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.


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…


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.


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.


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.


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


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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


Kia’ palano. 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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.

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.

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.


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.


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.

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.


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


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…


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