My New Friend Popeye

After Bagan I reluctantly left Myanmar for Siem Reap, Cambodia.  On my first morning after arrival I went for a ride on my new friend Popeye:

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I think I originally found out about The Happy Ranch from some Pinterest-linked article about offbeat things to do in Cambodia, and I signed up right away.  I loved the whole experience and I definitely would recommend it if you happen to find yourself in Siem Reap.  The horses were healthy and well cared for, my guide was cheerful and accommodating, and the staff was careful in matching up my experience level to an appropriate horse.  I kind of expected that Popeye would be a tired trail horse who just followed the leader, but he was anything but.  There were a few occasions where I lost my focus and suddenly we were cantering, but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle and his spirit made it a fun ride.  And the scenery didn’t hurt.

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I had a three hour private trail ride through villages and countryside, with a pit stop at a temple.

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Horseback riding gave me the opportunity to see a little of the area that most visitors don’t normally get the chance to experience, but the actual riding part was just as fun.  A few times we cantered (and maybe galloped…Popeye thought that he deserved to be the horse in the lead and was willing to hurry to make it happen) down some deserted dirt roads and I couldn’t stop giggling.  And as much fun as it was to see Cambodian village life, I also loved letting Popeye stretch his legs as we zipped around an empty lot, feeling like I was flying.

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Bagan via Scooter

Serving in the Peace Corps means giving up a lot of stuff. There are the physical comforts, like hot showers and comfortable beds, and the experiences that you have to miss out on, like Christmas with your family and seeing your friends get married. I went into the Peace Corps knowing that I was going to be missing out on a lot, and I accepted that. But what I didn’t expect to be so difficult was the fact that I was also going to lose a lot of independence and even a little bit of myself.

Peace Corps has a lot of rules that are in place for safety and also to ensure that we integrate into our communities, which is vital to success as a volunteer. So volunteers have to be in their sites on weeknights and notify managers when they’re leaving and where they’re going on weekends. And volunteers aren’t allowed to drive anything motorized, leaving them at the mercy of the unreliable public transportation system. It’s difficult to feel independent when you have to rely on others for things as basic as getting to the ATM when you need to.

Living with a host family for my entire service came with its own challenges. My atheist self had to adjust to the giant, bloody crucifix that was displayed outside my bedroom door, lit with a special spotlight every night. I had to adjust to listening to the same pop music played over and over at top volume when all I wanted was silence, because it wasn’t my house and I felt like I couldn’t assert myself. I gave up complete control of my diet, eating whatever was served to me, whenever it was served, even when I felt like I would rather have anything other than another room temperature egg roll. I very much appreciate that my host family took me in and did their best with the weird American who was suddenly living in the corner room, but for two years I felt like a guest, and that quickly eroded at my sense of independence.

This is all a long, drawn out introduction to say that after Yangon I took a night bus to Bagan, Myanmar, where I got to ride one of these and it was super fun:

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Bagan is essentially a village but from the 9th to 13th centuries it was the capital of the kingdom that would later become Myanmar.  Between the 11th and 13th centuries more than 10,000 temples were built in the area around Bagan.  Today around 2,200 temples, stupas, and monuments still exist in the area known as the Bagan Archaeological Zone, which measures 13×8 kilometers (approximately 8 miles by 5 miles).   With a size like that visitors need an easy way to get around and explore, so ebikes like the one I rented are available everywhere you look.  They’re electric, so they’re more environmentally friendly than gas-powered scooters, and they also top out at about 35 miles per hour, and that’s if you try really hard and maybe get a good tailwind as you head down hill.

At first I wasn’t terribly confident in my ability to drive a scooter since I’d never driven one before and hadn’t driven anything at all in more than two years.  That was actually how I started to become friends with one of the girls staying in my dorm:  a few of us were chatting and I mentioned that I hadn’t driven in two years and she said, “Me either!  Wait, were you in the Peace Corps too?!”  Turns out that the Peace Corps bond applies no matter what country you each served in, and we had a lot to talk about regarding our experiences and our transitions back home.

