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>Myanmar, SE Asia

>Mention the country of Myanmar to the average westerner and you’re likely to be greeted by blank stares, and the inevitable “Where’s that?” This nearly forgotten Southeast Asian nation is better known to the west by its former colonial title of Burma.

The history of Myanmar can outlined by a long stretch of failed occupations by crumbling empires. The Mongolian hordes of Kublai Khan, the colonial British, and the Axis army of Japan have all held these people within their grasp at alternate times. And sadly, to this day, this trend of tyranny and occupation still shows no sign of ending.

Since 1989 Myanmar has been ruled by a military junta with one of the worlds worst records regarding human rights. For the last twenty years the nations democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been held captive in her home a mere few miles from the hotel in which I write these words. And things have only gotten worse as of late. In 2007 the military publicly slaughtered a group of demonstrators lead by Buddhist monks who dared to protest the suspension of government oil subsidies that had led to rising gas prices. Then in 2008 when cyclone Nargis killed tens of thousands in the region, the country’s leaders refused to allow western aid groups inside the borders, worsening a situation that eventually led top the deaths of at least 140,00 people.

But in the streets of Yangon and Mandalay you could be forgiven for being blind to the current plight of the Burmese people. Life goes on here as usual, though an eerie veil of Orwellian calm haunts many interactions. In Myanmar, it’s important to read between the lines, to hear not only what is said, but what is implied in conversations. People will frequently silence or censor themselves. Like the monk who mid-sentence shuffled away from us whispering, “In my country, many spies everywhere.” Or the tour guide who, while explaining the vast amounts of teak the government clear cut and sold overseas, joked “Myanmar is a rich country, but…”

It is for these reasons that when one travels to Myanmar, it must be done mindfully. With awareness of the situation at hand, and with great care to what one says, how loud you say it, and where you spend your money.

Most large restaurants hotels here are owned by high government officials. Money spent in these places does nothing to help the local people, and only serves to bolster the regime that suppresses them. Sadly it is impossible to travel this country without monetarily supporting the government in some way. The cost of your visa goes straight into their coffers, and even locally owned hotels with no government ties are charged a 12% tax. Fairly, for this reason many people choose to simply pass on visiting Myanmar. But doing so hurts the countless individuals who depend on tourism for their livelihood, and reinforces the peoples fears that the rest of the world has forgotten about them. The general consensus from folks that we talked to was that they desperately desire an increase in the number of travelers to their country.

I’m not going to lie to you. Some amount of the enjoyment I derived from traveling here was related to how few people currently come. On an average day we would see less than a dozen other tourists, and most of these would be during breakfast at our guest house.
Amenities are sparse, but this lends to the romance. Riding down a rough dirt road by horse drawn carriage to explore ancient temples. Chatting with a fourth generation puppeteer after a private evening performance of his art. Being awakened at dawn by the gentle hum of chanting monks after spending the night in a remote Buddhist monastery. Unique and memorable adventures abound here.

Travel was not easy, but frequently the experiences were more rewarding than in other places. This is not Thailand, or Malaysia. This is not Asia-light. It can be frustrating, awkward, and uncomfortable. You may be speechless at the stories people share, and the desperation on hand here is often heartbreaking. But Myanmar is also magical, captivating, encouraging, and delightful. The people here will surprise you with their kindness, resilience, and generosity. They are among the friendliest, and most genuine people I’ve encountered in all my travels. For all these reasons I would encourage adventurous, mindful travelers to give the country a chance. Your efforts will be rewarded.

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>Yakcast, Interrupted…?

>Hey everyone, just wanted to post a quick update from Bangkok to let you all know that I am boarding a plane tomorrow headed for Myanmar (Burma). I will be spending two weeks there, and due to governmental restrictions on internet, I’m not certain whether I will have access to update the blog while I’m there. So if you don’t see anything here for the next 14 days, don’t worry, it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m deceased or incarcerated. I might be, but not necessarily. It also means that after February 7th, you’ll probably see a fast and furious set of updates. Until then, take care and enjoy life.

