The American Polica Motorcycle Museum

The American Polica Motorcycle Museum
The American Police Motorcyle Museum in Meredith, NH is a great place! Interactive exhibits for kids, plus a 1929 Indian Scout that's great for photo ops!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

From Yangon to Bagan

Day 3-5 Yangon to Bagan
Our flight from Yangon to Bagan was easy. Domestic flights in Myanmar are very relaxed—just show up, put your bags through a very old x-ray machine, give them your name (no passports needed), get a colored sticker to put on your shirt and hop on board.  The plane was new, though, and the one hour flight had four flight attendants and served a cold breakfast.
Checking into the Thiripatiyasa Sanctuary Resort was a real hoot—they put us in a river view suite overlooking the Irrawaddy River, and in the living area there is big carved plaque that says “His Excellency Sandech Hun Sen, the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Cambodia stayed in the room November 11, 2003. As representatives of the Kingdom of Binder, we are most pleased!

The resort is truly lovely—it reminds us of the Furama at China Beach in Vietnam.  We would love to stay longer, but things are booked on down the line.
Bagan (pronounced buh-GAHN—we have given up trying to pronounce the name of the hotel), is an ancient area once filled with 4000+ pagodas, temples and shrines of all sizes. Earthquakes (1975, 1993) and age have cut it down to 2000+, but still. It’s amazing! Nyi Nyi has taken us through many, all the while instructing us on the basic tenets of Buddhism—we are finally getting it, sort of. One thing we especially like is that young boys traditionally all become novices at a monastery at least one point. They learn the teachings of kindness, how to meditate and appreciate all life---like that.  Everywhere you see young boys in monks robes of various colors (often carrying soccer balls, though). The girls seem to go right into household apprenticeship.

It’s been a long, long time since there was a strong higher educational system and sense of intellectual freedom here. Censorship is just beginning to relax—and there is now a huge sidewalk/street market, especially in Yangon, of books of all types—all used and most very battered. Nyi Nyi was very proud of this ability to buy any book he wanted and ended up buying a novel and a history of the world as we passed a vendor.
Nyi Nyi often talks about the military (the generals, he says) and loves telling jokes. Here is one for the dentists. It is very sad that dentists are among the very poorest of professionals in Myanmar. Why? We are not allowed to open our mouths to speak. How can a dentist get any work done?  Another one mentions how the tsunami in 2006 didn’t hit the Myanmar coast because the generals stood on the beach and told it to go away—just ask them they will tell you.
The two “must-do” activities in Bagan are to climb one of the very, very steep pagodas and watch the sun set over the pagodas, and then also get up long before dawn to take a hot air balloon ride over the pagodas and watch the rise. We did both and can say that they were each worth every moment of effort.

Sunset over Bagan

Sunrise ballooning the very next morning.

As pooped as were this morning after ballooning, Nyi Nyi convinced us to take a 1 ½ hour ride up to Mount Popa, where there is a shrine built on the very top of a sheer rock precipice. The idea is to climb the 778 steps to the top, admire the view and (of course) bring an offering to Buddha and/or one the subsidiary spirits. 

Then walk down. I announced that I absolutely would NOT make it to the top, but would start out. Soon it became apparent that there were young mothers carrying babies, old men (really old men), old women crippled with arthritis, young couples, little kids—all carrying some sort of offering like flowers or fruits. All, of course, barefoot. All making the climb while chatting and laughing.

Long story short Bud and I both made it to the top and down. We came home to a late lunch on the terrace, collapsed by the pool, then went to the room for ibuprofen and hot soaking tubs filled with special bamboo oil for restoring muscles.

At the time, it seemed totally worth it. Seeing the devotion of virtually an entire population is amazing. Now it is two days later and I am a lame old crone, grumbling and limping.

We have met two sisters, Diana and Julia, from London who are traveling independently, like us and seem to have the same itinerary, at least for a bit.
In the morning we’ll head for the 3-day cruise on the Irrawaddy River,  Bagan up to Mandalay and we’ll all be on the RV Paukan, a Burmese river boat that is much more local than the big A & K one.

I am posting this from Mandalay...having just had my first ever Thai massage to ease my legs cramps and limping. Wait til you hear (and see the pix of) what happened to us on the cruise--try running aground, being stranded in the middle of the river overnight, then having the rescue boat fail to show up--a dead battery.  Fun!!

Another Day in Yangon

Day 2--Yangon
So I am several, several days/nights behind in getting posts written and published--we have actually moved on to Bagan, finished the cruise on the Irrawaddy, and now are in Mandalay. The culprit is the internet. Connections here are miserable, but it seems that Mandalay might be a bit better.

