Food Court Charms

20180626_132504I had a long layover at Hong Kong International Airport — about 8 hours. If I were not traveling on a shoestring, I would have checked in to one of the premium airport lounges that offered the convenient yet expensive pay-at-the-door access. I was definitely grateful for the myriad of facilities that could help make any long waits more bearable, even if just a little bit.

Perhaps checking out the dining options at the airport would make time pass quicker and more enjoyable, I thought. I decided that’s how I would kill the many hours before the final leg of my long journey. However, anyone who has been to this metropolitan city would most probably agree that eating out could be a pricey activity; perhaps this was even more so at the airport. Dragging my trolley bag behind me, I walked past a number of restaurants that appeared to be quite exorbitant, before finally coming into a large, crowded area. It did not take me long to realize that this area was a food court where, compared to the fancy-looking restaurants that I just walked past, menu prices were more affordable, patrons seemed more humble, and noises and chaos characterized the atmosphere.

I went from one end to the other end of the food court scanning the different menu boards of the multiple vendors. Burger King was the only fast-food option. The others were all offering Asian cuisine — Thai foods, noodle varieties, chicken rice, sizzling options, to name a few. I examined the seating section of the food court and noticed it was completely packed. I thought it was at times like this when it could be a huge advantage to have a travel companion. In the case of a packed food court, you could have your travel companion grab available seats while you order and pick up your food at the counter.

I decided to try my luck at the Thai vendor. I chose it only because I noticed some patrons were finishing their meals. While waiting for an available seat, I took my time to see what was on the menu board. I appreciated the English translation for the menu offerings, and the pictures of some of the dishes. One of the customers seated at the long, communal table I was standing next to finally left. I quickly placed my trolley bag right beside it to indicate the seat was taken. It was the perfect spot as it was very close to the counter. I then proceeded to order my Noodles Soup with Beef Fillet and Red Bean Ice that I picked based on how good they looked in pictures.

My food came within minutes. The noodles soup looked different than the way it was presented in the picture but it tasted quite good. Or perhaps I was starving as the time was about 2PM. Observing my surroundings, I suddenly had one beautiful realization — sharing the table with me were all strangers — fellow travellers, airport employees. One had the Immigration tag on the left sleeve of his uniform. We were eating at the same table like one big family. They spoke languages that sounded foreign to me. They ate meals that were different from what I was having. Despite the difference or unfamiliarity, I realized the atmosphere between me and my dining “friends” was one marked by comfort, acceptance, tolerance, and respect. There was nothing awkward about it. There was no pressure to socialize or make conversations. In fact, I was thinking sometimes it could even be awkward to be eating with some people that you actually knew.

Perhaps this could be a cultural thing where in some cultures, sharing a table with strangers would be awkward or weird; in others, it would be all too common. Or perhaps eating was one activity that could draw strangers together in peace. For me, it was a beautiful experience that allowed me to enjoy my food with a group of strangers without feeling strange about it. Plus, I got to be in a position where I was “invisible” enough to watch people without feeling I was being rude.

As I was finishing my meal, a group of 5 men in yellow-greyish overalls approached to take the available seats in front of and next to me. I took note of the “Level 4 Car Park” label on their overalls. When I stood up to leave, one of them said to me “thank you” to which I replied “goodbye”. I was not sure what he thanked me for, and why goodbye was my response, but it did not matter at all.

A trip to the food court not only helped me pass time, but it also gave me a lovely experience to take home with. As I was writing this, the clock showed I had 5 more hours to kill. Perhaps I could make another trip to the food court for a coffee break?

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Tanzania will: knock and it shall open

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Driving to the Ngorongoro crater floor.

It was about two months before I left for grad school in Boston, a city known for its rich past and vibrant present. I was enthusiastically browsing the catalog of courses that I could be taking in my keen pursuit of tourism-related knowledge. One particular course caught my attention —- AD650 Economic Development via Tourism in the Developing World — largely because its description mentioned the opportunity to take part in an 11-day field trip to Tanzania as part of the teaching and learning methodology. My heart raced, my skin tingled, my eyes sparkled at the electrifying thought of embarking on such a trip of a lifetime. The broad smile that cracked my face must have shown it all.

The joy of anticipation, however, did not last long. A myriad of thoughts must have surged through my mind. But one of the final ones was “This is not for me. There is no way I will ever be able to pay for the trip”.

I abandoned my cherished wish, together with all the good feelings that came with it, right there and then.

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The Spring semester was starting soon. It was time to choose the classes that I would be taking for the new semester. Once again, it caught my attention. Once again, joy of anticipation filled me. The only difference this time was I did not immediately dismiss the hopeful thought that there could be a way to prevail over the financial obstacle to taking the class and joining the trip.

A thought occurred to me “Perhaps I could write to the university that is sponsoring my education and ask if they could financially assist me?”. That night, I spent hours on drafting an email to my sponsor. I must be careful with what and how I wrote as it would make or break any chances I might have. When I thought my email was good enough, I hit the Send button before doubt crept in. I did not have a lot of hope for a positive reply from them.

Days passed. I had not heard from my sponsor. I went over the content of my email again and again in an attempt to look for “that” part that might have completely turned off my sponsor. Could it be that part when I wrote “you would have the option to deduct all the trip expenses from my monthly salary when I begin my employment with your esteemed institution?” Did it sound too confident, or even arrogant? I was about to call my sister hoping to negotiate a “loan” deal with her when a reply from my sponsor finally showed up in my inbox. My heart beat faster. My eyes blinked excessively. I chewed my bottom lip, lost in thoughts of what their reply could be. I swallowed down a gulp and read their email.

To my amazement they agreed to pay for all the trip expenses without any terms and conditions applied. I was in a state of disbelief in what I had just read that I had to read it again to make sure I was not hallucinating. I was over the moon about the astonishing news.

Tanzania, here I came!

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I did some reading about the country prior to the trip. Our professor talked about it extensively too, specifically in relation to tourism’s economic impact on the nation. Still, I did not quite know what to expect. The capital, Arusha, surprised me with its rather dizzying modernized appearance and pace. Although I was certain there was more to this city than meets the eye, I was glad we were headed to some of Tanzania’s iconic sites and landmarks in short order. Game drives in Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Serengeti National Park were definitely a surreal experience for me.

Spotting wildlife that I had only previously seen on Nat Geo Wild channel in their natural habitats was absolutely incredible and unparalleled. The sightings of wildebeests, zebras, antelopes, and gazelles were prevalent as they were dispersed across the great Serengeti plains and the Ngorongoro crater floor that thousands of wild game called home. Seeing the Big 5 — lions, rhinos, leopards, elephants and buffaloes — was an unforgettable experience. I learned from our driver/guide, Sebastian, that African buffaloes were the most dangerous animal in Africa as they would charge at a target at any cost. Along the spectrum of wildlife where one end represented the commoners and the other end the big guys, there were giraffes, hyenas, hunting dogs and jackals, foxes, hippos, and hundreds of bird species.

