So! Thailand and Burma!

I’m not gonna lie to you. This was a taxing trip on many levels, despite being a mere five weeks long. Even though all the protests and bombs and airport closures in Thailand never affected me directly, there was a definite feeling in the air, particularly in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, that made one feel as if they were only moments away from being involved in something terrible. When a car backfired next to the night market in Chiang Mai, I (along with hundreds of other people) was fully prepared to run for my life. Definitive proof that I have no business traveling in war zones and areas of unrest. I’m too goosey.

Burma (Myanmar), on the other hand, is… Burma. The stress one feels here, as a visitor, is different. Statistically, it’s one of the safest places in SE Asia, and probably the world, in so far as crime and personal safety. Myanmar probably also has the highest rate of Easy Smiles on the planet. Nevertheless, you can’t help but feel an empathetic anxiety of sorts about the poverty, random and ruthless ‘justice’ and utter helplessness to the whims of a batshit crazy, alarmingly stupid and straight-up evil leadership. Though I guess the same could be said of my country in recent years. Also, there’s the matter of the least comfortable chairs and beds known to man. A few days of sitting and sleeping on slates of wood, or slates of wood covered by a cookie-thin pad, and you feel as if you’ve been disciplined by a Singaporean dominatrix.

In any case, having rested and processed the entire trip – and gained back the five pounds I lost – I’d like to share some of the better photos with you now. I’m sorry, but I have no intention of travelogueing the trip. It was meant to be my first pure, responsibility-free, personal vacation in over three years and that’s how I intend to keep it.

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Wats in Thailand, as large, intricate, colorful and glorious as they are, all start to look the same after you’ve seen several dozen of them. Not so with this place I stumbled into in Chiang Mai with man-sized lawn ornaments of animals and Disney characters.

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One of the precious few pictures of me from the trip, here I am, long before any hint of a suntan appeared, kayaking through the Salak Kok mangrove forest on Ko Chang. [Photo by Catherine Bodry]

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Here’s one of the cabins I stayed in on Ko Mak. They were all about the same, really: tiny, ramshackle, ant-infested, hard beds, cold water, outdoor toilet/shower, yet still somehow utterly charming and idyllic.

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This was the beach in front of the above cabin on Ko Mak. Standing there, you felt compelled to seriously reconsider what you formerly thought were the priorities in your life.

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Another pic of me. Many, many hours were spent in hammocks while I was ‘exploring’ Thai islands. [Photo by Catherine Bodry]

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This is a plate of chicken and cashews that was served to me in Bago, Myanmar. You have to imagine being in dusty, provincial, noisy, unflattering central Bago, walking out of that setting into a hole-in-the-wall, kinda filthy place and being presented with this surgically cut, artistically plated meal, made to resemble a fish, of all things. Burma never ceases to amaze.

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This is Shwemawdaw Paya in Bago. Some 114 meters (374 feet) tall and the ultimate orientation tool (should you ever somehow get lost in Bago), the original structure is said to be over 1,000 years old, though earthquakes have repeatedly caused partial and near-total destruction. Reconstruction of the current stupa was completed in 1954.

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Mind-bendingly large (his little finger alone is 3.05 meters, or 10 feet, long ), yet still nowhere near the largest in Burma, the Shwethalyaung Reclining Buddha in Bago is primarily noted for being the most lifelike of the recliners. Having been ravaged and forgotten for centuries, the current incarnation was completed 1903, with restoration in the 1930s, when a giant ‘pillow’ was added, decorated with mosaics in Italian marble.

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This is Golden Rock, near Kinpun in southeast Myanmar. Dramatically set on Mt. Kyaikto, legend has it that the precariously balanced boulder maintains its position thanks to a judiciously placed Buddha hair in its stupa. It’s one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in Burma and is appropriately – and literally – a royal pain in the ass to get to. There’s a rollicking, unnecessarily violent, ass-pounding, back-of-a-truck ride up the mountain involved that still makes me weep when I think about it.

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On the subject of things that are hard to get to, let’s take a minute to talk about Mrauk U. Pinkies aren’t allowed to overland to this part of the country, lest they see all the naughty things the government has going on in the region, so first one must cough up plane fare for a flight from Yangon to Sittwe, then one must weather the hard-sell by the single most pushy ‘tour guide’ in Myanmar while they over-night in Sittwe and arrange a very slow and relatively expensive boat the next day up to Mrauk U where the pushy tour guide’s protégée meets all incoming boats to continue the fast-talking, high commission hard sell of services. Nonetheless, once you’ve charged through that ugliness, Mrauk U is a pretty spectacular place, as evidenced by the above photo.

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Temples dot the landscape in Mrauk U. Not as numerous or gargantuan as Bagan, but with the townspeople living and working around these things, it gives the place a hell of a lot more character.

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Inside one of the temples. Buddha images never get old.

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Like I said, people are literally living in the shadows of these ancient temples.

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A local kid throws a gang sign.

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Central Mrauk U.

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Mrauk U transforms in appearance from ‘provincial’ to ‘bamboo jungle’ rather quickly as you move away from the central market.

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I took a full day boat tour upriver out of Mrauk U of the nearby Chin villages. Apart from the full-on experience of the villages themselves, the main attraction here are the women with tattooed faces. This practice was started centuries ago to intentionally uglify women so invaders from India would stop carrying them off. The tattoos were usually applied in one sadistic sitting, right around age seven. It’s no longer a problem these days, so a handful of elderly women are the only remaining evidence of the practice.

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A school in one of the villages.

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Kids came out to gawk at the visiting Pinkies.

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There was a lot of kids carrying around siblings a mere year or two younger than they were.

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One of our quieter moments in the villages. All the houses were stilted.

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I present Ngapali Beach, Myanmar: one of the most beautiful and empty stretches of beach in Asia and probably the world. The anti-government demonstrations of 2007 and the cyclone in May of 2008 has all but killed what little tourist numbers that Burma usually gets. By my quick and lazy count, about 40 people were spread over three kilometers (almost two miles) of pristine beach. Totally dead. I pitied the empty and despondent resorts, restaurants and souvenir hawkers, but secretly I was in heaven.

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The beach was a shortcut for locals hauling wood from the far end to the fishing village.

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Guys in the nearby fishing village preparing nets.

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Here I am in the back of a ‘bus’ in Yangon. You can’t tell, but I’m actually crying here because my poor ass can’t take another minute.

Agonizing over travel insurance? Maybe I can help…

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