Luckily when I picked a rental shop the clerk told me it was no problem, one of the employees would give me a lesson.  I was taken to an empty soccer field and given a very thorough lesson by a Burmese man who spoke very little English, but managed to convey through hand signals when he wanted me to change directions, spiral around him, slow to a stop, and speed up and slow down on command.  Eventually he felt confident that I would survive on my own, so he took us back to the shop, handed me a set of keys and a helmet, and sent me off on my own.  I was a little nervous at first, but soon I couldn’t get enough of zipping around to look at temples.

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Temples in Bagan vary from tiny brick roadside structures to large, gilded temples where busloads of visitors pour out to visit and worship.

Larger temples are often ringed by vendors selling all manner of Burmese souvenirs.  Paintings are common (and I bought three), as are lacquer ware, puppets, and longyi, which is the traditional skirt worn by both men and women.  If I really felt the need for an opium weight I could have procured one of those, at a “Good price for you!”  And everywhere I went there were people trying to sell strips of postcards to tourists, which were easy for me to ignore until they were kids selling hand drawn postcards on small pieces of notebook paper.

I would never have guessed how happy driving a scooter would make me.  The ability to go where you want, when you want, without having to rely on anybody else?  Turns out I missed that more than I thought.  Independence is fun.

One of my favorite days was spent with the new friends I met in my dorm, riding around on scooters, stopping to explore Old Bagan, getting jasmine flower crowns, climbing temples, taking millions of pictures, and having lunch at a little restaurant where the owners were so happy to have us that they gave us two free dishes and a hand-carved bottle opener (which went to only man in the group) and chased after us when we were leaving to give us a big bunch of bananas.  There was one point during the day where we were slowed to a crawl as we crept down the main street of a tiny town, through crowds of Burmese people on their way to some sort of religious festival, and I looked around in wonder, amazed that this is my life and that I found myself in that exact time and place when everything seemed perfect.

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I loved Bagan and its relaxed, quiet energy, and decided to stay a little longer (without having to report my whereabouts to anybody or fill out any paperwork).  My last day I headed out on the scooter on my own, but took off in a different direction than normal.  I have an app on my phone that provides offline maps with user-submitted landmarks, and set out in search of one location that promised beautiful vistas through the trees.  After a few wrong turns down dusty roads I found myself many kilometers out of town and bumping down a dusty, deserted dirt path, when suddenly to the left a cluster of abandoned and overgrown temples and stupas appeared.

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Everything was silent except for the buzzing of the insects in the weeds as I crept around the temples, enjoying the solitude and appreciating that I was in a place that was (literally) off the beaten path.

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And there was a stupa ringed in elephant sculptures, which was my favorite, of course.

In the end, I think Bagan was my favorite stop on my trip.  I would have liked to see other parts of Myanmar but my schedule and the bus system would have meant spending just a short among of time in a few different places, and I’m glad that I got to really settle in and get a good sense of Bagan without rushing through and attempting to see everything as quickly as possible.  And those electric scooters ended up being a highlight, reminding me what independence felt like, and reminding me a little bit of who I am.

And Now For Something Completely Different: Yangon, Myanmar

When my time in Thailand came to an end I was feeling ready to move on to something different, and different is what I found when I arrived in Yangon, Myanmar.

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Looks a little different from the beaches in southern Thailand.

From 1962 until 2011, Myanmar, also known as Burma until 1989, was ruled by a brutal and oppressive military dictatorship which effectively cut off contact with the outside world.  With a history full of civil wars between ethnic groups, its first democratically elected leader installed just last year, and the current state-perpetrated violence against the Rohingya people, Myanmar is a complicated country and impossible to truly experience in a week, but I wanted to get a small taste of this place that has had so little opportunity to be Americanized and turned into a tourist hub.

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My first stop in Myanmar was Yangon, which is its largest city but not the capital:  in 2006 the military government moved the capital to the purposely-built city of Naypyidaw, which I wish I had a chance to visit because it’s basically empty and absolutely bonkers.  (Look at the pictures in that article.  It’s crazy how empty the entire city is.)

I stayed in downtown Yangon, which is known for having the highest number of colonial era buildings in Southeast Asia.  In the late 19th century the British colonized Burma and constructed hundreds of buildings in a variety of British and Burmese styles, and with the country’s subsequent isolationist policy many of the buildings stayed the same, although falling into disrepair throughout years of the military regime.