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Sighting of cheetahs in Serengeti. I thought they were very sexy animals.

While wild game was the major pull of Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Conservation Area, the natural beauty of these UNESCO World Heritage Sites was impossible to miss. In particular, the wide-open and endless Serengeti plains where the land met the sky cast a spell over me. They were ancient and imposing; and down-to-earth for they did not need a lot of details within them to make them that beautiful to the human eye. As the fiery sun gradually dipped below the horizon, vivid colors of red and orange painted the sky, and cool air settled on the scene. Silhouetted Acacia trees graced the landscape with their eternal presence.  Everybody had fallen into silence then, most probably spellbound by the glorious sunset. I had to pinch myself to make sure I was not dreaming. It was a long drive to our lodge, but being accompanied by such magical, quiet, colorful moments, I could go on forever.

As we drove from one place to the next, it was common to see members of the Maasai tribe wandering across the landscape. Very often, the men dressed in a red robe and held a spear or a wooden stick.  I had my first encounter with the Maasai when we stopped at a gas station on our drive to Arusha from Nairobi. She wore a dark blue robe and carried a little child on her back. She seemed to be staring blankly out into space. When she saw our jeep, she walked slowly toward us. Standing next to our vehicle, she extended her skinny hand and begged for money. Her eyes were downcast. At a closer look I could tell the child was a boy and he was in dreamland. The scene was heart-rending, and a reminder of the country’s dire poverty.

Visiting a Maasai village for a cultural experience was part of our itinerary. The men’s robes were red or maroon, while the women’s were more colorful. Both the men and women adorned themselves with loads of colorful beaded jewelry around their necks, arms, and ankles. Both men and women shaved their heads, and most of them were tall and lanky. Older kids were at school. Younger ones were with their mothers or running around the compound. They seemed to have adopted the more modern fashion of t-shirt and short pants. As for the footwear, I noticed that they were either barefoot or sported their simple sandals made of cow hide. Their humble abodes were nothing like I had seen before – small, circular shape built with mud, grass, wood and cow dung. I understood that their houses were loosely constructed and semi-permanent as the Maasai led a semi-nomadic life. We were invited in to their homes where our guide explained the structure and the functions of different sections. There was a lot to take in, but I remembered the dirt floor.

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The humble homes of the Maasai.

The highlight of the visit was the performance of adumu, often called the jumping dance. As one leaped into the air, the others who stood in a circle sang. It amazed me that they could jump with such vigor. I learned that the one who jumped the highest would be chosen as the chief of the group. As they jumped and danced, their beads created a catchy sound of a simple, repetitious rhyme. I guess that explained the absence of musical instruments in their dance performance. Some of us were invited to join in the dance. I realized that the jumping appeared much easier than it actually was. I was usually predisposed to feel awkward to dance before the others. However, on that day, I had a good time. I would think it was the Maasai people’s spirit of hospitality and the elated atmosphere that made me feel at ease.

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A group of Maasai women.

I had my last encounter with the local people when we visited Oltukai school. The classrooms were basic – simple wooden tables and benches, cemented floor, large windows, and, in some classrooms, the interior walls were painted in bright blue, otherwise in the gray of cement. Most kids, in their blue school uniforms, seemed shy. Some others were more brave to interact with us. But there was one thing that all of them seemed to have in common: they were curious about cameras, they loved their photos taken, and most of all, they loved to see their photos on camera. They would giggle and ask to have more photos taken. The pleasure they had in seeing their own photos on camera was my heart’s delight, and the sound of their giggling was the music to my ears. I dare say even the most miserable persons would feel as if the whole world was on their side simply by surrounding themselves with care-free kids who took delight in simple things. The school kids were also eager to show us their books and to proudly tell us about the things they had learned for the day. Their keen interest in learning was truly a joy to behold and should serve as inspiration to many of us who could take for granted the infinite power of education.

Waving goodbye to these kids, I got all misty-eyed. Deep in my heart I knew the chances of crossing paths with them again would be very remote. I was also quick to recognize that the time had come to say goodbye to the country whose natural and cultural landscapes were once all so foreign but now all so beautiful to me.

I would be home soon, but memories of Serengeti sunset, the adumu, the kids’ giggles would be etched on my heart forever.

I realized the trip was so much more than safaris. The lecture series we received from different individuals throughout the trip had taught me about a lot of things, specifically in association with the concept of national parks, human-wildlife conflicts, and the socio-cultural impacts of tourism; these were the themes that later formed my research interests; and the subjects of discussion in some of my academic publications.

From a wider perspective, the trip proved the integrity of the saying that goes where there’s a will there’s a way. Against all odds, I chose to believe in the possibility the second time around. I was determined to make that possibility happen. I wrote that email which took me to where I dreamed to be two months prior to leaving for grad school.

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Oltukai school kids.

 

Yangon Circle Line

I was drawn to Yangon Circle Line precisely because of the way Lonely Planet (2017) described it — that it can feel like traveling in a washing machine on spin cycle. I had dreamed of embarking on such a crazy adventure. At the end of the day, I did not experience much spinning sensation from the train ride. But I got something better. Far better.

Following the suggestion made by Lonely Planet, we decided to not do the entire three-hour, 30-mile circuit. Our plan was “if the train ride rocked and bounced us to the point of getting sick, we would get off at the 9th station. Otherwise, we would do it at the 12th station” (as if there was a huge geographical distance between the 9th station and the 12th station!). We were lucky enough to be seated as the train became crowded with both local people and curious tourists. My excitement grew bigger as the train left Yangon train station toward the next 37 stops. However, in contrast to my anticipation of a wild, head-spinning, back-and-forth-rocking train ride fantasy, the ride was slow and quite smooth. Though my expectation and reality did not match, I was not disappointed. I guess a much bigger portion of my attention and interest was focused on the lives that were unfolding right before my eyes, both the lives on the train and lives outside the train.

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Looking into lives through a window of Yangon Circle Line. Photo courtesy of Shuzytha Bidder.