So....back to Yangon!

Had a great night’s sleep and a terrific breakfast of cold meats, eggs, fresh juices and the most incredible marmalade—all the while listening to people chat in various languages and accents.  There seem to be a lot of Australians, French and British staying at the Savoy.  We’re staying here two more times—one night on the way from the eastern mountains to the beaches on the Bay of Bengal, and then our last two nights before heading home. We love our room and they’ve said we can have it for both stays.
Nyi Nyi took us at our word at wanting to see “real’ life in Yangon and drove us straight through the city to experience the local daily market (we were supposed to go to the tourist market).  It was fascinating--block after block of streets and alleys crowded with families buying and selling everything from beef, chicken, fish and goat (LOTS of goat). Most of it was cut into large sections, then butchered right on the spot.

It’s all out in the open with no refrigeration—and honestly didn’t smell bad, just required a strong stomach.  I am still trying to figure the lack of smell out out—especially with so much fish. Yes, there were lots of flies, lots of yelling and some shoving and pushing.  But what a scene! Veggies, fruits, spices, clothes. Nyi Nyi says every city and village has a market like this, but Yangon has the biggest one.

Clearly there were multi-generational stalls—some little children happier than others to be stuck there. Many people had the unique sun-screen/moisturizer plastered on their cheeks.  It’s made on the spot from the bark of a tree—powdered, then mixed with water and applied. Nyi Nyi says it is supposed to make you look 10 years younger. We haven’t tried it yet, but plan to!

We switched gears and started our tour deep into Buddhism. Nyi Nyi took us to see the reclining Buddha…I won’t quote numbers to say exactly how big it the statue is.  Just look at the two pictures! The soles of Buddha’s feet have 108 symbols relating to various aspects of the animate and inanimate worlds—the details are above my head.

After a rest we went back out to do the required sunset visit to Shwedagon Pagoda—the one that President Obama visited when he was here in November. No shoes or socks allowed, and Bud had to wear the traditional men’s longyi, or long skirt.  It took Nyi Nyi forever to get it rigged, and you can see how happy Bud is about it!

Shwedagon is perhaps Myanmar’s most iconic landmark—a 300+ foot tall pagoda, wrapped in 60+ tons of gold plate and topped with diamonds and rubies and more. Not only that, it’s the center of a 14 acre park with 64+ other shrines and pagodas—some illuminated with neon lights. There are people praying, monks and novices chanting, families stopping by for a snack and quick prayer—even young couples out for an evening stroll. The “thing” to do is arrive as the sun is setting and watch the golden pagoda light up and change color.  Some storm clouds gave us a very dramatic backdrop—it was amazing! Also interesting to see groups of volunteers taking up brooms and sweeping in long lines to keep the terraces clean.  And Nyi Nyi convinced Bud to participate and pour water over the head of a smaller shrine—right next to a monk.

I'll post more pix as soon as I get a better internet connection--it has taken hours to get this one post done!

Tomorrow—up at 4AM to catch an early morning flight to Bagan on the Irrawaddy River. The area is known for its pagodas.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Day one in Yangon

We’re here! Day one in Yangon.  Connecting in Bangkok was a breeze—Thai Air meets First Class passengers with guides and an electric cart to whisk you from one area to another. The flight to Yangon was a little over an hour in an Airbus 330—and hot meals were served to everyone.  Imagine that on a US carrier!

The city is greener and more lush than we expected and there is new construction very near our hotel.

Guides from Akorn/A & K were there to usher through visas, customs, bags and such. The whole thing too less than ½ hour.

We met our guide, Nyi Nyi Thun, and he told us he would be with us the entire tour, with the exception of the Irrawaddy cruise and our last days on the beach. So he will be trekking in the mountains of Shan State, visiting the elephant camp—everything.  The people at Akorn warned me that we would love him—and it’s already true.  He has a wonderful sense of humor, and a photography nut (has Canon equipment) who knows his culture and history.
We are smitten!  He wears a longyi (the skirt-sarong thing than men and women both wear). He did a bit of orientation, dropped us at the Savoy Hotel, and will pick us up first thing in the morning for a day of pagodas. We have asked that he balance tourist sites with exploration of daily life and the local people and he seemed very pleased.

The Savoy is just what we hoped—a small boutique hotel with the feel of a colonial manor house.  High ceilings, polished teak and mahogany, French doors….like that. We had upgraded our room a bit and have a lovely suite on the ground floor looking out on the pool.

