Freedom of Speech and the Time I Spent 9 Days in Cuba without Internet

My Cuba abstention also extended to technology. The place is not merely a time warp because of the 16th century buildings and 1950s Chevys. It’s also a time warp because Fidel basically missed the Information Age.

My U.S. phone worked fine there, thanks to a deal between T-Mobile and the Cubacel / ETESCA, but data networks are basically nonexistent. In a country both undeveloped and given to political paranoia and repression, Cuba is one of the least connected countries on earth.

These days, they do have Internet. They don’t have computers or cable Internet but most young people seem to have a fairly recent smart phone. At WiFi parks (literally parks and town squares with WiFi) and some Belle Epoque hotels (like the Hotel Nacional in Havana), you can buy a card with a username and password for $1-3 and get one hour of Internet. Both locals and gringos cluster in these hotspots with their screens. If you still remember Pokemon Go, these gatherings make it seem like everyone has discovered a Pikachu.

In the town of Viñales I was sitting next to some hombres del barrio who had rolled up to the town square with outdated road bicycles. They were all sharing one username and password. Unsurprisingly, it seems security isn’t tight. Next to me, a guy with chin-length dreads was thrilled to be Skyping with a woman. He was talking about the sunshine in Cuba, so I couldn’t decipher if he was reconnecting with a friend or family member or expanding his horizons by speaking to a stranger (flirtatiously, of course).

But I didn’t connect once, because I wanted to save $3. That’s what my finances had been reduced to: walking 30 blocks to save $5, eschewing Internet to save $3 and always haggling my ass off with drivers to save $5-10. [I did however, give money for beggars, money for honesty, money for service by overworked waiters and money for musicians forced to play “Chan Chan” for the 3,256th time.]

I also thought connecting just once or twice would stress me out. I feared I would discover some action item in my inbox that I could not truly act on from abroad and then feel it hanging over my head for days, ruining my trip. The Internet leads to obsessive compulsion. So I stuck to SMS and didn’t post once on Instagram, despite all the photogenic scenes.

The couple of times I forgot reading material at home, the lack of connectivity became boring when I sat in bars by myself with literally nothing to do.

Chatting with locals was one good diversion, but not always possible. Normally if alone at a bar I might talk to the bartender. The “bar” areas of Cuban watering holes do not usually have seats, and if they do the bartenders are too busy making drinks for fifty people to chat with you. The bars all run a very tight ship.

So instead of turning to el feis when bored, I read books. Besides my guidebook which was one of my only information sources in a world without Internet (and also a world where some locals seemed to feign ignorance about prices and how-to’s in order to maximize tourist revenue for their community), I read a book called Island People: The Caribbean and the World, by my former Berkeley T.A. Joshua Jelly-Schapiro. It includes one chapter on Cuba.

In fact, I wonder if Cubans are highly educated not only because of their free education but also because like prisoners in solitary, they spend a lot of time reading. [However, I mainly observed people using leisure time to watch TV with family members, to hang out in el barrio catcalling me, to drink Cristal, Presidente and Bucanero beers with friends and to dance at the salsateca.]

Returning to the States, it felt like walking into an episode of Black Mirror. Cubans seemed so sociable and friendly. The ones I saw spent their time doing the above social activities, in addition to their daily doctoring or taxi driving or sugarcane cutting or serving of mojitos to tourists. Frankly, it makes Americans look insane, individually staring at their screens.

Of course, the act of using one’s phone or computer isn’t antisocial. It often consists of expressing yourself with a photo on Instagram, sending a Snapchat video to a loved one, sharing an opinion for discussion or showing support with likes, comments, etc.

The Cuban government funds all sorts of arts programs, but it hardly seems like true freedom of expression when your art must be rubber-stamped by the State. So the idea of expressing yourself online seemed bizarre, bold and individualistic after facing the communal, restrictive atmosphere of Cuba.

Free-flowing information and opinion seemed bizarre after going to Cuba. The mere existence of a digital world–essentially The Matrix–seemed bizarre after going to Cuba. The service economy and the legacy of Silicon Valley seemed bizarre after going to Cuba.

Ironically, I now work at one of these social networks, and I earn money by coding and analyzing data with computers.

In mid-January, the social networks were ablaze with outrage and fear over the upcoming inauguration. In many ways, this vacation of mine was also a vacation from the news cycle, from U.S. politics and even from Trump’s existence. [God, I needed that.]

At first, much of the conversation seemed petty to me. On my first day back, while I was consumed with the feeling of richness after a week of living in poverty (but actually not at all living in poverty on $60/day while Cubans earn about $20/month), a college acquaintance of mine posted about how Aziz Ansari would be the first Indian-American to host SNL. Her commentary? An angry “seriously how is he the first?”

First of all, the return to racial discord struck me. In Cuba, I am sure anti-blackness often rears its ugly head, but I did notice the darkest skinned Afro-Cubans hanging out with the lightest-skinned whites quite often, while the majority of people (varying city to city) seemed mixed-race.

Second, I sympathize with this outrage in the age of identity politics (and neo-Nazis), but it suddenly seemed so ridiculous to be angry when we live in the land of riches. Plus, Aziz Ansari is not a person of color who got the short end of the stick materially. He is rich–he lives a couple blocks from me–and successful and it’s excellent news that he will host SNL. Why you so mad?

A large chunk of traditional and social media these days seems to be, essentially, “He said WHAT?!” So. Much. Outrage.

And after my break from the Internet, it seemed clear that much of Donald Trump’s words, if not also some of his actions, are diversions from the material essence of how he and the Republicans are dismantling democracy and turning back the clock on civil rights.

Settling in with my Black Mirror

I found all the information and links and opinions and possibility at my fingertips distracting and almost stressful, but eventually I settled back in, getting back into the groove of opening apps and browser tabs, into the cycle of Internet addiction. I was ecstatic to have access to streaming multimedia, with its immediacy and recommendation algorithms again (in Cuba, people were limited to whatever pop music they could get their hands on). I caught up on a couple weeks’ worth of news and Twitter. I dealt with my deluge of emails. [Advice: if you go to Cuba for nine days, set up an automatic reply for your personal email.]

As soon as I landed, I sent a mobile payment and grew furious when Venmo, by surprise, froze a $200 payment with the message “Cuba” due to OFAC regulation. We think we’re freer than the Cubans, but really our communication networks come coupled with mass surveillance.

We currently are freer than the Cubans, though, because we can express ourselves in myriad ways; we can organize over those networks; we can search for truth rather than be blanketed with propaganda; we can dissent loudly and proudly. We aren’t economically free, with the threat of medical bills and/or loan payments hanging over our heads. Whereas we lack the reassurance of the state caring for our basic needs, we have the reassurance of due process, elected lawmakers and other hallmarks of a democracy. It’s messy and a pain-in-the-ass and full of stressful outrage, but we must cherish our nation’s greatest strength. When crony capitalists and fascists threaten our institutions, we must rally to protect and preserve the United States of America.

You happy with my patriotism, State Department?

Related Reading
Donald Trump wants to ‘close up’ the Internet
Lawmakers in Eight States Have Proposed Laws Criminalizing Peaceful Protest
Fidel Castro’s Sister, an Outspoken Critic, Takes No Joy in His Death

 

 

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Food after Cuba

At Newark on the way to La Migra, the scent of fatty food from United’s terminal of iPad restaurants wafts through the air. “It smells so good,” moans a Southern-born Brooklynite who sat next to me on the plane from Havana. All of us returnees have food–spicy, fatty, seasoned, Guy Fieri-approved food–on our minds.

But also: “I need to eat a salad,” says a returning Jewish girl. She is probably well-versed in the ways of Sweetgreen, but in Cuba you’d be lucky to get iceberg shreds and a tomato slice with your plato of pork, rice and beans.

We’ve come from a land of austerity and rationing. The government controls the food supply, and it’s been strapped for cash since losing access to the Soviet gravy train in 1991 (Soviet aid comprised 90% of state revenue).

As a result, each family gets a limited allocation of victuals. Grocery stores are nonexistent; Cubanos pick up their food supplies from a local depot and their tab goes in a register. They max out at five eggs per month. (Sorry, no brunch culture.)

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Local butcher in Centro, Habana

I did see men coming ‘round the neighborhood with garlic, onions and shallots, singing their song of “cebollas, cebollas”. Havana had small farmer’s markets as well. But despite the budding markets, the economy is still broadly planned. Planning is hard, and shortages are common. It doesn’t help that a large amount of the food is directed to the tourist trade.

The austerity extends not only to the quantity of food but also the quality. Anyone in a sunny clime can grow herbs and chilis on her windowsill, but Cuban food suffers from a mysterious lack of seasoning. I don’t know why; perhaps it’s the communist favor for drab, for an almost Buddhist monk-like asceticism. I had some decent dishes, like arroz marinero (rice with mixed seafood), that would have vastly improved with a little chili. If I have a single recommendation for visitors to Cuba, it would be: “Bring your own bottle of hot sauce.”

With a dearth of cooking oil, you can forget about caloric comforts like fries. And going to the local store to purchase local snacks, one of my favorite travel activities, is surprisingly hard to do. The place barely even has stores. A Mexican from Veracruz whom I met at a bus station offered me some chocolate Oreo-style cookies once. I examined the label to discover they came from Brazil. I work at tech companies with baskets of free snacks. In Cuba, they live in a world without snacks.

For my first couple days in Cuba, I sorely missed Mexico with its everything picante and ancient indigenous food so delicious that it has buoyed the country to the status of “only non-Anglo nation in the Obesity Top 5”. I will say the Cubans, despite possible lung disease from a years of smoking and choking on Lada exhaust, looked pretty healthy, as they were mostly very physically fit.

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Not from Cuba. Carnitas, cochinita pibil tacos and duck in mole negro from Restaurante El Bajio in Polanco, Mexico D.F.

In fact, I lost three or four pounds there. It was not only from my diet of ham and cheese sandwiches; it was also because I had to ration money. American ATM or credit cards do not work there, so I was limited to the $450 I brought for nine days (I had already prepaid all my stays at casas particulares). This turned out to be plenty of money, even enough to buy a $50 bottle of Santiago rum aged 12 Years on my way out. But I was constantly paranoid that I would run out of money and end up in a jam.

As a result, 50 cent ham sandwiches, skipping meals and walking 30-60 blocks at a time to avoid cab fare was my Cuba M.O. This was a big lifestyle change for someone who considers herself a “foodie” and eats $50 meals a couple times per month. Actually, I think it would be a struggle for anyone from the USA, where obesity not starvation is the killer; hence our collective airport salivation. At one point, I drank a national brand Cuban cola instead of water mainly for the calories.

p1140559Menu at a kiosk favored by taxi drivers by the Hotel Nacional. The exchange rate is 24 pesos to a $1. However, these Havana prices would be considered expensive elsewhere.