On the train I carefully watched my fellow passengers. Sitting right next to me was a teenage boy who had his face adorned with Thanaka powder (I was wrong for thinking this traditional beauty secret was for the Burmese girls/women only). He seemed to be lost in his smartphone, but when I asked my sister to take a photo of me, he respectfully moved away from the frame (he was still in my photo but that’s just how I loved it). Standing close to where we were seated were three pretty young ladies. They all had shiny long black hair and were dressed very beautifully. They were probably out for their usual Sunday get-together with friends. As they were not talking to one another, I wondered if they were friends or they just happened to be standing close together. In fact, most of the passengers seemed to have activated their silent mode. Some looked as if they were engaged in some deep thinking. I wondered what was going through their minds. Some others were dozing off. The day must have felt long to them though it was not even 11AM. The sight of people — young, old, men, women, rich, poor, local people, and tourists alike — sporting colorful longyi was almost everywhere. When the train stopped at the designated stations, people selling food, snacks, water, fruit and who-knows-what-else climbed aboard the train trying to sell their offerings to the passengers. I found it tremendously fascinating to watch some of those sellers gracefully carried trays filled with their offerings over their heads. Not everyone could do that, I thought.

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Here comes the train at Yangon train station, the first of the 38 stations.

I looked outside the train windows. We passed by shabby apartments, little wooden stands selling fruit and vegetables, charming street food scenes, farmers toiling under the blistering sun… it was Sunday and I remember asking my mom and sister “What do you think the people in these apartments are doing right now?” One particular sight sticks with me till today. It was the sight of women laying colorful clothes on the unused, rusty train tracks to dry at the 7th station. That sight was poignant yet beautiful. I feel I am unable to perfectly, or at least fairly, describe how I felt when I laid my eyes on that scene of life. I just know it put me at a crossroads of emotions. So much of my daily life I tend to take for granted when for some people they don’t even have proper space to dry their clothes! It would be great to take some photos of such scenes, but perhaps sometimes certain sights are best left “unphotographed”. My sister said “it is like looking into lives through windows”.

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A vendor in her colorful longyi carrying a tray of sour fruit salads on top of her head.

We disembarked at the 12th station. We took our time to walk across the train tracks to the other side. While waiting for the train to come, I studied my surroundings closely. At the back of the station there were a few shops that ran along the road.  One of them was definitely in the telephone business as it had a giant banner bearing the words “Telenor 4G” that hung over the entrance of its front door. Traffic seemed quite busy. A city bus pulled over at a nearby station to drop off/pick up passengers. I wondered if local people traveled by bus more than they did by train. Sitting close to where we were at the 12th station were three women selling various things — pickles and sour fruit salads, betel nuts and the other ingredients for Kun-ya chewing (I didn’t know betel nuts chewing was a serious addiction in Myanmar), deep fried dough that I would have liked to try if my fever was not causing a decreased appetite. My sister could not seem to contain her insatiable craving for mango salad tossed with salt, licorice, chili and ginger so she went over to one of the women to get some (she did get a mild diarrhea later in our trip but it could be due to something else). My mom’s eyes were fixed on the small house/shop located right across the tracks from us. A mother was rocking her baby to sleep in a baby hammock. My mom thought the hammock was hung a little too high from the floor, and the rocking was a little too rough. I guess my mom was scared for the baby as she finally said “Will the baby not be thrown out of the hammock?” I watched people cross the rail tracks on their bikes or by foot. The sight was nothing extraordinary but it allowed me to catch a glimpse of the everyday lives of the local people. For me, that was very interesting.

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The humble view of the everyday lives from the 12th station.

We were still lucky enough to have found available seats on our ride back to Yangon. Sitting next to my sister was a local man who, just like the teenage boy sitting beside me in the morning, appeared to be so immersed in his smartphone that he seemed oblivious to his surroundings. I guess he did notice me trying to take a photo of vendors because he later asked us where we were from. We quickly fell into conversation. If my fever was not so bad I would have asked him an endless number of questions about Myanmar. We learned that he was in Japan for a couple of years to be trained as a Sushi chef and that he was currently running a guest house in Yangon. I discovered from him that the local people prefer traveling by train to traveling by bus because the former is cheaper, faster, and less crowded. When I asked him about the strawberries that the vendors were selling to passengers, he said they were locally grown in Inle Lake. When we told him that’s where we were heading to next, he was very quick to respond “Inle is a very beautiful place. The air is cool and fresh…” He described it so beautifully that I became very excited about leaving for Inle Lake by bus at 6PM that very same day. It was also immensely engaging to hear him speak about the tourism industry in Myanmar and Japan’s contribution to the development and growth of rail transportation in the country. I could tell that this man definitely knew a lot! When we told him about our plan to take a taxi to the Bogyoke Aung San Market, he quickly pointed out that we could get off at the 2nd station as the market was right next to it. He just helped us save some taxi money and precious time! It is always interesting to talk to local people for reasons 1) we can really learn about things that may not be covered in travel guidebooks in the most honest, fair, objective and accurate manner; 2) they may have tips that can help you avoid unnecessary time and money spending; and 3) they can add weight and meaning and satisfaction to your trip, hence more precious memories.

Whether the ride on Yangon Circle Line was no spin at all, or the ultra-extreme super spin, or the high spin, it no longer mattered to me for I found a much better way of enjoying the ride.

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The deep fried dough sure looks good, doesn’t it? Imagine having it for a late afternoon coffee break. Heaven! Photo courtesy of Shuzytha Bidder.

Bridge of Life

To some of us, a bridge is merely a structure that connects two points. But to many of us, a bridge can be metaphorically significant. Personally I have found solace in the symbolic representation of bridge as hope. In times of sorrow or distress, it can be comforting to imagine oneself crossing the bridge over troubled water with the prospect of better things on the other side.

I have crossed too many bridges that I am unable to remember all of them. I fondly remember the little bridge that spanned across the little river at my beloved grandmother’s place. I remember taking some I-am-trying-to-look-cool photos on a suspension bridge during a high school camping trip (looking at the photos today, my reaction tends to be… ewwwww!). Harvard Bridge was part of my do-or-die running route when Boston became my short-term place of residence. I am also fortunate enough to have crossed some of the world’s iconic bridges such as Golden Gate Bridge, Brooklyn Bridge and Capilano Suspension Bridge.

The most recent bridge I walked on is U Bein Bridge located in the ancient capital of Amarapura in Myanmar. It was no ordinary bridge that gave me extraordinary experience of the country that spelled much mystery to me prior to my visit with my mom and sister. The bridge has become one of Myanmar’s star attractions. It has been featured in a lot of postcards and paintings that attempt to depict the bridge in quiet romance. It has seen people from all walks of life cross it on a daily basis. What is it about U Bein Bridge that makes it so fascinating to so many people? Do people come to it for the fact that it is the world’s longest and oldest teakwood bridge built over 150 years ago? Do they come so they can admire the engineering feat accomplished by the man after whom the bridge is named — the local mayor at the time, U Bein (Mr. Bein)? Or do people come because the bridge is on the list of Myanmar travel guidebooks’ must-sees? I would like to think that we are all driven by different reasons to make a trip to U Bein Bridge.

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Silhouettes of people walking on U Bein Bridge against the setting sun and their reflections on the water of Taungthaman Lake.