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>Similan Islands Live Aboard, Thailand

>One of my main reasons, scratch that, the main reason for my returning to Thailand again so soon was my desire to take part in a diving live-aboard in the Similan and Suran Islands. The Similan National Park (whose name is derived from the Malay word, sembilan, meaning nine), are a series of nine islands that lie off the southern west coast of Thiland. This small stretch of the Andaman Sea is home to some of the ocean’s most diverse gathering of life.

Manta Ray, sea horse, nudibranch, and moray eels are all common here. As are leopard sharks and black and white tip reef sharks. The elusive whale shark is also found in this area, though sightings are rare and always seem to have happened “…last week…” just before anyone (and everyone arrived.

It was with a cautious mix of excitement and trepidation that I boarded the West Coast Cruiser, the boat that would be my home for the following four nights and four days. There were eight of us booked for passage. Myself, two Dutch girls from Amsterdam, a quiet and heavily tattooed Swede man, three older Germans, and my bunk-mate (and subsequent dive partner) Hugo, a Scottish gent who had lived for the last eight years in my native Seattle.

It’s frequently remarked on what a small world this is, but the cliche can only truly be appreciated when one experiences a coincidence such as this: to travel half-way around the world and end up sharing a cabin on a boat with with someone who lives a scant six blocks from your most recent home. It’s a small, small world indeed.

The German’s were all PADI certified dive-masters, and thus were separated into their own group, leaving the five remaining of us others to form our own enclave.

Our dive leader Andy, was a rough-humored affable young Brit whose closely cropped hair, hoop earrings, and myriad of tattoos gave him the appearance of a classic sea-faring pirate. The missing front tooth he displayed when he smiled (as he frequently did) did more to lend him character than it did to diminish his rugged good looks.

The first night aboard was spent much the same as the next three would be: drinking beer, swapping tales about diving, laughing, and watching poorly bootlegged DVDs of Will Ferrell comedies.

The sea that first night was rather rough, and our first hours aboard, heavy rain and lightening filled the night sky. I found myself retiring early that night (and indeed every night of the trip), rocked to sleep by the natural ebb and flow of the ocean.

Our first dive the next morning was at 8am, before coffee, but before breakfast. I hadn’t been diving since I’d left Egypt nearly a year and a half before, and was worried that my performance would be poor. I needn’t have worried though, as it turned out none of my colleagues had dived much more recently. We were quite literally and figuratively, all in the same boat.

By the end of the first day my air consumption was reasonable, and my buoyancy was steady. I felt confident though still a tad clumsy.

Sightings that day were good, but a tad typical. A few lion fish, puffer fish, Asian sweetlips, and ever present villainous titan trigger fish. The highlight of that first day for me however, was not biological but geological.

The unique dive site of Elephant Head Rock was an underwater labyrinth of swim throughs, and coral canyons, that delighted and staggered the senses. The number of ways in which this site could be navigated made it a Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride of diving. I often found myself thinking we were headed in some new direction, only to find we had doubled back to a familiar location. This sort of dive, while loads of fun with an experienced leader, could be dangerous and bewildering without one. Thankfully Andy knew the site quite well, and was more than up to the task of leading us through it.

The third dive of that second day was memorable for a completely different reason, as it provided us with a glimpse at one of the ocean’s strangest and most extraordinary creatures: the Mata Ray.

It was nearly two in the afternoon when we dove into the murky depths of Koh Bon. Visibility was only around ten meters, and the current was quite brisk. The destination of our dive was the tip of a reef 25 meters down which we had been instructed to swim to and hold on while we awaited the possible appearance of manta ray.

“I sent an SMS to the mantas,” Andy had joked dryly before jumping into the water, “They should be around soon.”

I’m not especially fond of strong currents, and I hate touching anything underwater, so it was with great regret that I found myself pinching the edge of the reef and fighting against the flow of the water. But after several minutes our collective struggle was rewarded. I snapped my head to attention as Andy banged his metal pointer against the aluminum of his tank, and there it was.

Over ten feet wide from tip to tip, it’s wing-like fins adjusting to adapt to the flow of the current. Seeing one of these creatures in person it’s hardly a wonder that their form has so strongly influenced the design of modern stealth planes. It’s dark skin would camouflage it momentarily, and as it moved it seemed to slip in and out of existence like a desert mirage. Sometimes only the white ring of skin around it’s massive mouth would be visible, betraying it’s position to us. Then as quickly as it it had appeared it disappeared, gliding along the current, the sharp tip of its tail disappearing int the inky blackness behind us.