What an effect just nine days of pauperism will do to you. (And I recommend it to any rich American, so they can learn what it’s like to be poor and check their privilege so hard.) On the plane home, I dreamed mainly of my first meal back in America.

I was with Salad Girl. My diet in Cuba felt lacking in plant fiber and I craved vegetables more than I craved picante or pizza. I ended up hitting three birds with one stone. My first night back in New York, I ate brussel sprouts with anchovy, chili and lemon, heirloom carrots with dill, capers and shallots and a Neapolitan-style pizza topped with rapini, crescenza, fresno chili and lemon. I actually felt sick eating that much flavor after my week when food was fodder.

The next morning I also ate Saturday brunch, having not consumed an egg in ten days. Yet, still craving fiber and actually fearing a large egg-based meal, I ordered a dish of yogurt, granola, quinoa, sweet potato and pomegranate seeds. This didn’t taste “healthy” in a bad way; it tasted delicious. Meanwhile, home fries bummed off my husband’s plate tasted like an explosion of flavor in my mouth.

In my apartment, I still had treats leftover from Christmas: chocolates from New Zealand, Ohio and San Francisco, Chinese black sesame cookies, cheesy potato snacks from Japan. Between that and a trip to Whole Foods and my closet full of winter clothes and the fact that I could play anything I wanted from Spotify on my phone, I kept exclaiming, “This is the land of riches!”

I can totally see why brown bears keep stealing our food instead of hunting, and why Cubans would gamble to cross the 90 miles to Florida in rickety rafts.

Teach Me How to Bali

Bali. The name conjures up images of swimsuit relaxation, jungle yoga, some kind of Cancun-like party scene (enough to provoke a nightclub bombing), and also Elizabeth Gilbert/Julia Roberts in some mixture of jungle yoga and beach party in Eat, Pray, Love. I had no intention of going there–I figured if I went to Indonesia I’d go somewhere less touristy than Bali–but I ended up going to line up with one of my best friends who would be there a few days. Plus, it was on my way home to Melbourne. Unlike during the rest of my trip, where I spent an average of 2.5 days in each locale, I chilled out in Bali for a whole ten days. The perfect slow end to my run-around tour of Southeast Asia.


Bali is at once everything you expect, everything you’ve heard it is, and also full of surprises. The streets of infamous Kuta are indeed full of partying backpackers and a trashier sampling of Australians, but it’s no grungy backpacker beach town; it’s full of luxe open-air malls with Quiksilver stores and Japanese restaurants, resembling Waikiki. Balancing out the partying youth are Muslim families treating themselves to ice cream, and local Balinese kids hanging out in the shorebreak while their families at sunset. Even in this heavily touristy, party section of Bali you will find daily offerings out for the gods outside the Quiksilver stores and beautiful Balinese temples on every other corner (though women are barred from entering sans sarong, or while menstruating). At one point wandering Kuta we even came across a local parade of men in sarongs and cloth around their heads, hoisting a couple VIPs in elaborate palaquins, swarming in patterns deliberate and traditional.

Random parade near Kuta

Kids playing at sunset, Kuta Beach

Offerings for the gods

Seminyak is as trendy as you’ve heard, full of beautiful people in expensive swimsuits (here you will find the better-looking and better-mannered Aussies), a sort of Coachella-esque scene. They gather in cute Aussie cafes and hipster taco joints. You can buy stylish backpacks and perfect wooden dinner tables for several grand at the fashion boutiques and design stores around Seminyak.

Along most of the famous southern beaches, the sand is gray and covered in trash, and also touts and various men hollering at you. It costs 50,000 rupiah to rent a cabana, and the water is better for surfing than swimming. I had a decent time at Balangan which had gelato and families gathering at seaside restaurants, but I never made it to an amazing beach in Bali. I hear they exist, as the island is full of micro-climates (my sister recommends Bingin Beach for its cliffside setting), but I never got to one.

If you want to relax, as everyone knows, you go to Ubud, which features heavily in Eat, Pray, Love. This featuring has driven a high number of visits by single thirty-something women who come to Bali to do yoga, find themselves, harass people from the book, etc. These EPL women are everywhere throughout Bali, sitting in cafes alone, or with young local boys preying on them at bars in a somewhat amusing manner. I only got to visit Ubud a couple times rather than stay there, but enjoyed the pleasant gelato shops and juice bars among the blocky but graceful temples, and was even more surprised by the many amazing boutiques on Jln Hanoman and Jln Monkey Forest. I got a wood and mother-of-pearl serving tray and some lovely ceramics for pretty low prices. I didn’t expect to be shopping in Bali at all but I’d recommend leaving room in your suitcase if you go!

I also did not expect to be so enthralled by the Monkey Forest, but was glad I got a chance to interact with the residents. The huge group of macaques here included bullish alpha males, mamas with tiny babies at their teats and playful youth. Monkeys scurrying through the trees! Monkeys playing down on the bricks of the park! Monkeys hanging out all over statues and temples! One was clutching an empty aluminum can as if it were a piece of treasure. When I sat down at the monkey park’s grassy amphitheatre the young ones would climb all over me, turn my pockets inside out and try to reach inside my bag–they hope to take your valuables and trade them back for food.

Friends at the Monkey Forest

I could tell why Don Antonio Blanco, the Dali-esque painter, came to Bali and ended up staying forever, marrying a Balinese dancer and setting up a studio-mansion in Ubud. There’s something enchanting, and very creative, in the air there. Thus, it’s not the beach but Ubud where I’d recommend coming to get lost in Bali. But maybe that would be too full-on Eat, Pray, Love, so maybe not.

Nobody seems to think of Sanur anymore, which seemed to be the popular resort town in about 1975 and now has a sleepy retirement community vibe. But even this has-been place was delightful due to its lovely seaside. Whereas the southern beaches have a beach covered in trash and a crowded walkway behind a wall that obstructs one’s view of the sea, Sanur boasts a few miles of new stone path, right between the sand and the restaurants and hotels.

I strolled Sanur beach in the late afternoon for three miles. Just after a rain, it was almost devoid of people. Dragonflies were buzzing around, the light was reflecting on the water beautifully. Boats with brightly colored accents were parked all over the sand and water in the southern end. They looked like giant cartoon water striders and I thought about all the boats I had seen during my Southeast Asia trip–Vietnam’s pastel fishing boats, Cambodia’s awful heavy wooden ones in forest green, Thailand’s long-tail boats and now Bali’s cartoon striders. I noted promising-looking warungs and beach clubs, and the deserted Hyatt which had been closed for renovations. The sun lounges at the Hyatt were still active for rent but everything on the grounds looked askew, and the large concrete modern hotel block was now covered in overgrown greenery. Delightfully post-apocalyptic.

View from Sanur beach at dusk

The deserted Hyatt in Sanur

I came another night with another friend, who I had convinced to join me in Bali for a few days. We first grabbed some of the best chicken satay I’ve ever had–mmm, so coconuty!–and then sipped Bintang pilsner beers while on lounge chairs facing a small cove and let relaxation take over. The sky was quite different than the rain-washed one I had experienced a couple days earlier. Storm clouds darkened one part of the sky, the clouds were lit intermittently by flashes of stunning sheet lightning. Meanwhile, the tide was falling to insanely low levels, and in the quiet and shallow cove the water was nearly still. As night fell we noticed figures walking through the shallow water with LEDs afixed to their heads. They were peering, hunting for something in the shallow waters (I joked, “Maybe he just lost his keys.”). Apparently they were scouring the shore for prawns. I always like a single light in the darkness.


Bali is a big island with a lot to see (I only saw a small fraction of it over ten days), so we found a driver named Ketut-tuk to drive us around for a few days, which I highly recommend doing, because Bali is huge, uncomfortably humid and inscrutable in its road plan. Ketut-tuk grew up in the north of Bali, not far from the blacksand beaches of Lovina, and had been driving people around for over twenty years. He had a wife who balanced books for a hotel and a teenage son. He told us a bit about Bali customs, for instance that a family’s youngest son must take care of his parents and that all families go every day to the local family temple (the ones I’d been seeing on every block) with breakfast offerings for the gods, except for when a family member dies in which case they do not go out of mourning.

Most Bali adventures with a car involve a stop to a “coffee plantation” as you climb in elevation, going from sea level to an environment of jungled hills. You are led through a small sparse maze of coffee and fruit plants, shown the mongoose-like creature that eats and shits out luwak coffee, and then the roasting of the beans and the grinding of the coffee into the instant “Bali Coffee” which is ubiqutious on the island. You are  poured small tastings of drinks made from various colorful powders, including coconut coffee, vanilla coffee, lemongrass tea, ginger tea, mangosteen tea, etc., and ushered into a buying room. It’s more fun than high-pressure, so drink your samples graciously.

Bali coffee and tea tasting

We drove all the way up to Bedugul, known for its lakeside temple and also its incessant pouring rain, especially in January. Due to rain and fog, we could not get the full effect of this tiered pagoda, which looks like a cross between something Chinese and a Balinese temple, but the place did look sort of cool and special shrouded in fog.

Bedugul in the fog

So, we decided to drive over to Jatiluwih on recommendation from Ketut-tuk. After a drive through some small narrow streets, mainly surrounded by dense forest and a healthy helping of traditional houses behind walls, we entered the controlled, UNESCO World Heritage section. Entering Jatiluwih, with its spectacular vistas of rice terraces cut into the hills as far as the eye can see, with a backdrop of even taller mountains, felt like a scene out of Lord of the Rings. Here you are, this tiny being entering this huge otherworld of a life and people completely removed from your home. Of course, I had been in massive rice terraces in Guangxi before, but something about the mountain climate of Jatiluwih made it still unique. Of course, in this weather the higher mountains and big background volcanoes were still shrouded in fog, but this only added to the effect.

We shot some pictures among the bucolic expanse, and chowed down on nasi goreng for lunch. Wandering a bit, a guy in an SUV who seemed to be running a bike tour told us we could walk down a paved path into the terraces for a stretch. We started into what had been mere scenery before, now immersed in the green rice terraces, as if cradled gently in the hands of Mother Nature herself. The local ladies smiled and waved at us as they bent over the paddies hard at work, others with small children said hello as they zoomed by on their motorbikes. We came upon a small shed. We had seen a few of these scattered throughout the paddies and found that each housed a single white ox. After the disappointment of Bedugul, this Jatiluwih visit certainly seemed like the figurative silver lining to that literal rain cloud.