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The Bridge is a lot more quiet in the morning.

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The beautiful surroundings of U Bein Bridge – wooden boats and their reflections on the calm waters of Taungthaman Lake, lush green fields, farmers’ hut… Photo courtesy of Shuzytha Bidder.

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Lovely views of the surroundings of U Bein Bridge. The distant land is dotted with stupas and monasteries. A fisherman takes a couple on a boat ride across Taungthaman Lake flanked by green fields. Photo courtesy of Shuzytha Bidder.

I came for its widespread reputation as an iconic landmark of Mandalay. We visited the bridge on two different occasions —mid-morning and sunset — thus allowing us to have different experiences of the bridge. If I could summarize the two different experiences, I would say, on the surface the mid-morning visit was characterized by fewer people, and the sunset visit saw considerably more people. But on the deeper level, I would say both occasions allowed me to view U Bein Bridge as a bridge of life.

I picture U Bein Bridge as a wise old sage who has seen the arrivals and departures of hundreds of thousands of people since its inception. Through his lens, I saw how the bridge and its surroundings have become a center of livelihoods for many local people — souvenir sellers selling essentially the same trinkets on the bridge, a large group of shops and restaurants on one end of the bridge, fishermen on their wooden boats gliding across the Taungthaman Lake above which the bridge stretches out for slightly over 1 kilometer, farmers tending their crops. Looking from a wider angle, beyond subsistence, I observed monks on their way to some monastic school (I presume!), couples who seemed to be head over heels in love that they seemed to be oblivious to their surroundings, friends hanging out together and who could not seem to get enough of taking wefies, the solo visitors who seemed to stare blankly at the distant land (I wonder what they were thinking) and who shyly took selfies when they thought no one was watching, tourists who were probably packed with a sense of curiosity, excitement, gratefulness and much anticipation for their one-on-one encounters with the bridge. As the sunset drew a closure for all who had come to it, I watched the souvenir sellers pack their trinkets back into boxes, fishermen tend their fishing nets, farmers put down their tools, kids have the time of their lives, people leave and head home or to their next destination. Tomorrow and the subsequent days, weeks, months, and years will witness, I imagine, pretty much the same scenes — the sun rises and sets, people come and go. Indeed, U Bein Bridge is a perfect point to watch lives. Another perspective from which I look at the bridge is that my Myanmar trip was enjoyable, deep and profound chiefly because of two experiences. U Bein Bridge is one of them. It has given a precious life to my Myanmar adventure.

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The sun is slowly dipping below the horizon, marking the end of the day.

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Spectacular reflection as the sun reflects off the now-very-still water of Taungthaman Lake, appearing to form an illuminated path of sorts on the surface of the water.

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At the end of the day, fishermen, if not taking tourists out on a boat ride to view the bridge from the lake’s angle, tend their fishing nets. Photo courtesy of Shuzytha Bidder.

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My mom watches the day go by as she sips a fresh coconut. Photo courtesy of Shuzytha Bidder.

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My sister and the artist who painted the U Bein Bridge painting that she bought in Bogyoke Aung San Market in Yangon. What a nice little chance encounter!

Bagan Bittersweet

I read and heard about Bagan before I finally set foot on this ancient kingdom of Myanmar with my mom and sister just recently. Perhaps I read and heard too much that I developed this distinct Bagan fantasy that saw me riding an e-bike through the landscape dotted with thousands of centuries-old temples; and as the sun was slowly sinking beneath the horizon, adorning the sky with brilliant reds and oranges, the austere beauty of Bagan emerged in a craggy silhouette. When that happened, solitude, freedom, and independence were my best silent companions.

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Of all the temples we visited, Tha Beik Mauk was our favorite mostly because, unlike most of the other temples, it was almost void of visitors and souvenir sellers. Photo courtesy of my sister, Shuzytha Bidder.

We were in Bagan, and things were not living up to my ideals. They say riding an e-bike is easy. I tried it for a few minutes. The brief practice went well, but I was overwhelmed by the overpowering fearful voice in my head “Can I really do it? What if something goes wrong?” I decided to give up on my fantasy of riding an e-bike, and settled for an old-school bicycle. But I was continuously haunted by the annoying little voice that kept repeating itself “how nice it would be to be able to ride an e-bike to sightsee the temples, or simply to explore the dusty little town”.

My mom does not have the capacity for bicycle riding. Therefore, she and my sister would explore the temples on a horse cart. And for the benefit of “being together on the trip”, I would follow them to heel on my bicycle. This plan should work out for all of us…especially for me since I was reluctant to take a horse cart ride. Riding a bicycle would still fulfill, though somewhat limited, my emotional yearning for a “free, independent, romantic, adventurous” discovery of this land of thousand forgotten temples. I had indicated all the temples that we would like to visit on the free map given by the hotel the night before. Upon meeting my sister’s and mom’s horse cart driver, we explained to him what we would like to see with an emphasis on “seeing sunset over the temples”. His grasp of the English language was limited so perhaps that complicated an understanding between us for he seemed to refuse to do it our way. The hotel guy assured us that “he knows best”. Based upon that assurance, our exploration of the essence of Bagan began…

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My mom and sister taking a horse cart ride on the dusty road of Bagan.

The first temple we visited was not one that I had marked out on the map but I was amazed by the original murals on the temple walls (at least that is what the “caretakers” of the temple claimed). In that instant, it brought back that nostalgic feeling of being in Egypt exploring the ancient structures and the imagination-nurturing paintings on the walls. There were just us and another visitor so things were pretty quiet, allowing me to better appreciate the ancientness of Bagan. We moved on to more temples; some of which included those circled on our map. As we visited more temples, I found myself feeling more annoyed… annoyed by the throngs of visitors and souvenir sellers, especially at larger and more publicized temples. The initial feelings that I had — amazement, quiet, ancient — had been replaced by feelings of annoyance, disappointment, and a sense that the temples were overcommercialized. Temple fatigue had set in too. As we traveled on the unpaved roads, dust was flying in every direction as honking e-bikes and cars passed us by. Were it not for the temples, I would probably have thought I was caught in a heavy traffic of some metropolis.

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The very first temple that we visited. If you happen to know the name of this temple, can you please let us know? The murals on the temple’s walls are said to be the original dating back to the 12th century.

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My sister, mom and I before a huge mural of Buddha. Photo courtesy of Shuzytha Bidder.

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Sand and watercolor paintings are sold at almost all temples. Here my sister is getting a sand painting which depicts sunset over the temples, the price of which she negotiated down to K12,000 from K15,000. Perhaps the seller was entertained by her joke of “I am using my last kyats to buy one of your paintings” hahaha!