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I only had a day and a half in Yangon so I didn’t do much besides visit a market and a couple of temples.  (I’ve seen so many temples on this trip.)

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Bogyoke Aung San Market was easy walking distance from my hostel and it’s the premier place to go if you’re looking for any sort of Burmese…anything.  Jade bangles of varying quality can be purchased in basically every other shop and I spent a good part of my time there convincing myself that I didn’t need one in every available shade from pale mint to bright apple green.   Then there are the wood carvings, lacquerware, puppets, fabrics, and longyi, which is the traditional skirt-like garment worn by both women and men.  It can be worn as a wrap skirt but it’s often sewn into a tube and secured around the waist using a method of tucking and rolling.

As for the temples, first I visited Sule Pagoda, a stupa in the center of the city.  Said to be more than 2,500 years old and supposedly houses a hair relic from the Buddha.  The pagoda has been an important part of Burmese politics, serving as a rallying point during revolts as recently at 2007.

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And last in our tour of shiny gold religious monuments we have Shwedagon Pagoda, the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar, and the place that almost proved to be my undoing.  Turns out that the shiny gold and white marble are extremely effective at reflecting the already strong sun and I got a little woozy from the heat.

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At the tip-top of the pagoda are 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies, with a 76 carat diamond crowning the whole thing.  There’s a pair of binoculars installed on the grounds around the pagoda and I saw a pair of monks taking turns peeking through it to see the gems.

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While I was at the pagoda I noticed signs marked with days of the week (shown in the two pictures directly above) but I didn’t know the significance.  Wikipedia to the rescue:

It is important for Burmese Buddhists to know on which day of the week they were born, as this determines their planetary post. There are eight planetary posts, as Wednesday is split in two (a.m. and p.m.). They are marked by animals that represent the day — garuda for Sunday, tiger for Monday, lion for Tuesday, tusked elephant for Wednesday morning, tuskless elephant for Wednesday afternoon, mouse for Thursday, guinea pig for Friday and nāga for Saturday. Each planetary post has a Buddha image and devotees offer flowers and prayer flags and pour water on the image with a prayer and a wish. At the base of the post behind the image is a guardian angel, and underneath the image is the animal representing that particular day. The base of the stupa is octagonal and also surrounded by eight small shrines (one for each planetary post).

So, yes, after the beaches of Thailand, Yangon was an adjustment, but one I enjoyed experiencing.  Soon, however, I was boarding an overnight bus and heading to Bagan.

Southern Thailand

I wanted to get in one more beach vacation before I go home and freeze under sixteen feet of snow, so after Chiang Mai I headed to Krabi in southern Thailand.

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And it was nice.  I visited some beaches.

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I went snorkeling a couple of times, including an evening trip where I got to swim with young black tip reef sharks.

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I saw some monkeys.

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And everything was fine.  I stayed in some nice places and enjoyed some quiet time to myself, and I ate good food, and everything was…fine.  This is such a spoiled thing to say, but I was lucky to have two years of fairly regular beach vacations, so this one didn’t feel as special.  I don’t know.  I was ready to move on when the week was over.

 

My Visit to Elephant Nature Park

It seems that my favorite animals are always the weirdest, most improbable creatures.  I love flamingos and their long, spindly legs and bright pink color; I love manatees and their peaceful, blobby, floating bodies; I love tarsiers with their giant eyes and neurotic nature.  And I love elephants with their improbable size, their extreme intelligence, and their long, grabby trunks, so one of the things I was most looking forward to during my trip to Thailand was the opportunity to interact with Asian elephants in a way that I had never been able to before, up close and personal, and the way I chose to do so was by visiting a sanctuary called Elephant Nature Park.

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Anywhere you stay in Chiang Mai you will see racks of leaflets and fliers advertising different elephant experiences where you can pay to ride elephants through the jungle or see a show where the elephants perform tricks.  But…don’t.  Please. 

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In order to train the elephants to be ridden or to perform in shows they are put through a cruel, torturous process called “crushing”.  Elephants are taken from their mothers at too young an age and put through a ritual of pain, sleep deprivation, hunger, and thirst in order to break their spirits and make them submissive to their owners.  They’re chained in one spot for days on end, unable to move, and subjected to beatings with nail-studded clubs and hooks, leaving them with physical and emotional scars.  At the end their spirits are broken and they’re put to work.  But the pain doesn’t end there.