Jatiluwih rice terraces

The only more managed adventure I went on was a biking trip with Bali Bintang Bike Tours, which we shared with an elderly Danish couple who had been married for 48 years but acted like newlyweds in a way that warmed my heart. This trip enabled me to see a lot of Bali quite removed from the beachside warung or the Westerner cafe.

We started out with a view of the grand volcano Mount Batur and its next-door buddy Lake Batur. Soon enough we picked up bikes and were speeding downhill by green coffee farms where ladies were working, and other fruit plantations and bits of rice paddies. Then through local villages, with their traditional pitched-roof houses, family temples and small convenience stores. The houses were nicer than the wooden stilt houses in Cambodia and Thailand, sturdier with clay tiled roofs. Dogs and chickens roamed everywhere on the whole ride. After the easy downhill village scenes, we also rode through some busier commercial streets lined with artisanal and industrial workshops, riding along with trucks towing groups of men, and even through some pockets of genuine rainforest.

We saw so many people–mothers and children on motorbikes, ladies on the farms, children walking home from school, old grandmas in discarded Western t-shirts with a sarong, their hair tied back and balancing huge containers on their heads. These villagers were simply the friendliest I had ever encountered in all of my travels. Except for the grandmas who tended to be a bit cranky and weary of having their photo taken, everyone else would smile, say “hello” and wave. Kids would stop and wave and pose for pictures.

Workin’ hard

Boy at his puppy at the family compound we visited

Our guide, a 25-year-old second son and now a father, grew up in one of the villages. He brought us to a traditional family compound, which consisted of a few rooms for dwelling, a family temple, a little closed shed on stilts for storing rice and areas for the animals. More chickens were roaming, and more dogs, including puppies and a three-legged dog hobbling around, and cats too. A pig lived in its own quarters. This was fascinating but I suppose augmented by the friendliness of the family there. The old lady came out to greet us with tiny bananas. The little boy said hello and played with his puppy.

After a few hours of biking, we also were treated to coffee, banana pancakes and an awesome lunch of soup, fresh fruits, ayam goreng, nasi goreng, mee goreng and fish. I felt so enchanted by the variety of gorgeous and special scenes, the graceful architecture and dense tropical plants and dramatic mountains, and most of all charmed by the friendly villagers.

What an island. There’s a lot hiding within its many different pockets.

A lot of magic, a lot of smiles.

Travel Joy Among Thai Temples

Morning at Sukhothai, Thailand

I spent most of the first five weeks of traveling through Southeast Asia with others, including my boyfriend, my sister and my best friend from college. Traveling with these loved ones was definitely a treat, and I felt so grateful to be able to make amazing new memories together. Yet, as an introvert, being glued to other people 24-7 became trying at times, and I found myself craving some time and space for myself. Thailand was a perfect place for some solo journeying, and the many moments of solitary joy I felt in that magical country were oddly among my favorite memories of that whole nine-week SEA tour.

Whenever I travel I always visit ruins–I guess I just love to see Man’s work wrecked by Time and Nature–so I went to explore the old capitals of Siam. A short public bus ride out of Bangkok brought me to Ayutthaya, where I rented a bike. Nothing says independence and freedom like a bicycle. With the wind in my hair, I rode all around the historical park. The second capital of Siam, Ayutthaya was a bustling, magnificent city from the 14th century until sacked by the Burmese in the late 18th century. I saw Angkor-inspired towers leaning, chedis lopped off by time, a Buddha’s head in a tree, red Buddha murals down in the crypt of a pyramid, a huge stone reclining Buddha and a stately complex where school children were roaming on a field trip.

I biked around the modern town, which is on an island at the confluence of three rivers. I biked by brutalist-leaning concrete buildings, and the local market where locals were breakfasting and selling fruit. I biked by more golden wats, by low, wide schools, by small storefronts selling coffee. I biked through residential areas crammed full of vaguely Asian two-story houses light in color, with slightly sloped corrugated roofs; a handful of open-air restaurants and a few traditional wooden, pitched-roof Thai homes were scattered among these residences.

A lot of bile had been building up in me due to difficulties handling a certain travel buddy who had been suffering anxiety attacks, but with this adventure I felt the bile was beginning to drain. At the root of this healing was mainly distraction, but if that sounds too cynical, you could call it some kind of experiential immersion: To physically exhaust oneself. To tackle new logistical and spatial problems. And most importantly, to fill one’s brain with a host of new, interesting sights, sounds, tastes, etc. The more I experienced of this huge world, the more I forgot any dramas in my head.

Biked by these concrete beauties in Ayutthaya

I took an overnight bus up north to Chiang Mai, a popular tourist destination and base for trekking between hill tribe villages. The place is rife with Americans chatting loudly and other various white folk on yoga retreats, but I couldn’t help but fall in love. Chiang Mai is so mellow. With just a little walking from the tourist center, the gangs of farang thinned out and I got to appreciate the city’s street art and lovely tropical brutalist buildings in whites and pastels. I also visited the various wats scattered around Chiang Mai. Built by the Lanna kingdom (separate but allied with Siam), these temples boasted intricate wood carvings on the pediments and steeply pitched roofs. These temples never bored but were full of wonderful details like stone elephant statues, colorful banners hanging and wise but whimsical proverbs on placards. And of course, they all had As Many Buddhas As Possible.

Temple time in Chiang Mai

Listen to the sign, people.

I took to meditating and donating at these Theravada temples, and with this practice, I felt emotional poisons finally left my body. When people go on solo travel journeys to find themselves, one might think they are trying to think about their problems and find paths to resolution. Well I began to feel most at peace by meditating, by not thinking about anything whatsoever. I eventually felt, maybe for the first time ever, that my mind became clear. “Problems” just didn’t seem to exist anymore.

Chiang Mai is not only amazing for these “spiritual” reasons; it’s also just a lot of fun, and I think fun is pretty good for the soul too. I smiled my face off while riding an elephant, bamboo rafting and hiking among beautiful rice paddies and cliffside forest on a tour (most hilarious part of this day: the mahout gave me distilled longan liquor which he was swigging from a water bottle; it appeared he was drunk driving our elephant!).

Elephant is hong-ray

Chiang Mai also boasts some of the best food in Thailand, which remains cheap and authentic despite the tourist factor. When in Chiang Mai one has to try khao soi, noodles in a rich coconut curry. Outside Wat Phra Singh, I also feasted on a grilled omelette, spicy sausage and deep-fried pork with green chili thread sauce from a small market. Yet, the best food selection is on offer at the Saturday night market, which is a food paradise that is also fairly happenin’ due to the slate of bands and performers–I caught a very cool and talented young band while chowing down on fried rice. The Sunday Walking Street also has food vendors, plus stalls selling actually covetable products and various musicians who are performing every ten meters or so. I felt so happy there, walking among the throngs of young, Chinese-leaning tourists, who also seemed so happy to be there, hearing musicians expressing themselves and eating amazing food.

Khao soi

Some food offerings at the Saturday night market

Chiang Mai, city of music

Finally, I visited Sukhothai, the old capital of Siam, to look at more ruins. Because I was lucky enough to go at about 7 AM with zero people around, this experience, for me, was less about ruins and more about the feeling of total tranquility. My world was bathed heavily in morning light. The images of Buddhas, stupas and palm trees were reflecting in lightly lily-padded reflecting ponds. I walked and biked around, wandering across small bridges, to tall brick chedis, among all sorts of trees, even plumeria. Cranes flew by, a few dogs were resting in random spots. I just so calm and happy to be alive experiencing this peaceful place.

Total tranquility

I realized that for the first time in my life, I was truly living in the present, not thinking about the past, nor what I should do weeks, months, years in the future. Typically on vacation I might stop thinking about work for a while, but I am still usually thinking about the future, what is the next step in my life and what I should do differently going forward to fix the mistakes of my past? But after more than four weeks of this condition, traveling had finally become my life, my only reality, so it seemed dumb to think about what I should do in my non-travel life. In fact, non-travel life just seemed to be full of cycling trivialities; at least that is what I felt while meditating before these centuries-old monuments to the universal struggles of Man.

Of course, this zen feeling, one that came about after a very long break from routine life, is probably not easily replicated. I have no grand lessons to impart, no hippy-dippy ideas about healing. Just go out and explore! That goes a very long way.

Sensory Overload in Bangkok

Market scene, Bangkok

I also used to analyze Thailand for a living as part of my job as an emerging markets economic analyst, but frankly Thailand is too damn culturally interesting to examine purely through a lens of dry economics*. Financial discussions, data aggregations, tracking of growth rates, and so forth are the domain of my brain’s mathiness. Thailand does not ignite that part of my brain. For me, Bangkok was a place of lights and music, of amazing tastes, of cultural complexity, of magic, of feeling, of style, of the sublime. It’s a fascinating place, the kind that made me thrilled to be alive and traveling.


One of my well-traveled colleagues once noted that two world cities bring about SENSORY OVERLOAD: Istanbul and Bangkok. Films like The Hangover 2 would also clue you in to this reputation of Bangkok as sensory playground. We landed at the massive Suvarnabhumi airport with about ten thousand other foreign tourists, and after a long day of sitting down traveling from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh to Bangkok, we were itching to eat and hit the town. We cabbed to our a tiny apartment in a high rise in Huai Khwang.

Luckily Huai Khwang, besides being full of “massage parlors” and gentlemen’s clubs with big bright signage, hosts a fairly large market. This market specializes in women’s clothing of a sexy kind, some of it actually quite cute and modern–high-waisted swimsuits and bustier-skirt combos. But the market also sold DVDs, stores full of Hello Kitty home goods and lots of FOOD! We had a hard time deciding between the many options, but ended up feasting on skewers of grilled sausage and chicken, a plate of the best pad Thai ever, fried chicken, green curry, sweet sticky rice with mango and some pomelo.

That night we perhaps overdid it on the Bangkok nightlife, intending to just go for a couple drinks but instead staying out til 4 AM. I suppose the city is just a saucy seductress when it comes to partying.

We started out on Silom Road. This street is known as the Wall Street of Bangkok, containing the skyscraper residences of the big banks and Western hotels, but we started walking on the bright busy end full of tourist stalls and bars. Silom is crossed by seedy Patpong 1 and 2, former R&R destination for horny GIs and home of the infamous “ping pong shows”. We eventually made it to Maggie Choo’s, a cocktail bar owned by a Perth-born bar mogul, housed in a colonial bank vault and dressed up to the nines as a 1920s Shanghai speakeasy. The central bar area is behind bank teller-like bars and above that floats a cage full of lounging girls. They wear cheongsams, black Velma Kelly wigs and falsies, and they match their sisters on swings hanging from the ceilings. We had some top quality cocktails among the other expats and well-to-do Bangkok residents, while listening to an Aretha Franklin copy (from America) belt out jazzy tunes, both modern and classic.