 The famous Shwe Dagon pagoda (Pres. Obama visited in November) is very near our hotel. A walk at rush hour shows tons of small bus transports with people hanging on, hopping on and off. It is much scarier trying to cross the road here than it was in Saigon.  No lights, no crosswalks.  We just duck behind locals and run!

Walked around the city a very short time (Nyi Nyi has warned us to watch out for holes in the sidewalks and told us to always carry a flashlight at night. Good advice!
Now…to bed in a real bed!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Our plane being loaded for the 11 hour flight. Lufthansa puts their First Class in the upper deck on their 747’s, but Thai air uses the nose. We are in the very first seats, 1A and 1K—so the first four windows on each side belong to our “pods”. It is really, really quiet up there—with the engines so far behind us.

We took off to the west over the water.

And I just have to write about Thai Air First Class. We (of course) use frequent flyer points, but I have to say if you’ve got the $20,000 + for a RT ticket, it’s gotta be almost worth it. We first flew them in 2006 for our Southeast Asia trip and were blown away then—now they have upgraded their 747’s with individual pods with what looks like 32” flat screen TV’s, and seats/ hassocks that make into lie-flat beds and also provide an extra seat for chatting with a travel pal. Pajamas, slippers.  Wow.

The bathrooms (2 large ones for the 6 of us in the cabin) are just as I remembered.  Fresh flowers, full-length mirror, Bulgari amenities, linen hand towels.

One of the 4 flight attendants likes taking pictures, and posed us around the cabin so we’ll have proof years from now that this wasn’t all a dream. 

Before you take off they go over menu and drink choices.

You can pre-order your meals on line, so Bud got steak and I got lobster. It was great—and they even came around beforehand with caviar set-ups and vodka.

The flight itself was very smooth.until our Rome-Bangkok flight path took us over the area in between Baghdad and Islamabad. Then it seemed like all hell broke loose—I can’t remember turbulence being that bad since we hit the edges of a cyclone over the Pacific on the way to New Zealand in 2003.
The flight attendants have it all figured, though.  They serve dinner and gets the beds all made up so people are sleeping (at least as much they can) when the worst hits.  I woke up when we got to smooth air and one of the flight attendants told me this always happens…and that it would be smooth until we get to the Indian Ocean—then very bumpy again. At least we know what to expect on the return flight to Frankfurt!
Time for breakfast!

The screens at our seats show our flight path from Rome to Bangkok.  The section in between Baghdad and Islamabad was really, really turbulent.  We are up in the nose, and I don’t even want to think how the tail of the plane was being whipped around.  From Bangkok we’ll take the short flight back to the west to Rangoon, or Yangon, as it is now known.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Reflections on Egypt--Concord Monitor article and online slide show

Before all the details faded, I wanted to get a piece written up on the first half of our trip to Egypt and Kenya. And thanks to a fairly light schedule over the past 3 weeks, I got it done!

To read it and look at the online slide show (more pix than I was able to put in my blog), just click on the the hyper-link text to read my article in today's Concord Monitor on our trip to Egypt.

Don't forget to read the side-bar "Related Content" at the end of the article--it talks about how to read behind the headlines and media hype and figure out if reported incidents are actually a threat to tourists.

And now...back to packing for our next adventure--a cruise in the Western Caribbean. We are hoping for calm seas, lots of sun, a very competent captain (hopefully not Italian) and the complete absence of weird viruses.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Out of Africa...more lions, silly hippos, Nairobi and Lufthansa First Class

Our last morning in the Mara was wonderful. We had had a good sleep with all the canvas rolled up, hoping to see some nearby action--perhaps a curious elephant or leopard. No luck with that, but before dawn we heard some roaring--distant at first and then louder and more vocal. Lions, calling to each other. Lots of them! The Offbeat Pride was back!
We knew we wouldn't have time for a game drive to seek them out, so relaxed with coffee and biscuits on our little veranda. The path from our tent to the main camp was nicely all Offbeat Camps, Offbeat Mara is unfenced--as is the conservancy, the Maasai Mara National Reserve.  Wildlife is free to roam--though it is most often at night that this happens, and wildlife generally stays clear of the camps.
The main camp has a comfy lounge area for guests to mingle and have tea and cocktails.
Breakfast is usually served in the adjacent tent, but Miia had arranged something special for our last morning. 

The staff walked us down a steep path...