Mantas are oceanic nomads. Great travelers of the sea. The same ones found in these waters have often come up from as far as Australia on their long life journey, and I felt very grateful to have had even a glimpse of one.

Our third day on board brought us out to Richelieu Rock, one of the most famous dive sites in all the world. Made famous by Jacques Cousteau and the crew of his boat Calypso, the reef here was big enough that it took two dives just to circumnavigate the majority of the site. The amount of life on hand in the area was incredible. Teeming with clown fish, angel fish, trigger fish, coronet fish, eel, barracuda, and more. It was a much denser site than could possibly be absorbed. During our second dive on Richelieu I became so distracted that I nearly collided with a crown sea jelly whose head was nearly three feet across. After swimming to avoid contact I hovered in place as it drifted away, watching its translucent insides pump to propel it forward. Nothing in all my life has seemed so strange, so staggeringly alien as this mysterious creature. This was the stuff that inspires science fiction.

Our last day brought us an encounter with leopard shark. These lazy, gum mouthed, dweller of the deep are named for the the radiant, iridescent spots that cover their skin. I felt badly for this particular beast as it swam away each time we approached. Obviously shy, it valued its privacy, which I for one could understand. It seemed only to want to be left alone by these five strange fish that keep hovering around it, gawking. Though I greatly enjoyed seeing it, I felt secretly glad when it swam away from the reef where we would not follow it.

Fourteen dives in four days makes for a lot of time spent underwater, and as our boat headed back towards Khao Lak I was looking forwarding to a day off from diving. When we reached the shore I said good-bye to my new friends, and headed back towards Phuket.

When we reached the office of the dive center where this adventure had all began, I was surprised to find myself signing up for six local dives in the water around Phuket. I had only four more day in the area, and couldn’t help but spend a couple more of them in that strange and fascinating world that exists so close to us, just beneath the surface of our Earth’s sea.

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>Patong Beach – Phuket, Thailand

>

I’d never really wanted to go to Phuket in the first place. Unfortunately, that was where the dive center I’d booked my live aboard through was located. Thus I found myself, barely fifteen hours back in Thailand, stepping off of yet another plane and headed towards southern Thailand’s premiere resort destination, Patong Beach.
It was evening when I arrived in town and I saw no sense in hitting the beach at 7pm, so after checking into a hotel and touching base with my dive shop, I allowed my jet lag to get the best of me and called it an early night.
The next morning I had a whole day to kill in Phuket before my dive boat left. After enjoying a simple breakfast of rice porridge with fish and a cup of instant coffee at a nearby cafe I decided to wander down-wind and check out the nearby beach front.

To say that Patong Beach is over developed would be an absurd understatement. And to simply call it tacky would be an insult to kitsch. The massive urban sprawl that lines the shore here is a labyrinth of Go-Go bars, 7-11’s, fast food restaurants, sex clubs, Family Marts, and T-shirt shops that extend as far as the eye can see.

It’s only mid-January, so of course most of the businesses here still have their “X-Mas” decorations up. Gaily colored images of Santa Clause are proudly displayed next to posters for (God help me) Thai Elvis impersonators and price quotes for massage parlours that promise every customer a “Happy Ending.” It’s as if the Las Vegas strip threw up on Highway 99, travelled all the way across the ocean and washed up up on these shores, jumbled but intact. Feckless fodder for one culture to use to exploit another.

It would have been hard to tell that I’d reached the actual beach except that I could clearly see thin blue line that separated sand from ocean. Besides that nearly every square meter of beautiful white sand was covered with recliner beach chairs and gaudy umbrellas advertising Cheers Beer, Red Bull, and Western Union. I could barely find a sparse enough sliver of bare sand to walk a straight line along slide the surf.

I gazed into the water at the jet skis, cruise ships, and luxury yachts that bobbed along the horizon, mobbing the view, and cursed myself for contributing to this whole God-damned mess.