My friend Numan, a Bangkok local, came along and this is when it started to become more of a blur in my memory. After my third delicious cocktail we decided to hit up Soi Cowboy, the more current strip of go-go bars and the like. As we exited the cab, we were assaulted by a barrage of lights and loud tunes, with all kinds of people on the street, patrons and bar girls and a few food carts too! We had way too much fun at Cockatoo, full of ladyboys in pink and yellow string bikinis who had spot-on tuck game, toned hairless bodies and winning smiles. They weren’t dancing much despite being on a long narrow stage with stripper poles, but rather gyrating in our faces and occasionally nipple flashing. Numan was a good sport and instructed us to not buy them drinks (because you should be wary of surprise tabs) but rather stick 20 baht notes in their bikinis.

We also went to a cowgirl-themed go-go bar, full of skinny possibly underage girls in bra tops, jean shorts, white cowboy boots and cowboy hats. They all looked about 16 and were even lazier than the ladyboys. One of the girls was giving a lap dance to a 60-year-old white man–almost comically gross. At about 3 AM as we were ushered out we exited to the still-busy Soi, where some of the bikini-clad ladyboys were spilling out of the bar now heading home. My drunk treat was a grilled rice ball, shaped into a round patty and slathered in a yummy Thai sauce.

We experienced some more Bangkok nightlife for New Year’s Eve. We had no real plans for the night, as we could not be bothered to either wait for fireworks or purchase tickets to some larger event, so we headed on the MRT to bright, modern Sukhumvit to just see what we could find. As soon as we emerged from underground we encountered a series of pop-up bars selling cheap cocktails out of small van and carts, pumping electro and pop music on the street. We ended up at Sukhumvit Soi 11, not at one of the foreigner bars but on the street at a plastic table ordering margaritas and Singapore slings from a smiling lady playing electro music from her cart, next to a family with some underagers and maybe an Indian couple. It felt like Vegas or Halloween night, with people all over the streets: many foreigners, many girls wearing light-up cat or mouse ears. Competing music was blasting from the different bars. This made me sure that Bangkok is, indeed, the world’s best party town. People barely even blinked when the clock struck midnight–no countdown, no squares anxious to get home.


Bangkok was simply crawling with foreigners, or farang as the Thais call us. Many of these foreigners are expats, others just visitors. In fact the city is the world’s most-visited after New York and London. To me, tourism in Bangkok took on a very different tone than in other regions of Southeast Asia. After decades of international tourism and trade in Bangkok, the locals seemed quite used to the farang, in the way that my relatives in Hawaii are used to mainland and international visitors: people from somewhere else are an everyday presence.

I can’t say the Thai interactions with tourists I observed followed some broad trend. Some seemed jovial, fulfilling Thailand’s promise of being the Land of Smiles. Others were perhaps totally indifferent. The unscrupulous are known to use to take advantage of dumb, inexperienced tourists by extorting them–they have developed a whole bag of tricks.

But there was a lot less begging, which was a plus. [I will note that throughout Thailand, due to more robust economy, I saw very few people standing around, underemployed.] Another plus is that the experience runs cosmopolitan. In Bangkok, you get many internationals bumping into each other, and locals whose world is pretty damn big. Unfortunately, some of the international visitors, especially the backpackers, cluster in tourist areas like Khao San Road, which is full of hostels, Europeans drinking al fresco and carts serving only pad Thai with all-English menus, but still, foreigners are everywhere.


Thai street snacks

Heavenly pad thai

For me, the highlight of the Bangkok sensory overload was obviously the street food. Though things were relatively quiet due to the New Year, I visited a few markets. The best in terms of selection was probably the huge local market in across the river in Thonburi, near the BTS Wongwian Yai, comprised of carts all over a long street and under a covered structure. This area had no English signage but offered noodle soups, fried chicken, whole grilled chili fish, fried rice, fried noodles… talk about spoilt for choice. Besides the market at Huai Khwang which I frequented, I also checked out the Sukhumvit Soi 38 night market. This one had downsized slightly for the holiday but still had plenty of noodle soups, roast pork and duck, fried noodles, mango sticky rice and curry. I had noodles from a cart in an offshoot alley where we spotted some delectable-looking roast pork and crowds of people waiting.

Even outside the big markets, food carts were on practically every corner! Food carts selling sausage, food carts selling pork rinds, food carts selling all kinds of crazy snacks, like these mini toasts with spring roll filling and sweet sauce (see above). I also had some amazing roast pork with rice noodles in Chinatown off Charoen Krung Road. If I lived in Bangkok, I would never cook. Every day there is a feast!


My time in Bangkok wasn’t all eating and drinking. On New Year’s Day we relaxed in Lumphini Park, a big public park near the muay thai stadium. When I got a chance I wandered all over the place, though Bangkok is gigantic and fairly car-based, so we did get stuck walking along eight-lane thoroughfares sometimes. We walked down big commercial streets, such as ones full of Japanese restaurants and massage parlors catering to Japanese men, and through leafy expat residential areas full of modern apartment buildings and villas behind walls. I most enjoyed walking around Chinatown and other areas toward the palace, where the cool nineteenth and early-twentieth century architecture and brutalist apartment buildings all contributed to Bangkok’s variegated mix of old and new.

Wandering around Chinatown

As Many Buddhas as Possible at Wat Pho

We also saw some of the very old by visiting Wat Pho, one of the largest and oldest temples in Bangkok. You might think after Angkor Wat and Bagan I would have temple fatigue, but I was curious to see how Thai temples would differ from Khmer and Burmese ones. While it shared the steep roofs and curved spires with the Cambodian temples, and various scattered stupas with the Burmese ones, Wat Pho was quite different than anything I’d seen so far. The focal point was a giant reclining Buddha housed in a rectangular building, but Wat Pho also featured white stupas covered in colorful lacquered flowers, pavilions decked out in golden multi-tiered roofs and rows upon rows of four-feet-tall stone Buddhas. It seemed to be aiming for As Many Buddhas As Possible, with over one thousand Buddha images across the giant complex. The place was stuffed with tourists, including foreign females wearing skimpy beach dresses which you are not supposed to wear to a Buddhist temple, but many locals had come to visit, meditate and donate.


Anti-government protests at the Democracy Monument

Walking from Wat Pho, we ventured by the Democracy Monument and encountered an uptick in uptick in street vendors, not just selling food but also whistles and flags. I noticed a couple tents and realized we were going through the encampment of the anti-Yingluck protest, which ended up toppling the Pheu Thai government and leading to a coup just a few months later. Here I was facing the politically active Thailand that one reads about in the headlines, the Thailand of coup d’etats and Thaksin and Yellow Shirts and Red Shirts. I found it somewhat ironic that the pro-monarchy, slightly fascist-leaning, anti-populist protesters were camped at the Democracy Monument.

To my surprise, it mostly had the atmosphere of a summer street festival. When I happened to walk by, there were very few cops or army; a couple authorities did make us walk through a controlled entrance, but did not check our bags, or bark at us in the way New York cops often do. At a large stage in front of the monument, a guy who looked like Ai Wei-Wei in sunglasses crooned along with instrumentalists playing Thai classic rock, the bands’ images projected onto screens like at Coachella. A mass of middle-aged  people were leaning back on plastic chairs, cheering, blowing whistles, waving flags. One of these ladies motioned for us to have a seat in the chairs.

This all seemed largely peaceful to me and I questioned the alarmist Western media and financial analysts who condemn these acts of political expression. These demonstrations do turn violent sometimes when the authorities flex their muscles, and often can be quite economically disruptive (remember the airport takeover?) but when I actually observed these protesters, I could not see what was wrong with citizens expressing themselves. We point fingers at protesters for disturbing the peace, but even though I do not agree with their anti-Thaksin sentiments, I found myself kind of proud of these peaceful demonstrators. [No comment on the extra-Constitutional events that followed.]


What I liked most about Bangkok, though, was the modern, young Thailand–the stuff not encompassed by headlines or landmarks or stories of prostitutes and ladyboys. Taking the Bangkok MRT and BTS I quickly noticed the locals’ great style. They seemed to dress very hipstery, with high-waisted shorts and hipster glasses. Men sported trendy haircuts and wore denim, floral or polka-dot button-downs. Girls were not afraid to show skin or wear sheer clothing, and it usually looked cute not slutty. Spending just a few days there, I was convinced Thais are the most stylish Asians; they dress in a way that is edgy and youthful unlike the more conservative Shanghainese or Singaporeans. I was also convinced, seeing young people playing in rock bands all over the streets, that Thais are the most bad-ass Asians.

While traveling around with Alicia and Keala, I went to a few of cool-people joints in Bangkok, besides Maggie Choo’s. Near the Sukhumvit Sky Train we went to Gastrobar 1/6 at the RMA Institute, a contemporary art space with an adjoining cafe. Among hipsters with perfect hair and sunglasses, we enjoyed a New Year’s brunch–including a long black!–in this leafy oasis full of natural light, with some modern millwork accents and an eclectic collection of Asian and Western antique furniture. We also got beers at HOBs, which had a serious beer selection heavy on the Belgian brews and played Empire of the Sun and Santigold, and tequila cocktails at BADMOTEL, which boasted a white and silvery but low-lit courtyard, similar to some of my favorite bars in Los Angeles and New York.

Brunch at RMA Institute

Lounging with a drink at BADMOTEL

I also really enjoyed the Bangkok Art and Culture Center. I hopped a couple trains to get there at rush hour, and now that the holiday was over, Bangkok was alive with energy. I felt the greatest “I fucking love Bangkok!” feeling as the public spaces were blazing with a never-ending stream of people, many of them young, getting egg tarts and tea outside the Skytrain entrance on the way home from work. I love that Asian megacity feeling, one you might get watching the sea of people going in and out of Shinjuku station. At the BACC, I was short on time so had to quickly peruse the contemporary shops in the lower floors, which turned out to be pretty tempting. The official galleries on the top had an amazing, well-curated selection of works by Thai, ASEAN and Japanese artists, with some interesting commentary. The place was full of well-dressed young couples at 6 PM on a weekday, which furthered my opinion that Thais are fucking cool. Outside the building as I left, a gathering had blossomed. A man had been giving an impassioned talk earlier, and now the attendees had shaped themselves into a glowing peace sign.

Gallery time in the BACC

Stand for peace

* A quick synopsis: agricultural powerhouse (it’s a Top 3 exporter of rice), tourism, auto manufacturing, vital manufacturing location in Asian supply chain, a bit of finance (lest we forget the Asian Financial Crisis).