To a lovely breakfast-for-two table set up by the river.
We said goodbye to Miia and Kimoni and Josh loaded our bags for the trip to the airport.Along the way we planned to stop at the hippo pool near the airport.

Josh did the driving, as usual, and Kimoni the did the spotting. As luck would have it, a male lion popped up out of the grass and Kimoni was right there.

We had time to investigate and as we drew closer, we could see there were two.

When these guys lie down in grass this high, they are just about invisible, even from a few feet away.

Josh pulled our vehicle around in front of them, and they walked right past us...close enough to smell and almost close enough to touch.

Here is a video as they move past us out into the grasslands.  

A little further investigation led us to a female lion feeding on a buffalo kill nearby. Josh said the female had actually brought down the buffalo, but the males eat first.  When they are done, the female eats.  

She gnawed on the bones for a good long while.
Then she lifted her head and paused almost like she was going to take a nap.

But then quite suddenly got up and headed for our vehicle.
I backed further into the vehicle so quickly I couldn't finish focusing...she was looking right at me!
But her belly was full and she took a sharp left by the vehicle door and headed out into the grass after the two males.
Vultures had been circling, and they now moved in, followed by hyenas--real circle of life stuff in the Maasai Mara.
One hyena has braved a fight with the vultures, while another one looks on from the distance.
This fellow runs off with a leg.

Here the hyenas are stacked up in an airport-landing-like pattern. They wait their chance to get a piece of the kill, but also are clearly keeping an eye out for any lions that may be around.

From this viewing we headed straight for hippo pool. It was a smallish pool, jam packed full of water lilies.  We got no dramatic yawns, but I did think this shot was funny.  Hippos are so extremely dangerous, but looked rather whimsical all draped in greenery.

But it was time to catch our SafariLink flight back to Nairobi. It turns out that there are several airstrips in the Maasai Mara, and the scheduled flights hop from one to another picking up and dropping off passengers. Our pilot was a friendly and very professional young man named Ben.

The airstrip used by Offbeat is also used by larger safari companies like Governor's Camp--which has its own planes and doesn't have to rely on scheduled air.

Next up, another Maasai Airstrip.

I got to sit right behind Ben and could watch as he navigated and made log entries.

We began by flying over the Mara, often seeing giraffes and elephants below us...or a safari vehicle like this one, bringing passengers to a camp in the bush.
And just a little over an hour later we were on approach to Nairobi, flying over swanky suburbs with big swimming pools and even bigger houses.

Our arrival in Nairobi went smoothly (except for a moment of angst about our left luggage at the transfer company's offices--but we were reunited with it fairly quickly.) Our driver took us through the city to our hotel The Fairview. The approach was interesting. Security is tight all around, but the hotel is across the street from the Israeli Embassy, so there were extra checkpoints.
I thought this sign was a hoot. Proceed through "friendly " checkpoint! In fact, the guy with machine did have a big smile on his face!
The hotel itself has lovely is built around an old estate. The poolside dining is quite nice (the pool was freezing!) and the al fresco terrace was also very inviting.
The rooms are serviceable, though not luxurious in terms of amenities, bedding, toweling and such. Still, it was fine for the 8 hours we needed it.
We wound our back through Cairo to the The Fairmont Towers Heliopolis, again being met by our tour coordinator extraordinaire, Emad. With less than a full day until we caught our next flight (Frankfurt and onward to Boston), we weren't sure what to expect--but the Towers (the newer side of the Fairmont complex, the Heliopolis being the older side) absolutely blew us away.  This is a true 5 star property (complete with fun casino)--almost on a par with the Shangri La Singapore.  We were thrilled.

I can't end without showing the new Lufthansa First class configuration in their long-haul 747's, the plane we had on the Frankfurt-Boston leg.
There are just eight "seats" in the First Class cabin, which is the entire upper deck of the long-haul 747's. But each "seat" actually has two stations, one lounger-type chair with a flat-screen TV in front of it, and then a permanent actual bed, already made up for sleeping.  So no waiting while flight attendants make up your bed--no having to choose between a bed and a sitting arrangement.  Of course the bedding is very high end and comfortable, and you also get pajamas and an amenity kit packed with goodies. 
Not too hard to get comfy here!
Bud being a tourist--the copilot looking back at us from the cockpit.

We hope we'll get to do this again sometime in our lives!

And that's the end of the trip.  I'll be putting up separate pages with my favorite shots from each segment--Egypt and Africa--which will show on tabs at the top of the page here. If you would like to read from the beginning, go to the listing by date on the left-hand menu and start with January 1, 2012.

Till next time!