It was an insult to anyone with taste. Though it didn’t seem this would be much of an issue, as no one here appeared to have any. Strolling up the coast I looked over towards the folks who called this place paradise. Every one of them seemed to be twice my age, and three times as drunk, though it was only 11am. Old Swedish men in yachting caps and Speedo shorts, aging French women still shamelessly sunbathing topless at 65. Americans with their beer bellies and beer cozies, and thick necked Germans digging deep trenches in any bare bit of sand, as if anticipating some impending invasion to which only they were privy.

If this were paradise, then I was glad Eve had bitten into the apple.

After a short half hours walk I could hardly stand it any longer. I went back into town and found a small cafe where I could while away the afternoon with my Graham Greene and my Arthur Conan Doyle. I could only hope that my diving trip would make this all worth while, because so far, this was not my idea of a good time.

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>Welcome Back to the Yakcast…

>Well, here I go again… Back in Bangkok much sooner than I expected. I will do my best to update this blog as often as possible, however due to some of the places I will be visiting this will be a greater challenge than it has been before.

I am flying down to Phuket today for a five day scuba liveaboard in the Similan Islands, and heading to Myanmar (Burma) on the 24th. After two weeks in Myanmar I will head to Laos for some trekking and three nights living in a tree house in the jungle. As always, I’ll do what I can to keep you all informed. Stay tuned.

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>Varanasi, India

>The city of Varanasi is one of the holiest sites in the Hindu world. The waters that are carried through here along the Ganges River are believed, by the faithful, to posess the ability to wash away a lifetime of sin. They are also the site of innumerable holy cremation ceremonies where bodies are burned and left to float away, forever becoming one with this sacred river.

My guest house, the Hotel Sonmony is situated directly over one of these cremation sites, or burning ghats as they are called. The entire establishment has a stale smokey scent about it, but it is clean, has friendly staff, and is centrally located. At only US$4 a night, I have little to complain about.

This city wakes up early. It’s only 5:30am but by the time I reach the banks of the Ganges there are already crowds of people gathered along the concrete steps. Religious devotees preparing for their morning bath.

I gaze out at the still and purple morning sky, momentarily hypnotized. These buildings have stood for hundreds of years, and look as old as they really are. They seem to have grown from the shore, jumbled piles of varying color and architecture. Stacked high against the river their walls flake with brown, yellow, pink, white, and blue paint. Hand drawn murals advertise Pepsi-Cola alongside local restauants and guest houses. Some of the buildings are adorned with columns, others peaked roofs, towers, or turrets. All are built high above the water to minimize flooding during the monsoon season. I hire a boat for a ride along the shore, climb aboard and prepare to be swept away.

And I am. Nothing I’ve experienced so far in my travels could have prepared me for this hour long boat trip through the heart of the Hindu faith. As we paddle slowly past, I see men jumping up and down in the water over and over, trancelike, stopping only to chant and pray. Women in peacock-bright saris laugh and talk amongst each other while wading up to their hips in muddy brown water. Bells tinkle, drums boom, and buffalo roam.

A holy man painted ash white with long hair piled atop his head swings a flaming gold lantern shaped like a hooded serpant. Children in white and orange robes, their black hair shaved in curious skullcap haircuts, stand in rows and sing along with to a small band of tabla and harmonium. Practicing their morning excercises these children perform a routine which includes tht which I now believe to be the most distinctly Indian excercise of all – laughing.

I’d call it a circus, but that might be misconstrued as condecension, I don’t meant it like that. It’s just that the whole sight is so bizarre. So, well… foreign to me. This is not a holiday. Not a festival, not a special event. And it’s not a show put on for tourists either. This is traditional India, and it is how life unfolds each morning here alongside this river.

As the sun begins to filter through the clouds, brightening an already colorful display, it seems as if the whole city is alive with prayer. Even a cynic like me finds it impossible to not be moved by the spirit of devotion on display all around. There is no irony, no self-concious mugging to any of this. No tongue, no cheek.

An old man with a bald head and thick Groucho Marx eyebrows waddles forward on bowed legs, crouches down and splashes himself with the holy water. He is grinning from ear to ear like a giant child, and so am I. Because so far, I love India.

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