A Malaysia Analyst in Malaysia

Infrastructure in Malaysia

My first job was working as an economic analyst and research associate for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Emerging Markets Group. After a few month’s job searching in the rough economic climate of spring 2010, I had been happy to land a professional-sounding job with “research” or “analyst” in the title – much better than “administrative” or “intern” – and even better, one that would actually tap into my background in economics and passion for the international. I began “country coverage” a few weeks into my work, and my first country assigned was Malaysia.

During that first summer at the New York Fed I spent hours poring over Excel spreadsheets and chatting with my colleague Michael, who transferred Malaysia to me from his country portfolio. I learned to dig down Excel rabbit holes, to make sure my forecasts reflected the ever-changing data releases and to write briefings which were sent off to a mailing list full of central bankers around the country. And eventually I did seem to be less of a recent econ grad and more of an economic analyst. Twice per year we would write a one-page country risk analysis for each country in our Emerging Markets portfolio, and I would write things like,

Malaysia faces structural weaknesses that have encouraged human and physical capital outflows and left the economy over-dependent on low value-added manufacturing exports.

and generally wag a finger at the outsized role of the public sector in the Malaysian economy; at the over-reliance of the government on oil revenues from Petronas; at excessive fiscal expenditures, particularly on unsustainable fuel subsidies; and at the overall lack of a diversified, private sector-driven economy like we enjoy in the AAA-rated West. Oh, and a parliament in which the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and its ruling coalition have dominated the country for decades, resulting in politicians with no incentive to depart from the status quo. This status quo includes affirmative action favoring ethnic Malays over Chinese and Indians, creating some degree of racially-tinged contention.

Eventually over three years, it occurred to me that while I found all of this interesting, analyzing these things for a living didn’t make my heart beat, particularly in the Dismal Science, which makes a living over prognosticating doom and gloom via some discussion on “structural weaknesses.” I left my position to study computing at grad school in Australia.

But still, I was excited to go to Malaysia, the place I studied for three years. I had come to know it in the abstract, over macro talk on broad intangibles, concerning not only Malaysia’s national issues but also its place as a small, open country in a global system. Now I would come to know it in the micro, in the physical, in the sensory, in the looks I would surely receive from people on the street. I still strongly believe that macro data speaks louder than isolated personal anecdotes, but let’s see what I would “learn”, or moreover, what I would experience with that abstract knowledge in the back of my mind. I spent a few days in Kuala Lumpur and Penang, exploring to my heart’s content in 90 degree heat.


Racially-tinged Contention

To begin my Southeast Asia tour, I got on a redeye AirAsia flight from Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur. The airline AirAsia itself is symbolic to me, the brainchild of Indian Malaysian Tony Fernandes and a rare private-sector success story. AirAsia has blossomed not due to but in spite of the Malaysian government, which sticks to promoting the interests of its pubicly owned, should-have-been-bankrupt Malaysia Airlines. AirAsia had to drive the building of its own low-cost carrier terminal (klia2) to make its business model work.

My flight was packed with skinny Malaysian Chinese youth, many of them probably students at Australian universities returning home for the summer, chatting in their sing-songy English. The pilot was an Indian named Suresh, and the stewardesses smiled charmingly in bright red uniforms and spoke Malay and English. When I arrived in Kuala Lumpur the next morning, I was soon hit with alternating blasts of intense humid heat and air conditioning, which brought me back to summers in Shanghai. I was so excited to be back in Asia again, and to be among different kinds of Asians!

Yet I wondered how it would feel to be Chinese-looking in a country where many dislike the Chinese. The Chinese in Malaysia and throughout Southeast Asia are a prosperous bunch, which has provoked an anti-Chinese sentiment similar to anti-Semitism in Europe. (Some famous Malays such as Mahathir Mohamed are also openly anti-Semitic, and those with Israeli passports are not allowed in the country.) The affirmative action laws favoring Malays are aimed at raising social justice for the majority race that fell behind economically. Yet, the open, government-endorsed bias against Chinese and Indians has helped contribute to a “brain drain” in which educated and potentially productive non-Malays leave the country. Meanwhile, a Malaysian Chinese friend of mine once told me that Malaysians of different races never intermarry and that some Muslims will not physically touch Chinese people because they eat pork.

This situation all made me bristle, but I wondered if it would feel as contentious as it sounded.

I definitely observed segregation. Traveling through two urban centers, I noticed the Chinese gathered in their Chinatowns and Indians in their Little Indias. I saw packs of Chinese teens on the monorail, and groups of Malay women in head scarfs, but never a mix of the two. The Chinese did not bat an eyelash when I ordered char kway teow at their market stalls, while I definitely felt as if I had walked into the wrong neighborhood while wandering amongst Malay shophouses, getting glared at by local men.

I definitely observed racially-correlated iniquity. The island of Penang was full of white high rise apartment buildings, glittering shopping malls, factories of companies like Dell and Mattel and big detached houses with manicured lawns behind painted walls. In historic Georgetown, with its heritage shophouses and food stalls aplenty, people were snapping pictures with iPads. This place was settled by Chinese starting in the Ming Dynasty, and their legacy is apparent in the ornate mansions full of finery once owned by prominent clans of Straits Chinese (also called Peranakan or Nyonya), descendents of immigrants who formed a new distinct identity in Malaysia. Penang is the only state to have an ethnic Chinese minister steadily since Malaysian statehood.

Yet, to me it seemed no more segregated or unequal than Northern California, where ethnic enclaves also exist and people’s friendships also often fall along racial lines. I didn’t feel like it was precarious, or like it would break out in violence; in public spaces, everyone mostly seemed civil, helpful and even friendly. In addition, instead of treating me in a racist manner as I may have expected, most Malay guys tended to hit on me (some Chinese ones did too). And like in California, the differing but largely strong and proud ethnicities resulted in awesome FOOD!


In Kuala Lumpur, I had the opportunity to hit up three Malaysian Chinese markets. In all of the markets and hawker centers I’ve been to in my 23 countries of traveling, I would definitely say Malaysian Chinese markets are among the best.

First, the Chinatown Wet Market. I was walking down Jalan Petaling, a big commercial street heavy on the tourist junk, when I caught a glimpse of a man selling roast pork belly. I saw that he was standing at the opening of what appeared to be a giant cavernous covered market crossing Petaling. I went in for a peek at the heaps of shiny fish and glistening butchered pig cuts. An old man was puzzling artfully as he prepared to cut a perfect piece of fatty pig skin. Another had whole chickens, heads removed, with a bunch of birds squawking in a cage below. Nearby is Madras Lane, where women were serving up bowls of curry mee.

Man making tofu at the Chinatown Wet Market

Breakfast time at Imbi Market

I also went to hit up two popular hawker centers, Imbi Market and Jalan Alor. Imbi is partially built under a high-ceilinged structure and partially ramshackle under tarp. The market has a section of fresh fruit and some meat, a section of clothing and then a grand food court. In the food court, some establishments are housed permanently in surrounding stalls and others serve up noodles etc. of carts in the center. I just came for a light breakfast so I grabbed an iced kopi, a hot, perfect egg tart and a flaky red bean pastry. I took a seat at one of the plastic chairs and soaked up the hungry cacophony.

Jalan Alor was right next to where I was staying at Bukit Bintang. The long street is all shophouses with the ground floors devoted to selling delicious food, with ample plastic seating and a night party atmosphere. I got my favorite Malaysian dish, char kway teow for $2 and wasn’t disappointed: fresh noodles perfectly seared by the wok, with a delightful kiss of chili oil, and one local bonus: a healthy heaping of cockles. I came back to Jln Alor a couple more times for roast duck and curry mee.

Char kway teow from Jalan Alor

Roti-ish pancake with curry sauce in Penang

Georgetown on Penang also had some amazing food; in fact food is the main reason why one goes to Penang. Unfortunately I had destroyed my stomach coming out of Thailand and suffered from heartburn, premature fullness and the propensity to vomit every time I ate, but I still was happy to get cheap eats from the carts that dot the historic city as well as the hawker centers. I got some more char kway teow there, and fried chicken and other goodies. We were also pretty pleased to try some great Indian food, including some of the best roti and samosas ever, from the carts and restaurants around Georgetown’s Little India, where Bollywood music is pumped through the streets and stores sell saris.


Over-reliance on oil revenues, unsustainable fuel subsidies

Malaysia is a big producer of oil and natural gas and these activities belong primarily to the state-owned giant Petronas. KL’s famous twin towers are the Petronas twin towers, actually. The role of fossil fuels in the Malaysian economy is large, with about one third of government revenues coming from oil and gas. And yet rather than say, saving these windfalls while operating with fiscal prudence a la Norway, the government continues to squeeze Petronas for dividends and meanwhile spends as much as 10% of its expenditures (3% of GDP) on fuel subsidies to keep pump prices low [they do have a sovereign wealth fund called Khazanah but it is more of a government holding company than an investment of oil earnings].

The result is a country where car is king. Sometimes for a tourist this is a positive thing; Malaysia easily has the best highways in Southeast Asia, and it was a real treat to barrel down those roads on buses at 70mph after tooling along at 20mph in traffic or potholes in say, Cambodia or Vietnam.

But the everyday Malaysian can forget about walkability or pleasant urban spaces. Though it enjoys a monorail and a limited amount of train system, KL was mostly a network of massive highways. Even its major central park is hard to get to on foot; it seems like an elevated jungle island in a sea of highways. In a few places pedestrians can walk through overpasses, including covered air conditioned ones, but not knowing my way around that well I often found myself walking along the side of the eight-lane roads with no street-level businesses and not even sidewalks.

On the other hand, in Malaysia it’s so damn hot, who wants to walk outside? One time a white colleague of mine was complaining that Asian megacities aren’t walkable like quaint European cities, and I was annoyed by this demanding that everyone live in the European way. And how can we even compare cities of 1 million with those of 7-20 million? While I found myself agreeing with that colleague somewhat while being stuck walking on the side of the highway, I cannot really pass cultural judgment on a preference for traveling in air conditioned cars over walking in 90 degree heat, particularly if cabs remain accessible price-wise. From an environmental, sociological and economic/fiscal standpoint, however, I would argue against the car-petroleum dominance. In fact, with its production-consumption patterns, Malaysia is set to become a net importer of oil. Meanwhile, the plummeting oil price can threaten to wreak havoc on the budgets and currencies of countries that depend too much on oil exports. Plus, everyone knows the traffic sucks.

I did enjoy riding the monorail, though, and the metro has women-only cars!

KL, city of traffic

Much better on the monorail (monorail! monorail! monorail!)