Our greatest annoyance hit us when we were down to the final two temples yet to be visited when the horse cart driver announced “after the last two temples, I will take you to the Irrawaddy River for sunset viewing”. Once again, we explained to him that we did not want sunset on the river, and that we wanted to see sunset over the temples. After some back-and-forth arguments, he finally agreed to take us to one of the designated sunset viewing points. Tension hung in the air between us and the horse cart driver. I never liked to deal with such confrontations. Silently, I cursed the bad luck of getting a horse cart driver who took our money only to follow a plan that would work most conveniently for him. Most of all, I wished I could have gone on my own, seeing temples that I would have liked to see. No restrictions. Only freedom and independence, just as I had fantasized my Bagan experience would be, or should be…

We were told that since the 2016 earthquake, visitors are no longer allowed to climb up the temples for great views of the entire landscape, and for sunset (one of the things that I heard and read about a lot!). I was disappointed but it was not something that was in my control. We headed to one of the designated sunset viewing points and waited for the magical moment to unfold before us. Was the moment magical at all? Perhaps I had lost touch with my sense of enjoyment and adventure for I was not as touched by Bagan’s sunset as the sunset in other places in Myanmar (U Bein Bridge, Mandalay Hill)… or perhaps I was just appallingly distracted by the very large numbers of people all cramped together on the viewing platform for sunset. I only felt fresh air again as we left the platform.

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Sunset over the temples seen from one of the dedicated viewing points. Photo courtesy of Shuzytha Bidder.

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Massive crowds at one of the sunset viewing points.

I felt mostly disappointed as the day ended for us, and felt the need to make up for my crushed Bagan fantasy. My sister and I thought perhaps we could compensate for the “loss” by cycling to the temples for sunrise (without my mom, which she happily agreed). We thought we would rent the hotel’s bicycles. But the moment we stated our plan to the hotel guy, he (unintentionally, I believe) blew up our last chance of compensation by announcing “seeing the temples for sunrise is only possible by taxi” (which, after too late, we thought did not make sense). We decided to drop the idea as the whole point of the compensation was to have the freedom and independence to go on our own, and not being dictated as to how and where to do it.

The final morning in Bagan, I expressed my disappointment in a grumbling discontented manner. I was resentful. I found faults… and worst, I said one thing that I believed had deeply hurt my mom’s and sister’s feelings… I said “I wish I could have explored all by myself”, to which my sister responded “then you will get everything that you want”.

Now that I am home alone, reflecting on the Bagan portion of our Myanmar trip and writing this post, I am filled with mixed feelings, the strongest of which is regret. I was so very preoccupied with satisfying my ideals of a perfect Bagan experience that I forgot the very thing that I will appreciate significantly more as years pass — the moments shared and memories created with loved ones, and not exactly the things I saw or how I saw them. I had apologized to my mom and sister, and they demonstrated an understanding for the way I acted and the words I said and an unhesitant willingness to forgive. But I know that every time I look back, it will always be bittersweet. Sweet because there are some sweet memories to smile, and laugh, about… bitter because I wish I had chosen to trust happiness more than misery. I guess there is much truth in what Janice Kaplan in her book “The Gratitude Diaries: How A Year Looking On The Bright Side Can Transform Your Life” says about “it happens too often that you have something terrific right in front of you but don’t realize it until the lover is gone, the moment is past, and flowers are wilted”. Bagan taught, or rather sternly reminded, me of this biggest lesson for future trips, and perhaps of a lifetime?

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Of the hundreds of souvenirs of Bagan/Myanmar that I saw, the colorful traditional umbrellas caught my attention. I thought they were very pretty.

My ‘Louis Vuitton’ Inle Moment

There was a beautiful picture hung on one of the walls of Golden Kite Restaurant, the restaurant that my mom, sister and I often went for dinner while we were in Inle Lake, Myanmar. The picture illustrated two slender wooden canoes, one behind the other. On one boat, there was a fisherman and his large cone-shaped basket. On the other boat, there were Louis Vuitton and his boatman. The fisherman and Louis Vuitton were standing very close to each other on their respective canoes. They looked as if they were engaged in some conversation of a lifetime. My impression was that this eye-catching image was taken in the early morning when the waters of Inle Lake were very calm and provided perfect mirror reflections. To me, the picture radiated a lovely sense of beauty, tranquillity and humility.

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My most cherished ‘Louis Vuitton’ moment of Inle Lake. Photo courtesy of my sister, Shuzytha Bidder.

I had one remarkable moment of Inle Lake that I would unassumingly describe as my ‘Louis Vuitton’ moment. It was a rare, up-close encounter with one of the leg-rowing fishermen as the sun was just setting. I was sitting at one end of his wooden canoe while he demonstrated his unique skill of handling the large cone-shaped basket. While it would be wonderful to be able to understand what he was saying, I was genuinely happy and grateful for the amazing opportunity to have such an extraordinary meeting with the down-to-earth, leg-rowing fishermen of Inle Lake. This, is, my beautiful, cherished, and personal ‘Louis Vuitton’ moment of the lake.

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A reality check: there is much to see in Inle Lake – floating gardens, houses (and restaurants and shops created specifically for tourists) built on stilts, monasteries, markets… and the Intha fishermen. While I am not always fond of the notion and treatment of local people as tourist objects, I must admit that I wanted to see those leg-rowing fishermen for myself. As we left Nyaung Shwe jetty on a slender wooden boat passing by seemingly hectic lives on both sides of the lake, it did not take us long before we came face-to-face with the heart of Inle Lake. It was vast and serene, and the fishermen came within eyesight. Scattered across the lake, most of them were catching fish independently. It was truly a sight to behold! Tourist boats approached them as close as possible allowing tourists to surreptitiously snap photos of these fishermen, most probably without their permission. I wondered what went through the minds of the fishermen as they became the “circus performers”. Did they take offense at being viewed as the subjects of photography? Did they enjoy the undue attention that they were getting from tourists? Did they ever think tourists were foolish for finding them interesting? Did they think tourists were jeopardizing their chances of catching fish, or worse invading their personal space? Were they curious about tourists as much as the latter were about them? I had noticed that some of the fishermen had become so accustomed to the tourists-taking-photos-of-us scenes that they saw it as a money-making opportunity — posing flatteringly for tourists in return for some Kyats. It was not my place to judge if this was good or bad, but I could not help but feel saddened by the realization that the fisherman-tourist encounters might be far from being genuine.

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The leg-rowing fishermen of Inle Lake have become part of the place’s attractions. While I feel torn about local residents being treated as tourist objects, I can’t help but feel drawn to seeing them for myself. It is not just their unique skill of leg-rowing that amazes me. It is the sight of them out in the vast and serene lake that gives me a great sense of beauty, tranquility and humility. Photo courtesy of Shuzytha Bidder.