Once their spirits are crushed they’re put to work and no matter what they’re used for, it’s not an easy life.  The girl in these pictures (I’m sorry I don’t remember everyone’s names) was used in the logging industry from the time she was young, and when she broke her leg in an accident it was never allowed to heal properly.  Another was forced to pull such heavy loads that she miscarried her baby and wasn’t allowed to mourn in the natural fashion.  Elephants that are used for riding and tourism are forced to wear the heavy saddles at all hours of the day, and the prolonged use flattens the natural curve of the spine, causing severe damage and chronic pain.  And if an elephant is deemed to be too willful and headstrong they can be put through the crushing method again, again, and again.  One of the elephants at the park is missing both of her eyes because they were stabbed out in retaliation for perceived slights.

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Elephant Nature Park was founded as a sanctuary for elephants rescued from those harsh conditions.  Here they’re rehabilitated, given the medical care necessary, and introduced to the herd, and then they can finally relax, live without fear and pain, and just be elephants.

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There are several options for visiting Elephant Nature Park, and some even to visit elephants that they’re helping in different locations.  Day visits are probably the most common, and I chose to do the overnight visit and spend two days observing and interacting with the elephants, or you could stay for a week and actually be put to work in the day-to-day running of the park.  The park is also home to a dog shelter that cares for more than 400 dogs and there are volunteering options for that as well.

(There are two bars around the platform because when there was just one bar a particularly precocious young pachyderm climbed over the railing, broke into the kitchen, opened a giant cooler, and ate all the ice.  So they added another railing.)

Choosing the overnight stay gave me a lot of time to interact with the elephants.  Each day we had a guide who led us through the park, telling us each elephant’s story, explaining how they came to end up at the park, and describing the personality of each one.

IMG_0571I was admittedly a little nervous when the guide first told me that I could touch one of the elephants.  “Hug her!  She likes it!”  As much as I love them, their size is a little intimidating.  (The one in the picture above is the largest elephant in the park.  Asian elephants are generally smaller than that.)  But I quickly got over my apprehension and soon I couldn’t get enough of these gentle creatures.

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Feeding them was my favorite activity; those long, rubbery trunks are extremely nimble at picking up bananas and other tasty fruits.  I think I giggled every time somebody would grab a bunch of bananas from my hand and pop it into their mouth.

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Another daily activity was bathing the elephants in the river.  Some mud is necessary for skin protection, but leaving it on too long can cause skin problems.  Thus the baths.  (Plus they’re also really fun.)

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One of the things I found interesting about the elephants in the park was how they’ve created their own little herds.  Certain elephants are bonded to others with a bond that’s family-like in its intensity.  We were told the story of how one of the elephants passed away naturally, from old age, and her friends grieved deeply and profoundly.  The blind elephants bond with a sighted elephant who can be their guide, acting as their eyes and leading them around using sounds.  And when babies arrive at the park, either by rescue or through being born there, they quickly gain a whole herd to nanny elephants to help watch over them.

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One of the last things I did before my visit ended was help prepare dinner for one elephant who is not only toothless, she’s also blind.  Without teeth she’s unable to eat the same things the other elephants do, so staff and volunteers make her (and more than 15 other toothless elephants) meals consisting of soft bananas, cooked rice, corn meal, rice flour, and salt, squished together and formed into balls.

They’re then served to her one at a time.  Since she’s blind you need to pat her on the trunk to let her know that you’re about to hand her one, and she snarfs it right out of your hand.

When it came time to load up the van and head back to Chiang Mai I didn’t really want to go; I would much rather have stayed for an entire week with the elephants, but other adventures were calling.  And as much as hearing these elephants’ stories and seeing their scars made my heart hurt, seeing their resilience and spirit healed the sadness.  I’m lucky I was able to spend time with them.