Un-diversified economy, over-reliance on low value-added manufactured exports

Whenever I land in a country I look for signs of economic development, as probably everyone does. On the bus to the city from klia2 I quickly observed industrial activity among the wet-green, jungle-y landscape: Huge piles of industrial goods like concrete piping. A sign marking a Petronas natural gas line. And no tropical villages but rather large tracts of row house housing developments, though sometimes also a disheveled bunch of tin roof hut clusters nearby – I imagined these housed the workers. And throughout Malaysia as I rode long distance I noticed the rainforest had been leveled to make way for rows and rows of neatly lined palm oil trees–Malaysia is the largest exporter of palm oil. Meanwhile, in Penang the place was fringed with the factories that were producing those manufactured exports, as mentioned above. Kuala Lumpur was a concrete jungle full of corporate headquarters, including many of those state-owned national champions, as well as banks–Malaysia is also the center of Islamic finance.

So what I observed in terms of production aligned exactly with a Wikipedia summary of the country’s economy. I guess when one sums up a country’s economy we tend to focus on the producers, on the major industries. And Malaysia is an economy driven largely by exports and government spending, and to a lesser extent investment. Its consumption growth has been largely tepid in recent years, unlike say, the Philippines which is a highly consumer-driven economy.

But here on the ground consumerism was up in my face. One of the major traditions of KL life is none other than the mall. I checked out Pavilion KL and Suria KLCC, both of them six-plus story behemoths housing stores like Sephora, Kinokuniya and Parkson. With the lack of public spaces outside, I could quickly see that a main gathering point was inside at the mall. Ah, Asian megacity malls. Everyone, even groups of Malay guys, was coming into Pavilion KL when I was there at night, taking photos on their iPhones of themselves in front of the huge lit-up Christmas trees. Because what is Christmas about, in a Muslim country, besides shopping?

Christmas at Pavilion KL

Anyway, I only saw two very prosperous cities, and none of the non-urban life in Malaysia, so what I got was not a comprehensive sample of the Malaysian economy. But looking at its many different industries and people gathering in shopping malls, and comparing that with much poorer places I saw in Cambodia, Vietnam and Burma, I kind of thought, what more do you WANT? Economics is based on utility theory, which means that humans always want more. So naturally economists believe Malaysians want and need more, and while I am certain that we should bring more to those who can’t afford an iPhone, I do not really believe that all humans always need more. 

I guess that’s why I left that area of study.

Inle Lake by Boat, and the Time I Got Sick in Burma

Waiting for Keala to get her sunnies from the hotel I talked to a guy who offered me a boat. “Where you from?” “USA.” “USA very nice country! Obama!” “Obama visit?” “Obama visit a few time, go Yangon visit Aung San Suu Kyi.”

We had a boat arranged already, however. We settled down in one of the typical long, skinny wooden motorboats, armed with blankets to protect against the cold morning air. After a trip down a canal, we were gliding over massive Inle. Fishermen were out in their smaller wooden boats, rowing in their distinctive style: standing up and rowing with one leg. This is to improve visibility, so they can see more and avoid reeds. Strangely, the boat driver would slow down for fishermen photo ops, leaving me amused but slightly uncomfortable. One guy actually posed for our cameras! And didn’t even ask for money!

One-legged boat rowing, Inle Lake

The long journey across the open lake brought us to a large, wild canal, which eventually led to the inland village of Inthein, which was hosting the rotating market that day. After clearing our way through initial rounds of tourist stalls, we found a large gathering in a dusty field. The women and men wore some kind of head wrap in addition to their longyi. Some ladies sat in rows with fresh fruit for sale out in the sun. Past them was a collection of covered stalls selling everything from jeans to toiletries to traditional woven scarves and bags and jewelry to jade and souvenirs. A proper bazaar, I think.

Inthein market

Noodle soup, Shan tofu with chili sauce and rice crackers. May have gotten me horribly ill but totally worth it.

Eventually under a bunch of tents we found all kinds of food hawkers. First we had two sweet doughnuts, one pale and ricey, the inside lined with shredded coconut, the other like an undercooked malasada, very soft on the inside. Then we caught our first glimpses of Shan tofu dishes, a mix of soft tofu, shredded tofu and fried tofu topped with cabbage, puréed cauliflower and all kinds of chili sauces, which men were scooping with large crispy rice crackers – like tofu nachos!. The tofu, unique to Inle Lake, is made out of yellow split peas and has a strange consistency. A smiling old lady directed us to sit down and helped us order. Another girl gave us noodle soup, very thick and mauve in color (more mohinga?), which was wonderfully comforting and delicious. The tofu nachos were creamy and a nice mix of textures, great with a bit of chili.

The lady talked to us, asking if we were sisters and where we came from. She spoke bits and pieces of English, more than most of her brethren; she had devoted herself to learning the language throughout school. I was surprised to meet an elderly person with any English skills and she told me she was 67! “Birthday? 1946, same year as Aung San Suu Kyi.” They all work Aung San Suu Kyi into the conversation here, and her image is everywhere, as if some Uncle Ho figure but the idolatry is totally voluntary. Then, of course, she wanted us to look at her jewelry shop, but she didn’t have anything that appealing. “OK maybe come back later,” she said. Sellers of goods and services in Burma are never pushy, ending their sales attempts with “maybe later.”

We walked into residential Inthein a bit, past some ruined, crooked stupas. The town also has a hilltop monastery. The houses here were all brick and mortar; this place must have been comparatively prosperous.

Next stop: a pagoda housing a few Buddhas which transformed into amorphous blobs over years of Buddhists covering them in more and more gold. Women were barred from the central amorphous blob Buddha circle.

Amorphous blob Buddhas

Then, a series of handicraft stops. This annoyed me slightly as I dislike a forced shopping tour, but the workshops were generally interesting: For example, we saw a teak workshop where they made the long Inle boats, both motorboats for toting tourists and smaller fishing boats. After the fitting and sanding is done, the boats are slathered in tar. Inside ladies were rolling cheroot, the local cigars. Also, at a large weaving factory, women were spinning silk and lotus thread and weaving at looms which made loud smacking sounds. Apparently lotus thread is six times as expensive as silk and unique to the region.

Spinning lotus thread

We made our way through the floating gardens, where the Intha have painstakingly built up beds on which to grow tomatoes and all kinds of crops. This practice will have deleterious long-term effects on the lake, as the beds will become solid ground, but it was peaceful to float by with the farmers through this other-worldly place.

Our final stop was the famous “jumping cat monastery”, a wooden monastery on stilts where the monks have trained cats to jump through hoops. Unfortunately the cats were relatively dormant when we arrived, but I liked sitting in the comfy teak recliners in sunbeams next to tiny kittens! The place was full of foreigners trying to photograph cats on their SLRs, though a monk was speaking wisdom to a couple Burmese. This monastery also boasted a large collection of golden Buddhas from several different styles (Bamar, Shan, Intha etc.). Our driver came in to pray at one of them.

We were dropped off in the late afternoon, and that night I dined on a curry fish. As I was trying to sleep I heard a procession of children singing in harmony outside at about 10 PM. What a sweet place, I thought. Later, however, I felt the peculiar need to vomit, and ended up throwing up and having diarrhea in countless episodes throughout the night. My stomach hurt terribly, and I felt various lower abdominal cramps as well. Worse, I became increasingly dehydrated but could not hold down water! Only with some electrolyte drink and Advil at about mid-day the next day was I able to gain the strength to even rise from bed.

So we had to abandon our plans for a long trek that day. Food poisoning in one of the world’s least developed countries after subsisting for six days on primarily street and market food?? Crazy! But I wanted to walk it off. So that afternoon we hiked down the road going east from Nyaungshwe which led into the hills and into a tiny village where kids were playing soccer and bathing at a concrete public shower. Up some stairs young monks (here in burgundy) were wandering around at a small monastery. We walked into a small cave, where a smiling monk gave us a flashlight and another one led us around in the dark up and down stairs, pointing out Buddhas and cave paintings. “No oxygen,” he’d say when we motioned to go in certain directions. At one point he had us meditate in a hot cavern in the dark. A little sketchy, a little awkward but definitely an amusing exchange.

Took a walk to this monastery, cave and village

The next morning we drove through white mist so thick you could see no distinction between the lake and the sky, noting a peculiarly orange and circular sun before it rose higher and the mist cleared. On the exact same Air Bagan flight, which seems to just go in a circle around Burma, we flew over dry mountains to Thandwe, where we landed right next to the rippling ocean, and finally to Yangon, where gilded stupas glinted in the sun.

I had low expectations for Burma. After the irritating visa process, suspicious Air Bagan reservation system and crappy hotel selection, I was expecting a real shithole. Moreover, I was expecting the poverty level to be stressful. But, maybe because I flew instead of taking slow buses and trains, I found traveling in Burma totally manageable, less stressful than in Cambodia. The food was delicious and cheap; I want to go eat some Burmese food right now, or perhaps learn to make mohinga! The sights were unique and off-the-beaten path. Yet, I’d agree with Lonely Planet: the best thing about Myanmar is the people! The Burmese are friendly, happy, curious about you, honest, full of optimism. I’m so glad I went there, as their optimism and spirit gives me hope for the whole world. 🙂

Inle Lake by Bicycle

The banks of Inle Lake

My final stop in my Burmese journey was to Inle Lake. We were dismayed to learn that Inle Lake is freaking cold, with lows in the low 40s and highs only in the 60s. This meant we would be forced to wear our dirty pants for three more days, and I didn’t even have a coat! The drive to Inle Lake took about an hour, driving through some windy roads through low mountains, plus straight ones through small towns. We stayed in Nyaungshwe, a small grid of a town with lots of hotels and English. The banks of the lake are covered in long, parked boats and men asking us if we needed a boat. We passed a couple of golden pagodas and people’s small homes in the marshes of the lake.

For our first day, a nice sunny though fairly brisk one, we rode bikes all around the lake, renting a couple of cruisers from our hotel. At first we kept making wrong turns and would go far down dusty paths but then have to backtrack. But this brought many interesting sights – a strip of market in Nyaungshwe with some delicious-looking samosas, small villages of houses with woven walls on stilts in the marshy land. Lots of chickens and dogs roaming about. Again, the locals–mainly Intha people, an ethnic group found primarily around this lake–were very smiley and greeted us with a “Mingalarba” or hello. The kids would wave at us or even try to high-five us as we passed on our bicycles. The kids are so cute, happy and friendly; they must be well-loved.

The road going east-west along the northern edge of the lake was brutal as it was unpaved but reinforced with bumpy rocks, and occasionally uphill. Motorbikes and trucks kept passing us, blowing dust in our face, all over our already dirty pants and sweaters. This road went mainly through shady trees.