Capilano Crush

I fell in love with Capilano Suspension Bridge when I first read about it back in 2013. The bit of information that stole my heart away was “it hangs high enough to weaken the knees of many a visitor” (Virtual Canada, 2008). It sounded like the 137m-long-and-70m-above-the-Capilano-River footbridge would give me one hell of an adrenaline rush. I was also slightly drawn to the fact that it is the oldest attraction in Vancouver. I mean are we all not sometimes attracted to such titles as the highest, the longest, the biggest, the smallest, the northernmost, the southernmost, the oldest…? I got a chance to visit Vancouver in the Summer of 2017.  Capilano Suspension Bridge was still very close to my heart even after all these years. I had rather high expectations for the Bridge — since it is bordered by a nature park, I expected to get some up-close, authentic experience with the nature, and that I would experience a feeling of adventure and excitement as I crossed the Bridge.IMG_1746I discovered that Capilano Suspension Bridge Park has more than meets the eye — treetop viewing platforms, story center that houses photomurals, artefacts and antiques of the past, Kia’palano that provides a glimpse into the lives of British Columbia’s First Nations people particularly on their relationship with the nature, and Cliffwalk which I quite enjoyed.

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Kia’ palano. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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Treetop viewing platforms. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm. 

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The latest attraction of Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, Cliffwalk, which I quite enjoyed. It rivals its neighbor, Capilano Suspension Bridge, in terms of massive numbers of visitors. If you want to take a photo of you on the Cliffwalk or the Bridge, do it fast. Otherwise, you will hold people up. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

However, the star attraction — Capilano Suspension Bridge — did not turn out the way I expected. While it did not appear different than in pictures, I did not experience a feeling of adventure and excitement as I expected when crossing it. Perhaps I was affected by the large crowds which I did not expect. So perhaps instead of immersing myself in the sights and sounds of nature, I was distracted by the sights and sounds of the throngs of visitors. In contrast to the way by which most fairy tales depict true love in the scene of the woman lifting her leg when she kisses the man, my knees were not weakened as I crossed Capilano Suspension Bridge. I guess the Bridge was not the one… or I just fell out of love.

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According to the information board in the park, Capilano Suspension Bridge can sustain the weight of more than 1300 people standing on it at the same time, or parade 96 elephants across the bridge at the same time. 

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At the length of 137 meters, Capilano Suspension Bridge is about the length of two Boeing 747 airplanes wingtip-to-wingtip. This is according to the information board in the park. In summertime, the crowds can be pretty intense. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm. 

#VeryVancouver Experience -Seawall Biking

Canada was one of the countries on my getting-longer places-to-see-before-I-die list. Specifically, I would like to set foot in Ontario to experience the thundering roar and amazing mist of the mighty Niagara Falls, and in Alberta to immerse myself in the captivating nature of Canada’s oldest Banff National Park. My dream to see the country had finally manifested in the Summer of 2017. Neither Ontario nor Alberta was my destination. I was heading to Vancouver. My travel interests and activities usually revolve around the great outdoors. I find myself easily become bored by urban charms. My prior reading on Vancouver informed me of several interesting facts about this Pacific metropolis: it was chosen as the best place to live in North America (and number 5 in the world) in Mercer’s 2016 Quality of Living Survey (The Telegraph, 2017); it is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the country (Tourism Vancouver, 2017); …and the most interesting fact for me is that Vancouver offers visitors outstanding opportunities for outdoor adventure in addition to its sophisticated amenities of a world-class city (exploreBC, 2017).

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With the views of the English Bay right before me, I wrote a postcard to myself, to be mailed home from Vancouver with love. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

I came across a section on Tourism Vancouver website that described #VeryVancouver Experiences. I was fortunate enough to experience 4 of their 6 picks (huge thanks to my beloved friend, Jason): Vancouver’s Seawall, Vancouver by Water (took the Aquabus to traverse between stops in downtown Vancouver), Surf Up a Mountain (hiked up Grouse Mountain and took the Skyride back down), and Vancouver’s Urban Wilderness (biked and participated in the Scotiabank Vancouver Run in Stanley Park). While all of these activities were enjoyable, I had the time of my life biking in the spectacular 9km Seawall that runs counter-clockwise around the perimeter of Stanley Park.

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Lions Gate Bridge and our bikes. I am particularly fond of bikes with front baskets as if they fulfill some childhood fantasy.

It was not so much the things I saw that gave me much pleasure and satisfaction — Girl in a Wetsuit Statue, Siwash Rock, Prospect Point Lighthouse, First Nations Totem Poles, Lions Gate Bridge, English Bay, sandy beaches —though, I must say, the views of the downtown skyline were absolutely stunning.

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The stunning views of downtown Vancouver skyline.

Rather, it was the feelings that I derived from biking that meant significantly more to me. I loved to ride a bike when I was a child. I remember there was a great deal of fun in riding with the wind blowing through my hair. I was relaxed and my mind clear. I was so good at bike riding that I could sometimes do it without holding on to the handlebars. But for some reason I stopped riding a bike when I entered adulthood. I could not even recall the last time I did it. So biking in the Seawall brought back some fond childhood memories, memories that came with certain familiar, inexplicable, nostalgic feelings. I felt free like a bird. I was happy. There were quite a number of other bike riders that day. But because I was tremendously absorbed in my own feelings of joy, serenity and contentment, I could hardly feel their presence. It was as if I was exclusively locked in my own little bubble of happiness.IMG_1690

Gorkhi-Terelj Highlights

A friend asked me today “what is interesting about Gorkhi-Terelj, other than horseback riding and steppe?” I found it quite difficult to answer her question given the limited time I had to share all of my experience. My reply could be extensive as I regarded my trip as the sum of little experiences that had a beginning, an end, and all that was in between. Nevertheless, for the sake of answering her question, I simply replied “horseback riding, trekking, beautiful landscape, ger camp, and a lot more, actually”. When I got home, I felt I had done my Gorkhi-Terelj experience injustice, as if I had undermined the depth and breadth of experience that it had blessed me with. So I decided to make it up to it by writing this post…the highlights of my Gorkhi-Terelj experience.

