting visas for Myanmar (suckas!) and fly there (they don't allow entry overland) on May 14. For now we are going to take it easy for a while. We head to Vientiane, Laos on a night bus tonight. Vientiane was a real favorite of our last trip and we hope to indulge in some relaxation and French-inspired Lao cooking for a short spell before we get moving again.