After about 3 km we turned on the western road going north-south, a big improvement as this was paved and in the sunshine, going along the mountains. We passed a school full of kids in forest-green school longyi before arriving at the hot springs. These were lamer than expected, actually lukewarm pools run by a couple of spas. We paid $5 each for entrance to the public pool which had dirtier water but no tourists. We lounged and half-napped on the deck in the warm sun, very relaxing after the long bike ride. Two puppies were sleeping in the shade of one of the chairs. Their mischievous brother came to nip at them. In a plastic chair restaurant nearby, a middle-aged lady gave us lunch of Shan noodles – chewy, spicy and delicious.

A guy offered to ferry us and our bikes across the lake for 8000 kyat, so we followed him to the jumping off point and settled in our long wooden boat. We first traveled down some marshy canal for a while before entering the big open lake! Speeding across it for the first time, with the mountain backdrop and bright sunshine, brought big smiles to our faces. Apparently the lake is only 12 feet deep at its deepest point. Reeds are visible all over Inle Lake’s inky waters.

Kids going home from school in green longyi

On the east side, mothers were paddling in their own boats to pick up their children from school, the kids walking merrily down the pier. Biking up north alongside the mountain we passed lots of agricultural lands, including these tall pale pink cat tails (might have been rice?) while lots of vehicles passes us on our bikes: little Chinese-made trucks carrying crops or gravel or wooden planks, motorbikes, little open buses with lots of locals piled in. They would smile and wave at us. This road was mostly paved but was heavy with truck traffic at this hour, so I got lots of exhaust in my face. They were doing work in it in some places, though no road crew was out at this twilight hour.

Our final stop for the day was Red Mountain Vineyard, which required biking and hiking up a hill covered in grape varietals, numbered and labeled. The restaurant at the top of a hill had an amazing view of the mountains, valley and lake, all bathed in late-afternoon sunlight. We paid 2000 kyat each for a tasting of four wines – one Cabernet, one rosé, one Shiraz-Tempranillo and one sweet late harvest. They were all actually quite good – at least, better than the crap I usually buy. Wine in Burma – awesome!

Enjoying some wines at Red Mountain Vineyard

So far I loved Inle Lake, and could see why it continues to be a major tourist destination. The setting is enchanting and unique–floating villages, watery life, mountain backdrop, strange pink plants– and the locals were so charming and friendly. I don’t mean to romanticize poverty and I’m sure the situation is much grimmer outside of the tightly controlled tourist areas in Burma, but the residents near Inle Lake honestly looked truly happy, which is all the more impressive given the level of development. The next day we would go on our typical Inle boat tour.

The Temples of Bagan

The mighty Ananda Pahto in Bagan

Almost every tourist who visits Burma goes to view the temples of Bagan, the leftovers of the Bagan empire which unified and ruled the country in the 9th through 13th centuries and, in its piousness and prosperity, built over 10,000 temples across the Mandalay Region. Better than the temples of Angkor? SPOILER ALERT: yes I think so.


The flight on Air Bagan to Nyaung-U was kind of hilarious. When the staff finally arrived at the check-in counter at 5:15 AM, one hour before our scheduled flight takeoff, they simply looked at my printed confirmations without even checking our IDs or the manifest, giving us a sticker to wear and a boarding pass with all the info rubber stamped on it. Needless to say, they lacked computers. When it finally came time to board (not on time obviously lol), they notified us by having a person walk by with a sign that said W9-141, our flight number. The flight on the tiny ATR 72 was fine, though only half-full so I’m not sure why I paid so much. They brought us orangeade, tea and coffee and bread snacks. Air Bagan may be owned by a government crony but the service sure beat American Airlines’.

From the tiny Nyaung-U airport, we took a cab ride from a guy who spoke good English (he learned from his father, a headmaster) to Aung Mingalar Hotel. The girls with their painted yellow faces weren’t too friendly but they let us check in early. We picked out some rickety bikes and first stopped at a local restaurant nearby, enjoying some fried dough and Shan noodles, chewy noodles reddened by this spicy gelatinous sauce made of rice flour gel. The TV was showing the SEA Games in which small teams squared off at a badminton net but were kicking over a small ball as if in some combination of soccer, hackey sack and volleyball.

We were pretty disoriented after rising at 4 AM but started biking toward Bagan anyway, with no real idea of where we were going and no English signage. First we hazarded a stop at this strange amusement park built around some stupas, both gold and brick, probably not original, with Buddha spots for meditation but also loud music and a Ferris wheel. Then we turned down the first random dirt road that looked promising, and eventually encountered a brick temple complex with no one around, my feet in flip flops getting dusty. The temple was nothing special but it was cool wandering around the interiors of these deserted places.

Just a stone’s throw away a huge temple stood inviting us to explore. We tried to walk over there but found it was surrounded by tall plants. All of Bagan is quite dry, covered in tall grasses and cacti and strange trees. Some of them leave burrs all over you. We wandered down the dusty dirt paths with our bikes and encountered a field where women in longyi and straw hats were working, their big white oxen chewing the plants with airy green pods. One of them pointed down the road so we ventured that way and found the rectangular fortress we had seen people at the top of earlier.

Hunting for temples

The locals pointed us in the right direction!

A secret dark staircase led to the roof, where we caught our first glimpse of the sheer magnitude of Bagan’s plain of temples, with stupas dotting the green landscape as far as the eye could see. These ranged from big white ones with gilded spires to humble red brick ones restored inaccurately, some more rectangular and castle-like, some just a solid round stupa. Some were under construction, men on its levels working away. It was certainly a magnificent and unique sight, and super fun discovering it on our own.

Finally we found the old city walls marking the entrance to Old Bagan and we spent our two days in Bagan biking between all sorts of temples. Thatbinnyu, tall, white and castle-like. Shwesandaw, a big white pyramid with steep steps and an amazing 360 view of the plain of temples. Dhammayangyi, an imposing, mostly mortarless brick temple built by a ruthless king. You must always remove your shoes before entering a temple and walk clockwise around the stupa.

Enormous teak buddha inside Ananda Pahto

The most famous temple is Ananda Pahto. Ananda is huge and white with golden spires and features four gigantic teak Buddhas painted gold, as well as some original mural work and corridors filled with even more little seated Buddhas in rows of semicircles. The exterior was also quite impressive with its gilded spires and cool lion statues on the corners.

In another corner outside Old Bagan you can also see some decorative detail: The huge Htilominlo Pahto features ornate original carvings on the outside, while Upali Thein has original mural work, ranging from simplistic to depicting complex human scenes. In their heyday all of these temples would have been painted both exterior and interior; only now as a result of their haphazard restoration do many appear as red bricks.

Buddha and remains of wall murals

In Bagan we encountered a fair number of peddlers, mainly trying to sell us sand paintings for $3, but there were only a fraction of the ones in Angkor and mostly not pushy. No one followed you around. Also, few of the peddlers were children. Well, one kid did try to sell me “postcards” that he had drawn himself on white paper with crayons, which made me laugh. Also contrasting with Angkor, in Bagan only a few white tourists were visiting the place. Most of the visitors were locals there to meditate before the statues of Buddha and give donations to build their merit.

During these days of temple exploration, besides the amazing Shan noodles we enjoyed more mohinga with wide noodles for 50 cents, fresh grilled fish, Dagon and Mandalay beers and even Tibetan pita cylinders stuffed with lamb and veg (at the restaurant Wonderful Tasty which I definitely recommend!).

The highlight of many people’s visits to Bagan is viewing the sunset. We managed to find a horse-drawn cart in Nyaung-U to take us to and from the Buledi temple for 8000 kyat. We climbed in the back of the buggy and found amusement in the slow clip-clop of the pony-sized horse and the driver’s guttural vocalizations trying to speed the creature up. As we traveled, the driver talked to various friends on the street, such as women carrying full baskets on their head. Arriving just in time for sunset, we scrambled up the fairly tall stupa, where a small crowd of other travelers had gathered, attempting to snag some sunset shots. The bright orange sun sank slowly in the rosy sky over the vast plain of temples. My favorite part was actually after sunset, when the stupas were silhouetted against the sky at dusk.

Temples at sunset


We also biked to the bank of the Irrewaddy River, where a mama dog led around five puppies and the father kept watch around a deserted bit of temple. Our goal was to find a boat to take us across the river to Tan Kyi, the gold-tipped pagoda one mountain visible from all over Bagan. When we did find the jetty in Old Bagan, a guy found us offering a ride before we even parked. He quoted K15,000 for a ride to and from the place, just as Lonely Planet said it would cost. One thing I found really pleasing about Burma is that nobody tries to rip you off, always giving you the “real” price for things! We got on the half hour boat ride across the vast river, the temples of Bagan growing smaller and smaller in our view.

Tan kyi pagoda on the top of hill

The boat driver showed us the dirt road to Tan Kyi. To find the path, we first walked through a small village of wooden houses on stilts. Many of the houses had walls made of bamboo (or something) woven into interlocking rectangular patterns, something I had never seen before. I enjoyed this first glimpse at local life off the tourist track. The villagers smiled at us with a “mingalarba”, and some workers building a pavilion pointed us in the right direction when we made a wrong turn. At one point we encountered the railroad track snaking around the mountain, a natural gas pipeline and some basic drainage infrastructure. The hike up to Tan Kyi proved harder than we expected, with a couple hundred steps up to the pagoda. Sweating in the sunny heat, we regretted not wearing shorts (but I learned the hard way about attempting to wear shorts to temples!). The view from the top showed more Irrewaddy and dry mountain than temples, but we felt accomplished having made it to the top.

Our time in Bagan was a mystical adventure, with not too many tourists, full of special sights and moments of discovery. With not too much set up for visitors–for example, very few romanized signs–you had to figure it out on your own, often wandering through deserted temple complexes set among tall grasses and cacti. And so many Buddhas!

A plain of thousands of stupas

A Day in Yangon

View of Shwedagon Pagoda from Taunggyi Lake

I came to Myanmar largely in the dark about the country. Before deciding to travel there, I knew vaguely of the country’s authoritarian military junta, which had been exposed to the world during 2008’s Cyclone Nargis; of Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest and election into parliament during a recent liberalization of government; and finally that the country was opening its borders due to the removal of sanctions and that the big ad agencies were already swooping into the city. I knew it was a place that was on the brink of change, and I always like to travel to dynamic places to observe this energy. I read up a bit about the country’s violence and human rights issues, related to a rather cacophonous ethnic situation in which Bamars comprise 68% but not all of the population, about heroic stories during the China Burma India Theatre of World War II, and a bit about the Burmese empires of old.

Yet my first dealings with the country were with the embassy in Canberra while acquiring my visa. To illustrate this country’s “backwardness” and isolation, the embassy did not even have a functioning website and I had to find the PDF visa application from a random unofficial host. The embassy in Australia was inundated with visa applications (we’re talking high hundreds at a time), which it can only process by mail, and it was a real nail-biter trying to get my passport back in time. After one tense phone call with an administrator who yelled at me for not allowing 8-12 weeks for processing and a few weeks wait, I received my passport with Myanmar sticker in it exactly one business day before I was set to fly to Malaysia. Meanwhile, I was in charge of booking hotels and airfare in this country.