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Watching the day go by in our ger. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

1. Discover imagination

They say horseback riding sparks imagination. I couldn’t agree more. Jason and I did it on the second and third days of our stay at Ecotourism Ger Camp. We both did not have much experience but were excited about it. In fact, horseback riding was one of the experiences we looked forward to in Gorkhi-Terelj. While I delighted in our first horseback riding trip that took us through scenic valleys and hills with a winding river and groves of trees on a clear and sunny day, it was our second trip that verily ignited my poetic imagination. The place was blanketed by a sea of fog, which unfortunately obstructed a lot of our views of the surrounding landscape. We rode across the vast, open steppe of Gorkhi-Terelj in complete silence almost the entire time. I had no idea where we were heading to. I wondered what thoughts went through Jason’s and our guide’s minds. Jason was riding a bit ahead of us. I was riding right next to our guide, staring into space. My imagination transported me back to the historic era of legendary Genghis Khan. In my mind’s eye, I visualized our guide as Genghis Khan, and Jason and I were his right-hand men. We were traversing uncharted territories, fighting off formidable enemies, expanding the Mongol empire in every direction. At that very moment of ardent imagination, I felt a sense of strength, pride, victory, freedom, courage, power… when I was finally awaken to reality, I smiled, felt content, and thought “that must be what it was like to be riding alongside the Great Khan”. This impossible fantasy allowed me to enjoy the foggy ride more.

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Solitary ride across the vast, open steppe of Gorkhi-Terelj on a foggy day. Mongols have been traversing their country on horseback for thousands of years. Horses play such an important role in the life of Mongols that it is traditionally said “A Mongol without a horse is like a bird without wings”.

2. Hello, is anybody home?

Ecotourism Ger Camp is located in the middle of nowhere in Gorkhi-Terelj. While the meals provided by the family were hearty and delectable, we craved for junk food. The wife of the place’s owner told us that there was a small place within walking distance that sold what we were looking for. Were we not delighted to hear that! After dinner, we wandered toward the place. The night was falling and the air was chilly. We had no idea where exactly the place was. We based our search solely on one little clue given by the owner’s wife: red rooftop. We were warned against stepping into other people’s boundaries lest their dogs mistook us for thieves. We tramped along the vast and open grassland in respectful silence when suddenly that silence was shattered by the piercing sound of dogs barking. We stopped dead in our tracks. I was literally frozen with fear of getting chased by some mean dogs, worse getting bitten. I turned to Jason and suggested that we turned back. But having a greater understanding of dealing with a “barking dogs” situation, and a better sense of control over panic, he assured me that there was nothing to be scared of and that I should not run if a dog was really coming after us. We continued to walk, not giving up on our junk-food mission. After a while, we came upon a place that quite fitted the description of the owner’s wife: red rooftop. There was nobody outside. The place was dimly lit and very quiet as if nobody was home. We became hesitant. Should we try or should we go back? Jason’s rationale for trying was “we have walked this far so we might as well try”. Great point! We called out “hello, is anybody home”. We called out a little louder when there was no response. Suddenly, a door swung open, and a slight, elderly Mongolian woman emerged. We explained why we were standing right outside her wooden gate, but I think the word that caught her attention was “beer”. She then gave us a hearty welcome into her little shop. Against all odds, we found the place! We walked back to our ger camp feeling content and happy with our purchases — Coke, made-in-Vietnam Danish butter cookies, pickles, Mongolian beer…and more. We returned to the place a couple of times more that the delightful lady gave us some free candies to reward our loyalty! In retrospection, I realize this piece of my Gorkhi-Terelj experience — the walks, the little shop and its friendly owner, the gratifying moments of savouring our once-in-a-while convenience food —- is simple, unpretentious but profoundly memorable and emotionally invigorating. And what makes it even sweeter is that I did it with my most cherished friend.

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Enjoying pickles and our big bottle of Mongolian beer on a lazy afternoon. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

3. Open bathing

Yup! River bathing. Ecotourism Ger Camp does not provide the luxury of proper bathrooms and sufficient water supply to wash our clothes and clean ourselves. It does not have to because there is a river nearby that we can go to for these basic activities. Jason and I had found our own little secret spot along the river. It became part of our daily routines to walk to our corner and wash our clothes, take a bath, unwind…the water was icy cold but after a sweaty day it was pure bliss. The sound of flowing water was also immensely soothing. Sometimes when I reminisce about my Gorkhi-Terelj trip, I experience a keen longing for the river, especially our little secret place, and all the indelible things that we did there.

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The River. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

4. Sweet encounters

People come and go in Ecotourism Ger Camp. When we were there we met a number of visitors. Most of them were from the Netherlands, and most of them were stopping in Mongolia as part of a larger China – Europe train itinerary. Three particular pairs of travelers caught my attention, with whom I truly enjoyed conversations, and who had left quite an impact on me. 1) a father and a son. The father was sketching a beautiful face on his note pad. I could not help but pay him a compliment for his amazing work of art. That is how our conversation started. I found it profoundly enlightening to hear him talk about the art of sketching and how the ability whets one’s photography skill. 2) a young couple who did horseback riding with us on the first day. We were talking about our jobs initially but our conversation escalated into something more thought-provoking — the impact of tourism on fragile World Heritage sites. The lady was relating to us an emotional conversation that she had with an archaeologist in Angkor Wat about the damage caused to the site by the massive numbers of visitors. The conversation was tremendously engaging that I lost track of time. 3) an elderly couple who were definitely two of the sweetest, most intelligent people I have ever met. The air that hung above us when we talked was one that was calm, pleasant, inspiring. I remember asking what makes them great traveling together for so many trips. The wife’s answer, which I keep very close to my heart until today, was “because we take care of each other”. For some reason her reply deeply moved me. My trip to Gorkhi-Terelj was made significantly more meaningful because of my encounters with these beautiful people who taught me new knowledge, who discussed topics that I have always found particularly absorbing, and who reminded me of things that I, sometimes, am inclined to take for granted.

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The young couple with whom we went horseback riding on the first day.

5. Bert oh Bert!

Who is that? Well, Bert is the owner of Ecotourism Ger Camp. Why is he a highlight of my Gorkhi-Terelj experience? Honestly, he did not strike me as a person who was that friendly, or pleasant, or even good at customer service. Because he seemed to be always on the go, it was quite difficult for us to talk to him about payment, activities, and so forth. Every time we asked to settle the payment for our stay, he would brush it off and say “later”. I mean most business owners would be eager to have their guests pay as soon as possible, if not upon arrival. We could easily run off without paying, and there would be no worries about Bert charging our credit card later as the only mode of payment was by cash. I suppose this is one trait that makes Bert unique- in a world where distrust and mistrust abound, he trusts, he takes risks. On our last day he drove us in his seemingly old jeep to catch the bus back to Ulaanbataar. As we left the camp a little bit later, Bert was driving much faster to make sure we would not miss the bus (or perhaps he just drives fast all the time). The ride was bumpy and rough. We crossed a river. At times Bert made sharp turns that made my hair stand on end.  At one point his eyes seemed to be fixed on his vintage cell phone punching some keys. I feared for our safety. We arrived at the roadside pick-up point in the nick of time to catch the bus. That was when we finally got a chance to pay him. We never got a chance to get to know Bert better, but as we were saying goodbye, I felt a twinge of sadness. As we were boarding the bus, I caught my last glimpse of Bert who was already back in his always-on-the-go bubble. While he could improve his driving skill, he had given us one hell of an adventure, I must say. Most of all, Bert taught me sometimes we can let go and trust. Just as he trusted us with payment, I guess we could trust him in keeping his words, and perhaps his driving ability. As Jason said, Bert is a man of his words.