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In Which I Went to Chiang Mai and Realized That I’m Even Weirder Than I Used to Be

chiang-mai-thailand-mapAfter Bangkok I headed off to the mountains of northern Thailand to visit the city of Chiang Mai, which was exactly what I needed after the hectic and overwhelming nature of Bangkok.  Chiang Mai is smaller and more laid back, and its location in the foothills of the mountains made it the perfect center point for all of the activities I wanted to do while in northern Thailand.

When I get to someplace new I like to acclimate myself a bit by wandering around the area, sometimes with a goal in mind but sometimes just to see what I happen across, and Chiang Mai is a great place for wandering.  The city was founded in 1296, and even though there are places that are filled with modern architecture and conveniences some parts of the city retain an older feel.  In fact, part of the city is known as Old City, a 1.5 square kilometer area still enclosed by moats and parts of the original walls.  The effectiveness of moats was impressed upon me one day I wanted to go to the post office and finding the closest bridge over the moat meant more walking in the heat of the afternoon than I really wanted to do.  Frustrating things, moats.

So I spent my first day in Chiang Mai wandering around the Old City, happening upon multitudes of Buddhist temples, attempting to not buy everything with an elephant on it (which is everything), and taking frequent breaks to rest and stuff myself with delicious Thai food.  I also got an hour long foot massage at a facility that’s giving vocational training female inmates.  So, yes, I had a pretty good day.

While I enjoyed meandering around the city, what I really came to northern Thailand for was to do things, most notably visit Elephant Nature Park, which was a two day side trip that will get its own post.  I also spent another two days outside the city on a whitewater rafting trip and a ziplining trip through the jungle, during which I even saw a gibbon.

In between those two activities I spent the night in a homestay located in a village in the hills, which was absolutely delightful.  For a headboard my bed had open windows that let in the sound of the rain on the leaves just a few feet away, my host cooked delicious food, and I had a nice time talking about Harry Potter with my 19 year old Egyptian housemate for the evening.  I was also given a Thai massage by a local villager, and I wish I could say that I enjoyed it, but at the most it was only comfortable half the time.  Thai massage seems to aim to accomplish relaxation through a series of painful pushes, pulls, and stretches which made me grimace on more than one occasion.  I slept perfectly that night, though, so who am I to complain?

While I had a great time in northern Thailand, it really brought into focus something that I had suspected for a while but had to firm proof of:  spending two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer made me even weirder than I used to be.  I mean, I think I’m wonderful, but my ability to have “normal” social interactions is even worse than it was before I moved to the Philippines, and I wasn’t exactly a social butterfly before.  Now, though, I’m staying at hostels and meeting people from all over the world and after two years of relative isolation away from anybody who was not Filipino or a Peace Corps Volunteer I’ve discovered that I’ve completely forgotten how to relate to people who don’t fit into one of those two categories.  What do people even talk about now?  I have no idea. All I have to talk about is my time in the Philippines and the vast majority of people just don’t care.  To make it worse, on the rare occasion when somebody is interested in what I was doing, I just don’t have the words to neatly wrap it up in a few sentences.  How do I make people understand how hard it was to live in a culture that’s not my own, or how wonderful it was when I started to feel like I was making a home there, or the way that finishing my service was both sad and joyful?  I can’t, but I try, and none of it comes across the way I want it to so I’m left stumbling over my words, trying to convey the enormity of what I’ve been through in an easy to understand soundbite, knowing that even if I’m talking to one of the few people who wants to understand that they won’t, not really, and I have nothing else to say, and I realize again that I’m the weird girl who doesn’t fit in among the backpackers I’m surrounded by.  Hopefully, as I ease back into the wider world I’ll remember how to talk to people again, because if I don’t then I’m really out of luck. 

How I Can Tell I’m Not in the Philippines Anymore


There are monks on my flights instead of nuns.
When I enter a store the employees bow at me instead of shouting “Hi ma’am!”
I’m pretty sure that if I walked out into the street like I did in the Philippines a car would run me over.
Cats are fat and wear collars.
Women drive taxis.
Temples everywhere.

Today is the end of my Thailand adventure (for now…I return briefly at a later date) and I’ll catch you up on what I’ve been doing as soon as I get an adapter for my micro SD card and also find the words to encapsulate the last two weeks. I’ve tried, and mostly I end up staring at the screen in confusion but I promise to persevere.