The hotel situation was dire. Despite being a country of such low development, the hotels were in such short supply that they were actually quite expensive, while any cheaper options just looked a bit too Third World for me. I also had to get my sister to bring fresh crisp American money because allegedly Burma has no ATMs accepting international cards. After these headaches, I barely even wanted to go.

But I got my visa and passport, made the bookings successfully and after two days traveling overland from Phnom Penh via Battambang, I was flying from Bangkok to Yangon! I was so glad I did, because Yangon turned out to be one of my favorite cities that I visited in Southeast Asia.


Arriving in Yangon was nothing out of the ordinary and there were in fact some ATMs dispensing kyat. Ladies at a taxi booth wrote out instructions, specifying the price, and a driver in a green checkered longyi retrieved us with a toothy smile. What is a longyi? Everyone in Burma, man and woman, wears a wrap skirt called a longyi. Yes, Burma is a land where men wear wrap skirts, chew betel leaves and drive right-hand driving cars on the right side of the road.

We exited to find a rosy sunset over a forested area and a small village of restaurants. The road was dusty but paved and containing only cars (no motorbikes!). After 45 minutes or so of driving through increasingly dense suburbs of Yangon we arrived at MK Hotel, which turned out to be clean and featuring a brand-new German elevator and Chinese appliances. I peered out the small window to notice a crowd of people gathering around a barbecue and steamers outside.

On the hunt for some street food, we ventured into the slightly dusty streets illuminated by yellow street lights. We walked along the elevated sidewalk of Bogyoke Aung San Rd and saw for the first time that everyone was wearing longyi, the men wearing button-downs to accompany their longyi, the women an assortment of shirts. And another unique tradition: the women and children painted their faces with circles of a yellowish plant substance called thanaka, thought to be a natural sunscreen. On this Sunday night, the urbanites were all out on plastic furniture on the sidewalk, gathered around plates of meat and veggies with rice. Some food was made fresh, some sat out in vats. Men were swigging draft Myanmar beer while watching a SEA Games soccer match on TVs (Burma was hosting the SEA Games during this time). We wandered down an alley where women were sitting with produce for sale in the dark. Young men filled up the nearby gaming parlors, which had TV screens and X-Boxes.

Pork skewers with broth for sale on the street

We settled at a little cart where a girl had a grill and meat skewers lined up in a semi-circle around a bubbling vat of broth. She handed us a little bit of broth and a sauce for dipping. We didn’t know the protocol but then a man, wife and child sat down next to us, started taking skewers and immersing them in the gravy-like broth, so we did the same. At another cart, we had a pancake topped with a layer of sweet egg mix, and then made our way to the popular BBQ stand serving a host of young people all chattering on the chairs. We picked out three pieces of fried crab and three fried shrimp rolls, which together cost 1000 kyat, just over $1. We mainly ordered with pantomiming and pointing, and to my surprise, people seemed to know how to count in English.

Trying to sleep downtown on this Sunday night I heard some males chanting by mic and also a female vocalist blasting tunes from a party tuk tuk brigade.

For our full day of exploring Yangon, first we broke our fast with watermelon, banana, coffee and mohinga. The hotel’s version of the popular local dish featured medium-thickness egg noodles in a coconut fish broth with chicken and topped with crunchy fried pounded rice. Love crunchy toppings on my noodles! I wish I could eat this amazing dish more often.

Mohinga for breakfast

We headed out down Bogyoke Aung San Road, a major thoroughfare. After the other occasionally inscrutable cities I visted in Southeast Asia, Yangon was a treat as it has a modern grid for a city plan! The downtown actually resembles Melbourne or any British colonial city, a wide rectangle on top of a river, but it further benefits from numbered north-south streets. Also, traffic lights! However, street signs were scarce, and the ones that did exist were sponsored by Seiko.

We passed an old brick church and soon turned toward central Yangon, observing its British colonial architecture. Yangon is a bit lighter on shophouses compared to say, Vietnam or Malaysia, but it contains many large apartment buildings, often with balustered balconies, usually painted sea foam or white but dirtying quickly. Everything is a bit taller than in other colonial cities, with most apartment buildings at least six stories.

Apartment buildings Yangon

We easily found Sule Pagoda, a large elevated stupa in a roundabout right at the center of town–a helpful landmark–but I couldn’t enter wearing shorts and clothing shops weren’t open yet. So we started wandering west. We entered Little India, marked by ladies with bindis or hijabs, a few bulbous mosques and tons of fried street eats like samosas and dosas, in addition to the noodle stands all over the place. I had a terrific samosa for about 10 cents. We wandered up and down the smaller numbered streets passing by stores displaying sewing machines or blue PVC pipe out front on the street, or even cutting commercial signage. We ventured through Chinatown as well.

So far Yangon was quite walkable, which I really enjoyed. Because of a longstanding ban on motorbikes, everyone either walks or is in a car or bus, and obviously most cannot afford a car and who likes taking the bus anyway. So the streets are nicely bustling with people. We encountered long ribbons of novice monks traveling; the young ones are marked by pale pink robes with an orange sash as opposed to the adults’ burgundy. Plus, the streets are all turned into a giant market. Besides the stores displaying their wares, people have colonized most spare sidewalk space to sell jeans, wallets, electronics, rubber stamps, you name it. Even a pedestrian overpass was covered in clothing for sale.

Market time

At one point we discovered a large open-air market, where sellers blanketed the street with produce, butchered meat, still-moving fish and cages full of chickens. A few vendors were serving up fresh snacks and dishes as well. Next door was the big market hall. Inside this tall, mid-sized hall with wooden rafters, vendors were setting up, stacking heaps and heaps of folded textiles. I decided to look for a potential longyi, and came away with a white floral cloth. The girls laughed their asses off trying to tie it for me, and I got a lot of amused stares and finger pointing when walking on the street wearing it, tied basically incorrectly (because most female longyis actually include a hidden tie inside), exposing too much leg and accentuating too much waist for a modest Buddhist female.

We returned to Sule Pagoda, a gold stupa in full use, with locals sitting before the many images of Buddha, meditating and praying. We saw our first of what my sister called “psychedelic Buddhas”, which have flashing LED lights surrounding Buddha’s head. After Sule we cut across the street to Mahavandula Gardens, a big pleasant park with an obelisk across from Sule, City Hall and other administrative buildings. Many of these neoclassical government buildings could have been in any British colonial city, except they were often in disrepair, peeling, dirty, eroded.

Man meditating at Sule Pagoda

We would see more of these grand old buildings on our way to the river. Some were crawling with vines. I even saw one restaurant in a gutted old building where only the Corinthian columns remained. We also walked down Pandosan, where vendors sell photocopied and second-hand books, ranging from ancient Reader’s Digests to textbooks on data structures to Burmese popular fiction. This street is known as a sort-of open-air library; allegedly the Burmese love to read. On the way I also munched on a deep-fried banana and a deep-fried bunch of onions.

Books for sale on Pandosan Road

Rooms of gold in Botahtaung Pagoda

We marched all the way to Botahtaung Pagoda. The stupa itself was under construction but you could walk inside through triangular room after triangular room of gold! The grounds were quite large, good for a wander, with many rectangular pavilions housing Buddhas plus a large pond full of terrapin turtles.

We hailed a side-car cyclo back down Strand Road, Keala in the front and me in the back, kind of precariously hanging out there passing by cars and buses. We stopped in for cocktails at the Strand Hotel, a historic hotel from the days of old Rangoon that once saw the likes of Kipling and Orwell. Nestling into a pair of leather chairs in the dark wood and marble bar, we enjoyed some rum and gin cocktails, pricey at $7 but well-mixed. I flipped through the hotel’s large old History of Rangoon, bound in green leather and illustrated with full-page etchings, in which I learned such facts as:

  • Burma used to be a big exporter of ponies.
  • The British found the conditions difficult because they had no bread and butter.
  • Any merchant could set up shop in Rangoon due to an absence of competition from the East India Company.
  • The city plan was drawn up in 1854 after the old city centers had faded/been destroyed, designed by a surgeon who had served as magistrate performing similar duties under Stamford Raffles in Singapore. City planning not only involved drawing up plans for building but also the outlining of rules and regulations and the set-up of a postal service, sewers, etc.

Cocktails at the colonial classic, the Strand Hotel

We hiked back to Little India looking for Nilar Biryani House, which due to Yangon’s simple numbered grid was a breeze to find. Enjoyed some mutton biryani which cost maybe $1, and the staff understood English–at least food words.

We hopped in a cab where the driver was playing Akon and we finally arrived at the crown jewel of Yangon, Shwedagon Pagoda (also known as Shwe Dagon Paya; the Rangoon book called it the Great Dagon). Built by the Mons back in the 9th or 10th century, this massive monument to Buddhism has endured for a millennium, through many changes of national leadership. At one point the monarchs started gilding the stupa so that now Shwedagon is one of the shiniest structures in the world. The pagoda is majestically sited up 120m so you must enter through one of the four grand covered staircase halls. We spent a while wandering the grounds barefoot on the white marble floor. The big gold stupa is surrounded by countless little rectangular pavilions, and has some big images of Buddha on the corners. More, larger pavilions are scattered throughout the complex, and there’s also a smaller, subordinate gold stupa, the spire wrapped with some bells which chime magically in the wind. The place has a few tourists but these are equally matched by locals coming to pray and monks in burgundy robes. Amazingly only about 10 white people were visiting at this time. Another thing I like about Yangon: no Western backpackers in hideous elephant harem pants.

Me in my makeshift longyi at Shwedagon Pagoda

After a brief nap we headed over to Taunggyi Lake, a big lake/park where young couples come to canoodle on benches. We strolled around, taking a bench break, until near-sunset, when the great stupa was reflecting on the water.

Back outside MK Hotel, we took a seat at a tea house where we had a plate of mini samosas and a puffy fresh naan-like bread, which was amazing though lacking the usual lentils for dipping. K asked for tea and a guy brought us cups of light-colored tea full of condensed milk in addition to the black tea in a pitcher. I like the Yangon tea house experience–drinks and snacks and chatting–though I noticed the majority of the patrons are men.

Yangon tea house


So that was my whirlwind 24 hours in Yangon, one of my favorite cities in Southeast Asia next to Bangkok and Hanoi. Dilapidated but interesting buildings. A burgeoning energy. A great place to walk. Not at all touristy. Full of unique Buddhist and colonial sites. Yummy street food. Men in skirts in the city.

As they say in SEA, same same but different. VERY different.