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Ecotourism Ger Camp. The building with blue rooftop is the dining place. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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Trekking the hills surrounding Ecotourism Ger Camp. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

 

6. Stop and smell the roses

Well, I did not see any roses in Gorkhi-Terelj. But I am sure you know I am referring to the expression. Gorkhi-Terelj offers endless opportunities for visitors to keep themselves engaged and entertained. Nonetheless, Gorkhi-Terelj gave me something more, something “small” but which was nothing less than precious, something that was beyond “tourist stuffs” — it compelled me to slow down, notice, and cherish the little things that make life worthwhile. The time left after all the hiking and horseback riding and river bathing, we spent it on activities that we tend to take for granted because we are too busy — enjoying coffee and cookies right outside our ger camp, reading, filling in a journal, taking a nap, watching the kids play, taking in the beauty of sunset, waking up to sunrise, enjoying little moments of solitude… these activities are not quintessential tourist experiences, but they allowed me to truly unwind and recharge; to engage in solitary contemplation; to experience a deeper sense of gratitude and appreciation…

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Rise with the sun. It is one of the most rewarding experiences you can get in Gorkhi-Terelj.

 

 

 

 

For You I Will

Anyone who is planning a trip to Sandakan will most likely read about Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center (SORC). It is often highlighted as one of the must-sees in this historical city of Sabah Borneo. Although the place now treats more than Orangutans — sun bears, gibbons, Sumatran rhinos and elephants — the star residents of the Center have always been the Men of the Forest.

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“Am I a great acrobat?” Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

My friend (Jason) and I certainly did not want to miss SORC while we were in this city known as the gateway to Borneo’s wildlife. We timed our visit to coincide with the morning feeding at 10AM. We arrived at the feeding platform slightly earlier and secured good spots that would allow us to have an excellent view of the Orangutans. 10AM arrived. No sight of Orangutans. The clock ticked further away from the appointed hour, still no sight of Orangutans. Perhaps the baboons could tell the plausible absence of the Orangutans for the entire period as several of them started to make an appearance on the feeding platform and unhesitatingly feasted on the buffet that was prepared for the great apes. What was supposed to be an Orangutan show had become a baboon show. The baboons did get polite and perfunctory attention from some curious members of the audience. With hesitation, people started to leave the site. Jason and I left but only to get some ice cream at the cafeteria. We returned to the site and continued to wait, still feeling hopeful that some Orangutans might just show up at the last possible instant. There was another woman who was also not willing to give up yet. As noon was approaching, the ranger finally, regretfully, requested us to leave and suggested that we come back for the afternoon feeding at 3PM. Alas, we were leaving for Kinabatangan River at 1.30PM. I was tremendously disappointed.

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I found myself laughing when I flashed on this baboons-taking-over-the-spotlight moment. I imagined they were saying “Ladies and gentlemen, we regret to inform you that the Orangutans are not coming today. But, much to your delight, we will run the show. Cheers”.

Fast-forward 3 days after our Kinabatangan trip. We were supposed to leave for the airport directly from Sukau. I did not feel at ease about leaving Sandakan without seeing Orangutans. I started to connect details in my head. Besides, we would have about 5 hours at the airport before departure. Feeling unsure about my last-minute plan, I turned to Jason and suggested that we gave SORC another try. He was hesitant but upon persuasion, agreed to go along with my plan. The plan was to have a minor detour. Instead of leaving for the airport, we would get off at SORC. The journey would take about 2 hours. We left Sukau around 8AM so we should be able to get to SORC just in time for the morning feeding. Any unplanned stops or delays could pretty much jeopardize our last hope of laying eyes on the great apes. Unfortunately, the driver did make a couple of brief stops. It was such a nerve-wrecking moment to keep checking the time and calculating the possibility of making it to the morning feeding. We finally arrived at SORC, around 10.45AM. We hurriedly made our way to the ticket counter but, once again, we were hit by disappointment — they were closing the gate as the Orangutans had all left the feeding platform. And once again, we were told to return for the afternoon feeding. And once again, we did not have the luxury of time to do so as we would be flying back home just before the afternoon feeding. We had a few hours to kill prior to leaving for the airport so we decided to walk to the Rainforest Discovery Center (located about 2KM from SORC) and learn about rainforest, and, if we were lucky enough we might just spot some wildlife.

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Ancient, dominant trees of the Kabili Sepilok Forest Reserve. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

Still…I was haunted by the disappointment of not seeing any Orangutans. Various thoughts began to race through my mind…the most persistent one being this “since we are already here, we might as well try again at all costs”. Once again, I connected details and made a plan in my head. I looked back on similar situations encountered in some of my prior trips where we tried once again regardless of risk or expense. I silently asked myself if I ever regretted any of it. The answer has always been “it was well worth the risk”. I shared my thoughts with Jason. At first he was quite hesitant, but was once again convinced to go with the new plan which involved forgoing our 2.45PM flights, going back to SORC for the 3PM feeding session, and buying new tickets for a 6PM flight. This plan cost us a great deal of time and money, of course. Even with as much certainty as I could muster, there was this doubtful little voice that kept nagging at my mind, questioning “will it be worth it”?

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“Ladies and gentlemen, we apologize for our unexplained absence the other day. But all is well now. We are taking the show back from our baboon rivals”. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

3PM was coming near. We made our way back to SORC. The day was hot and sunny. We were mostly quiet, entertaining whatever thoughts that were flooding through our minds. We quickly treated ourselves to some much-needed ice cream upon arrival at SORC. This was our third attempt so we knew what to do like the backs of our hands. As we were approaching the final check point to the feeding platform, it was the same guy who greeted us the first time we came. He smiled at us and announced the greatest news of the day “You were here before. You are lucky this time as the Orangutans are already on the platform”. It was not even 3PM yet! We got to the platform, and there they were, two seemingly carefree Orangutans moving about in a manner that hugely wowed their Homo sapiens admirers — upright walking, four-limbed suspension from branches, and tree swaying. Two slightly bigger Orangutans came and joined in the fun. We watched them perform their acrobatic moves in amazement. We watched them feast on their luxurious buffet of bananas, coconuts and leafy greens. Ahhh we could now leave Sandakan feeling happy and content. Answering for myself…was it worth it? OH YES, WITHOUT THE SLIGHTEST BIT OF DOUBT! So, dear Orangutans, now you know that for you I will!

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What comes to your mind when you look at this picture? For me, I see freedom. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.